“New culture, yes—coup, no”: A Review of C. Kavin Rowe’s Theo-Political Reading of Acts

C. Kavin ROWE. World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

With the present volume alongside his previous Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke (Baker Academic, 2009), C. Kavin Rowe has emerged as an important and self-consciously interdisciplinary contributor to ongoing conversations in Luke-Acts. Where Early Narrative Christology employed narrative criticism to track the meaning and usage of kyrios in Luke’s Gospel, in World Upside Down, Rowe blends traditional biblical exegesis, narrative criticism, political theory, and constructive theology to marshal an argument about the theo-political logic of Acts (7).

In Rowe’s reading, Acts sits uncomfortably within Greco-Roman culture. On the one hand, Acts is not, as some have posited, a kind of apologia for Christian quietism within the empire. On the other, neither is it quite anti-imperial propaganda, either. Rowe is after a reading that eschews such false dichotomies, and he upsets both old scholarly orthodoxies and newer assumptions by arguing that Acts is “a highly charged and theologically sophisticated political document  that aims at nothing less than the construction of an alternative total way of life…that runs counter to the life-patterns of the Graeco-Roman world” (4). Rowe argues that there is a “profound tension” in Acts, as Luke presents the nascent Christian movement as both a threat to Graeco-Roman politics, economics, and religion as well as a movement whose kyrios is not in direct competition with Caesar.

Rowe explores this tension in Acts between cultural collision (chapter two) and avoiding direct competition with the Empire (chapter three). In narrating the elements of Acts that conflict with Graeco-Roman culture, Rowe assists his readers in paying close attention to the responses garnered by Paul and his compatriots when they take their message out into the world. In Rowe’s framing, the story of Paul and Barnabas refusing sacrifices after the healing of a paralyzed man in Lystra in Acts 14 is “the summons that…involves the destruction of an entire mode of being religious” (21). Similarly, Rowe reads Luke as further destabilizing Graeco-Roman piety by emphasizing that, for example, even the name of Jesus Christ is enough to displace a pagan pneuma/daimon and exorcise it from a slave-girl (Acts 16:14ff). Rowe is a careful exegete and well aware that “religion” should not be reduced to a discrete element of human life and thus contends that the implications of these stories upset multiple levels of religious and civic life. When Paul and Silas exorcise the spirit of divination from the slave-girl, her owners are correct to be outraged: Luke’s version of the Christian confession has (negative) implications for their economic practices. Rowe contends that other characters are quite savvy to notice just how disruptive the Christian movement is to every level of pagan life. Public responses at Thessalonica, Athens, and Ephesus to the Christian movement further illustrate the multiple strata of cultural disruption that Luke’s confession causes.

Rowe’s argument is a nuanced one, however, and he stops short of baptizing Acts in the waters of modern day politically-subversive wishful thinking. Acts is not, Rowe contends in chapter two, a direct threat to Caesar and Roman rule. Rowe shows how Luke narrates the Christian movement as dikaios—innocent—of any charges of sedition towards the emperor. Here Rowe illustrates the “profound tension” of Acts particularly well: yes, the Christian confession destabilizes multiple spheres of pagan life and Acts’ non-Christian characters are right to name the writing on the wall, but no, the Christian movement of Luke’s narrative is not interested in seizing upon Caesar’s throne. As Rowe memorably puts it: “New culture, yes—coup, no. The tension is thus set” (92).

Chapter four moves further into the tension that is the theo-political imaginary of Acts as Rowe shows how the confession and practices of the nascent Christian movement eclipsed, but did not directly challenge, the Graeco-Roman ways of knowing and being in the world. The Christian confession of Jesus as lord, practice of mission, and the formation of mixed communities of followers signal Luke’s mixed-bag of theological politics (135). The Christian movement was not founded in response to Roman rule or other aspects of Graeco-Roman culture; rather, it was founded on this confession and these practices, all of which signaled a fundamental break with Roman culture and jurisprudence—truly, a “world upside down.”

In chapter five, Rowe moves from the ancient world to our own and allows the political imagination of Acts to speak into, and perhaps even shape, our own. Rowe writes as a Christian and, in this chapter at least, is engaged in the work of constructive Christian theology. Rowe does not, however, cheaply port over the theological politics of a small messianic movement from the backwaters of the Roman Empire to modern-day, Western contexts. The differences are too vast and Rowe’s theological acumen is too strong for such easy moves. Instead Rowe uses his final chapter as a kind of exercise in thinking with Acts—embodying its particular Christocentric epistemology—to come at modern politics, and even the practice of critical biblical scholarship, from an Acts-inspired perspective derived from apocalyptic claim in the story of Acts that Jesus is lord of all (176).

The present volume is a must-have for all serious readers of Acts. Although Rowe, who teaches in the Divinity School, rather than the Religion Department, at Duke University, writes with theological aims in mind, his work must be engaged by anyone who would make a claim about the political life of the post-Easter Christians. This text would be a welcome addition to any graduate or upper-level undergraduate course on Acts, and would be a helpful conversation partner for ministers, religious leaders, and thoughtful laypersons looking to read Acts carefully and with an eye for questions of theology and politics in the shadow of empire.


What to Expect When You’re Expecting (1 Thess 5:1-11)

Below is a short exegetical paper I wrote during my final semester at Emmanuel Christian Seminary.

The climax of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church (5:1-11) is a discourse in dialogue with the shared discourse(s) of the Thessalonian audience, and strikes harmonies on at least two levels of shared tradition: the religious and social-political. The former harmony echoes in Paul’s adoption of “day of the Lord” (ἡμέρα κυρίου) and “birth pains” (ἡ ὠδὶν), language from inherited prophetic traditions of the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple sources (5:2-3). The latter discursive harmony, echoes of the social-political milieu shared between author and audience, is found primarily in the strange appeal to the “peace and security” saying of an unnamed “they” in 5:3—an allusion, I argue, to Roman imperial propaganda.

On the Fence about Rome

On the Fence about Rome: A Critical Review of McKnight and Modica’s Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013).

Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not Edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica

An edited version of this review appeared in the most recent print edition of Englewood Review of Books, Eastertide 2013, Vol. 03, No. 03, p.40 (“Grappling with the Biblical Concept of Rome”). My thanks to editor Chris Smith for the opportunity to review this book.

Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies presents readers with an entry point into an ongoing discussion regarding the New Testament and its engagement with the Roman Empire. The volume is edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica and features ten essays exploring the New Testament’s navigation of and engagement with the Roman Empire. Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not is primarily a critical reading of leading scholars who, using an interpretive lens known as “imperial criticism,” suggest that the focus of particular New Testament documents is to resist and critique the Roman Empire. As such, this volume reads like one side of an ongoing and lively conversation. This may pose difficulties for readers who have not engaged the scholars with whom the contributors are in dialogue.

For readers familiar with current trends in New Testament scholarship related to postcolonial and imperial criticism, there is significant ambivalence to be found throughout these collected essays as well as in the introduction and conclusion from McKnight and Modica. At times, contributors suggest that various New Testament documents are critical of the dominant imperial order (e.g., Diehl, 38-81; Willitts, 83; Strait, 143; Bird, 161). At other points, even within the same essay, contributors argue that the Empire is not the—or even a—target of a given New Testament composer’s critique (e.g. Pinter, 114; Strait, 141; Bevere, 183ff). Most of the essays offer a balanced approach to the New Testament and Empire, thus supplying helpful correctives to certain postcolonial readings which have overemphasized a focus on Rome. Diehl’s essay on anti-imperial rhetoric in the New Testament, Willitt’s exploration of Matthew and Empire, Skinner’s treatment of John, Bird’s reading of Romans, and Sheets’ piece on Revelation and the Empire all stand out as helpful, corrective readings of biblical texts and certain imperial critics. These essays are also careful imperial-critical readings of the texts in their own right.

Often when the contributors suggest a given text is not so heavily-focused on Rome, we would do well to accept their helpful attempt at swinging the pendulum from one extreme to a more moderate point. But when the social world of the New Testament is so muted and the argument is made that the gospel has only to do with resistance to Satan, as the editors suggest in their conclusion (McKnight & Modica, 212), the corrective has swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Although Modica, who is suspicious of imperial criticism, suggests that it requires certain “hermeneutical gymnastics” (Modica, 20), one wonders what sort of interpretive calisthenics prepared Bevere, for example, to argue that Colossians 2:15 does not brazenly critique Judean client-rulers and their imperial patrons as well (Bevere, 193), or that Paul’s letter to Philemon may not subtly (and brilliantly) subvert the practice of slavery in the Greco-Roman world (Bevere, 194). One wonders also how Luke’s social location is comparable to Josephus, or how Josephus, who inherited the emperor’s former residence in Rome, can in any way be described as writing “from the margins” (Pinter, 103).

Similarly problematic are the editors’ concluding remarks: “To make the claim ‘Jesus is Lord,’ one does not make specific sociopolitical allegiances; rather the claim forthrightly involves repentance and following Jesus” (McKnight & Modica, 212). Here the emphasis is placed squarely on the individualized spiritual experience of the lordship of Jesus while the socio-political dimensions are muted. The editors thus fall into the very trap they caution against by creating a “binary confusion” which requires the lordship of Jesus to be about repentance and discipleship and not about political allegiances. By so spiritualizing the lordship of Jesus, the editors have created a neat bifurcation between “politics” and “religion,” or “social” and “spiritual.” Such a dichotomy is simply anachronistic to the New Testament and its social world. Although the editors later argue that the Kingdom of God is both spiritual and political, by overemphasizing the “stark contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan,” the reader is left to wonder how such a posture towards Satan ‘plays out’ on the stage of early Christian communal life in the Roman Empire (McKnight & Modica, 212-213).

In effect, suggesting that the New Testament is concerned with subverting Satan only pushes the question one step further back. It leads naturally to the question of how the kingdom of Satan impinged upon the world that the earliest Christians inhabited and how the Kingdom of God pushed back against it. The New Testament stands on the shoulders of inherited prophetic and apocalyptic traditions which connect the work of evil and otherworldly powers with the machinations of empires (e.g. Daniel 7-12; portions of 1 Enoch). Skinner, in his essay on the Gospel of John, offers a helpful perspective in a footnote: “Almost continuously from 605 BCE to 192 CE, Israel was under the rule of…foreign empires. […] This series of foreign subjugations no doubt played an important part in Jewish self-identity during the first century CE” (Skinner, 117n1). Add to this the “apocalyptic and messianic narrative” of Paul’s gospel (Bird, 161) and it seems clear that the earliest Jesus followers understood Rome to be one of the functionaries of Satan’s reign, just like the empires which preceded it.

In all, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not is a very good collection of essays from diverse perspectives on the New Testament documents and their posture(s) towards the Roman Empire. This diversity of perspective is helpful and allows readers a glimpse of the variety of available readings of the New Testament in its Roman imperial context. A significant lacuna exists, however, in the absence of a chapter on Mark alongside the chapters on Matthew, Luke, and John. Especially with the recent publication of the 20th Anniversary Edition of Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man[1] and Richard Horsley’s sustained imperial critical reading of Mark throughout much of his work,[2] this is a glaring omission.

Overall, McKnight and Modica’s Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not is a welcome contribution and may serve as a valuable point of entry for those who are not aware that such a discussion about the New Testament and Rome has been taking place among scholars over the last few decades. It would provide excellent fodder for discussion in church bible studies, small groups, and undergraduate settings in Christian colleges.

[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, 20th Anniversary Ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2008).

[2] Richard A. Horsley, “The Kingdom of God and the Renewal of Israel: Synoptic Gospels, Jesus Movements, and Apocalypticism,” ed. John J. Collins, The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism: Volume 1: The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity (New York: Continuum, 2000); Ibid., Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001); Ibid, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel: Moving Beyond a Diversionary Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).