A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Quote of the Day: Confronting the Cult of Caesar

"In Paul's day, the cult of Caesar was the fastest-growing religion in the Mediterranean world. In Rome itself the emperors did not claim full divine honors, but they did adopt the title 'son of god'-the god in question being their recently deceased, and newly deified, predecessor. And in the provinces, from Greece and Turkey through the Middle East to Egypt, divinization was standard. The people had worshiped rulers before; why shouldn't Augustus and his successors, with their extraordinary powers, receive the same divine honors?"

"So the imperial cult grew. Its 'good news' was that Caesar, the son of God, was now the lord of the whole world, claiming allegiance from everybody in return for bringing salvation and justice to the world. Resistance was met with crucifixion. The system was based on sheer power."

"When Paul wrote Romans, he wasn't offering a benign religion or faith detached from the world of Roman power. He was confronting imperial power head-on. In the opening lines of his letter (1:1-17), Paul announces that he is coming to Rome as the messenger of God's 'good news,' the news about his son, the royal heir of David (in Psalms, the Davidic king will rule the whole world). The resurrection marked Jesus as God's son. He is now the world's true lord, claiming allegiance from Jew and gentile alike. Paul is not ashamed of this 'good news,' because this message-announcing Jesus as the risen Messiah and Lord, the one true God-unveils salvation and justice for the whole world."

"A close comparison of the 'good news' of the Caesar cult with Paul's words shows that Romans is, among other things, a deliberate parody of the pagan message. Paul's readers in Rome must have understood this, and he must have intended them to."

"Paul’s ideas do not derive from the Caesar cult, as some have suggested; they confront it. His theology, his understanding of the Messiah, remains rooted in Jewish thought forms and in the scriptures. Texts like Exodus, Isaiah and the Psalms propelled him towards just this sort of confrontation with the pagan powers and the gods that stood behind them. He is, perhaps, at his most Jewish when he is confronting and undermining paganism."

You can read N.T. Wright's entire article, "Paul, Leader of a Jewish Revolution," here.


Mitch Lewis said...

Allan - I am not at all convinced by Wright's argument that Paul wrote Romans to confront "imperial power head on." Wright reads between the lines to find Paul focused on the imperial cult. Paul's actual rhetoric in Romans 1:18-32 attacks idolatry much more broadly. That would sweep up the imperial cult in its judgment, but I don't see Paul's line of argument in Romans 1-11 focusing on Caesar at all. Romans 12-13 highly qualifies how Christians may interact with their society - including pagan rulers - but even here Paul recognizes a divinely mandated role for governing authorities. The imperial cult may have in fact been the "fastest growing religion in the Mediterranean world" (I'm in no position to say), but paganism was embedded in every aspect of life beginning with the household lares. You didn't have to look beyond the front door of a Roman home to find idolatry that had nothing to do with Caesar.

Ted M. Gossard said...

I can't help but think that there is some truth in what N.T. Wright is saying here. Jesus is certainly given a place that only Caesar or the Emperor was to have, it seems.

I know not all agree with N.T. Wright in reference to Colossians being a critique of Roman power. But I can't help but think that at least in some subtle way it truly is.

Country Parson said...

It's a mistake to imbue a two-thousand year old writer with political tactics appropriate to our time, but I have no doubt that Paul's letters both inspired his readers and tweaked the authorities just enough to get their attention without jeopardizing his life. But intentionally confronting them head-on? No, I doubt it. Then he ran into Nero.

Anonymous said...

It seems I'm not the only one here who smells a theological rat. Of course the gospel is counter-cultural (any culture!). Is Paul clearly mocking the Roman emperor cult? That seems up for debate.

No one has mentioned that in Romans, Paul gives a very important, legitimate, and limited view of government power. Even one as unjust (by our standards) as Rome's. Regarding this, we should also remember that one of Peter's letters implores us to us to "honor the emperor."

We are right to be suspicious. It's a little too convenient for a 21st Century Western academic to construct a theological vision that puts a middle finger in the eye of the head of government. This line of argument has gotten more popular, and gained legitimacy, with the recent popularization of radical Mennonite ecclessiology. But think for a second. This sounds like exactly what every other academic wants to do themselves, doesn't it? Call it gospel, but it may be just another cultural norm (especially in the post-1960's society!) seeping into the Church. No coincidence here, friends.