Paul and Empire

by Richard Horsley (ed. 1997), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

“Christianity was product of empire. . . . Paul (established assemblies (ekkleisia) that were alternatives to official assemblies at cities such as Philippi and Corinth. . . . The principal social dimensions of this world that is passing away were overcome in these communities of the nascent alternative society. ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek . . . slave or free . . . male or female; all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’” (p. 1)  Contributors to Horsley’s anthology on the clash between Roman society and Christianity make their points clearly with reference to four major points of conflict between the imperial culture and upstart Christian religion.

The most pointed clashes/conflicts were on the issue of the gospel of imperial salvation, the cultural pattern of patronage, Paul’s counter imperial gospel, and building an alternative society (pp. 1-3).

One:  The imperial gospel (the emperor understood as being god, with shrines, temples and games sponsored in his honour) was countered by Paul’s contention that G-d had highly exalted Jesus Christ so that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:9-11).

Two: The patron social system embodied social relations of dependency.  “Such a hierarchical structure was dramatically opposed to the pattern of horizontal reciprocal social-economic relations” (p. 5).

Three: Paul’s theological formulations (gospel, salvation, cross, faith) stand over against Roman imperial theology (p. 6).  Paul’s message is not directed against Judaism but against “the rulers of this age”.  Paul’s gospel stands counter primarily to the roman imperial order (p. 7) not to the Jewish faith.

Four: Paul did not found a religion called Christianity that broke away from a religion called Judaism.  Paul’s emphasis was that his assemblies (ekkleisia) should be exclusive communities, recruiting from the wider imperial society.  Paul was building an international alternate society (the assembly, the “church”) based in local egalitarian communities (assemblies, “the church”) (p 8).

Each article in the anthology than develops one of these clashes/conflicts/themes.  E.g., the fourth clash clarifies Paul’s attempt at building an international alternative society.  (“I Corinthians: a Case Study of Paul’s Assembly as an Alternative Society”.)  Paul achieves this by avoiding the marketplace of religious competition for the more intensive intervention of small groups in peoples’ homes by encouraging the assemblies to conduct and monitor their own affairs (solving their own legal disagreements internally), withdrawing from some forms of social interaction (no participation in feasts from food offered to idols), behave in different economic patterns (not accepting economic support), and sharing money with the poor, unprecedented in antiquity.  “The network of assemblies had as international political economic dimensions diametrically opposed to the tributary political economics of the empire” (p. 251). 

A wonderful read of the tensions between Paul’s assemblies and Roman expectations.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.