Jesus and Empire

by Richard Horsley

The concept of “empire” has emerged as a crucial key in interpreting biblical stuff, and Horsley is one of the most insightful writers in this area.  Jesus and Empire documents how practises and effects of Roman imperialism decisively shaped the conditions of life in Galilee and Jerusalem.  These included the global subjugation of people, the emperor cult for theology, the need for feeding large unproductive segments of the population (“bread and circuses”), military violence as a control mechanism (eg crucifixion as intimidation, slaughter and mass enslavement, display of Roman army standards), indirect rule through client kings and religious priests (the threefold level of oppressive taxation in the Jewish territories: tribute to Romans, taxes to Herod, offerings and levies to the temple state).

Against this, “Jesus launched a mission not only to heal the debilitating effects of Roman military violence and economic exploitation, but   revitalize and rebuild the people’s cultural spirit and communal vitality….  In his offering the kingdom of G-d to the poor, hungry and despairing people, Jesus instilled hope in a seemingly hopeless situation, through his renewal of covenantal community, calling the people to common cooperative action to arrest the disintegration of their communities” (pp 126,127).

Horsley ends his book with a comparison of the Christian Empire and the American Empire, and the latter resembles the Roman Empire.  “Paul was building an international anti-imperial movement of an alternative society based in local communities” (p 133).

A wonderful read about the pressures on the church by empires, then and now.

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