Matthew and Empire

Warren Carter, Trinity Press, 2001, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        In Matthew and Empire Carter compellingly underlines the antithetical nature of the two empires presented by Rome and by Jesus; he shows from the biblical text how Matthew’s Gospel resists Roman imperialism and invites an alternative community of his disciples in anticipation of the coming triumph of G-d’s empire over all things.

        Matthew’s gospel presents a social challenge in offering a vastly different vision and experience of human community, theological challenge in asserting that the world belongs to G-d, not to Rome, and that G-d’s saving purpose and blessings are encountered in Israel and in Jesus, not in Rome (p 171). There is a startling similarity between key aspects of the gospel’s presentation of Jesus and imperial theology’s understanding of the role of the empire (see Carter’s ch 4 and ’Take my yoke’ exegesis in ch 7).

        The major problem Carter identifies is that the gospel, the alternative to Roman rule, cannot escape the imperial mindset—the alternative to Rome’s rule is framed in imperial terms. ‘The gospel depicts G-d’s salvation, the triumph of G-d’s empire over all things, including Rome, with the language and symbols of imperial rule (p 171), the irony of imperial imitation. (One of John Knox’s supporters commented that ‘presbyter’ was but ‘priest writ small’.) Carter’s issue applies to John’s Apocalypse—the Lamb’s violence embodied in cavalry battle. Walter Wink’s analysis of ‘the powers’ is helpful here.

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