Posts Tagged ‘Caesar’

augustus1a1augustus1b1I am coming back now to some further discussion of the book of Romans.  I am still dealing with some introductory matters which are important before dealing with the actual text.  I must confess that the following discussion confuses and baffles me more than any other topic related to Romans (which I’ll explain shortly).  In 1997 Richard Horsley released a book which charted a new course in Pauline studies, Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society.  Horsley is the editor, with contributions from such notable scholars as Dieter Georgi, Helmut Koester, Neil Elliott and Elisabeth Shussler Fiorenza.  The studies were not new nor the conclusions novel, but the time was ripe for a wider readership and more cordial reception.  With the new found interest in Paul launched by E.P. Sanders, people were now ready to listen to something fresh.  That is exactly what Horsley and his colleagues have done–given us something fresh to think about.  Again, since Sanders, people have been open to the idea of hearing something other than “Justification by faith” in the book of Romans.  While never excluding that theme, some have found others to be just as prominent (if not more so).  It is the contention of Horsley that Paul intended the book of Romans to be an anti-imperial message subverting the grandiose claims of Caesar.  Here is where I can now explain my confusion.  The arguments in favor of this reading are so compelling that I cannot but think that these scholars are on to something.  BUT…hardly any mainstream scholars or commentators pay it any attention.  J.D.G. Dunn’s (who is one of my favorites) massive The Theology of Paul the Apostle hardly recognizes this theme at all.  In fact, were it not for Wright and Crossan, I probably would not have given it a second hearing (or maybe even a first). 

Is there, then, something in Paul’s letter(s) which DOES bring this to the surface?  The coin shown at the top of this post declares several things by it’s words and imagery.  The words declare Augustus (and subsequent emperors) as the Son of God.  The imagery (the corona civica=oak wreath) declares Caesar as the Savior of the world and the harbinger of peace, prosperity and righteousness.  Does Paul in anyway upstage Caesar with the message of Jesus?  That will have to be determined, but I think you can guess where I’m going.  What I want to do is investigate some of the words and concepts that were regularly ascribed to and associated with Caesar that Paul uses to describe Jesus.  This usage is either one of the greatest examples of coincidence in all of Paul, or one of the clearest instances of Paul’s deliberate, provocative challenge to Caesar and Empire.  Follow along, and you be the judge.


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When you seek to discern those items related to Romans on which there is near universal agreement, you end up with a very short list.  Yet there is a list.  Romans was written by Paul sometime in the middle to late 50’s from Corinth or somewhere nearby, while planning his final trip to Jerusalem and then planning to go on from there to Rome and then Spain.  That about does it for consensus.  From this point on everything we say could include a footnote which says “for opposing views see the recent commentaries and secondary literature.”  In light of these circumstances, any thoughts I offer about Romans will be done so with a spirit of humility in conjunction with constant dialogue with all who wish to participate.

One of the first basic interpretive dilemmas one faces when studying Romans is deciding what the book is about.  It might be tempting to say, “Well just study it and you will see what it’s about.”  But basic assumptions or presuppositions brought to any piece of literature are prone to distort the original message or intent of the author.  We are inclined to project our own preconceived ideas onto Paul (or whomever) and then find to our delight that he has said what we believed all along.  Any who study Romans must be aware of this and use caution.  However, despite this pitfall, we cannot deny that the “why” of the book is intricately connected to the “what” of the book (i.e., the actual content).  For Martin Luther, the basic question behind Romans was “How can I find a gracious God?”  So his reading naturally centered on “justification by faith.”  This fit quite nicely with his historical situation in which he fought against the legalism of the Roman Catholic church.  It’s not surprising then that Luther thought Paul to be fighting the same battle.  Thus, the reformation reading of Romans has held sway for  centuries.  I will discuss this more, but for now I simply highlight how our circumstances can heavily influence our reading of the book (and who knows, perhaps Luther was right–but this must be tested by the text).

Many appeal to Romans 1:16-17 as the theme of the book:

16″For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”

I believe the appeal is justified.  But we are not even close to the theme of the book if we cannot decide what these verses are saying.  Rather than listing at this time all the different takes on the passage, let me simply state what I believe to be the theme:  THE GOSPEL REVEALS GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS.  The perceptive reader will note that I have made an interpretive step in regards to verse 17 in my formulation of the theme; a step which differs drastically from that of the NIV translators, for example.  Verse 17 reads in the NIV:

“For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed”

This is a perfectly plausible translation of the phrase dikaisyne theou.  In fact, I believe Martin Luther would be quite pleased with the translation.  You will note, however, that it differs ever so slightly from the NASB recorded above; i.e., the righteousness of God.    In other words, is Paul saying that the gospel reveals a status received by the believer from God, or that the gospel reveals something about God himself–that He is righteous?  With the NIV’s reading, the main question might very well be, “How can I find a gracious God?”  But the reading proposed by the NASB (and others) indicates that the question might be instead, “How can a supposedly gracious God be righteous given all of the evidence that indicates otherwise (Israel’s unbelief and failure, etc.)?”  Or yet another question, “How does the gospel of God’s justice upstage that of Caesar’s?”  This last question, though on the surface a stretch, might have much to commend it in the final analysis.  But more on that later.  If you are like me and these types of questions interest you, then your wheels are probably spinning.  If, however, you find this dull and unimportant, then well…I am sorry 🙂

In the next post I will indicate why I believe the NASB to be on the right track.  Feel free to chime in with your thoughts.

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