Friday, December 17, 2010

Book Review: Christ and Caesar by Seyoon Kim

Seyoon Kim. Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008. 228 pp. $24.00

This review will appear in a forthcoming issue of Stone-Campbell Journal and is reproduced here with permission. Visit Stone-Campbell Journal at

The author sets out to answer the question: “Did Paul and other preachers of the gospel in the first century A.D. formulate their message in conscious reaction to the imperial cult and ideology of Rome?” (p. xiv)An affirmative answer is almost axiomatic for many New Testament interpreters in this post-colonial age. Now comes a different response in this highly sensible and eminently reasoned book.

Neither Paul nor Luke, Kim recognizes, has a fundamentally positive view of the Roman Empire; it, like all other temporal kingdoms of the world (Lk. 4:5-6), is heading for destruction and will give way to the imminent kingdom of God. At the same time, he thinks that both Paul and Luke exhibit a relative appreciation of empire as an unwitting accomplice to the successful mission of the church. “Only because the order, peace, and stability of the world is a precondition for a rapid missionary movement, which they seek with their eschatological vision, do they appreciate pax Romana and does Paul even advise Christians to comply with imperial administration” (p. 189). The Roman Empire may be diabolical and stand under God’s apocalyptic judgment, but it may well be the best (certainly not the worst) that the world’s systems have to offer. In Kim’s judgment, Paul and Luke stand somewhere between the pro-imperial perspective of 1 Clement and the anti-imperial sentiments of the author of Revelation.

The first half of the book focuses on Paul and treats key passages in his writings that support an anti-Rome stance in the minds of many political interpreters. Kim rejects Karl Donfried’s contention that the Christian dead at Thessalonica were victims of Roman persecution (1 Thess. 4:13-18), the result of Paul’s political preaching against the pax et securitas of the empire (1 Thess. 5:3); Kim further thinks that the apocalyptic passivity discernible throughout the first Thessalonian letter offers little evidence to support Helmut Koester’s view that Paul is summoning the Thessalonian believers to implement the “day of the Lord” as an eschatological alternative to the false imperial ideology of Rome (1 Thess. 5:1-11). Kim denies N.T. Wright’s view of Philippians 2:6-11 and 3:20-21 as anti-Roman polemic and sees no basis in the text for a veiled (“coded”) criticism of the Roman Empire while also rejecting Wright’s understanding of Jesus’ political Messiahship in Romans based on the Davidic inclusio that structures the letter (Rom. 1:3-5; 15:12). In contrast to Richard Horsley, “the rulers of this age” (1 Cor. 2:6-8) and “every ruler and every authority and power” (1 Cor. 15:24-28) are not the Roman leaders complicit in Jesus’ execution but more sinister supra-human powers holding humanity in bondage, leading Kim to conclude: “Paul did not regard the Roman imperial politics as the sole reality of evil, not even as the greatest manifestation of it; rather, he thought more fundamentally about the human predicaments—sin and death” (p. 23).

Kim studies the way in which anti-imperial interpreters of Paul arrive at their particular conclusions, chiefly, by interpreting the imperial titles of Jesus (e.g., “Lord,” “Savior,” “son of God”) in light of Paul’s (supposedly) negative view of Rome. The result of this superficial confluence is that “they impose anti-imperial meanings onto these terms and string those passages up, sometimes extrapolating the meaning of one passage to another, in order to claim that Paul preached the gospel in deliberate antithesis to the imperial ideology and cult” (p. 32). To Kim, “This looks like a new application of the old-fashioned proof-text method that dogmatists employed to construct doctrines, and dispensationalists used to construct elaborate eschatological scenarios” (p. 32).

A number of factors noted by Kim make an anti-imperial reading of Paul unlikely. The lack of any specific mention of the imperial cult in Paul’s letters (even in contexts of pagan idolatry!), Paul’s numerous releases from prison, Paul’s appeal to Caesar and cautious optimism for acquittal, the spread of the gospel among members of Caesar’s own household, are particularly damning facts, not to mention Paul’s explicit and decidedly pro-Roman statements in Romans 13:1-7, a text upon which any anti-imperial reading of Paul is bound to suffer shipwreck. Above all, Paul’s expectation of an imminent end to history and his self-perceived role as God’s special envoy of the end times meant that Paul was not out to reform society or subvert the empire. “He just concentrated on winning believers in Christ and forming alternative communities in preparation for the eschatological consummation” (pp. 52-53).

The second half of the book focuses on Luke, and here the anti-imperial interpretation fares no better. While Luke offers both explicit and implicit Christ-Caesar contrasts throughout his two-volume work, the deliverance that Jesus offers is ultimately from Satanic, not imperial, oppression. To the charge that the Jesus movement was anti-imperial (Acts 17:6-7), Roman officials and surrogates consistently recognize the politically innocuous nature of Jesus and his movement (Lk. 23:13-25; Acts 24:22-27; 25:18,25; 26:30-32). Roman centurions, the backbone of the Roman army, unanimously appear in the Lukan writings as positive characters, with not the slightest hint that they should abandon their military career (Lk. 7:1-10; 23:47; Acts 10:1-2; 22:26; 27:3,43-44). Roman officials regularly respond to the preaching of the gospel (Acts 13:7,12; 16:29-34; 17:34; 26:28), including Theophilus, a real or imagined member of the Roman nobility (Lk. 1:3; Acts 1:1). The Jesus proclaimed by Luke is certainly “Lord of all” (Acts 10:36) and heir to the throne of David (Lk. 1:67-79; Acts 2:29-36; 13:22-23,32-34), yet Jesus’ throne does not displace Caesar’s temporal kingdom. Rather, the politically liberating effects of the gospel must await the restoration of Israel at the time of renewal and restoration of all things (Acts 1:6-8; 3:19-21).

This last point highlights Luke’s convergence with Paul. Since Luke, like Paul, believes that the end of history is near (here Kim sides with Jacob Jervell against Conzelmann), this imminent expectation means that Luke manifests little motivation for changing the political status quo. Hence Luke’s hero (Paul) is not only repeatedly exonerated of any political crime but actually protected by the empire while actually claiming to be a Roman citizen. Such a beneficent picture of Roman officials leads Kim to accept Philip Esler’s view that “Luke seeks to reassure Roman soldiers and administrators in the church that their allegiance to the empire and Christian faith are quite compatible, and thus helps legitimate their faith” (p. 173). Luke is also a political realist, who realizes that his little tiny community is no match for the might and power of Rome (cf. Rev. 13:3-4). Rome will fall in due course; in the meantime, the church must take advantage of the positive effects of the pax Romana to spread the urgent eschatological message.

Neither Paul nor Luke was writing in a time envisaged by the seer of Revelation when Christians faced the daunting prospects of refusing to participate in the imperial cult. For Kim, had Paul and Luke faced a similar demand, they may well have sided with Revelation’s decidedly more negative stance. As it turns out, the New Testament is a diverse library that gives us both Romans 13 and Revelation 13 and hence more than one view of the relationship of Christianity and empire. As the Monty Python film The Life of Brian reminded us, there can actually be benefits to empire. Such a view, however, would come as disturbing news to some segments of the American church, which makes Kim’s book required reading for anyone tempted to read the New Testament from a one-dimensional political perspective.

Review by David Lertis Matson, Ph.D.

Dr. David Lertis Matson is Professor of Biblical Studies at Hope International University.

The views in this book review are not necessarily the views of Hope International University.

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