Michael Bird on the Value of Anti-Imperial Readings of Romans (ETS 2011)

I went to Michael Bird’s paper this morning entitled “Raging against the Romans: The Value of Anti-Imperialist Readings of Romans?” Notice the question mark there. This is a very popular and edgy thing to be doing right at the moment in Pauline studies, so Bird’s assessment of this “movement” is timely and valuable. Bird began by expressing his initial doubt whether the sorts of anti-Imperial readings of Paul were legitimate. Over the last week or so I have expressed similar misgivings in Romans 13 as a coded statement which ought to be read as anti-Rome. And like Bird I was more or less uninterested with these articles and papers since there was a strong undertone of anti-conservative politics implied (or maybe not-so- implied in most cases!)

But Bird made a few good observations which at least make the possibility of some of Paul’s statements as anti-Imperial more likely. That the words for gospel and savior are not new words coined by Christianity is axiomatic. The good news in Rome concerns the Emperor and the savior of the World is Nero, not Jesus. For Paul to describe Jesus in these terms is at least implicitly anti-Empire. Bird dealt with two passages which frame Romans with apparent anti-Imperial language, Romans 1:3-4 an 15:12. In both cases Jesus is described as being the Messiah, the Root of David, and as such the one who will supplant the kingdoms of man.

While I agree with Bird that these texts have political teeth, they are hardly a script for revolution. Bird wondered what a Roman might make of a public reading of the first few verses of Romans (“it would probably irk him off” was the way he phrased it.) As I said a few days ago in a post on Romans 13, I seriously doubt even the most oppressed member of Paul’s church would have thought about a real rebellion against Rome since that would have been completely impossible. Paul is not talking about taking to the streets of Rome and occupying the Palace.

Instead, in Romans 13 Paul says that the believer ought to obey the government which has been appointed by God. Bird pointed out that this is not simple quietism, since in the next few verses Paul gives a justification for this submission – the time is short! The time is now very near when God will destroy the kingdom of man and establish his rule (I hear echoes of Daniel 2 and 7 here, as well as any number of Second Temple period references.)

If Paul is anti-Imperial, it is because God is anti-Imperial. God rules, not Caesar. I think that much more could be said here by using Jewish apocalyptic as a model. Paul is speaking apocalyptically when he describes Jesus as Messiah and the Root of Jesse.

Bird ended with an excellent quote from T. R. Glover, “a day will come when men will call their sons Paul, and their dogs, Nero.” Christianity did in fact destroy Rome in the end, although not through armed rebellion.

4 thoughts on “Michael Bird on the Value of Anti-Imperial Readings of Romans (ETS 2011)

  1. One thing that I’ve been mulling over in our discussions about these Romans passages and the political applications being addressed is the power of God. I found it interesting that you pointed out Paul’s approach to the political situation in Rome. He was offering a counter-cultural view of politics and leadership. Not in the way that many Christians do today, however. It’s easy, and quite commonplace, to take scripture and preach whatever politics we lean toward. Paul’s writings, however, don’t appear to be encouraging political action in regards to beliefs. He’s encouraging the Roman Christians to understand the lack of real importance and impact that human government has in the grand scheme of God’s plan. The important thing to know is that Jesus, not ___ (fill in the blank with your least favorite political leader or party), is the ultimate Messiah and overthrower of human government. By focusing too much on pushing politics and fearing specific parties or people, we are completely disregarding the power of God to deliver his people, overthrow wickedness, and the fact that he is ultimately in control. Now, I’m not saying that Christians should be completely unaware of and distanced from any form of government or politics, but we need to be wary of how much control and power we give human institutions over our own lives. If our lives our consumed with fear over political institutions, pushing parties or people through our understanding of scripture, or an obsession with trying to forcibly change government, I think we are missing the point. We are essentially letting man’s institutions control us. Jesus Christ brought us freedom from the slavery of fears like this, and this is what Paul was preaching. God is ultimately in control, and man’s institutions will always fail. “and again, The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” (1 Corinthians 3:20)

  2. I also find it hard to believe that Paul encouraged any sort of anti-government uprisings in his writings. The text of Chapter 13 seems to be fairly straightforward in Paul’s call for believers to “submit themselves to governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established” (13:1). It would seem that to arrive at any other conclusion you would need to have an agenda, then work backwards and twist scripture to justify it. In the same way the homosexual community finds a way to promote their lifestyle with verses that obviously condemn it (Romans 1:27), I believe that this is an instance where political activists are wrongly using scriptures as an end to justify their means. I would have to agree with Dave when he said that we are undermining God’s power when we choose to take such issues into our own hands. Obedience to authority is a virtue that should set Christians apart from many unbelievers, especially when we look at what is happening in the world today. Why waste our time and effort battling a worldly government that could be destroyed tomorrow? Why not invest that same passion and energy into preparing ourselves and others for the everlasting authority this is on the horizon?

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