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

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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.