A few weeks ago I blogged a bit on Romans 13, then heard a paper at ETS from Michael Bird on Anti-Imperialism in Romans. Turning my attention to Ephesians this week I was surprised to see the topic coming up once again. I read an article by Denny Burk in JETS a few years ago which was a decent summary of anti-Imperial readings of Paul, although I think that he has lumped N. T. Wright along with Richard Horsely and Hal Taussig. To me, Wright is not doing the same sort of work as Horsely, even though there are some similarities. Both make the same sorts of observations concerning Paul’s alleged use of imperial language, but Horsely and Taussig take the issue much further than Wright by applying Paul’s anti-Imperialism to the imperialism of the United States.
First I will lay out the basics of anti-Imperial readings of Paul and then I will make a few observations about why this is an important issue for reading Ephesians.
The increased interest in the impact of the Imperial cult in Asia Minor in the first century has driven anti-imperial readings of Paul. In the first century, Caesar was described as Lord (κύριος) and god in art and coinage. Since he was the one who brought peace (εἰρήνη) into the world, the emperor should be thought of as the savior (σωτήρ) of the world. News of the Emperor was announced as “good news” (εὐαγγέλιον). This imperial propaganda was pervasive and could not be avoided, although most people in the first century would have simply accepted the equation of “Caesar as God” and moved on with life.
Paul preached the good news that Jesus was the Lord and savior of the world, the one who brings peace. For those of us with Christian ears, these words are all quite familiar . But to anyone who heard them in the first century Roman world they were just as familiar, but applied to Caesar, not Jesus! By calling Jesus Lord, it is argued, Paul is setting up an implicit anti-Roman narrative. Once words like gospel, Lord, savior, and peace are taken as anti-imperial, then other less common Pauline concepts are seen through this lens, such as the language used for the return of Christ in 1 Thess 4:13-18.
For the most part, the implications of these anti-Imperial readings of Paul for reading Ephesians is to confirm the non-Pauline nature of the book. It is thought that Ephesians lacks the anti-Imperialism of Romans or other certain Pauline letters, This is evidence of a later, more pro-imperial writer. This is a major factor for Crossan and Reed in their In Search of Paul. Ephesians is not considered to be Pauline because of the reversal of the egalitarianism evident in Romans and Galatians.
But as Wright says early on in his Paul: A Fresh Perspective, “The argument recently advanced (in North America particularly) that Ephesians and Colossians are secondary because they move away from confrontation with the Empire to collaboration with it is frankly absurd.” The reason for this “absurdity” is that Ephesians is just as anti-Imperial (according to Wright) as Romans 13 or any other certain Pauline text. In fact, if there is actually an anti-empire subtext in the choice of terms Paul uses to describe Jesus and his mission, the Ephesians ought to be considered right at the heart of Pauline anti-Imperialism. I suspect the section on submission of wives drives Ephesians out of the Pauline corpus for most of the anti-Imperialist scholars.
What elements of Ephesians might be considered “anti-imperialist”? What benefit is there in reading Ephesians 1-2 in this way?
Burk, Denny. “Is Paul’s Gospel Counterimperial? Evaluating The Prospects Of The Fresh Perspective” For Evangelical Theology,” JETS 51 (2008; 2009): 309-338