Ephesians and Anti-Imperialism

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

11 thoughts on “Ephesians and Anti-Imperialism

  1. I may be an old conservative Brit (somewhat Anglo-Irish, and one time Royal Marine), but that reach to the USA as Imperialist is certain crap! Just like so much so-called “theological” work today! 😉

    • And one I am certain of myself, is that Tom Wright’s “Irovy Tower” political ideas are “beans” too! 😉 Just a year older than I am i.e. Wright, when Wright was up in that “tower”, I was fighting for God, Queen and Country! Sorry, just a wee bit of pride I guess! 🙂

  2. I think Ephesians 2:11-22 is very anti-imperialist. The talk of God making us one and being our cornerstone. It talks about Him being far away and separate from us. He came and reconciled with us and made us one. Even the beginning of Ephesians 2 is a good example. Reading Ephesians could be helpful because of the concepts it offers of having a loving Father in heaven who rescued us. It is a good reminder of why we follow Him and what He has done.

  3. I think that Ephesians 1:10 could be considered “anti-imperialist” or anti-Roman government. Verse 10 says, “To be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” To those who did not know much about the gospel this may have sounded like an event that would change the world politically. Even though this verse is talking about Jesus Christ reconciling God and man, the language sounds anti-imperialist. And I might add that Christ will come again someday and overthrow all the governments and judge all the nations.
    Later in chapter 1 (verses 13-14), the author of Ephesians says that Gentiles are now included in God’s people (362). I would think that this would sound anti-imperialist because of the assembling of Jews and Gentiles. They would not like to see Jews and Gentiles being unified because they might fear what would result from that. Roman government officials may have feared Christianity as it was, and now Christianity was adding Gentiles with the Jews only allowing it to grow more. They would not have liked to see any growth in any religious movement, and so they might see verses 13-14 as anti-imperialist.

  4. One verse that stands out to me as anti-imperialist would be Ephesians 1:21 which says, “far above rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. This would be quite the claim for Paul to make about God in the first century. Christ is seated at the right hand of God in heaven which is far above the most powerful governments on earth. I also like the point that Josh makes about Rome being concerned about what the Christian people were all about. If I didn’t know what Christianity was all about it would probably sound like they wanted to be the most powerful “Kingdom” in the entire world. P. Long said, “In the first century, Caesar was described as Lord.” But all throughout Ephesians Jesus is called Lord.
    Another example of bringing politics into scripture could be found in Ephesians 2:19-22. Polhill says, “Paul used three metaphors to describe the church: political (“fellow citizens”), family (“members of God’s household”) and as a building” (363). Verse 19 says that they are now citizens of God’s people. Again, this could be very interesting to see the face of the political and military leaders of the first century as Paul said these words.
    I imagine no kings or rulers of any land liked hearing about this Jesus guy and how he is so powerful. I wonder to what extent they went to make sure this “cornerstone” wouldn’t take over their kingdom. It reminds me of when Jesus was born. Herod heard about the coming messiah. I am sure he expected a military ruler to take over all countries. Jesus would surely be the next great leader of the next great Rome. As we know Herod went as far as killing all the boys in Bethlehem to make sure he would still be the man. This makes me wonder if the government did anything about Jesus and His movement after he already was crucified. Did they think Jesus was gone for good?

  5. With this whole logic, then we can see why the Roman emperor would want to prosecute Christianity, and then kill Christians. If Christianity was some anti-Imperalist doctrine. But as we can see in 1 Peter 2: 13-17, Christians do not live in such an attitude, even if their eternal kingdom is above and victorious. Indeed this is problematic terminology!

  6. When I read Ephesians looking for anti-imperialism a passage that jumps out at me is Eph. 1:3-12. It sounds like someone is talking about their ultimate ruler. When you talk to or about your ultimate ruler you come humbly before their most gracious presence and use language like Paul uses here: “[He] has blessed us” (vs. 3), “He chose us” (vs. 4), “He predestined us for adoption according to His will (vs. 5), “To the praise of His glorious grace” (vs. 6), and on. When you go up to Caesar or any other ruler, you do not just say “How’s it goin?” You humbly bow and proceed with a large number of praises to the ruler’s name. That is what Paul is doing here, and it sets up Christ as the true Lord (as Paul elaborates on in vs. 15-23), not Caesar. So yes, I would say that if you are looking for anti-imperialism here you will probably find it.

  7. The passage that first comes to my mind that would speak some words of anti-imperialism in Ephesians would be 1:19-23. This passage speaks of the authority that Christ has been given at the right hand of God. He is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…” (Eph 1:21). This passage is filled with language saying how great the authority of Christ is and also how it is above all other authorities and above every name. I imagine this would have stuck out to a first century reader as anti-imperialistic in the simple fact that it implicitly states that Christ is above Caesar and has authority over him and his Empire. This seems to be an blatant example of anti-imperialism in Ephesians.

  8. It is hard to think about Imperialism without it conjuring up images of Japan and the Imperial Army of World War II. It is important to remember that during the early Christian faith spread though the world not by military force but, by the travels of Christian missionaries. Did the Christian faith try to do things in an imperialistic way ever? The Crusades were a time when people of Christianity can be accused of imperialism. Can America be seen as an imperialistic nation? Specifically, what do the Middle-Eastern countries think of our country? First off it is not uncommon that Muslim’s assume that America is a Christian nation. I wonder what the people of Iraq and Afghanistan think that America is trying to do in their countries. When people who have never been to America see advertisements or TV originating from the US that is what they think America is. In effect they believe this is the way Christians act in general. These false facades represent the Christians of America. I really don’t think America is a Christian nation anymore. That is not a good thing.
    Back to the original question about reading the frame of anti-imperialism (or whatever better word fits this definition) into Ephesians, it seems like there is a new light angle shed on this passage. In general thinking through the governing context of the letter brings new power to verses like 1:22 “and God placed all things under his feet.” Being in a democracy we don’t experience and truly understand the power that one person can have.

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