Ephesians and Anti-Imperialism

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.

Pepper Spray BeatlesFirst 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 (2009): 309-338.

8 thoughts on “Ephesians and Anti-Imperialism

  1. If you look at the first two chapters of Ephesians with anti-imperialism in mind there are certainly a few things that come up.

    -First of all, in Ephesians 1:20-23, Paul explains how Christ has been seated “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given…” (v. 21a). The idea that Caesar’s subjects felt the need to obey their God rather than him would not have been very appealing to Caesar.

    -Secondly, in 2:14-18, Jesus is described as the source of our peace. This concept could be considered to be anti-imperial because Rome was supposed to be bringing peace to the civilized world.

    -Finally, Paul says that the Ephesians are now “fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (2:19b). Paul is saying that believers’ ultimate loyalty is with God and that now, as Christians, they are citizens of God’s Kingdom rather than citizens of Rome. This certainly would not have gone over well with the Roman authorities.

    Clearly, there are elements of anti-imperialism in Ephesians as well. However, as was said before, it seems that this was just a natural result of Christian beliefs rather than Paul’s desire to stir up unrest against the Roman government.

  2. Language of anti-imperialism can be found throughout Ephesians, which may be why some people today are quick to turn his message into an anti-government or anti-authority type of message. In the post, it is mentioned that language used such as “savior” and “one who brings peace” were common then and so it was not out of the blue that Paul would use this language to describe Jesus and not Caesar. Right away in Ephesians 1:2 “Lord Jesus Christ” appears. Chapter 1 goes on to describe Jesus as seated in the heavenly realms on the right hand of God- he is far above all 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. Ephesians 2 also places Jesus above all else on earth, certainly taking the title of “Lord” away from Caesar and giving it to whom it actually belongs, Jesus. The advantages of reading Ephesians as anti-imperial is that essentially, Christianity does not bow to any other authority. I certainly don’t think Paul is preaching anarchy and disrespect of government, but we know that earthly authority has nothing for us compared to what we have in Christ.

  3. Elements of Ephesians that could be considered as “anti-imperialist” include the language Paul uses in his letter. It seems that modern Christians are all to familiar with the phrases we read in our Bibles such as “Good News” and “Jesus Christ is Lord” that we assume these words meant the same thing to the early churches to whom Paul was writing. When we begin to understand the cultural setting and background, it becomes quite clear that these phrases were previously employed by the Roman Empire in reference to Caesar. Paul uses the imagery of Christ as “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” which places Christ above Caesar (Eph. 1:21). He also states that the Gentiles are “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” and “Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (2:19,21). These are all examples of what could be considered as “anti-imperial.” Paul uses certain language that would have been culturally applied to Caesar but is now being applied to Christ as the true God and ruler. Paul uses this language for a reason; believers must understand that while they are subject to authority placed over them, God is the true authority who is above even Caesar.

  4. Ephesians does bring about some anti-imperialistic views; however, this was not Paul’s point. He is not purposefully going against the Roman government. He is merely stating the truth about God’s word and it could possibly be taken as anti-imperial. Ephesians 1:19-23 focuses on how God is powerful over all earthy authority, and that he placed Jesus at the head of everything with everything “under his feet”. This could definitely be seen as anti-imperial, because Roman authorities would not be okay with Jesus having more authority than they did. So although the Romans consider it to be anti-imperialistic, it would be better to view it as a positive that Christ rules over all and we do not have to control anything.

  5. Back in the Roman world reading Ephesians 1 and 2 would be big time anti-imperialism. Just some examples from chapter 1, Paul writes “In Him”, referring to God, in verse 7 with redemption, verse 11 with inheritance, and then again in verse 13 with the truth. In verse 21 Paul talks that God has all power and authority over everything. In chapter 2 verse 5B Paul writes, by God’s grace you have been saved. Then again in verse 8 that we were saved by grace. There is so many ways that Paul writes that makes chapters 1 and 2 very anti-imperialism to the Roman Government.

  6. A majority of Ephesians is ‘others’ oriented – meaning serving, focusing on, and working together with other people for unity among everyone and to glorify God. This is particularly anti-imperial because generally, people are more selfish rather than thinking about how they can sacrifice themselves in some way for the good and unity of the Body. Specifically in Ephesians 4:17-5:20, Polhill says that Paul reminds his readers of their former pagan lifestyle and pushes them to put it behind them forever (Polhill 369). This is anti-imperialism as well because Paul is asking people to put behind them the ways of the world – the way they used to do things – and live for Christ instead. I think it is important to read Ephesians 1-2 in an anti-imperialistic way because if you have that mindset and actually try to live out what is said, you will be putting the worldly ways behind you and actually living for Christ – something we are called to do.

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