Is Ephesians “Anti-Imperial”?

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.

SpartacusFirst 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.

6 thoughts on “Is Ephesians “Anti-Imperial”?

  1. I do believe that certain aspects of Ephesians can be considered anti-imperial. When one begins to read Pauline letters with this frame, words and phrases begin to pop as possibilities. One such possibility is Ephesians 1:12 and 1:14, in which Paul says that those who are redeemed are one of God’s possessions, to the praise of His glory. For the Romans, the emperor was to be praised, and individuals were the possessions of the empire. Roman citizens had their freedom, but both they and those who were living within Rome were to give their allegiance to the empire. In another instance that could have an anti-imperial nature, Paul explains in Ephesians 1:21-22 about the exalted nature of Christ. He mentions how Jesus has been exalted far over any other name and that all things are under His feet. Again, for the Romans, the one who is exalted is the emperor!
    One benefit for reading Ephesians with this mindset is that it can provide more depth into Paul’s true meaning. Paul created a clear distinction as to where the believers loyalty should lie. Jesus is the only one truly deserving according to Ephesians 1:22, as He is the head over all things.

  2. Kellum Bridgeforth
    Professor Long
    Pauline Lit
    Blog Post #10
    I have 100% certainty that Ephesians is completely anti-imperial. First off, what P.Long says near the end of this blog post is a key indication; for Ephesians is similar to both Romans and Colossians which both were concluded as anti-imperial. “Ephesians is just as anti-Imperial (according to Wright) as Romans 13 or any other certain Pauline text” (P.Long). In Ephesians Paul talks about the Gospel and ways of life that people of Ephesus need to do in order to live a life pleasing to God, not pleasing to the Emperor nor the Roman Imperial Order. “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” (P.Long). Paul describes Jesus and His mission as a way of anti-imperialism according to Longenecker and Still “all things in heaven and earth would be brought to unity under Christ” (TTP 249). This is important because Longenecker and Still are saying that; even the mankind authorities and Roman Imperial Order will be under Christ and the power of God. Ephesians 2: 4-5 are a key indicator to prove that Paul is going against Roman ideologies, stating that it is God that will make us alive again and it is God that has saved us. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2: 4-5). This verse alone is anti-imperial because Roman ideologies believe that the Roman Imperial Order was the way of life that is ultimately going to save mankind; essentially running contrary to Paul’s Gospel. The last verse that stuck out to me the most from Ephesians 3 was how Paul’s says that God will be ruler of all rulers. “wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our LORD” (Ephesians 3: 10-11).

  3. As we read through Ephesians, we see that there are multiple instances where we may find the book being anti-imperical. Paul traveled all sorts of places to teach the good news as Christians know being the Lord and savior. According the Longenecker, Paul has described Jesus and Paul’s mission as a way of anti-imperialism. Longenecker says “All things in heaven and earth would be brought to unity under Christ (TTP 249). Although we may see some situations where Imperialism was said to be above the Lord, as Christians we believe that God Is above all and nothing stands in the way of the peace and joy that he brings us on a daily basis. The one takeaway that I have gotten from reading through some of Ephesians is that we should have a clear vision of the way our loyalty to God should look like. Even was empires were rulers, there were times where we could see how God was working through them and showed us that even though there was Imperial rule, there was still a ruler above that Imperial rule.

  4. Whether or not Pauline literature holds an undertone of anti-imperial sentiment, largely increasing due to the interest of scholars regarding imperialist structures in Asia Minor, is a hotly debated topic in the sphere of Paul’s ministry and subsequent Epistles. Many take anti-imperialist meanings to their extreme and suggest that the Pauline authorship of Ephesians is therefore false. However, in this case, one must additionally dismiss the authorship of Philippians and Romans as Pauline in nature, along with other letters that feature a strong anti-imperial connotation. As Long (2019) writes, the purpose behind such a supposition is to immediately disregard the Pauline authorship of certain letters, leading to a “poisoning the well” type of situation. He says, “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 no secret that Pauline literature expresses discontent with the function of the world, including Greco-Roman society, and wishes to depart from it, being transformed in will and action (Romans 12:1 ESV). Furthermore, Paul uses anti-citizenship language in Acts 16, is witnessed as a “rabble-rouser” in Acts 17:1-9, and speaks in opposition to the imperial cult present within first-century Philippi (Cohick, 2013, p. 169). Regardless of anti-imperialism as Paul’s gain, the counter-cultural sentiment of his letters resonates with Ephesians, which “aims to assist more recent Gentile converts to live a life worthy of the calling they had received” (Longenecker & Still, 2014, p. 247).

    Does this interpretation fundamentally alter how the Christian, modeling after Jesus, interacts with their culture? To an extent, I would say yes; however, the majority of Christians are already imbibed with the common legal and spiritual metaphor of being “slaves” to Christ. Longenecker & Still (2014) note that “both Jew and Gentile believers once lived among the sons of disobedience, gratifying and following the will and desires of the Flesh as opposed to God’ (p. 249). Yet, is this in any way applicable to Philippians, a letter containing a historical people that poured out to Augustus’s genius, his very soul and “divine” essence (Cohick, 2013, p. 167)? Joe Biden is hardly calling us to “worship” him as a god in this sense. However, the most important biblical precept to draw from Paul’s letters is the transformed mind and spirit of servitude, such that one may “recognize that the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in and among them” (Longenecker & Still, 2014, p. 249). Redemption is achieved through Christ’s blood, keeping His believers in line with the revealed will of God, which is purposed for the resulting statement that “all things in heaven and on earth” will see fulfillment under Christ (Ephesians 1:10). Is there a benefit in reading Pauline literature through an anti-imperialist framework and does the method by which a person adjusts their worldview’s lenses conflict with the acceptance and expression of faith?

  5. There are definite anti-imperialists thoughts in the Book of Ephesians. Ephesians is chock-full of anti-imperialist methods in how Paul wrote it. It is entirely possible that Paul wrote Ephesians as a sense of unifying for the Church, but also, possibly, as a way to twist words to show that God is the one in control, as shown by Ephesians 2:8-9, where Paul explains that we have been saved through the good works of Jesus Christ, which completely turns the head on how works in the Roman Ancient World can be. In the Ancient Roman World, by continually working, and by making different connections, you could potentially buy your way up and up, working continually for this.
    But with Jesus, what He did on the Cross was enough. There was no need to do any more work. We are free. This is what shows up in an anti-imperial view in Ephesians, along with showing that Christians should be worshipping God, rather than the emperor, as shown in the Roman Imperial Cult. The entirety of this completely stands the Roman World on its head, and in the process, while Ephesians could be considered anti-imperial, other Pauline letters could also be anti-imperial as well.

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