Christoph Heilig, The Apostle and the Empire

Heilig, Christoph. The Apostle and the Empire: Paul’s Implicit and Explicit Criticism of Rome. Foreword by John M. G. Barclay. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. xxii+170 pp. Hb; $29.99   Link to Eerdmans

Discussion of Paul’s anti-imperial view of Rome continues to generate articles and monographs, beginning with J. C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (Yale, 1990) and Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (IVP Academic, 2004), and the essays in Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not (McKnight and Modica, eds.; IVP Academic, 2013, reviewed here). More recently, N. T. Wright argued Paul used coded language to challenge imperial propaganda. Wright represents the standard view that Paul was anti-imperial, but his criticism of the empire is below the surface. Paul used coded language or hidden transcript to keep a low profile and avoid provoking the empire. John Barclay objected: does Paul seem like the type to avoid confrontation? Chapter 12 of Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God deals with Barclay’s criticisms.

anti-imperialThe Apostle and the Empire builds on two of Heilig’s earlier books, Paul’s Triumph: Reassessing 2 Corinthians 2:14 in Its Literary and Historical Context (Peeters, 2017) and Hidden Criticism? The Methodology and Plausibility of the Search for a Counter-Imperial Subtext in Paul (Fortress, 2017). But it is not a brief, popularized version of the argument from these longer works. Heilig interacts with Laura Robinson’s recent article on hidden transcripts (“Hidden Transcripts? The Supposedly Self-Censoring Paul and Rome as Surveillance State in Modern Pauline Scholarship,” NTS [2021]).

To conclude her article, Robinson uses an old joke: why don’t you see the elephants hiding in trees? Because they are really good at hiding. So why do we not see Paul criticizing the Roman empire in his letters? Is the answer really that Paul is really good at hiding his criticism, or that there is nothing there to find? For Robinson, Paul did not use a “hidden transcript” or coded language, which is implicitly critical of the empire. Heilig agrees with much of Robinson’s argument, but thinks the criticism is hidden in plain sight.

Following Robinson, Heilig agrees Rome was not a police state. The Roman government was not secretly reading Paul’s letters to track down trouble-making Christians. But, as Heilig points out, Paul was in fact a controversial figure and a “highly visible troublemaker.” He uses the Pliny-Trajan dialogue to show that Christianity had always been dangerous. No law was necessary to execute Christians. Even if Rome was not a visible police state, it does not mean that Christianity “enjoyed unfettered religious liberty” (31). Even if Paul thought the Empire might scrutinize his letters and he was putting people at risk, Paul would think it was worth it (32). The gist of his argument is that we should move away from the idea that Paul hid his Roman-critical opinions in his letters. Maybe we should move away from the word “criticism” to “unease.” He suggests the German word “Unmut” (53). If we do this, “perhaps we will see the elephant hiding in the trees.”

As an example of anti-imperial language hiding in plain sight, Heilig turns to 2 Corinthians 2:14: “Christ always leads us in triumphal procession.” In this verse, Heilig sees God as the triumphator leading a procession in which Paul and his co-workers are presented to the watching crowd. He argues this is an allusion to a Roman triumph, specifically Claudius’s triumph in 44 CE, celebrating his victory in Britannia. Paul met Priscilla and Aquilla in Corinth early in 50 CE (Acts 18:1-3). Although we cannot know for sure, it is likely they were in Rome to witness the triumph. Heilig says “it is hard to imagine Claudius did not feature in [their] discussions” (66). Claudius’s victory in Britannia left archaeological traces in Corinth. There is a Latin inscription celebrating Claudius’s victory. He suggests this suggests the victory was being celebrated in a very public—and cultic!—way in Corinth during the exact time Paul was active there (70).

Can this evidence be used to reconstruct Paul’s unease with Rome? Yes, Heilig suggests, by reading 2 Corinthians 2:14 in the context of the public Roman transcript, “we have a small and cloudy window in into Paul’s ‘hidden transcript’” (93). Paul wrote 2 Corinthians in autumn 55, about a year after Claudius’s death. Nero was now emperor, and it was safer to speak ill of the previous emperor.

What is Paul saying in 2 Corinthians 2:14? “The fact that God takes the role of Triumphator is absolutely remarkable” (93) and “Paul’s metaphorical replacement of the emperor with the Jewish God Yahweh is provocative” (96). All of this is “dazzlingly subversive” because the Romans will bring Yahweh’s cultic instruments to Rome just a few years later (97). “It cannot get much more controversial than portraying these actions as part of a military victory procession by the Jewish God, not only mimicking the Roman triumphus but also surpassing it in several ways, in doing so, simply pushing the emperor out of his quadriga” (97). Allthis can faily be described as Claudius anti-imperial.

Claudius anti-imperial

Divine Claudius, with a quadriga decorated with Victory on the reverse

Heilig draws several implications from this study. First, the triumph metaphor offers comfort for the Corinthian readers and guidance regarding their new alienated status. But rather than an Claudius anti-imperial criticism of the Empire, Paul is challenging basic Roman ideology. And that is at least potentially subversive (99). Second, this “hidden transcript” allows us to construct Paul’s critical attitude toward the Roman Empire, but more of a sense of unease than political subversive language. Finally, the critical subtext Heilig identifies is not hidden. When it is viewed through a historical lens, “it seems quite obvious” (101) even if it has been overlooked in the past. He concludes: “stop looking for elephants hiding in trees and start appreciating their beautiful botanical counterparts” (101).

His final chapter offers several suggestions for future study. First, he suggests it is simply misleading to talk about codes, hidden or otherwise. Second, he suggests that a lack of post-colonial sensitivity skews a reading of Romans 13:1-7. Is this passage really the Achilles heel for all anti-imperial readings of Paul? It is often assumed the passage is Paul’s only explicit comment on Rome, but based on Heilig’s study of Corinthians 2:14, there are other comments which contribute to Paul’s view of the Roman Empire. Does Romans 13 really express Paul’s demand for complete submission to governing authorities? Should the Roman Christians seek recognition within Roman society? Is Paul talking about divine legitimization of state authority, including brutal force? Heilig points to the book of Acts: Paul and his colleagues do not emerge as precisely the model citizens expected in the Roman Empire (107). Peter’s statement in Acts 5:29, Paul’s flight from Damascus (Acts 9:23-24) and Peter’s escape from prison (Acts 12:16-19) all point to a less than submissive early church.

Combining his third and fourth suggestions, Heilig points out that much of New Testament research is still rooted in outdated methodology (117). Despite James Barr, scholars tend to do lexical work in the same old way, in this case missing the meaning of Paul’s triumph metaphor. He suggests recent innovations in the digital humanities allow access to inscriptions, papyri, and other lexical data far beyond a local library (or printed lexicon). However, access to the data does not automatically generate new insights in the commentaries. He offers several examples of recent research on 2 Corinthians that miss the point of Paul’s Roman triumph metaphor. Even newer lexicons are slow in incorporating inscriptions and papyri or other insights available through digital resources. He concludes, the history of research on 2 Corinthians 2:14 is “not only a textbook example of ‘exegetical amnesia’ [a nod to Dale Allison] but it also demonstrates painfully that growing access to primary sources is not at all satisfactorily correlated with the original interpretation of this data into the interpretation of biblical texts” (131).

This is a fair criticism. Publishers assign scholars commentaries years before they are published, and often their work necessarily stands on the shoulders of older research. How many years before Heilig’s own work on 2 Corinthians 2:14 impacts people writing commentaries on 2 Corinthians? It is possible this is an example of a young scholar calling out older scholars for not knowing how to use an online database. But the “outdated methodology” Heilig decries is still taught in academia.

Conclusion. Heilig’s The Apostle and the Empire is an excellent and up-to-date introduction into a narrow, yet controversial, sub-field of Pauline anti-imperial studies. He demonstrates with clarity Paul’s triumph metaphor does in fact have a subversive element, even if it is not a developed critique of the empire. Heilig’s call to revisit how we understand Paul’s relationship with Rome as “unease” rather than “criticism” is welcome.


NB: I wrote this on 2 Corinthians 2:14 in 2019, before reading Heilig’s book. I do notice the allusion to a Roman triumph but focused more on the pleasing aroma: “From a Greco-Roman perspective it would be shocking to describe a crucifixion as a sacrifice and even more shocking as a sacrifice which pleases God. This is counter-cultural and another example of God choosing a foolish thing from the perspective of the world to reveal his plan of salvation.” Not really an anti-imperial reading.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

6 thoughts on “Christoph Heilig, The Apostle and the Empire

  1. Wow, what an anthill this topic presents. It reminds me of the arguments for feminism and the Marxist ideological arguments of the socialists. You did a good job analyzing this, but I lived in Berkeley for 3 years and I can assure you that arguing with these people is a dead end.


  2. I think Michael Bird once said something like this: it depends on who is in the White House. If it is a conservative, the liberals dig deeper into anti-imperialism. If it is a liberal, then the conservatives want to know how they can have a nice, biblical rebellion. To his credit, Heilig has only one close brush with contemporary American politics (a brief paragraph on January 6), otherwise he sticks to hearing Paul’s triumph metaphor for what it actually meant in the first century. No axe-grinding political agenda in this book!

  3. I find it difficult to not think Paul wrote his letters with a touch of keeping his focus toned down a bit, so to not draw a lot of attention to his drive. Even in the Gospel writings themselves, they do not portray Jesus in his full negative in regards to his distaste on how the Jewish rulers were not enacting their leadership in the people’s best interest. If anyone knows anything about wisdom and philosophy, you cannot yell fowl and still expect to be allowed to voice your grievances, without serious backlash from those you appose, regardless who you are hoping to deliver.

  4. I posted a reply on Jan 7, 2023, but I think I’d like to allow ‘Notify me of new comments via email.’ I believe there may be some who would enjoy a healthy dialogue on some of these postings.

  5. I did read your third link essay. I do agree with most of it. As a matter of fact, your essay seems to parallel with the paragraph I posted on Jan 7.

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