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.

Turning from Idols to Serve the True God (1 Thessalonians 1:9)

What was the social setting of the church at Thessalonica?  John Pollhill has a good summary of the usual arguments for the church being primarily Gentile (Paul and His Letters. 185). But this is problematic because Acts tells us the congregation was formed after a period of time teaching in the Synagogue. In addition, Jews stirred up trouble for Paul out of jealousy, presumably because of his success in their synagogue.

The argument the recipients of the letters are Gentiles rests on three observations. First, they are said to have turned “to God from idols.” Paul would not describe a Jewish convert as “turning from an idol.” Second, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 describes some sexual ethics problems in the church. This would be more typical of a Gentile congregation than Jewish. Third, Paul does not quote from the Old Testament in 1 Thessalonians implying a primarily Gentile church which would not be expected to resonate with biblical quotations or subtle allusions to the Hebrew Bible.

If the church is primarily Gentile, where did they come from? If the Gentile converts were God-fearers from the synagogue, then it is also unlikely they could be described as having turned from idols. In addition, a Gentile God-fearer might be expected to know as much of the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish person. The fact the second letter is laced with allusions to the Hebrew Bible makes me think there are other reasons for the lack in 1 Thessalonians. Paul was only in the city for a short time and there is no reference to evangelism in the marketplace, but he may have made contacts there which Luke chose not to report in the book of Acts.

Roman Coin, the goddess Roma

I think the answer goes back to the persecution faced by the church. If they are persecuted for “rejecting Rome,” perhaps some of the “prominent people” Luke mentions in Acts 17:4 left the Christian church and returned to the synagogue, or to secular life. Those who remained “turned from idols,” specifically, imperial Roman cult. See this post on the charges against Paul, he was “turning the world upside down.”

Peter Oakes makes a similar point.  He says “Christian failure to honour the gods would have included central Roman deities such as Jupiter, but also the deified Caesars” (p. 309).  Someone like Jason was able to use wealth and power to deal with the court system in the city, so there is at least an implication that he was wealthy and connected politically.  Perhaps Jason or other wealthy persons had left the church by the time Paul writes (suggested by Adolf Deissmann, c.f., Malherbe, 65).

Was there an Imperial Cult center at Thessalonica? Oakes observes that no remains of an imperial cult site have been found at Thessalonica because very little of ancient Thessalonica has been excavated. But the city was a provincial capital and the presence of an imperial cult can be seen in early coinage that called Caesar God (p. 308). Even if there was no cult temple, the city of Thessalonica was thoroughly Roman.

In Acts 17, Luke reported the charges against Paul as “preaching another king besides Caesar.” If the church continued preaching Paul’s gospel, then the Gentile converts would have certainly found themselves in a difficult political and social position.

Bibliography: Peter Oakes, “Remapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians,” JSNT 27 (2005): 301-22.

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.

Jesus Christ Has Defeated the Powers of Darkness – Ephesians 1:20-23

After spending some time reading in the so-called anti-Imperial texts in Paul, I would suggest that Paul does in fact envision the eventual destruction of the Roman Empire.  But Paul does not encourage the sorts of anti-government protests and social actions people in the West would recognize.  The reason Paul is anti-Empire is because in reality Rome has already fallen and God’s kingdom has come in the person of Jesus.

I do not think that Paul is coded his letters with subtle anti-imperial language.  He is in fact drawing upon the well-known (and not particularly subtle) language drawn from the Hebrew Bible, especially as it was translated in the Septuagint. Jesus is Lord, but not because Paul is encoding an anti-imperial message by using words with subversive meanings The Greek word κύριος was already used in the LXX to refer to the Lord, God of Israel.  By calling Jesus “our Lord” in Ephesians 1:2 Paul is declaring that Jesus is the Lord of the Hebrew Bible.

As such, he evokes the image of Jesus as the God of the Bible, but especially in apocalyptic literature. In most apocalyptic literature, the people of God are an oppressed minority looking forward to the time when God will break into history with some sort of decisive victory of his enemies. The people of God can have confidence that their oppression is going to be reversed in the near future. God will vindicate them, reward them for their suffering and punish the oppressors.  For most of apocalyptic, the evil empire can be safely ignored since the time of its final judgment is near.

Does Paul think the Roman government can be safely ignored?  This seems to be the case since Rome has already been defeated!  God decreed long ago that the coming Son of Man would destroy the power of the kingdoms of men and establish the rule of the Ancient of Days. With the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the power of the empire has already been broken.

The “son of man” language comes from Daniel 7:14, but I would include the image of the statue from Daniel 2 as well.  The greatest of the kingdoms of men will be destroyed and turned to dust when God rises to defend his people.  The grand conclusion to the narrative of the Hebrew Bible is that God will restore his people to Zion by dealing justly with the kingdoms of this world.  Paul says that this apocalyptic event in many ways happened when Jesus died, was buried, rose from the dead, and ascended to the right hand of the throne of God.

If this is on target, Paul describes the death of Jesus as victory of apocalyptic proportions! Are there other hints of Paul’s apocalyptic worldview in Ephesians?

What are the Powers of this Age? (Ephesians 1:20)

Several times in Ephesians Paul mentions rulers and authorities, powers and dominions. Most commentators observe Paul has spiritual forces in view when he uses this kind of language. By the first century, Judaism had developed a complicated view of angelic and demonic forces which operated “behind the scenes.” Sometimes these dark forces were responsible for persecution or troubles for God’s people. In Daniel, for example, an angel tells Daniel he was delayed by the “prince of Persia” (10:21) and did not escape until Michael (the prince of Israel) came to assist him. 1 Enoch 1-36 (The Book of the Watchers) offers a detailed description of demonic activity before the flood.

PAradise LostTimothy Gombis develops this view of powers and dominions as the main thesis of his book The Drama of Ephesians. This book argues Paul is using imagery of spiritual warfare drawn form the Hebrew Bible to describe what Jesus has done on the cross.  Using Ephesians 1:20-23, for example, Gombis points out that Paul says that Jesus was vindicated by being raised to the right hand of the father in heaven.

This is a place of authority which is far above every ruler, authority,  power and dominion.  These are spiritual forces at work in the world, the actors in the apocalyptic drama, as Gombis describes Ephesians.  Jesus has an authority which is so high above every spiritual thing in creation that it does not even make sense that human rulers should be considered as competitors to Jesus’ rule and authority!

Rome, in Paul’s view of spiritual reality, does not really count for all that much.  If the “rulers of this age” are the spiritual forces behind Rome, and if those spiritual forces have already been defeated, then the Empire itself is doomed to defeat.  This situation reminds me somewhat of the end of the Soviet Union.  The “union” dissolved so quickly that I imagine there were many people living in areas formerly controlled by the USSR that had no idea they were under a “new government.”  I always wondered if Gorbachev went to work one morning and found his offices “under new management,” although most of his staff just kept on working as if nothing had happened!

This is what happened when Jesus the Messiah, the Lord of the Universe, died and rose again.  The power of the spiritual forces of this dark age was broken – but it happened in such a way that the world did not really notice.  But for Paul, the victory has already been won and Rome has no real power anymore.