The Powers are Defeated (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?

Citizenship and Philippians

It is remarkable that the issue of Paul’s citizenship first arises in Philippi in Acts 16. Citizenship was not common in the first century, not everyone was guaranteed the privilege of being a citizen of the Empire. In 28 B.C. there were approximately 4.9 million citizens, by the time of Claudius there were 5.9 million. Most of these lived in Italy or were serving in the army. That Paul was a Roman citizen was significant, but even more so in the city of Philippi.

Belushi TogaThe city of Philippi was a re-founded as a Roman colony in 42 B.C. after supporting Octavian in the Roman civil wars. Rome settled a number of retired soldiers there in 42 and again after the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. As Polhill observes, the city was an impressive Roman city when Paul visited it (P&HL, 161).

One of the most striking features of the city of Philippi was civic pride. Joe Hellerman summarizes this “the Romanness of Philippi,” citing the catalog of inscriptions now available to scholars. He comments that compared to other cities in the Greek world, Philippi had a “preoccupation with honorific titles and offices which characterized the social priorities of both elite and non-elite persons in the colony.” Titles mattered to this colony of retired soldiers, since titles were a sign of social significance. To be a citizen of Rome was to have a higher social standing than the non-citizen.

Paul’s use of citizenship terminology in the letter suggests “that Paul sought intentionally to mimic the honor inscriptions that confronted his readers on a daily basis throughout the colony” (Hellerman, 783). In fact, Paul uses citizenship as a metaphor only in Philippians. In 3:20 he describes the believer as a “citizen of heaven” (πολίτευμα). In 1:27 Paul states that one’s “way of life” ought to be worth of the Gospel. The word translated “way of life” is πολιτεύομαι, to “be a citizen” (BDAG).

Paul’s point in using this language in Philippians is to show his readers that being “in Christ” is far superior to being “in Rome.” You may be a citizen of Rome, but that does not matter at all if you are a “citizen of Heaven.” I imagine that someone in Philippi might have judged a person who was merely a “citizen of Philippi” as socially inferior. The members of the church, according to Acts 16, included a business woman (Lydia), a retired soldier (the jailer) and perhaps a slave girl (formerly possessed). That “mix” of social strata is radical in the world of first century Philippi, yet Paul describes them as all citizens of a kingdom far superior to Rome.

If this reading of the citizenship metaphor is correct, then it will change the way we read Paul’s boasting in chapter 3, but also how we read the “Christ Hymn” in 2:5-11.

Bibliography: Joseph H. Hellerman, “Μορφη Θεου As A Signifier Of Social Status In Philippians 2:6,” JETS 52 (2009): 778-797. This article draws out the implications in the Christ Hymn in detail.

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.

1 Thessalonians and the “Quiet Life”

The issue of the “quiet life” may be the big issue that Paul has to deal with in the letter.  It comes up again in 5:13-14 and in 2 Thess 3.  In general, it appears that the some in the church believed (rightly so) that the Lord was to return very soon.  If the Lord was to come very soon, why not stop working and live off the generosity of the church until the Rapture.  Perhaps they were doing this to devote themselves to the ministry, but that is not at all clear in this passage.  It is possible some saw the soon-return of Christ as an opportunity to not work.

Quiet LifePaul says that the “quiet life” is to be an ambition.  This is something of a paradox, since the phrase might be translated “study to be quiet,” or “be ambitious about being unambitious.”  The first century Jewish philosopher Philo said the quiet life was the goal of the righteous.  “…while those who pay due honor to excellence cultivate a tranquil, and quiet, and stable, and peaceful life” (Philo, On Abraham, 27).

Paul reflects this thinking by saying that the goal of the Christian should be to lead a quiet, peaceful, tranquil life.  What Paul means is that we should strive for the following attributes, that we should seek a peaceful life without conflict with our community.  It is not enough to print “quiet life” in t-shirts and to trumpet as a slogan, one has to (ironically) be diligent at pursuing a quiet life!

Paul describes the “quiet life” in several ways.  First, he tells his readers to “mind your own business.”  Paul’s exhortation here is that the believers should not go out into their town telling everybody how to live their lives.  This is very practical advice, considering the church was under persecution from the civil authorities as well as the Jews.  By “laying low” and minding their business, they avoided an increase of persecution.

Second, Paul tells his readers to “work with your hands” (Be diligent!)  Of the three, this one sounds the most Amish, working with your hands is in contrast to the traveling “teachers” of the ancient world that lived off of a few rich patrons, and wandered around producing nothing of value.  In fact, in the Greco-Roman world, manual labor was somewhat to be looked-down upon.  If you were a person of substance, you had “people” who did that sort of work for you.  (The Jews valued hard work, Paul is probably reflecting that sort of thinking; eventually it becomes the Judeo-Christian work ethic.)

Third, Paul says that the Christian is to “be dependent on no one.”   If one is self-sufficient, no one can charge you with impure motives.   If the church was thinking that the Rapture was coming very soon, they might very well have had many people that wanted to avoid work and live off the church, perhaps devoting themselves to prayer and ministry. The problem was that if too many people did this, no one would be supported since no one was actually producing anything like food and shelter.   Paul’s argument is that if you are self-sufficient, no one can accuse you of having impure motives (as they had Paul.)  Don’t be like the world, looking for the cheap way out, work hard and be independent so that you do not look like the world!

Why lead a quiet life?  The “quiet life” will earn the respect of outsiders (v.12).   This is the justification for living the quiet diligent life, those outside of the church will see and hear, and they will respect the church for the way that they live their lives. This does not guarantee that they will be rushing into the church to join up, but it is the initial step, someone realizing that the church is actually doing what they say, and that the people in the church are really living a satisfied life rather than bickering among themselves like spoiled children.

Christianity ought to impact the lives of those that claim to be Christians in such a way that they in turn impact their culture and community in a positive way.   The question is not whether we will impact our culture and community, that is a given.  The issue is whether that will be a positive or a negative influence.

How could this vision of a “quiet life” transform how we do ministry in America?

Is Philippians “anti-Imperial”?

The SystemPaul’s letter to the Philippians is one of the most fruitful for studying Paul’s “anti-imperial” comments.  Lynn Cohick offers three reasons why Philippians fertile ground for Empire studies (Jesus is Lord, 169).  First, inscriptional evidence indicates that the imperial cult was present in first century Philippi.  Second, there is a great deal of citizenship language in Philippians as well as the usual “Jesus is Lord.” Third, there are studies on Philippians that describe Paul as “colonialist and imperialist” (Joseph Marchal) as well as those who see Paul as critiquing the Empire (N. T. Wright).

It is not insignificant that Philippians is the only letter in which Paul call Jesus a slave (2:6) and the only letter in which Paul describes himself only as a slave (1:1; Rom 1:1 has both slave and apostle). This is obscured in most modern translations, the NIV 2011, for example, uses “servant” in both cases. Christians are so used to the language of servanthood that we miss this culturally disruptive language. In Joe Hellerman’s recent Embracing Shared Ministry (Kregel, 2013) he points out that social status was the dominant factor in determining honor and shame in the first century. Since Paul is a Roman Citizen, he has a level of honor that came with certain privileges and expectations. Yet he does not identify himself as a citizen of Rome, but rather a slave of Jesus Christ. Rather than a citizen of Rome, he is a citizen of Heaven and equal in status with all the other citizens of Heaven (3:20).

It is even possible to read Philippians 2:2-6 as saying something like, “Jesus set aside his imperial status symbols and became a slave.” In the Roman world, one’s status was usually clearly evident at all times by how you dressed.  A member of the most elite of the Roman class dressed in a way that intentionally drew attention to their class. For an elite Roman citizen to remove their toga, for example, and but on the rags of a slave, was unthinkable.

But is Philippians intentionally anti-imperial?  Cohick is not convinced by most of the post-colonial or post-feminist readings of Philippians (p. 171), but does think that there may be a kind of implicit anti-imperialism in the letter that is a part of the typical Jewish and Christian critique of oppressive actions in general. Cohick concludes that if Paul is anti-imperial, it is part of his Jewish context.  Certainly there is a challenge to the power of Rome, but that is not very different than any Jew living in the middle of the first century.

It is possible that a Roman Citizen might hear Paul’s words as attacks on the social structure of the Empire. For a citizen to identify themselves as a slave might be dishonoring, but for a person in the Roman world to claim to be a citizen of a superior kingdom is an affront to Roman superiority. While Paul might not have intended a direct attack on Rome in the letter to the Philippians, the social structure of early Christianity was so different from Rome that it could not help but be interpreted as an offense to the Roman worldview.

To me, this is the major challenge of reading Paul’s letters with an anti-imperial method. Whatever Paul said, he was understood as challenging the social order in a way that could be described as “turning the world upside-down” (Acts 17:6).  Honestly, does Christianity really challenge contemporary American culture? A recent church plant in my area sent a flyer to my home inviting me to their first service, promising me that I would not be judged; there was no dress code, etc. That particular church was challenging a social order, but it was the established church that was wrong, not the pagan world. The flyer looked like an invitation to a new micro-brewery – come join us at the pub for some judgment-free good times. I am no fan of the old line denominations, but perhaps the pub culture is not good either.

Is the American church missing the radical nature of the gospel by attacking established churches?