The transformed life ought to effect one’s relationship with government. This is based on common idea from the Hebrew Bible that God ordains the rulers and the nations. Since Paul is speaking about the Roman empire, it must mean that the Christian ought to obey even an evil government. Paul uses the same verb here in Romans 13 as he did in 8:7, with reference to submitting to the will of God.
Paul therefore means the transformed believer must obey the government because it is God’s appointed authority. By extension, when you obey the government, you obey God.
But most people immediately ask: if that government abuses its power and rules unjustly, is it then appropriate for a Christian to rebel to change that government? Usually Christians will say they will obey the government insofar as the government commands that are not contrary to God’s commands.
What if the government restricts my personal freedom? What if the government wants to take my guns away? What if the government permits same-sex marriage, abortion, or the use of marijuana? What if the government were to be controlled by Islam and Sharia law is imposed on us? Should we rebel against the government then?
I think it is critically important to realize that in the first century, no member of Paul’s congregation would have ever asked this question. No one would have plotted the fall of the Roman empire, nor would a Roman Guy Fawkes attempt to blow up the Roman Senate. Rome really did bring peace to the world and Rome really did provide services which raised the social and economic fortunes of everyone. No one would have considered joining the “Occupy Appian Way” movement to protest the outrageous economic practices of the Roman Empire, nor (in the interest of being fair and balanced), would anyone dream of complaining about their taxes and joined the Tea Party.
Those categories simply do not exist in the first century, and if they did, Rome would have silenced them with extreme prejudice! It was impossible for members of Paul’s churches to protest their emperor or hold up “Impeach Nero” signs in public.
Consider what the Roman empire was like in the mid-first century. They did oppress people, the enslaved millions, they promoted the worship of every god imaginable, and they imposed their religious laws on everyone. Infanticide was practiced and homosexual relationships were permitted (although nothing like gay marriage really existed). Paul does not add any sort of condition to the command to obey the established government, despite the fact that the Roman government was one of the most oppressive regimes in history!
I do not read anything in Romans 13 or in Paul’s relationship with Rome that sounds anything like a protest against the government. Paul’s method for dealing with social ills was far more subtle than mass protests – and much more effective. He told the church to fix the problems themselves by caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan. There is nothing in Romans 13 which would support the overthrow of Rome, either in the first century or the twenty-first.
Winn, Adam. Reading Mark’s Christology Under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Imperial Ideology. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. 187 pp. Pb. $24.00 Link to IVP Academic
This volume is an update to his 2008 doctoral dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary, published as The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel: An Early Christian Response to Roman Imperial Propaganda (WUNT/2 245; Mohr Siebeck: 2008). As Winn explains in his acknowledgment page, that book was “strongly criticized.” After taking part in the SBL Mark Group for several years, Winn was motivated to move deeper into the world of Roman imperial ideology in order to “make sense of the disparate pieces of Mark’s Christology.” In the Gospel of Mark, Winn thinks Jesus “out-Caesars Caesar” (p. 116).
These “disparate pieces” include Mark’s use of titles, stories in which Jesus demonstrates power (miracles, healings, exorcisms, revelations by supernatural beings, popularity and proclamations by crowds), the suffering of Jesus, and the so-called messianic secret. Although these various parts may be accounted for through form and redaction criticism (the various bits come from different sources), Winn considers narrative criticism the only way present a compelling Christology from Mark’s Gospel. He initially followed the lead of Robert Gundry who suggest Mark is an apology for Jesus’s shameful crucifixion, but in this study he uses a historical-narratival method using the final form of Mark’s gospel. He wants to set Mark’s gospel into a particular sociocultural and historical setting (p. 24). That setting is the Roman world after A.D. 70.
Winn devotes about half of the first chapter arguing for this date and provenance and then argues the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 played a central role on Flavian propaganda. Vespasian needed a major military accomplishment to legitimize his and his son’s claim in the imperial throne. The destruction of Jerusalem was presented as a major victory and was celebrated through triumphal processions, coins and architecture. This was a “theology of victory,” the gods favored the Flavian dynasty and supported it through a series of miracles prophecies and other portents. In fact, Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius all report the tradition that Vespasian fulfilled prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures when he conquered the east (p. 45). The Gospel of Mark “strips Vespasian of is powerful victories and places the victory into the hands of Jesus” (p. 164).
Chapters two through five apply this historical setting of the book to the several common ways scholars have sought to develop Mark’s Christology. First, Winn examines Mark’s Christological titles (Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David, and Lord). He concludes these titles can be understood apart from their imperial context and are not necessarily responses to Vespasian’s imperial propaganda (p. 68). Second, Winn surveys the presentation of Jesus as a powerful miracle worker, especially during the Galilean ministry (Mark 1-8). Mark presents Jesus as the true Christ and Son of God in contrast to the propagandistic claims of Vespasian (p. 88). Third, Winn turns his attention to the suffering of Jesus in Mark 8:22-10:52 (the rest of the passion narrative is covered in chapter 7). Winn argues that an imperial reading of Mark eliminates the perceived tension between Jesus as a powerful miracle worker and his suffering and death. The disciples do not fully understand the suffering of Jesus the Messiah, drawing a parallel to the Roman readers of Mark’s Gospel (p. 115). Fourth, Winn interacts with David Watson’s Honor among Christians (Fortress, 2010) as he re-examines the so-called secrecy motif in the light of his “Roman reading” of Mark (chap. 5). The Roman political strategy of recusatio meant Roman emperors often refused public honors. Winn illustrates this with data from Augustus and Tiberius. Winn concludes Mark is contextualizing Jesus in a way which would have resonated with his Roman readers (p.129). Like the emperor, Jesus refuses public honor as a result of his powerful healing ministry.
Winn devotes a short chapter to Jesus and the temple, including the temple action, Jesus’s teaching in the temple and apocalyptic discourse. The temple action is a symbolic destruction of the temple (p. 138); Jesus is establishing a new messianic community as a replacement for the temple itself (p. 140) and marginalizing the sacrificial system (p. 142). Since Mark wrote the apocalyptic discourse after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, the “desolating sacrilege” may be a future eschatological sign (p. 145).
Finally, Winn examines the passion narrative through the lens of Roman imperial ideology. The so-called cry of dereliction, when Jesus cites Psalm 22 from the cross, is the unity between the powerful Jesus and the suffering Jesus. Although he is suffering, Psalm 22 looks forward to the glory and vindication after the resurrection. Regarding Roman imperial ideology, Winn sees the passion as a Roman triumph. He offers a series of observations to support this. For example, Simon carrying the cross parallel to a Roman official escorting a sacrificial bull and carrying a double-bladed axe; Jesus is the sacrificial animal and Simon carries the instrument of his death (p. 159). Since a Roman triumph ended at the temple of Jupiter, the Capitolium (caput is the Latin for “head), Winn sees a parallel with Golgotha, the place of the skull (p. 160). Winn sees this as a creative narrative which has a “clear and significant payoff for Mark’s Roman readers living in the shadow of Flavian propaganda” (p. 162). The suffering and death of Jesus is not a weakness, but a sign of strength and power. As with any literary allusion to culture, a reader sees what they want to see. Although it is possible to read the passion of Jesus as a parody of a Roman triumph, it is difficult to imagine the original readers fully appreciating the subtly of Mark’s allusions.
Conclusion. Winn argues Mark’s gospel presents Jesus as a powerful man but also as one who suffers tremendous shame. Both themes are present throughout the gospel of Mark and it is problematic to emphasize one over the other. Suffering and power are “Christological poles” which may seem to stand in tension, but they form a coherent unity when read in the light of Roman political ideology according to Winn’s reconstruction (p. 164).
NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
The great whole of Babylon in Revelation 17 is riding a “scarlet beast.” We might have expected to see the beast himself, or the king who represents the beast. Rather than the king, we see a prostitute riding a scarlet beast. It is possible the image of a beast is of a throne, and the woman is the king. This beast is not unlike the beast from chapter 13 or the fourth beast of Daniel 7, other than the color scarlet. Nothing much can be made of this color, although it is similar in color to that of the red dragon who gave his authority to the beast in chapter 13.
The woman is described as a prostitute. Prostitutes are common images in the Old Testament for unfaithfulness, for example, Jerusalem Isaiah 1:21, Tyre in Isaiah 23:16-17 and Nineveh in Nahum 3:4. Israel herself is compared to a prostitute in Jeremiah 3:6-10; Ezekiel 16:15-22; 23:49; Hosea 4:12-13; 5:3.
Although there are some commentators who interpret the woman as representing Israel, but the vast majority of commentators associate the woman with Rome. The “final” empire as Rome is consistent with Daniel 2 and Daniel 7, and with the rest of Revelation. It is Rome which is demanding worship in chapters 2-3, and it is Rome which persecutes the saints.
The various descriptions of the woman add to the vividness of the image:
She was dressed in purple and scarlet. The word for the color purple here covers a range of colors from deep purple to black. While the color is normally associated with royalty and prestige, the writer Porphyry associated the color purple with carnality (which is interested because his name is derived from the word, Aune 3:935).
She was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. The stereotypical prostitute is gaudy and over-dressed with jewelry and other accessories.
She held a golden cup in her hand. This gold cup is likely an allusion to Jeremiah 51:7, although the verse there refers to Babylon. This is an example of the unusual blending of Roman and Babylonian elements in the chapter. The cup is filled with “abominations and impurities.” The word abomination is almost always associated with idols or meat sacrificed to idols (Jer 51:7).
On the head of this woman is written several names. There is a problem of how to read the verse with respect to punctuation. Is this “on her forehead was written a name, a mystery:” or “on her head was written a name: MYSTERY”? In verse seven, the angel interprets the “mystery” of the woman, so it is likely here that the name of the woman begins with BABYLON rather than mystery. Why is the head of the beast’s empire portrayed as a female prostitute? She is not just a whore, she is the mother of all whores.
The prostitute is drunk on the blood of the saints. That the woman is a prostitute is bad enough, but she is a drunk prostitute. Descriptions of prostitutes in the Greco-Roman literature usually indicate they drink very little “for professional reasons” (Aune 3:927.) There really is not more degrading way of describing a woman than as a drunk whore. To be “drunk on blood” is am image of extreme violence (see Ezek 39:18-19; Isa 49:26)
It is possible this description is based on coins minted by Vespasian in A.D. 71. These coins depict the goddess Tiber seated on seven hills, as described in this vision. The image of the goddess is common both before and after Vespasian, but not the image of a goddess seated on seven hills. On the reverse, the river goddess Tiber reclines on seven hills, holding a sword indicating the military might of Rome. S and C stand for senatus consultum – a resolution of the senate. In the background are a she-wolf and the twins Romulus and Remus.
A coin minted in A.D. 71 featuring Vespasian and (Cohen, Description 1:398 [no. 404]) From Aune Revelation, 3:920
The coins of Rome obviously do not depict Rome as a prostitute. But there may bit a subtle word play in this description: “The Latin term lupa, ‘she-wolf,’ had the connotation ‘prostitute’ and might have contributed to a subversive joke that was transferred to Roma as the female personification of Rome” (Aune 3:929).
The angel gives an invitation to the reader to “figure out” what the beast represents in verses 9-14 “this calls for wisdom.” The city of Rome was well known in antiquity as the city on seven hills, although it is difficult to identify which are the seven hills on which Rome was founded. In the various attempts to make the beast Jerusalem, the seven hills becomes a problem.
The angelic guide identifies the ten horns as seven kings who are coming. There are at least three was to “count” the Roman emperors of the first century. There are at least three approaches to handling this problem.
The historical approach. This approach attempts to make sense of the series of kings in Roman history. One must determine the start of the series, and decide which of the kings “count.” For example, there are three Caesars in A.D. 69, before Vespasian takes the throne. Do they count as three separate kings, or as a single king, or not at all?
The symbolic approach. This approach argues John has no specific kings in mind, but rather he means to use the number seven as a complete number of kings. This is consistent with Revelation’s use of the number 7, and Roman history as well, which held the first period of their history was ruled by seven kings, when in fact there were likely many more than this.
A combination of the historical and symbolic approaches. This attempts to use the historical sequence of kings, but declines to identify the first 5. It is the sixth king that is important, and is well known to the readers (either Nero or Domitian, depending on one’s view of the date of the book.) The hope, then, is that this evil sixth king will only reign for a short time.
Once again, Revelation leaves us with more questions than answers. If this image does refer to Rome, then Revelation 18-19 describes fall of Rome. Since Revelation 19:11-21 refers to the return of Jesus as the Messiah, when does Rome fall? Certainly not in John’s time, and it is unclear this could refer to any historical event in history. A solution may be to understand the prophecy of the fall of Rome as already beginning in the first century, but not yet consummated until the Second Coming.
E. P. Sanders contended Judaism in the Second Temple period was not a religion of individual salvation (278). God made a covenant with the people of Israel and it is the people who will be preserved. The eschatology of Israel is a national eschatology rather than personal. What “future hopes” are found in the first century, they are hopes which concern the people of Israel as a whole rather than individuals.
It is likely most Jews longed for freedom from Rome. Even the line of Herod, which owed its power to Rome, would have preferred to have independence and self-rule. Rome was and ever-present reality in the politics of first century Palestine and freedom from Roman manipulation would have been the dream of Jews of every class and party. The problem is in defining that freedom: does that mean Rome is destroyed completely? Does that mean Rome rules Palestine but grants near-independence for Israel? Does Israel go back to Hasmonean rule? Would Rome be preferred to the Herodians? Hope for the future therefore ran from storing up arms for a time of revolt to praying quietly God will do something to change things. Some groups did not have much of a future hope (the Sadducees, for example), while others had a rather complex view of the near future, one in which they played a key role (the Essenes, for example).
Sanders observes these hopes were often expressed negatively, in the form of complaints, protests, and insurrections (280). There were people in the first century who were ready to fight Rome given the right circumstances. Josephus describes a “fourth philosophy” which he claims was founded by Judas the Galilean and Zadok the Sadducee in A.D. 6 (Antiq. 18.3-10, War 2.117f). When Archelaus was deposed, Rome sent a prefect to govern Judea. In order to organize and tax more efficiently, a census was ordered. Judas rallied some followers and fought against taxation because it represented foreign rule. His slogan was “no master but God,” a rather spiritual sounding phrase to be sure, but it is not exactly clear how “no master but God” gets worked out in the real world. This “fourth philosophy” has been a bit of a mystery to historians, sometimes identified with the Zealots who started the war in 66 and were the last survivors of the war at Masada.
At least some of these Zealots were assassins, known as the Sicarii. There are problems with this identification, not the least of which is the 60 years between Judas and the War in which there is nothing said about the fourth philosophy or Zealots. Judas is not identified as a Zealot, and although there is a brief insurgency in 44, the idea of rebellion against Rome is unmentioned until the war actual breaks in 66. These revolutionary movements had one thing in common – they came at a time when the Roman Empire was not able to pay close attention to the back-water province of Judea. In A.D. 6 Archelaus was deposed and there was some question who would succeed him, another Herod or Roman rule. In 66 Nero was in his last days and was becoming more unstable. In 69 there were four emperors and the Roman Empire was distracted. It looked like a revolution might have a chance to succeed.
A more common method of protest for the Jews in this period was passive resistance. There were a number of points in century or so before the war when Jews demonstrated their willingness to die rather than allow something which transgressed their laws. For example, the protest against Pilate when he proposed to put Roman standards up in the Temple (War 2.169-174) and the protests made to Petronius when Caligula demanded his image be placed in the Temple (Antiq. 18.261-278). Nationalistic protests associated with the Temple sometimes erupted during Festivals in Jerusalem.
Between these two extremes (aggressive action against Rome and passive resistance even to death) is the belief that God or his representative will, at some point, intervene in history on behalf of his people. This view is represented in Qumran in the War Rule and in the Psalms of Solomon 17. Psalms of Solomon 17 looks forward to a Davidic messiah who will march on Jerusalem, banish the gentiles from the city, reassemble the tribes of Israel and establish the ideal kingdom (Sanders 285). The War Rule has similar hopes, but the only true Israel which is left is the sectarian community at Qumran. The messiah will lead them into Jerusalem and destroy the sinful Israelites (i.e. non-Qumran Essenes?) as well as the Gentiles.
It is God himself who will strike the blow against Rome, not individual revolutionaries. There were a number of other “messianic pretenders” in the first century who rallied a small number of followers with the hope of overthrowing Rome. The Romans dealt swiftly and violently with each of these leaders, but the hope of an imminent intervention by the Lord never died. Even while the Temple portico is burning a prophet told a crowd to go into the Temple to await help from God (J.W. 6.283, cf. 1.347).
The middle position, “ready to fight but hoping for a miraculous intervention” seems to represent a wide variety of groups including “hardcore calculating revolutionaries” and the more pacifist wing (Sanders 288). Perhaps when the times were not right for revolution and there was nothing to protest, everyone more or less harbored the hopes of this category.
I have posted on this topic before, usually in the context of the book of Revelation. For example in this post I argued Revelation is a form of resistance literature offering an alternative way of looking at the power of Rome. On my recent tour of Roman cities in Asia Minor, I was struck by the prevalence of the imperial cult in the locations mentioned in Revelation. I knew there were imperial cult centers in most of these cities, but seeing the temple of Trajan at Pergamum made it clear the new Christian movement was in conflict with imperial propaganda from the beginning.
Ruler cults began and as expression of gratitude toward the monarch, rather than a way to get something out of him. At some point it was no longer possible to humanly honor a man without declaring him to be a god. Rome was not the only ancient culture to deify their king; Egypt considered the Pharaoh to be a god, an idea which may have been passed to the Ptolemies. Assyria and Babylon both considered their kings as gods by virtue of their office.
The most deeply held beliefs and practices in the Greco-Roman world were associated with civic cults. The reason for this is that a civic cult united the people around a particular god. For example, it was one’s civic duty to worship Artemis if one was a proper Ephesian. Since Alexander thought of the world as a community, only a single god could serve to unite all the peoples of the world. Augustus too recognized this, accepting divine honors in the east as a way to draw all the various peoples of the Roman Empire into a single imperial cult.
The Roman imperial cult is very much in the background of the New Testament, especially the book of Revelation. Many scholars see worship of the emperor as the background for the worship of the Beast in Revelation 13:4, 15-16; 14:9-11, 15:2, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4. If this is true, then we need to know when emperor worship became an empire-wide phenomenon. Oaths were taken on the divine spirit of the emperor. His image was publicly adored. Worship of the image was a regular military duty.
Augustus with scepter and orb
Julius Caesar allowed himself to be worshiped as a god, but his successor Augustus only allowed emperor worship outside of the city of Rome. Augustus is known in some inscriptions as CAESAR DIVI FILIUS, Son of God, that is, Son of eternal Caesar. Caligula was the first emperor to demand to be worshiped, he demanded that citizens everywhere bow to his statue. Nero also claimed to be divine, although in neither case was there a requirement to worship the emperor. As Augustus had been Zeus incarnate, so Nero was Apollo incarnate. Even Seneca called him as the long-awaited savior of the world.
In the 90s A.D., Domitian took the title “lord and god” and ordered people to confess he was “lord and god” as a test of loyalty (Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, Book 8: Domitian 13) Marital says the “beasts in the arena” hailed him as a god. While this is clearly legendary, it does reflect a contemporary writer implying divine honors for Domitian.Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.14 refers to Domitian exiling a Flavius Clemens and his wife, Flavia Domitilla for “atheism.” Atheism is the charge made against those who drifted into “things Jewish.” Dio Chrysostom reported that Domitian liked to “be flattered” as “master and god.” Those who refused to flatter him in this way risked trouble (Oratorio 45:1; First Discourse on Kingship, 1.14-15). It was during the reign of Domitian when the imperial cult became a factor in unifying the empire in Asia Minor. The provincial cult was “an unprecedented attempt to build a network, rather than a center of provincial worship” (Beale, The Book of Revelation, 15).
How prevalent was the imperial cult in Asia Minor? Of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2-3, five have imperial priests and altars (all but Philadelphia and Laodica) and six have imperial temples (all but Thyatira). At Pergamum an imperial temple was established as early as 28 B.C. The city was so central to the imperial cult that Revelation describes this city as having the “synagogue of Satan.” To reject the imperial cult was to reject the empire and appear to be as a traitor.
What happens when a resident of a Romanized city in Asia Minor accepts the good news that Jesus is Lord? How would impact participation in Greco-Roman culture? Could a Christian resident of Pergamum, for example, participate in civic festivals honoring Rome or an emperor as lord? Could they accommodate their new Christian belief with the imperial propaganda? More convicting, is there an application to modern political propaganda and the Christian faith?
Bibliography: Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars. Translated by K. and R. Gregor Smith. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955).