Rome in the New Testament

Everything about the lives of first-century followers of Jesus—quality of housing, food, clothing, work, social relationships, roles, diseases, taxes, ways of thinking—participated in the hierarchy, domination, and patriarchy that comprised the societal structures and practices of the powerful Roman Empire.

How did New Testament writings construct the Roman Empire and guide Jesus-followers in their daily lives in Rome’s world?

Followers of Jesus lived in the empire that had crucified Jesus. They adopted a range of perspectives and strategies for making their way in the Roman Empire.  

The book of Revelation, for example, attests some of these different perspectives and strategies. Its writer is strongly opposed to the Roman Empire. He constructs the empire as being under God’s judgment (Rev 6:1-8:5; Rev 15-18), controlled by the devil (Rev 12-14), and about to be destroyed by God’s coming empire/rule (Rev 19-22). He tries to persuade the Jesus-followers who live in seven cities of the province of Asia to “come out” from the empire (Rev 18:4).

Yet the fact that the author tries to persuade these Jesus-followers to “come out” from these cities indicates that many of his readers do not share his perspective. The cities are where they live and work, raise families, buy food, participate in civic groups. In contrast to the writer of Revelation, they think they can be Jesus-followers and live their daily lives in the midst of the empire.  

Other New Testament writings advocate numerous, simultaneous attitudes and practices. Matthew’s Gospel presents the empire as controlled by the devil who tempts Jesus by offering control of it to Jesus (Matt 4:8-9). As oppressed communities often do, the gospel imagines the empire’s future condemnation and destruction at Jesus’s return (Matt 24:27-31; Matt 26:64). Yet Matthew’s Gospel still requires Jesus-followers to pay taxes (Matt 22:15-22). They are not to abandon the empire but are to continue Jesus’s work of healing and exorcism and feeding the hungry and caring for the vulnerable (Matt 25:31-45). These actions repair the damage caused by the empire’s hierarchical structures of power. These structures ensured good quality food for elites but confined much of the population to unsanitary living conditions, poor-quality food, and poor immunity against contagious diseases. Yet Matthew’s Jesus mimics the imperial mindset in creating an alternative empire, God’s empire or rule, in his words and actions. And he asserts that in the future he will return as the son of man to destroy Rome’s empire and set up God’s empire and will “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10; Matt 24:27-31).     

In some New Testament letters, readers are instructed to pray for and submit to rulers and to honor the emperor (1Tim 2:1-2; Titus 3:1-2; 1Pet 2:13-17). Rom 13:1-7 has often been understood in a similar way. Yet a careful reading indicates that these verses do not advocate submission to and acceptance of the empire always and in every way. The requirement in Rom 13:6-7 focuses on the need to pay taxes. But since rulers are to rule “for the good” (Rom 13:3-4), it seems Jesus-followers are not required to submit to them when they do not rule “for the good.” Further, Rom 12 urged believers to “not be conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2), to form an alternative community “in Christ” (Rom 12:3-13), to wait for God’s wrath (Rom 12:19), and to care for those suffering deprivation and harm from imperial practices Rom 12:9-13). Rom 13 follows this and closes with an exhortation to transformed living while awaiting God’s intervention to establish God’s, not Rome’s, world.

The New Testament writings provide their readers with multivalent attitudes and strategies for engaging the Roman world. Paying taxes is required. Violent revolt is not supported. Apart from Revelation’s call to “come out,” the texts recognize that Jesus-followers live in Rome’s Empire but are often in tension with it and committed to the “empire of God.” They are to repair the damage that Rome’s Empire inflicts on the bodies of its inhabitants, while they pray and wait for God’s empire to replace Rome’s. 

Contributors

  • Warren Carter

    Meinders Professor of New Testament, Phillips Theological Seminary

    Warren Carter is Meinders Professor of New Testament  at Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa OK. He is the author of numerous books, including What Does Revelation Reveal? (Abingdon, 2011), John and Empire: Initial Explorations (Continuum, 2008), and The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (Abingdon, 2006).