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Paul and Rome

I have been a student of Paul’s letter to the Romans all my adult life really; but it’s only in the last 10 or 15 years, even though I was trained as a Roman historian, that I’ve started to open my eyes in new ways and see what seems to be going on.  If you take the first, just the first seven verses of the letter, we have him declaring that here is a gospel about somebody who is the son of God, who is the Lord of the world. 

Now if you said that to anyone in Rome or actually around most of the Roman world, which included all the area of Paul’s missionary journeys: “Good news about the Son of God who is Lord of the world”—sounds like Caesar. And when you then go on to say that Caesar already is saying that Rome possesses justice, salvation, peace, and is giving these to the rest of the world, then you see that Paul is saying that the one true God gives exactly those things to the rest of the world through the true Son of God. 

Then you say, okay, it really looks as though Paul is articulating his very Jewish gospel, which is rooted in the Old Testament, but he’s articulating it in such a way as to say, this is the reality of which Caesar’s religion, the Caesar cult was, of course, was growing faster this time.  But, the whole imperial idea—that that’s just a parody of the reality, and the reality is Jesus.

Now, many scholars have rejected that and have said, well, there may be a little bit of an overtone there, but actually Paul is after much bigger stuff.  He’s after the principalities and powers and the great forces that really run the world, not this petty thing called the Roman Empire. 

I actually don’t think the Roman Empire is that petty in the first century, and to that, that’s where the debate sits at the moment.  When you take passages as Philippians 2 and 3, where Paul is telling the story of Jesus in such a way as to say Jesus is Lord, Jesus Christ is Lord and he’s telling a story which is quite like the stories the emperor’s like to tell about themselves.

When at the end of [Philippians] chapter 3, he says our citizenship is in heaven and from there we await the Savior, the Lord, the King, Jesus, and he has all power, and he is going to establish his kingdom and change our bodies, then I have a strong sense that this is actually covert, if not, overt, and he sees a polemic. 

Likewise, in first Thessalonians 5, when he says people say “peace and security,” eirini kai asphaleia.  Now eirini and asphaleia [in Paul’s Greek] are a Roman slogan; it’s a kind of a global protection racket.  “We’ll give you peace and security, you give us the taxes and then we’ll all be happy, won’t we?”  Paul is saying, “Well they say that, but actually sudden destruction is going to come upon them.”  If Paul had lived long enough to see what we call the Year of the Four Emperors in 69 A.D., I think he would have said, “There you are, told you so, that was coming.” 

Now the real problem we have is that just as in talking about salvation, people have assumed that Paul was addressing 16th century questions, whereas in fact, he was addressing 1st century questions.  So, with politics, we often assume that he is addressing 18th and 19th century questions, which is where we get our political philosophies from.  The real challenge now is to try to think, how did they conceive all this stuff about empires and so on; not in 18th, 19th and 20th and 21st century, but in the 1st  century.  That’s the real challenge, which scholars have to face up to right now.

  • N.T. Wright is professor of New Testament and early christianity at the University of St. Andrews. He is an Anglican priest and former Bishop of Durham. His numerous publications, both academic and popular, include most recently Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013).