A few years ago I did a book table for a local philosophy conference. It was there that I first heard the term “empire” being used in ways that were unfamiliar to me. I began to see it occur in other books, blogs and some of my other reading. At the same time I noticed some were pushing back on some of the concepts associated with “empire.” So I was really delighted to see a new book from IVP Academic title Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies. The book is edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica. Some of the contributors include Michael Bird, David Nystrom, Joel Willitts, Lynn Cohick, Dean Pinter and others. I quickly read the Introduction wanting to know what this talk of empire was all about. My questions were quickly addressed.
“So what is empire criticism? In short—and—this book is devoted to both description and evaluation of this method—it refers to developing an eye and ear for the presence of Rome and the worship of the emperor in the lines and between the lines of New Testament writings. One example here will suffice. A simple reading of Luke 2 reveals Luke using the following terms for Jesus—Savior and Lord, and alongside those terms are the terms good news (gospel) and peace. Now it so happens that empire critics call to our notice that these are the precise terms used of Caesar in Rome, the very terms broadcast throughout the empire on declarations and in letters and on countless inscriptions visible in all major cities in the empire. The implication of Luke 2, empire critics claim, is that Luke was not just imparting spiritual goods about the Christian faith. Instead, his words were laced with criticism of Rome—to say Jesus was Lord and Savior or to say Jesus was the one who brings peace and good news is at the same time, in a covert way, to say Caesar was not Lord and not Savior, and that his good news and peace ring hollow. The language of Luke 2 then was coded for anyone with a good first-century ear. It is only our distance and comfort with modern empires that deafen us to the sounds.
Empire critics claim most Bible readers, especially those in the established and wealthy parts of the Western culture, are not far from the desired readership of King James himself: he wanted his readers both to affirm the divine right of kings and to not even notice they were doing so. Empire criticism is minimized when one doesn’t see the issues at hand. What empire critics want us to see is what the Geneva Bible’s editors wanted their readers to see and then put in to practice: the empire, including James, must bow before King Jesus. Well, that’s a rough and ready analogy that can serve our purpose. In brief, then, empire criticism asks us to listen closer to the sounds of the empire and the sounds of challenging empire at work in the pages in the New Testament.
This method has now extended to all books in the New Testament, and not just to Revelation, where it has played a role among scholars for longer than scholars care to count.
. . .
This approach, if right, is breathtaking in its implications.
Which is just the problem: Is it, many are asking, right? Are we reading Rome and Caesar into the New Testament or are we reading what is actually there? If you insert the theme, the theme will suddenly appear everywhere. Is it just insertion? These are the questions Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not seeks to answer. (16-17)
If “empire criticism” is new to you and you would like to know more; this is probably the best place to start. Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not is a paperback with 224 pages and sells for $22.00.