What is “Empire Criticism?”

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.

Jesus is Lord Caesar is Not


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
This entry was posted in Biblical Studies, New Releases. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What is “Empire Criticism?”

  1. I agree, to a point. We christians have been “delivered from the power of darkness and translated into the Kingdom of the Son of His love, or of His dear Son,”(as A.V. Col.1:13)
    We are also “Ambassadors for christ” (2Cor.5:20. Eph.6:20) This gives us the responsibility to make known the kings message and also to reprove Kings, rulers and all in authority with regard to whatever our King disagrees with them about. That of course does not inclued riotous, unruly and discordant protests, all things need to be decent and in order.
    Of course the Lord Jesus, facing the procurator, the representative of Caesar, told him. “My kingdom is not of this world. If My Kingdom wre of this world, then would My servants fight that I should not be delivered to the Jews. But now is My Kingdom not from hence.” (Jn.18:33-36 see ff)
    This leaves us as misunderstood ambassadore since the world does not understand the Kingdom of God. Soon war is to be declared. It has already been going on in a more or less covert way but soon, perhaps, it will be in the open with the world in open rebellion against God. (Revelation 13 and Daniel 12:1).
    However I suspect that not all the readers here will agree with the Biblical eschatology. I see no reason not to believe it and to believe that the world is always in crisis. Esekiel 21, for instance has God saying, “I will overturn, overturn, overturn it, until He come whose right it is and I will give it to Him.” (Eze.21-27)
    So we render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. I do fear, however that many of us and most of us at some time are tempted to give the things of God to Caesar.


    • Dean says:


      I think your final comments are exactly what this book is after: “So we render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. I do fear, however that many of us and most of us at some time are tempted to give the things of God to Caesar.”

      Sorting out what to give to God and what to give to Caesar is an interesting problem, as it definitely involves figuring out what is the Kingdom and what is empire.


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