Friday, November 23, 2007

Paul and Empire

With thanks to Jeffrey Gibson on Corpus Paulinum, the recording of the recent SBL discussion between John Barclay and Tom Wright on "Paul and Empire" can be downloaded in two parts on Andy Rowell's blog. Barclay argues that Paul didn't care much about the Roman Empire, while Wright holds his ground with a political Paul.

Barclay is pretty impressive here, and I have to agree that arguments for a political Paul have been a bit overblown for the sake of modern relevance. But I do wish Barclay had engaged Richard Horsley in addition to Wright, because Horsley's case for an anti-imperial Paul is probably the best available.

But as I say, I admit that people like Horsley and Wright are pushing political agendas too strongly. Yes, Paul hated the Roman empire, but he certainly wasn't using hidden transcripts (codes) in his private letters to churches. As Barclay points out, hidden transcripts are used more by underdogs like Jesus and when speaking publicly, especially when in earshot of landlords, elites, and other authorities.

I have argued, for instance, that Jesus' "Render to Caesar" statement was a hidden transcript: a veiled way of saying that Caesar's taxes were unlawful, but should be payed "with contempt" since God was about to deal with Rome himself. But Paul's statements about taxation are more straightforward. He encourages counter-cultural behavior (Rom 12:1-21) except when it jeopardizes the Christian movement (Rom 13:1-7). In the latter case (tax evasion) he counsels obedience to Rome -- promising that God's kingdom is "nearer than ever before" (Rom 13:11) and Christians won't have to wait long for the beast to be crushed. Paul was no friend of the empire, but there is no code or hidden transcript here. Like a good Pharisee he tells people to be subject to Caesar's taxes, to respect and honor the emperor on this point. Jesus, in his shaming strategy with the denarius coin, was underscoring the illegitimacy of Caesar's taxes. Both Jesus and Paul were apocalyptics who counted on God to wipe out the kingdoms of men, but Paul had less political bite than his savior. He advised paying taxes not with contempt, but with the respect due authorities.

Be sure to listen to the lively interchange between Barclay and Wright. I didn't attend the SBL meeting, but this must have been one of the best discussions.

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre says that Barclay and Wright were indeed the "academic highlight of the conference". Mark is completely on Barclay's side and not impressed with Wright's rejoinder. I too liked Barclay's quip about the naked emperor, but even more the jibe that Wright has been hallucinating.

UPDATE (II): Michael Pahl thinks that "Barclay has overstated his case by undervaluing the evidence, while Wright has overstated his case by overvaluing the significance of the evidence".


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Loren,

Your claim: "Yes, Paul hated the Roman empire, but he certainly wasn't using hidden transcripts (codes) in his private letters to churches."

I would suggest to you that the supposed hidden transcripts (codes) are the only "evidence" available for those claiming a strongly anti-imperial Paul. We generally lack explicit statements of Paul on the subject of imperialism, and when he does talk about the emperors (Rom 13), his statements are neutral or positive (notwithstanding an ironic reading based on the existence of supposed negative codes). I have not read a lot of Wright on this issue, but I have read more Horsley and find the arguments lacking and the speculations and miraculous discoveries of hidden codes substantial. Also substantial are attempts to find a Paul who is in line with particular modern theological or political opinions.

I just posted on Barclay's talk, which I listened to today.



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