A Breath of Fresh Air

I’m prone to forget just why it is that N.T. Wright stands head-and-shoulders above all of his colleagues and rivals in the field of New Testament Studies, until I read an article of his again, after wading through a dozen scholars drivelling an intolerably boring concoction of scholarly minutia and sudden non-sequiturs, mixed (more often than not) with a large dose of heresy.  You turn the next page of the essay collection and out Wright bursts, big, boisterous, booming, and jolly, like a Santa Claus, come to think of it, with a huge sack of goodies on his back, nuggets of insight filled with common sense, clarity, and lo and behold! orthodoxy, delivered with an air of easy jollity and peerless prose.  I found myself typing up whole paragraph-long quotations, out of pure joy at their lucidity and good sense.  They are not, by any ordinary standards, particularly eloquent, nor are they necessarily groundbreaking (although they are helpful for my Romans 13 research).  But they are excellent.  So, here’s a few, from “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire” (the tenth essay in the ten-times-more-tedious-than-it-sounds-from-the-title Paul and Politics, ed. by Richard Horsley):

 

“The evidence now available, including that from epigraphy and archaeology, appears to show that the cult of Caesar, so far from being one new religion among many in the Roman world, had already by the time of Paul’s missionary activity become not only the dominant cult in a large part of the empire, certainly in the parts where Paul was active, but was actually the means (as opposed to overt large-scale military presence) whereby the Romans managed to control and govern such huge areas as came under their sway.  The emperor’s far-off presence was made ubiquitous by the standard means of statues and coins (the latter being the principal mass medium of the ancient world), reflecting his image throughout his domains; he was the great benefactor through whom the great blessings of justice and peace, and a host of lesser ones besides, were showered outwards upon the grateful populace, who in turn worshipped him, honored him, and paid him taxes.  In all this, the book asks pertinently, were the emperor’s subjects doing something religious, or something political?” (161)

“His missionary work must be conceived not simply in terms of a traveling evangelist offering people a new religious experience, but of an ambassador for a king-in-waiting, establishing cells of people loyal to this new king, and ordering thier lives according to his story, his symbols, and his praxis, and their minds according to his truth.  This could not but be construed as deeply counterimperial, as subversive to the whole edifice of the Roman Empire; and there is in fact plenty of evidence that Paul intended it to be so construed, and that when he ended up in prison as a result he took it as a sign that he had been doing his job properly.” (161-2)

“It is, of course, much easier to highlight Paul’s confrontation with some aspect of his world when the aspect in question is one that is currently so very deeply out of fashion.  To say that Paul opposed imperialism is about as politically dangerous as suggesting that he was in favor of sunlight, fresh air, and orange juice.” (164)

“Paul, in other words, was not opposed to Caesar’s empire primarily because it was an empire, with all the unpleasant things we have learned to associate with that word, but because it was Caesar’s, and because Caesar was claiming divine status and honors which belonged only to the one God.” (164)

“[Calling Jesus “Lord”] was a challenge to the lordship of Caesar, which, though ‘political’ from our point of view as well as in the first century, was also prodoundly ‘religious.’  Caesar demanded worship as well as ‘secular’ obedience: not just taxes, but sacrifices.  Caesar, by being a servant of the state, had provided justice and peace to the whole world.  He was therefore to be hailed as Lord and trusted as Savior.  This is the world in which Paul announced that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, was Savior and Lord.” (168)