In my opinion, there has been a lack of convincing exploration of Paul’s use of evaggelion as an anti-imperialist statement, with scholars often allowing to be a reference to Isaiah. However, as is shown by others as they explore the Gospel of Mark, this Greek word may in fact represent something more than a passing reference is Isaiah, but a direct challenge to Imperial Rome with their own proclamations of the good news of Pax Romana. Edward Pillar is going to challenge the normative approach to the Pauline evaggelion and with this book, turn empire critical interpretation on its head.
The argument is simple enough, to show that Paul’s stance on the Resurrection is clouded by the imperialism of Rome. To do this, he breaks down 1 Thess 1.9b-10, aligning it next to imperial propaganda and reality. Piller’s work shows a remarkable advancement in interpreting the New Testament via the lens of anti-imperial rhetoric by getting to the earliest use of the evaggelion. He begins by evaluating claims that a belief in a bodily resurrection was somewhat common place, such as the view espoused by John Dominic Crossan. Pardon the pun, but he quickly and successfully lays this to rest by showing what Greeks and Romans thought of a bodily resurrection. It was not merely another proclamation of a resurrection that moved the early Christian communities, but a truly unique proclamation that “irretrievably subverted” the social order. This was, as Pillar shows, because the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus was itself unique because it included a body, among other attributes.
To further complicate any resistance to seeing anti-imperial rhetoric in the New Testament, Pillar throws out the use by the Apostle of epistreps. Pillar’s focus on this singular word takes us through Paul’s literary corpus as well as “what might have been” where we can understand the choice of a particular word here indicates a particular purpose. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 examines why idols are mentioned in comparison to the “living and true God” as well as what it means to serve such a deity. Imagine standing on a street in Rome, complete with idols in the markets, around people’s necks, and standing watch over the passers-by. How can we then not recognize the weight of “idols” in this passage as anything but a direct attack on the social order of the day? The final three chapters delve deep into what it means to wait (6) for the son from the heavens (7) to return and rescue us (8). Like the previous section, Pillar again seeks to focus on a particular, and peculiar, use of a word when Paul could have just as easily used something common. Here, it is apekdekomai and rhyomai.
In chapter 8, his argument becomes entangled with the historical Jesus. I want to call special attention to his argument here. He asserts that when Paul mentions “Jesus” without a title, he is speaking directly about the historical Jesus, calling to his witness the use of “Jesus” only in 1 Th 4.14 and 2 Co 4.11-14. Pillar is, as he has been throughout the entire work, careful to draw attention to the peculiarity of Paul’s writing and his selection of words. In doing so, we are able to meet the Jesus of history in Paul’s first letter (to the Thessalonians) divorced from highly theologized titles such as “Lord” and “Christ.” If he is correct about Paul’s use of “Jesus” only, then Pillar has opened the door up to a deep and sincere reconsideration of the historical Jesus. Further, Pillar’s argument regarding rhyomai will not be welcomed by those who do not agree with the anti-imperialism rhetoric in the New Testament; however, it again opens doors for those are seeking to investigate the ransom Jesus offered.
Edward Pillar has opened up a wide door into not only anti-imperialist rhetoric in Paul, but so too in the study of the historical Jesus. He cements his research with solid data and a fine-tuned methodology that does not allow for overly imaginative fantasies. My only complaint is that he seems to do so without consulting existing scholarship on this very topic and from this very angle in the Gospels. Other than that, and it is more of a personal thing, Pillar’s work is by far one of the most eye-opening books on anti-imperial rhetoric in the New Testament in a long, long time.