Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica present in Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire In New Testament Studies a much needed slowing of the newest pendulum swinging nearly out of bounds in critical studies of the New Testament. Since my discovery of Warren Carter’s work in Matthew, I have considered myself a fan of his work although his Empire critical work in John has caused some noticeable hesitation on my part. For those who investigate Paul with the eye of the Empire, I have found their arguments rather shallow and unsupported. In my opinion, Paul was too busy waiting/writing for the return of Jesus to worry about church government, much less the Roman Empire. Thus, to find a book meritoriously evaluating Empire studies in the New Testament, with a well-documented and balanced approach, has proven quite satisfying.
The book, co-edited by McKnight and Modica, is introduced with an essay written by Andy Crouch. This introduction, unfortunately, too quickly sets the tone of the book, as Crouch seems to give away the proposed solution to the riddle. Following this are essays by David Nystrom and Judith A. Diehl written to address the Roman Imperial cult and a survey of where we are in regards to anti-imperial rhetoric in the New Testament, respectively. These essays are important as they lay the groundwork for attempting to understand the New Testament in light of the wider world at the time the Gospel was first preached. While I appreciate more Diehl’s essay than Nystrom, I found her view of ancient agitprop as rather woodenly rigid.
After the foundation is laid, Joel Willitts evaluates and answers Warren Carter on Matthew. Willitts has a foil, unlike Dean Printer who must take Josephus as his antagonist when exploring Empire in Luke. With John, we once again turn to an evaluation of Carter, although Carter is only one among three evaluated by Christopher Skinner. Drew Strait, a student at the University of South Africa begins his essay on Acts by insulting a wide swath of New Testament scholars, seemingly forgetting that had nothing new been explored, his Christian academic education would likely consist of how to say the same thing in new ways (132). Michael F. Bird saves the track by examining Romans in his usually powerful style, delivering a convincing answer. Lynn H. Cohick looks at Philippians while Allan R. Bevere turns his scholarly gaze to Colossians, a book he is intimately familiar with, and for good reason. Finally, Dwight D. Sheets looks for anti-imperial rhetoric in the one place we expect it, John’s Apocalypse. My immediate concern here is with Sheets’ seemingly confluence of post-colonial hermeneutic and Empire Criticism (198). To be forthright here, my view on Revelation does not allow me to objectively gauge Sheets, although I do find his conclusion even-keeled enough to warrant some praise. The editors close the canon with a short conclusion restating the obvious — the New Testament is not a direct assault on Rome.
Overall, the book is a valuable asset to those who seek to engage the New Testament through Empire and/or post-colonialism, to examine the New Testament in its cognitive environment, and to examine the sociology of New Testament critics. However, I do have a few concerns. One of my concerns with the project is the continued refrain of the origin and almost total seclusion of empire criticism as North America, as if the origin and not-yet-colonization of the criticism on distant shores somehow deflects any hope of genuineness to it. Does this betray some deep-seated need to please the continental scholars and thus show a reliance upon European validation for any theory?
Secondly, the examination of the New Testament is almost in a straightforward view, as if Matthew was written in the same context as Revelation. While I admit this is often the case with the Pauline transcript, I find that placing the Gospels (which I date a decade after Paul, for Mark, if not decades, Matthew and so on) in the same crisis facing Paul is to allow any differences the Gospels may have in regards to Empire to remain hidden.
For instance, Paul’s ultimate concern is not Rome, nor Nero, but the Kingdom of God about to spring forth. Why then should we expect Paul to have encoded his concern about Empire into his writings if within his lifetime Jesus would return and bring with him the Kingdom of God? Why is Rome even a concern for Paul, the Apostle who can see beyond temporal mechanizations? For Matthew, however, Jesus has already returned, leaving the Kingdom of God as an already-but-not-yet reality. This would provoke something of an anti-imperial concern, causing the rhetoric to sharply increase in power by perhaps decrease in visibility, especially in Flavian Rome (or Antioch). On the other hand, I have to agree with Willitts; Carter’s insistence of a complete Matthean course laid out to combate Rome is not justified.
Finally, my remaining concern is the noticeable absence of the Gospel of Mark. Not only is this book missing, but so too is any reference to the Synoptic Problem and how this likely moves the Empire steadily away from Mark to where it is more palatable in Luke. If the Gospels are taken as straightforward historical records, then I could see this issue as something of a non-starter; however, if you allow each author has an agenda (as both Willitts and Printer allow), then we must take into account previous sources, beginning with Mark’s paltry work. It is likely if McKnight and Modica missed Mark, then Vespasian may have as well.
Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not is not merely a book about Empire studies in the New Testament, but a warning to watch for the sharp blade of the swinging pendulum. If we allow it to go too terribly far, we will only watch it swing completely the other way, leaving the truth, usually in the middle, unnoticed, but cut out of scholarly communication for fear of it being too much of a novelty. McKnight and Modica have given us a tactful book to gauge ourselves with Empire studies and future “new things.”