Monday, August 3, 2009

N. T. Wright: Empire and the Faithfulness of Jesus in Identity

N.T. Wright provides creative insight with regard to Paul’s approach to the Roman empire while arguing for a view of ‘Christian’ identity that understands no continued relevance for Jewish identity. In this way, he is both a help and a hindrance for my research. Wright argues that ‘ethnic identity’ is now ‘irrelevant in defining the people of the covenant god’ (2003: 220). For Wright, the work of Christ has transcended ethnic differentiation and now Jews and gentiles both belong together ‘and their sole badge of identity’ has become ‘pistis Iesou Christou, the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah’ (220).

The two issues of empire and the continuing relevance of Jewish identity are combined in his chapter entitled ‘Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire’ (2000: 160-83). First, he declares ‘God has redefined Israel through certain climactic and revelatory…events, and all forms of Judaism that do not recognize this and conform are at best out of date’ (178). Second, he argues that those who reject this understanding and ‘who refuse to join this remodelled people were missing out on God’s eschatological purpose’ (182). Third, with regard to the Roman empire, he understands ‘the cult of Caesar’ to be ‘the dominant cult in a large part of the empire’ which served as ‘the means whereby the Romans managed to control and govern’ their empire (161). Fourth, his rejection of Caesar is based on the fact that he ‘was claiming divine status and honors which belonged only to the one God’ (164). This last statement reveals Wright’s approach to interpretation; his use of empire studies is limited to theological contexts. In other words, Paul was not concerned about empire in general but the pretentious nature of the empire, especially with regard to claims of sovereignty. Also, his recognition of the pervasiveness of Roman imperial ideology throughout the empire may be the reason why Paul does not often address Caesar directly – it was the all-encompassing context of his mission. Next, Wright’s approach to Israel reveals an interpretive shift in which ethnic and kinship language with regard to the Roman empire is replaced with theological discourse that does not give full consideration for the particularistic nature of Paul’s rhetoric. Also, Wright tends to allow Romans and Galatians to control his understanding of Jewish identity, when a slightly different picture may emerge in 1 Cor 7:17-24; 9:20-21 and Phil 3:5-8 (Campbell 2006: 149-55).

So, am I mis-reading Wright? Is his only concern with the empire theological? Is Wright on target with regard to Jewish identity?


Campbell, W.S. 2006 Paul and the Creation of Christian Identity (LNTS, 322; London; T&T Clark).

Horsley, R.A. (ed.) 2000 Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International).

Wright, N.T. 2000 ‘Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire’, in R.A. Horsley (ed.) 2000: 160-183.

Wright, N.T. 2003 The Resurrection and the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press).

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