Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Warren Carter: Roman Empire and the NT, Part 1

The Roman Empire and the New Testament: an Essential Guide. By Warren Carter. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006, 148 pp., $16.00, paperback.

Warren Carter teaches at Brite Divinity School. He is one of the leading scholars in the field of imperial-contextual analysis of the New Testament and is an excellent choice for this highly accessible yet substantial introduction to the impact the Roman Empire had on the New Testament. His recent work has focused on the process of interaction between the New Testament communities and the dominant values of Roman imperial ideology. His recent works include: Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001); Pontius Pilate: Portraits of a Roman Governor (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 2003); John and Empire: Initial Explorations (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2007); “Are There Imperial Texts in the Class? Intertextual Eagles and Matthean Eschatology as ‘Lights Out’ Time for Imperial Rome (Matthew 24:27-31),” JBL 122 (2003), 467-87; “Proclaiming (in/against) Empire Then and Now,” Word and World 25 (2005), 149-58; and “Matthew and Empire,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 59 (2005), 86-92. Carter’s work is situated within the postcolonial approach to New Testament studies which seeks to read the texts “from below.” His approach also draws upon audience-oriented criticism which seeks to understand how texts were received as they were interpreted by their audience. He skillfully combines these two approaches in this work. Though most of Carter’s work has focused on the Gospel of Matthew, his mastery of the broader New Testament corpus is evident in The Roman Empire and the New Testament.

Chapter one, “The Roman Imperial World,” provides an introductory description of the structure of the Roman imperial system. Carter argues the Roman Empire is ever present in the New Testament and that the New Testament writers are not unified in their approach or evaluation of the empire. He also notes two realities that hinder our understanding of the presence of the empire in the New Testament: the unification of religion and politics in the empire and a general lack of knowledge about the Roman world. The Roman Empire was thoroughly hierarchical and male-dominated. The emperors required military support and alliances with the ruling elites to maintain power. The imperial cult served to further stratify the society and provide a sense of divine approval on the reign of the emperor. Carter notes how elite values supported their hegemonic conception of ruling power and “hierarchical societal structure.” (p. 10) The negotiation necessary to survive as a nonelite was significant and various coping mechanisms emerged, one in particular: “hidden transcripts” (p. 12) were vital to a non-violent form of protest to the inequalities leveled against the well over 90% of the population that were part of the nonelites. Rigid hierarchy and economic disparity were two keys aspects of the structure of the Roman Empire during the Principate.

Chapter two, “Evaluating Rome’s Empire,” looks at how some of the New Testament writers evaluated the Roman imperial system. Carter provides a much needed corrective to the tendency within New Testament studies to homogenize the integration and evaluation of the empire by New Testament texts. There is actually a variegated approach to empire, distinctive of the various authors and the parts of the empire in which their recipients dwelt. Carter notes however there is consistency of evaluations concerning Rome “in relation to God’s life-giving purposes.” (p. 16) This is an important component of Carter’s survey in that imperial-contextual analysis of the New Testament is often somewhat wrongly accused of minimizing theological concerns. The first approach to evaluation Carter suggests is “the empire is of the devil.” (p. 16) This approach understands the Roman Empire as part of the cosmic struggle between good and evil and is seen in the Gospels (e.g., Luke 4:1-13, Jesus’ temptation; Mark 5:1-20, the demon named “Legion”) and the book of Revelation (e.g., Rev 12-13). This evaluation understands no redeeming value in the Roman imperial system. The second approach is “Rome’s world is under judgment.” (p. 18) This is an apocalyptic framework in which the earthly rule of Rome is understood to be passing away (e.g., 1 Cor 2:6-8). The next two approaches foreground the concept of practices that subvert the empire through “acts of transformation” and the establishment of “alternative communities.” (p. 20) These alternative communities may develop alternative economic structures (1 Cor 16:1-4), power relations (Matt 20:24-28), and transformation of the unjust political structures within the empire (Luke 4:18-19a). A final approach emphasizes “submitting to, praying for, and honoring the emperor.” (p. 22) Carter understands this approach as an accommodation to empire (e.g., 1 Pet 2:13-17) and leaves open the possibility “that 1 Peter is encouraging Christian participation in honoring the emperor…while recognizing that their real commitment is to Christ.” (p. 23) Carter weaves an intricate tapestry of strategies of “survival, protest, accommodation, and imitation” within earliest Christianity concerning the Roman Empire and provides a plausible reconstruction of the nature of the negotiation that was occurring within nascent Christian communities.

This is part 1 of 3.

See also:

Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. London ; New York: T & T Clark, 2004.

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