Thursday, September 24, 2009

Warren Carter: Roman Empire and the NT, Part 2

This post continues the review of Warren Carter's Roman Empire and the New Testament which I began in the previous post. Chapter three, “Ruling Faces of the Empire: Encountering Imperial Officials,” describes the nature of the interaction of these early Christ-followers with the various Roman imperial ruling authorities: “emperors, client kings, governors, and soldiers.” (p. 28) Carter looks at seven different references in the New Testament to the emperor. His interpretation of “pay back to Caesar the things of Caesar and to God the things of God” (Mark 12:13-17) reveals how a postcolonial, audience-oriented approach to the text can provide brilliant interpretive insights. Carter detects an “unofficial transcript” at work in Jesus’ subversive response to the ruling elites aligned with Rome and argues that “Jesus’ instruction…is a dignity-restoring act of resistance that recognizes God’s all-encompassing claim.” (p. 29) The client kings are seen as unsympathetic figures in the New Testament narrative, the Herodian dynasty, behaving as unscrupulous provincial elites actively resisting God’s work in Judea and Galilee (e.g., Matt 2; Mark 6:14-28; Acts 12:1-5). Jesus, on the other hand, “is presented as a king who represents God’s just and triumphant purposes.” (p. 37) Roman governors were another face of the empire; these individuals were appointed by the emperor or the senate and served as functionaries to assure the proper collection of taxes and the extension of the Roman rule of law throughout the provinces. Carter builds on his earlier work on Pilate, mentioned above, to provide an illustration of the nature of the interaction of a governor over those whom he ruled (Matt 27:11-26). The soldiers were the face of the empire that most people living under the Roman Empire encountered. Carter concludes this chapter with a disconcerting postcolonial insight concerning the pervasiveness of military imagery in early Christian discourse even though Jesus’ instructions forbade the use of violence (e.g., Matt 5:41; 26:53; John 18:36).

Chapter four, “Spaces of Empire: Urban and Rural Areas,” identifies the countryside and cities as spaces of Roman dominance and as places in which negotiation of empire often occurred. This chapter provides an excellent example of the application of critical spatial theory as practiced by Henri Lefebvre and Edward Soja. Space is not an empty partner in the construction and negotiation of identity and Carter looks at how the embedded power discourses were embodied in the material structures of empire. He evaluates how power discourse occurred within the nexus of urban-rural topography and applies these insights to the Gospel communities, the Pauline communities, and the cities in Revelation. Paul’s rhetorical vision for group formation was impacted by the material structures of empire and Carter notes it is not clear if his communities agreed with his vision for communal formation “or preferred other ways of negotiation.” (p. 63)

Chapter five, “Temples and “Religious”/Political Personnel,” continues the critical spatial analysis that was begun in the previous chapter, this time focusing on ritual space, temples, and the nature of Roman religion. Carter begins by correcting the faulty assumption that a public/private binary existed in Roman antiquity. Roman imperial religion was political, corporate, and public. Temples were not seen as isolated religious institutions. They reinforced Roman imperial propaganda, established civic identity, and were tools of political, economic, and social exploitation. Carter evaluates the role that Roman imperial ideology played in the Jerusalem Temple noting Josephus’ remark that "[s]acrifices were offered in the temple for but not to the emperor and Rome" (Josephus, JW 2.416 [emphasis original]). (p. 66) This serves as a good example of the negotiation necessary to maintain Judean identity in the midst of Roman domination. Jesus’ conflicts and teaching concerning the Jerusalem Temple are surveyed and Carter shows how the early Christ-followers experiences, as described in Acts, with the Jerusalem Temple cohered with that of Jesus. Paul’s negotiation of ritual space is evaluated in the context of the temple of Artemis in Ephesus. This section is vital to understanding the nature of civic religion in the Roman east and provides significant insight into the way in which nested-identities were negotiated within the Roman Empire. Carter describes the results of this negotiation suggesting “they [early Christians] must live in this multireligious world, finding their own faithful place in it without necessarily expecting to overturn its civic and imperial structures.” (p. 77) Carter then focuses on the ritual observances within the imperial cult throughout the Roman Empire and discusses the nature of negotiation as seen in 1 Peter and Revelation. Roman religious discourse required significant negotiation within earliest Christianity. Carter, in this chapter, notes three predominate ways in which this negotiation with Roman religion occurred: some early Christ-followers chose opposition, some accommodation, and others possible active participation.

Chapter six, “Imperial Theology: A Clash of Theological and Societal Claims,” discusses the nature of competing claims for supremacy between the propaganda of Roman imperial theology and the claims about God and Jesus. Carter provides an excellent introduction to Roman imperial theology relying, for the first time in this book, on a significant amount of primary sources (e.g. Virgil’s Aeneid, Seneca’s Clem., Tacitus’ Ann., Suetonius’ Vespasian, Statius’ Silvae, and Pliny’s Pan.) these references provide the readers with a sense of the content of Roman imperial theology and is one of the strengths of this book. Rome claimed divine sanction for its empire but the New Testament, Carter points out, directly disputes this central claim (e.g., Rom 1:18-32; 1 Cor 2:8; 8:6). Much of the vocabulary of early Christian discourse contained intertextual elements with Roman imperial vocabulary (e.g., good news, salvation, righteousness, and faith) and Carter notes there is evidence of subversion in some of this discourse (e.g., Rom 13:1-7). (p. 92) Carter then summarizes similar evidence in the Gospels noting that Jesus serves as God’s agent and that his followers are to continue to follow his commands until he returns. This language resonated with Roman imperial ideology and Carter makes a strong case for the need to foreground the political implications of early Christian discourse.

This concludes part 2 of 3.


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

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