Friday, September 25, 2009

Warren Carter: Roman Empire and the NT, Part 3

This is the final part of my extensive review of Warren Carter’s book The Roman Empire and the New Testament: an Essential Guide. Part 1 is available here, whilst part 2 may be located here. Chapter seven, “Economics, Food, and Health,” examines the economic realities and negotiation that occurred within the empire; especially in the areas of food, health, and other daily matters. Roman imperial power was expressed through these rather mundane economic and domestic experiences. Carter’s approach to history “from below” is most clearly seen in this chapter, he notes “economic structures were exploitative and unjust.” (p. 101) This conceptual blend serves as the interpretive framework for Carter’s understanding of how early Christ-followers supported, fed, and cared for themselves and each other. Carter argues that, in Matthew, Jesus is editing the dominant script as it relates to wealth (Matt 19:21-29). James, Carter notes, is writing to “a community experiencing significant economic oppression.” (p. 102) He is writing to them to encourage them to trust God for economic viability in the midst of an oppressive economic system. Carter provides a postcolonial, audience-oriented reading of James (pp. 103-5) that coheres well with the details of the letter. In Revelation, communities of faith are addressed concerning their complicity in sustaining certain aspects of the Roman economic system. Carter comes to this conclusion based on an innertexture element from Rev 18 with Rev 2-3. Food is discussed next and Carter evaluates how meals and domestic space supported Roman imperial ideology: “[f]ood was about power.” (p. 109) When the New Testament discusses food, a discourse of power is operative. Food shortages created political problems and the ability to navigate food shortages became a vital political skill. Carter alludes to the possibility that “the impending crisis” in 1 Cor 7:26 referred “to a food shortage.” (p. 111) Winter and Blue have argued for this as well, and there is no reason to doubt that this refers to the famine of A.D. 51. Carter concludes with a short section on health in the empire and notes the prevalence of sickness in the empire argues for understanding “Jesus’ healings and exorcisms” as being “direct confrontations with the effects of Roman rule.” (p. 117) The New Testament writers were aware of the difficulties of daily life in the Roman Empire; however, they were also well aware that the power of the Gospel offered assistance with those same difficulties. Carter’s work in this chapter brings this fact into relief.

Chapter eight, “Further Dynamics of Resistance,” explores three forms of resistance to the Roman Empire as seen in the New Testament: “imagining Rome’s violent overthrow, employing disguised and ambiguous protest, and using flattery.” (p. 120) Earliest Christianity followed Jesus’ command concerning non-violence towards the Romans (e.g., Matt 26:52-53; John 18:36); however, their rhetorical vision still envisioned such a scenario. Paul, in 1 Cor 15:24 argued that God will destroy all empires; this is however, intramural rhetoric. Carter notes “Matthew envisions Rome’s overthrow in 24:27-31 at the return of Jesus.” (p. 122) One of Carter’s most interesting interpretive choices, which is also in his JBL article mentioned in post 1, is that “vultures” translated in v. 28 should be translated as “eagles” and that “Jesus’ coming is ‘lights-out’ time for Rome.” (p. 123) Carter sees similar imagery at work in Revelation and concludes “[t]hese imaginings are the in-group protests of an alternative community, directed against Rome but not made public or expressed openly to Rome.” (p. 128) Carter suggests the earliest Christians also participated in disguised or indirect protest. While it is possible that these protests are there, the nature of their ambiguity and the lack of an objective standard by which to discern their presence require a cautious approach to uncovering this type of protest. Carter’s final approach to resistance focuses on the rhetoric of flattery in Rom 13:1-7. Carter’s solution is somewhat unsatisfying and the existence of a “hidden transcript” in Rom 13:1-7 better explains the nature of Paul’s exceptional rhetoric in these verses. Carter’s work in this chapter provides an insightful introduction into the nature of protestation in antiquity. The existence of accommodation and resistance simultaneously within a community of Christ-followers suggest there is more work to be done in this important area.

Carter’s purpose is to show the reader how early Christians and New Testament writers negotiated the Roman Empire and the chapters in the book are structured around those imperial realities (p. x). This volume fulfills that purpose and meets a vital need for those studying or teaching the New Testament and would serve as an excellent undergraduate textbook as well as for the general public. The Roman Empire is normally treated as part of a cursory survey of background material when discussing the various New Testament communities and their texts. Carter’s work demonstrates that such an approach is unsatisfactory and leads to missing key interpretive frameworks. The presence of the Roman Empire is not a background issue; it is a foreground issue, one that must be engaged for a proper understanding of New Testament texts.

A number of strengths and weaknesses have been mentioned throughout this review; however, one more requires attention. Carter seeks to establish the Roman Empire as the context in which the New Testament unfolds. This fact is indisputable; however, Carter’s work does not fully show that empire-focused questions were central in the mind of the New Testament authors or their auditors. This criticism is often raised when scholars engage in sustained imperial-contextual analysis of the New Testament. Carter is sensitive to this criticism and makes an effort to address theological concerns throughout the book. James Dunn, for example, recognizes imperial-contextual analysis as interesting but secondary to the theological concerns of the authors and their auditors. While Dunn’s criticism is valid, he dismisses imperial-contextual analysis too quickly. Theological concerns in the New Testament; however, are also political concerns, the lack of evidence for sustained discourse concerning the empire is only an argument from silence and Carter’s book while susceptible to these same criticisms does make efforts to correct this short-coming within imperial-contextual studies. Criticisms of Carter’s work are sometimes subsumed under a broader criticism of Richard Horsley’s work; while there are significant similarities between the work of Carter and Horsley, especially in the area of contemporary contextualization of imperial-contextual analysis (e.g., the impact of the United States as an empire). Carter’s work does not establish the same binary relationship between earliest Christianity that is evident in Horsley’s work. He presents a more nuanced approach, one in which the degree of continuity with Roman imperial ideology is given its full textual consideration. This limits some of the broad-ranging conclusions evident in Horsley’s work, however, it makes the conclusions that Carter does reach more plausible. This scholarly restraint and circumspection produces a highly accessible introduction to the Roman Empire during the New Testament times and is recommended for students in biblical, theological, and religious studies.

Part 3 of 3.


Carter, Warren. 2003. "Are There Imperial Texts in the Class? Intertextual Eagles and Matthean Eschatology As "Lights Out" Time for Imperial Rome (Matthew 24:27-31)". Journal of Biblical Literature. 122, no. 3: 467.

Carter, Warren. The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide. Abingdon essential guides. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006.

No comments: