John Barclay on Roman imperial claims

I really appreciate John Barclay’s scholarship and insights. Here is something from his article, “Why the Roman Empire Was Insignificant to Paul,” in his Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 363–87.

For these reasons, Paul’s gospel is subversive of Roman imperial claims precisely by not opposing them within their own terms, but by reducing Rome’s agency and historical significance to just one more entity in a much greater drama. To oppose the Roman empire as such would be to take its claims all too seriously: to upstage or outdo Rome would be to accept its terms of reference, even in surpassing them. Even turning Roman values on their head entails a form of confinement within the ideological system in which those values are defined. Paul, more radically, reframes reality, including political reality, mapping the world in ways that reduce the claims of the imperial cult and of the Roman empire to comparative insignificance. Confronted by temples and statues of Caesar (as he undoubtedly was), Paul makes no special mention of them, not because he was politically naïve but because they represent for him the power of δαιμόνια (1 Cor 10.14–21) – the same δαιμόνια operative in other cults, with the same delusion and bankruptcy and the same incompatibility with the Lordship of Christ. From Paul’s perspective, the Roman empire never was and never would be a significant actor in the drama of history: its agency was derived and dependent, co-opted by powers (divine or Satanic) far more powerful that [sic] itself. There was nothing significant about it being Roman – nothing new, nothing different, and nothing epoch-making. (Page 386)

I think, instead of saying that Paul opposed the Roman Empire, it is better to say that Paul envisioned an alternative community that would embody the crucified Christ and the values of God’s kingdom. The value system and practices of such a community, by nature, are set in sharp contrast to those of the Roman Empire.

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