Paul vs. The Roman Empire

st paul

Reading ‘Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Roman Empire’ by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat has got me thinking once again about Paul and the Roman Empire. Others have reviewed this book and some of the issues it raises far more ably than I1 so I thought I’d focus my thoughts in a different direction – based on an essay I wrote on Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Philippians 3:20–21

I love Paul’s description of the Philippian Christians as ‘heavenly citizens… eagerly awaiting a Saviour’. It is broadly accepted as a statement that relativises all earthly rule, including that of the Roman Emperor Caesar.2 Many have gone much further, urging that Paul’s statement “opposes the head of imperial Rome with the true Emperor-Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.” 3 The extent to which this statement and the comparisons it evokes can be seen to be explicitly or implicitly anti-imperial has been a matter of considerable debate in recent years. The contention is that to make use of imperial metaphors was to therefore be in confrontation with the one to whom the metaphor would usually be applied – this is the harder case to prove. I’d argue that whilst Paul’s description does not need to be read as overtly anti-imperial, and any claim that this is Paul’s primary purpose is to distort his message, it does carry the hallmarks of imperial discontent within it, not least by its focus on the Christ crucified on a Roman cross.

“Our citizenship,” Paul says, “is in heaven.” Here was a picture that the Philippians could understand. The colony of Philippi was “one of the proudest outposts of Roman civilisation in the Greek world.”4 The intention was for colonies, acting as strategic military centres throughout the empire, to remain “fragments of Rome” where Roman dress was worn; Roman magistrates governed; the Latin tongue was spoken; Roman justice was administered; Roman morals were observed.5 It was a method by which Rome’s way of doing things would be known by the conquered country. “Even in the ends of the earth”, Barclay observes, colonies “remained unshakeably Roman.”6 The Philippians knew that if ever they were in difficulties, they could call upon the emperor to come and rescue them. Caesar provided justice and peace to the Roman world and was therefore hailed as Lord and trusted as Saviour.7

It was against this background that Paul declared Jesus to be Saviour and Lord. The direct comparison seems clear enough: just as the Philippians were none too aware of the status of Roman citizens within the colony of Rome, Paul’s readers were not to forget that their citizenship is in heaven and that they were awaiting a saviour from there. Paul invites the Philippian Christians to see that they, too, are part of a commonwealth which is a present reality.8 Whilst they remained spatially located within the reaches of the Roman Empire, their allegiance and commitments found its first expression elsewhere. 9 The Philippians’ “conduct must match [their] citizenship”10 as they await their “saviour” who will be able to “sustain and vindicate his followers at Philippi, not merely in the face of Rome’s enemies, but in the face even of sin and death.”11

The work of Horsley, Wright and Oakes, to name a few cited here, are part of a much broader research agenda in Pauline studies to relocate the issue of Christian origins “from a question of Jewish religious sectarianism to one that stems from considerations of the Roman imperial context.”12 Their work emphasises recent epigraphical and archaeological evidence pointing towards the cult of Caesar being more than simply one religion amongst many in the Roman world. Indeed more than one of the most dominant cults in this part of the empire. A lot of work has been done to demonstrate that honours and festivals for the emperor “were not only widespread but pervaded public life, particularly in the cities of Greece and Asia Minor, the very areas of Paul’s mission.”13 Whether it be on their coins, in statues, in processions, games and feasts, in pictures and in inscriptions, imperial cult and ideology was all around.14 It was “part of the air Paul and his converts breathed”15 and, in fact, the means “whereby the Romans managed to control and govern” their empire.16 Rather than use large-scale military-presence, Caesar worship was to be a Roman instrument of social control. Critics of this approach identify within it a danger that we impose upon Paul our understanding of the expectations and values of the streets of Philippi with its imperial dominated scenery. It may well be that in our understanding of the imperial context we risk assuming Paul had assimilated this rubric and structure that was arguably quite alien to his very Jewish understanding of Christ and the shape that communities moulded around the Messiah must adopt. It is along these fault lines that much of the debate concerning Paul’s statement to the Philippians must operate.

A key issue we must address is that of the problem of language and metaphor. Bryan objects that the Philippians are not being called to reject Roman citizenship and all that it represents any more than, as members of “the household of God”, they can no longer claim to belong to any ordinary household. According to this logic, earthly parents should not now be rejected because they are now children of God. Bryan declares that “such assertions would manifestly be nonsense and involve a simple failure to appreciate the nature of metaphor.”17 We should read Paul’s statement to the Philippians that Christians are not literally citizens of heaven, just as we are not “literally children of God (who is not literally a parent) or the church is literally a household.”18 To suggest that at such moments as these “Paul was concerned with denying something to Caesar is surely a spectacular example of placing the cart before the horse.”19 According to this view, Paul’s message to the Philippians falls far short of an anti-imperial message through a denial that the language used was intending to convey that meaning.

It is in Bryan’s explanation of what Paul’s metaphor is intended to achieve, however, that his argument falls short. He urges us, rightly, to pay close attention to the direction Paul points the Philippians’ thoughts to in the light of the imagery used. What Paul does not explicitly do is claim that they are to deny or resist the claims of the lesser ‘saviour’. He does not expressly say that as members of God’s commonwealth they must renounce their Roman citizenship (if, indeed, any in the community actually possessed it). Paul continues his letter by directing them to some specific details of their life together: “I exhort Eudia and I exhort Syntache” – the double “exhort” emphasising its importance – “to agree with one another in the Lord.”20 Bryan argues that this can be taken as evidence that Paul has been using the Roman context as a model to illustrate the behaviour required within the church. If Roman citizens know how to act, how much more then, as heavenly citizens, should the Philippian church know how they should act?21 Fee echoes this line of thought, taking the view that Paul “is not herewith renouncing their common citizenship in the earthly ‘commonwealth’”22 but rather encouraging the Philippians to ring changes in their behaviour as a result of their heavenly citizenship. This explanation for Paul’s purpose in this section of his letter seems more satisfactory than Tellbe’s. He asserts that opposition from outside of their community (from the civic authorities), and from within (from Christian Judaizers) led to the need for Paul to affirm their distinct identity as citizens of heaven.23 This explanation seems to pay little reference to the Paul’s comments in the context of the surrounding flow of argument.

What Bryan fails to do is acknowledge the significance of heavenly citizenship being able to define their ethical life.24 Neither the Roman colonist nor the Philippian church’s quality of behaviour was to be shaped by the alien environment around them,25 but rather “determined by the heavenly character of the commonwealth to which we belong.”26 Such a statement becomes immediately political. Importantly, it is Christ’s actions, not Caesar’s, that become the “warrant as well as the paradigm for the actions Paul urges on his readers.”27 It is clear that it is against the gospel of Christ, not Roman law, by which the Philippian church was to be ordered, and by which they would spread abroad “in this “conquered” world the customs, culture, manner of life, and laws of their heavenly home.”28 Bryan does not give adequate weight or significance, in my view, to the explosive expectation that as citizens of heaven their life together was to be determined not by Caesar but by the crucified Messiah.

I have serious reservations about viewing imperial politics as merely framing the historical context of the early Jesus movement around the Mediterranean. It is my view that Rome’s empire was not the background, but the foreground of Paul’s world – the New Testament texts “assume and engage Rome’s world in every chapter.”29 This was the world in which first-century Christians lived their daily lives and the world that “the New Testament writings negotiate throughout.”30 The focus, however, of Paul’s statement, isn’t so much about the negation of Roman imperialism but the promotion of the once crucified but soon to be returning Lord Jesus and his ekklesia among the nations living under his rule and reign.31 It was anti-imperial to the extent that it presented an alternative way of living based not on the ‘peace and security’ offered by Rome to the Mediterranean world, but by a saviour from heaven. Paul’s statement does not need to be read as an open or overt challenge to Roman rule to still maintain an anti-imperial flavour. Paul’s choice of language, the contrast of characters, choice of themes, and his retelling of the stories offer an alternative ending in which Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t. This Jewish monotheistic critique of pagan rule may well not have been the primary purpose of Paul’s statement to the Philippians, but it does seem to be woven into the tapestry of his thinking.

Blogs worth a read on this subject

There’s a fantastic mp3 recording online of a debate between NT Wright and John Barclay. This can be found along with some useful discussion at, and

Jonathan Dodson also lists some useful cautions of the ‘Fresh Perspective’ hermeneutic seen in writers such as NT Wright as well as an interview with Justin Hardin on the Roman Imperial Cult (whose doctoral supervisor was John Barclay).

Phil Wilson’s slides are also worth a skim through, found at

Signposts for further reading…

  • Ascough, R., S. (2003), A Review of Tellbe’s ‘Paul between Synagogue and State’ in ‘Journal of Biblical Literature’, Vol. 122, No. 4, (Winter, 2003), pp. 772–774
  • Barclay, W., (1993) The Daily Study Bible: The letters to the Philippians, Colossians & Thessalonians, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrews Press)
  • Bryan, C., (2005) Render to Caesar – Jesus, the Early Church and the Roman Superpower, (New York: Oxford University Press)
  • Carter, W., (2006) The Roman Empire and the New Testament, (Nashville: Abingdon Press)
  • Crossan, J., D., and Reed, J., L., (2005) In search of Paul, (New York: HarperCollins)
  • Fowl, S., E., (2005) Philippians, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans)
  • Garland, D., E., ‘The Composition and Unity of Philippians: Some neglected literary factors’, NovT 27 (1985), 141 – 73
  • Harrill, J., A. (1999), Review of Horsley’s ‘Paul and Politics’ in ‘The Journal of Religion’, Vol. 79, No. 4, (Oct., 1999), pp. 711–712
  • Horsley, R., A., (Ed.) (1997), Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society, (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International)
  • Martin, R., P. & G., F., Hawthorne, G., F. (2004), 43: World Biblical Commentary: Philippians, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson)
  • Oakes, P., (2001) Philippians: From people to letter, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
  • O’Brien, P., T. (1991), The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans)
  • Silva, M., (1988) Philippians, (Chicago: Moody Press)
  • Wright, N., T., ‘Paul’s gospel and Caesar’s empire’, in Horsley, R., A., (Ed.), (2000) Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium & Interpretation, (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International)
  • Wright, N., T., (2005) Paul: Fresh Perspectives, (London: SPCK)

  1. See, for example, iMonk and a series of posts by Julie Clawson of which that link is the first  ↩

  2. Bryan (2005), p. 92  ↩

  3. Martin & Hawthorne (2004), p. 233  ↩

  4. Wright (2005), p. 72  ↩

  5. Barclay (1993), p. 69  ↩

  6. Barclay (1993), p. 69  ↩

  7. Wright (2000), p. 168  ↩

  8. See O’Brien (1991), p. 461  ↩

  9. Fowl (2005), p. 173  ↩

  10. Barclay (1993), p. 69  ↩

  11. Bryan (2005), p. 84  ↩

  12. Harrill (1999), p. 711  ↩

  13. Horsley (1997), p. 4  ↩

  14. Oakes (2001), p. 174  ↩

  15. Wright (2000), p. 161  ↩

  16. Wright (2000), p. 161  ↩

  17. Bryan (2005), p. 85  ↩

  18. Bryan (2005), p. 85  ↩

  19. Bryan (2005), p. 91  ↩

  20. Philippians 4:2  ↩

  21. Bryan (2005), p. 84  ↩

  22. Fee cited in Fowl (2005), p. 173  ↩

  23. Ascough (2003), p. 773  ↩

  24. See Philippians 3:17–19  ↩

  25. Caird cited in Martin & Hawthorne (2004), p. 231  ↩

  26. Silva (1988), p. 214  ↩

  27. Cousar cited in Bryan (2005), p. 87  ↩

  28. Martin & Hawthorne (2004), p. 234  ↩

  29. Carter (2006), p. 1  ↩

  30. Carter (2006), p. ix  ↩

  31. Crossan and Reed (2005), p. 409  ↩

Rethinking The Council of Nicaea (325)


The Council of Nicaea, and the Arian controversy with which it dealt, remains “a landmark in the development of classical Christology.”1 Its reception, and the process that led up to its development, is a far more convoluted process than the classical portrayal of the victory of Athanasian ‘orthodoxy’ over ‘Arian heresy’. Many of its conclusions were far from wholeheartedly embraced by many for much of the rest of the fourth-century, and a millennia and a bit later, elements of Arianism still exist in the thinking of groups like the Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Notwithstanding this, its conclusions and the process by which it arrived at them, lay important foundations not only for Christology but also for the life and practice of the Church and its key thinkers. The controversy of Nicaea revolved around the person of Arius. His fundamental premise was the “absolute uniqueness and transcendence of God, the unoriginate source of all reality.”2 God is the only one who is selfsubsistent; nothing exists which does not ultimately derive from God. Arius’ logic led him to the conclusion that the Father must have existed before the Son. Hence the familiar slogan ‘There was when He was not’.3 This statement clearly places Father and Son on different levels; Father as unoriginate, Son as a creature deriving from the Father. Arius was keen to emphasise the Son’s uniqueness to the rest of creation, but does so with some difficulty: The Son, he argued, is “a perfect creature, yet not as one among other creatures; a begotten being, yet not as one among other begotten beings.”4 To refer to the ‘Son’, according to Arius, was “an honorific, rather than a theologically precise way of speaking”5 because of the controlling principle of a God who is totally different in essence from his creation – including, of course, the Son. Equally, to speak of the Son as ‘God’ was also a courtesy title, a designation “by participation in grace”6 We can therefore tentatively conclude, based on incomplete source material, that the status of the Son was seen by Arius as a consequence not of the nature of the Son, but of the will of the Father.7

We must be aware of the danger of concluding, however, that the controversy surrounding Arius concerned the ‘divinity’ of Christ. At issue until the very last decades of the crisis was “the very flexibility with which the term ‘God’ could be deployed.”8 Ayres points out that many fourth-century theologians would distinguish the terms ‘God’ and ‘true God’, making any a priori agreement about the meaning of, and ‘grammar’ for talking about, God very difficult.9 Aside from the language of the divine, the question of the generation and ontological status of the Son or Word does have “immediate repercussions for how one understands incarnation and redemption.”10 One must question whether a generated and inferior Son can act salvifically to effect closeness to the Father in any meaningful way. If Jesus was lower than the Father then he couldn’t possibly fully know and understand the Father: God was again ‘unknown’ and ‘unrevealed’. A key thinker in the development of this line of thought can be identified in the figure of Athanasius of Alexandria.

Athanasius is often credit to be the “rock from which Nicene orthodoxy was hewn.”11 Whilst present at the council as a young deacon accompanying his bishop, Alexander, we do not see any “sustained public refutation of Arianism until the early 340s with his Orations against the Arians.”12 For Athanasius, the established liturgical customs of baptising in Jesus’ name and of addressing prayers to the Son made nonsense of Arius’ description of the Son’s lower status to the Father if he was worshiped both in the New Testament and liturgical tradition.13 Christians were not wrong to worship Jesus – but in doing so they were recognising him as God incarnate, as the worship of any creature was forbidden.14 Most importantly, Athanasius emphasised that it is only God who can save, and so the redemptive work of Christ was undermined by Arius’ views. Only the creator can redeem creation,15 since only a divine Mediator could re-establish fellowship with God. If creatures cannot redeem other creatures, and according to Arius Jesus is a creature, then Jesus Christ cannot redeem humanity – salvation requires divine intervention.

It would seems then, that the council “had a more limited objective than is sometimes supposed.”16 Through the process of outlawing Arianism, the council was able to affirm both the Son’s full divinity and equality with the Father. Whilst debates on the issue would continue well beyond Nicaea, we can consider this council to be the place where Jesus was first officially to be considered ontologically identical the Father, which dealt “a mortal blow to subordinationism.”17 This was, perhaps, Nicaea’s main achievement. The degree of Christological consensus achieved did enable the development of doctrine concerning the relationship of the Trinity. In the aftermath of the debates between Arius and Alexander at the council on the relationship between Father and Son, the council adverted to the Holy Spirit in what seemed “like a mere afterthought”18 in the short addendum ‘And we believe in the Holy Spirit’. This clause would need to be developed further, especially through the writings of Athanasius and Basil of Caesarea, and in 381 at Constantinople.

It’s pretty clear that the creed produced at Nicaea did not “end the Arian crisis – it confirmed its existence.”19 Through its condemnation of Arius and its positive formulation of the faith, it “opened the way for the solution of questions that were still open.”20 Through the confrontation at Nicaea, Arius had “stirred an intellectually careless Church into a ferment of conceptual reconstruction.”21

Some blogs about Nicaea

For more on Alexander’s dealings with Arius head over to Notes from a Small Scotsman. also gives an account of the crisis that’s worth a read, as is as

Books worth a read…

  • Ayres, L., (2006) Nicaea and its Legacy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  • Bray, G., (1997) Creeds, Councils and Christ, (Ross-shire: Christian Focus / Mentor)
  • Cassidy, A., and Norris, F., W., (Eds.), (2007) Cambridge History of Christianity: Constantine to c. 600, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) – Norris, F., Greek Christianities, pp. 70 – 117 – Anatolios, K., Discourse on the Trinity, pp. 431 – 459
  • Chadwick, H., (2003) The Church in Ancient Society, (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  • Hanson, R., P., C., (1988) The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark)
  • Kelly, J., N., D., (2007) Early Christian Doctrines, Fifth Edition, (London: Continuum)
  • Letham, R., (2004) The Holy Trinity, (New Jersey: P & R Publishing)
  • McGrath, A., Christian Theology: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing)
  • Studer, B., (1993) Trinity and Incarnation, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark)
  • Williams, R., (1979) The wound of knowledge: Christian spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross, (London: Darton, Longman & Todd)
  • Williams, R., (2001) Arius: History and Tradition, (London: SCM Press)

  1. McGrath (2001), p. 357  ↩

  2. Kelly (2007), p. 227  ↩

  3. Kelly (2007), p. 229  ↩

  4. Arius cited in McGrath (2001), p. 358  ↩

  5. Arius cited in McGrath (2001), p. 359  ↩

  6. Arius cited in Kelly (2007), p. 229  ↩

  7. McGrath (2001), p. 359  ↩

  8. Ayres (2006), p. 14  ↩

  9. Ayres (2006), p. 14  ↩

  10. Ayres (2006), p. 3  ↩

  11. Norris in Norris & Cassidy (2007), p. 74  ↩

  12. Anatolios in Norris & Cassidy (2007), p. 436  ↩

  13. Kelly (2007), p. 233  ↩

  14. McGrath (2001), p. 360  ↩

  15. McGrath (2001), p. 359  ↩

  16. Kelly (2007), p. 237  ↩

  17. Letham (2004), p. 117  ↩

  18. Anatolios in Norris & Cassidy (2007), p. 441  ↩

  19. Letham (2004), p. 117 – 8  ↩

  20. Studer (1993), p. 107  ↩

  21. Williams cited in Letham (2004), p. 126  ↩