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  ↩

3 thoughts on “Paul vs. The Roman Empire

  1. I found this post while skimming for new books on the subject. I suppose I agree with, but take it a bit further. I would prefer to use the language of Paul’s letter to the Philippians being Contra-imperial or Supra-imperial. While I do not find reason to suggest Paul is encouraging the Philippians to oppose or retract from the Empire, it does appear he is setting heavenly citizenship (according to the gospel 1.27) above the empirical way.


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