Christ and Caesar


Only recently alerted to its existence by Jon Taylor, I’ve recently been dipping into Seyoon Kim’s Christ and Caesar.
Kim’s central purpose is to debunk the idea that Paul included coded political messages in his letters in order to subvert the Roman Empire. I have expressed my views on the debate, particularly as it related to Philippians, in a previous post, but I must say that Kim does raise some excellent critical doubts regarding the counter-imperial readings offered by N.T. Wright et al that are worthy of serious consideration. After a brief introduction, the book is divided into two main sections: (1) The Epistles of Paul (pp. 1-71), and (2) The Writings of Luke (pp. 73-190). The book concludes with a Summary and Conclusion (pp. 191-99), an Epilogue titled, “Some Implications for Today” (pp. 200-3), and finally a select bibliography and two indices.

In part 1, Kim examines five epistles of Paul exegetically and shows how the dominant anti-imperial interpretation is actually difficult to sustain. Lee Irons has posted a very helpful review of the book and draws attention to chapter 4, titled “Factors that make an anti-imperial interpretation difficult.” Of the 9 factors given, a number particularly stand out and are picked up on by Lee in his second post that fleshes out the following headings:

  • The problem of Romans 13:1-7 for proponents of the counter-imperial argument
  • The relative scarcity of references (explicit or otherwise) to the imperial cult in scripture
  • Paul’s expectation of acquittal and release (see for example Phil 1:19-26) – “A man with such a hope could hardly have preached the gospel in an anti-imperial sense” (p. 50).
  • Paul’s socio-political conservatism – Paul exhorts them to be subject to the governing authorities and to live quietly* and mind their own affairs (Rom 13:1; 1 Thess 4:11). (*The verb is ἡσυχάζω: “Of conduct that does not disturb the peace. Christian leaders endeavored to keep their members free of anything that might be construed as disturbance of public order” [BDAG].)
  • Paul’s transcendent conception of salvation – the belief that Paul viewed the fundamental problems confronting humanity did not have to do with political oppression, imperialism, and the like, but with humanity’s alienation from God and its enslavement to the powers of sin and death

Using these factors as a launching pad for his argument, Kim seeks to undercut the notion of there being “coded” messages in Paul’s letters (a device that N. T. Wright is particularly fond of):

This is a rather desperate attempt to obtain anti-imperial messages where there are none. Inevitably this method involves self-contradiction… Thus, the anti-imperial interpreters’ appeal to the device of coding amounts to an inadvertent admission of the failure of their whole interpretive scheme (pp. 36-37).

open quotes… It simply makes sense to me that some of Paul’s important language would have naturally struck cords in people’s minds concerning the empire, and that this was no accident on Paul’s part…close quotes

Kim’s analysis of how Paul uses terms like kyrios, euangelion, dikaiosyne, katallage, etc within the context of his writings and mission seeks to demonstrate that he used them to convey his own message about the gospel of Christ, not to critique the Roman Empire or the imperial cult. He argues that a counter-imperial reading must be imposed on the texts in question by assuming deductively that since the Roman order and the imperial cult were so pervasive, that Paul had to have had this political reality in view when using these terms and therefore could only have been using the terms subversively:

Really they impose anti-imperial meanings onto these terms and string those passages up, sometimes extrapolating the meaning of one passage to another, in order to claim that Paul preached the gospel in deliberate antithesis to the imperial ideology and cult. This looks like a new application of the old-fashioned proof-text method that dogmatists employed to construct doctrines, and dispensationalists used to construct elaborate eschatological scenarios (p. 32).

It’s this part of Kim’s analysis that leaves me feeling a bit cold. The historian in me is never fully comfortable with readings of scripture that don’t seem willing to recognise both the ‘theological’ with the ‘historical’ trajectories of texts. As Adolf Deissmann wrote early in the 20th century: “It must not be supposed that St. Paul and his fellow believers went through the world blindfolded, unaffected by what was then moving the minds of men in great cities,” namely, the imperial cult (quoted by Kim, p. xv). Or as Chris Tilling says “It simply makes sense to me that some of Paul’s important language would have naturally struck cords in people’s minds concerning the empire, and that this was no accident on Paul’s part.”

The strength of part 2 is, in many ways, undercut by his brief and last section on the implications of his research for today’s audience. Part 2 examines the Lukan writings (Luke-Acts) to see how Luke talks about the encounters of Paul and other preachers of the gospel with Roman imperialism. Central to this section is why Luke appears to make no effort to present Christ’s redemption as materialized in terms of political liberation. Fair enough. Yet after around 198 or so pages devoted to Paul and Luke, it’s such a shame that Kim can only muster 3 pages on exploring the implications of what he has been saying!

We have pointed out that both in Paul and Luke an imminent eschatology and political realism played their parts, along with other factors, in discouraging them from thinking about the present materialization of God’s reign or Christ’s Lordship in the political sphere … But most Christians today no longer feel the pressure of an imminent eschatology so greatly, and they therefore naturally are concerned about the present materialization of God’s reign or Christ’s Lordship

Kim seems here to be inferrnig that because both Luke and Paul viewed the eschaton as imminent, they simply rejected any notion that there was a political dimension to the gospel. Our circumstance are, he argues, different becuase we “no longer feel the pressure of an imminent eschatology so greatly” and so are therefore free to develop a stronger political emphasis to the gospel in bringing about, what he describes as “the present materialisation of God’s reign.” This, for me, falls far short of a decent answer and lets the book down IMO.

Once I’ve had the chance to further digest Kim’s work, I will hopefully take the chance to post some further thoughts on this blog, but my overwhelming impression having just put it down, is that it lets itself down in its “implications for today”.

Does anyone else have any thoughts to contribute?

One thought on “Christ and Caesar

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