Paul’s Collection for the Saints in Jerusalem: An Essay

The collection has been described as occupying a “central place in [Paul’s] work among gentile churches… [becoming] a defining emblem of his apostolate.”1 It was certainly “one of Paul’s most ambitious hands-on projects,” looming large within the Corinthian and Roman letters, “both theologically and practically.”2 The collection for the saints of Jerusalem does beg an important question: just what was it about the collection that meant that Paul was willing to sacrifice his very life to accomplish it? 3 Why did he devote such time and energy to the project? It is clear that meeting the concrete economic needs of the Christ-followers in Jerusalem must form part of our answer to this, but this essay shall demonstrate that we must not only ask what it means to say that economic factors were not foreign to Paul’s mission, but also go on to question specifically what it was about meeting these economic needs through the collection that meant Paul was prepared to devote years of his ministry to it.We find in Paul’s letter to the Galatians what, most scholars agree, is likely to be the oldest text about the collection.4 Here Paul writes a polemical narrative of the Jerusalem Council (Galatians 2:1–10), adding that the council had asked him to do one more thing: remember the poor. We know from 1 Corinthians 16:1–4 that Paul had instructed Galatian converts to set aside money on the first day of each week for the collection.5 The prominent position given to this phrase “only the poor” (μόνον τῶν πτωχῶν ἵνα μνημονεύωμεν) draws the phrase to the attention of the reader. Interestingly, however, the rest of Paul’s letter to Galatians remains silent on this subject. 6 As there seems to be little to no mention of “the poor” in this letter one could conclude, with Sze-Kar Wan, that Paul’s willingness to emphasise it is evidence that he took the charge to ‘remember the poor’ seriously as an “integral part of his apostolic mission”7 without need for further explanation in the rest of the letter.

Scholars are widely in agreement that at least sections of the Jerusalem church in the first century experienced “chronic poverty.”8 We have little evidence as to why the saints in Jerusalem had so many poor among them, whom they themselves could not help, nor are we given a direct reason as to why Paul was eager to help them.9 Whilst the reference to the ‘poor’ in Galatians 2:10 is notoriously difficult to pin down, meaning perhaps either the economically poor or the eschatologically poor,10 further references to the “poor among the saints of Jerusalem” in 2 Corinthians 9:12 and Romans 15:26 do seem to make it clear that there was at least some part of the Jerusalem church that was poor in the economic sense. Whilst economic hardship may have precipitated the request for funds, the length of time Paul took to complete the collection (most likely around a year and a half11) might well indicate that it was intended to relieve not one specific crisis but rather a more chronic need amongst the Jerusalem church. Yet many also question whether the collection was “merely charity to relieve the economic hardship of the Jerusalem church”12 or whether there were broader factors at work. It is difficult, for example, to account for the rich vocabulary of 2 Corinthians 8–9 only through a concern for the economic plight of the Christians in Judea.13 We must also recognise the possibility that the saints in Jerusalem chose, by way of self-definition, to describe themselves as the humble poor, waiting for eschatological deliverance, as well as a descriptor of their financial position.

open quotesThe collection was one of Paul’s most ambitious hands-on projectsclose quotes

The economic benefit of the collection for the Jerusalem church may well not have been of primary importance. Whilst we cannot confidently determine the monetary results of Paul’s collection, there are several factors at play that may indicate that the “actual sum of money was not extraordinarily large.”14 The contributing region of Macedonia, for example, was itself suffering under “severe poverty, aggravated by the persecution to which the Christians there were being subjected.”15 It is also likely that Corinth, the chief city in Achaia, probably gave a “meagre contribution”16 – Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 16:3 that he was arriving in only a short time to organise the delivery trip to Jerusalem, giving little time for substantial contributions to be organised. Despite the significant delay in Paul’s plans, evident in his needing to mention it again some time later in 2 Corinthians, it does seem unlikely that large amounts of money would have been able to be organised.

It is immediately striking, when reading the longest discourse on the collection (2 Corinthians 8–9), once again how little the “supposedly dire situation of the poor in Jerusalem is used in the appeal.”17 This may well have been because the plight of the Jerusalem church was well known to the Corinthians and could thus be omitted, but the decision not to draw especial attention to their economic needs would seem extraordinary when Paul seems so eager for the Corinthians to participate. One reason for this may well be to do with Paul’s desire to “decouple the Corinthians’ contribution from the patronal expectation that the Jerusalem church could become obligated to them as a result of the gift.”18 Decades of research have shown that Roman patronage was a highly influential factor in the Corinthian congregation.19 In the light of Paul’s insistence on the priority of the Jewish people in Romans, Paul goes to some length in Corinthians to avoid any suggestion that gifts to the Jerusalem church would imply any level of submission by Jerusalem to the gentile churches. In reiterating to the Corinthians that all generosity and wealth come from God, and that in providing for the needs of the ‘holy’ they are ultimately rendering thanks to God, Paul is presenting a theological argument that undermines any temptation on the part of the Corinthians to view their gifts to Jerusalem along Roman patronal lines.20 It can therefore be seen that in Corinthians, Paul “consciously disengages the Jerusalem church from the gentile churches, so that the former would not be placed in a direct obligatory relationship to the latter.”21

We might therefore conclude that in the Corinthian correspondence the economic hardship of the Jerusalem church features in the background, not in the foreground, of Paul’s argument in his letter precisely to uphold his vision of κοινωνία and ἀγάπη amongst the Jewish and gentile churches, rather than allow this to be jeopardised by alternative patron-client systems of social relations amongst the churches. Paul refers to this work as a ‘ministry’ (διακονία)22 and as one that evidences the grace at work amongst them overflowing in a generosity towards others in response to the generosity of God to them in salvation. It is expressly not, therefore, that the economic needs were merely a convenient vehicle with which to promote ecumenical unity between Jewish and Gentile converts as some seem to infer,23 but rather came from a desire to ensure that the gift was made in a way that reinforced his vision of inter-racial Christian κοινωνία. Paul also shows a sensitivity to the Corinthians’ own financial resources (8:12–15) and to the “suspicions always likely to hang around such financial transactions (8:19–21; 9:5).”24

open quotesan intensely practical expression of ἀγάπηclose quotes

Paul employs the noun κοινωνία three times25 with reference to the collection, and the verb κοινωνἐω once.(Rom 15:27) This was one of Paul’s “preferred phrases for speaking of the life of the Christian community.”26 Paul’s frequent use of the term in connection with Christian community, and especially connects it with the supplying of needs whether spiritual27 or material.28 Nickle argues that in applying the term to his collection Paul was “clearly emphasising that it was a direct expression of Christian fellowship that his churches were contributing relief funds to Jerusalem.”29 The use of the collection as an expression of unity is unpacked most fully in Paul’s letter to the Romans, to which we must now turn.

In Romans Paul imbues the collection with theological meaning that suggests that in the light of the fact that the Gentiles have received a share in the Jews’ spiritual privileges, they should now also share their own material benefits. Paul’s vision of the collection, in Romans, is that it is a massive symbol and prophetic sign “blazoned across half a continent, trumpeting the fact that the people of God redefined around Jesus the Messiah is a single family.”30 Now that they are a single family in Christ, they must live as such and live by the principle of practical ἀγάπη. Paul seems to be more than aware that this gift, a sign of the unity redefined around the Messiah, might be rejected by the Jerusalem church for the very reason that it had originated from Paul’s uncircumcised churches and thereby “reckoned to be tainted, to have the smell of idolatry still upon it.”31 There may also be a very practical awareness by Paul that if he advocated separation from the Jewish synagogues he might draw attention to the early church in a way that might risk it losing the privileged status granted to Jews under Roman rule.32 In Romans 11:17–24 Paul uses the analogy of an olive tree to allow both for the “commonality and diversity that then existed in the Christ communities at Rome”33 whilst also being used to oppose any gentile movement that might pride itself on its independence from Israel. Paul, therefore, is consciously seeking to avoid “escalating [any] process of self-definition [that might precipitate] the final separation between the synagogues and the house churches”34 and seems eager to maintain unity across racial boundaries.

We must be wary of treating Paul’s Jewish heritage statically as if his ethnicity was merely an interesting cultural artefact. Indeed in Romans particularly he seems willing to emphasise, in Becker’s words, “the salvation-historical priority of Israel and Jewish Christianity over the Gentiles.”35 Yet the voluntary nature of the gift must surely negate the view held by some, such as Karl Holl, that the collection was a “shameful imposition, which revealed [Paul’s] subservience to Jerusalem.”36 It does seem likely that agreement over the collection at the Jerusalem Council was hammered out “in the context of an intense wrangling over ethnicity”37 with at least two opposing views on the incorporation of the Gentile believers. On the one side was the maintenance of traditional Jewish ethnic boundaries based around the outward signs of circumcision and dietary restrictions to fulfil the Torah. On the other was Paul’s concern with “redefining Jewish group boundaries to include gentile converts,”38 through a faith-centered reading of the Abrahanic covenant with the “new law of Christ – to love each other – replacing the centrality of the Torah.”39 For Paul, ἀγάπη was the basic modus operandi for the new Jew plus Gentile movement with Christ as its head.

The collection was an intensely practical expression of ἀγάπη bringing the Jewish and gentile congregations together and symbolizing an “emerging universalizing society” operating “along Jewish lines which in effect brought all Gentiles into the metanarrative of Israel.”40 Whilst upholding the Jewish salvation story, Paul rejected any hint of cultural chauvinism in criticizing both “those who would close the door on the Gentiles or insist that Gentiles adapt to Jewish norms before they would be included.”41 Sze-Kar Wan therefore sees the collection as both a statement against Jewish ethnic exclusiveness as well as a symbol of resistance towards and criticism of any system, including the Roman imperial order, which might stand against allegiance to Christ the Jewish Messiah. Seen through these eyes, the collection is part of a wider vision for Paul of Jewish and Gentile congregations together “daring… to reorder economic life together along unabashedly transcendent, universalizing principles.”42 This analysis does make some sense of a Paul who, as a Roman citizen and an ethnic Jew in a subaltern community under Roman rule, worked hard to set up communities of people who were citizens of a new and different sort of empire in which Jesus was lord and Caesar was not.43

Many scholars have been quick to point out that Paul’s collection reflected several aspects of contemporary Judaism, particularly in its organisation from the Jewish Temple tax. Nickle emphasises its similarities in both the external elements as well as in its symbolic significance. He argues that it was precisely because the “symbolism of the Temple tax corresponded so precisely with the hopes for the unity of the Church with which Paul had invested his project” that he was led to borrow and use so many other aspects of that tax.44 He maintains that Paul deliberately arranged his collection for the Jerusalem community as a parallel to the collection for the Temple, and in particular asserts that Paul probably made advantageous use of the protection provided under the special concessions granted to Judaism by the Roman government. If Paul had publicly differentiated between his collection and the other usual contributions sent to Jerusalem, his collection would probably have been judged illegal by the Roman authorities.45

Tellbe usefully points to the Temple tax as a Jewish identity marker that had an important social meaning in that it served an important reminder for the Diaspora Jews of their primary affiliation and so became a “concrete expression of first-hand loyalty to the Jewish nation and its religious leadership.”46 In other words, it was a way of declaring yourself a Jew and to be reckoned to be one by your neighbours. We must ensure that we keep at the forefront of our minds that Paul’s collection was a voluntary collection. However, through the lens of Tellbe’s analysis we could view the collection as an expression of Christian identity: an identity as a community formed around Christ to express in practical ways the rule of ἀγάπη. Tellbe’s analysis does overstep the mark, however, when expounding Paul’s argument in Romans 13:1–10. Here he points out that Paul does not mention anything about the Temple tax when addressing the obligation to pay taxes. Tellbe implies through this that “Paul in practice implicitly affirms the autonomous religious identity of the Roman Christians vis-à-vis the Roman Jews.”47 He seems to be suggesting that because Paul does not mention the Temple tax within Romans 13, a passage that explicitly addresses the Christian relations with the Roman authorities (rather than Temple authorities), Paul is therefore hinting that the Roman Christians had an identity entirely separate to Roman Judaism. We should rightly heed the warning of Campbell that this is an argument from silence and may say as much about the Jewish-Gentile mix in the Roman church as it might do about Paul’s attitude towards the Temple tax.48

open quotesThe collection, therefore, was an important attempt to bolster the unity amongst the churches to help it withstand future testingclose quotes

The significance of the collection for Paul is further emphasised if we accept Wright’s assessment of Paul’s attitude towards Jerusalem. Wright argues that Paul had a “clear awareness that the days of Jerusalem, as he knew it, were strictly numbered.”49 We must be careful not to automatically assume that this, for Paul, meant that he was envisaging this as the ‘Parousia’, the end of the space-time order to take place within his lifetime, but that there was an imminent judgment due on the Jewish world, and by extension Jerusalem, that gave Paul’s mission such urgency.50 In the fallout from this, he argues, Jewish non-Christians, and not a few Jewish Christians, may well lay the blame at the feet of this early Christ movement for undermining Torah obedience though mixing with pagan idolaters. In return, gentile believers may well celebrate the demise of a nation that could have been perceived to have been opposed the true gospel. Wright contends that Paul was aware that such an event would split the church down the middle “along the very seam which Paul spent most of his time stitching up.”51 The collection, therefore, was an important attempt to bolster the unity amongst the churches to help it withstand future testing.

In conclusion, it is clear that the collection “was not just an example of poor-relief,”52 but it is certainly not less than an example poor-relief. Provision for the poor saints of Jerusalem was a clear demonstration that economic factors featured prominently in Paul’s strategy to demonstrate, in immensely practical ways, the rule of ἀγάπη and the unity of Christian κοινωνία amongst the early Christ movement. The economic needs of the first Christians therefore lay close to the heart of his apostolic mission. To expend the time and effort that his collection must have required, it must have been intended to be far more than a token gesture. In the words of Wright, he must have seen it as “a major element in his practical strategy for creating and sustaining the one family of God redefined around the Messiah and in the Spirit.”53 Paul was eager, though, to avoid any sense in which meeting the economic needs of these first Christians might promote ethnic superiority or precipitate expectations of patronal subservience. As an ethnic Jew, Paul may well have constructed the collection to closely mirror the Temple tax, but in doing so re-orientated his gift to the Jewish Christians not around the temple itself but around his vision of a multi-ethnic Christ-movement that could withstand all pressure because of its unity in Jesus the Messiah.

Websites worth reading

Some books worth reading on the subject

  • Campbell, W., S., (2008) Paul and the creation of Christian identity, (London: T & T Clark International)
  • Bruce, F., F., (1993) ‘Paul in Acts and letters’, in Hawthorne, G., F., Martin, R., P., Reid, D., C., (Eds.), Dictionary of Paul and his letters, (Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press), pp. 679 – 92
  • Dunn, J., D., G., (1998) ‘The Collection’ in Dunn, J., D., G., Dunn, The theology of Paul the Apostle, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)
  • Munck, J., (1959) Paul and the salvation of mankind, (London: SCM)
  • Nickle, K., F., (1966) The Collection: A study in Paul’s strategy, (London: SCM)
  • Sze-Kar Wan, (2000) ‘Collection for the saints as anticolonial act’, in Horsley, R., A., (Ed.), Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation, (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International)
  • Taylor, N., (1992) Paul, Antioch and Jerusalem, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press)
  • Tellbe, M., (2001) Paul between Synagogue and State, (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International)
  • Wedderburn, A., J., M., (1988) The Reasons for Romans, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark International)
  • Wright, N., T., (2005) Paul: Fresh Perspectives, (London: SPCK)
  • Wright, N., T., (1994, 2nd edn.) ‘Jerusalem in the New Testament’ in P. W. L. Walker, (Ed.), Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God, (Carlisle: Paternoster), pp. 53–77

  1. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 194  ↩

  2. Wright (2005), p. 167. Paul makes reference to the collection in every one of his major letters (see Rom 15:25–28, 1 Cor 16:1–4, 2 Cor 8–9, Gal 2:10)  ↩

  3. Romans 15:31  ↩

  4. Munck (1966), p. 291  ↩

  5. “The term used here, λογεία (vv. 1,2), was commonly used for money collected for religious or cultic purposes, which is clearly the meaning here as well.” Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 193–4  ↩

  6. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 193  ↩

  7. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 193  ↩

  8. Bruce, F., F. (1993), p. 686  ↩

  9. See Galatians 2:10. Munck (1959), p. 287  ↩

  10. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 195  ↩

  11. “Accordingly to 8:10, the Corinthians had pledged to contribute to the collection a year earlier, an indication that the project had been delayed for at least that long.” Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 194. If we include the events that resulted in the launching of this project, the time involved in the collection “spanned the entire period of his known public missionary activity from Antioch to Rome.” Nickle (1966), p. 100  ↩

  12. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 195  ↩

  13. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 195  ↩

  14. Nickle (1966), p. 129–130  ↩

  15. Nickle (1966), p. 129–130  ↩

  16. Nickle (1966), p. 129–130  ↩

  17. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 210 – 211  ↩

  18. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 210 – 211  ↩

  19. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 214  ↩

  20. See 2 Cor 9:12 and Taylor (1992), p. 203  ↩

  21. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 212 – 213  ↩

  22. 2 Cor 9:1; Rom 15:25  ↩

  23. See comments by Karl Holl as quoted in Nickle (1966), p. 100–101  ↩

  24. Dunn (1998), p. 711  ↩

  25. Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:4; 9:13; cf. Rom 12:13; Gal 6:6; Phil 1:5; 4:15  ↩

  26. Nickle (1966), p. 105  ↩

  27. Rom 15:27; cf. 1 Cor 9:11ff, 23; 2 Cor 1:5ff; Phil 1:7  ↩

  28. Rom 12:13; Gal 6:6; Phil 1:5; 4:14f.  ↩

  29. Nickle (1966), p.106  ↩

  30. Wright (2005), p. 167  ↩

  31. Wright (2005), p. 167  ↩

  32. Thoughts adapted from Campbell (2008), p. 77  ↩

  33. Campbell (2008), p. 79  ↩

  34. Campbell (2008), p. 79  ↩

  35. Beck quoted in Wedderburn (1988), p. 74  ↩

  36. Such as Karl Holl quoted in Nickle (1966), p. 100–101  ↩

  37. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 200  ↩

  38. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 192  ↩

  39. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 203 – 204  ↩

  40. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 196  ↩

  41. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 196  ↩

  42. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 196  ↩

  43. These thoughts are adapted from Philippians 3:20 and Wright (2005), p. 170  ↩

  44. Nickle (1966), p. 99  ↩

  45. Nickle (1966), p. 87–89  ↩

  46. Tellbe (2001), p. 184  ↩

  47. Tellbe (2001), p. 188  ↩

  48. Campbell (2008), p. 78  ↩

  49. Wright (1994), p. 61  ↩

  50. Wright (1994), p. 61  ↩

  51. Wright (2005), p. 169 – 170  ↩

  52. Wright (1994), p. 61  ↩

  53. Wright (2005), p. 167  ↩

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  ↩