Things I Am Learning from N.T. Wright’s Humongous Book on Paul, Part 1
I started reading Paul and the Faithfulness of God during the Christmas break and now, more than 10 months later, I am still at it. But I am learning a lot on the way, and this month I want to start sharing some of this with you. I expect there will be a few more instalments next year.
Paul and the Faithfulness of God is the fourth volume in Wright’s series on Christian Origins and the Question of God. Together, these volumes present an understanding of how Christianity and the church began (therefore “Christian Origins”). According to Wright, an important part of the explanation is how the early Christians “redefined” the one God of Jewish monotheism to somehow incorporate Jesus and the Holy Spirit while remaining ferociously monotheistic nevertheless (therefore “and the Question of God”).
To put this fourth volume in context:
- The first volume was titled The New Testament and the People of God, appeared in 1992 (yes, that is 22 years ago), and counts 535 pages., which seemed thick at the time. It presents a theoretical framework for the series and seeks to understand first-century – or better, Second-Temple – Judaism and early Christianity through the lens of worldview.
- The second volume, Jesus and the Victory of God, was published five years later, in 1997. It is an attempt to understand Jesus historically within this setting of Second-Temple Judaism, demonstrating that what he did, said, and believed about himself makes sense in this context. The book counts 741 pages, and that is without saying a word about what followed after the crucifixion.
- Originally, this subject, the resurrection, was to be the concluding chapter of volume 2. However, the second volume had already grown rather bulky, and the author believed that he had enough material to justify an additional, previously unplanned short volume on the resurrection. This original idea must have run out of control, because The Resurrection of the Son of God, which appeared in 2003, counts 817 pages. Yes, this “brief” extra volume turned out to be the largest in the series – up to this point.
- 10 long years passed by, in which N.T. Wright published many shorter books (the man writes faster than I can read), until finally, in November 2013, the long-awaited sequel on Paul and his theology came out, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Its size – hold on to your seat – was 1700 pages. No wonder it took 10 years to complete, and no wonder I am not coming to the end of it.
In this issue of Create a Learning Site I look at the subject of the emperor cult and the imperial ideology that increasingly marked Rome. The emperor acquired a new status reminding me of a fairy tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I am assuming you are familiar with it, but if need be, you can read it here. In this fairy tale, these new cloths are entirely imaginary. In the end the emperor goes out naked, although no one wants to admit this. The new identity of the emperor in Rome was likewise an illusion: he was no more divine than any other human being.
This emperor cult played a significant role in the background of the New Testament, not just as the occasion for the book of Revelation, but also as an important factor giving shape to other parts of the New Testament as well – more so then I realised before reading the relevant chapters in Wright’s book.
Before diving in, I should make this disclaimer: N.T. Wright’s views on Paul and his theology are in parts controversial among evangelicals. To give just one larger example: he insists on translating “the righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:17) as “the [covenant] faithfulness of God” (as in the title of his book). This controversy is not what I am dealing with. The question here is not: did N.T. Wright get the NT right? (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.) I am not writing a critique of his book and I am not going to discuss the so-called New Perspective on Paul, at least not now. It is worth pointing out that more often than not he is in disagreement with other representatives of the New Perspective, and he is certainly the most evangelical voice among them. Rather than focus on points where he fails to convince me (although there are such points), I will be sharing positive insights and new information I am taking away from this book.
Who Is Like Caesar? And Who Can Make War against Him!? (cf. Rev. 13:4b)
When the writing of the New Testament came to an end, presumably with Revelation, emperor worship was not yet being enforced. However, soon enough it would to be, even if not consistently. Domitian, the ruling emperor from 81 until 96, expected to be addressed as Dominus et Deus, Lord and God – a sign of things to come. Revelation was given, among other reasons, as a prophetic word to warn and strengthen the church in facing this threat. It is especially the image of the beast in Revelation 13 that brings out the ugly and demonic reality that Rome was becoming.
This much is relatively obvious and unsurprising. Conventional wisdom has it that this kind of emperor worship was particularly strong in the East of the Roman Empire, but that in the West, especially in Rome itself, the emperors initially held back, with the exception of madmen like Caligula. In first-century Rome, the emperor did not become divine until after his death.
It is at this point that Wright’s portrayal of the world in which Paul lived, especially the evolving self-understanding of the Roman Empire, adds significant depth and some correction. The problem is our Western mindset, shaped by the Enlightenment to think in mutually exclusive and clearly separated categories such as “human” and “divine”.
This is not how people in the ancient world thought. To them, the boundary between the categories of “human” and “divine” was permeable. Gods could choose to walk and perhaps live among mortals. Certainly their offspring could. And humans, although this was rare, could rise to divine status. This is what happened to Julius Caesar and a number of his successors after their death. In fact, there was a gradient or scale moving from the human through intermediate categories to the gods of the Olympus; there were various possibilities in between.
A second crucial consideration is that one did not have to make overt claims. There were more subtle ways to hint at the true nature of emperor and empire. This is why I now realize it makes more sense to speak of emperor cult than of emperor worship; the latter term is too narrow and specific to cover everything that was going on, including in the West. Here are a few examples.
- When Octavian, better known to us as Emperor Augustus, became the sole ruler of Rome in 27 BC, “Augustus” was one of the titles he received. It means “exalted one”. How exalted exactly is left open, but the ambiguity makes one wonder.
- The picture above shows a well-known statue of Octavian, displaying him as a military leader. The statue is laden with symbolism, some of it suggesting more-than-human. The emperor is barefoot, for instance, the way outstanding heroes or gods, but not ordinary humans, were put on display. And that little creature at his feet is Cupid, a son of Venus. It brought to expression the claim that the family of Octavian descended from this goddess as well. Other emperors took it further. One statue of Claudius makes him look like Jupiter, Rome’s supreme god, complete with Jupiter’s eagle (9864; here and elsewhere, these numbers refer to the location in the kindle version of Paul and the Faithfulness of God).
- Since Julius Caesar, his adopted father, was divinized after his death, Augustus could logically and legitimately present himself as the “son of the divinized”, which he did for instance on coins. The expression stops short of claiming divinity for Augustus, since he is neither a god nor the son of a god, but it comes close. It suggests a peculiar closeness to the divine without explicitly claiming divinity. The implication is that Augustus was more than a mere human.
- Coins were an important means of propaganda. After all, there was no TV and no printing, and there were therefore very few pictures for people to look at. As N.T. Wright reminds us, coins “were the only mass medium in the ancient world” (8959). “Accustomed as we are to seeing human faces on coins, we might forget that it was only in the time of Julius Caesar that the Romans began to portray living human beings numismatically, and Augustus developed this strikingly, with his own portrait variously displayed, not least in the guise of a god” (8964-68).
This illustrates we are dealing with a gliding scale. If Augustus was not a god yet, he was certainly on the way to divine status, and already closer to the divine than mere mortals.
Outside of Rome there was less reticence to treat emperors as divine. This was obviously true for the East, where rulers had been understood as in some sense divine for centuries. Here, the earliest temples for living emperors were built, starting with Pergamum in 29 BC; strictly speaking Augustus wasn’t even emperor yet.
Particularly striking is an inscription has been found in the Roman province of Asia dating back to 9 BC (quoted in 9585-9610). In it, a number of cities decide and decree a change in calendar. From this point on the year was to begin with the birthday of Emperor Augustus, which had been “the beginning of glad tidings” (Greek: euangelia). In the decree Augustus is hailed as god, but also as “a savior who brought war to an end and set all things in order”. This hardly describes an ordinary human being.
Although less known (it came as a surprise to me to read this), this move toward a cult revolving around the emperor is not limited to the East. Surprising is how early altars to Augustus were erected in the West: in Lyons in France in 10 BC, and probably even earlier in Spain, in 19 BC (9332, 9524). Again, this is not quite the same as saying that the emperor is a god, but it comes close.
Intricately linked with the position and status of the emperor was the story that Rome had begun to tell about itself. I am referring to the imperial ideology constructed to justify Rome’s rule of the world. In part it was being spread through statues, coins, and other non-verbal and symbolic means. But it was also a real story, put into words by some of Rome’s greatest poets, especially Virgil (70-19 BC).
In this narrative, Rome’s long history was retold as a story that from its beginning had a higher purpose. For long stretches of time, it could seem that Rome would not rise to the challenge, that it would fail to fulfil its destiny. This was especially true for the decades before Augustus came to the throne, since this was a century marked by civil wars. As it turned out, it was darkest just before the sun rose. With Augustus, Rome was at long last fulfilling its divinely ordained destiny of bringing justice, peace, and prosperity to the whole world, initiating an enduring golden age that was the long-awaited climax of its history:
The empire used every available means in art, architecture, literature and culture in general – everything from tiny coins to the rebuilding of entire city centres – to communicate to the Roman people near and far the message that Augustus’s rise to power was the great new moment for which Rome, and indeed the whole world, had been waiting. (8887-89)
Increasingly the emperor became the central symbol around which the empire was organized. His cult unified the empire. And the underlying narrative functioned as the imperial ideology, eloquently asserting Rome’s right to power.
It was the only such narrative at the time, with one exception: that of Israel, of which most Jews likewise believed that it would end with a worldwide kingdom of justice and peace, but centred on Jerusalem, not Rome. In the understanding of Paul and a few thousand other Jews, this kingdom had already been established with Jesus as the king. Therefore, in his view, the narrative that Rome had constructed about itself bringing justice and peace to the world was, to paraphrase N.T. Wright, the parody of which Israel’s narrative and the gospel were the true version (10046, 36070, 36749).
There could be no doubt about a Jewish and Christian rejection of this parody. In light of the Asian decree instituting a new calendar and quoted previously, the beginning of the Gospel of Mark turns out to be politically subversive:
The beginning of the gospel [as in the Asian inscription, the Greek word euangelion is used] of Jesus Christ [literally “anointed one”, but essentially meaning “king”], the Son of God [an imperial title]. (Mk. 1:1, ESV)
Knowing this background information, there are other parts of the New Testament that also read like a direct critique of this emperor-centred ideology. To ascribe to Jesus the title “Lord” or “the name above all names” (Phil. 2:9) was not merely a spiritual or theological claim. When Paul speaks of the “coming” of Jesus, using the Greek word parousia, he is again using emperor language. The word denotes presence or arrival. In the case of the emperor or a high official it could be used for a visit or for their return home. In other words, we could understand it as royal visit or royal presence. In addition, the word could also be used for a visit or an appearance of a god (29152ff).
This helps us to understand that strange occurrence announced in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, better known as the rapture. Notice in verse 15 that the event is the royal arrival, the parousia. (Already this makes clear how absurd the idea of a “secret” rapture is, according to which Jesus first returns invisibly to collect his church, just before the Great Tribulation and years before he returns to Earth visibly. The emperor would not travel alone and he would not, evading all attention, attempt to sneak into one of his cities in secret.) As part of this royal arrival, those “who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:17, ESV). This statement reflects how cities would honour and welcome the emperor or his representative at his parousia: their leading citizens would go out to meet him, not to camp in the field, but to then turn around to accompany him as he entered the city. Since Jesus comes down from heaven, we have to go up, not out; not to float in the air for all eternity (or even for seven years), but to accompany him on his return and arrival. How literal all of this will take place is an open question, but the point is clear: the one whose arrival is here described is the true ruler of the world.
This Earth Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Them
Augustus, Lord, son of God, saviour of the world, Dominus et Deus…: titles like these make up the emperor’s new clothes. In Revelation 13 John draws a caricature in which the emperor (and every ruler making similar claims) is portrayed not as a god, but as a beast with “blasphemous names on its heads” (Rev 13:1, ESV): the very titles just cited. The true ruler and saviour of the world is the Lamb, God’s anointed king and Messiah. The beast is therefore nothing but a counterfeit lamb, a pseudo-Messiah, falsely promising peace and salvation through its political structures and world domination.
In the original fairy tale, a little boy speaks out what everybody is thinking: “The emperor hasn’t got anything on!” Revelation is John’s (and God’s) way of saying: the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes! He is not a god at all!
The state or human government is never the answer to the structural ailments that have befallen our world. If it claims or pretends to be, this is a recipe for disaster and something to which the church cannot submit. As N.T. Wright points out,
There cannot, in the last analysis, be two parallel eschatological narratives of world domination. Either the history of Rome provides the true story, with Christian faith content to shelter, as a ‘permitted religion’, under its banner. Or the history of Israel, climaxing in the crucified and risen Messiah, must be seen as the true story, with that of Rome, however much under the overarching divine providence, as at best a distorted parody of the truth. (36067)
If Augustus, Nero, and Domitian would have had a chance to read Paul’s letters, they would not have been amused. Emperors don’t like to be told they are not wearing any clothes.
As a result, those embracing the Messiah’s story face a double challenge. One is persecution by those committed to enforce rival stories. The other is the temptation to turn the gospel into a mirror image of those stories, into another imperial ideology, seeking to subdue the world with Caesar’s tools: fire and iron.
But this is the kingdom of the Lamb, not of the dragon. Caesar’s tools won’t do; the kingdom of God is not an empire.
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