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Were the apostles deliberately seeking to subvert the Roman Empire as they preached the gospel?
Were the apostles planting seeds of political revolution?
How did the apostles react against the Cult of Caesar-worship?
Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke by Seyoon Kim (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008) is an important book on a subject of great personal interest. The book I am currently writing (Holy Subversion) illuminates the ways in which the gospel proclaimed by the earliest Christians was deliberately subversive of the Roman Empire. Although many current authors are interpreting this subversiveness in primarily political terms, my book focuses on the ways in which the early Christians sought to subvert, not their present day government, but the powers and principalities that stand behind and are represented by the earthly Caesar.
Christ and Caesar represents a "push-back" that opposes much of the contemporary scholarship about Jesus and Caesar. Kim believes that the case for Paul against the Empire has been overstated. Most interestingly, Kim says that he began his research on Luke-Acts sympathetic to the politically-charged reading of Luke, but found that the evidence pointed him a different direction.
Here is the question he addresses:
"Did Paul and other preachers of the gospel in the first century A.D. formulate their message in conscious reaction to the imperial cult and ideology of Rome? Did they present Christ as an antithesis to Caesar?"
In the first half of the book, Kim devotes considerable attention to the letters of Paul. He seeks to demonstrate that the scholars who see Paul's letters as politically subversive have read their views into the text. He takes on Richard Horsley, N.T. Wright, and others who see a profound political dimension in Paul's writings.
Kim agrees that there are counter-imperial overtones in Paul's writings. But although the Roman rulers may indeed be among the evil forces that Paul targets, they are not the specific or exclusive target of Paul's critique. Instead, Paul was deeply concerned with the powers and principalities represented by the Roman Empire, not the political situation of the Empire itself.
To make his case, Kim points to certain fallacies in the overtly political interpretations of Paul:
Seeing too many parallels between vocabulary of the Caesar cult and Christian proclamation
Making deductions from asssumptions about the imperial cult
Appealing to "code" in interpretation.
The second part of the book lays out the political dimensions of Luke-Acts. Kim believes that Luke deliberately pits Christ against Caesar, but in such a way as to merely highlight the inherent differences between the two kingdoms.
"Luke's positive presentation of Jesus' `redemption' - or better, 'salvation' - leads to the same conclusion, that the gospel is not treason against Caesar. For although Luke repeatedly emphasizes that Jesus the Davidic Messiah has come to redeem Israel, as we have seen, he does not actually present Jesus' redemptive work in terms of altering the political, economic, and social structures of the day to bring Israel political freedom, economic prosperity, and social justice. Rather, he presents it in terms of healing and exorcism, bringing relief for the poor and oppressed; forgiveness, restoration, and transformation of sinners; formation of a new community of the righteous, and the like." (114)
Points of agreement
1. I believe that Kim and Wright are correct (over against Horsley) that Jesus was not a revolutionary in the Jewish zealot sense. He was working to overthrow Satan and to seek and save the lost.
2. Kim is right to see the apostles utilizing the pax Romana to promote the gospel. The apostles were not planning an overthrow of the current authority structure.
3. The fact that the kingdom of God is not spread in primarily political ways adds weight to the theme of my forthcoming book and provides me with a solid academic foundation for why I apply the subversiveness of the Christian gospel to the powers and principalities, not society's current political manifestations.
Areas of disagreement
1. Setting up the argument within the framework of "political" or "non-political" is ultimately unhelpful. Did the apostles even think in these categories? Probably not.
Can one can be subversive of the "powers and principalities" behind a regime without intentionally seeking to overthrow or replace that regime? I think so. Though I agree with Kim that the apostles had no intention of overthrowing the Roman government, I disagree with his statement that the gospel is "politically innocuous." Because of his dichotomy between "political" and "non-political," Kim does not leave room for a politically subversive gospel that is, at the same time, not interested in revolution.
2. Kim does little to explain why Luke and Paul choose to utilize terminology that points to political subversion. Why not choose more innocent language? Can one be subversive without actively seeking to undermine and overthrow the government? Can passive resistance, (like turning the other cheek) be subversive precisely because it is so different from the methods of Rome?
3. Kim believes the gospel was "politically innocuous" (45). He points to Paul's hope for release in prison as evidence of the apolitical gospel:
"It would be most strange if, hoping to be acquitted for preaching Christ's gospel, he wrote in the same epistle (Phil 2:6-11 and 3:20-21) in order to extol Christ's triumph over Caesar." (45)
I disagree with this logic. It is precisely because of Christ's triumph over Caesar that Paul can be confident of release. Christ is ultimately in charge, not Caesar. That kind of confidence in a resurrected Messiah is not "politically innocuous."
4. Kim pits the writings of John against the letters of Paul. He assumes a very late date for Luke-Acts, and this assumption hurts his thesis. I believe there is more agreement between Paul and John than Kim admits. John merely makes explicit that which is implicit in Paul's letters.
Christ and Caesar is an important contribution to the current studies on the apostles' relationship to the Roman Empire and imperial cult. Kim is right to see that the early Christians were not planning a political revolution or overthrow of the Roman government. Unfortunately, Kim leaves little room for deliberate political subversion that takes place indirectly (by focusing upon the powers and principalities behind the earthly Caesar), the solution that I believe best makes sense of the evidence left by the New Testament writers.