Review of Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not

McKnight, Scot and Joseph B. Modica, eds. Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2013. 224 pp. $18.

While trends in biblical studies come and go, some leave a lasting impression, making their mark on scholarship in such a way that they transform the landscape of biblical interpretation. Empire criticism is one such trend. The recent work edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies sets out to examine this trend with a keen eye for determining its validity within NT interpretation.

As defined by McKnight and Modica, empire criticism “refers to developing an eye and ear for the presence of Rome and the worship of the emperor in the lines and between the lines of New Testament writings” (16). They go on to say that this approach “asks us to listen closer to the sounds of the empire and the sounds of challenging empire at work in the pages of the New Testament” (17). As the editors affirm, if this approach is right, it is “breathtaking in its implications” (17). However, they themselves find enough wrong in empire criticism to take some of the “air” out of this approach, attempting to make it a little less breathtaking than it may seem.

Bookended by an introduction and conclusion written by McKnight and Modica, the middle is filled with a collection of ten essays written by various authors. Two introductory essays set the stage for the discussion. Chapter one by David Nystrom offers a basic but helpful overview of the Roman world at the time of the New Testament, explaining the ideology of the Roman empire and offering a brief explanation of the Roman imperial cult. Judith A Diehl continues this general overview and also surveys the contours of the modern debate on this issue. The remaining chapters cover various sections of scripture, exploring what empire critics are saying about particular texts and analyzing whether these assertions hold. These include Matthew (Joel Willitts), Luke (Dean Pinter), John (Christopher W. Skinner), Acts (Drew J. Strait), Romans (Michael F. Bird), Philippians (Lynn H. Cohick), Colossians/Philemon (Allan R. Bevere), and Revelation (Dwight D. Sheets). The book ends with a brief concluding chapter by the editors in which they summarize the findings and make their own position clear on this issue.

The reader should be aware that this book sets out to put empire criticism “to the test” (21) and debunk many of its tenets. Although the editors claim they are attempting to “strike a balance between a postcolonial reading of the NT and one that recognizes the contributions of such a reading” (212), this is certainly not a “balanced approach” type of book to be put in the same category as Zondervan’s Counterpoint Series or InterVarsity’s Multiview Books. This book clearly has an angle. While the editors make the claim that “We did not ask them [the authors] to take a negative or a positive stance . . . We leave it to our readers to judge for themselves” (21), this statement is made after several pages of their own criticisms of the approach. And, of course, the writers were hand-selected by the editors. You certainly will not find in this volume the likes of N. T. Wright, Richard Horsley, or Warren Carter. As for the main assertion of the book, that is made clear as well: empire criticism is “the dog that didn’t bark” (13). This is essentially because, in the view of the editors, “there is a surprisingly small place in the NT writer’s attention for denunciations of Caesar, explicit or otherwise” (13).

As long as one is approaching the book with this in mind, they will find much to commend and appreciate. First, the two introductory chapters provide a very helpful onramp to the field of empire criticism and would be especially helpful for those just becoming familiar with the topic. Second, its layout as a collection of essays as opposed to being written by a single author allows the texts to be addressed by their respective experts. Each writer did indeed seem well-acquainted not only with the texts at hand but also with the arguments of empire criticism for those particular texts. Third, overall the writers and editors bring forward some very wise and important cautionary exhortations on both how empire criticism can get carried away as well as how NT scholars might themselves get carried away as they apply aspects of this critical method in their own research.

One criticism I have with the book is that it seems like there is quite a bit of ink spilled to argue predominantly over the word “predominantly.” It is repeatedly stated that the NT writers were “somewhat” interested in opposing the sovereign rule of the Empire (at least in relation to Christians’ allegiance to the true Lord, Jesus Christ), but not “predominantly” or “primarily.” However, all those who employ empire criticism do not always assert that the “predominant” interest of the NT writers centers on imperial themes; to the contrary, some see it as one among other central themes in the text. In this respect, the editors could be faulted for setting up a straw man argument. And while the book may do well to knock down these straw men (or women) who overdose on empire criticism, it does not give due credence to those who have applauded, promoted, and employed this criticism as a very helpful tool while keeping their feet firmly planted on the ground by acknowledging much more than imperial themes. While it is certainly possible to take this trend too far or apply it in unwarranted directions, its value for NT studies has been immense; while some of the essay writers acknowledge its value, the book certainly might have given this method a little more credit for its valuable contributions.

Another criticism I have of this work is that several writers seem to pit allusions to Rome in NT texts over and against the “Jewish” nature of these allusions, creating a rigid “Rome vs. Judaism” dichotomy that is perhaps unwarranted. While it may be a proclivity of some empire critics to diminish the Jewishness of certain texts in favor of an appeal to Roman imperial themes, it is erroneous to say that this is true across the board (i.e. N.T. Wright is a classic example of someone who has aptly drawn attention to both). Furthermore, it is practically impossible to dissect these two. In fact, many Jewish concepts present in the NT were forged in the midst of oppression and subjugation by foreign rulers and imperial powers within the nation’s history. To say, then, that specific concepts point only to Jewish ideology and have little to do with imperialism is perhaps setting up an unwarranted antithesis. Imperialism is an important thread in the fabric of Jewish ideology and history. Moreover, from the very beginning of the Jewish scriptures, Yahweh’s authority and power over earthly kingdoms and their direct opposition to God’s people is a prevalent theme, many of those kingdoms being mentioned explicitly by name. The NT simply carries on this same polemic against these powers; only in its case, the specific expression of these earthly kingdoms is found in the current imperial power: Rome. Acknowledging those imperial themes may, in fact, give due credence to the continuity between the testaments and the overall Kingdom theology that unites them.

Criticisms aside, I find myself sympathetic to the goals of the editors in cautioning scholars regarding the extremes and pitfalls of empire criticism and am glad such a work has found its place within the literature on this topic. It is a valuable tool in the hands of those who desire to make their own informed judgment on this important trend within NT studies.

This book can be purchased through IVP Academic. I am grateful to them for providing this review copy. 

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About Susan Rieske

My dissertation focuses on the concept of "generation" in the book of Matthew. Before pursuing a doctorate, I spent several years in ministry serving on staff with Cru, in various leadership roles in the local church, teaching as an adjunct professor at Moody Theological Seminary, Michigan, and as a writer and speaker with Shepherd Project Ministries.
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One Response to Review of Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not

  1. Robbie Crouse says:

    Great summary, Susan. Thanks for this.

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