Saturday, February 28, 2009

Book Notice: Seyoon Kim, Christ and Caesar

Seyoon Kim
Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.
Available at

Political readings in Paul are in vogue at the moment whereby Paul's theology (and indeed much of the NT including Luke and Revelation) are said to be deeply subversive to the Roman political edice in general and directly opposed imperial propaganda in particular. Seyoon Kim responds to some of these readings with a powerful critique that has some measure of validity. I think Kim raises some good points about the parallelomania that endemically permeates these studies, the inability of these scholars to do full justice to Romans 13.1-8, and Luke's attempt to show that the Church and Roman society are not entirely incompatible does not fil well with their thesis, and (I would add) some commentators make Paul out to be some kind of liberal college arts professor who is anti-American and anti-Bush to the enth degree.

Even so, I am not convinced by Kim's handling of Acts 17.1-9 (pp. 44-45) that opposition to Caesar is not implied by Paul's gospel as Paul meant something very different to the offence that his gospel actually caused. Second, Kim declares that this counter-imperial message was essentially absent in the early church, but the narrative of the Acts of Paul shows that this is patently false and the two kingdoms were regarded as incompatible. Third, counter pagan propaganda is implied in Israel's national religion which long saw Yahweh as defeating pagan nations and de-throning their Gods (e.g. Isaiah). Fourth, the older studies of Adolf Deissman and William Ramsay I think capture correctly how Paul's epistles have to be situated in the context of the Roman political world. Ramsay wrote: "A universal Paulinism and a universal Empire must either coalesce, or the one must destroy the other". Ramsay is also not cited once by Kim either.

Credit to Kim, he does make some genuinely good criticisms and shows how the pendulum needs to swing away from a Paul who looks like a left-wing political activist. He also argues in the conclusion that we should not expect Christians living in countries under hostile regimes to take up arms in the cause of revolution in order to prove their discipleship, nor should we fear to politically engage the world around us (Kim commends Luke over John the Seer as a model here). Even so, I would urge against pushing Paul and Luke in the direction of a political quietism.

Those wanting more should read Denny Burk's article in JETS (2008): "Is Paul's Gospel Counterimperial? Evaluating the Prospects of the "Fresh Perspective" for Evangelical Theology" for an approach similar to Kim.


Denny Burk said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Mike.

A brief word in response. The Acts of Paul is really late, and that is Kim's point. The clashes between Rome and Christianity that characterized the latter half of the 1st century and beyond made for a different kind of literature. Paul's letters reveal a situation in which that clash had not yet taken place. This is why the counterimperial Apocalypse is a totally different animal when considered next to a book like Romans. Apples and oranges.

Much luf,

Daniel said...

Dr. Bird,
I find much in common with your take on Christ and Caesar. I defiantly think many have taken the politics of Paul way too far. A professor of mine mentioned the other day that much of this may be due to the context of an aggressive foreign policy of the Bush administration of the last eight years. It will be interesting to see if such ideas are continually pursued with the new administration.

I have found it better to describe Paul's message over against that of the Empire as counter-cultural or counter-political rather than subversive. Neither Paul or John are trying to bring done the Empire, but simply counter those who claim things that belong solely to the exalted Christ. It seems to me that Paul does this with his apocalyptic eschatology. Paul is opposed to Rome insomuch as the Empire, the Emperor and the cult make claims that, in the apocalyptic eschatological reality Paul preaches, actually belong to Jesus.

I would include Eph 1 and many of the Psalms in your into the discussion of the implied anti-pagan propaganda.

I have also been thinking through Luke's view of how Paul and the Gospel relate to Rome. He goes out of his way to show Theophilus that Paul is constantly mistreated and then vindicated by the courts, yet stresses in Paul's speeches and dialogues things that sound counter-Imperial, especially Lordship.

(I hope I used used "apocalyptic" to your satisfaction)

andrewbourne said...

Could you point to the references by Ramsey and Diesman as I doing a recent project on this subject

Michael F. Bird said...

Andrew: check this out for Ramsay references.

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