Last week we talked about the Apostle Paul. It is hard to read Paul with fresh eyes, without the jaundice of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and the Enlightenment. Through those interpreters, Paul has become more rigid, shriller, and more pedantic. It is hard to unhear all of those voices, so I have to reconstruct my apparatus for reading Paul every time the lectionary foists him on us. To do so, I first turn to John Dominic Crossan because he reminds me of the influence of the Roman Empire on the writings of Paul.
In 70CE, Jerusalem and its temple were utterly destroyed by the Roman Empire. Much of the Christian Testament was written after that and Jesus’ life and death was interpreted in light of that by those authors. It seems like fans of the Bible have gotten more sensitive to that in recent years. I even hear evangelicals talking about colonialism.
But the authentic letters of Paul were written before the fall of Jerusalem, roughly between 50CE and 60CE. As a result, there wasn’t a single catastrophic event that so clearly focuses the presence of the Roman Empire in the writing of Paul. This allows us to spiritualize and theologize Paul’s writing. We imagine that his concerns were those of his later interpreters: faith, grace, law, and works. However, if we understand the Empire as the backdrop that is present throughout Paul’s writings, we become sensitive to certain language.
On Sunday, I highlighted the possibility that Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was, in large part, a conversion of his response to the oppression of Rome. Both the author of Acts and Paul himself (in Galatians 1.14) describes Paul as a “zealot,” which could mean he was a Zealot. The Zealots had a two-pronged response to Rome: 1) rigid enforcement of the law among the people of Jerusalem (violently, if necessary) to return God’s favor to Israel; and, 2) absolute resistance Roman authority (violently, if necessary). The Zealots were instrumental in the Jewish insurrection of 66CE, which led to the destruction of Jerusalem. Paul’s presence at the stoning of Stephen suggests he might be a part of this group.
However, after Paul’s conversion, his posture toward Rome shifts. He still rejects Roman authority, but eschews violent resistance. He writes almost fondly of his imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Empire. He understands that God’s presence in Jesus was marked by suffering for the sake of God’s children, so he takes on that suffering in solidarity with the family of God. Salvation will come, not through violent resistance and the violent enforcement of his theology, but through non-violent resistance and the practice of justice. The way of God is marked by humility and vulnerability in contrast to the world’s way of power and strength.
Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we continue to talk about sin, suffering, and salvation. This week, we will look at a pseudo-Pauline letter that attempts to summarize Paul’s theology of faith, grace, and works (Ephesians 2.1-10), as well as a portion of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus that contains perhaps the best known Bible verse ever (John 3.14-21). We hope you’ll add your voice to the conversation.
Grace & Peace,