Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Paul and the Faithfulness of God Chapter 5

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I am continuing to read through Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God, by N. T. Wright. I am making a post on each chapter as I read them. Previous posts are here, here, here, here and here. Each chapter is very long so what you are getting here is a very brief summary of this very important book. I welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book.

Chapter 5 concludes the first part of Book 1, Paul and His World, which describes the historical, cultural and religious backgrounds of Paul’s world. He enters the world of Paul through the letter to Philemon insisting that the main point of what Paul is doing is redefining his Jewish world view around the crucified messiah who reconciles Jews and Gentiles into one group and through them, in the power of the Spirit, accomplishes His plan for the world. He then describes the Jewish, Greek and Roman backgrounds through and into which Paul applies this message.

Chapter Five is entitled “The Eagle has Landed: Rome And The Challenge Of Empire.” Rome ruled the entire ancient world in which Paul lived. The Jews were politically very weak but their influence and survival resulted mainly from the torah which kept them socially distinct and unique.

It is truly remarkable that the Jewish people survived as a recognizable entity, not only in Galilee and Judaea but in a diaspora that stretched from Spain to Babylon, taking in lands both north and south of the Mediterranean. That they did so is testimony to the cultural and social boundary-markers we discussed in chapter 2, and in particular to the power of their own controlling narrative, contained in their extraordinary sacred books. 282

Rome maintained the peace and brought prosperity to the world but at a high price: submit or die. Under Augustus the empire was established and Rome’s rule was more firmly established under a king who was seen as a god. The Romans saw the emperor and the empire as the goal of history, the proper end of all politics and religion. Rome was celebrated as the ultimate hope of the world., the bringers of the new age. The Jews and Christians provided an alternative view to that message.

Though Josephus does not specify which oracle he has in mind, he can only be referring to the book of Daniel, which offers two things in particular: first (in chapters 2 and 7), a prophetic sequence of four coming kingdoms, the last of which will be overthrown by a new worldwide kingdom which the one God will set up; second (in chapter 9), a specific chronology for when this is to happen. Ah, says Josephus, but this was not, as they supposed, a prophecy of a coming Jewish king. It was about Vespasian, who was in Judaea when he was hailed as imperator. 293

The reign of Augustus was celebrated in Rome and much further afield not only as a good thing in itself, but as the good thing for which a very long history had been preparing. 298

But the message of the Odes, and especially of the Carmen Saeculare, remains: Rome’s long story has arrived at its glorious climax with the victories, and the consequent peace, of Augustus. 301

The great narrative of Rome as in the Aenid was the inevitability of the arrival of Rome and its grand march to world power and through Augustus to a glorious future. The way toward this was war and the “son of god” would lead them to victory and to the golden age. Politics and religion were tied together. The “gospel” of Caesar provided the anti-story into which Paul’s gospel message would come.

The political agenda is obvious, but that doesn’t mean that the conception and execution of the Aeneid was any less than brilliant. It always was, I think, a mistake to see Virgil as a kind of pre-Christian prophetic figure. His prophecies lead us more directly to Pontius Pilate than to his most famous victim. But his grand narrative stands to the grand narrative of Israel’s scriptures, together with their putative final chapter, at worst as a kind of parody, at best as another altar to an unknown god. 311

We have to understand Paul and his message first within the cultural, religious, political context of the first century, not that of the 16th century or of our present situation. The imperial cult must form at least part of the background for Paul’s framing the message of an incarnated Jewish Messiah who would provide the real gospel – Jesus is Lord.

Just as Pauline scholars have had to learn that one cannot expect the categories of sixteenth-century theology to catch all Paul’s first-century nuances, so one cannot expect the political slogans of our own day to do justice to the challenges of his. 314

It would, after all, be good ([local rulers like Herod] would say) for everybody: for the people, to be at peace and enjoy Rome’s famous justice; for Rome itself, to know the contentment of a grateful subject people; for themselves, to stay in power. That was the kind of local elite that John of Patmos appears to have portrayed as the Monster from the Land, doing the will of the Monster from the Sea. 320–321

Beneath the imperial cult was a religious diversity which, in a way, united the other divinities under the Roman emperor, “the world of space and time was being reorganized around the emperor. (328) This would have been just as true in the provinces as in Rome.

The system in question—not just ‘imperial cults’ in a narrow sense, but an entire symbolic universe, in which the varied cults played a key strategic and symptomatic role—constituted the world, including what we call philosophy, religion and politics, in which the apostle Paul lived, worked, preached and taught. 323–324

When Paul speaks of the Thessalonians turning away from idols to serve a living and true god and to await the arrival of his son, it would be very strange if he had not meant to include Roma and the emperor among those false deities. N. T. Wright, 330

Though for the most part it was true that imperial cults took their place alongside, and sometimes blended with, local and traditional customs, there was always at least the veiled threat: whatever else you do, this one matters...As the followers of Jesus soon discovered, the easiest way for Roman authorities to get them to renounce Christian faith and profess their attachment to standard paganism was to force them to sacrifice, or swear by, the emperor. One could not with impunity opt out of showing such allegiance, an allegiance which more or less everybody else (except the Jews) was cheerfully expressing in terms of participation in one form or another of imperial cult. 332–333

The cults, in all their variety, and for all their blending of Augustus with other divinities and especially with Roma herself, came down to a focus on Augustus himself as the lynch-pin to the whole symbolic universe. 335

This began with Augustus but grew into full-blown emperor worship under Tiberius and subsequent rulers. A temple to the emperor was built in most major cities all over the Roman empire. There was even a legend of a dead emperor (Nero) returning to re-establish his kingdom.

Augustus and his family were the new, and powerful, gods to be faced in city after city. Including, of course, the ones to which Paul went, and to which he subsequently wrote. 339

By the end of the century, in the middle of which Paul came through the eastern empire preaching the message of Jesus, these developments had produced a new civic and religious reality. The highest honour a city could now hope for was to become neokoros, temple-guardian for the Sebastoi, the Augustus-family. Worshipping the emperors was well on the way to becoming a central and vital aspect not only of life in general but of civic and municipal identity. 341

There was opposition to this view of a Roman millennium under a Roman emperor-god. Most of the uprisings were completely crushed as were the Jewish rebellions in 70 and 135AD. Jesus would be the one who provided an alternative way to the Golden Age and Paul would become one of his most important spokesmen. As Wright would say “Jesus is Lord, Not Caesar.”

There was one Jew, born under Augustus and executed under Tiberius, who modelled, articulated, and eventually gave his life for a different dream of divine empire. The point remains inevitably contentious, but I persist in seeing Jesus of Nazareth as, among many other things, the spokesman for what he himself saw as a new movement which would fulfil the ancient Israelite prophecies, which would bring Israel’s strange, dark narrative to its climax, and would launch upon the world the new reality of which Augustus’s ‘golden age’ would be seen as a parody. 346

Saul of Tarsus, born and bred a Pharisee in a world shaped by the wisdom of Greece, the religion of the east, and the empire of Rome, came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, and that this Jesus had called him, Saul, to take the ‘good news’ of his death, resurrection and universal lordship into the world of wisdom, religion and empire. 346

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