One of the problems of reading is remembering something you want to use in writing but can’t recall where you read it. Likely, many of you will know what I mean.
The author was writing about our assessment of the Roman Empire and why that assessment has changed in the last couple of decades. Unfortunately for remembering the location of the material I want to use, I’ve been reading dozens of books on the Empire in the last year. That is because I’m researching two current studies of the New Testament and both of them place their interpretation in the context of the Roman Empire.
One of the studies looks at Jesus and his message in its first century context, which context is the Roman Empire. The second study focusses on the origins of the church, and they find that beginning to be set in what can be called ‘associations’ in the social culture of- guess what?- the Roman Empire. I’ll be going into detail about both of these investigations of the New Testament in later postings. But I want to get back to their assessment of the Empire.
With some exceptions, those who studied that Bible in an academic fashion for years viewed the Empire as basically a benevolent force for the growth of the Church. Let me speak about my own experience. My New Testament professor in seminary, Pacific School of Religion, was Dr. Jack Finegan. He was known to the outside world as the author of many books, including “Light From the Ancient Past”, and “Archaeology of the New Testament”, both well used and respected in seminary circles. A search of Amazon will show 63 books by him still available after 50+ years. Yet to those of us who had him as a teacher, what impressed us most was his combining an academic life with owning a yacht (one had to watch Finegan’s Wake- sorry!) and being married to a former Powers Model wife!
But back to the Empire. I think from his academic output that one could safely say that Professor Finegan was well acquainted with the Empire. What I recall most in his assessment of the Roman Empire was its (unintentional) assistance to the promulgation of the Gospel. The Empire had well built roads, which made the job of the Apostles easier in their spreading the Word through the scattered cities of the day. The Legions kept the roads free of bandits. The common culture and languages (Greek and Roman) made preaching the Good News easier to be said and understood. The Roman Empire, on the whole, was considered by Dr. Finegan to be a “good thing” for the early Church.
There were, of course, negative things about the Empire, one of which was involvement in putting Jesus to death. But that could be seen as a tragic mistake. Jesus was, after all, an apocalyptic prophet or a wise teacher of religion, or a Jewish mystic. But certainly not a political figure. Or was he?
So how did we get to where the current Biblical scholars of what we might call an ‘Empire Analysis’ see the Empire in such an ominous light? One of the major books of this school says it well in the title, “In the Shadow of the Empire”. What different writers say in the chapters are variations on the fact that the Empire impacted every facet of the life every person living in it for the whole of their lives. When Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee and called those fishermen to follow him you don’t find the Gospel writer speaking of Rome. But that event took place in the shadow of the Empire. Peter and the others knew the influence of Rome. Depending on the year, 20 to 40% of the fish they caught were taken by Rome as imperial taxes, tribute. Rome controlled the ‘civilized’ world of the time and every event of every day was lived in its shadow. It was always there, whether mentioned or not. If that is the case, why did the Biblical scholars wait so long to call it to our attention?
That brings me back to the quote whose source I cannot remember. That quote was to raise the question: What was the context in which modern Biblical scholarship began? The answer is that it arose in Europe, mostly Germany and Britain, in the eighteenth century. It was the time when European countries had developed empires. And those empires, at least to those who lived on the benefits of them, were considered ‘good things’. Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” talks about Pemberley Manor and dances and spas. But it never mentions the colonies and sugar plantations which made that grand life-style possible.
Empires are always a mixed value, their assessment depending on where you are in its pecking order. I could call you attention to the fact that there are more currents of Biblical scholarship today than the two I am concentrating on. There is, for instance, what are called ‘Postcolonial Studies’. On the whole, they are views of empire by those who had suffered the effects of it- the colonials. The view from the bottom is different from the assessment from the top!
There is another example about how a matter can go through a shift in its assessment. In today’s papers we read articles that call us to change our assessment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is either our ‘solid ally in the Middle East’ or it is the source of ‘spreading the cancer of Islamic fundamentalism’ in western and other countries through funding mosques that preach Wahabism.
So the Roman Empire is not the only power over which one might have a change of assessment. But it is important at first just to realize that, whether or not it is referred to in every passage of the New Testament, the Roman Empire is there, and we cannot be faithful to the words our Christian forebears have given to us unless we understand the context in which they wrote those words and in which those words were heard by early congregations.