Mark Goodacre over at the NT Gateway has drawn attention to an article by N. T. Wright (available here) on Easter.
Goodacre notes the prominence that the notion of “Empire” has in some of Wright’s work. Now, given the context of the article (“these trying times”), it’s not surprising that Wright considers the passion narrative in the context of political strife. What is surprising is how the notion of “Empire” continues to gain prominence in my own thinking.
Last year I participated in the year-long “New Testament Seminar” at Harvard Divinity School. This particular seminar was led by Prof. Laura Nasrallah and devoted to the study of early Christian apologists and post-colonialism.
I was pretty quick to lay my cards on the table and go on a few anti-post-colonialist rants. To me, the issues and politics being dealt with by early Christians are far different than those that gave rise to the studies of Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Frantz Fanon, etc. It seemed to me that the analogy was stretched a bit much. I think it would be inappropriate to study the literature of any time using the tool of post-colonial literary criticism simply because we think their might be a “subaltern”—simply because we might think that their is an analogous social hierarchy.
Last night I was talking about Romans with a college bible study that I’m currently working with at my church. I was chatting about Rome, and what Paul’s “bad news” (e.g., Romans 1:16-32) might mean for someone living in first century Rome. Surprisingly, I found myself stressing this notion of Empire. However, I believe it was in a different context than the post-colonial or subaltern critic would use (thought I could be wrong here…I admit that Bhabha’s jargon is far too difficult for me to grasp…I respect anyone that can back up a claim to understand what he’s talking about).
Last night I realized that in my thinking about early Christianity and its context, I’ve become fascinated with the ebb and flow of “culture” under the Roman Empire. A lot of folks argue that under Alexander, the Macedonians began such a period of cultural flux. Other will tell you that this is false, that the Phoenicians and others were cavorting about the Mediterranean long before Alexander. Wherever you fall on that issue, you might be inclined to agree that the level of cultural exchange reached its height under the Roman Empire.
For all its issues, I think there is still some interesting thinking in A. D. Nock’s Conversion—and it can be witnessed by visiting various archaeological sites in the eastern portions of the empire (e.g., Greece and Turkey). Despite Christian persecution and anti-Judaic laws at various stages of the Empire, the level of cultural mixture seems quite remarkable. Indeed, “all roads lead to Rome,” and its interesting to look at the stuff left behind on those roads: structures and artifacts.
Yeah, the notion of Empire is certainly important in our thinking about the context of early Christian. It’s important to remember the incredible melting pot that paid tribute to Caesar. The difference between this view, and a post-colonial view, is that I’m not necessarily sure that these non-Romans were viewed as sub-human or subaltern or whatever the proper term might be.
It seems to me that there was a great deal of tolerance and respect operative within the Empire…so long as you didn’t disturb the peace (pax Romana), and you remained current on your payments.