The last decade has brought a host of really interesting engagements with the topic of Paul and empire. I sense we’re still in a “trying things on” stage – in which people are trying out different readings of Paul, with “anti-imperial” lenses. Some of these readings will bear fruit, and others won’t. I think at this point it’s worth offering two humble cautions:
1) Be really careful about arguments based on vocabulary. Just because certain terminology was sometimes used in certain contexts in the first century, that doesn’t mean that Paul’s usage necessarily aims to subvert those connotations. I heard a conference paper last year that cringingly used this logic as though it were an inflexible rule: If we can find any usage of Pauline vocabulary in what might be thought of as “imperial propaganda,” then Paul’s meaning can be comprehensively understood in anti-imperial terms. I don’t mean to say that we should never hear subversive echoes of empire in Paul’s language; simply that we should be careful. Does Paul only proclaim the “resurrection” of Christ because it subverts Roman claims to imperial immortality? Surely not – and yet I’ve heard a paper claiming as much. For more on this, see the paper by Joel White on Anti-Imperial Subtexts in Paul.
2) Be careful about turning “Rome” into the new “Judaism.” Since the holocaust, theologians have rightly become aghast at the way “Judaism” or “the Jews” have been viciously caricatured in Christian theological rhetoric. We have become much more sensitive to nuances in the New Testament’s presentation of these categories, and have recognised that it is neither accurate nor winsome to present Judaism as Paul’s big enemy. And yet it seems that we’ve transferred the vicious caricature to Rome – while we used to say “Judaism = works” we now say “Rome = violence.” I worry that some presentations of anti-imperial sentiment in the New Testament involve a highly skewed reading of history, as well as a lack of sensitivity to nuance in the New Testament itself.
I don’t mean to deny the usefulness of trying on these lenses; I just want to urge care in the way we go about it. So let me end on a positive note by suggesting one “anti-imperial” reading which I think is fruitful – in relation to 1 Corinthians 11:23-26: Associations were expected to make a libation for the emperor in the context of their common meal. The fact that the Corinthians were rather called to make a libation (“drink from this cup”) for one who had been crucified by the emperor was presumably supposed to be an act that was starkly subversive of Rome’s values. So Paul’s reminder that in the libation they are “proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes” may well have evoked disjunction with the usual practice of proclaiming Caesar’s lordship.