Review of the book

Paul and Empire – Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society

(Edited by Richard A. Horsley)

Trinity Press International
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania


The opening sentence in the Introduction is, "Christianity was a product of empire."

"Christianity, which became the established religion of empires, started as an anti-imperial movement." Jesus is now being viewed as catalyzing a movement against Roman rule and against the Jerusalem priestly aristocracy.

  • In anticipation of the End Times, Paul was establishing ekklesiaia – among the nations – that were alternatives to official assemblies throughout the empire.
  • By the end of the New Testament era (150), the speakers for the Christian movement emphasized they were not a threat to the imperial order.
  • Then later, they insisted that they were loyal to Caesar, even though they had a loyalty to their God (which was not part of the official state religion).
  • By the time of Constantine, Christianity becomes the established religion. and part of the empire (structurally).

A change of thinking emerged in the 18th century (the Enlightenment era), where church and state became separate with their own jurisdictions. This caused thinking about Christianity to drift away from focusing on the political aspects that were a part of early Roman-era Christianity. New Testament studies, especially that of Paul, focused on the purely spiritual religion and some interaction with political Judaism. But by and large, imperial politics were viewed as providing a background where events took place.

However, Paul and Empire is addressing the re-emergence of a field of study that examines the interaction between Roman politics and the development of Christianity.

Book overview. There are four main sections in the book.

From the General Introduction

Section 1: The gospel of imperial salvation.

  • The contributor takes a careful look at what the emperor cult was at the time. How extensive it was, how meaningful it was, at the time. The emperor cult was probably not the mechanical, formulaic religion, which is the common understanding today, but widespread with significant participation – especially with the festivals and the building of temples.
  • Emperor cult:

  • It’s notable that the emperor cult came into full swing with Augustus, which is contemporary with emergent Christianity. Greeks regularly identified Augustus with Zeus. We know there were statues to Augustus and his wife Livia. There were temples to Roma and Julius Caesar. A notable example being a temple in Ephesus.
  • Eschatological thinking:

  • Highly eschatological texts were contemporary with Jesus and Paul. These were Roman texts. More than the frequently (and often only cited) Fourth Eclogue of Virgil. This eschatological thinking was part of a "more general and pervasive mood". For example, the Carmen Saecularie of Horace – a poem contemporary with the New Testament.
  • Rituals for the imperial court:

  • Changes with Augustus. People were proposing starting the new year on his birthday. The imperial cult was something that the cities and city governments involved themselves with. It was integrated into the city spaces (e.g. statues and temples and sanctuaries). Book focuses mostly on Greek cities.
  • Power of images:

  • Reviews where the buildings were located. Competition between cities to see which could best promote the imperial cult. "The imperial cult did spread throughout the west, but not as early as in the east. But by the end of Augustus’ reign, there was probably not a single Roman city in Italy or the western provinces that did not enjoy several cults linked to the imperial house."

    A complication: There was no tradition of ruler cult in the west (Italy) where there was a sharper distinction between mortal and immortal. The Greeks were less inclined to see that distinction.

  • From the General Introduction

    Section 2: Patronage, priesthoods, and power.

  • Extends the examination of the emperor cult which was – in essence – the top node of the hierarchy of the power and patronage relationships throughout the empire. Note that Christianity with its egalitarian outlook ("horizontal" was quite different from the vertical hierarchical structure(s) that Rome developed throughout its empire. The author focuses on "pyramids of patronal social-economic power relations" that describes the then existing situation.
  • Patronage:

  • Not only the means of social control, but also the means of social cohesion. "Pyramids of patronage" are not purely oppressive control structures, but the way society organizes itself.

    When Augustus came to power following years of civil war, people were glad to see a period of calm, and this reinforced the support for the emperor (and by extension, the emperor cult). [p 91] People supported the tying together of various pyramids of patronage under a single top-node: the emperor.

    Books examines the reciprocal exchanges, services rendered (often to the poor or the deceased) under patronage. These organizations were mutual-aid societies, collegia. Even though these were, relatively speaking, conservative societies, they posed a threat because they were an alternative to the government. There were some restrictions imposed on the collegia, such as being only able to meet once a month.

  • Patronage in Roman Corinth – a detailed examination:

  • Emperor was the patron of Corinth.

    "It is most likely that patronage would become the background for understanding the relational ties in the church and some of the problems Paul discussed in 1 Corinthians."

  • Priestly role of the princeps:

  • The emperor was the princeps (absolute ruler whose word was law)
  • From the General Introduction

    Section 3: Paul’s counter-imperial gospel.

  • Previously the focus on Paul was on his promotion of "his" religion over the preexisting Judaism. However, more recent analysis indicates that some of the expressions and words used by Paul ("gospel", "salvation", "the cross") were borrowed from the Roman imperial ideology and therefore statements against the imperial ideology. Various statements of Paul are cited
    • 1 Thessalonians, where Paul disdains Roman imperial "peace and security".
    • 1 Corinthians, where Paul writes about the impending doom of "every rural ruler and every authority in power".
    • Philippians, problems with officials in the town
    • Romans, which can be viewed as a letter focusing on the inclusion of Jews and Gentiles in a movement that awaits the End Times. The "doom and destruction" is not on Judaism, or The Law (or not only that), but on the "rulers of this age’.
  • Quote: "Paul’s gospel stands counter primarily to the republican imperial order, ‘this world, which is passing away’"
  • Paul’s counter-imperial gospel:

  • Much of Paul’s language would have evoked echoes of the imperial cult and ideology, and revealed his preaching to be anti-imperial gospel. (There is a lot of textual analysis done by contributors to the book.) Examples are words such as "salvation", "savior", "loyalty", and "gospel". Author notes the "imperial" language found in Romans and in other letters.

    "Perhaps the most striking opposition to the imperial gospel and Paul’s gospel is their theology in relation to politics. The imperial ideology emphasized that Jupiter and the gods handed power over to Augustus. Paul, by contrast, insisted that Christ was now reigning in heaven and, ‘after every rule and every authority and power,’ would ‘hand the kingdom over to God the father … so that God may be all in all’" (1 Cor. 15:24,28)

  • Romans: (excerpts from chapter 8)


  • The term parousia is used four times in 1 Thess. and twice in 2 Thess. (elsewhere in Paul, only once). It had been an assumption that is was a technical term for the eschatological coming of Jesus or the Son of Man. However, there is no evidence in pre-Christian apocalyptic literature for such technical usage. The author concludes that the term has been introduced by Paul in the letter and that it is a political term closely related to the status of the community. The author asserts that Paul describes the coming of the Lord like the coming of Caesar.
  • Anti-imperial message of the cross: (excerpts from chapter 10)

    Romans 13:1-7

    Opinion: an interpolation

    A persistent minority of scholars have rejected Romans 13:1-7 as a non-Pauline interpolation into the letter. Romans 13:1-7 addresses a subject that Paul discussed nowhere else.

    "Paul’s generous characterization of ‘the governing authorities’ appears a contradiction of Paul’s thought. Especially troubling are discrepancies within the immediate of Romans 12-13. These include the lapse of eschatological expectation in 13:1-7 (present against in 13:11-12!)"

    Opinion: written by Paul

    It makes sense when read against the general climate of anti-Jewish sentiment in Rome. The tax system was brutal, and Jews were often identified with tax collecting.

    "Some people have thought that Romans 13:1-7 to be a response to the vulnerable status of the Jews, or a posture of ‘political realism’."

    "Paul’s appeal to subjection to authorities in 13:1-7 would have functioned within the overall rhetorical purpose of Romans to advocate for the safety of the Jewish community in Rome."

    Other people think Paul’s concern was with the ambiguous and vulnerable status of the Christian congregations in Rome – Gentile Christians were no longer identified with the Jewish synagogue.

    From the General Introduction

    Section 4: Building an alternative society.

  • Point to note: Religion and daily life were co-mingled, and it’s hard to have a religion separate from everything else that’s going on. It’s integral to the society.

    The author claims that Paul was not starting a new religion – as we might view it. Paul was establishing ekklesiai, which were largely separate from imperial society.

  • Ekklesiai:

  • "Paul’s ekklesiai [assemblies] are local communities of an alternative society to a Roman imperial order."
    "Ekklesiai is a political term with certain religious overtones." (It’s misleading to translate it as ‘church’.)
  • 1 Corinthians: a case study of Paul’s assembly as an alternative society:

  • "… besides urging group solidarity, Paul insisted that the Corinthian assembly conduct its own affairs autonomously in complete independence of ‘the world’ as he writes in no uncertain terms in 1 Corinthians 5-6".