Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Empires Strike Back

That empires avenge their once-conquered lands with ferocity multiplied is just one insight gained from lingering with In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance, edited by Richard A. Horsley. The book chronicles the often forgotten theme of empire from Egypt of Exodus to the Patmos of Revelation. The reference to re-conquest is not about the story line in the Star Wars epic, but rather to the treatment of Roman-subjected peoples who rebel, such as what Jerusalem suffered in the time of the Jewish Revolts of 66-70 A.D.

The volume features writing by Gottwald, Brueggemann, Crossan, and Horsley, to name a few. While I found the chapters covering the Old Testament narrative helpful, those chapters covering the New Testament were for me filled with new discoveries. From everything to demon deliverance to feeding the multitudes, there are nuances with empire that the chapter on "Jesus and Empire" uncovers.

More discoveries await the reader in Brigitte Kahl's chapter, "Acts of the Apostles: Pro(to)- Imperial Script and Hidden Transcript." In the past, I have discounted the Luke-Acts narrative as empire friendly, and never considered it as a kind of "safe" and orderly account of Jesus and Paul needed for Christian survival in and among hostile and oppressive Roman authorities and territories. It also explains some of the many differences between the Letters of Paul and his work in Acts.

But the topic, the often forgotten theme of empire throughout biblical history, is what I found most riveting. The presence of empire enmeshed in the biblical narrative is the pink elephant in the room when it comes to our Bible study and preaching in the church. Especially when it comes to Jesus' Roman century, we have romanticized empire. For example, how many have heard about the glories of the pax Romana as nothing more or less than the best time for a messiah, a deliverer, to enter human history?

Christ followers who were burned alive under Nero or the churches of St. John's Revelation a generation later would have not seen the pax Romana as a great gift, but as propaganda for an empire whose terror and oppression resembled a beast. All the amazing Roman technologies developed were mostly used for domination, not liberation; any benefits were seen by the few. Conquered people were enslaved, made refugees, and paraded back in Rome in order to prove the success and to warn others of the might of the Empire. The conquered Judeans from the Jewish War serve as such an example.

While the subject of the book is weighty, you will find the essays meaty, worth quality study time, and an excellent resource to deepen Bible appreciation and understanding. This book may encourage us to delve into primary sources like Josephus, Philo and others. Reading In the Shadow of Empire may also prompt us to rethink, if not re-read much of the Bible, especially the New Testament.

1 comment:

  1. The background (and context) of biblical texts has always fascinated me. Not as simple as people think it is. And yes, probably changes the way we read.

    Welcome, btw, to High Calling Blogs.


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