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Anti-imperial Paul?

September 13, 2017

One of the issues in Pauline studies in recent years is whether Paul’s letters contain a “hidden” critique of Rome and imperial ideology.  Big names in NT studies have lined up on both sides of the question.  In a recent study, Christoph Heilig probes the warrants and approaches of the stances taken:  Hidden Criticism?: The Methodology and Plausibility of the Search for a Counter-imperial Subtext in Paul (Fortress Press, 2017; the publisher’s online catalog entry here).

For an overview of his own approach and assessment of the matter, have a look at his recent blog-post here.

It’s interesting that scholars on both sides of the issue have endorsed Heilig’s book as a helpful analysis.


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  1. On reading the referenced blog post I promptly tripped over the question mark placed on Paul’s citizenship. What would be the reason for the qualifier?

    It seems to me that If Paul was not a Roman citizen everything in Acts following end of chapter 22 becomes a fabrication. Any subsequent interview with the governor would have looked very different and Paul would never have been sent to Rome.

    From what I have been reading of Roman history as of late, the garrison commander would have taken a rather dim view of a false claim to citizenship. A non-Roman doing so to avoid a beating in the midst of an interrogation might stand a very good chance having that interrogation turn into a possibly lethal flogging. Or of being nailed up somewhere. Or likely both.

    • Alan Paul permalink

      There are several places in Acts (eg 16:37 as well as Acts 20: 25-29) where Paul’s Roman citizenship is clearly and unambiguously asserted. The implied questioning of Paul’s Roman citizenship by Christoph Heilig (what a superb name for a biblical scholar incidentally!) is therefore surprising, unless of course he questions the historicity of Acts. But that seems not to be the case, since in many places in his book “Hidden Criticism” he quotes Acts in ways which leave the reader in no doubt that he regards Acts as historically reliable (eg the accusation by the Jews in Acts 17:1-9 that Paul is subverting the decrees of Caesar). Of course a citizen can still be critical of the place whose citizenship he enjoys, so the assertion of Paul’s citizenship in Acts is neutral as far as the discussion of “anti-imperial” texts or subtexts in the epistles is concerned.

    • Dear Steve, thanks for taking the time to read my blog post. Personally, I do think that Paul most certainly was a Roman citizen. This does not change the fact, however, that this is an assertition that is highly debated among scholars, especially in the German-speaking sphere. And it’s because of this circumstance that I felt I had to add that “qualifier,” thus demonstrating awareness that this was not a universally held assumption.

      • Thank you for the clarification. That helps.

        And I was intrigued by your approach to the assumptions underlying the idea of a hidden critique.

  2. Alan Paul permalink

    Thank you, Christoph – I clearly need to work harder on my powers of textual exegesis, since, after reading your blog article more than once, I interpreted it as pointing in a direction contrary to the views regarding Paul’s counter-imperial stance which I now understand you hold! This shows the importance of context, I suppose.

    I have unfortunately not had the benefit of reading “Paul’s Triumph” or “Hidden Criticism” – so my understanding of your approach to these matters may still be far from perfect.

    As an interpretative methodology, the idea of identifying “necessary conditions” for the basic assumptions which underpin an hypothesis is an extremely interesting one. But for the hypothesis that there is an anti-imperial subtext in Paul’s writings, the number of “necessary conditions” that would need to be identified and evaluated may be greater than what you have suggested. For example:

    – It would be necessary to evaluate the probability, given his background and calling, that Paul would regard it has part of his vocation to promote an anti-imperial agenda in his mission to the gentiles;
    – It would be necessary to evaluate the probability, if Paul’s vocation did indeed include an anti-imperial agenda, that he would promote this agenda through the medium of his epistles, rather than through other means;
    – It would be necessary to evaluate the probability, assuming that the epistles would be his chosen medium for this purpose, that the epistles in which an anti-imperial subtext was hypothesized were in fact authentically Pauline;
    – It would be necessary to evaluate the probability that the people for whom the epistles were intended would have the degree of sophistication needed to “read between the lines” and pick up the allusions which had been so carefully camouflaged.

    It might also be helpful to define with greater precision what exactly is meant by “anti-imperial” in this context. The term could cover a wide spectrum, ranging from passive resentment, to contemptuous dislike, to critical hostility, bitter hatred and subversive intent. Where does the “anti-imperial” Paul stand on this spectrum?

    Not only that, but the question of whether Paul could have been “anti-Rome” or “pro-Rome” is not a binary one. A more likely hypothesis is that his evaluation of the Roman Empire would have taken account of both positive (peace and security, good infrastructure) and negative elements. If the assessment on balance was on the credit side, despite the existence of some (less tangible) negatives, Paul could hardly be described as “anti-imperial.”

    • Dear Alan,

      thanks for that.

      Your suggestions for additional necessary conditions are interesting (and confirm the usefulness of that category in general, I’d say). There’s only one that I think is not actually relevant (if we ask whether Paul in “his letters” has coded forms of criticism, we of course presuppose that the material we analyse needs to be Pauline – that there are different opinions with regard to the demarcation is another story). I think I pay attention to all of the other considerations you mention within the framework of the conditions that I list in my blog post. For example, to pick up your last suggestion, when I say that Paul had to know the Roman ideology he is supposed to have criticized, this includes the broader question of how that kind of information would have been accessible to his readership and how this might have been relevant for the communication of these two parties. Note that I put great emphasis on the fact that it is difficult to make any far-reaching statements here and that one really has to analyse this on a case-by-case basis. So in “Paul’s Triumph” I scrutinize the extent to which Paul and the Corinthians might have been familiar with the ritual of the Roman triumphal procession – or even a specific contemporary event.

      Regarding your other point about the precise meaning of “anti-imperial” and different forms and degrees of criticism: I think you are entirely right. It completely depends on how one defines these concepts whether the paradigm breaks down, for example, when raising the question what kind of criticism would actually have been dangerous in the Roman empire and what kind of critical attitude we can expect to have been part of Paul’s worldview.

      I get the impression that you might actually like my book. 😉

      • Alan Paul permalink

        Hi Christoph

        I’d just like to say that your recent blog article does not do full justice to your book “Hidden Criticism”, which is highly readable, cogently argued and well researched. It’s a stimulating introduction to the whole topic of Paul’s attitude to Empire.

        I appreciated your discussion of discourse context (Chapter 3). It seems to me that some of your key judgements turn on whether (1) the early Christian movement could have posed a threat to Rome; and (2) the extent to which Paul would have expected his letters to be accessible to people outside his (small) circle of believers (pp 61-64).

        On point (1), I wonder if too much reliance can be placed on Acts 17: 1-9 in support of the notion that Paul and his supporters, though small in number, posed a subversive threat? Since the accusation of “acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar” comes from Paul’s Jewish opponents, who incited a riot, it seems more likely that Luke is underlining the unfairness of the proposition, not its aptness. Moreover the Greek verb ἐτάραξαν (Acts 17:8) suggests that it was that Paul’s opponents who stirred up trouble with their (unreasonable and misleading) allegations.

        On point (2) I wonder if Paul’s letters really were widely circulated during his lifetime? Although you refer in your footnotes (pp 63-64) to an array of scholars who believe that the letters were read out in large congregations, it seems more likely that this was a phenomenon which started much later. Justin Martyr, for example, writing around 150, mentions that the memoirs of the apostles (which he also calls “gospels”) were read out in churches, but he seems to be referring to accounts of the sayings and acts of Jesus, not to the epistles, although he seems to draw on the epistles from time to time.

      • Dear Alan, thank you very much for your kind words on my book!

        On point 1: You are right, early Christian authors usually stress that they are good citizens and that trouble that does occur isn’t caused by them. But in a certain sense this only proves the point that there was a certain perception of early Christians that needed to be countered. The “threat” is, of course, not one directed against Roman rule (for that, this movement was simply too insignificant at Paul’s time). If we want to use that word, I’d rather say that we are talking about the perception of a threat to local public safety and, thus, a potential problem for local authorities in their manifold dependence on central Roman favour.

        On point 2: To me, the real question is in what sense early Christian worship was a semi-public matter. That Paul’s letters were read collectively and, thus aloud, seems to me without a real alternative. The problem of letters (i.e., also “private” letters) as a rather indiscreet means of communication is also confirmed in my opinion by the evidence of other collections, esp. the corpus of the letters by Cicero.

  3. Alan Paul permalink

    I would share Heilig’s apparent doubts about the Wright / Elliott theory of an anti-imperial subtext in Paul, in the sense that it was not part of Paul’s agenda to subvert or criticize Roman rule. Why should he want to do so, given his belief in the imminent Parousia, which would spell the end of all worldly powers? On the other hand, the use by the early Christian movement of scripturally based terms such as “Lord”, “Son of God” etc. to describe Jesus left it open to the accusation that it was challenging the Roman Emperor, who was referred to in the same terms. But that was an incidental side effect of the gospel, not an intentional part of it.

    Hays’ seven criteria are a valuable analytical tool for detecting “echoes of scripture” in Paul’s writings, which can serve as hermeneutical keys to understanding his theology and ecclesiology. But the criteria cannot be reliably used as a means of detecting “echoes of Roman propaganda” in order to determine Paul’s political ideology. If this is what Heilig is saying in his long and not always easy to follow blog post, then I would agree with him.

    The idea of applying Bayes theorem to biblical exegesis is not new, but it is very difficult to assess the probability of “necessary conditions” with any degree of objective numerical accuracy. So I am not sure if Heilig’s suggested approach would take us much further forward.

    • Dear Alan, in fact, I do think that the problems regarding Hays’s criteria I mention in the post occur also when applied to Scripture as the source of the intertextual link. There’s a forthcoming article by Joel White that builds on my critique and develops it further into that direction.

      But yes, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about numbers in relation to prior-probabilities and likelihoods in biblical studies. (I say so explicitly in the post and in more detail in the book.) I still think keeping these methodological considerations in mind does take us further: (1) It helps us to become aware of problematic “criteria” that are commonly used to decide the matter, (2) in the exegesis of specific passages it can help us in making sure we actually don’t focus on only half the relevant evidence. If you doubt that the latter mistake occurs among biblical scholars and that, hence, making the inferential structure supported by confirmation theory explicit, I’d suggest you take a look at the positions I analyse in the book that it discussed here:

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