That Which Must Be Resisted: Some of the Historical Background

Written by forrest : October 24, 2007

234995151_4c414d5fb0 All that stuff about living in “The Empire”; that’s just rhetoric, right?

Well, no. Though most American Christians don’t realize it, Christianity implies the existence of an Evil Empire.

Evil? Why? As James Thurber’s Wicked Duke put it, “We all have our faults, and mine is being wicked.” Evil is built into the very nature of an empire.

Jesus confronted the Empire of his day, and it killed him. Afterwards, his earliest followers posed a direct challenge to the authority of Rome. Their attitude, in the eastern end of the Mediterranean to which it was addressed, would have been closer to that found in Revelation 17 than that of Paul’s Romans 13.

Before Jesus ever existed, as JD Crossan says in _God and Empire_, Augustus Caesar had already been given such titles as: “Divine,” “Son of God,” “Lord,” “Redeemer,” and “Savior of the World.” “To proclaim them of Jesus the Christ was therefore to deny them of Caesar the Augustus. Christians were not simply using ordinary titles…They were taking the identity of the Roman emperor and giving it to a Jewish peasant. Either that was a peculiar joke and a very low lampoon, or it was what the Romans called majestas’ and we call high treason.”

But that was what Christians felt called to proclaim: Jesus was Lord, and Caesar was not. Even “Christ,” aka “Messiah”= “King of the Jews” was at least as much a political title as it was religious.

“But wasn’t it ‘The Jews’ who killed Jesus?” Not really. The small group of Jews who turned him in for execution were creatures of the Roman Empire, acting to maintain Roman control of Israel.

The Roman Empire knew the advantages of indirect rule, using local elites who appreciated Greek culture and Roman military support. That was their practice everywhere, but it was essential in the strategic area of Palestine.

The Jews, with their tradition that God had liberated their ancestors from foreign slavery, were a difficult people for pagans to rule, even difficult for them to understand. The peculiar God of the Jews cared about poor people, even slaves. He imposed taboos on work, money, and real estate transactions. Not only did He deny one’s right to exploit whatever people and things one owned; God insisted that He alone owned the land of Israel. Human beings could only be tenants, on land that God had provided for the needs of His people, even specifically for the needs of poor people.

The Empire could deal with the elite; they could choose the King and lock up the High Priest’s ceremonial robes to keep him from using them without Roman permission. The prosperous families of Judea, if they found anything embarrassing about such treatment, continued to find their position under Roman rule cushy.

Not so the poor. Where leisured writers of official histories saw “Roman peace and prosperity,” the vast majority of the population lived as subsistence farmers–surviving by whatever would be left of their crop after taxes were paid. If the crop failed, they went into debt. And while the Torah called for debts to be forgiven every seven years, in practice there were no longer enough neighbors willing to lend on that basis. Some years before Jesus, Rabbi Hillel had found a loophole: The poor could get loans via the “prosbul,” a promise to pay their debt to a court even if the seventh year intervened. Thereby many poor people were saved from immediate starvation, at the cost of ultimately losing their land. The story of Jesus and the rich young man (Mark 10.17) needs to be read in this light. (William Herzog does a wonderful job of it in Chapter 7 of _Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God_.)

Hellenistic commercial economic practices were ruinous to small farmers, even in Italy. Imposed in Israel, they set up a festering conflict of the poor (appealing to the traditional protections of Deuteronomy) against their more secular and cosmopolitan rulers. When Israel revolted in 69 CE, the rebels went out of their way to destroy tax and debt records..

The revolt came close to succeeding, but within a few years was ruthlessly crushed. Just before Jerusalem fell to the legions, the leaders of the Jerusalem church are said to have fled to Perea–but the church overall was no longer led from within Israel. The Christian church within the Empire itself had developed as an urban movement, drawn largely from the group known as “God-fearers”: pagans who’d been attracted to Judaism but stopped short of full conversion. Circumcision was one serious barrier, but governmental hostility was another. While the ancestral exemption of born Jews from pagan religious duties was respected, Roman authorities disapproved of converts claiming such immunities. Anyone–such as Christians–who offered pagans an easy route to conversion, thereby threatened to undermine the religious rights of “real” Jews. Hence Jews had been denouncing Christian synagogues to the authorities for some time, and when revolt in Israel brought Jews throughout the Empire under public suspicion, hostility between Jews and Christians probably worsened. This was the very time period in which most of our gospels?with their portrayals of “the Jews” as enemies of Jesus?were being written.

Anyway, the traditional Christian–and Jewish–doctrine says that God, not Caesar, is the ultimate power in the world. It says that God judges nations, not by their military power or their GNP, but on their treatment of the poor and marginal. (According to the Midrash, Sodom was destroyed specifically for mistreatment of travelers and poor people. Based on expansions of Ezekiel 16.49: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”)

Of course we may question whether God–and we–should be implacably opposed to the dominant secular powers of the world, even in this age, after so much has changed. But that’s a subject for another post.


Forrest Curo is a Quaker & a What-Does-That-Mean?-Christian. He writes: “I’ve had some activist experience: started a major San Diego homeless demonstration (1998), worked food lines, published/edited San Diego’s Street Light 1997-2002. I’m a geezer; my faith comes out of the 60’s manifestations of the Spirit. I’m guilty of occasional poetry, ran a used bookstore (Aardvark) with my wife Anne, and spent a big chunk of my life reading from different religions. My frequent prayers for understanding are frequently answered…”

for further reading . . .

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13 Responses to “That Which Must Be Resisted: Some of the Historical Background”

  1. Peter Davidson on October 24th, 2007 10:56 am

    Yea, come unto Christ — come and see!

  2. Michael Parkatti on October 24th, 2007 7:21 pm

    Did anyone realize that Jesus actually DID drive an SUV –> predicting the materially obsessed American consumer culture by two millenia???

  3. Chris on October 24th, 2007 10:38 pm

    Sorry, I can’t keep my mouth shut when a historical inaccuracy sneaks its way into such a nicely written post. The Jerusalem Christians fled to Pella, one of the cities of the Decapolis, not Perea. I think there was another Pella in Macedonia that could have been by the coast, but that’s not where they went. Sorry to be nit-picky, but you do use that as evidence that the church was no longer “led” from within Israel.

    Also, on the matter of this sentence: “Their attitude, in the eastern end of the Mediterranean to which it was addressed, would have been closer to that found in Revelation 17 than that of Paul’s Romans 13.” How do you know this?

  4. forrest on October 25th, 2007 8:38 am

    I hadn’t been sure either, so I searched on Perea & Pella, coming up with several sites saying more or less:
    “There is a tradition that attests to the flight of the Jerusalem Church, … to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella.”

    If the church had not fled Jerusalem, or had gone somewhere entirely different, the facts remain that Israel, within the Empire, came to be regarded much as the US population felt about Iran in the late 70’s– and that Romans went through Israel doing significant damage to people and property, certainly not leaving a Jerusalem church there with the preeminence it had once been automatically granted.

    As for Revelation vs Paul, we have the fact that Revelation was directly addressed to the main churches of “Asia,” ie exactly that area. We also know that there was a major revolt of the riff-raff population that had produced most of Jesus’ initial followers, and that Israel remained desperate enough to try it again some 50 years later. You may believe that Christians, outside of Isreal proper, tended to be loyal supporters of the Emperor–but their presence in a church that denied his divinity does suggest dissatisfaction with the system. And we have the fact that Revelation, despite the hostility that some later Christians expressed toward the work, was preserved and eventually included in the canon.

  5. forrest on October 25th, 2007 1:33 pm

    A bit more from _God & Empire_…

    “The Book of Revelation, the Great Apocalypse from John of Patmos, is, first of all, a linked and interwoven attack on the empire of Rome, the city of Rome, and … on Roman imperial theology. Rome’s empire and capital city are repeatedly called “Babylon” because, just as the Babylonian Empire had destroyed Jerusalem’s First Temple in 596 BCE, so had the Roman Empire destroyed its Second Temple in 70 CE. The imminent destruction of “Babylon” signals the imment destruction of Rome…

    “In the Old Testament… [sexual terms are] traditional for those wo commit the fornication or adultery of abandoning God for pagan idols. Faithless Israel plays the whore… by betraying her divine spouse…

    “The Apocalypse, which in fact is written to them [the 7 churches] about Rome, is not consolation fo their persecution by Rome but admonition against their acculturation to Rome…. It intends to preclude any Christian cooperation with the Roman Empire, although John believes that collusion is already happening. ‘Come out of her, my people,’ is his mantra.”
    The Principality that was Rome… is very much a prototype of the Principality currently worshipped as “America”. (We are even coming to resemble Rome in her love of and reliance on cruelty.) We’ve inherited the European habit of admiring the Roman material and military achievements, without a sense of how much human misery went into those impressive monuments.

    All this is very seductive, at least when you’re at (or hope to be at) the comfort-dispensing end of the Empire Machine. So the number-one minimal step of resistance may well be: “Don’t let them fool you!” Or as Dorothy Day said, at least our secular problems “stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

  6. Chris on October 25th, 2007 6:44 pm

    I guess my question then is how you view Romans 13. My initial question was how you knew that the attitude of Christians in the eastern Empire privileged Revelation 17 rather than Romans 13. You adduced 3 pieces of evidence, that Revelation was addressed to Asian churches, that there was a major revolt (where?) in addition to the Jewish revolt in Palestine, and that Revelation was preserved and canonized. Not to be a stickler, but those points don’t really answer the question. Just because Revelation was addressed to Asian churches doesn’t mean that they held a negative attitude against the 13th chapter of Romans. I also don’t see how the Jewish revolt in the late ’60s has anything to do with early Christian attitudes about Romans 13. And, if you’re drawing a contrast between Revelation 17 and Romans 13, both were part of books that were canonized. Sorry, I feel like I’m poking you with a stick a little bit, but it seems pretty important to your interpretation of early Christian history to prove that the early Christians were political upstarts (is that fair to say?), and rather than try to make sense of biblical texts like Romans 13, you’ve presented the idea that at least some early Christians (eastern ones) simply liked the ideas in Revelation 17 better than the ones in Romans 13, and I’m asking for better proof of that.

  7. forrest on October 26th, 2007 2:11 pm

    I suspect this conversation is more about theology than history, and might work better with that in the open.

    Re issues of factuality, there are a couple of things you don’t seem to be giving their due weight.

    1) The overwhelming bulk of the population at this point, well over 90%, was subsistence farmers.

    2) The earliest part of the church is mostly Jews from this constituency of Isreal.( Increasingly, as you get farther away, you find a movement with more of an urban goyim flavor–Paul, for all his zeal, being an appropriate missionary for this group, far more Hellenistic in his understanding of Jewish religion than purely Jewish.)

    3) Up to the point of the Jewish revolt itself, (and afterwards for a great many members) we should expect to find Christian attitudes toward Rome to resemble those of other pious Jews: seeing the Romans as a brutal, rapacious, bunch of idolators infesting the Promised Land.

    I was pointing out the existence of repeated uprisings in Israel itself throughout this time, not claiming that these were happening throughout the Middle East. This doesn’t mean the Romans were beloved elsewhere, merely that the religious ideology to justify revolt applied specifically to Isreal– self-described as God’s country, home to a nation claiming to be God’s people, delivered miraculously from slavery to idolatrous foreigners.

    “Romans” was, incidently, addressed to Christians in Rome. Who no doubt felt differently about much of this.

    The trouble with canonizing a book as “inspired” is that people misinterpret that to imply that it gives “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Instead of pointing toward “truth as seen through the dark glass of one limited human interpreter.”

    No book is given to us as a substitute for thinking.

    The human gift of strategizing, seeking rules to simplify the nasty business of having to make decisions, readily runs away with any opportunity to carve human ideas into stone commandments. Which is what made Paul’s advice to the Romans so treacherous. (See
    for an example I hope you too will enjoy.)

    While Josephus, a member of one of Israel’s leading families, considered Rome’s dominance of the world to be a sign of God’s favor to the Romans, I doubt Paul saw it in quite that sense. After all, he expected Jesus to be back any day now to set things right, putting the powers of the world in their place. Meanwhile, his advice for dealing with the government was to avoid poking at it unnecessarily, stay out of trouble, assume it was generally doing as God intended. I doubt he would have included activities like public sacrifices, gladitorial games, or crucifictions as falling within God’s good purposes.

  8. Chris on October 27th, 2007 11:40 am

    Well the last paragraph of your comment approaches a response to my question, but still isn’t very satisfactory, admittedly. I think I would need evidence you don’t seem able to supply for me to agree to a contrast between theologies expressed in Revelation 17 v. Romans 13. Those two texts need not be and aren’t contradictory. Also I recommend using less absolutist language when you’re describing history (”specifically,” “no doubt,” “overwhelming bulk,” etc.) It may help people like Richard Horsley sell the popular level books you’ve read, but it’s not good history.

  9. forrest on October 27th, 2007 1:29 pm

    Let’s see… are you saying a Phd in history is required for anyone to know and understand what was going on in this period? Or merely to contradict your view of it?

    Are these rhetorical questions?

    Paul is susceptible to a wide range of interpretation, but he was obviously addressing gentile converts and seems to have a thoroughly Hellenistic understanding of Christianity, making it sound like any contemporary mystery religion (except this one’s true, trust him.) Aside from lots of notions I personally disagree with, Paul’s theology was quite obviously off on at least one point: The local graveyard hadn’t gone vacant yet the last time I went by.

    Anyway, the existence of Rome does not seem to be a major sore spot with Paul. For the author of Revelation, it’s a real annoyance. What I think got you started was my saying that most of the population of the region he was addressing would have had similar feelings. That looks like a no-brainer. What’s to like about having a chunk of the crop you need to live on taken every year for ‘protection’?

    If you have some genuine interest in history, hostile questioning of me isn’t going to help you much. How about putting forward your version of what happened and why you think it happened that way?

  10. Mark Van Steenwyk on October 27th, 2007 3:16 pm

    I am reluctant to jump into the middle of your debate, gentleman…but here goes.

    Forrest, you seem to find Paul to be much more sympathetic to Rome and Hellenistic thought than I do. Certainly he was doing a lot of contextualization, but I think you (and many many others) tend to set up Johannine and Pauline Christianity against one another more than is necessary.

  11. Chris on October 27th, 2007 3:17 pm

    I don’t think it’s really up to me to present a version of what happened and why I think it happened that way, because I haven’t posted anything on Mark’s blog; I’m only commenting on what you’ve written. I wasn’t trying to be hostile, and I’m sorry if my questions because of their rigor came off so. You don’t need a PhD in history to understand any historical period, but I think if you’re going to write a piece based on assertions about the early church, you ought to be able to defend their veracity. A red flag goes up for me whenever people make really strongly worded statements or say that something is a “no-brainer,” because especially with ancient history, there’s no such thing as a “no-brainer.” I was just trying to challenge the meat of your post a little, but I seem to have hit a nerve, so I apologize for that.

  12. Chris on October 27th, 2007 3:36 pm

    Sorry to hijack the commenting area, Mark, and again, sorry Forrest for being a little caustic and perhaps a little too critical. I am quite sympathetic to the sentiment of your post, and it is really well written. Mark can vouch for me (I think) that I only engage people I think are expressing something worthwhile. You mentioned John Dominic Crossan in your post, who to my mind is a great scholar but has painted a very particular portrait of the early church as a revolutionary political movement. Perhaps it was that to some extent (I honestly don’t know to what extent for sure), but if we believe it was that to such an extent that the sentiments Paul expresses in Romans 13 starts to seem implausible, I think that might cause problems.

  13. forrest on October 28th, 2007 1:26 am

    A religious movement isn’t a solid object, acting as if all its mass were at the center of gravity moving at the same velocity. The edges are fuzzed by people coming from different backgrounds and having connections to other groups. And ideological features that some people emphasize may look like bugs to other members.

    One prominent aspect of the Book of Revelation is the author’s disapproval of the fact that some of his contemporary church members are taking the easy way, reaching comfortable accommodations with the customs of the Hellenistic world.

    Even as a kid, reading Matthew, I could see a sharp socioeconomic edge to many of Jesus’ sayings. People don’t like to leave that edge sticking out where they, their friends or relatives might cut themselves… They soften it. They don’t intend to, but they do.

    That edge is very Jewish. I think it’s most noticeable in Deuteronomy, the book “found” when someone in authority saw the need for a radical reform of Israel–which was falling into the unjust ways of its pagan neighbors, but couldn’t continue on that basis.

    William Herzog does a detailed commentary on some familiar gospel passages in _Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God_, portraying Jesus precisely as a defender of the traditional Jewish Covenant–specifically, those elements of Torah intended to protect the poor from the greed and ambition of their rich countrymen.

    Now that is not a complete picture of Jesus. But it is an element we always knew was crucial–maybe literally so! It’s entirely consistent with Jesus’ popularity with “the people” and his unpopularity with the respectable classes (in our time as well as in his own.)

    It doesn’t make Jesus the leader of “a revolutionary political movement,” if you take that to mean “regime change via force & violence.” It does give the authorities an entirely plausible motive for wanting Jesus–like John the Baptist–dead. Defending that Covenant makes Jesus radically subversive of the powers that were, and are.

    Personally, I think the Romans and their puppet theocracy killed Jeus because he was literally King of the Jews. I have good reasons to think so–and not particularly because of either NT Wright or Robert Graves–but this venue “is too small to contain the full proof”… and it’s not material to my main point:

    ‘Revelation’ is implacably hostile to Rome aka “Babylon.” That’s consistent with coming from, and being addressed to, an area where land loss, beggary, and banditry grew rapidly under Roman rule, culminating in a devastating revolt before the end of the century, with worse to follow. ‘Romans’ is addressed to people living in the capital city of the Empire, who may not worship The Beast, but indirectly benefit from their position in its tummy. They are not likely to share a poor peasant’s attitude toward the wealthy and powerful, nor is Paul in a rush to persuade them they should. “Down with that pesky Emperor!” might not be the most auspicious beginning. I don’t think Paul is being dishonest, nor is he dispensing bad advice, for people who will need to make the best of a bad Empire, for awhile, seeing no need to do otherwise. But it isn’t “Come out of her, lest you partake of her sins!” And it looks yucky on a stone tablet!

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