Ratzlaff Review: Paul & The Roman Imperial Order

VernThe legendary Vern Ratzlaff (right), Canadian Mennonite pastor and professor, was sporting his 5-inch beard long before practically every American white guy under 35 started growing theirs. Vern is spending free time at his outpost in Saskatoon reading dense anti-imperial theology and writing concise summaries for the rest of us.

A Ratzlaff Review of Paul and the Roman Imperial Order. (ed) Richard Horsley, Trinity Press, 2004.

Here is another wonderful treatment of Pauline struggles with the cultural and political and social and religious strands of the first century. Horsley states the task clearly in the introduction to the eight essays that make up this volume. We have ‘traditionally understood Paul in opposition to Judaism. Luther’s discovery of ‘justification by faith’ in Paul’s letter to the Romans became the formative religious experience through which Paul’s letters have been read’ (p 1).

Focus on the Roman imperial order holds that ‘instead of being opposed to Judaism, Paul’s gospel of Christ was opposed to the Roman empire’ (p 3); history, as G-d is bringing it to fulfilment, is not running through Rome (p 4). And Paul and the Roman Imperial Order details the Pauline struggle, pointing out that it was not a diatribe against Rome but a critique of Roman-influenced living (Paul specifically confronts Roman ideology in the cities of the empire: Antioch, Corinth, Macedonia).

Roman imperial order affected peoples’ lives in significant ways: disruption and displacement, slavery, patronage, the imperial cult, rhetoric (public discourse). ‘Paul couched his gospel in anti-imperial terms; he understood his assemblies as communities of an alternative society’ (p 19).

Two of the essays in this book that I found of particular interest centre on Romans 8 and Philippians 2: Paul’s sketch of the collapse of the created order and of the Christ hymn. Roman thought held that the emperor’s reign inaugurated a golden age of plenty, that restores nature to its original state. Instead of a belief that the Roman gods had already ushered in the golden age through a victorious Caesar, Paul’s hope is for a collective responsibility for the creation by the community. The Philippians Christ hymn confronts the Roman imperial position, and sets Christ over against the Roman emperor; Christ is characterized as the one who lives a life of service (p 150).

A powerful book that speaks to the church’s present preoccupation with power and status.

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