The counter-imperial gospel of Paul

Studying the Letters of Paul written in the middle of the First Century of the Common Era and noting again my own indebtedness to the work of Raymond Brown which I read first in the 1980s, as well as to more recent readings in  the work of NT Wright, who always excites and challenges my older ‘spiritualized’ and ahistorical understandings. The counter-imperial gospel of Paul:


The book thus invites us to approach what has been called Paul’s theology, and to find in it, not simply a few social or political “implications”, to be left safely to the final chapters of a lengthy theological tome, but a major challenge to precisely that imperial cult and ideology which was part of the air Paul and his converts breathed. His missionary work, it appears (I am here summing up in my own way what I take to be the book’s central thrust), must be conceived not simply in terms of a traveling evangelist offering people a new religious experience, but of an ambassador for a king-in-waiting, establishing cells of people loyal to this new king, and ordering their lives according to his story, his symbols, and his praxis, and their minds according to his truth. This could only be construed as deeply counter-imperial, as subversive to the whole edifice of the Roman Empire; and there is in fact plenty of evidence that Paul intended it to be so construed, and that when he ended up in prison as a result of his work he took it as a sign that he had been doing his job properly.


Paul knew, of course, that Jesus was very different from the other Messiahs who flit through first-century history, but it is precisely part of the characteristic tension of his whole theology to claim that this crucified Jesus was and is the Jewish Messiah promised in scripture. Nor was this a hindrance to the Gentile mission, but rather its starting-point. What the Gentiles needed and longed for, whether they knew it or not, was the Jewish Messiah, who would bring the just and peaceful rule of the true God to bear on the whole world.


If Paul’s answer to Caesar’s empire is the empire of Jesus, what does that say about this new empire, living under the rule of its new lord? It implies a high and strong ecclesiology, in which the scattered and often muddled cells of women, men and children loyal to Jesus as Lord form colonial outposts of the empire that is to be: subversive little groups when seen from Caesar’s point of view, but when seen Jewishly an advance foretaste of the time when the earth shall be filled with the glory of the God of Abraham and the nations will join Israel in singing God’s praises.

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