In Search of Paul

The controversial apostle--or apostate, depending on your view--has some illuminating things to say about God and politics.

BY: John Dominic Crossan

Excerpted with permission from In Search of Paul: How Jesus' Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed. Copyright 2004, HarperSanFrancisco Publishers.

Paul has been called by many names, most of them nasty. He was an apostate who betrayed Judaism, or he was an apostle who betrayed Jesus. He is not an open and affirming theologian, so why bother to read him today? Some say, as compliment or indictment (wrong either way), that he was the actual founder of Christianity. On the one hand, 13 of the 27 books in the New Testament are attributed to him, and his story dominates one other book, the Acts of the Apostles. On the other hand, books about Paul could fill a library, so why one more on an overworked subject? What's new here?

Something special happens, we are convinced, when you stand on the heights of Priene in the Mediterranean sunlight and read that huge fallen beam from a temple once deciated to the "Imperator Caesar, the Son of God, the God Augustus." There and elsewhere, on Pauline and non-Pauline sites, we ask you to stand with us, possibly on location, but certainly in imagination. Our new question is this: Where does archaeology uncover most clearly Rome's imperial theology, which Paul's Christian theology confronted nonviolently but opposed relentlessly? In Paul's lifetime Roman emperors were deemed divine, and, first and foremost, Augustus was called Son of God, God, and God of God. He was Lord, Redeemer, and Savior of the World. People knew that both verball from Latin authors like Virgil, Horace, and Ovid and visually from coins, cups, statues, altars, temples, and and forums; from ports, roads, bridges, and aqueducts; from landscapes transformed and cities established. It was all around them everywhere, just as advertising is all around us today. Without seeing the archaeology of Roman imperial theology, you cannot understand any exegesis of Pauline Christian theology.

Some scholars of Paul have already emphasized creatively and accurately the confrontation between Pauline Christianity and Roman imperialism. That clash is at the core of our book, but we see it incarnating deeper and even more fundamental strains beneath the surface of human history. What is newest about this book is our insistence that Paul opposed Rome with Christ against Caesar, not because that empire was particularly unjust or oppressive, but because he questioned the normalcy of civilization itself, since civilization has always been imperial, that is, unjust and oppressive.

Paul's essential challenge is how to embody communally that radical vision of a new creation in a way far beyond even our present best hopes for freedom, democracy, and human rights. The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of "peace through victory," or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of "piety, war, victory, and peace." Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus' footsteps, and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of "peace through justice" or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of "covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace."

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