Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Colossians Remixed 11

This is poetry; this is poetry about the “image”. And Walsh and Keesmaat, in their Colossians Remixed, argue this is subversive poetry, poetry about an image that undermines empire and Rome and Caesar.
Col. 1:15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
If you look for empire, you find empire; if you explain everything in light of empire, you convince yourself empire is everywhere. These deconstructive remarks emerge in my case from my reading of this commentary because I’d like to see some reading of Colossians and less talk about empire so that our minds are conditioned by empire to see empire. I see in Colossians very little attention on Rome and lots on Jerusalem. When I see the word “Christ” before Jesus I don’t think of Caesar, I think of the “Messiah” of the Hebrew Bible. And, no matter how chic it might be today, when I see “Lord” I think of “Kyrios” of the Septuagint, which translates “Adonai.” I don’t think of Caesar. Sorry. Furthermore, I appeal to numbers: how many Christians were there in Colosse and Laodicea? A few small group? Probably. Maybe Colossians were thinking of Rome since they had endured Rome; but how about Paul? His sights were on Jersalem. He was drenched with Israel’s story and he wanted Israel’s story to be “remixed” for his day — and that meant converting both Jews and Gentiles to his Messianic story of Israel.
I have big doubts about empire being the ideology assaulted by Colossians. Instead, I read of a Paul who is trying to build churches who will respond to and live under the Lord Jesus Christ in the Church. The Church is the new story of Israel. I keep looking for Rome and I don’t see it. But, I’ll keep looking.
This section in their commentary concerns 1:15-20 printed above. “In a world populated by images of Caesar…” (83). That’s their point. Problem for me is that I see Eikon of God when applied to Christ not so much as a counter-image to Caesar as the “anthropology” of Israel: humans made in God’s Eikon who are designed by God to be restored into that Eikon (2 Cor 3:18; 4:4).
In our passage the Eikon, who is Christ, is Creator over all (this could be Empire ideology) and the head of the Church (which I doubt is Empire ideology). His supremacy is Israel’s story, not Rome’s story — why? Because his headship, his rule, is by way of resurrection in order to incorporate others into that headship. It was through him that reconciliation was to be accomplished.
Show me one direct word about Rome and about assaulting Roman ideology with an anti-empire ideology in this book. Not words that can be “explained” that way but words that “directly” state that. We can do all the word connotations and associations we want, but such are often driven by what we are looking for. First, I must be convinced of empire and Rome are directly in Paul’s sights.
I’ve taken a hard stand for those who are writing to me and talking to me abot their struggles with this commentary.

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posted October 1, 2007 at 12:56 am

Hey Scot –
I have personally not really cracked the book yet. I have had it now for about a week and have yet to devote some time to read it. I hope to go through what you have written on the book after I have read each chapter. Thanks.

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Jarrod Saul McKenna

posted October 1, 2007 at 3:41 am

Scot what do you think of N.T. Wright’s commentry on Colossians and Philemon (IVP)? Do you level the same critique there?

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posted October 1, 2007 at 7:50 am

I agree. Reading your posts have inspired me to try to read Colossian vis-a-vis the affect of the Roman empire on the original audience. I think such exercises do benefit. But I think Paul’s primary intended effect and affect were to draw his readers’ attention to Christ and then secondarily to let heresies (or a wrong attitude toward empire) whither.
I read in F.F. Bruce this weekend that when Paul talks of fruit earlier in the chapter, his referent is Jesus’ parables (he isn’t arguing that the gospels were developed and available, just that the outlines of Jesus’ teachings were available). I believe this is in accordance with your statement here that Paul was drenched with Israel’s story and he was focused on presenting the Messiah to both Jew and Gentile.

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posted October 1, 2007 at 10:03 am

I agree that W-K’s “empire” lenses are a few shades too dark. In fact I think I share the core of your critique here. However, if what I mentioned in comments to the previous CR posts has some legitimacy (that Rome, through its cross, is inherently “humbled” in the telling of Jesus’ death and resurrection and glorification–the gospel itself) then I don’t need a “direct” attack on Caesar in Colossians to know that the Jesus whom Paul declares is constantly using Caesar as a foil throughout the “Roman” world, just as God, through Moses, used Pharoah of Egypt as a stone to stand on in front of the world.
Scot, do you think that a first (or second) century person would have been able NOT to hear a contrast of power (not just character) between Jesus and Caesar in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection even though Jesus didn’t “directly” mention Caesar much at all in life? Do you see in the crucifixion God’s “choosing” of Rome for the very purpose of drawing the comparison of power and character, much the same way that God did with Egypt? I agree that “anti-empire” isn’t the main story, but it seems that God has intentionally invited the comparison in the crucifixion/resurrection itself, which makes it somewhat thematic. Especially since the cross becomes a “reason” for Christ’s coronation as Lord over all. Thoughts?

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Scot McKnight

posted October 1, 2007 at 10:26 am

No doubt … there are Roman echoes or at least implications for Rome. But Paul, when he mentioned “cross,” would have thought of “curse” because of Torah.
I just don’t know how preoccupied the early Christians were with Rome’s power. Wasn’t it nearly inconceivable to do anything about it?

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Scott Watson

posted October 1, 2007 at 1:24 pm

Scot wrote,”I just don’t know how preoccupied the early Christians were with Rome’s power. Wasn’t it nearly inconceivable to do anything about it?”
Not addressing the book,which I’ve not read,but your the general point your making,does thus statement somewhat reflect the perspective of one living within a representative democracy? We tend to associate politics with direct action on political players and structures.In this scenario Jesus was “non political” because he had no real power but for first century Jews to gather in lonely places to talk about YHWH’s kingship got the attention of Rome’s stooges,and Jesus did die on a Roman cross,the quintessential Roman statement about Roman political power and those who challenge it. For Jesus to tell his disciples not to join anti-Roman Jewish revolutionary movements was a definite “political” prescription,a very dangerous one at that. It was not a statement about quietism or some anti-world stance,no more than Jeremiah’s leading of the pro-Babylonian (and anti-revolutionary) political faction in Judah a sign of his disengagement or lack of patriotism. It was a statement about YHWH’s judgement upon his people for lack of covenant fatihfulness,which is worked out in the realm of geopolitics.And we do see the prophetic social and political critique of Rome in the Apocalypse (Revelation),which some think this flys under the radar of the authorities because they wouldn’t understand it.The political resistance to Rome for Paul had to do with forming communities which undermined,subvert or Christianize the basic values of the pagan Roman system in the churches and lives of Christians.But this is political also,in the same way that for some Christians the issue of gay marriage is a religiopolitical issue:if we legislate gay marriage,then we’ll call down the judgement of YHWH on America by breaking faith with our covenant God who has blessed and us and made us into a great nation.

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posted October 1, 2007 at 3:01 pm

Can you separate Jerusalem from Rome in the first century? Israel’s story is now entwined with Rome’s story. Can’t Col. be both about church building and a text that describes church building as something very different from empire-replication? That the church Paul is building is in fact anti-empire? Is this anti-empire theme explicit and direct in Col.? Maybe not. But is the bar of being explicit and direct applied evenly? We’re willing to rely on indirection (in contrast to “just what the words say”) to build a case for women in the ministry and women’s equality in marriage. So why not for a case against empire? Again, I’m not saying that we “should” make a case against empire but wonder why being direct is so important here.

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Beyond Words

posted October 1, 2007 at 7:12 pm

I agree with Diane–all of Israel’s story and especially prophecies of Messiah were couched in the backstories of the conquering oppression of one empire after another.
And Brian Walsh said in his seminars that Paul used coded language instead of direct statements because the nature of the gospel was so subversive and dangerous.
I think the imagery Paul used is FOR Israel in Messiah–Jesus is Lord–AND against empire and Rome–Ceasar is not Lord!
By the way, I don’t think Colossians Remixed is intended to be the only commentary one would rely on for every situation.

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posted October 1, 2007 at 11:25 pm

I appreciate your questioning of this interpretation. I do enjoy some of the readings of Remix but I think Paul’s emphasis throughout is on the supremacy of Christ period and not “compared to…”. Though some parallels are valid and helpful, I sometimes wonder if we don’t diminish the greatness of the One who was both before and above all things in heaven and on earth which would include Rome, Jerusalem, the USA, etc!

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posted October 2, 2007 at 8:43 am

A bit late . . . sorry. Work.
“I just don’t know how preoccupied the early Christians were with Rome’s power. Wasn’t it nearly inconceivable to do anything about it?”
I think most Jews (certainly Saul, zealous as he was) believed that the Jewish Messiah would exalt Israel which would require a very physical, likely brutal, humbling of Rome, however ‘miraculous’. Every political power throughout their history had theological reasons for its existence/prominence! Of course they were concerned about Rome’s power. How could you grow up eating/breathing the OT and not see Rome’s power as anything but THE indication of God’s continued judgment on Israel?
As for your question, no, not if your “story” is the exodus (or any of the OT), or your hope is the arrival of a king like David. (“God, you no longer march out with our armies . . .”)
And secondly, Jesus, by overcoming the Roman cross, did humble Rome, and Paul definitely would have seen this as a confirmation of the Jewish hope but on God’s terms. Jesus’ resurrection emboldened Christians to fear God alone, not Caesar–Caesar’s power isn’t great enough to be feared. (Respect the King, yes, but don’t fear him, save that for the One with real power.) Jesus said this while alive, but his cross and resurrection made it a reality within his ekklesia. It elevated Jesus as the most powerful person at work in the (Roman) world (for the Jew and the Gentile). He was making a new nation from all peoples–he was turning the Roman world into Christ’s, not by killing Caesar, but by publicly demoting him to mid-management, showing the world who sits at the top of the pyramid. The governing of God is at hand . . .

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Paul Norridge

posted October 2, 2007 at 3:39 pm

“No doubt … there are Roman echoes or at least implications for Rome. But Paul, when he mentioned “cross,” would have thought of “curse” because of Torah.”
Maybe I’ve misunderstood, but surely the cross (in general) was such a big part of Roman power and rule that you couldn’t mention it with only Torah in mind. It seems to me that this is like someone talking about the electric chair and claiming that all they had in mind was voltages and currents.

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Woody Anderson

posted October 3, 2007 at 2:36 pm

Scot, I had the struggle with this book that you are describing. That the Empire forms a general backdrop to this letter — as to the whole NT — is not to be doubted, but I did not find that Colossians was illuminated by this idee fixe. I would, by the way, have chosen 1 Peter as a better candidate for this kind of political reading, where I think a better argument can be made that behind the apparent quietism is a resistance to the powers-that-be. But “Paul and Empire” is all the rage these days. The argument that the reason we can’t see it is because Paul is speaking in code is, well, a little bit convenient.

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Mike Clawson

posted October 9, 2007 at 9:38 pm

Scot, don’t you think Paul’s phrase “whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities” constitutes a direct reference to Rome? After all, these are not metaphorical or symbolic words in Paul’s day. They are unambiguous references to immediate political realities. For the Colossian Christians were there any other “thrones, powers, rulers, or authorities” other than those of Rome, her Empire, and her regional representatives that would have come to mind when they read these words?

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Scot McKnight

posted October 9, 2007 at 10:25 pm

Possible; they are also used in Jewish sources for spiritual powers. The history of scholarship on this one is in the realm of demons and spirit beings.
So, I don’t think they are “direct” or “unambiguous.”

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