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Rome and the Gospel of John (Part Five)

July 25, 2011

Augustan Ideology, the Son of God, and John’s Prologue

Unlike Warren Carter (see previous post), Lance Byron Richey begins his book, Roman Imperial Ideology and the Gospel of John, by affirming the validity of the two-level reading of John’s Gospel; this affirmation subsequently becomes a foundational element of his reconstruction. Richey explains that the “Augustan Ideology”[1] established under Caesar Augustus was a way of legitimating and perpetuating the emperor’s supremacy within and over his government. Once this ideology was firmly in place throughout the Roman Empire, all sectors of society would have been impacted. This, argues Richey, would have included the Johannine community of believers.

If indeed the Johannine believers were expelled from the synagogue, that event would have rendered them vulnerable to external social and religious pressures. Under Roman law, Jews were exempt from participation in the imperial cult. Following their break with Judaism the Johannine Christians would have been exposed, resulting in an increasingly intensified pressure to participate in the imperial cult. Against this backdrop, Richey argues that the Fourth Gospel, presumably in its final redactional layer, includes a polemic against the Augustan ideology. Specifically, the Johannine polemic is communicated through special vocabulary such as “the Savior of the world” (ho sōtēr tou kosmou; 4:42), and “the Son of God” (ho huios tou theou, 1:34, 49, 3:10; 5:25; 10:36; 11:4, 27; 19:7; 20:31). The attentive audience would have been aware that the use of each phrase affirmed something about Jesus while also making strong counter-imperial assertions. In Rome, the power and titles belonged to Caesar; in John’s Gospel they belong to Jesus.

For the most part Richey presents a compelling case for how readers should understand Rome’s function in the Fourth Gospel. He highlights Rome’s presence in the narrative and helpfully posits John’s polemic against the Augustan ideology as a relatively late development in the Gospel’s formation, thereby providing a plausible case for Roman themes in John without suggesting that these were in view during the substantial periods of the Gospel’s composition and redactional development. However, in the fourth chapter of the book, Richey’s argument runs into a huge problem. There he attempts to read the Johannine Prologue as an explicit polemic against Rome. Richey acknowledges that any interpretation of John must plausibly attend to the Gospel’s Christology, especially as it is expressed in the Prologue. To his credit, Richey admits that his reading of the Prologue is new inasmuch as it breaks from any dominant strand of scholarly interpretation.[2] He also admits that references to the pre-existent Logos have no parallel in Roman imperial thought. On the other hand, he finds it possible to contrast the witness of John the Baptist (1:6-8) with the testimonies of pagan prophets who supported the imperial cult. Richey also reads the material related to the children of God (1:9-13) in contrast to clients of the imperial cult. Finally, the Johannine doxology (1:14-18), which exalts Jesus as the unique Son of God, is thought to offer a counterpart to claims of divine ancestry made by Julius Caesar and subsequent emperors.

It is widely recognized that the Prologue sets the literary and theological agendas for the remainder of the Gospel, and while Richey’s reading is not without its merits, it is difficult to accept that the Evangelist intended the Prologue to be read primarily as a response to Roman imperial ideology. Had the anti-imperial polemic been a primary thrust of the Prologue, one would expect Roman themes and images to appear more explicitly throughout the remainder of the story. Such is the case with theological themes such as life (zōē, 1:4),[3] light (phōs, 1:4, 5, 7, 8, 9)[4] “witness” (matyria, 1:7, 8, 15),[5] “the world” (kosmos, 1:9, 10),[6] “truth” (alētheia, 1: 9, 14, 17),[7] and “glory” (doxa, 1:14).[8] While these specific Johannine themes appear in the Prologue and reappear throughout the narrative, Richey does not successfully connect the appearance of his proposed Roman themes in the wider Gospel story to their supposed appearance in the Prologue. That, coupled with his failure to address the presence of explicitly Jewish ideas in the Gospel’s opening verses, makes his reading of the Prologue unconvincing.

Apart from his exegesis of the Prologue, Richey’s argument is balanced and makes a plausible case for John’s response to Rome while still situating the Gospel in a Jewish context that includes a break with the synagogue. He has provided the groundwork for future discussions of John’s response to Rome without having to jettison some of the foundational starting points in Johannine scholarship.


[1] This is the ideology that would have lauded both the greatness of Caesar and his power over all of Rome.

[2] He writes, “In this chapter I will offer a new reading of the Prologue as the evangelist’s attempt to respond to the Augustan ideology and the figure of emperor that it presented to Roman society” (Richey, Roman Imperial Ideology, 107) (emphasis added).

[3] The term also occurs in 3:15-16, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24, 26, 29, 39, 40; 6:27, 33, 35, 40, 47, 48, 51, 53, 54, 63; 8:12; 10:10, 28; 11:25; 12:25, 50; 14:6; 17:2, 3; 20:31.

[4] See also 5:35; 8:12; 9:5; 12:35, 36, 46.

[5] See also 1:19; 3:11, 32, 33; 5:31, 32, 34, 36; 8:13; 14; 17; 19:35; 21:24.

[6] See also 1:29; 3:16, 17, 19; 4:42; 6:14, 33, 51; 7:4, 7; 8:12, 23, 26; 9:5, 39; 10:36; 11:9, 27; 12:19, 25, 31, 46, 47; 13:1; 14:17, 19, 22, 27, 30, 31; 15:18, 19; 16:8, 11, 20, 21, 28, 33; 17:5, 6, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 21, 23, 24, 25; 18:20, 36, 37; 21:25.

[7] See also 3:21; 4:23, 24; 5:33; 8:32, 40, 44, 45, 46; 14:6, 17; 15:26; 16:7, 13; 17:17, 19; 18:37, 38.

[8] 2:11; 5:41, 44; 7:18; 8:50, 54; 9:24; 11:4, 40; 12:41, 43; 17:5, 22, 24.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 9, 2013 5:45 am

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