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Rome and the New Testament: Some Clarifying Remarks

May 6, 2013

Over the past few weeks I have noticed several reviews of Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not, the recent book edited by Scot McKnight and Joe Modica. I had the privilege of contributing chapter 5 to the book (see “John’s Gospel and and the Roman Imperial Context: An Evaluation of Recent Proposals,” pp. 116-29), and I am pleased to see the book getting attention from several different segments of the blogosphere. I received my copies a little over a week ago and I have just begun reading each chapter carefully. I am not finished with the book yet, but in the course of my reading I have recognized what several reviewers have pointed out–that the overall tone of the book is quite negative toward empire criticism. Since I have had a few people ask me, I figured I would provide a few clarifying remarks about the book, and specifically about my role.

(1) First, the invitation to participate in this book came with no assumptions about the individual authors and their specific views on empire criticism. In fact, the proposal basically said, (I’m paraphrasing), “investigate this and then write what you see.” In other words, there was no proviso which specified, “You must disagree with empire studies.”

(2) My essay on the Fourth Gospel renders what is essentially a negative judgment on the prospects of finding much of Rome in the text. I don’t think my conclusions are particularly scandalous, and I would go so far as to say that I am probably in the majority when it comes to my conclusions about Rome vis-a-vis the Gospel of John. Even in the realm of empire studies, the Gospel of John has almost been overlooked. As I recall, an essay on the Fourth Gospel was not even a part of the original book proposal. The Fourth Gospel simply hasn’t been a big player on the scene of empire studies (especially when one considers how much has been written about the role Rome plays in the writings of Paul, Revelation, and Matthew’s Gospel).

(3) As I commented on Nijay Gupta’s blog just a few days ago, I don’t want my negative conclusions in a book that is characterized by negative conclusions about empire criticism to make me “guilty by association.” In fact, I find it quite helpful to discuss Rome when introducing my students to Paul’s letters and the Apocalypse. Every semester I teach a New Testament Introduction in which I deal with the Roman context of the NT. I don’t deny Rome’s presence throughout the NT, but I don’t find much value in claims that Rome is a major point of emphasis for John. As I say in the essay, “[in John] Rome is present mostly in signs and shadows, not on a neon billboard (p. 122).”

In the end, I am glad to be a part of the conversation and I hope the book causes those on all sides to pay much greater attention to the nuances of debate.

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