The New Testament Gospels come into existence in a world comprising the Roman empire.
Though written in the last decades of the first century, the Gospels set their narratives in the beginning of the first century in the rule of Herod and thereafter in the rule of the emperor Tiberius who died in the year 37 CE and in the governorship of Pontius Pilate (26-37 CE):
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2)
The main character, Jesus, was born when the Rome-appointed client king Herod was king of Judea.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matt. 2:1-2)
The designation “king of the Jews” puts Jesus off-side with Roman rule since only Rome-appointed figures could legitimately claim to be kings. Kingly figures not sanctioned by Rome were executed. Jesus conducts most of his activity in Rome-ruled Galilee. Adding to tense interaction with Roman power is his central proclamation that “the kingdom/empire of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). The language of “kingdom/empire” both replicates the language of the Roman empire as well as contests it by asserting another empire in its midst. Jesus moves to Jerusalem where the Roman governor Pilate executes him by crucifixion.
These are just a few of the obvious points of contact between the Gospels and the Roman empire. Many more will emerge in the following chapters as we identify further interactions, at times imitative, at times conflictual, between the Gospels and Rome’s empire. The empire does not disappear just because an emperor or governor or soldier or tax is not mentioned. Rome-sanctioned local leaders in Judea, pervasive sickness, food insecurity, occupied territory, language of sovereignty, fantasies of revenge, and visions of a new and just world all interact with Roman imperial structures and practices.
I employ an approach called cultural intertextuality. It represents an approach that places texts into relationship with other texts to create meaning. It does not claim that one text was the direct source for another, but it does recognize that texts from quite different communities and traditions participate in various ways in common cultural contexts.
In this book I am interested in thinking about the New Testament writings as participants in networks of texts from the Roman empire in the first and second centuries CE. Often New Testament texts are considered only in relation to Jewish traditions. Here, I am interested in the cultural intertextuality between NT texts and texts created in the Roman empire. How do the NT texts function in the company of other texts created by inhabitants of Rome’s empire? What meanings do we make from these interactions?
I employ an expansive understanding of the word “text.” I use the word as it is commonly understood to refer to written documents. But also, I use “text” to refer to non-written “texts” such as monuments, buildings, statues and coins that make statements about imperial power. Sometimes they incorporate words along with design and image, sometimes not.
This choice of texts from the first and second centuries of the Roman empire to constitute an intersecting network for interpreting NT texts leads to a foregrounding of imperial-political dimensions. This focus has not often been to the fore in interpreting the NT Gospels. Rather, Gospels have often been read as spiritualized, religious texts with no or little attention to any cultural-political contexts or societal structures and practices. Or, scholars have often read the Gospels only in relation to Jewish cultural practices and understandings, thereby also underlining religious dimensions and artificiality refusing to recognize the imperial-political worlds which both Jewish texts and the Gospels negotiated. The four canonical Gospels emerged from powerful centers of imperial rule: Matthew’s Gospel likely from Antioch, capital of the province of Syria, Mark’s Gospel from Rome the empire’s capital, and John’s Gospel perhaps from Ephesus the capital of the province of Asia. Such cities are spaces that assert imperial-cultural values, visions, structures, and practices and that are peopled by imperial personnel. The Gospels’ interactions with the cultural-political realities evident in these urban locations are inevitable and provide the focus for this study.
However, this study is not just an exercise in ancient history. My interest in these cultural-political intertextualities reflects my own location in and experiences with contemporary empires, as well as my concern to help us to think about the societal visions, practices, structures and personnel of our own worlds. I spent the first half of my life in Aotearoa New Zealand, a colony of the British empire. I lived at a time when the country was decolonizing itself and creating its own identity impacted by its imperialized heritage yet charting an independent way in the world.
I have spent the second half of my life living in the most powerful empire that the world has ever seen, the USA. This nation combines enormous economic, military, and political-diplomatic reach and global presence with a profound confidence in its manifest destiny, that God has chosen and blessed the USA with the task of being the leader of the free world. This identity is of course ironic since the nation has enormous internal problems and challenges such as pervasive racism (the Black Lives Matter movement), vast societal inequalities, extensive poverty, significant food insecurity, disparate access to healthcare and quality education, questionable access to justice, subcultures of violence and anarchy, denigration of other nations, and so forth. These challenges, though, do not often seem to dent the self-constructed national identity of being the world’s leader, even if other nations do not necessarily and readily accept such leadership.
I suggest that engaging the Gospels’ intertextuality with the imperial-cultural texts of the Roman empire foregrounds matters of societal visions, practices, structures and personnel, both ancient and contemporary. Such intertextualities provoke us to think about the impact of the use of power and privilege in our world, how, for whom and by whom decisions are made, who has access to resources and opportunities, who benefits and is privileged and who is harmed and excluded, what sort of societal visions, structures, and practices are in play.
Praise for Jesus and the Empire of God
“A world-class scholar of the New Testament in its Roman imperial context, Warren Carter now brings decades of research to a broader audience. His well-chosen narrations of Roman social and political relations reveal new aspects of Gospel stories. For students of the Bible who aren’t sure why they should learn about its surrounding empires, there’s no better guide than Carter.”
—Michael Peppard, author of The Son of God in the Roman World
“Carter has made an outstanding contribution to New Testament studies with a resource accessible to scholar and student alike. By identifying moments of interaction between the Gospels and their Roman imperial context, Carter demonstrates how the Gospels are culturally embedded documents that negotiate their imperial context in a variety of ways. In this fresh, people’s-history approach, Carter centers the voices of the non-elite and exposes systems of power in both the Roman Empire and our own.”
—Anna M. V. Bowden, Albion College
“Warren Carter carefully and clearly, persuasively and expertly demonstrates the significant ways the Roman Empire shaped the writers of the New Testament. The reader will learn much here about the historical contexts and intertextual resonances that nurtured the theological imagination of the New Testament writers. Even more, Carter calls readers of the New Testament today toward a fuller reflection on the ways a persistent imperial imagination continues to misshape our sense of the world, its resources, and the God who calls us to an altogether different kingdom than empire’s feeble promises.”
—Eric D. Barreto, Princeton Theological Seminary
“Drawing his vast knowledge of the Roman Imperial world, Carter masterfully demonstrates how indispensable that world is for understanding the New Testament Gospels. This introductory text for students and non-specialists should be a required reading in any undergraduate or graduate course on the Gospels.”
—Adam Winn, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor College of Christian Studies
About the Author
Warren Carter is the LaDonna Kramer Meinders Professor of New Testament at Phillips Seminary in Tulsa OK. From 2007-2019, he was Professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School, TCU, Fort Worth TX. Four times he has been voted the Clark Faculty excellence award by Brite students. In 2014 he was awarded the John Gammie Distinguished Scholar award by the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies.is Professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, with a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. His scholarly work has focused on the gospels of Matthew and John, and he has focused on the issue of the ways in which early Christians negotiated the Roman empire. In addition to numerous scholarly articles, he is the author of many books including The Roman Empire and the New Testament; What Does Revelation Reveal?; The New Testament: Methods and Meanings (with Amy-Jill Levine); and God in the New Testament. He has also contributed to numerous church resources and publications and is a frequent speaker at scholarly and church conferences.