Reading the Bible with Caesar

While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the rulers, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” The people and the rulers were disturbed when they heard this.

Acts c17

Every person who reads the Bible must interpret the Bible. If you want to tell me how you “just read the Bible for what it says”, I will smile and ask about all the property you sold to give to the poor.

When liberal Christians (or as I prefer, “Christians”) talk about how we interpret the Bible, we commonly use a shorthand, “reading with Jesus.” Implicit in this phrase is an admission that some parts of the Bible are on their face horrific, and we need a standard by which to determine what things we hold and what things we let go. We acknowledge the literary tradition through which the ancient Hebrew people distinguished and preserved their ethnic and national identity, and we preserve them—warts and all—because they are foundational to understanding Jesus’s colorful and subversive teachings as a Jewish rabbi. However, we also hold that the many, many, many parts of the Bible are not equals and anything that contradicts what Jesus taught takes a backseat.

I like the phrase, “reading with Jesus,” but I also have problems with it. For one thing, it’s too safe. It doesn’t offend the sorts of people who need to be offended. It continues a tendency of progressive Christians to try and sound to fundamentalists like we have a lot in common—when really we don’t at all. If I write something on here and it doesn’t fill my inbox with the rants of angry, right-wing, conservative, fundamentalist Christians, I usually feel like I’ve just wasted a whole lot of time.

More importantly, because it’s just a shorthand, it doesn’t actually mean anything unless you’re familiar with the intellectual giants whose work it summarizes. When I lived in Evangelical Fundamentalist World— and was made to believe that Tim Keller, Francis Chan, and Lee Strobel had important things to say—the phrase Reading with Jesus would have done nothing to stretch my imagination. I would have “read the Bible with Jesus” and then just remained one of the millions of believers who are of no concern to the “principalities and powers”—those against whom the Bible demonstrates its greatest and most timeless literary genius. This is no accident. It’s the result of billions of dollars that have shaped the readings of the people who taught the people who taught the people who taught your Vacation Bible School. The Gospel of John screams this at you when the post-resurrection Jesus resembled a gardner rather than a messianic warrior, and the writer tells you that no one recognized him.

To avoid reading our own biases into the Bible and calling it Reading with Jesus, we need to do the work of creating a defensible reference point, and I wrote this essay because there’s a simple but intellectually rigorous framework for doing that work.

Before you read the Bible with Jesus, you need to read the Bible with Caesar.

Sit across the table with Augustus. Hike through the forest with Domitian. Invite Nebuchadnezzar to your Bible study group. Go on a retreat led by Pharaoh. Meditate with Alexander the Great. Listen to the prayers of Nero and Caligula. Ask each of these powerful men how they would like you to read the Bible.

And then do the opposite.

Because in the four decades before Jesus was born, the Roman Senate and the court poets referred to Augustus Caesar as the Son of God and Our Lord and Savior. Throughout his empire, he established propaganda centers for the imperial gods called churches. When his army brutally occupied a new territory he announced his victory through messages that were called Gospels. The words son of God, savior, Lord, gospel, and church are Bible words that will always carry some degree of mystery and artistry. But if you asked Jesus what he meant by them in any concrete sense, he could point to the Roman empire and say “well definitely not that.”

Christians used these words in rebellion. To say Jesus is Lord was dangerous and unpatriotic, because it unmistakably communicated and Caesar is not. To proclaim the Gospel of Jesus was to deny the Gospel of Rome. The rebelliousness of the church was the same rebelliousness inherent in the Jewish religion—a religion that came into being on the underside of economic, religious, and violent power. To read with Jesus means to read about the world turning upside down, and the Caesars never want that.

So, with all this as a backdrop, lets talk about that. How would Caesar want you to read the Bible? If you’re an American, the answer is: probably how you already do.

Don’t Let It Be Too Political

The Bible concerns itself with structural economic justice from beginning to end, but discuss this ultra-biblical topic with any Christian fundamentalist and you will reflexively be warned that we shouldn’t let the Bible get too political. This is not the voice of Jesus, but of Caesar.

When you read the Bible in opposition to Caesar, Jesus’s well-known Beatitudes are rightly recognized as the constitution of the kingdom of God. When Jesus proclaimed “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of Heaven” his message was not that it is good for you to be poor in spirit, so you can go to Heaven. His message was that in the “kingdom” (or government) of God, which was coming down to Earth, those who had lost all hope under the weight of Caesar would now find blessing. The government of God was for them. When Jesus proclaimed “blessed are those who mourn”, his message was not that it is bad to be happy. His message was that in the government of God, those upon whom Caesar’s power had trampled would find comfort. You cannot put Jesus in the context of his Jewish literary tradition and read it any other way.

For Jesus’s favorite self designation was the “Son of Man”, a phrase that came from the centuries-old Jewish Book of Daniel. In the story, Daniel sees a vision of all of the world’s empires—which he sees as “beasts”—and they are stripped of their power and worship “one like a son of man.” Nobody in the story dies and goes to Heaven. Nobody leaves the Earth. In Daniel’s vision, the kingdom of Heaven comes to them. And Jesus changed that tradition in no way. As he said further in his kingdom constitution, “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.”

And I could just keep going. After the story of the Hebrews being freed from Egypt and from being just a source of cheap labor for Pharaoh’s great projects (how can you say this isn’t political???), they go out into the wilderness and God gives them a legal code that contains one welfare program after another. What’s striking to me about almost all of the Torah is how little of it would apply to all but the most wealthy of its adherents. And to take it further, God required that all of the Torah’s welfare programs benefit Israel’s immigrants.

Whether it was Pharaoh and his magicians being overcome by a nomadic shepherd and his staff, or the King in Nineveh hearing the worst sermon in the whole Bible and repenting in sackcloth and ashes, or King Nebuchadnezzar boasting about his power before losing his mind like a wild animal, the writers of the Jewish canon loved to tell incongruent and subversive stories that in various ways showed God humiliating the seeming invincibility of the world’s oppressive systems. The resurrection of Jesus after being killed by the execution device of the Roman empire comes straight out of this tradition. The Apostle Paul expressed this when he wrote “and having disarmed the powers and authorities, Jesus made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

We Americans have been scripted to read our Bibles and not think about what they mean for our systems. We apply our Bibles to what we do individually, but leave our systems intact. The American system for allocating resources is competition. You get things by being a winner (or by being born to the winners). We conceptualize most things in terms of what is mine and what is yours. Our identities consist of neat boundaries that protect my actions from having anything to do with you or anyone else. We don’t talk about “walking with the Lord” in any context other than our own private moral conduct. Private moral conduct is good, but if your nation’s systems do not bless the least among it, your nation has not inherited the kingdom of God. In the same way, a personal relationship with God is good, and I hope you have one, but Caesar would love for you to keep it there. He would love it if at the end of your Bible study, you, like Caiaphas, proclaim “we have no king but Caesar.”

Make It Only About Spiritual Things

The Bible is a spiritual book, and Caesar would love to keep it that way. But never does the Bible situate the spiritual world in one place and the physical in another. In the Bible, these two realms are always in direct contact.

In the creation poem of Genesis c1, the spirit of God was there in the creation and God called it good.

In the story of Jesus’s baptism, the spirit of God came on the body of Jesus right before Luke used a genealogy to argue that Jesus was recreating the same world that God called good (go read that genealogy in Luke c4 again).

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he didn’t instruct them to pray that we would all—as Plato taught—leave the Earth for some airy spiritual paradise in Heaven. He taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom in Heaven come to the sweat and soil of the Earth.

In the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Moses brought the Israelites out of Pharoah’s economic system of slavery, and into the wilderness where they saw the “glory of the Lord.” And what was that glory?

Bread.

Not just bread, but freedom from Pharaoh’s system of cheap labor. Bread from outside the imaginations that Pharaoh sought to control. Bread that reduced his power to nothing.

Real spirituality concerns itself with tangible things. Like bread. Like segregated school districts. Access to healthcare. Affordable housing. Carbon emissions. Employment discrimination. Consumer protection. Rehabilitation for those who commit crimes. Peacemaking.

But a spirituality that sings songs on Sundays and then just floats off into the clouds is no threat to Caesar or Pharaoh, and it is how they will teach you to read the Bible. They are thrilled when they profit from systems that exploit vulnerable people and then the Christians come and tell everyone to just focus on getting to Heaven.

Make It All About the Afterlife

Speaking of Heaven, Rome did not persecute the early Christians because of anything having to do with the afterlife. This comes as a surprise to the modern fundamentalist Christian, but Rome allowed the people it subjugated to continue their religious traditions. In fact, Rome was famous for adopting the gods of people it conquered. As long as you worshipped the Caesars and the important gods of the empire, the Roman authorities did not care that you also worshipped another god or gods. The Romans especially did not have a well-developed theology of an afterlife, so people were completely free to preach about that.

(Almost none of your Bible is concerned with the afterlife either, but I’ve already written on this.)

I find it compelling then that, in spite of this religious tolerance, Rome found adherents of Judaism and Christianity so especially threatening. When Christians were identified, they were imprisoned and hauled into arenas to be mauled by wild animals. The Roman state depended on exploiting vulnerable people, but the Christians preached a different way of seeing the world. They acknowledged no distinction between slave and senator. They would not participate in any government ministry that required killing people.

Here’s a letter from the Governor Pliny to the Emperor Trajan in the early 2nd century:

This is what I have done with those who have been brought before me as Christians. First, I asked them whether they were Christians or not. If they confessed that they were Christians, I asked them again, and a third time, intermixing threatenings with the questions. If they persevered in their confession, I ordered them to be executed. . . .

Those who denied that they were or had been Christians and called upon the gods with the usual formula, reciting the words after me, and those who offered incense and wine before your image — which I had ordered to be brought forward for this purpose, along with the regular statues of the gods — all such I considered acquitted — especially as they cursed the name of Christ, which it is said bona fide Christians cannot be induced to do. . . .

There are among them every age, of every rank, and of both sexes.

Nowhere in this letter, or in Trajan’s response, or in anything the Roman ever wrote about the Christians, does the topic of the afterlife come up. For this reason, Caesar would love for you to make the Bible an instruction manual to get to Heaven after you die. What he will not tolerate is you turning the world upside down. For that he will take your life.

And if Caesar wants to take your life, you’re probably reading the Bible with Jesus.

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