God and Empire

God and Empire

by John Dominic Crossan

View All Available Formats & Editions

At the heart of the Bible is a moral and ethical call to fight unjust superpowers, whether they are Babylon, Rome, or even America.

From the divine punishment and promise found in Genesis through the revolutionary messages of Jesus and Paul, John Dominic Crossan reveals what the Bible has to say about land and economy, violence and retribution, justice and


At the heart of the Bible is a moral and ethical call to fight unjust superpowers, whether they are Babylon, Rome, or even America.

From the divine punishment and promise found in Genesis through the revolutionary messages of Jesus and Paul, John Dominic Crossan reveals what the Bible has to say about land and economy, violence and retribution, justice and peace, and, ultimately, redemption. In contrast to the oppressive Roman military occupation of the first century, he examines the meaning of the non-violent Kingdom of God prophesized by Jesus and the equality advocated by Paul to the early Christian churches. Crossan contrasts these messages of peace with the misinterpreted apocalyptic vision from the Book of Revelation, which has been misrepresented by modern right-wing theologians and televangelists to justify U.S. military actions in the Middle East.

In God and Empire Crossan surveys the Bible from Genesis to Apocalypse, or the Book of Revelation, and discovers a hopeful message that cannot be ignored in these turbulent times. The first-century Pax Romana, Crossan points out, was in fact a "peace" won through violent military action. Jesus preached a different kind of peace—a peace that surpasses all understanding—and a kingdom not of Caesar but of God.

The Romans executed Jesus because he preached this Kingdom of God, a kingdom based on peace and justice, over the empire of Rome, which ruled by violence and force. For Jesus and Paul, Crossan explains, peace cannot be won the Roman way, through military victory, but only through justice and fair and equal treatment of all people.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this fine study of civilization, culture and transformation, Father Crossan asks important questions: have those who resort to violence as a means of change succeeded in their quest for empire? Or has nonviolence been more effective in bringing about lasting change? Crossan, professor emeritus at De Paul University and author of several well-received works including The Historical Jesus, believes that the solution is not in violent intervention but in the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. But how, and when, will this Kingdom come? In comparing the missions of Jesus and John the Baptist, Crossan states his idea clearly: "Jesus differed precisely from John in emphasizing not the future-presence but the already-presence of God's Kingdom as the Great Divine Cleanup of the world." In other words, Christ saw the Kingdom as a present and active reality. Crossan uses the teachings of Jesus to promote his thesis, and then turns to an unlikely ally-the Apostle Paul-by suggesting that Paul's emphasis on equality and freedom helped carry forward Jesus' program of nonviolent change. Crossan's latest work presents a complex subject in a clear and powerful way, and it merits a wide readership. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Crossan (religious studies, emeritus, DePaul Univ., Chicago; The Historical Jesus) showcases his scholarly ability and paramount research skills in this wonderfully written and organized treatise. Whether the discussion focuses on Jesus's ministry and teaching about the "kingdom of God" or on the Apostle Paul's philosophy of equality in the early church, controversy is a common theme. What is perhaps most controversial, however, is Crossan's eschatology. In one section, he writes, "The second coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the first coming was the only coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence." This amillennial, anti-tribulation, anti-rapture eschatological view is not shared by many Bible scholars and will no doubt provoke disagreement and debate. But such debate is healthy, if for no other reason than to encourage intellectual and apologetic surety among such scholars. Thoroughly enjoyable and incredibly informative; recommended for larger university and specialized libraries.
—Wesley Mills
Kirkus Reviews
The Bible presents us with both a peaceful God and a violent God, declares Crossan (In Search of Paul, 2004, etc.). The task of believers is to decide which one to follow. Exploring history with a special emphasis on Rome's quintessential empire, the author concludes that "civilization" consists largely of competing empires. Violence is the norm, but it is not inevitable, he avers. History also presents a nonviolent choice, epitomized by the historical Jesus. Crossan employs textual criticism to support his contention that many descriptions of Jesus-as a judge condemning sinners to hell or as the leader of armies attacking Satan at Armageddon, for example-bear little relation to the historical person and his actual teachings, but instead reflect the agenda of various writers. Similarly, Crossan contrasts the belief in nonviolence and equality expressed in works by "the radical-historical Paul" with the punitive pronouncements of "the later, conservative-reactionary pseudo-Paul." The faithful must choose between these two portrayals, he states, just as they must choose between worshipping a God of peace, love and distributive justice or a deity of war, violence and retribution; both versions can be found in the Bible. Crossan's method has the surface trappings of logical argument, and he discounts the portions of scripture that don't fit his vision of the historical Jesus. "America as the New Roman Empire" is pretty tired stuff, and the author's jeremiad against "Bible-fed Christian violence" won't sway anyone who doesn't already share his decidedly PC faith.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Sold by:
Sales rank:
File size:
750 KB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Empire and the Barbarism of Civilization

There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

—Walter Benjamin,
On the Concept of History (1939)

Between 1945 and 1950, I spent my high school years at St. Eunan's College in Letterkenny, Ireland. It was a central boarding school for all those villages and towns in County Donegal too small to have a secondary school of their own. I had a classical education and every day for five years studied Greek and Latin, the original languages of Homer and Cicero.

Even in that first generation of postcolonial Ireland, no teacher ever mentioned that as we were learning to imitate the syntax of Caesar's Gallic Wars we were ignoring the slaughter of our Celtic ancestors. Moreover, no teacher ever emphasized twin facts that now seem to me the two most important lessons of a classical education. Greece, having invented democratic rule, warns us that we can have a democracy or an empire, but not both at the same time—or at least not for long. Rome, having invented republican rule, warns us that we can have a republic or an empire, but not both at the same time—or not for long. Do we think those lessons do not apply to a democratic republic? Or do we suspect that they may apply with doubled force?

Rome and Empire

I look at the Roman Empire neither to praise it nor to bury it, but to understand it as fairly and accurately as I can. Otherwise, I will not be able to understand where the Christian biblical tradition stands on Rome or any other empire (chapter 2) or why Rome crucified Jesus of Nazareth(chapter 3), executed Paul of Tarsus (chapter 4), and exiled John of Patmos (chapter 5).

First Among Equals—with All the Equals DeadRome invented an excellent solution to the danger of royal tyranny. There would be no dynastic kings, but two high aristocrats called consuls would rule together for one year. That way each could keep an eye on the other, and both would be out at the same time. That system was strong enough to withstand Rome's first great external threat, the attack of Hannibal from Carthage on the other side of the Mediterranean.

The consular system prevented royal tyranny for a while but eventually engendered civil war. Consular aristocrats became imperial warlords, and why then would they cooperate with each other? Too much, far too much, was now at stake. It looked as if the Roman system would self-destruct along the fault line created by that hyphen of republican-imperialism or imperial-republicanism, destroying the Mediterranean world as well in the process. The first round of that civil war set Julius Caesar against Pompey. It ended with both of these warlords assassinated, one in the Roman Senate, the other on an Egyptian beach. The second round set Antony and Octavian, Caesar's avengers, against Brutus and Cassius, Caesar's assassins. After two battles at Philippi near the eastern coast of Greece, the Caesarians were victorious, and the last hope for republican restoration died with the suicides of the defeated Brutus and Cassius. It was time for the third and final round.

Imagine San Francisco Bay as it opens westward to the Pacific Ocean with the twin promontories of that opening connected by the Golden Gate Bridge on a north-south axis. Imagine now another similar but smaller bay opening westward to the Ionian Sea between Greece and Italy. Its twin promontories extend and pass one another, and today they are connected by an underwater tunnel on an east-west axis. That is the Ambracian Gulf on the northwestern coast of Greece, and there by the summer of 31 bce Antony and Cleopatra had gathered an army of one hundred thousand troops and a fleet of five hundred ships. But despite their superior numbers on both land and sea, they had two intensifying problems.

First, their fortified camp was on the marshy and mosquito-ridden flats of the bay's southern promontory, and malaria had decimated their forces during the summer of 31 BCE. Second, though their fleet was safely moored inside the gulf, it was also securely trapped behind that difficult opening, whose exit demanded a sharp turn first to port and then to starboard around the narrows of the southern Cape Actium. By September 2, their initial numerical superiority had been lost to disease, desertion, and despair. When their much-diminished fleet finally cleared the gulf that morning, it was possibly for fight, but probably for flight.

Antony's line of battle had three squadrons in formation to left, center, and right, with Cleopatra's flotilla immediately behind his center. Her flagship had taken on board both sails and pay-chest, so that escape seemed their primary purpose. Octavian had a similar triple formation waiting out in the Ionian Sea, with himself and Agrippa leading their left squadron to oppose Antony leading his own right. With the expected afternoon breezes, both of these northern fronts maneuvered to outflank one another, but Antony, after closing with the enemy, abandoned his own flagship to join Cleopatra on hers. That northward drift had opened up gaps in Octavian's line that allowed Antony, Cleopatra, and their escort ships to escape to Alexandria—not to fight another day but to die another day.

Antiquity's last great naval battle was over with around five thousand casualties. The Assisi-born contemporary poet Sextus Propertius gave Augustus this encomium in his Elegies:

My songs are sung for Caesar's glory; while Caesar is being sung, do even you pray attend, Jupiter. . . . Where a bay lulls the roar of the Ionian Sea . . . hither came to battle the forces of the world. . . . Apollo, leaving Delos . . . stood over Augustus' ship. . . . Anon he spoke: "O savior of the world . . . Augustus . . . now conquer at sea: the land is already yours: my bow battles for you.". . . Second only to his bow came [Julius] Caesar's spear. . . . But Father Caesar from the star of Venus looks marveling on: "I am a god; this victory is proof that you are of my blood." (4.6)

God and Empire
Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now
. Copyright © by John Crossan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at DePaul University, is widely regarded as the foremost historical Jesus scholar of our time. He is the author of several bestselling books, including The Historical Jesus, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian, God and Empire, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, The Greatest Prayer, The Last Week, and The Power of Parable. He lives in Minneola, Florida.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >