God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now

God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now

by John Dominic Crossan

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060858315
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/26/2008
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 610,264
Product dimensions: 5.52(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About 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.

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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.

Table of Contents


Prologue     1
Empire and the Barbarism of Civilization     7
God and the Ambiguity of Power     49
Jesus and the Kingdom of God     97
Paul and the Justice of Equality     143
Apocalypse and the Pornography of Violence     191
Epilogue     237
Index     243

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“A dual tribute to intelligent faith and responsible citizenship, this book is as illuminating as it is timely.”

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God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a very interesting and short read. The underlying message he argues citing hisorical information about the Bible, is that Jesus and Paul opposed the imperial rule of Rome, which exemplifies the normalcy of violence in human civilization with God's Kingdom, which will be based on justice (love). He argues very convincingly against the notion of a climatic rapture of Christians from the earth as God (or Jesus) returns to start killing sinners and setting things right. I didn't agree with all of Crossan's conclusions, and I think sometimes he projects 21st century ideas backwards into history to argue his points, but despite these differences, I walked away from the book much better educated about the historical Jesus, Paul, and John of Patmos. Finally, I found Crossan's theological position that we should focus on the historical person of Jesus as an example of God's peaceful solution to the violence of man's civilization very refreshing. The vengeful warrior-king Jesus of Revelations does not much resemble the peaceful, healing, son of God in the Gospels, and Crossan sees this apocalyptic portrayal as flawed and inaccurate, to be nice.
DubiousDisciple on LibraryThing 3 months ago
It¿s Jesus vs. Rome. Who will win?If you¿ve read much about the first century, you¿re already well aware of the conflict between Christian and Roman claims. Both sides laid claim to the Son of God. Both claimed the inauguration of a new, wonderful age. The Caesars, especially in Asia Minor, were worshipped as God and often went by the title Son of God. Caesar Augustus, in particular, was hailed as the savior of the world, the bringer of peace and prosperity.The Christians claimed a coming kingdom, or a hidden kingdom; the Romans proved their kingdom by force and heavy presence. The Christian kingdom was not of this world; the Roman kingdom invaded every part of life. Jesus¿ kingdom was one of nonviolence; the Roman kingdom was just the opposite.Crossan highlights the conflict between the two, and what, exactly, the Christians were claiming in their ¿uprising.¿ Of particular interest, to me, was the discussion of Paul, whom Crossan divides into three categories: The radical Paul, the liberal Paul, and the conservative Paul, representing three stages of Pauline writings.I give it four stars instead of five, not for the lack of quality, but because little is original from his other writings. It¿s just organized and directed differently to emphasize a point.
the_awesome_opossum on LibraryThing 3 months ago
The first chapter in this book is entitled "God and the Ambiguity of Power" - and the ambiguity of power, or the ethics of power specifically, is exactly the struggle that Christianity has had in determining its relationship to Empire and domination systems. The title alludes to Rome specifically, but really Crossan's "empire" is any powerful and oppressive system.It might seem obvious that Jesus would have stood against the oppression of Rome, but does that mean that Christians should be "drop-outs" who refuse to go along with these oppressive social evils like capitalism and organized religion? Clearly to revolutionize the system and cure its evils, one must work within the system - thus "violent oppression and nonviolent resistance are both modes of social power."Crossan argues that Christians who seize Revelation especially and make Christianity into a religion of both violence and glory have misinterpreted the message of the historical Jesus - or worse, disregarded it entirely. Jesus was preaching a very present Kingdom of God, and Christians are therefore called to live as though they're living in it. This should be an egalitarian movement, and would be destructive against the empire insofar as its foundation of the social masses would have refused to worship it any longer, but ultimately it would be a revolution that achieves effectiveness through nonviolence.
nbmars on LibraryThing 5 months ago
John Dominic Crossan's little gem, "God and Empire," is a discussion of the relation of Christianity to worldly political states, particularly empires such as Rome and the current United States. Empires exert power territorially, politically, ideologically, and militarily. Crossan observes that the normal way power is exercised is through force or coercion, but that is not the only way it can be exercised. Nonviolent persuasion is also a way to exert power.The bible is very ambiguous and ambivalent as to how it portrays God's exercise of power. In the Old Testament, God punishes man by floods and other catastrophes. However, He sometimes is more merciful, such as when He merely marks Cain instead of exerting counter violence to Cain's killing his brother.Crossan distinguishes distributive justice from retributive justice. God exercises both kinds of justice in the Bible. The many rules set forth in Leviticus are [to Crossan] "the Torah's relentless attempt to stay the growth of inequality." Yet, the Bible sometimes portrays God as exacting retributive justice through violent acts. Crossan asks whether there is any scientific evidence that "God ever punishes anyone?" He believes not.Crossan argues that the fundamental message of Jesus, Paul, and the early Christians is one of opposition to earthly, violent power through nonviolent persuasion. He asserts this despite many passages, particularly in the Apocalypse, that indicate that Jesus may return as a violent avenger, much as he is portrayed in the Left Behind books.The two final divine solutions for the problem of Gentile empires [Noachic extermination or Abrahamic conversion to justice and peace] is never reconciled in the biblical tradition. Christians must choose between the violent God of human normalcy and the nonviolent God of divine radicality, between peace through violence or peace through justice. Crossan himself opts for the nonviolent approach, and argues that this is the most accurate reading of Jesus and Paul. Crossan argues that Paul gets a bad rap from today's feminist and gay-tolerant world because several of the epistles attributed to him were clearly written by someone else with a more traditional Jewish view of gender equality and homosexuality. The real Paul recognized several women as important early apostles, the equal of any men. The final chapter of the book impugns the interpretations of the Apocalypse currently prevalent among evangelicals. He believes in no second coming of Christ as an avenger. Rather, he shows that many of the tribulations described in the Apocalypse were coded allusions to events [the Roman destruction of the Jewish temple and the dispersing of the Jews] that already had taken place when the book was written. A careful reading of the book shows the second coming to take place AFTER those events, not during them. Crosson, a modern sensible man, envisions the second coming not as a physical return of Jesus, but rather as a time when most men will be converted to a more benign, nonviolent way of living. He admits this a radical vision, not the normal [but not inevitable] state of human affairs.(JAB)
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