I'd like to introduce you to Rowe's book because a lot of us are very interested in reading the bible against Empire. But if you want to do this you need to be aware that there is a way of reading the book of Acts, a reading that has achieved something of a consensus among many NT scholars, that mitigates against reading the bible as an anti-Empire polemic. In World Upside Down Rowe investigates that consensus view and finds it distorting and lacking in various ways. Though, to be sure, there is something that needs to be addressed in the consensus view regarding the relationship of the early Jesus movement and the Roman Empire. Consensus views in NT scholarship don't end up being consensus views for no reason. There is something in the book of Acts that anti-Empire Christians need to wrestle with. Rowe's World Upside Down will help you do that.
So what is this consensus view?
The consensus view is that Luke wrote Acts to calm the fears of the Roman empire--onlooking Roman neighbors and the Roman state--as the Jesus movement spread and grew more numerous. Wary of a violent backlash, and perhaps in the beginning throes of it, Luke pens a narrative to show that the Empire has nothing to fear from Jesus and his followers. Acts is a letter to Rome that basically reads, "Dear Empire, you have nothing to worry about." King Jesus is not a rival for Caesar's throne.
Again, this take on Acts is the dominant view in NT scholarship. As Rowe summarizes:
Without question, the dominant trend in NT scholarship has been to read Acts as a document that argues for the political possibility of harmonious, coeval existence between Rome and the early Christian movement.If you read the bible (at least partially) as an anti-Empire polemic and say things like "Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not" then this consensus view is worrisome. Does the state have nothing to fear from King Jesus? Is Christianity politically innocuous and inoffensive? Is that what Luke was trying to say in the book of Acts?
To evaluate this reading of Acts we need to look at the evidence that supports the consensus view. That's what I'd like to do in this post. Tomorrow we'll turn to the evidence Rowe reviews in Luke/Acts that pushes back on this reading.
To begin: Why is it argued that Luke was seeking to show that the Jesus movement was politically inoffensive to the Roman Empire?
Beyond Luke/Acts having a generally favorable take on Roman centurions (cf. Luke 7.1-10, 23.47; Acts 10), it mainly has to do with the final chapters of Acts.
After his arrest in Jerusalem in Acts 21 the narrative parades Paul before a series of Roman officials who offer official Roman assessments of the Jesus movement. It starts with Claudius Lysias (Acts 23), goes to Felix (Acts 24), and then to Festus (Acts 25). We could also include Agrippa (Acts 26) as a Roman surrogate.
And as Paul makes appearances before these Roman officials what is the assessment of Imperial Rome regarding the Jesus movement? Summarizing their verdicts:
Claudius Lysias (Acts 23.29):Felix doesn't offer a summary judgement, but it's clear from Acts 24.22-27 that he's in agreement with these other assessments. In short, Rome has nothing to politically fear from the Jesus movement. This conclusion is supported by Paul's own words regarding the relationship between Jesus and Caesar:
"I found that the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment."
Festus (Acts 25.25):
"I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome."
Agrippa (Acts 26.31-32):
After they left the room, they began saying to one another, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.” Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
Paul (Acts 25.8):Based on this evidence--that in the book of Acts the Christian movement is repeatedly vindicated in the eyes of Imperial Rome--it is argued that Luke is wanting to show that the Jesus movement is politically inoffensive and innocuous. It is argued that Luke is wanting to show how confessing "Jesus as Lord" poses no political threat to Caesar.
Then Paul made his defense: “I have done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar.”
So that's a sketch of the consensus view. But is it correct? Is it too simplistic a political reading of Acts? Is it missing something?
We turn to those questions in the next post.