Update: Michael Pahl clarifies his position in the comments.
I have it on the authority of two witnesses (Mark Goodacre and my colleague, Martin Culy) that the "academic highlight" of this year's SBL was the takedown of Tom Wright by John Barclay in a session on Paul and Empire. Knowing something about the personal dynamics makes the exchange more interesting: John Barclay is Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham; Tom Wright happens to be the Bishop of Durham and one of Barclay's former teachers.
I listened to Andy Rowell's mp3 recording of Barclay's paper and Wright's response on my way to pick up my parents from the Regina airport on Saturday night, and on the return trip Tuesday morning. (Those interested in baby pictures may click here.)
To Wright's claim that Paul's letters contain coded messages that subvert the Roman Empire, Barclay replied that Tom is "hallucinating." Whereas Tom and the "Paul and Politics Coalition" see an emperor with no clothes wandering unobserved through Paul's epistles, Barclay sees no emperor at all. Barclay points out that Paul had no reason to write in code in private letters to small communities. Since he expected persecution for the sake of the Gospel, he would not have hesitated to name names if he considered the empire important enough to merit his direct attention. Barclay comments that Philo and Josephus did not hesitate to remark that the emperor was not worthy of worship. He also mentions that the imperial cult was a variegated thing that developed differently at different times and in different locations. To this I might add that although there is evidence for a temple to Augustus in Pergamum as early as AD 14, most of our archaeological evidence for the cult dates from the second century AD (see the "Turkey Travelogue" posts on Pergamum and Ephesus [here and here] for pictures and a bit more detail).
According to Barclay's reading of Paul, Christ's death and resurrection transformed reality, rendered traditional ethnic distinctions obsolete, and exposed the real enemies as things like Flesh, Sin and Death. These enemies are at work in the empire, to be sure, but also in the church. Paul's truly subversive move was in refusing to accord the empire and the imperial cult the attention it seemed to deserve.
Over at the stuff of earth, Michael Pahl lays out evidence for anti-Imperial elements in the Thessalonian correspondence, including Paul's use of the phrase "peace and security", and concludes that Barclay overstated his case: "the evidence from 1 Thessalonians (and even 2 Thessalonians and Philippians) thus seems to reflect Paul’s deliberate mirroring of that imperial propaganda in letters to predominantly non-Jewish recipients from that region, at times apparently in direct contrast to those imperial messages."
Barclay does, however, allow that some of the characters in Paul's drama of salvation speak with a Roman accent (here Barclay mentioned "peace and security" explicitly), but he insists they are not identifiably Roman. Paul never names names (except to mention those of Caesar's household); he refers to many gods and many lords, but never explicitly refers to any specific Greco-Roman deity.
Like Pahl, Wright makes a big deal of Paul's use of political language also used in imperial propaganda such as Lord, Savior and Gospel. I wonder whether this presses the language too far. After all, we use political language all the time without intending thereby to subvert the state.
More important, Wright rejected Barclay's attempt to distinguish between what Paul intended and how Paul's audience may have received what Paul said. In my judgement, the distinction Barclay makes has some merit, but I think it may detract from the real issue. Both Wright and Barclay acknowledge that the empire and imperial cult loom large in the background. Both admit that the political implications of Paul's Gospel are deeply subversive--for Wright because Paul attacked it head-on, for Barclay because Paul refused to acknowledge its significance.
The crucial thing is how Paul addresses the implications of his Gospel, and this is where I think Wright goes wrong and Barclay's paper is dead-on: Focusing too insistently on the Gospel's subversion of empire misses the fact that Paul casts conflict in terms of good and evil, light and darkness. To be sure the empire is there in the background; Paul's audience could not miss it. But to place the background in the foreground is to distort Paul's message. It is not simply empire that Paul opposes but the forces of evil at work everywhere, including in the church.
This, by the way, is the same mistake that my Ph.D. supervisor, Stephen Westerholm, identified in some representatives of the New Perspective (including Wright): The issue Paul addressed in Galatians was the inclusion of Gentiles in God's people (so Wright, Dunn, etc.), but we must attend to the way Paul responded to the social issue theologically. When Paul addresses the issue he does not simply exclude boundary markers or condemn pride in one's ethnic distinctives, he talks about justification by faith apart from works as the means by which Jew and Gentile may be reconciled in Christ.