Monday, February 11, 2008

Colossians Remixed and Gender Hierarchy Part 2

I explained in the last post that Walsh and Keesmaat interpret Colossians over against a reconstructed first-century context in which the Roman empire and the imperial cult figure prominently. But although the the imperial cult was popular in Asia Minor during the first century,[1]
and Acts 17:7 suggests that Paul's opponents presented the Christian message as seditious, I think it is misleading to imagine an authoritarian regime in which any alternative lifestyle would be considered dangerous. To be sure, serious challenges to the social order, such as slave revolts, were forcibly repressed, but at least in the hinterland of the empire, considerable diversity was accepted.[2]

There were also other viable alternatives to the emperor cult—though they receive scant mention in Colossians Remixed. In Ephesus, according to Acts, the silversmiths concerned about the loss of their livelihood rioted on behalf of the great Artemis of the Ephesians.[3] In addition to the temple of Artemis and a temple the imperial cult, excavations at Ephesus have uncovered temples to Hestia and Serapis as well as a sanctuary of Zeus and “the Phyrgian mother goddess.”[4]

Another viable alternative to the emperor cult, supported by a large community in the Lycus valley, was Judaism.[5] What happens when we add first century Judaism to the mix? Walsh and Keesmaat note that the early Christian confession “Christ is Lord” was similar to the Jewish claim that there is no Lord but God,[6] but they do not consider the likely corollary that pagan responses to this Messianic Jewish sect would have been similar to pagan responses to Judaism, a religion that was permitted—if not well-liked—in the Roman world.[7] Even Josephus, who is often derided as a “Roman sympathizer” (204) if not an outright traitor, wrote to defend the superiority of the Jewish way of life—including the ideal of freedom from foreign domination which was shared by both the Maccabees and those who revolted against Rome.[8] We learn from Josephus that non-participation in the emperor cult was tolerated in some cases; to a certain extent resistance was too.

Walsh and Keesmaat find a challenge to empire in statements about Christ’s universal role in the creation and redemption of “all things” (98; cf. Col 1:15-20) as well as in Paul’s warnings against the “philosophy” mentioned in Colossians 2, but their imperialistic reading of the Colossian false teaching[9] overlooks the profoundly Jewish character of the “philosophy.” For example, in Col 2:11 Paul emphasizes that the Colossians were circumcised with a non-hand-made circumcision, verse 14 mentions “legal demands” (RSV; δόγμασιν; cf. Eph 2:11-18), verse 16 warns against those who would judge the believers with regard to observing the Sabbath, and the requirements in 2:21 point to Jewish purity regulations. Here conclusions about the nature of the false teaching become important: If Paul writes Colossians primarily to respond to the possibility that Christians in the Lycus valley might be led astray by attractive teaching in the synagogue down the street (Dunn), or by a “Hellenistic Jewish syncretism” (Lincoln), then it becomes much more difficult to view Colossians as directed primarily against an imperial worldview, however subversive the letter might be.

If you are not exhausted yet, see this post for more on Paul and imperialism.

[1] Cf. S. R. F. Price, “Rituals and Power,” in Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society (ed. Richard A. Horsley; Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), 48-9, 57-61.

[2] Cf. Tessa Rajak, “Was There a Roman Charter for the Jews?” in The Jewish Dialogue with Greece and Rome: Studies in Cultural and Social Interaction (ed. Tessa Rajak; Leiden: Brill, 2002), 301-2: “…the later Hellenistic polis may still have reserved the prizes of citizenship or political office for a select number, but it accommodated considerable diversity of population and did not demand conformity. And we know that, with the exception of overt participation in emperor worship, Jews could and did involve themselves in the life of their cities…”

[3] Acts 19:21-40. Note also that a ruler cult of sorts is applied to Herod Agrippa in Acts 12:20-25.

[4] Richard E. Oster Jr., “Ephesus,” ABD 2:544-5. According to Oster, the temple for Dea Roma and Divus Julius probably date from “shortly after Actium” (i.e. after 31 BCE). There was also a temple to Domitian (or possibly Vespasian) which “was apparently the first of several Neocorate temples of the imperial cult in Ephesus” including a temple to Hadrian (so Oster 544-545).

Not all cults would have been “subsumed under the imperial cult” as Walsh and Keesmaat imply (98). Cf. Price, “Rituals and Power,” 64; North, Roman Religion, 61.

[5] Cf. James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 21-2.

[6] Walsh and Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed, 97. Cf. Alan F. Segal, “Response: Some Aspects of Conversion and Identity Formation in the Christian Community of Paul's Time,” in Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation (ed. Richard A. Horsley; Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), 189; N. T. Wright, “Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire,” in Paul and Politics, 170: “The mainstream Jewish monotheistic critique of paganism, of all its idolatry and immorality, found in Paul’s day a more focused target and in Paul’s theology a sharper weapon.”

[7] Cf. Rajak, “Roman Charter,” 301-33.

[8] According to Josephus, both religious and political freedom are fundamentally good things that result from obedience to the laws established by Moses. Cf. Tessa Rajak, “The Against Apion and the Continuities in Josephus's Political Thought,” in Understanding Josephus: Seven Perspectives (ed. Steve Mason; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 242; Steve Mason, “'Should Any Wish to Enquire Further' (Ant. 1.25): The Aim and Audience of Josephus's Judean Antiquities/Life,” in Understanding Josephus: Seven Perspectives, 81, cf. 80-7.

[9] At first, Walsh and Keesmaat identify the philosophy as an internal threat distinct from the external pressures of the Roman empire (111), but after an initial discussion (105), the philosophy is treated consistently as an instance of empire. See especially the targum of Col 2:8-3:4 on pages 137-139.

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