Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Paul and the Marginal Imperial Cult

A few years ago I expressed my reservations about recent attempts by N.T. Wright and others to read Paul against a pervasive imperial cult. I began to think I was wrong, however, because everyone else seemed to be jumping on the imperial band-wagon (often citing Simon Price's book, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor, which I have not read).

One of my main concerns was that much of the archaeological evidence for the imperial cult post-dates Paul. In a recent article, Colin Miller reviews the archaeological evidence in detail and has the same concern:
"[M]y aim in this article is to explore which of the cities in which Paul worked, in Paul's time, had some relation to the imperial cult, and what that relation was. Is it true that the emperor cult permeated life and helped make up the very fabric of reality in Paul's world? Is it true that in the time of Paul's mission the emperor cult held the empire together? Is it, more basically, true that "[i]n any city that Paul visited, evidence of emperor worship appears repeatedly in present excavations?" [quoting Crossan and Reed] I argue that all our evidence points to a negative answer to these questions. The archaeological evidence reveals that, in the cities Paul visited, in Paul's time, the emperor cult was marginal. In more than half of Paul's missionary cities there is no evidence of the imperial cult at all. In the others, I will show, the emperor was only one cult alongside many others." (Colin Miller, "The Imperial Cult in the Pauline Cities of Asia Minor and Greece," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 72.2 (April 2010): 314-332, here 316)
Looks like an important article!


Luxetveritas said...

What if, instead of "imperial cult," we speak of imperial culture and mythology? This allows Paul (and Jesus and the prophets) to be seen as proclaiming a counter-imperial message without having to demonstrate that worship of the emperor was pervasive. This view is not new, but at least as old as Deissmann.

Luke N. Johnson said...

So would this affect what is usually said about the phrase "Jesus is Lord" in Pauline epistles? Maybe this is an exhortation toward the exclusive worship of Jesus in the face of a multiplicity of cults, and less a direct subversion of the emperor/empire?

d. miller said...

Thanks for the comment, Luxetveritas. Colin Miller does qualify his argument fairly carefully, making it clear that he is talking about archaeological evidence, not coinage or literature, etc., so I think there is room for what you suggest.

Luke: Yes and yes, I think so. One can be too specific at reconstructed backgrounds.

Chris Gallimore said...

Have you come across Peter Oakes' work on Philippians?
I'm currently writing a paper on the 'anti-imperial themes', or lack thereof, of Philippians. Oakes seems to work to deny the significance of the imperial cult. (Interestingly Oakes' doctoral supervisor was NT Wright, and my tutor's doctoral supervisor is Oakes [hence the proposed question]).
Anyway, in a recent article in CBR, Diehl seems to land firmly on the side of Miller on this. It seems a logical conclusion, though counter imperial language is evident, Philippians, at least, seems to be addressing much more.
I'd probably suggest, as Oakes does, that counter imperialism is more a bi-product of Paul's language (though an intentional one). Which would suggest that the imperial cult is not the dominant force in the Pauline context.

d. miller said...

Thanks for your comment, Chris.
I haven't read Peter Oakes on Philippians. While we're trading bibliography, I recently came across a review of an edited volume, Rome and Religion, which suggests it would be relevant to your topic.