Home > Christianity, Christology, Eschatology, Soteriology, Theology > Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations

Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations

  • Author: Warren Carter
  • Publisher: Trinity Press International (2001)
  • Language: English
  • Pages: 260
  • ISBN-10: 156338342X
  • ISBN-13: 9781563383427
  • Format: PDF*

Although New Testament scholars have examined Paul’s writings and their relationship to the Roman empire and its imperial policies and writings, they have focused little attention on ways in which the Gospels were influenced by that imperialism. In Matthew and Empire, Warren Carter argues that Matthew’s Gospel protests Roman imperialism by asserting that God’s purposes and will are performed not by the empire and emperor but by Jesus and his community of disciples.

Matthew and Empire makes the claim for reading Matthew in this way against the almost exclusive emphasis on the relationship with the synagogue that has long been a staple of Matthean criticism. Carter establishes Matthew’s imperial context by examining Roman imperial ideology and material presence in Antioch, the traditional provenance for Matthew. He argues that Matthean Christology, which presents Jesus as God’s agent, is shaped by claims—and protests against those claims—that the emperor and empire are agents of God. In successive chapters Carter pays particular attention to the Gospel’s central irony, namely that in depicting God’s ways and purposes, the Gospel employs the very imperial framework that it resists. Matthew and Empire challenges traditional readings of Matthew and Empire encourages fresh perspectives in Matthean scholarship.

IN THIS STUDY the author will exploring the relationship between Matthew’s Gospel and the Roman Empire. Carter also argue that Matthew’s Gospel contests and resists the Roman Empire’s claims to sovereignty over the world. It sustains an alternative community of disciples of Jesus in anticipation of the coming triumph of God’s Empire over all things, including the destruction of Rome’s empire.1 That is to say, the Gospel resists Rome with a social challenge in offering a vastly different vision and experience of human community, and with a theological challenge in asserting that the world belongs to God not Rome, and that God’s purposes run through Israel and Jesus, not Rome.

This approach to Matthew’s Gospel is not the standard one,2 and challenges the dominant paradigm or way of reading Matthew’s Gospel. The conventional scholarly way of reading this Gospel over the last century has been in relation to a synagogue with which Matthew’s community is having or has had a bitter dispute.3 This work has provided much insight into the Gospel, and I do not intend to counter or dismiss the impact of this experience on interpreting the Gospel. While he do not think the conventional focus on synagogue relations is wrong, he do think it is too limited. It turns the Gospel into an exclusively religious work, concerned only with religious questions and personal matters.

Overlooked in this discussion, and almost completely absent from it, is the simple observation that the Gospel comes from and addresses a world dominated by the Roman Empire. It seems difficult to imagine that this world left no mark on the Gospel as most interpretations seem to suggest by their sheer inattention to this context. Moreover, in the Roman imperial world, religion was not an isolated personal matter. It was deeply interwoven with political claims, visions of social organization, economic structures, and ideological commitments. The author goal is to explore the Gospel’s interaction with this complex imperial world, and its critique of Rome’s empire.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One comprises three chapters. Chapter 1 provides some description of aspects of the Roman imperial world. Chapter 2 outlines imperial theology that creates and legitimates the understanding of Rome as chosen by Jupiter and the gods to rule the world. Chapter 3 locates Matthew’s Gospel in the city of Antioch-on-the-Orontes in the province of Syria in the 80s C.E., and describes something of the experience of Roman imperial power in the city.

Part Two comprises two chapters. Both chapters are thematic studies. Chapter 4 explores Matthew’s Christology in relation to Roman imperial theology. It argues that Matthew’s presentation of Jesus challenges fundamental understandings about Rome and its emperors as agents of the gods’ sovereignty, presence, will, and blessing. Chapter 5 examines Matthean soteriology or understanding of salvation. It argues that salvation comprises participation in the establishment of God’s Empire over all things, including the destruction of Rome.

Part Three comprises four chapters. These chapters examine four passages in the Gospel, the evoking of Isa 7 – 9 in Matt 1:22-23 and 4:15-16, the call to take Jesus’ “yoke” in Matt 11:28-30, the strange incident about the coin in the fish’s mouth in Matt 17:24-27, and Jesus’ appearance before the Roman governor Pilate in Matt 27:11-26. The four chapters develop the claim that the Gospel resists Roman imperialism and sustains an alternative community of disciples and their practices in anticipation of the coming triumph of God’s Empire. These chapters provide examples of the sort of rereading that is necessary for the whole Gospel.

In the conclusion, I briefly explore some implications of this reading for contemporary faith communities.

The nine chapters engage significant topics in contemporary Matthean studies: Christology, soteriology, eschatology, continuity in salvation history (the place of Israel), the nature of discipleship/the Church, the function of the biblical or fulfillment citations, wisdom influence, the passion narrative, and, of course, the question of method. They also illustrate the Gospel’s interaction with and critique of significant aspects of the Roman Empire: the domination structure of the imperial system, imperial theology, economic exploitation, military might, social hierarchy, dreadful urban and rural poverty and misery, illusions of power, taxation, provincial government and governors, justice.

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