Rome in the New Testament by Warren Carter

Everything about the lives of first-century followers of Jesus—quality of housing, food, clothing, work, social relationships, roles, diseases, taxes, ways of thinking—participated in the hierarchy, domination, and patriarchy that comprised the societal structures and practices of the powerful Roman Empire.

How did New Testament writings construct the Roman Empire and guide Jesus-followers in their daily lives in Rome’s world?

Followers of Jesus lived in the empire that had crucified Jesus. They adopted a range of perspectives and strategies for making their way in the Roman Empire.  

The book of Revelation, for example, attests some of these different perspectives and strategies. Its writer is strongly opposed to the Roman Empire. He constructs the empire as being under God’s judgment (Rev 6:1-8:5; Rev 15-18), controlled by the devil (Rev 12-14), and about to be destroyed by God’s coming empire/rule (Rev 19-22). He tries to persuade the Jesus-followers who live in seven cities of the province of Asia to “come out” from the empire (Rev 18:4).

Yet the fact that the author tries to persuade these Jesus-followers to “come out” from these cities indicates that many of his readers do not share his perspective. The cities are where they live and work, raise families, buy food, participate in civic groups. In contrast to the writer of Revelation, they think they can be Jesus-followers and live their daily lives in the midst of the empire.  

Other New Testament writings advocate numerous, simultaneous attitudes and practices. Matthew’s Gospel presents the empire as controlled by the devil who tempts Jesus by offering control of it to Jesus (Matt 4:8-9). As oppressed communities often do, the gospel imagines the empire’s future condemnation and destruction at Jesus’s return (Matt 24:27-31; Matt 26:64). Yet Matthew’s Gospel still requires Jesus-followers to pay taxes (Matt 22:15-22). They are not to abandon the empire but are to continue Jesus’s work of healing and exorcism and feeding the hungry and caring for the vulnerable (Matt 25:31-45). These actions repair the damage caused by the empire’s hierarchical structures of power. These structures ensured good quality food for elites but confined much of the population to unsanitary living conditions, poor-quality food, and poor immunity against contagious diseases. Yet Matthew’s Jesus mimics the imperial mindset in creating an alternative empire, God’s empire or rule, in his words and actions. And he asserts that in the future he will return as the son of man to destroy Rome’s empire and set up God’s empire and will “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10; Matt 24:27-31).     

In some New Testament letters, readers are instructed to pray for and submit to rulers and to honor the emperor (1Tim 2:1-2; Titus 3:1-2; 1Pet 2:13-17). Rom 13:1-7 has often been understood in a similar way. Yet a careful reading indicates that these verses do not advocate submission to and acceptance of the empire always and in every way. The requirement in Rom 13:6-7 focuses on the need to pay taxes. But since rulers are to rule “for the good” (Rom 13:3-4), it seems Jesus-followers are not required to submit to them when they do not rule “for the good.” Further, Rom 12 urged believers to “not be conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2), to form an alternative community “in Christ” (Rom 12:3-13), to wait for God’s wrath (Rom 12:19), and to care for those suffering deprivation and harm from imperial practices Rom 12:9-13). Rom 13 follows this and closes with an exhortation to transformed living while awaiting God’s intervention to establish God’s, not Rome’s, world.

The New Testament writings provide their readers with multivalent attitudes and strategies for engaging the Roman world. Paying taxes is required. Violent revolt is not supported. Apart from Revelation’s call to “come out,” the texts recognize that Jesus-followers live in Rome’s Empire but are often in tension with it and committed to the “empire of God.” They are to repair the damage that Rome’s Empire inflicts on the bodies of its inhabitants, while they pray and wait for God’s empire to replace Rome’s. 

Warren Carter, "Rome in the New Testament", n.p. [cited 25 Sep 2020]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.net/en/places/related-articles/rome-in-the-new-testament

Contributors

Warren Carter

Warren Carter
Meinders Professor of New Testament , Phillips Theological Seminary

Warren Carter is Meinders Professor of New Testament  at Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa OK. He is the author of numerous books, including What Does Revelation Reveal? (Abingdon, 2011), John and Empire: Initial Explorations (Continuum, 2008), and The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (Abingdon, 2006).

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

The expulsion of demons.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A categorization in which people (or other objects) are ranked relative to each other, some higher and some lower.

male dominance in families and in society

The territories ruled by ancient Rome, from roughly 27 B.C.E. to 476 C.E., encompassing terrorities in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

placing oneself under the authority or control of another

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

Rev 18:4

4 Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,

“Come out of her, my people,
    so that you do not take part in her sins,
and so that you do not share in her ... View more

Matt 4:8-9

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will giv ... View more

Matt 24:27-31

27 For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultur ... View more

Matt 26:64

64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you,

From now on you will see the Son of Man
    seated at the right hand of Power
    and coming on the cl ... View more

Matt 22:15-22

The Question about Paying Taxes
15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodi ... View more

Matt 25:31-45

The Judgment of the Nations
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nat ... View more

Matt 6:10

10Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

Matt 24:27-31

27 For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultur ... View more

1Tim 2:1-2

Instructions concerning Prayer
1First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone,2for kings and all ... View more

Titus 3:1-2

Maintain Good Deeds
3 Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid ... View more

1Pet 2:13-17

13 For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, 14 or of governors, as sent by him to punish those wh ... View more

Rom 13:1-7

Being Subject to Authorities
1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that ex ... View more

Rom 13:6-7

6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes a ... View more

Rom 13:3-4

3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval ... View more

Rom 12:2

2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptabl ... View more

Rom 12:3-13

3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each a ... View more

Rom 12:19

19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

Rom 12:9-13

Marks of the True Christian
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in ... View more

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