Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What have the Romans ever done for us?

I was writing my commentary on Thessalonians today and was thinking about what Paul meant by "gospel" in 1 Thessalonians 1:5. As I was doing some background reading I encountered a critique of "gospel" as it was used by ancient Rome. The writer noted instances when "gospel" (i.e. good news) was used by Roman emperors for political propaganda. The writer called this sort of usage the "gospel of Rome."

It has become quite popular over the last few decades for New Testament scholars to bash ancient Rome and suggest that when first century Christian writers use terms like gospel, Lord, savior, kingdom, etc, that these authors are deliberately critiquing Rome and its emperors. Some modern scholars have pushed this interpretation so far that the New Testament looks less like a theological book and more like a political manifesto. And perhaps that is part of the problem. Too often some of these interpretations of "Rome's gospel" are clearly motivated by frustration with American hegemony. And while I think American policy does need to be critiqued and criticized, I am not sure that authors like Paul and others were doing same thing with Rome as some modern scholars suggest. To hear some New Testament scholars talk there was nothing good about ancient Rome and that the world would have been better off without it.

This got me thinking: Did everyone in the ancient world hate Rome? Which then reminded me of the scene from the Monty Python film Life of Brian in which the Jewish rebels are planning to kidnap Pilate's wife because they hate the Romans. But of course, as the below clip makes clear, not everything about the Romans was all that bad.

I think there are some New Testament scholars who resemble John Cleese in this clip. They begrudgingly acknowledge the positive contributions made by Rome, but quickly brush them aside to get to what they perceive as the "real problem," and then fill in the blank with whatever it is they consider to be the long, evil shadow of Rome on the world. I would appreciate a little more balance in this area of scholarship.


  1. I can't wait to see how you reference Monty Python in your commentary.

  2. Isn't it generally accepted that Christianity wouldn't have spread so easily without the political tie from country to country?

  3. Jenny, yes that is probably true. Things like roads, no piracy, etc certainly contributed. I am not saying everything about Rome was good, I am just not sure that the level of "bashing" that goes on is helpful.