Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Review of Horsley, Paul and the Roman Imperial Order (2)

Robert Jowett ("The corruption and redemption of creation", 25-46) proposes reading Rom 8:18-23 in the context of the imperial (specifically: Augustan) ideology of the renewal of the world / fertility / "creation". Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, for instance, proposes an almost messianic idea of a regent who will restore nature, broken by barbarians and the evils of luxury: under this regent, "shall this glorious age begin... the earth shall not feel the harrow, nor the vine the pruning-hook; the sturdy ploughman, too shall now loose his oxen from his yoke" (27). Augustus had the Secular Games in 17BCE put under the aegis of the rejuvenation of Mother Earth: the birth of a new age. When Rom 8:18-23 is read in this context, it is nothing short of calling this imperial propaganda a lie. Instead "of nature's joy at its deliverance through August and his successors, Paul hears only agonized groans" (41): in Rom 8, (personified) creation is still groaning, waiting not for the sotêr (saviour) Augustus, but for true salvation ushered in by the Christ event.

Abraham Smith ("'Unmasking the powers': toward a postcolonial analysis of 1 Thessalonians", 47-66) suggests reading 1 Thess not against the background of eschatology and "fanciful speculation about a 'rapture'" (47) but as Paul's attempt at "'unmasking the powers' operative in Thessalonica" (ibid.). Set in the theoretical context of postcolonial studies' focus on historical and discursive ways in which (a) colonial powers seeks to control, as well as (b) subaltern people resist, Smith locates 1 Thess in the context of a tradition of "historical Israelite resistance to foreign rule", both in terms of physical resistance, and discoursive challenge. Paul's formation of a network of small, 'alternative communities' such as the one in Thessalonica enabled solidarity in the nascent movement which constituted "a fundamental 'critique of this age and its values'": a subtle critique, not surprisingly, in the face of the empire, but a fundamental critique and opposition nevertheless (54, citing J. Paul Sampley). The Thessalonian city authority took care to cultivate the Roman imperial rulers, becoming "local instruments of the Roman order" (58), highly visible in the day-to-day reality of the people in Thessalonia in the mid-first century CE. Smith then proceeds to read 1 Thess 2:13-16 and 1 Thess 5:1-11 specifically as instances of "Paul's encouragement of resistance to that imperial order" (ibid.). While the reading of 1 Thess 5:3 ("When they say, 'There is peace and security' then sudden destruction will come upon them, ") as directed against imperial propaganda of the pax romana is not that new, Smith's less common reading of the notorious passage in 1 Thess 2 also enables him to overcome the problem of the charge of "anti-Judaism" against Paul.

In the third contribution, Neil Elliott ("The Apostle Paul's self-presentation as anti-imperial performance", 67-88) studies ritual representations of power, both in the urban context of the Roman empire, and in Paul's presence. Drawing on Price's work in Ritual and Power, Elliott maintains that the provincial reality of urban life was characterised by an increasingly pervasive presence of the imperial cult, leading to "an effective imperial monopoly on the imagery of triumph" and a "distinctly Roman piety", enabling the emperor "to accumulate 'symbolic capital' for himself", while "piety in the provinces became saturated with the symbolized presence of the emperor" (71). Based on rhetorical studies in letter-writing and the performance of letters in an essentially oral culture, Elliott analyses the effect of Paul's letters on their intended audience. In this context, then, Elliott offers a close reading of 2 Cor 2:14-16 and imagery of Christ's triumph; of 2 Cor 10 and the imagery of war; and of 2 Cor 1-11 and the theme of affliction (closely associated with the ritual of triumphal parades), pointing out the close connection between the cross and the resurrection: "'showing forth the Lord's death' thus constitutes a ritual gesture of defiance, a refusal to allow the Empire's exhibition of a crucified corpse to be determinative of the future of Jesus, or of the creation" (84). In all this, Paul's conception of power, humiliation, shame and triumph invert the imperial propaganda. A thoughtful "ecclesiological postscript" on the connection between the eucharist and torture today completes the chapter.
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