Rome in the Bible and the Early Church

Peter Oakes, editor Baker Academic, Grand Rapids September 1, 2002
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This book includes six articles concerning how the early church related to the Roman Empire. Five of the six articles discuss the New Testament directly and one discusses literature considered part of the apostolic fathers collection (most written just after the New Testament).

In exploring Luke’s view of the Roman Empire Steve Walton begins by noting five views on the issue: Luke-Acts is a political apology in support of the church before Rome; Luke-Acts is a defense of the Roman state to Christians; Luke-Acts is intended to support the notion that the church is a legitimate organization; Acts is intended to help Christians live in the Roman Empire; and Luke-Acts is not political. These positions are critiqued and are found lacking. Walton then describes many helpful features about the Roman Empire and provides a position of his own.

Walton makes three interesting points. First, Luke purposefully wrote about Rome. Second, Luke presented Rome both positively and negatively. Third, Christ is supreme over Caesar. Thus Luke’s view of Rome is well balanced. At times, especially when functioning properly, the empire is viewed positively. However, when it is set against the work of Christ, it is viewed negatively. On the one hand this position on Luke-Acts acknowledges a true concern for the Roman Empire, politics, and so forth. One the other hand it avoids viewing Luke and Acts as purely pro- or anti-empire writings.

In the second article Conrad Gempf seeks to answer some of the questions that arise from the ending of Acts (28:14–28). For example why did the Jewish leaders who met Paul in Rome seem to know so little about Paul and Christianity? Why were the Jewish leaders there so positively portrayed compared to Jewish leaders elsewhere? Luke’s words at the end of Acts explore the complex relationship between Paul and Roman Jews. The Jewish leaders’ speeches do not betray everything they knew about Christianity. Also their interaction with Paul reflects the insecurity of the Roman Jewish community in Paul’s day.

In “Roman Law and Society in Romans 12–15” Bruce Winter explores many aspects of first-century Roman culture (associations, taxation, sexual ethics, and others), demonstrating that Paul’s words in these chapters would have been understood as arguing against many of the social norms of the day.

Andrew Clarke’s contribution is entitled “Jew and Greek, Slave and Free, Male and Female: Paul’s Theology of Ethnic, Social and Gender Inclusiveness in Romans 16.” The first half of the title clearly alludes to Galatians 3:28. After discussing options for the intended recipients of Romans 16, Clarke affirms the traditional understanding that this passage is part of the book and is addressed to the church at Rome. Then Clarke uses extrabiblical material (primarily onomastic evidence from inscriptions) to show that it is likely that in Romans 16, Jews, Greeks, slaves, free, men, and women are all represented. Clarke’s evidence is compelling and his conclusion seems likely.

Peter Oakes provides the fifth article, “God’s Sovereignty over Roman Authorities: A Theme in Philippians.” Oakes maintains that the Philippian Christians were experiencing a measure of suffering and that in Philippians Paul was presenting himself (a prisoner) as a model to be imitated in the midst of suffering. Oakes highlights the important theme of God’s sovereignty in the midst of suffering. Christ, not Caesar, is in control of all things. Thus Paul was not worried about his outcome and the Philippians should also not be fearful.

In “Disturbing Trajectories: 1 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermes and the Development of Early Roman Christianity,” Andrew Gregory challenges some assumed conclusions concerning the early development of the church at Rome. Gregory challenges the date of 1 Clement, arguing that it cannot be confidently ascribed. A date range of between a.d. 70 and 140 is suggested with no significant evidence to narrow this down. Gregory disputes both internal and external evidence of a reference to a persecution under the emperor Domitian. Gregory also argues that the date range of the Shepherd of Hermes should be similar to 1 Clement, in this case a range of between a.d. 70 and 150 is suggested. These conclusions in some way result in a less precise picture of the church at Rome. It is likely that these books are more universal and apply more broadly to early Christianity, rather than merely reflecting the church(es) at Rome. For the student of the postbiblical church at Rome, this may at first seem disappointing; however, if Gregory is correct, the standard approach misrepresents the church. If this is the case, it is better to be a little uncertain than to be more confident of what ultimately is incorrect.

—Joseph D. Fantin

July 1, 2005
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2005 vol. 162 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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