A brief musing on Paul

We now can say from studies in all related fields, including epigraphy and archaeology, that the cult of Caesar the divine ruler was not merely one among other religious choices available to denizens of the ancient Roman empire. Instead, we should see it as largely the glue that held the empire together on multiple levels – political, social, religious, even economic. Particularly in the regions where Paul traveled and preached, it was the dominant cult and the means by which Rome controlled large parts of its imperial territory and population. After all, who needs armies when your king is a god and can be worshiped?

Because of this, Paul’s evangelism cannot be understood in terms of a traveling preacher who offered people a new religious experience, one superior to the religous understandings they had previously possessed. Rather, he should be seen as a kind of traveling ambassador (a term he actually uses to describe himself) for a new king-in-waiting, establishing colonies of people loyal to this new king, ordering their lives and practices according to the story and symbols of this new king, rather than to the imperial Roman story that formed the dominant religious, as well as political, mythos of the time. Paul called his converts to order their minds according to the truth of the story of Christ, not of Caesar’s. This can only be construed as deeply subversive and counter-imperial. The fact that Paul ended up in prison, executed under the reign of the “god” Nero is a sign that he did his duty for the new king quite properly.

Of course, as a Jew, Paul’s allegiance would have been to God the king, rather than to any human-made god or king. What’s interesting is that Paul defines allegiance to Christ in precisely the terms the Old Testament uses to exhort people to ally themselves with God and to eschew idols. Following Christ in Paul’s conception, then, cannot be divorced from a radically different conception of the world and how we ought to see it, smell it, live in it, than those conceptions the domination systems of the world would inundate us with.

Hearing differently leads to believing differently, which leads to imagining differently, which leads to living differently, which leads to hearing differently… “You will come to know me only as you follow me” (James McClendon’s translation of God’s revelation to Moses “I AM WHO I AM”). Only as we come to know God will we know ourselves. And only as we see the face of Christ in our neighbor will we come to know God. Thus the three loves, of God, neighbor, and self, are inextricably entwined. Let us imagine the world through the story of the Crucified God-Man, the one who washed his disciples’ feet and to whom all knees will bow.

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