N. T. Wright and John M. G. Barclay on Paul and Empire


Paul and Empire in N. T. Wright

Just as the good news in Isaiah is the heralding of Yahweh’s regal return to Zion (particularly chs. 40 and 52 of Isaiah) – which Wright understands as having taken place in the ministry of Jesus, and the events in Jerusalem his final week – so it is with Caesar’s gospel which also announces a new world order.[1] “…[F]or Paul ‘the gospel’ is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Lord. It is in other words, the thoroughly Jewish (and indeed Isaianic) message that challenges the royal and imperial messages abroad in Paul’s world.”[2] Paul’s gospel, therefore, “could not but be construed as deeply counter-imperial, as subversive to the whole edifice of the Roman empire…”[3] However, euangelion in Roman literary and archaeological evidences is not nearly as common as anti-imperialist readers would desire. Wright admits that the “relative scarcity” of its occurrences “should not obscure” its importance.[4] But such a concession clearly has the effect of dampening his narrative presentation.

The ideology of Caesar’s empire is explained as a new world order established primarily through militaristic conquest,[5] but also established and preserved by means of what Wright labels the “the rhetoric of empire” – i.e., imperialistic propaganda in the guise of coins, “art, architecture, literature and culture in general.”[6] Rome further had her own historical narrative encompassing centuries of history – not unlike Paul’s Jewish creational narrative understanding of the world, now reshaped around King Jesus. [7] But Paul’s intentionally, according to Wright, anti-imperial euangelion of King Jesus, the risen and rightful King of kings and Lord of lords, is of a theological sort that Caesar’s reign and worship was directly challenged.

The anti-imperial agenda of Paul is presented exegetically by Wright in passages concerning God’s revealed righteousness in Romans, and in the “coded” imperial challenges of Philippians.[8] It should be noted, however, that Peter Oakes, a former student of Wright’s, has some exegetical disagreements with his former teacher: “Paul does not seem to be wishing, as such, for Rome’s overthrow. He is not writing anti-Roman polemic.”[9]

Also important for understanding Paul’s anti-imperialism is understanding how the cross has adjusted his (political) theology. As Wright rightly emphasizes, Paul is no longer the zealous Pharisee, who would have had no problem joining the revolutionaries of the Jewish War, that he once was. Wright also shows appreciation for the cross’s apocalyptic nature, much as John M. G. Barclay does. Wright states: “The much larger transformation came with the apocalyptic unveiling of the saving plan of Israel’s God in the form of the crucified Messiah.”[10] And as he states in Paul: In Fresh Perspective, “the symbol which had spoken of Caesar’s naked might now spoke of God’s naked love.”[11] It is because of the cross, that a “different kind of political theology” resulted.[12] No longer the zealot Pharisee, Paul’s anti-imperial agenda is now expressed in a non-violent manner.

Methodologically, Wright draws on Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.[13] But Barclay’s comments concerning Wright’s use of Hays, admittedly trenchant, still merit attention: “Hays’ intertextual method proceeds from the said to the unsaid, from numerous explicit citations of Scripture to echoes that surround and supplement that solid sound of citation; Wright is working from nothing explicit in the text, from thin air to even thinner.”[14]

Paul and Empire in John M. G. Barclay

Barclay often targets the hermeneutical assumptions upon which Roman imperial cult studies are founded and offers helpful correctives. In his chapter “Paul, Roman Religion and the Emperor,” he frequently points out how the imperial cult does not exist on its own, but rather in a sort of syncretistic manner alongside local deities within Rome’s empire. In one place he writes, “It is important to stress here that ‘cults of the emperor were not an independent element of religious life’, but were generally incorporated into already existing traditions (Roman or local) or linked with traditional deities in location, name or practice.”[15] This is an important criticism by Barclay since Wright portrays Paul’s missionary efforts as fundamentally competing with the imperial cult, largely neglecting the greater Mediterranean religious context.[16]

The most repeated but sadly often ignored criticism of anti-imperial readings is the absolute silence of Paul regarding the imperial cult, and to an extent Rome herself. Barclay writes: “…despite the obvious importance of the imperial cult in practically every city he visited, there is no special mention made by Paul of the cult of the emperors.”[17] In Barclay’s next chapter, “Why the Roman Empire Was Insignificant to Paul,” he writes, “Although his name is Latin [Paul] and although (according to Acts) he had Roman citizenship, and although much of his mission was conducted in cities which were either Roman colonies or had strong Roman allegiances, Paul never describes the world he inhabits in terms that allude to its Roman character.” [18] Despite this complete neglect of Caesar worship and empire in Paul’s epistles, anti-imperial hermeneutics continue to run right over Paul.

This chapter also has a specific section offering formidable responses to Wright which are presented in the following block quotes.[19] Under the subheading, “Rome and Pauline Epistemology,” he writes,

We may perceive the imperial cult as the dominant mode of ‘pagan’ religiosity, and as an insidious expression of Roman hegemony, but it is another matter how Paul perceived the religio-political context in which he lived; his interpretative frame may have been different from our late-modern modes of historical interpretation and ideological analysis. If everywhere we look we see ‘Rome’ as the stand-out feature of Paul’s landscape, it is not necessarily the case that Paul saw likewise…[20]

Under the next subheading, “‘Political’ Vocabulary in Paul,” Barclay states: “Paul never places the terms ‘good news’, ‘salvation’, or ‘faith/loyalty’ in antithesis with a Roman form of the same; the righteousness/justice of God is contrasted with that of the Torah, not of Rome.”[21]

Under the final subheading, “Reading Between the Lines,” Barclay criticizes:

For all of these reasons, the case for tracing a hidden ‘code’ in Paul’s letters appears extremely implausible. Rather than reading between the lines, or supplementing Paul’s text with ‘and especially Caesar’ additions, proper exegetical method requires us to read precisely what is on the lines. If this does not fit what we imagine Paul must have said, it is not Paul’s texts that need revision, but our preformed expectations of his political theology.[22]

Summarizing Thoughts

While largely agreeing with the basic premise of Barclay’s apocalyptic understanding of Paul and the Christ event – which Barclay takes as the new age breaking in through the resurrection of Jesus[23] – Wright maintains that the conclusions Barclay draws from it are not fully informed. Wright understands the imperial cult, not simply as a dependent component of a much larger cosmic narrative, but as the very real and principle expression of it.[24] Wright protests that even though Rome is an agent of the “powers” in Paul’s theology, it remains that Paul “almost certainly saw Rome as the final great empire prophesied by Daniel.”[25] For Wright, it is not enough to say, as Barclay does, that what mattered most to Paul was the cosmic forces at work through the growing imperial cult – it is rather the imperial cult itself. But once again, the methodology of anti-imperial hermeneutics reveals its flawed nature when arguments from complete silence are allowed to anchor a supposed subversive agenda in Paul’s writings.


Despite the rich and compelling anti-imperial Paul presented in Wright’s work, it is exegetically difficult to uphold. Sincere exegetes cannot entertain so grand a narrative without some solid footing upon which to stand. Because the reconstruction-theories of Paul are built upon disproven methodologies, agreement with Wright’s anti-imperial reading cannot be credibly espoused. Barclay’s cosmic narrative, where Rome is understood as only an underwhelming part of a much larger cosmic threat of evil addressed by Paul under the label of “powers,” clearly has more exegetical merit since it would answer for such a silence.

However many Roman coins with imperial inscriptions of Caesar, or cities designed and built for Caesar’s glory, complete with glorious arches lining their entrances with forums in between, in addition to impressive temples in the distance and nearby; any of these coins that Paul would have held in his hand; any of these cities where Paul would have lodged – or been imprisoned; any arches or forums he might have walked through, or temples that met his gaze; Paul nevertheless remained silent concerning the imperial cult. Because of this, Barclay’s model carries more merit by making the best sense of the data; and making the best sense of the data is something Wright frequently voices appreciation for. As Barclay notes, and as pointed out above, Paul had an apocalyptic worldview of the “powers,” and he interpreted his historical reality likewise; he does not seem to have thought in the terms scholars such as Wright desire for him. No matter how confronted Paul certainly was by the imperial cult, or a temple dedicated to the goddess Roma, or Jupiter, or other Roman deity – if Paul envisioned the world differently, honest exegetes of Paul must follow in their understanding of him.

Apart from his reading of Paul and empire, however, general agreement with Wright’s very impressive Roman history and imperial cult research presented in chapter five of Paul and the Faithfulness of God and discussed above, should be heartily received.


[1]Wright has probably not explained himself more clearly than in his earlier work, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 44: “It is, rather, that the Isaianic message always was about the enthronement of YHWH and the dethronement of pagan gods; about the victory of Israel and the fall of Babylon; about the arrival of the Servant King and the consequent coming of peace and justice.” But see all of ch. 3, “Herald of the King,” pp. 39-62. Concerning Caesar’s euangelion, Adolf Deissmann continues to inform recent studies; Light from the Ancient East, 4th ed., trans. by L. R. M. Strachan (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1927). Deissmann demonstrates significant parallelism between Roman imperial and New Testament vocabulary (see pp. 338-78). In Wright’s own words: “In the Greek world, euangelion is a technical term for news of victory. More specifically it refers to the announcement of the birth or accession of an emperor. Not least at the time of Augustus…”; Wright, “Gospel and Theology in Galatians,” in Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013) 82. Originally published in Gospel in Paul: Studies on Corinthians, Galatians and Romans for Richard N. Longenecker, ed. by L. Ann Jervis and Peter Richardson, in Journal for the Study of New Testament Supplements Series 108 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1994) 222-39. See also the very compelling block quotes Wright laboriously provides in ch. 5 (titled “The Eagle Has Landed,” pp. 279-347) of Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press): the classical references are to: (1) Velleius Paterculus’ glorifying description of the empire at the end of Augustus’ reign (302); (2) Horace’s poem concerning the pax Augusta (300; but ch. 5 passim); (3) and, primarily, Virgil (304-11, passim). (Chapter 5 is nothing short of breathtaking for students, probably the best chapter in the first volume of the two-volume book.)

[2]N. T. Wright, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” in Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013) 174. Originally published in Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel Imperium Interpretation. Essay in Honor of Krister Stendahl, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity International Press, 2000), 160-83.

[3]Wright, Pauline Perspectives, 171.

[4]Wright, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” in Pauline Perspectives, 173 n.10. But to this the student cannot help but disagree. Simply put, “scarce” is not a quality that one would predicate of something considered “important.”

[5]“The means to it all was simple: war.” Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 310.

[6]Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 294ff.

[7]Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 294. (See the classical references discussed in n.1 above.)

[8]See the revealing subheadings in his essay, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” in Pauline Perspectives, 178-82. But cf. the exegetical critique of Wright by Seyoon Kim Christ and Caesar: The Gospel in the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) 16-21.

[9]Peter Oakes, “Re-mapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians,” in Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27 (2005): 321.

[10]Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 1306.

[11]N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005) 73.

[12]Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 1306.

[13]Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

[14]John M. G. Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews: Studies in the Social Formation of Christian Identity, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 275 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010) 380.

[15]Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 352-3. See further, “…prayers were typically made on behalf of the emperor to other deities…” (353); “The reason why the imperial cult sits firmly within a larger context of religious tradition and practice is that the emperors were not independent deities…” (354); “It was precisely because it was incorporated into local interpretations of this pervasive divine order that the imperial cult became so successful so quickly” (355); “…the imperial cult is not viewed, by either the Romans or the Christians, as a self-standing entity, but as enmeshed within the much larger structure of Roman religion.” (360).

[16]See his essay “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” in Pauline Perspectives, 169-92.

[17]Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 356.

[18]Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 374-5.

[19]Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 373-87.

[20]Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 374. (Original emphasis.)

[21]Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 379. Contra Wright’s exegesis of Romans (see p. 2 above).

[22]Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 383. The “coded challenges” that Barclay has in view here are seen in Wright’s exegesis of Philippians. Cf. also the work of Kim Christ and Caesar, 11-16 (Philippians), and 32-33 (“coding”).

[23]Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 384 n.70, “Where Wright placed Paul in ideological continuity with the biblical/Jewish tradition of monotheistic critique of paganism, I would place stronger emphasis on the new division of the cosmos created by the Christ-event (cf. Gal 1.4; 1 Cor 1.18-2.16), which strongly reshapes and reapplies the biblical categories themselves.” And further evidencing Barclay’s apocalypticism: “…the subversive and redemptive power of divine grace in Christ…” (383); “…the world is divided anew around the event of Christ.” (384).

[24]Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 1310.

[25]Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 1310.


Barclay, John M. G. Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews: Studies in the Social Formation of Christian Identity. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 275. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010.

Deissmann, Adolf. Light from the Ancient East. 4th edition. Translated by L. R. M. Strachan. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1927.

Hays, Richard B. Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Kim, Seyoon. Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

Oakes, Peter. “Re-mapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians,” in Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27 (2005): 301-22.

Wright, N. T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Vol. 4 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

_______. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005.

_______. Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013.

_______. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.


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