Monday, September 28, 2009

Luke's Gospel and the Roman Empire

Here is a little challenge, but, please note, if you take it up and reply with a comment, I am off-line for a few days, so publication of comments will not be till later in the week:

In Luke's Gospel (and in Luke-Acts as a whole) there is an obvious acknowledgment of the reality of the Roman empire woven through the undisguised story of a new movement, replete with a head called Kyrios, which grows from nothing in Galilee to something with a presence in most towns and cities of a significant portion of the empire, including Rome itself.

Is Luke's Gospel:

(a) an attack on the empire?

(b) an apology for the (non-threatening) kingdom of God?

(c) a presentation of an alternative kingdom to the empire? (In what sense is it an alternative? What are it's long-term ambitions?)

(d) none, some, or all of the above?

(I am working on a presentation on Preaching through Luke's Gospel in 2010).


  1. A good but impossible-to-answer-question to begin with is, When was Luke written? Is Acts 28 the end of his work? or did he intend to write a sequel? IOW, does Luke-Acts precede the Neronian persecution in which Paul probably died?
    John Nolland's Word commentary builds on his Cambridge PhD 'Luke's readers' and it may address some of these questions.

  2. Thanks for that challenge, Peter, Your pertinent framing of this question in current discussion of Luke-Acts sent me back to the text to see if my view had changed recently. I tend to favour a combination of (b) and (c).

    In favour of (b), the non-threatening kingdom of God :-
    1. An apologetic genre is indicated by Luke’s nominal patron, Theophilos, from a privileged class within the Empire, seeking an “orderly” account of the Christian movement.
    a. Luke’s presentation of Paul is clearly apologetic in tendency: hence his remarkable claim that Paul was a Roman citizen. Further, his Paul appeals to Caesar for justice against the Jerusalem authorities. Contrast this with 1 Cor.6: clearly Luke’s Paul treats the Roman authorities more like “insiders” than his fellow Jews.
    2. Generally, Roman soldiers and other agents of the Empire are represented as reasonable, sometimes sympathetic observers of the Jesus movement’s conflict with its Jewish rivals. The Romans can be trusted to maintain a safety net of law and order while Jewish groups engage in a struggle over Israel’s heritage. The empire is never criticized directly.

    However, I think that while Luke-Acts is written to allay imperial suspicions of the subversive threat from this new movement, it gives a different message to Jewish ears and to god-fearers immersed in Jewish scripture, consistent with the earlier preaching of Jesus and Paul.
    1. The overriding theme of the extended infancy narrative is to place the birth and career of Jesus within Israel’s shared hopes for deliverance from oppressive rule. Jesus is the promised messiah, the rightful claimant to David’s throne. Other contenders, including those in league with Rome, lack God’s approval, and will be overthrown, soon.
    2. The temptation story is a discourse on the proper path to power: Jesus rejects all shortcuts. Others, including the Caesars, may seize and hold power by feeding the mobs, dazzling them with fancy tricks, and making covert pacts with the devil, but the power Jesus seeks must emerge from total submission to the will of God. This theme is then reinforced throughout his kingdom teachings in the gospel.
    3. Jesus’ preaching is centered on “proclaiming the kingdom of God” – almost certainly meaning announcing the reign of the God of Israel, and the imminent takeover of all other contenders, Jewish, demonic and imperial . The “hope of Israel”, God’s manifest rule over present oppressive regimes, is at hand. By implication, the end of Roman power in Israel and throughout the world is imminent. Those whose faith in God has been weak or broken must now repent, believe this good news, and prepare themselves for what God is about to do.
    4. Act’s message of faith in a resurrected messiah, seated at God’s right hand and pouring out the divine Spirit on all flesh, continues this proclamation of a new regime whose spiritual power can be experienced already and whose earthly consummation is imminent. The empire is as good as finished, and Paul gets to proclaim as much in its capital city, albeit while under house arrest.
    5. The question about the ending of Acts is important, as your first commenter noted, but I don’t think it indicates either a planned sequel or a date before the fall of Jerusalem in 70CE. Rather, it is consistent with Luke’s treatment of the crucified-king problem, that it was scripturally necessary for the messiah to suffer before reigning . Similarly, the readers know that Paul’s mission has ended with his death in Rome, but Luke asserts that he got to preach there for two years, a covert vindication. And Jerusalem was trashed by Titus, but that was another necessary suffering before God’s “restoration of the kingdom to Israel”. Work is in progress and the end of Roman power is near. Luke will not be so presumptuous as to present an end to a story which is God’s alone to finish with manifest action.

  3. Hi Howard and Anon1
    Thanks for your helpful comments!!

  4. You know folks, I wrote an answer to anon1 and Howard a couple of days ago, but didn't post it. I thought to myself, who the heck are you Rosemary to want to interfere in this wordy atmosphere of esoteric discussion. Don't get me wrong, I think such deep discussion can be hugely productive in my life .. and the lives of those like me, with lets say a nmore 'simple' way of looking at things. But this Luke discussion has got me thinking. My interest stems from Peter's desire to make this a presentation to preachers. Something both he and Howard do on a fairly regular basis I presume. [Sorry anon1, I don't know what you do, but I don't mean to leave you out.]

    Surely the most obvious things is, that Luke wanted to share the good news of the Gospel. He wanted to explain who Jesus is, and what He taught, and how that spread in a geographical sense. So his PRIME reason for writing .. is Jesus/Gospel. I don't think for one moment he sat down to write wondering about the Roman Empire .. or indeed mankind in any other sense than that they are lost without this good news. He was writing an account, a history of the time. I think he knew that sheep don't go looking for their shepherd, they carry right on moving toward the next choicest clump of grass, their immediate pressing need. No, surely Luke's first thought is God .. and how much mankind needs to hear of Him through Jesus Christ, and the good news He brought. Surely that is what preachers need to preach? They need to be encouraged to re-discover the Gospel. Esoteric discussions about the Kingdom .. whether of Heaven or God .. or the Roman Empire, and whether or not Luke intended to undermine it. Or whether Luke's apologetic is threatening or non threatening .. [I think it must be the former, or it is surely without value!] .. might be exciting for a few academic guys, [and I do give thanks for theologians who keep the water pipes straight so that we can drink pure water]. But for most of us .. and we can't forget that this is a public platform, open to all .. it's of little help in our painful world. Rather we need to hear .. and concomitantly preachers need to preach .. that Jesus came to give 'life.' Eternal life if we go with John. The Kingdom of Heaven/God if we go with the Synoptics. And that 'life' .. is as Jesus said in John 17:3 .. "This is eternal life, to KNOW you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." So that's the relationship we must develop, the one between ourselves and Jesus .. and that's what the preacher must constantly preach. That although we feel unworthy, although we can see only our failure, although we know we're sinners, although we fear, because God IS in charge and IS going to allow our lives and this world to end in His Judgement .. that Jesus, the shepherd who LOOKS for His sheep because He loves them .. would DIE to keep them safe.

    That's what we need to hear .. over and over again. It's also what the lost need to hear .. over and over again. The lost might be interested in the Roman Empire, it's another choice clump of grass to chew over .. but they need to hear about the HOPE we have. If the only questions put to our preachers are academic/esoteric .. then surely that is what will excite them? Whereas we need them to be excited by the Gospel .. because then they'll pass on that excitement to us. You can tell everything about a person by what excites them!!

  5. Hi Rosemary
    Thank you for a very helpful, and inspiring comment!
    Will you be back in Chch by the end of October when I give my presentation at Theology House?
    Either way, it's going to be about 7.5 hours worth of time/presentation/talking so I can assure you it will not all be on the Roman Empire! The questions above were seeking feedback on one or two questions of many that Luke's Gospel raises.

  6. Rosemary, I hope you do get a chance to attend Peter's presentation at the end of the month. I am sure it will contain plenty of good food for the sheep, presented with the excitement you require. In the meantime, let me expand a little on my previous comment by way of explanation.

    Neither Peter nor I would want to minimize the importance of the "Jesus and me" relationship that is such a prominent theme in John's Gospel. However, the danger in what you say preachers should concentrate on is twofold:-
    1. When we get too prescriptive about the gospel people need to hear the result can often be that we ignore the fact that people are drawn towards Jesus by a great variety of needs. We then become like doctors prescribing the same medicine to all our patients because we know best what is wrong with them regardless of what they are trying to tell us is going on in their lives.
    2. Worse still, that approach can distort and misrepresent the Gospel itself, "simplifying" it by cutting out vital elements of the rich and varied proclamation we find in the New Testament. This begins to happen particularly when we use one of the four gospels as a defining lens through which we read all the others. We would be doing just that if we simply assumed that "the kingdom of God" in Luke is equivalent to "eternal life" in John. They may not mean quite the same thing, which brings me to the whole point of this discussion.

    We are not engaging in academic pin-dancing here, far removed from the realities of preaching to a needy world. One of our modern world's needs, in common with the first century, is deliverance from socio-political evil and economic oppression. If it can be shown that "proclaiming the kingdom of God" in Luke included some good news about what God had in mind for the Roman Empire, then rediscovering that element of the Gospel may be a very important part of hearing the good news God has to say to us in our present broken-down economic situation.

    The possibility that this may be so is one important issue lurking behind Peter's original question, for me anyway, which is why I entered this discussion with more than academic excitement. I was, and still am, a passionate preacher first and an academic biblical scholar second, and I hope that the preachers I help to train will be the same. "Full Gospel" preachers: that's what we need!

  7. Or, as Zacchaeus might say, 'Full Gospel Businessmen', that's what we need!

    A more serious point: part of the marvel of Luke's Gospel and Acts is the wide array of people whose testimonies he tells, and among those testimonies is a wonderful variety in the ways people come to Jesus.

  8. There ARE, as you point out Howard, distinct advantages to knowing that you're a sheep!! However it's not that I REQUIRE excitement. I wish I hadn’t used the term ‘excitment' at all, because it’s encouragement we need. It's that we continually need to be encouraged to rediscover our faith’s foundations .. otherwise familiarity dulls it's edges, so that IS one of the prime roles of the preacher/teacher. That he remember that although he/she is a sheep too, he needs to FEED other sheep.

    I have heard both your points 1 and 2 before, and I am constantly amazed at the lack of trust that can demonstrate in Our Lord. It is He who opens both eyes and ears, it is He who enables sheep to hear what He says. You must remember being amazed at the comments of departing parishioners who all seem to have 'heard' something different from your sermon. Because He is in charge .. not us. He knows everyone's need, so we don't have to worry about the prescription, He will ensure they hear what they need to hear.

    I did not assume this discussion was theological pin dancing Howard, but married as I am to a preacher, I know well the ease with which preachers can be distracted by so many interesting 'clumps of choice grass' whereas the hard work .. the VERY hard work .. of making that Gospel fresh every day, can easily be shelved.