Reviewing “Jesus and the Powers”: A Second Post

I finished Jesus and the Powers. Ultimately, I decided that this was a book worthy of both being written and read. It both changed and focused my thinking, which (to my shame) is something increasingly hard to do these days. Moreover, it spurred considerable reflection on our preaching and teaching about political questions, and as I started to write it all down, I realized I should break it up into different posts. For as much as I liked it, Jesus and the Powers still contains some questionable history and other weaker points of argument. More importantly, it leaves some crucial tensions in its own reasoning unaddressed. As I envision it now, this multi-part review will fall into four sections. First, you can see my initial remarks about martyrdom and the meaning of John 19. In this second post, I tackle the historical problems more fully, which are serious and revealing on their own terms, even if they are not not fatal to the book overall. For the third (and probably shortest) entry, I’ll stress what this book does well and why you should consider picking up a copy. Finally, the last piece will pull on two important, perhaps contradictory lines of thinking in Jesus and the Powers.

So without further ado, let’s talk about history.

As I pointed out previously, there are confusions in how Wright and Bird portray martyrdom, eschatology, and political witness in the early church. A later section (65) praising the martyrs reconfirmed this as an analytical incongruity. That is, it doesn’t make much sense to criticize the earliest Christians (e.g., Justin) as escapist in one place and then adulate their political witness in another. I don’t see how that’s reconcilable, and it still suggests to me Wright and Bird are a little out of their element once they start getting deep into the second century and beyond.

The most noticeable instance of this was their treatment of Eusebius, who appears in their story repeatedly as a caricatured pinata. Now, I confess I myself have a revisionist reading of Eusebius and Constantine, and that this is especially odd for someone such as myself with certain quietist tendencies. Leaving that all aside for another day, Wright and Bird botch basic facts or else strangely miscontextualize Eusebius as a kind of theo-fascist. Consider:

The danger is that one is approaching the sycophantic position of Eusebius of Caesarea who claimed that the emperor Constantine was hailed by angels and armies alike as ‘master, lord, and king’ (130).

The attendant footnote directs the reader to the opening of Eusebius’ panegyric for Constantine’s Tricennalia. And what does one find there? Look carefully at the translation (E.C. Richardson apud O’Donovan and O’Donovan) cited by Wright and Bird:

Today is the festival of our great emperor: and we his children rejoice therein, feeling the inspiration of our sacred theme. He who presides over our solemnity is the Great Sovereign himself; he, I mean, who is truly great; of whom I affirm (nor will the sovereign who hears me be offended, but will rather approve of this ascription of praise to God), that HE is above and beyond all created things, the Highest, the Greatest, the most Mighty One; whose throne is the arch of heaven, and the earth the footstool of his feet. His being none can worthily comprehend; and the ineffable splendor of the glory which surrounds him repels the gaze of every eye from his Divine majesty. His ministers are the heavenly hosts; his armies the supernal powers, who own allegiance to him as their Master, Lord, and King. The countless multitudes of angels, the companies of archangels, the chorus of holy spirits, draw from and reflect his radiance as from the fountains of everlasting light. Yea every light, and specially those divine and incorporeal intelligences whose place is beyond the heavenly sphere, celebrate this august Sovereign with lofty and sacred strains of praise. The vast expanse of heaven, like an azure veil, is interposed between those without, and those who inhabit his royal mansions: while round this expanse the sun and moon, with the rest of the heavenly luminaries (like torch-bearers around the entrance of the imperial palace), perform, in honor of their sovereign, their appointed courses; holding forth, at the word of his command, an ever-burning light to those whose lot is cast in the darker regions without the pale of heaven. And surely when I remember that our own victorious emperor renders praises to this Mighty Sovereign, I do well to follow him, knowing as I do that to him alone we owe that imperial power under which we live. (Oration 1.1-3)

Unless I’m slipping slowly into madness, this opening section praises not Constantine (“the sovereign who hears me”) but the Almighty God (“the Great Sovereign”) himself. And by beginning the body of his speech this way, Eusebius draws a line sharply between the higher empire and the lower (i.e., Rome’s) that depends on the higher. Thus, Eusebius is doing exactly the opposite of what Wright and Bird claim, and as basic history-craft goes, that’s a significant oversight, especially for such a seminal character as Eusebius.

When the book returns to Eusebius further down, it oddly underscores his preference for monarchy over democracy, implying that such reasoning might have led him to support the Bad Guys had he lived in the 1930s (158). This is elevated rhetoric but shaky historical thinking: up until very recently, virtually all the great political thinkers in Western Civilization, Christian and otherwise, would have been with Eusebius here on the question of democracy. As they could well have told you, up to that point in time, classical Athens was the main example on offer, and the democracy had arguably helped destroy the city. Just ask Alcibiades, or Socrates. Even the American Founders themselves can turn a phrase or two about the perils of democracy. We Westerners in 2024 are the historical minority here in heartily espousing democracy, even if we have solid reasons for doing so. Thus, to single out an ancient thinker for preferring monarchy essentially amounts to a kind of ahistorical framing, and its purpose eludes me.

In any case, the point here is neither to rehabilitate Eusebius in one swoop, nor is it to dunk on the authors; Lord knows I’ve had (and will yet have) my own howlers. What it does reveal is a certain prejudice at work. That neither they nor their publisher were ever alerted to the problems—“Wait, this highly prominent Christian bishop and intellectual said what now about angels owing allegiance to Constantine?”—indicates that they have not studied this period closely enough and that (probably) a preconceived pop-history was really driving the analysis, at least for Eusebius.

For this reviewer, that kind of critical error is vexing, particularly when these early Christians deserve much more attention for how they applied many of the deeper, Kingdom-of-God principles that Wright and Bird espouse (more on these below). So while I don’t think I would share Eusebius’ actual political theology exactly, I can understand it—and note that it is arguably much closer to Wright and Bird’s “activist” Christianity than they themselves realize. With similar irony, I can perceive no real daylight between their position and that of Justinian I on church-state relations, which they quote at one point to criticize (94–5).

On the matter of the NT itself, as I was reading, I noted that Jesus and the Powers seems to construct a political theology mostly by way of the Gospels themselves or through those passage from Paul that specifically explain Jesus’ victory over the “powers and principalities.” This high theory of the NT political theology seemed sound enough on its own terms, but comparatively little discussion followed about how the first generations actually implemented that theory for their situation in the Roman empire. I suspect this is because, as I have said before, most of the NT is embarrassing to a modern activist mentality because of how little it addresses the items that bother twenty-first-century Westerners. Instead of society at-large, the NT writings are (on their face) much more interested in the Church’s own community, and that even includes (I would argue) the palpably anti-Roman paroxysms found in Revelation.

That in turn raises another theme in Wright’s scholarship over the decades: were Paul and the other NT authors really subverting the Roman regime all the way along but just “in code”? To be fair, Wright and Bird do rightly mark the ambiguity of the NT canon vis-à-vis Rome; Luke does indeed strike a different tone from Revelation on the Roman question. But an activist theology would look more viable if one could prove Paul and Co. were subtly—or not so subtly?—thumbing their noses at Caesar all along. Of course, Jon Barclay and others have questioned this “between-the-lines” interpretation, and in my view, not without good reason. Skeptical of no-holds-barred Straussian esoteric readings though I am, I do believe that ancient writers could and did say plenty just submerged beneath the bare text of our English translations. In fact, the last third of the ancient educational ladder was devoted to the general skillset that would alert one to such subtleties. We call it “rhetoric.” And having read Paul and the rest of the NT against other artful ancient sources—Plato, Vergil, Procopius, Qumran, and the like—who were uneasy, skeptical, or overtly hostile toward the respective regime, I must say am more persuaded by Team Barclay here.

This is not really the place to adjudicate that particular question further. I will, however, cushion one last remark in this direction with a bit of admiration: there are few authors that have had as much influence on me as Wright. Not only has he profoundly affected my Christianity, he was one of the voices that ultimately got me into ancient history. From the years of reading him, however, I have sometimes wondered whether the political-theological tail isn’t wagging the scriptural dog. That is, Wright has so stressed anti-Epicurean cosmology, non-Platonized eschatology, the weight of human vocation and Christians’ present work for the Kingdom, that he has sometimes gravitated toward major political questions in the here and now, such as Third World debt, to name one of his favorite examples. If living Christians are to fulfil their Kingdom mandate (so I interpret his thinking), then they must actively grapple with such macro-political questions: war, “empire,” ethnic and racial tension, education, economics, poverty, welfare, and redistribution. Ultimately, this would place an awful lot of pressure to find a biblical warrant.

But again, I simply don’t see the NT writers and their communities taking that same approach to macro-politics, and I think they had opportunities to address that kind of thing, had they desired. How “hard” would it have been for the Church to ban its members from owning slaves, for instance, thereby offering a public witness to the rest of the empire? Hard indeed, but not unthinkable in this world—no more unthinkable than expecting husbands to sleep only with their wives or severely restricting legitimate divorce. Admittedly, internal ecclesiastical policy is not exactly the same as shouting down Caesar’s entourage with a bullhorn anyway, but the fact that the earliest Church never bothered with the more modest steps indicates to me what social concerns were and were not on their radar.

The same goes for the Church Fathers, who also remain basically silent on macro-politics, except tangentially when they defend Christianity in the public forum. By contrast, I think Wright and Bird would like to see more activism in the Fathers, too. Thus, in a section on speaking truth to power, Wright and Bird claim that the pre-Constantinian church frequently did just this on the plight of the poor, “challenging rulers and authorities” (64). This claim struck me as bold but intriguing, as I could think of no solid primary evidence for such cases. The attendant footnote (somewhat unhelpfully) cites all of Rodney Stark’s sometimes controversial The Rise of Christianity. After then searching Stark’s book, I could only find two possible examples: a complaint from the post-Constantinian emperor, Julian the Apostate, and Tertullian’s Apology, both of which simply noted that Christians took care of the poor better than pagans. This is not exactly a robust record of speaking truth boldly to Caesar’s face. Instead, I suspect there is some historical wish-casting involved: we would very much like it to be true that the pre-Constantinian church dating back to Jesus had acted thus because we feel in our twenty-first-century bones that this is what God’s Kingdom must entail—surely.

On the other hand—and this gets to my commendations in a later post—my personal judgment has always found Wright to be soundly dikaios, as it were, in his insistence that Christianity addresses major social issues from below, in face-to-face relationships and community. His persuasive reading of Philemon at the opening of Paul and the Faithfulness of God drives the point home. Of course, what Paul writes in that tiny letter about Onesimus is pretty thoroughly destabilizing to the whole ethos of ancient slavery, and I see no way around that, even though some have read Paul as a conformist here as well. (Put it this way: if Paul is a social conformist in Philemon, I have not seen the social ethic to which he is supposedly conforming in evidence anywhere in antiquity). But by my lights, Paul’s social and moral reasoning is also firmly in friction with how modern democracies and contemporary media acculturate us to think about pressing moral questions, namely, at a huge and impersonal scale. If Caesar wields sword and scepter, it seems to me that the Church itself is directly called to be something much subtler: salt.


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