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Empire Criticism in the Gospel of John?
Or the Spirit of Empire in Corrupt Faith Systems
Due to changes in my family’s schedule, including teaching a high school psychology class for the first time this fall, I am experimenting with changing my writing and posting schedule. Hence the delay from my normal Friday posts. I’m going to try Tuesdays for now, but the goal is still “once a week”!
Do any tests or quizzes stand out to you from your years as a student? I’ll never forget the wrong answer I gave for a quiz in Intro to Studying and Teaching the Bible. It was the fall of 2004, my first semester at Moody Bible Institute. As I was drinking in the dizzying heights of downtown Chicago, I was also drinking in new ideas about the Bible.
Like any good education, I was also being shown wrong ideas I had about the Bible (not to mention debatable matters in between). One wrong idea was exposed by my answer to a simple question: why did the gospel authors write their accounts of Jesus’ life? It seemed such an obvious question with an obvious answer to my 18 year-old self: they were just writing history. Jesus was born, did this, said that, died, resurrected, commissioned. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John just recorded those facts. Simple and self-evident, right?
Wrong! Professor Peter Worrall taught me that each evangelist had an agenda that shaped what they chose to write, as well as how they wrote, framed and structured their gospel accounts. It seems a simple lesson now, equally as obvious as I believed my former error to be. But it has stuck with me, and leads me to keep asking questions as I study the Gospel of John. Specifically, the question of why John wrote what he did.
One new angle on that question—new to me that is—comes from a relatively recent field of New Testament studies called empire criticism. I still have a lot to learn and discern, but here’s a brief definition:
“empire criticism asks us to listen closer to the sounds of the empire and the sounds of challenging empire at work in the pages of the New Testament.”1
Much of this interpretive approach is aimed at discerning subversive, anti-imperial criticisms of Rome. Some scholars have attempted such readings of John.2 What really interests me, though, is not whether and how John may have crafted his gospel message to criticize the Roman empire (although John 20:31 does seem to rule that out, or at least make it very peripheral).
Rather, I am curious about how John portrays the intersection between Roman rulers (ie Pilate) and the Jewish leaders antagonized against Jesus. In John 19:15 the chief priests proclaim emphatic imperial allegiance: “We have no king but Caesar.” Is it possible that through John’s portrayal of the Jewish elites’ collusion with Rome, readers can also discern how their own communities are susceptible to the creep of empire? Perhaps it doesn’t get stated as explicitly as the chief priests (although church history sadly has repeated examples of Christian nationalism). Sometimes the creep of empire is more in action than in word. Not so much allegiance to Caesar but allegiance to the ways of Caesar. Which is to say, the ways displayed by all human systems and their leaders when corrupted by desire for power and glory.
Here are some examples that stand out:
There is a running theme of control through fear and force:
John 7:13 Yet for fear of the Jews no one spoke openly of him.
John 9:22 (His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.)
John 12:42 Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue;
John 19:38 After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body.
John 20:19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
We see a focus on maintaining control, a willingness to remove threats to loss of power at any cost:
John 11:47-48 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
John 12:10-11 So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.
Both Jesus and John expose prideful idolatry of praise and acclamation:
John 5:44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?
John 7:18 The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.
John 12:42-43 Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.
At the theological heart of all the above is the possible intersection of the seed of the serpent (cf Genesis 3:15), corrupt religious leaders (including Judas), and corrupt pagan rulers. NT Wright argues that “the ruler of this world” in John is simultaneously spiritual (read, Satan) and political (read, Pilate/Caesar).3
John 8:44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
John 12:31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.
John 13:2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him.
John 13:27 Then after he [Judas] had taken the morsel, Satan [the Accuser] entered into him.
John 14:30 I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me,
John 16:11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
What I am after here is similar to, and certainly inspired by, interpretations of Revelation that explain “Babylon” as a timeless characterization of the spirit of empire. As Scot McKnight and Cody Matchett explain in Revelation for the Rest of Us, Babylon referred to Rome, but could also point to the presence of Babylon within Christian Communities. Might John have left the church with a critique, implicit if not explicit, of what happens to religious communities when they abandon love of God and humanity for the love of imperial power and control?
Quote from N.T. Wright
“[T]he large outer themes of John’s gospel and indeed of the Bible — creation and new creation, and the role of humans within that — can never ignore their necessary political dimensions. Precisely because the one God wants his world to be wisely ruled by humans, and precisely because, in the truly human Word made Flesh, God was establishing, and now has established, his own rule of love and judgment in the heart of the world, all other human systems are called to account. Because they idolize themselves, they become blasphemous parodies of the truly human rule, and they use violence to sustain themselves in their power.4
What do you think? Am I stretching things? Does this even make sense? Feedback appreciated!
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Scot McKnight, and Joseph B. Modica. Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not : Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies. IVP Academic, 2013.
Tom Thatcher’s Greater Than Caesar, Warren Carter’s John and Empire and Lance Byron Richey’s Roman Imperial Ideology and the Gospel of John. Christopher Skinner reviews each of these books in his chapter on John in Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not.
N.T. Wright. “John, Jesus and ‘The Ruler of This World’” in Interpreting Jesus: Essays on the Gospels.
“John, Jesus and ‘The Ruler of This World,’” p. 219.