Paul, Leader of a Jewish Revolution

(N.T. Wright, Bible Review, December 2000.  Reproduced by permission of the author.)

Paul’s theology–grounded in Jewish thought and scriptures–propelled him to confront the powers of Rome and the pagan gods that stood behind them.

Did Paul think Jesus was the long-promised Davidic Messiah?

The first Christian writer seems to say so at the very start of Romans, his most famous letter.  His gospel, he writes, is about God’s son, “who was descended from David’s seed according to the flesh, and designated son of God in power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection of the dead” (Romans 1:3-4).  But most scholars, until recently at least, have denied that Paul himself really wanted to say this.  He was, they say, just pacifying his Roman hearers by quoting a creedal formula they would have known, to assure them he was on track with their faith.

When I first met this line of thought, I suspected it was an attempt to de-Judaize Paul.  I still think that’s correct.  By arguing that Paul didn’t believe Jesus was the Davidic Messiah, some would-be Christian scholars were trying to enlist Paul in support of a non-Jewish type of faith.  Alas, some Jewish readers have been eager to agree, hoping to blame Paul for changing Jesus’ Jewish message into something different.

But these attempts to distance Paul from Judaism find no real foundation in the opening lines of Romans.  The formulaic nature of Romans 1:1-7 gives us no reason to question whether Paul wrote these lines, still less to deny that he believed them.  In any case, why would Paul quote a powerful formula that he didn’t believe in, simply to introduce himself to new readers?  That makes no sense.  To do so would be stupid at best and dishonest at worst.

In this passage and throughout his other writings, Paul’s thinking remained Jewish through and through.

I now see that the attempt to rescue Paul from believing in Jesus’ Davidic messiahship not only de-Judaizes Paul, but also de-politicizes him.  The claim that Jesus was the Messiah places Paul, of course, in conflict with those Jews, both ancient and modern, who take a different view.  But it also places him in conflict with Rome-the city to which this letter was written.  If Jesus was the true king, Caesar was not.

In Paul’s day, the cult of Caesar was the fastest-growing religion in the Mediterranean world.  In Rome itself the emperors did not claim full divine honors, but they did adopt the title “son of god”-the god in question being their recently deceased, and newly deified, predecessor.  And in the provinces, from Greece and Turkey through the Middle East to Egypt, divinization was standard.  The people had worshiped rulers before; why shouldn’t Augustus and his successors, with their extraordinary powers, receive the same divine honors?

So the imperial cult grew.  Its “good news” was that Caesar, the son of God, was now the lord of the whole world, claiming allegiance from everybody in return for bringing salvation and justice to the world. Resistance was met with crucifixion.  The system was based on sheer power.

When Paul wrote Romans, he wasn’t offering a benign religion or faith detached from the world of Roman power.  He was confronting imperial power head-on.  In the opening lines of his letter (1:1-17), Paul announces that he is coming to Rome as the messenger of God’s “good news,” the news about his son, the royal heir of David (in Psalms, the Davidic king will rule the whole world).  The resurrection marked Jesus as God’s son.  He is now the world’s true lord, claiming allegiance from Jew and gentile alike.  Paul is not ashamed of this “good news,” because this message-announcing Jesus as the risen Messiah and Lord, the one true God-unveils salvation and justice for the whole world.

A close comparison of the “good news” of the Caesar cult with Paul’s words shows that Romans is, among other things, a deliberate parody of the pagan message.  Paul’s readers in Rome must have understood this, and he must have intended them to.

Paul’s ideas do not derive from the Caesar cult, as some have suggested; they confront it.  His theology, his understanding of the Messiah, remains rooted in Jewish thought forms and in the scriptures.  Texts like Exodus, Isaiah and the Psalms propelled him towards just this sort of confrontation with the pagan powers and the gods that stood behind them.  He is, perhaps, at his most Jewish when he is confronting and undermining paganism.

Further proof that Paul thought this way in Romans comes in the often-neglected theological conclusion to the letter, Romans 15:7-13.  There Paul tells us that the aim of the gospel is the united, multiethnic worship of the one true God; Paul quotes a string of verses climaxing with Isaiah 11:10: “There shall be a root of Jesse [in other words, a descendant of David], one who rises up to rule the nations; in him shall the nations hope.”  This completes the circle begun with 1:3: The resurrection establishes Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, the world’s true Lord. Paul, coming to Rome, must have known how subversive this would sound.

True, Romans 13:1-7 urges Paul’s readers to obey the authorities, but this is more subversive than is often supposed.  Rulers are not divine; they are answerable to God.  God wants order, not chaos; there is no point in overthrowing the official tyranny of appointed rulers only to have it replaced by the unofficial tyranny of the bullies, the strong or the rich.  The revolution Paul has in mind is deeper than mere civic disobedience. It is about giving to the Davidic Messiah the total allegiance that, in his day, was claimed by Caesar.  After all, Caesar killed Jesus, but God raised him from the dead.