Review: The Apostle and the Empire

The Apostle and the Empire, Christoph Heilig (foreword by John M. G. Barclay). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2022.

Summary: Focusing on 2 Corinthians 2:14, Heilig argues for an alternative to either hidden or unexpressed criticism of the empire in Paul’s writings, proposing that we might also consider texts that have been overlooked.

Until N. T. Wright, most commentators on the Pauline works considered Paul to be silent on or even supportive of the Roman empire. Wright changed that with an article in 2000, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” proposing that subtexts could be found in Paul’s writing of an anti-imperial nature, referred to as hidden subtexts. John M. G. Barclay responded with a critique outlining five necessary conditions that would need to be met to accept Wright’s hypothesis that Wright answered in a chapter of Paul and the Faithfulness of God in 2013. A more recent paper by Laura Robinson questions the “hidden subtext” idea proposing that they are not hidden but just are not there, and that the concerns evoked by Wright about surveillance by the empire were unwarranted.

In this work, Heilig seeks to move the discussion to a new place. In addition to challenging Robinson’s assessment of the dangers Christians faced, invoking for example, the Pliny-Trajan correspondence, and the troubles Paul actually found himself in, he proposes the idea that Paul’s criticism is not so much hidden as perhaps, at least in some passages, overlooked. After mentioning passages like 1 Corinthians 2:6 and 1 Thessalonians 3:3, he focuses much of this monograph on 2 Corinthians 2:14:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.

2 Corinthians 2:14, NIV.

A significant part of Heilig’s argument, overlooked in most commentaries, is the contemporary context of the victory procession of Claudius in 44 AD, celebrating his victory over Britannia. The Corinthians actually had an emperor cult that celebrated this victory. References to a triumphal procession would readily evoke this event in the minds of the Corinthians, not simply a general military practice. He explores the challenge to empire implicit in the reference God leading this procession, spreading the knowledge of the victory of Christ. Heilig argues that this, at very least expresses a sense of “unease” with the empire. He also suggests that this may be found even in the “clearest” of the passages on the empire, Romans 13:1-7, although I am surprised the author does not explore the standards for the just exercise of power implied in these passages, that is an implicit judgment against the much more arbitrary exercise of “the sword” in actuality.

In the last chapter before the conclusion, he decries the woeful state of access to the most current scholarship on context for biblical commentators, illustrated by the “overlooked” material on Claudius. I felt that, while this may be valid, I would have been more greatly helped by a discussion of further research along the lines of this work, and at least a preliminary overview of other passages where he thought criticism may have been overlooked rather than hidden.

That said, I do think this proposal offers new ground for work on Paul’s unease with empire and the realities faced by early Christians navigating Roman society, one that recognizes both Paul’s courage and discretion.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

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