Book Write-Up: Matthew and Empire, by Warren Carter

Warren Carter.  Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations.  Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2001.

Warren Carter argues that Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew was against the Roman empire and its oppression of Israel.  That’s not the message one often hears when watching Jesus movies, I’ll tell you that!  I was recently watching the 1961 movie King of Kings, starring Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus.  The movie did a good job showing why there were many Jews who wanted a Messiah to deliver them from Roman oppression, and yet it depicted Jesus as one who was not overly concerned about Rome.  Rather, Jesus in the movie focused on preaching peace and love.  Some Romans were wondering if this could have anti-Roman political implications: for example, Pilate wondered if Rome would get its taxes if Jews decided to heed Jesus’ exhortation to sell all they have and give to the poor.  But the Roman soldier defending Jesus sought to reassure Pilate that Jesus was not seeking to overthrow Rome, for Jesus was promoting a spiritual kingdom rather than a new political kingdom.

But Carter wants to argue that Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel was opposing Rome, and that his ministry in that Gospel had political implications.  Carter doesn’t go as far as S.G.F. Brandon in Jesus and the Zealots (read my review of that book here), for Carter does not argue that Jesus was a revolutionary who was open to using violence, nor does Carter believe that the Gospel of Matthew was trying to downplay or obscure any political significance in Jesus’ mission.  Rather, Carter maintains that Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel was countering Rome by promoting and practicing love, service, and recognition of the value of all, rather than the Roman empire’s way of seeking to lord it over others.  Moreover, according to Carter, Jesus believed that the coming Kingdom of God would overthrow Rome and inaugurate a reality in which the poor are fed rather than exploited.  For Carter, Jesus in his ministry of healing and exorcism was foreshadowing that sort of reality.

On what basis does Carter argue that Jesus was opposing the Roman empire?  Carter places a lot of emphasis on Matthew 20:25-27, in which Jesus contrasts the Gentile princes’ exercise of power with the service that Jesus exhorted his disciples to practice.  Carter also argues that Jesus in his ministry was acting as an alternative to Rome: whereas the Roman empire maintained that the emperor was a son of a god and brought divinity and peace to the world, Jesus was claiming to be the Son of God and was healing the brokenness that was in Palestine under Roman rule.  Moreover, amidst Rome’s insistence that the empire was a place of prosperity and peace, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount was highlighting just how bad the Roman empire was: it was a place where people mourned.  But Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel was promising a new reality in which the mourners would be comforted and the meek would inherit the earth.

Carter tries to refute interpretations of Matthew’s Gospel that disregard or contradict Jesus’ opposition to Rome.  Against the view that Jesus in Matthew was to be one who would liberate people from sin rather than political oppression, Carter maintains that, within ancient Jewish thought, the political and the spiritual were interconnected, for Israel’s political destiny was contingent on its relationship with God; Carter also interprets forgiveness in parts of Matthew in reference to the cancellation of debts and the Jubilee, which had socio-political implications.  Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-29: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (KJV).  Carter interprets that politically, in reference to Rome, noting places in ancient Jewish literature where toil, rest, and yokes had political significance.  Against the argument that Matthew’s Gospel is downplaying Pilate’s guilt in the crucifixion of Jesus, Carter holds that Pilate in Matthew’s Gospel is far from innocent: that Pilate exemplified why Roman power was so horrible.

There was one place where I did not exactly buy into the entirety of Carter’s interpretation, but I found it to be quite interesting.  Remember the story in Matthew 17:24-27 in which Peter draws a coin out of a fish to pay tribute?  Carter argues that the story is about tribute to Rome, and that Jesus was demonstrating God’s sovereignty over the Roman empire.  I tend to disagree with Carter’s argument that Jesus in vv 25-26 is criticizing a situation in the Roman empire in which kings’ children are exempt from paying tribute, for it seems to me that Jesus’ point is that the disciples do not have to pay tribute because they are the king’s children, and yet Peter should pay it so as not to cause trouble or unnecessary offense.  But Carter does make the interesting argument that the scene with the fish demonstrates God’s sovereignty.  Carter notes examples in Roman literature of birds, animals, and fish acknowledging the sovereignty of the emperor, and Carter contends that Jesus is demonstrating his own sovereignty over nature, amidst a situation in which Peter had to yield to Rome. 

Carter’s discussion of Pilate reminded me somewhat of Diane Sawyer’s interview with Mel Gibson back when the Passion of the Christ was coming out.  Scholars and critics were saying that Gibson’s film blamed the Jews for Jesus’ death while downplaying Pilate’s culpability, but Gibson appeared to be puzzled by that accusation, for he felt that he was portraying Pilate negatively: as cowardly.  That tells me that there should probably be more nuance in discussions about the Gospels’ depictions of the role of Rome in Jesus’ death: I do think that the Gospels largely blame Jewish authorities for Jesus’ death, and yet I don’t find their depiction of Pilate to be all that flattering.  The widespread idea that the Gospels were trying to downplay Roman involvement in Jesus’ death out of an attempt to appease Rome strikes me as rather simplistic, and it should be nuanced more.  Carter, in my opinion, does well to criticize scholarly arguments about the portrayal of Pilate in Matthew’s Gospel, not because there is nothing to such arguments, but rather because the issue is more complex.

At the same time, I do wish that Carter had dealt more with the implications of the criticism of Rome in the Gospel of Matthew.  According to Carter, the Roman empire had influence in Syria, which is where Carter (and many scholars) believe that Matthew’s Gospel was written.  If so, why wasn’t Matthew afraid to write a Gospel that criticized the Roman empire?  Wouldn’t he have feared Roman retaliation, on himself and his Christian community?  I think that fear of Rome, or at least political wisdom, explains why opposition to Rome is not that explicit in Matthew’s Gospel.  I agree with Carter that Matthew’s Gospel is pertinent in some manner to the Roman empire, but I do not see Rome being criticized in an explicit and head-on way in Matthew’s Gospel.  Similarly, within ancient Jewish literature, we often find implicit or coded criticisms of Israel’s imperialistic oppressors, but rarely are the criticisms explicit.

There were other interesting discussions in Carter’s book: Carter’s statement that Jesus was telling the rich young ruler to sell his goods and give to the poor because the rich young ruler had gotten his wealth at the expense of others, and Carter’s argument that Matthew in quoting the Hebrew Bible was echoing the contexts of the passages he was quoting.  Matthew quoted passages that originally related to Assyrian imperialism, and the promise of redemption in the midst of that.  According to Carter, Matthew was doing so to reassure Israel that God would redeem her from Roman imperialist hegemony.  This sounds like typology.  In one place, Carter says that Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel anticipated possible death, for servants of God before him, including the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, died in their mission.  That is actually a notable thought: that Jesus in Matthew did not see himself as the Suffering Servant, but rather regarded the Suffering Servant as a figure before him, one who perhaps foreshadowed him.  I am reluctant to wholly accept that, for it seems to me that Matthew believed that Isaiah was predicting Jesus and identified Jesus as the Suffering Servant.  But I am interested in learning more about how the Hebrew Bible can predict or foreshadow the New Testament, while still having meaning for its own identified historical contexts.

Carter briefly tries to tackle a theological issue: How can Matthew criticize Roman imperialism, exclusion, and violence, while embracing a model in which God will come and violently overthrow Rome?  At first, Carter seems to be saying that God can’t be Mr. Nice Guy in overthrowing oppression: that God may have to use force to bring about a just society.  But Carter holds out hope that perhaps it won’t come to that: that, if we take political steps towards justice and peace, maybe God won’t need to use force to overthrow oppression.  This may be overly idealistic, but it is better than saying that we should not pursue political and economic justice because such efforts would be futile, since we are corrupt sinners, and Christ will come back anyway to fix things.  Moreover, so many of God’s acts in the Bible are presented as contingent on human behavior, so who is to say that God couldn’t change God’s plans if we were to behave a bit better?

While Carter was addressing theological problems, he should have addressed how we can hope in Jesus’ promise of a new world, when his promise of Rome’s overthrow did not come to pass.  Carter should have said something about the failure of Jesus’ imminent eschatology to materialize, and whether that effects the Bible’s status as divine revelation that can provide people with hope.

Overall, this was a good book.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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