Professor Byron states in a recent blog:
It has become quite popular over the last few decades for New Testament scholars to bash ancient Rome and suggest that when first century Christian writers use terms like gospel, Lord, savior, kingdom, etc, that these authors are deliberately critiquing Rome and its emperors. Some modern scholars have pushed this interpretation so far that the New Testament looks less like a theological book and more like a political manifesto. And perhaps that is part of the problem. Too often some of these interpretations of “Rome’s gospel” are clearly motivated by frustration with American hegemony. And while I think American policy does need to be critiqued and criticized, I am not sure that authors like Paul and others were doing same thing with Rome as some modern scholars suggest. To hear some New Testament scholars talk there was nothing good about ancient Rome and that the world would have been better off without it.
This got me thinking: Did everyone in the ancient world hate Rome? Which then reminded me of the scene from the Monty Python film Life of Brian in which the Jewish rebels are planning to kidnap Pilate’s wife because they hate the Romans. But of course, as the below clip makes clear, not everything about the Romans was all that bad.
(See the link to his blog for the Monty Python video)
In my view, Professor Byron is somewhat correct when he notes that such perspectives are motivated by “frustration with American hegemony.” This stems from, what is in my view, the great anti-American Empire triumvirate from Boston: Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Richard Horsley.
However, this criticism is also based on a separate field of studies called Postcolonial studies, which analyzes texts from the colonized (see this introduction). Particular studies have been done to look at colonies of the British Empire and see how they produced texts/art while being colonized.
Let’s be clear. Every Empire does great things as the Monty Python skit suggests, but the question is always: “At what cost?” Sure we like your aqueducts, your smooth roads, and your safe seas, but if the cost of these is human lives (Revelation 18.13), then is it really worth it? But what Postcolonial criticism of literature has shown, is that even if the writers do not openly critique or show contempt for the Empire, there acts of writing still question the center and act at least in small forms of resistance.
Revelation critiques Rome with apocalyptic language. The Gospels critiques the Roman way of life without naming the Empire. And Paul has to jump through Imperial hoops to spread the Gospel and help the poor. And why are there even so many poor that Paul has to help in the first place? So certainly, every book in the New Testament doesn’t cry out, “Down with Rome!” But the difficulties of Empire cannot be ignored when engaging the New Testament, or any of the Old Testament either (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece…)
The problem I think Professor Byron has is that such criticism is all to prevalent these days in biblical studies. The first reason is that Postcolonial Criticism is a relatively recent development in biblical scholarship. But the other reason is simply that for nearly 2,000 years, Roman Imperial oppression was almost totally ignored in biblical studies. So in order to have a “little more balance,” we may need another 2,000 years of critiquing Rome.