In the course of researching for my Master’s level thesis this semester I have run into the consistent idea from Christians and biblical scholars that America today is in many ways the equivalent of the Roman Empire of antiquity. 1 This is almost invariably presented as a negative thing, as the distasteful—and even evil—aspects of the Roman Empire are discussed in conjunction with America’s beliefs, domestic policies, and worldwide influence. Since my thesis is focusing on Jesus’ teachings about and encounters with the Roman Empire of the first century, I have had the opportunity to wrestle with contemporary application that applies anti-imperial rhetoric in the New Testament to empire-like states and entities today.
What shall we say to this notion? Is America really like the Roman Empire? What exactly was the Roman Empire like? And was that good or bad? In this article I don’t propose to actually go about answering these questions. Instead, I’m going to put forward some preliminary considerations that one must grapple with before an answer to these question can be accurately given. In addition, I will diagram the distance between the ancient and modern worlds, and critique a number of scholars who make erroneous applications of biblical texts and/or themes.
Knowledge of the Roman Empire
The first thing that’s needed is a robust and nuanced understanding of Rome, the Mediterranean world from 200 BC to AD 200, and the nature of ancient empires and their political, cultural, religious, and economic influences. I am not an expert on the Roman Empire, although I’m not naive. My undergraduate degree is in history and that required an entire semester studying ancient history, including a robust unit on the Roman Empire. Needless to say, Rome in its entirety—from founding to republic to empire—lasted for more than 1200 years (753 BC – AD 476), and there were many twists and turns throughout those centuries. Rome and the Roman Empire was not a monolithic, static, and unchanging entity. The Republic was different than the Empire, even though there was continuity. 2
One must also ask what time period within the Empire we are considering. The period under Octavian (Caesar Augustus) that began the Empire in 27 BC was different than the reign of Nero (AD 54-68), which saw persecution of Christians in Rome, or Domitian (AD 81-96). Peace and unrest fluctuated; so did the rise of the imperial cult, and the acceptance versus hostility shown toward Christians. To simply take a negative aspect of the Rome Empire during a certain period and apply it indiscriminately to the totality of Rome is to do injustice to Roman history and culture.
In addition, the Roman Empire was not all bad. In his book Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower, Christopher Bryan talks about how his education growing up emphasized many of the positive contributions both the Roman Republic and Empire gave to the world. 3 This not only includes architecture, roads, the postal system, and the Pax Romana, but also other less noted aspects like republicanism, the importance of virtue, and social order and organization. Rome gifted the world with some remarkable achievements and these must not be lost or taken for granted. It has become more fashionable the past few decades to interpret Rome and her history with a distinctively negative flavor, focusing on the evils at the expense of the good. All nations have a mix of both and we need to have the academic integrity to acknowledge and appreciate the good while critiquing the bad and honestly facing evil where it has existed.
New Testament Perspectives on the Roman Empire
The second consideration that must be addressed is the various attitudes and critiques presented in the New Testament toward the Roman Empire. Surprisingly, the Bible does not speak in homogeneous voices regarding imperial questions. While John of Patmos is indeed sharply critical and condemning toward Rome, both Jesus and Paul can be read as both supporting and critiquing the Empire. Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God, the gospel of God, and himself as a king would have implicitly threatened the Empire. Yet Jesus also counseled paying taxes to Caesar (which can still be read subversively), he never commands tax collectors to abandon their duties, nor does he attack the Roman government and system as a system. Instead, Jesus held the governing powers accountable to God the Father himself. 4
In much the same way, Paul both relegates the powers and principalities of this world as being under the lordship of Christ (cf. Eph. 1:20-23), but depicts the ruling governments as being instituted by God for good (Rom. 13). The point I’m making is simple: read the Bible for the entire range of voices and perspectives it expresses toward imperial presence and rule that is at times positive and at times negative. Those who want to wholesale condemn Rome, and then condemn America and the West, tend to only read the negative portions or perhaps focus exclusively on the book of Revelation. This is not a healthy approach. Taking into account all of the biblical perspectives on empire, we might actually come to the conclusion that empire qua empire is not bad, but that all empires and emperors must submit themselves to the authority of God and seek to honor him and serve the people (cf. Deut. 17:14-20). This would be a more redemptive approach to empires that I believe is entirely consistent with the biblical witness.
Historical and Contemporary America
Third and finally, you must know a good deal about America, both historically and presently. When studying the Revolutionary Era, one discovers that the Founders of our country were well aware of political ideas of government and societal organization from antiquity. This includes the Roman Republic and Athenian Democracy. The likes of Jefferson, Paine, Madison, Franklin, and Washington (among others) were statesmen in their own right and were not ignoramuses in any way. Gordon S. Wood, the Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor Emeritus at Brown University, writes convincingly in a phenomenal article, “The Legacy of Rome in the American Revolution,” that the Founders of our country purposely sought to mold our political institutions after that of the Roman Republic, not the Roman Empire. 5 In fact, our Founders explicitly rejected many aspects of the Roman Empire that made it an empire.
In his small treatise on American exceptionalism, sociologist Charles Murray explains the exceptional traits of American civic culture during the Revolutionary Era and in the Early Republic that made America unique: (1) Industriousness, which was signified by the dignity of work and the abundance of opportunity to better one’s lot and be socially mobile; (2) Egalitarianism, which, unlike current egalitarian ideals that promote equal outcomes, emphasized the equality of human dignity, equal treatment under the rule of law, and social solidarity regardless of class or wealth; (3) Religiosity, which embraced separation of church and state (which meant the government could not established or officially endorse a religious creed, not the banishment of religion from the public square), the competition of religious ideas in the marketplace of ideas, and the importance of public virtue by which was meant the selfless service of others in public office; and (4) Community Life, which included volunteerism, the commonality of charitable giving, and engagement in public life both at the community and national level. 6 When one takes the time to understand America in her birth and founding, one discovers that she was in many ways the antithesis of historical empires. Instead, she aimed to be a new kind of empire, an empire of liberty that led the way through virtuous example, not oppression and conquest. 7
However, America since 1775 has changed dramatically. The history of our country over the past 239 years must be relentlessly explored in order to understand both the ways we have continued to uphold our founding ideals and have deviated from and corrupted them. America has done much good, but she has also done great harm. Our history, like the history of any people and nation, is a smattering of good and evil. We need to be willing to admit both and give both their due, without excessively focusing on one and completely ignoring the other. 8 This is what I am afraid many critics of America who compare her to the Roman Empire have done, along with basic confusion in the great disparities between Roman and American cultures. In addition, modern America functions quite differently than colonial America or during the early republic. Our constitutional republic has morphed into a liberal democracy, and in many ways is leaning toward an oligarchy (which is bad). Our economy has transformed from an agrarian and rural economy to a high-tech, financial and market economy with increasing wealth creation and social mobility. Thus, in order to properly understand and critique America against the Roman Empire, we must understand America both in her origination and in her current state.
In order to represent the difficult task faced by historians and biblical scholars who are attempting to interpret the New Testament witness regarding the Roman Empire and apply it to current nation-states and international affairs, I drew up a quick schematic to show the stark contrasts (in this case, specifically with America).
In more ways than not, the two worlds are very dissimilar. 9 This of course makes application between the two cultures and all their various components more challenging than it otherwise would be. How exactly are we to make this great leap over a 2000 year cultural, political, religious, and economic chasm? It is tricky to say the least, and appropriate and wise application takes careful thought and knowledge of both worlds. In my studies of the New Testament (and Old Testament), I have found that most biblical scholars spend the vast majority of their time working with the ancient texts and within the ancient world. This is good, and I consider knowledge of ancient Greece, Rome, and Second Temple Judaism to be a necessary prerequisite before accurate biblical interpretation can be done.
The problem is that many scholars stop there. Once they have interpreted scripture to the best of their ability and followed the hermeneutical spiral as close as they can get to the original intent of the author (all postmodern, deconstruction, and reader-response objections to the side), then they believe their job is done. Application? Well, that’s easy, is it not?! Surely because we live in the modern world we understand the modern world! Right? But this is not necessarily so. There are many aspects about our world that are beyond common knowledge. Just how few non-Christians know the difference between premillennial, historic premillennial, postmillennial, and amillennial Christian doctrines of the last days, so many non-economists know very little about the derivatives market, the function of prices and wages in an economy, how wealth is created and earned, or the importance of market liquidity. Non-specialists in a field need to make sure they spend extra time studying that field before they write or teach about it. But I’m afraid many biblical scholars simply assume they understand the world they live in and don’t need to spend an equal amount of time and energy studying it as well (this is probably a common phenomenon for all people; I am not singling out biblical scholars in particular as they would join the ranks of most citizens who think they understand the world around them without having to study it in great depth).
I have noticed this problem applies specifically to four issues: (1) political philosophy and science (the study of the nature and purpose of government), (2) political economy (legislated public policy), (3) economics (the use of scarce resources that have alternate uses), and (4) church and state relationships (no state established church, but still religion in the public square). I have benefited greatly from the application scholars have made in regards to ethics and morality, the church body corporately, our understanding of God and how he relates to humanity, missions at home and abroad, and more. But the batting average on the four issues above has been remarkably and embarrassingly low. Let me give some examples.
In his NIV Application Commentary on Revelation, Craig Keener comments on chapter 18, where the fall of Babylon (i.e., Rome) is described. In particular, v. 3 has commanded focus, where Rome’s merchants are described as having “grown rich from the power of her luxurious living” (ESV). Then in vv. 4-8 God commands that believers “come out” and separate themselves from such evil. Taking these texts on Rome and applying them to America, Keener has this to say:
Today over one billion people subsist on the equivalent of less than one dollar a day, and matters are only growing worse. The economic gap between rich and poor countries has doubled since 1960; the richest 20 percent of the world’s population has gone from absorbing 70 percent of the world’s income in 1960 to nearly 83 percent by the 1990s; the poorest 20 percent dropped from 2.3 percent to 1.4 percent in the same period, so that the income ratio of richest to poorest changed “from 30 to 1 in 1960 to 59 to 1 in 1989.” Because we have many Christians here and because citizens of our nation and shareholders in our corporations have a voice, one would hope that more Christians would work to make things more equitable on behalf of our brothers and sisters struggling in many other nations. 10
Quoting such income statistics is a common practice these days. Many assume that the statistics speak for themselves and that it is self-evident that some kind of injustice is going on. But this assumption is where the problem lies, because statistics do not speak for themselves. All statistics must be interpreted; and in fact, the analysis that led to the statistics themselves is an interpretation of data that was collected in a certain way, underpinned with various assumptions, presuppositions, and tacit agendas. Statistics are hardly neutral and we need to know how to read, interpret, and apply statistics on wealth and income distribution.
My purpose here isn’t to give a full-fledged critique of Keener, but to briefly point out how knowledge of modern economies can help us understand whether the above income statistics indicate a problem or not. I have three comments. First, Keener seems to imply that the cause of the first sentence (people living on less than one dollar a day, which is supposedly getting worse) is the direct result of the income disparities which he then cites. But this is simply a misunderstanding of what causes poverty. Income inequality is not a cause of poverty, for in order for this to be true, wealth would have to be a zero-sum game, which it is not. On Keener’s view, there is a fixed amount of wealth to go around; those who take more leave less for the rest of us. In order for life to be equal and fair, those who have more must relinquish what they have and give to those who have less (whether voluntarily or through forced taxation), otherwise the poor will never rise from their poverty. However, this is an antiquated view of wealth and economics, akin more to medieval notions than modern realities. Instead, wealth is created and the entire size of the pie increases. In this way, those who are wealthy are not de facto taking from the poor in order to become rich. Instead, many of the wealthy actually increase the global amount of wealth and in so doing make the lower classes and poor better off. 11
Second, it is not true that matters are “only growing worse” for those who are living on one dollar a day. As Xavier Sala-i-Martin and Maxim Pinkovskiy show in their 2009 paper “Parametric Estimations of the World Distribution of Income” (PDF), the total number of poor people living on one dollar a day or less has drastically fallen by 80% from 1970 to 2006, from 403 million worldwide to 152 million. That means in the past 36 years 251 million people have been lifted out of abject poverty. While not all of these once-poor people are living as comfortably as we do in the West, they are no longer as desperately poor as they once were and they have hope for a better future. In his book Poverty and Progress: Realities and Myths About Global Poverty (Washington DC: Cato Institute, 2013), development economist Deepak Lal argues that this incredible reduction in worldwide poverty is directly the result of the spread of free-market capitalism and entrepreneurship, not the achievement of government redistribution programs that aim for equal results. 12 Yet even while global poverty has been declining, the income gap between the rich and poor has increased. How is this possible? Simply because, as I explained in my first point, the wealthiest have increased the size of pie and have not (for the most part) acquired their wealth by unjust means or by harming the needy and vulnerable. In fact, their wealth has directly impacted the poor for their good.
Third and finally, it seems clear the Keener has income equality as the goal of economic justice and fairness. This seems reasonable, but it all depends upon what one means by equality and how the inequality came about. Are we talking about equal income opportunity or income results? Why do we default to adopting a consequentialist ethic in judging economic justice that focuses exclusively on the end results, instead of a deontological ethic that would focus more on how one earns their income, not just the amount? Keener is focused on the final outcome of income amounts, but this is arguably not important. As David R. Henderson notes in his policy report on this issue,
The income distribution should be judged not by how equal it is, but by how people obtained what they have. Inequality due to government-granted privileges, in the form of subsidies, quotas and so forth, is arbitrary and unfair, while inequality due to income earned through work and investment is just. 13
This simply shows that much of the time income (or wealth) inequality is not only natural, but just. If an individual with education, skills, and experience is offered a job that pays far more than someone who doesn’t have that education, skill, and experience, then the income disparity that results is not unjust. One could go on about the problems with measuring income inequality: high-income households usually consist of more than one income earner while low-income households usually have only one income earner; the wealthy and poor work different hours (full-time vs. part-time) and different amount of weeks over the course of a year; wealth often depends upon age, as the wealthiest individuals are usually between 35-54; and income mobility is a reality for the vast amount of people as low-income earners almost always make more and move up the income ladder as they gain education, experience, and skill. For more on income inequality, and why I do not believe such inequality is wrong or unnatural, I would also highly recommend reading David R. Henderson’s full policy report along with other resources. 14
A second negative example occurs in an essay by Justo L. Gonzalez. In “Revelation: Clarity and Ambivalence: A Hispanic/Cuban American Perspective,” Gonzalez also focuses on Revelation, but this time Rev. 17:15, which states, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (ESV). The prostitute refers to Rome who is rich because she ruled over many different peoples, whom she exploited in order to become so wealthy. In an attempt to apply this concept to wealth and immigration in the West, Gonzalez attempts this argument:
Some conservative elements in Britain and France today may deplore the high level of immigration from Africa and may even speak of being “invaded” by Africans, but this is simply the result of a colonial system, and later of a neocolonial system, so devised as to produce a flow of wealth from Africa to Britain and France. Some people in the United States may complain they are being overrun by immigrants, that the borders are too porous, that their traditional culture and values are being challenged, but this is simply the result of economic and international policies so devised as to produce a constant flow of wealth from Latin America and other poor nations into the United States. It is not surprising that so much of the wealth of Mexico flows into the United States legally over the bridge and, at the same time, many Mexicans cross illegally under the bridge. Where rivers of wealth flow, there too flow the rivers of population, and it is very difficult to promote one flow while stemming the other. 15
Now, as a theory of migration, this is an interesting hypothesis. But Gonzalez gives no reference to these ideas and his reducing the causes of immigration to the West to a single factor (essentially the stealing of wealth) is simplistic and false. There are a whole plethora of factors that determine who migrates where around the world each year—both push and pull factors. Some areas of the world are so poor due to bad policies and civil war that citizens are literally forced to flee. And if you were fleeing from a gang-ravaged Mexico, would you go to a poverty-stricken area like Cuba or Puerto Rico? Of course not. You are obviously going to be pulled to a country where there was opportunity to find work, live in peace, and hopefully one day be reunited with your family and/or gain your citizenship.
The idea that Britain or France or the United States have made their wealth solely off the labor and resources of Africa and Latin America is a common, but misguided, idea. It completely ignores the mutual benefit that free trade has achieved (e.g., NAFTA), and the respective entrepreneurial elements and endeavors within Western nations. In addition, this analysis completely ignores the issue of remittances, which is the money immigrants send back to their families in their home countries. In 2007 alone, worldwide remittances amounted to about $300 billion dollars. This is what Thomas Sowell has to say about remittances:
As of 2007, “migrants from poor countries send home about $300 billion a year,” according to the New York Times. “That is more than three times the global total in foreign aid, making ‘remittances’ the main source of outside money flowing to the developing world.” Remittances are one-fifth of the Gross Domestic Product of Bosnia, 25 percent of the GDP of Honduras and 35 percent of the GDP of Laos. 16
The narrative that the West rules over developing countries, making their wealth off the backs of the poor, is false. Emigrants come to western nations because there is economic opportunity and political freedom (for the most part). It is amazing that not only can emigrants find work and make money, but they have the freedom to use that money however they want (in this case, sending remittances back to their families). In many nations past and present, immigrant earnings would have been confiscated for government use, but in America today, people are still allowed to keep what they earn (for the most part). In addition, many nations in Africa are poor due to the cruel and corrupt despotic governments that have taken Western foreign aid for themselves while their people suffer in horrible conditions. Many Latin American countries are poor due to socialist-Marxist economies that destroy wealth and the prevalence of war and social unrest. While I can’t get into all the myriad of factors that have determined the wealth and poverty of nations, Gonzalez’s analysis is shallow and inaccurate. 17
My concern is not merely that I disagree with Gonzalez’s perspective on wealth and immigration. A more fundamental problem that seems to be systemic in biblical scholarship is the total lack of careful analysis of the modern world. Both Keener and Gonzalez are very careful in their biblical interpretation. They know that sloppiness, superficiality, or lack of adequate knowledge of the ancient world and the basics of scriptural hermeneutics and sound exegetical techniques would render their interpretations laughable. Yet no such care and expertise seems to have been taken in regards to application. While Keener accurately reports U.S. Census Bureau statistics on income inequality, he never explores whether such statistics are meaningful to begin with or how to properly interpret them. Gonzalez doesn’t even argue for his take on wealth and immigration, he simply asserts it—as if by merely associating wealthy western nations and worldwide immigration with a biblical text that condemns economic exploitation he has thereby incriminated these nations. This kind of sloppiness in applying the Bible to contemporary life often reveals ignorance about the modern world or tacit anti-American and anti-western prejudices held by some biblical scholars. I would challenge such individuals to take the task of application as seriously, winsomely, and ecumenically as they do the task of interpretation.
A Positive Example
A positive example of a biblical scholar who seems to be deftly in tune with the cultural gap between the ancient and modern worlds would be William J. Webb in his book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. In discussing biblical texts on submitting to the civil authorities or honoring the king, Webb carefully makes the distinction between the ancient world of monarchy and kingship and the modern world of liberal democracies. He says,
However, to keep living out a monarchy-type submission/obedience in a democratic society no longer fulfills the text’s stated purpose of making the gospel message winsome to unbelievers. In a democratic society a Christian admonition to “submit to” and “obey” the president or prime minister is strikingly foolish. Instead of commending the gospel to the unbelieving community in which we live, it would discredit the gospel. We certainly should pray for our leaders within a democracy, but we do not obey them. In a democratic society all citizens are equal under the law. Therefore, Christians in this kind of modern setting should not be instructed to obey their politicians, but to obey the law as it governs the whole of society (politicians included). 18
Webb hits the nail on the head. He has properly taken the illocutionary intent of the biblical text and transferred it from its ancient setting to our modern setting. I believe he is absolutely right, but we can even take his application further. One might argue, based on Webb’s paradigm, that since we are beholden to obey the law (lex rex) in our society, and since Congress writes and passes laws, then whatever laws come out of Congress we must obey. But notice that Webb states that there are laws that all politicians must obey, including Congress. This, of course, is our Constitution. Congress is not free to draft and pass whatever law they want; they too must submit to the law and legislate within certain boundaries. Thus, as citizens in a constitutional republic/democracy, our civil obedience belongs first and foremost to the Constitution, not the president, Congress, the Supreme Court, or any other political body. And it is by the Constitution that we can determine whether the ruling political class is using its powers wisely and constructively, or acting in illegal, abusive, and destructive ways. If the latter is going on (as it currently is in many areas of American politics and legislation), as citizens we are under no obligation to obey our civic leaders, and in fact have a duty to protest and hold them accountable.
This article has attempted to shed some light on the complexities of cultural hermeneutics, including both interpretation and application, as applied to the issue of the Roman Empire and America. While I have not explicitly set out to answer the question of whether America is the reincarnation of Rome, I have put forth what I believe are some prerequisite considerations and a quasi-methodology to go about answering this issue. Such considerations and methodology are critically important, since our interpretation and application of scripture is often tainted by our assumptions, both regarding the ancient world and the modern world.
In short, interpretation and application of the Bible are equally important. Interpretation without application relegates scripture to an interesting historical fact (for some); application based on inaccurate interpretation yields false beliefs and wrong behavior; but inaccurate application based on sound interpretation is just as dangerous. In fact, without accurate application one’s interpretation is meaningless for contemporary life. It doesn’t matter how phenomenal your exegesis and biblical theology is, if you don’t know how to accurately and wisely apply scripture across the cultural and societal gap that spans antiquity and modernity, your interpretation is not only inert, but possibly even dangerous. Why is this? Because if you don’t apply your interpretation to modern life or if you do so falsely, someone else reading your work will either attempt an application where you didn’t or will accept the application you have given. And chances are, they might make the same serious mistakes Keener and Gonzalez have.
Keener and Gonzalez’s mistakes are indeed serious. They haven’t just gotten a fact or two wrong or a couple of numbers mixed up. They are wildly off, and in being so wildly off they have made erroneous and false applications of the biblical text that amounts to (unknowingly) leading readers astray. (Note: I am not saying they have done this on purpose; in fact, I’m sure they believed their application was on point. However, while good intentions are usually necessary for accurate application, they are by no means sufficient). If hundreds or thousands of people read their words and then go and tell their friends and family, or preach these ideas to a congregation whose members then tell others, such false ideas about income inequality, wealth, and immigration spread rapidly among Protestant Christians in the United States. This amounts to large swaths of people believing a false narrative, being deceived, and disseminating misinformation that will inevitably result in Christians who vote for bad politicians and accept harmful legislative policies, and who campaign and call for the end of injustices that don’t exist—all of which not only wastes precious time, energy, and resources, but also often results in unintended consequences that actually harms those they so desperately want to help. How does all of this happen? In this case because the authors in question failed to understand the world in which they lived and in doing so made bad mistakes in attempting the application of scripture.
Although I highlighted two negative examples where I believe scholars failed to properly apply biblical texts on the Roman Empire to America and the West today, I am not implying that there is no criticism to be found at all for modern, industrial superpowers. There is room for critique, but it must be done carefully, intelligently, and with nuanced knowledge. In addition, the goal of such criticism should be reform and restoration, not destruction, antagonism, or hatred. I have little patience for people who simplistically equate America today with the Roman Empire in a negative, derogatory, or dismissive way without actually making a convincing case for it. Such sentiments end up poisoning the minds of their readers and instilling a cynical attitude of contempt.
America has been a force for incredible good in this world, but also at times for evil. The good and bad both need to be acknowledged and wisely explored. 19 I reserve many criticisms for America myself, although they take a different form from that of Keener and Gonzalez. In brief, I would direct my criticisms at the following issues (among others):
- A bloated, inefficient, wasteful, and corrupt government that fails to follow the rule of law.
- An ever-growing welfare state that steals from the productive and indiscriminately gives to the unproductive. This fosters dependency, is incredibly wasteful, immoral, and ultimately degrading to human dignity.
- The loss of human freedoms, both political and religious due to encroaching government control.
- Excessive government intervention in the market place that results in crony capitalism and corporatism, where Wall Street firms are so politically entangled that perverse incentives arise and great harm is done to taxpayers. This is the antithesis of free market enterprise and capitalism.
- The degeneration of true and virtuous cultural values that leads to institutional, business, and individual rot and a slew of vices.
- Unwise foreign policy, especially regarding the war on terror, where the President unilaterally goes to war without Congressional approval (Libya) or continues a shadow drone war that often terrorizes innocent and peaceful civilians of other nations.
I could go on, but I list these simply to show that I am not a blind patriot, zealous for my country and without critique. I love my country, but her leaders (and people) at times make serious mistakes that must be corrected. I also want to note that I hold America accountable to two standards: (1) the standard of her founding that is based upon republican principles of limited government and liberty, and (2) the civil, economic, and moral teachings of scripture. Needless to say, I do not believe these two standards are in conflict, but a discussion on that issue will have to wait for another day.
Personally, I am dedicated to studying both the ancient and modern worlds in equal amounts. This means taking New (and Old) Testament studies seriously by learning about the ancient Near East, Second Temple Judaism, Rome, Hellenization, and much more. But I will also continue to study Western history and society, modern economies, political structures and governments, history, philosophy, law and the like. Although this might result in being less of an expert in a narrow field or discipline, I believe it will make me a better scholar in the long run, since biblical studies necessarily includes both excellence in interpretation and application.
1 Richard Horsley more or less sets forth this claim in his introductory essay in an anthology on the Bible and empires (“Introduction: The Bible and Empires,” In In The Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008], 2-7).
2 For those who are unfamiliar with Rome’s history, the city was founded in 753 BC, the Republic began in 509 BC and lasted until 27 BC, and after a century of civil war (133-30 BC) was eventually transformed into an Empire when Octavian took over in 27 BC. The Empire lasted until AD 476 when Romulus Augustus was disposed by the Germanic Ostrogoth tribe. Exploration of the differences and similarities of the Republic and Empire is a vast topic, but there was a different form of government (the Republic consisted of consuls, a Senate, and Plebeian assembly) and republican ideals and values that were eroded as the Empire took form. For good overview of Roman history, see Lukas De Blois and R. J. van der Spek, An Introduction to the Ancient World, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2008), 139-292.
3 Christopher Bryan, Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 5-6. For other positive takes on Rome, see Thomas F. Madden, Empires of Trust: How Rome Built–and America is Building–A New World (New York: A Plume Book, 2008); Amy Chua, Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance–and Why They Fall (New York: Anchor Books, 2007); and Deepak Lal, In Praise of Empires: Globalization and Order (New York: Palsgrave Macmillan, 2004).
4 Byran, Render to Caesar, 39-54.
5 Gordon S. Wood, “The Legacy of Rome in the American Revolution,” in The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), 57-79.
7 In his volume contributing to the Oxford History of the United States, Wood explicitly entitles his book on the Early Republic, “Empire of Liberty.” (Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 [New York: Oxford University Press, 2009]). Some might object to this last sentence in my article about leading by a virtuous example of liberty due to the existence of southern slavery at the time of our nation’s founding. Although this is not the place to launch into such a discussion, it can be demonstrated that slavery in the colonies in the 18th century was completely incompatible with the vision found in the Declaration, Constitution, and other political writings by the Founders. They began the redemptive movement to overthrow the institution (which was still normative throughout the world at this time, not just in America), and many of them publicly denounced slavery as being inhumane and inconsistent with the principles upon which our country was founded.
8 Personally, I am currently convinced that in total America has been more a force for good in the world than evil; however, I am not oblivious to the evils she has done or been involved with and these grieve me. I am neither afraid nor unwilling to harshly critique America and call her to account where she has failed.
9 I am not saying there isn’t any continuity whatsoever. But notice that in my chart I am specifically referring to political, economic, and religious issues. In terms of similarities that flow from a common anthropology, I do not deny that corruption, fraud, political backstabbing, greediness, and using others were and still are a part of both worlds. However, not only that, but positive commonalities as well: courage, hope, love, service, generosity, and much more.
11 For example, today the total amount of global wealth is between 224-241 trillion dollars. In 1900, it was between 1-2 trillion dollars. Obviously, wealth is created and the total amount of global wealth has increase substantially over the past century, meaning that the absolute well-being of the bottom 20% has actually risen. One could attempt to run the numbers to calculate the respective amount of wealth owned by the bottom 20% in 1960 versus today, and likewise for the top 20%. But the problems with this are many. Attempting to understand the economics of wealth and poverty should not be done with income brackets, as these are statistical abstracts divorced from individuals and real flesh and blood people. A better calculation would be to look at per capita income and income mobility. (On why using income brackets is bad economics, see Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy, 4th ed. [New York: Basic Books, 2011], 218-222). There would be other problems with using Keener’s numbers to determine wealth and poverty, including changes in world population, the heads of household earners in each bracket, income mobility between brackets, number of hours and weeks worked, distortions in the labor and wages market due to destructive government policies, and much more. A deeper underlying problem with Keener’s approach is the assumption that income is distributed, when it fact no such thing happens. Both income and wealth are, by and large, earned (only a very small percentage of people inherit their wealth). There is no political or CEO maestro sitting above the global wealth determining who gets what each year. When one understands that wealth is organically and justly earned according to an individual’s productivity and market supply and demand, to talk about “distribution” or “redistribution” of income or wealth is severely misleading as it makes it seem like changing the distribution of income can easily be accomplished with a few government programs or more progressive taxation. But such things destroy wealth and disincentivize work, making everyone worse off.
Also, it is important to note that “wealth” and “income” are not the same. There is a clear distinction between these two which needs to be acknowledged. Wealth relates to whether one is rich or poor and refers to the total amount of assets owned by that person, whether or not they take the form of discretionary annual income or not. Income simply refers to the amount one is paid salary or hourly over the course of a year. An individual or family can have a very low income and yet be quite wealthy due to investments, capital gains, retirement plans, and the like; inversely an individual or family can have a high income and little wealth, such as families whose main earner is young and highly paid, but lacks any other assets. One reason statistics about incomes are so misleading is because they don’t take this difference between income and wealth into consideration. Sowell also catalogs this distinction (Basic Economics, 215; see also his Economic Facts and Fallacies, 150-157).
12 Deepak Lal. Poverty and Progress: Realities and Myths About Global Poverty. (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2013). For a talk by Lal, see this video. Another book that explores this issue is Benjamin Powell’s Making Poor Nations Rich: Entrepreneurship and the Process of Economic Development. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).
13 “Economic Inequality: Facts, Theory and Significance.” NCPA Policy Report No. 312. June 2008. (PDF)
14 Thomas Sowell also has quite an extensive section in his basic economics textbook on productivity, pay, wages, income, and distribution that covers all these issues and much more (Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy, 4th ed. [New York: Basic Books, 2011], 207-233; 268-291). Anne Bradley also gives a helpful overview of income inequality in her paper, “Why Does Income Inequality Exist? An Economic and Biblical Explanation.”
15 Justo L. Gonzalez, “Revelation: Clarify and Ambivalence: A Hispanic/Cuban American Perspective,” in From Every People and Nation: The Book of Revelation in Intercultural Perspective, ed. David Rhoads (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 58-59.
17 For an excellent book on the history of immigration to the United States and the various factors that have gone into it, see Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2002). For more on the wealth of nations, see Thomas Sowell, Economic Facts and Fallacies (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 206-234.
18 William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001), 107. See also pp. 212-213 for more of the same.
19 Currently, my conviction is that America has done far more good throughout her history than evil. Quantifying such things is difficult, but I believe a convincing case could be made.
Ben is a graduate of Denver Seminary, having completed his MA in New Testament Biblical Studies. He is currently completing a second MA in Christian Apologetics and Ethics, and hopes to pursue a PhD in the near future. He loves reading, drinking coffee, and hiking in the Colorado Rockies. His academic interests include biblical languages and exegesis, theology, philosophy, politics, and economics.