The Empire of God and the Postcolonial Era

Stephen D. Moore

During the past decade or so, a steady stream of books with the terms “empire” or “imperial” in their titles issued forth in biblical studies, mainly in New Testament studies: Unveiling Empire, The Bible and Empire, The Roman Empire and the New Testament, God and Empire, Jesus and Empire, Matthew and Empire, The Gospel of Matthew in its Roman Imperial Context, John and Empire, Paul and Empire, Paul and the Roman Imperial Order, Empire and Apocalypse, and so on.

A related flow of books, meanwhile, with the terms “postcolonial” or “postcolonialism” in their titles has also issued forth: The Postcolonial Bible, The Postcolonial Biblical Reader, Postcolonialism and Scriptural Reading, Postcolonial Biblical Criticism, Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation, Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Asian Biblical Hermeneutics and Postcolonialism, A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings, A Postcolonial Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, John and Postcolonialism, and so on. Welling up behind these monographs and edited collections is a much larger number of related articles, essays, conference papers, and doctoral dissertations-in-progress. How to explain all this activity?

The eruption of interest in empire among biblical scholars reflects the dramatic rise of the interdisciplinary field of postcolonial studies, a sprawling academic phenomenon that has produced a massive scholarly literature. Within postcolonial studies, the term “postcolonial” ordinarily refers to the complex geopolitical realities that the mid-twentieth century ushered in. It was in connection with the dissolution of the European empires in the wake of World War II and the widespread achievement of independence on the part of former colonies that the term “postcolonial” was first coined.

Not until the early 1990s, however, did postcolonial studies fully emerge as an academic field. The context then was that of a one-superpower world and the emergence of an unprecedented form of empire, epitomized by globalization, that was more fluid, expansive, and efficient than any empire of the past. In this climate, biblical scholars have been turning with intensified interest and concern to the issue of empire.

Being biblical scholars, however, few feel qualified or inclined to address contemporary geopolitics head-on in their work. Postcolonial criticism within New Testament studies more often takes the form of critical reflection on the relations between early Christianity and the Roman Empire. Such reflection is hardly novel. For centuries, scholars have been attempting to re-situate the New Testament writings in their original historical and socio-cultural contexts. And the Roman Empire has always represented the outer limits of these contexts.

But if postcolonial criticism does not represent a first look at the New Testament and empire, it does represent a fresh look. Such analysis now has at its disposal the tools of postcolonial theory and criticism—an extensive, interdisciplinary body of reflection on such interrelated phenomena as empire, imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, postcolonialism, neocolonialism, and globalization. Being biblical scholars, however, many prefer to revisit empire with critical tools native to biblical studies rather than venture across disciplinary borders to read in neighboring fields.

More fundamentally, what makes the current intensified preoccupation with New Testament and empire genuinely new is a concern with the question of whether or to what extent New Testament texts can be said to resist empire.

Throughout its history, the New Testament has been used more often to prop up empire than oppose it. All of its constituent writings were produced in the margins of empire. But when Rome was officially Christianized, the margins moved to the center. Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the Bible finally fixed a previously fluid and unstable canon, but it did so under the aegis of empire. The Vulgate was the first official Bible of imperial Christianity. And locked in its embrace, the primary function of the New Testament texts became that of legitimizing the imperial status quo.

Empire elicits resistance, and so counter-readings have never been lacking. However, even the invention of critical biblical scholarship in Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment Europe coincided with the inexorable expansion of the European empires to their outer limits. The possibility, indeed, that the emergence of biblical criticism was at least a by-product of European colonialism and imperialism has yet to be properly investigated. It is only in recent decades, first through liberation theology and liberation hermeneutics, and more recently through empire studies and postcolonial studies, that biblical critics have turned in earnest to the task of disentangling the New Testament texts from the embrace of imperial Christianity.

Hermeneutical Hallucination

The New Testament’s historic default function of legitimizing the imperial status finds iconic expression in our own cultural moment in the early-morning, Bible-reading regimen of the man who, for millions of non-Christians around the globe, is simultaneously the representative face of twenty-first century Christianity and twenty-first century empire (and it is not the current occupant of the Vatican whom I have in mind). It is not enough for postcolonial biblical critics simply to reclaim the biblical texts as signal instances of unequivocal anti-imperial resistance literature. What such one-sided readings fail to explain is why the Bible does not spontaneously combust in President Bush’s prayerful hands. Such readings fail, in other words, to account for a single inconvenient but colossal fact—namely, that certain honorable exceptions aside, the vast majority of Christian interpreters through the ages have managed to read these texts as supportive of empire, if not as actual divine warrants for inexorable imperial expansion.

Rather than dismiss this incalculably influential interpretive trajectory as the product of systemic misreading on a monumental scale, if not of mass hermeneutical hallucination outright, I tend instead to assume that this mode of reading, like all other modes of reading, is merely selective, elevating certain textual data at the expense of other textual data. And so the enigma of how a disparate set of texts written in the margins or underside of the Roman Empire eventually became the charter document of imperial Christianity—also the enigma of how one Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean peasant nonentity, became, primarily through the agency of these same unlikely texts, a new Romulus, the founder of a new Rome—demand our critical attention.

Empire of God vs. Kingdom of God

Why New Testament texts at times lend themselves to be read as vehicles of resistance to empire and at other times as obstacles of resistance to empire may be better appreciated by appraising the complex contours of the Empire of God in the earliest canonical gospel.1 (In common with a small but growing number of interpreters, I hold that the Greek term basileia in Mark, as in other early Christian texts, is at present better rendered in English by the defamiliarizing term “empire” than by “kingdom,” a term whose political edge has been rubbed smooth by centuries of theological usage.)

On the one hand, the present Empire of God, as delineated in Mark, seethes with countercultural valence. “The time is fulfilled, and the Empire of God has come near,” Mark’s ragtag peasant protagonist proclaims (1:15), marching through the remote rural reaches of southern Galilee, and drawing assorted other peasant nonentities in his wake, fellow builders-to-be of this latest and greatest of empires. The surreal unlikelihood of this Empire of empires begs elucidation, and as such is virtually the sole topic of Jesus’ first extended public address in Mark, namely, his parables discourse (4:1–33). The parables of the Seed Growing in Secret (4:26–29) and of the Mustard Seed (4:30–32) contrast the present concealment (cf. 4:11–12) and seeming inconsequentiality of the Empire of God with its impending and impressive public manifestation, as does, to a lesser degree, the parable of the Sower (4:1-9, 14-20).

A later cluster of occurrences of the term basileia in the narrative again plays on the paradoxically inglorious character of the present as opposed to future Empire of God. Physical deformity will pose no obstacle to membership in the new imperial ranks (“it is better for you to enter the Empire of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna”—Mark 9:47), nor will childlikeness (which, on the contrary, will be a necessary qualification: “whoever does not receive the Empire of God as a little child shall not enter it”—10:15).

However, social status, epitomized by wealth, will pose a near-insurmountable stumbling block to membership (“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Empire of God!”—10:23), which is to say that those who have benefited most egregiously from Caesar’s empire will be least eligible for admittance to God’s empire.

The pronouncement on wealth occurs in close proximity to others that proffer servanthood and slavery as the supreme models for Christian existence, in marked contrast to the practices of the Gentiles (read: the Romans). This cluster of countercultural sayings and anecdotes (9:30–10:45 passim), in the absence of anything else approximating a Markan “Sermon on the Mount,” gives substance to its singularly unimperial concept of divine empire, as it translates into Christian practice.

A Countercolonial Christian Ethic

So far so good. But is the present Empire of God in Mark ultimately domesticated and defused by the coming Empire of God in Mark? Is the Markan Jesus’ self-proclaimed ethic of self-giving and self-emptying (“the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…”), culminating in his voluntary submission to torture and execution (“…and to give his life as a ransom for many”—10:45), finally but the means to an end—his attainment of incomparable personal power and authority (“Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory”—13:26; cf. 8:38-9:1, 14:62)? In other words, does Mark’s Christology stand in tension with Mark’s ethics? By insisting on returning “with great power and glory” (13:26), does Mark’s Jesus unmask Mark’s own latent desire for a top-heavy, authoritarian, universal Christian Empire, an über-Roman Empire, so to speak—the kind that will arrive all too soon anyway, unbeknown to Mark, long before Jesus himself does? By insisting on returning in imperial splendor (however muted, compared with Revelation or even Matthew), does Mark’s Jesus relativize and undercut the radical social values that he has died to exemplify and implement? Can radical apocalypticism, in other words, only ever stand in tension or outright contradiction with radical ethics? Or to put it yet another way, can radical apocalypticism only ever mirror imperial ideologies, so that what was oppressively oversized to begin with now towers above the heavens: “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds”? Or can radical apocalypticism be consonant with a counterimperial or countercolonial ethic?

These are the kinds of questions that arise when we resist the temptation to acclaim Mark too swiftly as unequivocal anti-imperial resistance literature. And similar questions arise when we bring similar strategies of reading to bear on the other gospels, or the Pauline letters, or even the Book of Revelation, notwithstanding the fact that the latter seems, on the face of it, to be an altogether uncompromising, fang-baring attack on imperial Rome. Personally— and I am by no means alone in this—I am interested neither in reading individual New Testament texts as consistently unequivocal anti-colonial resistance literature, on the one hand, nor in reading them as consistently compromised literature, on the other hand, that always reinscribes and replicates imperial and colonial ideologies even while appearing to resist them. And I believe it is precisely between this Scylla and Charybdis—wishful projection on the one side, excessive suspicion on the other—that postcolonial biblical criticism will increasingly need to navigate as we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century.


1. The following three paragraphs summarize certain arguments set out in my book Empire and Apocalypse: Postcolonialism and the New Testament (Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006).

Stephen D. Moore is Professor of New Testament and Chair of the Graduate Division of Religion at the Theological School, Drew University. His books include Empire and Apocalypse: Postcolonialism and the New Testament (Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 2006), and Postcolonial Biblical Criticism: Interdisciplinary Intersections (edited with Fernando F. Segovia; New York: T. & T. Clark International, 2005).