Interview with Justin Hardin on Paul and the Roman Imperial Cult

I met Justin Hardin a few summers ago when I visited Tyndale House, Cambridge. Justin was there doing his Ph.D., and I feel blessed to call him a friend. His dissertation explored the question of whether Paul is engaging the Imperial Cult in Galatians, and he now teaches at Oklahoma Baptist University, but in September he takes up the post recently vacated by David Wenham at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. For a recent “get to know you” interview, see Matthew Montonini’s post here.

Thanks for taking the time for this interview, Justin! It seems to me that many conservative American students of the New Testament are suspicious of the recent interest in the Roman Imperial Cult because it is often accompanied by what is perceived as an anti-American political agenda (and these conservative NT students would be the first to say that this world is not our home and that our citizenship is in heaven). Because of this liberal-conservative political division, I’d like to start with some questions that deal with these kinds of issues (modern politics), then move to questions that deal more directly with our understanding of the New Testament (historical backgrounds and exegesis). My questions are in bold, and Justin’s replies to my questions will be prefaced by his initials, JKH.

How would you describe the spectrum of opinion among those who are engaged in this discussion?

JKH: I obviously cannot comment on the opinions of other scholars on the topic of modern politics, except to say that most of the scholars engaged in the discussion focus primarily on the imperial cult in the first-century AD and do not immediately jump to modern politics. Indeed, many do not make this leap at all.

Do you think this discussion would have the prominence it has if Al Gore had been elected president in 2000? Will this topic be of as much interest as it is today if a Democratic presidential candidate gets elected this year? Does this whole thing seem anti-American to you?

JKH: I am aware that several NT scholars are drawing parallels with Roman imperialism and the modern politics in America, but I do not think this discussion has experienced increased momentum simply because of the Bush administration. Let me summarize, as I did in my recent monograph (Galatians and the Imperial Cult), why I think this discussion has gained rapid momentum in recent years.

In the past, only a handful of NT scholars devoted any sustained attention to the phenomenon of the imperial cult and its relation to the social and religious context of the NT (see, e.g. A. Deissmann, E. Stauffer, D. Cuss). Perhaps this reluctance was in part due to the evidence we find of certain skeptical voices amidst the overwhelmingly positive reception of the cult. Probably the most well-known example is Seneca’s sardonic poem, Apocolocyntosis (‘Pumpkinification’), which was aimed in protest at Claudius’s apotheosis (the poem’s title is a play on words with apotheosis ‘deification’).

Other scholars in the past have pointed to the emperor’s standard refusal to acknowledge divinity during his lifetime (e.g. Suetonius Aug. 52; Tacitus Ann. IV 37–8). The self-consciousness of the emperor seems at first blush to undermine the very cult that emanated through his rule. Vespasian’s deathbed joke that he felt himself becoming a god (Suetonius Vesp. 23.4) might itself suggest a moratorium on the subject—the imperial cult was no more than a political game between the provinces and Rome. After all, this portrayal of the cult—as political rather than religious—has been the traditional position among classicists.

In this light, most NT scholars in the past have understandably remained indifferent to the phenomenon of the emperor’s rule, except perhaps when discussing the “render unto Caesar” pericope (Mk 12.13–27 and par.) or selected passages in John’s Apocalypse. Some doubtless consider the recent upsurge of interest in emperor worship among NT scholars to be merely the latest fad that will soon pass.

In recent decades, however, the imperial cult has received rigorous attention among classicists, and our understanding has therefore expanded drastically. In the light of recent studies, such as S. R. F. Price’s Cambridge monograph Rituals and Power (1984), prior conceptions of the imperial cult as merely a pawn in the game of diplomacy have been undermined with fresh evidence and sounder methods of interpretation.[i] A specialist on the imperial cult, G. Alföldy, has even concluded that ‘from the time of Augustus<!–[if supportFields]&gt; XE "Augustus” f “SI" &lt;![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]&gt;&lt;![endif]–> to that of Constantine, the cult of the emperor was… the most important type of worship’.[ii]

As a result of the advance in scholarship on the ruler cult, the dismissal of this area of study as only of peripheral interest to NT exegetes and theologians is no longer valid. Indeed, a growing number NT scholars are beginning to recognise that our increased understanding of the imperial cult and ideology carries the promise of illuminating the social and religious setting of the NT and thus of enhancing our exegetical endeavors.[iii] Although it would have seemed rather strange only twenty years ago, it is therefore no surprise that the July 2005 issue of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament was devoted to various aspects of imperial ideology in relation to the NT.[iv]

John Barclay said at SBL that he thinks N. T. Wright “is simply hallucinating” when he sees assaults on Caesar and the Roman Empire in Paul’s letters. I’m pretty sure that you disagree with this. Can you tell us why?

JKH: First, I should state that I certainly did not take Barclay’s comment that Wright was ‘hallucinating’ quite that literally. This was surely a hyperbolic flourish in the midst of a friendly on-going debate between two colleagues. And it definitely scored great rhetorical points among those in the audience. Not many of us, I am sure, had ever seen Wright so stunned from a sparing partner who displayed such wit and eloquence, so stunned in fact that he was unable to offer any decisive rebuttals to the attack. At several points during Barclay’s paper, in fact, I felt as if I were witnessing Buster Douglas land the knock-out punch against the Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson.

Secondly, I should mention that Professor Barclay was the external examiner of my Cambridge thesis, which investigated the imperial cult as a background for Galatians. And so when we happened to bump into each other just before this debate at SBL, he greeted me with a smile and said, ‘Well, Justin, I know what side you’ll be on in the next few minutes!’ All that to say, yes, I disagree with Barclay’s aim to show that the imperial cult and its ideology was insignificant in Paul. But, given my great respect for Professor Barclay, I disagree only with fear and trembling (even with N. T. Wright in my corner!).

All I will try to do here is to challenge Barclay’s central claim that the imperial cult was insignificant in Paul. And I will only point to one passage in Paul, which seems to be an intentional jab at Roman ideology regarding the golden age of Augustus and his successors—1 Thessalonians 5.1-11:

1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need for anything to be written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night. 3 While they are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will certainly not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers and sisters, that the day would overtake you as a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are neither of the night nor of the darkness. 6 Therefore, let us not sleep, as the rest, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But because we are (children) of the day, let us be sober by putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet, the hope of salvation, 9 because God did not appoint us for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, in order that whether we are alive or dead (when he returns) we might live together with him. 11 Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, even as you are doing.

In this passage, Paul explained to this suffering church that those who were alive at Jesus’ parousia would not be disadvantaged (neither would those who are dead, as he had just described in 4.13-18).[v] Indeed, God’s judgment in the Day of the Lord would overcome those who were outside the believing community, while those within the church would obtain salvation. Although we could attend to various topics that crop up in this passage (e.g. Jesus tradition on the parousia, Jewish apocalyptic metaphors), I think two questions must be asked in order to grasp Paul’s primary aim in this passage.

The first question has two parts: Who was the ‘they,’ in 5.3, and why were they proclaiming ‘peace and security’? I, along several other scholars, suggest that the ‘they’ were those outside the church who propagated and/or clung to Roman imperial ideology.[vi] After all, the slogans ‘peace’ and ‘security’ (pax et securitas) were the eschatological slogans of the Julio-Claudian emperors. One could point to imperial coins, for example, which advertised the imperial message across the Empire like billboards. In Ephesus, a coin was issued in 28 BC that was meant to remind those within Asia<!–[if supportFields]&gt; XE "Asia” f “SI" &lt;![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]&gt;&lt;![endif]–> Minor of the peace and prosperity Octavian had brought into the world, as both sides of the coin<!–[if supportFields]&gt; XE "Coinage” f “SI" &lt;![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]&gt;&lt;![endif]–> make clear. The obverse<!–[if supportFields]&gt; XE "Coinage” f “SI" &lt;![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]&gt;&lt;![endif]–> legend is remarkable: ‘IMP(erator) CAESAR DIVI F(ilius) CO(n)S(ul) VI LIBERTATIS P(opuli) R(omani) VINDEX’ (‘Imperator Caesar, son of god, consul for the sixth time, protector of the Roman people’s liberty’). The reverse depicts personified Pax, holding a caduceus (an emblem of peace and harmony) and standing by a cista mystica (symbolising Asia<!–[if supportFields]&gt; XE "Asia” f “SI" &lt;![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]&gt;&lt;![endif]–>). As pax was accomplished only as a result of the emperor’s military strength, the entire symbol was situated within a laurel wreath (BMC Augustus 691). Of course, this intricate imagery required few words to convey the imperial message, the symbols of which would certainly not have been lost on first-century observers.

We could also point to the well-known calendar inscription from 9 BC, first discovered in Priene (Asia), but surviving fragments of which have now been discovered in various other cities in the region. The text, inscribed on two stone slabs, records the results of a competition that had been held in Asia<!–[if supportFields]&gt; XE "Asia” f “SI" &lt;![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]&gt;&lt;![endif]–> (29 BC) with a prize for the individual who could devise the most splendid honors for Augustus<!–[if supportFields]&gt; XE "Augustus” f “SI" &lt;![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]&gt;&lt;![endif]–>. The first stone records that the victor, Paullus Fabius Maximus, had proposed (or perhaps better, had instructed, given that he was the proconsul) the New Year in Asia should be realigned to coincide with Augustus<!–[if supportFields]&gt; XE "Augustus” f “SI" &lt;![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]&gt;&lt;![endif]–>’s birthday, 23 September:

“(It is difficult to tell) whether the birthday of the most divine Caesar (tou= qeiota&tou Kai/saroj) is something of greater pleasure or benefit, which we could rightly accept to be equivalent to the beginning of all things (th=i tw~n pa&ntwn a)rxh=i); and he restored, if not to its nature, at least to serviceability, every form, which was falling away and had carried over into misfortune; and he has given a different look to the whole world, which gladly would have accepted destruction had not Caesar been born for the common good of all things” (lines 4-9).

The second stone records the subsequent decrees of the Asian koinon in 9 BC, and the language of the decree overtakes even the kow-towing exaltation of the proconsul:

“Since the Providence (Pro/noia) that has [divinely] ordained our life, having harnessed her energy and liberality, has brought to life the most perfect good, Augustus, whom she filled with virtue (a)reth=j) for the service of mankind, giving him, as it were, to us and our descendants a saviour (swth=ra), he who brings an end to war and will order [peace (ei0rh/nhn)], Caesar, who by his [epiphany (e0pifanei/j)] surpassed the hopes (e0lpi/daj) of all those who anticipated [good news (eu0ange/lia)], not only [outstripping the benefactors] coming before him, but also leaving no hope of greater benefactions in future; (And since) the [birthday] of the god initiated to the world the good news (eu0angeli/wn) resulting in him…(and since) Paullus Fabius Maximus…has invented an honour for Augustus that until now has been unknown to the Greeks – to begin time (xro/non) from his birthday – for that reason, with good fortune and safety (swthri/a|), the Greeks of Asia have decided in all the cities, to begin the New Year with the 23rd September, which is the birthday of Augustus” (lines 31–41, 44, 47–53).

We could even turn to literary sources to find similar eschatological fervor for the Julian emperors, such as Virgil’s Roman epic, the Aeneid (which was published shortly after his death in 19 BC). When Aeneas was taken to the underworld to see the future of Rome’s greatness, he was shown how the Julian dynasty would bring about a golden age in Rome:

Here is Caesar and all the Julian stock destined to cross under heaven’s expansive sphere. Here, in truth, is he whom you so often hear being prophesied to you, Augustus Caesar, son of a god, who again will establish a golden age in Latium across the fields formerly ruled by Saturn (Virgil Aen VI.789–94).

Given the eschatological messages of the golden age, of hope and salvation, of the Augustan age of peace and prosperity, slogans that dominated the landscape of Roman society during the Julio-Claudian period,[vii] I think we can safely conclude that the ‘they’ in 5.3 referred specifically to those in Roman society who found their hope in such imperial slogans.

This brings me to the second question in our discussion of this passage in 1 Thessalonians. In 5.8, Paul seems to be adapting a quotation from the prophet Isaiah regarding God’s vindication of his people by fighting for them: ‘He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head’ (Isa 59.17a). Now, we should not be surprised that Paul would adapt this verse by adding the triad of faith, hope, and love, but why did Paul set off ‘hope’ from the others by attaching it to the helmet and by putting it in an appositional position?

Here, I (along with others) would argue that Paul again was countering the eschatological claims of the Roman Empire. The Julio-Claudian emperors brought new hope to the world, the most famous designation in Latin being spes Augusta (‘the hope of Augustus’). The first known evidence of this slogan, in fact, appeared under the emperor Claudius (who, in AD 44, had granted Thessalonica the honor of being named the provincial seat of Macedonia). Upon his ascension to the imperial throne, Claudius issued a sestertius (RIC Claudius 115), which proudly displayed Spes (Hope) personified and holding out a flower. She was situated within the legend: ‘Spes Augusta,’ and at the bottom of the coin, the senatorial mark of approval (SC) appears.[viii] Although the emperor Claudius clearly promulgated the hope of the Julian dynasty, Paul reminded the believers at Thessalonica that their hope was firmly planted in the parousia of Christ (cf. 1.3). In this regard, I wonder if it was no accident that Timothy’s report of the church’s progress apparently made no mention of their hope, but only of their faith and love (3.6). It seems that Paul needed to remind them of this hope, which was not fixed on any imperial message, but was firmly planted in the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ (5.2, 8).

If we are correct in our answers to the two questions posed above, we can now detect Paul’s primary aim in these verses; namely, that Paul was encouraging this suffering church by reminding them of the eschatological hope in Jesus’ return, especially when contrasted with the empty hopes of those who belonged to night or to the darkness (5.4-5). While those who persecuted them clung to the imperial promises of peace and security offered by the emperors, Paul reminded the church that such slogans had nothing to offer in the light of Jesus’ return. Paul was thus heaping insults on the imperial eschatology of the Roman Empire in order to ‘re-map the universe’ (to borrow the phrase used by P. Oakes) of the believers in Thessalonica.[ix]

Having explained above that at least in one Pauline passage, the apostle is explicitly countering the imperial claims of Rome as a way to encourage the church to stand firm in the midst of persecution, I think we have called into question Barclay’s attempt to sweep the eschatological agenda of Rome into an undifferentiated pile, labeled ‘the rest’. To be sure, Paul subsumed Roman ideology under much larger powers (e.g. Satan, sin, flesh, death), but this does not mean that Paul therefore refused to confront directly the fleshly ideology of the emperor cult.

Lee Irons notes that Barclay grants that “some of Paul’s language (euangelion, soter, kyrios, parousia, ereine, etc.) could have been heard as analogous to the language used in Imperial propaganda. But the question is not how it could have been heard, but how Paul meant it, how he framed and focused it.” Barclay asserts, “We have to read Paul’s letters according to his vision of reality, not that of his contemporaries.” This seems to suggest that while Wright may have the cultural background in his corner, Barclay has Pauline authorial intent in his. What evidence do you think points to the conclusion that Paul intended his audience to hear his language as analogous to that of the Imperial propaganda?

JKH: Although I do not want to equate authorial intent and the original reader’s response, here I think we must rely on Paul’s ability to communicate effectively. In this regard, I like to think that if the Thessalonian believers heard 5.1-11 the way I have set out above (and I think they did), then I think Paul must have meant for this to happen. So I think we may be stepping into a false dichotomy when we try to determine authorial intent as something completely removed from the way Paul’s readers would have heard his letters.

Barclay argues that Paul never directly mentions Rome, feels no need to speak in code against Rome, and that “Paul’s most subversive act vis-à-vis the Roman Empire was not to oppose it but to relegate it to the ranks of a dependent and derivative entity and to deny it any significance.” In short, Rome plays nothing more than a “bit part” in the drama of history. How would you respond to these arguments?

JKH: I agree with Barclay that Paul certainly relegated Rome to the periphery, and I also agree that Paul subsumed the imperial cult and ideology under much larger powers, such as ‘flesh, and spirit, death and life.’ (to quote Barclay’s concluding analogy of Paul’s ‘Drama of History’). Barclay is surely correct that while the world still focuses on earthly powers and ideologies, to Paul there was a new creation (2 Cor 5.17), and with the resurrection of Jesus and the giving of God’s Spirit, a new reality in Christ had dawned.

But having said this, I do not therefore conclude, as Barclay does, that the imperial cult and its ideology were thus insignificant in Paul. There seem to be clear instances in Paul’s letters, as we observed in 1 Thessalonians 5 above, where Paul dealt a decisive theological blow to Roman ideology. Of course, his basis for doing so was the new age inaugurated with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Barclay asserts that by giving Rome such a central place in the interpretation of Paul’s letters, Wright is “reading reality kata sarka [according to the flesh] and not kata Christon [according to Christ].” In other words, being impressed with Rome and insisting on its obvious importance might make sense from a worldly perspective, but the Christian perspective is to see that Rome is nothing more than a member of the “undifferentiated crowd,” that what truly matters is the advance of the gospel and the Kingdom of Christ. What do you think?

JKH: I think Barclay provides a good point here. According to Paul, the proper Christian perspective is indeed not to focus on the things of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds by seeing things from God’s perspective in Christ.

But in the task of biblical interpretation, if our concern is first to understand Paul’s message in its original context, we would do well to uncover as much as we can from Paul’s world, whether that be understanding the prominence of the imperial cult, or Hellenistic philosophy, or contemporary Jewish thought in the light of Paul’s theology. And it is specifically through this endeavor that we are able to observe in clear relief how Paul’s Gospel brought about a new and radical existence in which the things of this world were simply part of the ‘present evil age’ (Gal 1.4), from which God’s people had been redeemed through the transforming power of God’s Spirit, to the glory of God.


[i] See also, e.g., P. Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Translated by Alan Shapiro, Jerome Lectures 16, Ann Arbor: University Press of Michigan, 1988 and D. Fishwick’s exhaustive series of monographs on the imperial cult in the Latin West.

[ii] G. Alföldy, ‘Subject and Ruler, Subjects and Methods: An Attempt at a Conclusion’, 254–61, In Subject and Ruler: The Cult of the Ruling Power in Classical Antiquity. Papers Presented at a Conference Held at the University of Alberta on April 13–15th, 1994, to Celebrate the 65th Anniversary of Duncan Fishwick, Edited by Alastair Small, JRASup 17, Ann Arbor, 1996, here 255 (I am grateful to my supervisor G. N. Stanton for this reference).

[iii] See, e.g., N. T. Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005, esp. 59–79; G. N. Stanton, Jesus and Gospel, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 9–62; J. R. Harrison, ‘Paul, Eschatology, and the Augustan Age of Grace’, TynBul 50 (2003) 79–91<!–[if supportFields]&gt; XE "Harrison, J. R.” f “Modern Authors" &lt;![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]&gt;&lt;![endif]–>; Ibid., ‘Paul and the Imperial Gospel at Thessaloniki’, JSNT 25.1 (2002) 71–96<!–[if supportFields]&gt; XE "Harrison, J. R.” f “Modern Authors" &lt;![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]&gt;&lt;![endif]–>; J. Meggitt, ‘Taking the Emperor’s Clothes Seriously: The New Testament and the Roman Emperor’, 143–69, In The Quest for Wisdom: Essays in Honour of Philip Budd, Edited by Christine E. Joynes, Cambridge: Orchard Academic, 2002<!–[if supportFields]&gt; XE "Meggitt, J.” f “Modern Authors" &lt;![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]&gt;&lt;![endif]–>; P. Oakes, Philippians: From People to Letter, SNTSMS 110, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, esp. 129–74; M. Tellbe, Paul Between Synagogue and State: Christians, Jews, and Civic Authorities in 1 Thessalonians, Romans, and Philippians, ConBNT 34, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2001<!–[if supportFields]&gt; XE "Tellbe, M.” f “Modern Authors" &lt;![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]&gt;&lt;![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]&gt; XE "Brent, A.” f “Modern Authors" &lt;![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]&gt;&lt;![endif]–>.

[iv] The general editor D. G. Horrell asserts in his introduction that in the light of the current research on the topic, ‘Any who suspect, therefore, that the current interest in the New Testament and Empire is a fad, driven more by contemporary political interests than by historical substance, should find those suspicions thoroughly laid to rest’ (D. G. Horrell, ‘Introduction’, JSNT 27 (2005) 251–5, here 254).

[v] See the helpful discussion of this passage in C. Nicholl, From Hope to Despair in Thessalonica, Situating 1 and 2 Thessalonians, SNTSMS 126, Cambridge, CUP, 2004, although I do not think he provided adequate attention to the imperial background of the slogan in 5.3.

[vi] For the pro-Roman stance of Thessalonian society, see H. L. Hendrix, ‘Thessalonicans Honor Romans,’ Ph.D. Thesis, Harvard University, 1984.

[vii] For a much fuller discussion here, see Chapter 2 in my monograph, Galatians and the Imperial Cult An Analysis of the First-Century Social Context of Paul’s Letter, WUNT II.237, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008.

[viii] See also M. E. Clark, ‘Spes in the Early Imperial Cult: “The Hope of Augustus”’, Numen 30 (1983) 80–105. For an excellent discussion of this and other imperial terms that crop up in 1 Thessalonians, see J. R. Harrison, ‘Paul and the Imperial Gospel at Thessaloniki,’ Journal for the Study of the New Testament 25 (2002) 71-96.

[ix] See esp. P. Oakes, ‘Re-mapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27 (2005) 301–22, here 315-18.