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Towards a Properly Political Reading of the New Testament

The fact of the matter is that every reading of the New Testament (NT) is a political reading of some sort.  Even readings that fail to find political significance in the NT are expressions of (often unconsidered) political positions — so-called ‘spiritual’ readings of the NT, which fail to find any significant political dimensions in Jesus’ teachings, or Paul’s epistles, or whatever else, are often expressed in life by a focus on one’s individual salvation, and a lack of attention to broader social structures… and this itself is a form of politics!  The same is true of any reading.
Therefore, the question is not whether or not we should read the NT politically; rather, it is about what type of political reading we should practice.
Consequently, I have begun to compile a list of ‘commentaries’ that can help us properly understand the politics of the NT.  This list is just beginning, has many holes, and I would be curious to hear what titles others might wish to add.  Here is what I have thus far:

  • Mt: Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations by Warren Carter
  • Mk: Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel by Ched Myers
  • Lk: The Gospel of Luke by Joel Green (NICNT)
  • Jn: John and Empire: Initial Explorations by Warren Carter
  • Ro: Romans: A Commentary by Robert Jewett (Hermeneia)
  • Gal: Galatians and the Imperial Cult: A Critical Analysis of the First-Century Social Context of Paul’s Letter by Justin K. Hardin (WUZNT2)
  • Phil: Philippians: From People to Letter by Peter Oakes (SNTS Monograph Series)
  • Col: Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat
  • 1 Pe: A Home for the Homeless: a social scientific criticism of 1 Peter, its situation and strategy by John H. Elliott
  • Rev: Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now by Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther

There are, of course, several other studies that deal more generally with the politics of the NT, of Jesus, of Paul, and so on, but I am especially interested in exploring commentaries that take this ’empire-critical’ approach.  What would you add to this list?

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  1. J-Lo! Good to hear from you, man. Hope all is well. You should send me a note and let me know what you are up to these days.
    Matthew: I’ve only read parts of the Revelation book (the intro and some excerpts) but it looks really exciting — especially at the end when the authors talk about the myths crafted by the roman empire and the counter-myths offered by the writer of the Apocalypse, and in the concluding section when they apply this to current living under the empire of capitalism (you can get a feel for this by looking at the table of contents on amazon).
    I’m curious, given your overwhelmingly massive knowledge of 1 Cor, do you have a suggestion for a commentary on 1 Cor that might fit this type of reading?

  2. Hmm I can’t think of a whole commentary that really maintains the same ’empire’ focus as those on your list. I recall reading ages ago in an essay by NT Wright that 1 Corinthians was ripe for this sort of investigation, particularly due to the references to the “powers” in the opening and closing chapters. I certainly agree that it is important to consider why Paul uses this sort of terminology, and to whom he is referring… is this some sort of apocalyptic reference to the evil empire who crucified the Lord and who currently retain impressive power? These things have been explored in articles, but if you hear about a full-length commentary I’d be interested to check it out.

  3. Yeah, both 1 & 2 Cor seem ripe for this sort of reading. The only commentary I can think of that might deal with this stuff more than others would be Horsley’s ANTC commentary, but reading the table of contents doesn’t seem to point in this direction.
    As for Paul on the powers, I’m fairly convinced that Paul’s use of that language has multiple levels of meaning that needn’t be divided into an either/or decision.

  4. HI Dan – 5 or so years ago I led a reading seminar on “Anarchy and Christianity.” There may some stuff in the bibliography of interest to you. I could send it your way if you want. Peter

  5. I wish I had something to add but I don’t. All I have is an echo – a plea for something like this on Ephesians. I’m undertaking a study of Ephesians and I haven’t found anything like this yet. Anyone have ideas?

  6. Michael,
    I don’t know any commentaries that are centred on this issue, but I do know that Walter Wink has written quite a bit about Paul’s talk of ‘the Powers’ in Ephesians, so that might be helpful for you (if you haven’t looked at it already). Also, I’m not sure if it would be helpful, but you may want to look at “The Politics of Identity in Ephesians”, an article by Margaret Y. MacDonald.

  7. Michael, one further idea: you may find the relevant chapter in the “Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings” to be helpful, both in what it says and in the other references it provides. I’m not sure, as I haven’t read the book (just stumbled onto it a moment ago).