I have just returned from Turkey, where my wife and I and Dom and Sarah Crossan led a two-week long pilgrimage. Our focus: Paul and early Christianity in the historical context of the Roman Empire and Roman imperial theology. Rome ruled the world of early Christianity: from Spain in the west, Britain in the north, the Euphrates in the east, into North Africa in the south.
Roman rule was legitimated by imperial theology. According to it,
Caesar Augustus, the greatest of the emperors, was divine. Born Octavian around 63 BCE, he ruled as emperor from 31 BCE to 14 CE. His titles included “God,” “Son of God,” “Lord,” “savior of the world” who had brought “peace on earth.” He was the product of a divine conception, conceived in his mother by the god Apollo, god of light, reason and order.
Augustus brought peace on earth through military victory. At the battle of Actium, he ended the decades-long civil war that had torn the empire apart. Now peace reigned, the Pax Romana, achieved through military victory and sustained by Roman imperial power. All of this, according to Roman imperial theology, was the will of God. Roman theology legitimated Roman empire. It was omnipresent in the public media of the day: in images, inscriptions, and coins.
This was the historical context of Paul (and Jesus and early Christianity). The titles of Jesus – “Son of God,” “Lord,” “savior of the world,” the one who brings “peace on earth” – existed before he was born. They were titles of the emperor.
When Paul and other early Christians applied these titles to Jesus, they were saying Jesus is Lord and empire is not.
What is the difference between these two lordships? According to the seven letters of Paul that are universally seen by scholars as the earliest documents in the New Testament, all written in the 50s, and thus earlier than the gospels: Rome embodied peace through victory and Jesus proclaimed peace through justice and non-violence. Paul and other early Christians created communities radically centered in God that embodied a vision of life together very different from the vision embodied in Roman imperial theology.
To see Paul and Jesus and early Christianity in this context is to see how they (and the Bible as a whole) combine the spiritual and the political. Christianity is spiritual – it is about our personal relationship to God (the sacred, what is, reality, isness). It is about a deeper and deeper centering in God as known in the Bible and especially in Jesus. And equally importantly, it is about participating in God’s passion for a different kind of world – a more just world, fair world, a world of peace and not war. This is “the dream of God” in the Bible and Jesus: a transformed world.
Our pilgrims were diverse even as they shared some things in common. Though most were Americans, a fourth were from the British Commonwealth: three Australians, three Canadians, and two New Zealanders. All were interested in Christianity and what it might mean to be Christian today, even as some were not currently involved in the life of a church. All were intellectually interested in understanding Paul and early Christianity more fully.
Pilgrimage is about more than being a tourist. Pilgrims are on a journey, whether they are conscious of that or not. Pilgrimage is about a quest for understanding and meaning, and not just about seeing other parts of the world. In its fullest meaning, pilgrimage is about a date with God, the sacred.
A date intrinsically involves a time and place. For two weeks, the time and place was Turkey: we saw the world of Paul and early Christianity, the ruins of the Roman empire (and empires before and since), and we experienced being in a a group of intentional pilgrims. All of us pondered: what does this mean, what might this mean, for us today?
We – the Borgs and Crossans – will lead another Paul pilgrimage to Turkey next year, May 7 – 21, 2012. To be on the e-mail notification list, click here to send an e-mail to Donna. To learn more about past pilgrimages or to see pictures, please go to my Pilgrimages page.