New College, University of Edinburgh

Was Paul Anti-Imperial?

As always, it has been intriguing to observe the popular use of the Bible in this US election cycle – justifications made, threats issued, “prophecies” dispensed. Now that the fight is concluded and life will have to move on it will be interesting to watch the response of both sides in the days to come. I expect there will be many turning to Paul’s words in Romans 13:1-7, urging “submission to the governing authorities.”


Yet, there is an ongoing debate in scholarship over what Paul actually means in these verses, with a variety of interpretative options on offer. Commentators such as John Knox argue that Paul is giving a positive evaluation of the Roman Empire and thanking them for the protections they’ve offered him as a Roman citizen.[1] Others argue that in fact Paul is criticising the Roman Empire with his words here. Sylvia Keesmaat has particularly championed this view, arguing that Romans 13:1-7 only has appearance of subjection, but in fact completely undermines the authority and power of the Roman Empire.[2] Keesmaat suggests that Paul describes the Roman community of believers as a new body politic in 12:15-21 that completely undermines the description of the Roman state in 13:1-7. Another option is that Paul acknowledges the God-given authority of the ruling authorities, but does not explicitly support them. This view is held by Leander Keck, who argues that Paul’s concern is that the ruling authorities act as God’s instruments, whether or not they recognise that.[3] There is no clear consensus in scholarship, and the debate continues.


One thing that might help the debate is to pay more attention to the connection between exhortation and eschatology. While modern translations often break Romans 13 into sections, if one takes it as a whole it is clear that there is a connection between Paul’s exhortations in 13:1-7 and his recognition of the ever-closer coming of the Lord in 13:11-14. An interesting parallel can be found in the earlier letter of 1 Thessalonians. In 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, Paul exhorts the Thessalonian believers to “…aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.” This exhortation occurs directly before the eschatological instruction about the imminent parousia/day of the Lord. The knowledge that the Lord may come at any moment should affect how one lives and relates to those outside the community of faith.


Because of this eschatological perspective, Paul is by no means supporting or praising the Roman Empire in Romans 13:1-7. While he affirms the current authority of the Roman Empire and does urge believers to attend to their basic civic responsibilities, he also undercuts the imperial message of supremacy. His words do not arise out of any particular loyalty to Rome, but an acknowledgement of the present situation and the best way to carry on with life before the eschatological new age arrives in fullness. Furthermore, Paul’s eschatological understanding undercuts the claim of the Roman Empire – or any ruling power – to have ultimate authority or relevance. In this sense, Paul is anti-imperial. However, to say more than that, to claim Paul is actively opposing the Roman Empire, is to read beyond the evidence.



Written by Sydney Tooth



[1] John Knox, “The Epistle to the Romans” in The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 11 (New York: Abingdon, 1954).

[2] See Sylvia C. Keesmaat, “If Your Enemy is Hungry: Love and Subversive Politics in Romans 12-13,” in Character Ethics and the New Testament: Moral Dimensions of Scripture, ed. Robert L. Brawley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007) and “Reading Romans in the Capital of the Empire” in Reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans, ed. Jerry Sumney (Atlanta: SBL, 2012).

[3] Leander Keck, Romans (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 316.

  • CSCO Team,
  • 10th November 2016


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