Carter, “Vulnerable Power”

Rome attempted to maintain control over its vast empire by creating a totalizing state that governed every aspect of its citizens lives,  Yet, as Carter argues, groups holding beliefs that contrast the Roman ideological program sought to establish a way of life that went against the dominant societal formations which had been present for a significant amount of time.  Carter’s suggestion that early Christian literature does just that, draws from biblical sources that he interprets through the social settings in which the writings were produces, namely the Roman Empire.

In his discussion on Paul, Carter clearly states that Paul is aiming to establish a fully Christian community that opposes the existing state of the Roman Empire, but he also notes that Paul can be seen as an apocalyptic author by applying the literal meaning of “apocalyptic”, disclosing or revealing, to his writings. Carter’s interpretation of Paul’s “double-edged apocalyptic quality” suggests that his descriptions of true Christian life simultaneously condemn established Roman practices.  For Paul, the phrase “one Lord” refers to the Christian God, not the Roman emperor, as was often seen with rulers who wished to deify themselves.  According to Carter, Paul’s assertion of the omnipotence of the Christian God also undermines the all-powerful image many emperors used to maintain dominance and control.  Additionally, Carter identifies exploitation as a major theme that runs through Paul’s writing; exploitation of the peasants by the military, the upper class, and the emperor reveals the unjust social systems that keep Rome alive.  However, Jesus’ death and resurrection shows that release from the oppression of the Roman empire will come despite their attempts to subdue change: the imperials powers killed Jesus, but he did not truly die, he returned to life, just as abusing and persecuting Christians will not destroy their faithfulness.  Carter also discusses Paul’s use of language.  On one side, Paul employs familial language such as sister and brother to counter the patriarchal nature of imperial language that often refers to the emperor as the father.  Yet, Paul also utilizes familiar imperial concepts, like triumph and personal authority, in his descriptions of his Christian community, leading Carter to find inconsistencies in Paul’s writings.

The book of Revelation also addresses the creation of a Christian community, but on a much larger scale than what Paul imagined.  The events of the book describe apocalyptic events on a worldwide scale.  Carter identifies clear parallels between the fallen city in Revelation and the Roman empire, which, for many citizens of the period, could be considered the world.  The manipulation and control the Romans exercised  over its subjects can be paralleled in the beasts of the apocalypse that are controlled by Satan.  These beasts are defeated by God, who lives eternally.  Carter parallels God’s victory over the beasts with the Christians’ triumph over the Roman empire, which will die while the Christians will live forever with God.  He implies that Revelations takes advantage of the empire’s eventual dissolution and the Christian belief in eternal life through resurrection.

Communities of Resistance

Carter uses many examples from the Bible to support his idea that early Christian literature offered, and indeed demanded, an alternative lifestyle to that of Rome. Carter further argues that the Christian adherence to this very non-Roman life made it impossible for Rome to accept or even tolerate the early church.


He uses the Book of Revelation in its historical context to point to images and symbols of a fallen empire. Revelation speaks of the “fallen Babylon,” but John could just as easily be speaking about the anticipated (hopeful) fall of the Roman Empire. Since this document was written during a time of Roman oppression, Carter’s assessment of Revelation does make sense in that context. Even if that was no John’s intent, there is little doubt that the presence of Rome would have influenced the writing. The Christian community would be anxious to see Rome fall the way Babylon did for the Jews. They would want to see God favor the Christians over the Romans.


Carter’s interpretation of Paul’s letters leads us to understand that Paul’s aim was to establish a community of believers whose existence was in direct opposition to Roman rule. He cites Paul’s insistence that salvation comes through Christ alone, and his use of language that evokes images of Christ being the emperor to whom allegiance should be pledged. It’s interesting that he does this, because even though Carter is arguing this large opposition to Rome, Paul could not escape the imagery of Roman rule. What Paul tried to do, however, was to shift the attention away from the sovereignty of Rome, to the sovereignty of Christ. Paul emphasized that worshiping idols was akin to worshiping Satan, which made worshiping the emperors ungodly. He also wrote about Christ coming again, to compare the Kingdom of God, which has no end, to the Empire of Rome, which was surely to fall.


Carter finishes this section with an important question: How are Christian supposed to live? The attitudes that Christians need to have which Paul, Matthew, and John wrote about were in direct opposition to Roman thoughts about civil responsibility. Should they lie about their true allegiance? That would be counter to God’s will for them; they would be putting their soul in jeopardy, but they could also lose their life over it. Other options that Carter brings up are to fight, try to get laws changed, or to try to co-exist. None of these options work for the Christian, and for good reason. A small community of believers oppressed by a larger community of believers needs to stick to its morals in order to come out of the situations feeling like it won.


Carter argues that much of the early Christian writings were, at their base, propaganda against Rome. This might be a stretch, but—at the very least—there is evidence to support the idea that the Roman domination of the known world was on the mind of the early Christian church.


For as rosy of a picture as the Roman political powers wanted to show Rome to be, it simply was not the case. Forms of resistance to Roman authority were highly varied and practiced by all sorts of cultural sub groups. Firstly, philosophers were exiled and murdered because they offered complex ideas about democracy that would potentially subvert the power that the Roman emperors wielded over the subjects. Also, prophets, seers and diviners were treated similarly. For example Tacitus (69 ce) prophesied the eventual demise of the state of Rome, leading people to believe he was correct. Besides ideas from philosophers, prophecies from diviners or seers, or other non-violent acts of resistance, there were also forms of violent unrest. These acts of violence could range from public unrest (protesting) to outright violence in the form of riots. Augustus is even known to have withheld food from these rioters as punishment for their unruly behavior. Furthermore, violent acts of resistance also took other forms. There were pirates on the sea and bandits on the land, who would usually rob the Roman elite of their wealth, thus robbing them of their “power”. The Jews also had their own forms of resistance to Roman authority. For example, the Jews staged a sit-in at Pilate’s house when he received images of Caesar. After five days in the sit-in, Pilate ordered the soldiers to kill the protestors. However, when they showed their willingness to be martyred, Pilate withdrew the command, probably knowing that if in fact he created martyrs out of them it would only subvert the Roman authority more. Augustus and other emperors required a daily sacrifice be made twice in their names. Lower priests stopped this sacrifice in a non-violent form of demonstration against Roman authority. Josephus considered this action and the foundation for war with Rome. Lastly, resistance took its form in writing. From Jewish and Egyptian people, they wrote similarly about how Rome’s control and power over them was merely a period of God’s punishment and that eventually he would destroy Rome and lead his chosen people to rule. This is not unlike the narrative that John establishes in the book of Revelation later on. These acts of resistance are interesting due to the fact that the Roman authorities constantly and fervently tried to show Rome as a place of peace, freedom, affluence and happiness. For as much as Rome did in fact dominate so vast a population, it was never without its struggles to maintain its power over its subjects. In fact, given the amount of resistance that documented, it is fair to assume that there was a large portion of the empire that was unhappy with the way they were governed.