On ancient republicanisms: Roman, early Christian and Jewish?

An article has just been published that I reckon contains a breakthrough insight into the earliest understanding(s) of Jesus and the movement he started.

In his ‘Long Live the King: The Fourth Gospel’s Responses to Greco-Roman Suspicions Concerning Monarchy’, JGRChJ 13 (2017), pp. 189–212, Adam Booth contends that John’s gospel presents a problem for first century Roman readers who would be troubled by the presentation of Jesus as a king. Booth’s central insight rests on the fact that Romans were republicans whose founding stories and long history rejected the tyrannies of kingship in favour of a mixed constitution in which the power of the executive was shared out among a senate and the people. Even after the transition to imperial rule under Octavian (Julius Caesar’s adopted son), Romans continued to avoid the language of kingship for the Emperor (the Princeps) and continued to present their political system as republican in form and philosophy.

Having established that the Fourth Gospel has a kingship Christology (see John 1:49; 6:15; 12:13; 18:33–37; 19:1–5, 21–22), Booth offers a reader-response analysis that attempts to show that Jesus’ royalty is of a (unique) kind that in various ways would mitigate the concerns of a reader with republican commitments. His proposals in this section are fascinating and I look forward to hearing how others with a competence in John and Greco-Roman political philosophy judge them.

I applaud Booth’s piece because it breaks new ground in a way that ought to be an inspiration and challenge to others seeking to understand the nature of early Christology and Jewish messianism. The movement we call Christianity was birthed under Roman rule. And when it started its Jewish context—that more than any shaped its values, culture and political outlook—had had nearly two centuries’ exposure to the Roman world and its distinctive republican politics. The possibility that a republican philosophy was a factor in shaping both the Jewish political thinking and the early Christian worlds before John ought long ago to have been a subject of critical reflection. Surprisingly, that possibility has barely figured in modern scholarship. It might help explain the surprising lack of interest in a royal messiah in Jewish texts. It might also have been one reason that Paul only rarely uses explicitly royal language in his Christology and, with the possible exception of 1 Tim 1:17 and 6:15, he never speaks of Christ as “king”.

Behind those two historical phenomena there are more fundamental questions that go back deeper into Israel’s political self-understanding. The Bible has its own critique of kingship. Parallel to the story of the last king of Rome’s son (Sextus Tarquinius) raping the noblewoman Lucretia (c. 510 B.C.)—that provoked the overthrow of the monarchy—Israel had a story of a king abusing his power to have the woman he wanted (Bathsheba). And Israel had both prophetic (1 Sam 8) and legal (Deut 17) warnings against the self-serving power of kings—texts that are the negative correlate of those in which God’s spokespeople insist that power and property should be distributed throughout the nation. Might it be appropriate to speak in these texts of an “Israelite republicanism”? Or, more concretely, might it be that some Jews and early Christians read such scriptures and recognised in their own tradition a kind of republicanism analogous to Rome’s?

Booth frames his analysis of John as reader-response thought experiment—how would a reader (gentile or Jewish) with Roman republican persuasions read John? I suggest that his basic historical insight upon which that question is based should open up other, broader, lines of historical inquiry. Indeed, I will explore these questions in volumes 3 and 4 of Jesus Monotheism where I aim to show that a biblical and Jewish “republicanism” helps explains aspects of the earliest beliefs about Jesus.

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