God and Empire : Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 10/15/2009
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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At the heart of the Bible is a moral and ethical call to fight unjust superpowers, whether they are Babylon, Rome, or even America. From the divine punishment and promise found in Genesis through the revolutionary messages of Jesus and Paul, John Dominic Crossan reveals what the Bible has to say about land and economy, violence and retribution, justice and peace, and, ultimately, redemption. In contrast to the oppressive Roman military occupation of the first century, he examines the meaning of the non-violent Kingdom of God prophesized by Jesus and the equality advocated by Paul to the early Christian churches. Crossan contrasts these messages of peace with the misinterpreted apocalyptic vision from the Book of Revelation, which has been misrepresented by modern right-wing theologians and televangelists to justify U.S. military actions in the Middle East. In God and Empire Crossan surveys the Bible from Genesis to Apocalypse, or the Book of Revelation, and discovers a hopeful message that cannot be ignored in these turbulent times. The first-century Pax Romana, Crossan points out, was in fact a "peace" won through violent military action. Jesus preached a different kind of peace-a peace that surpasses all understanding-and a kingdom not of Caesar but of God. The Romans executed Jesus because he preached this Kingdom of God, a kingdom based on peace and justice, over the empire of Rome, which ruled by violence and force. For Jesus and Paul, Crossan explains, peace cannot be won the Roman way, through military victory, but only through justice and fair and equal treatment of all people.


God and Empire
Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now

Chapter One

Empire and the Barbarism of Civilization

There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

—Walter Benjamin,
On the Concept of History (1939)

Between 1945 and 1950, I spent my high school years at St. Eunan's College in Letterkenny, Ireland. It was a central boarding school for all those villages and towns in County Donegal too small to have a secondary school of their own. I had a classical education and every day for five years studied Greek and Latin, the original languages of Homer and Cicero.

Even in that first generation of postcolonial Ireland, no teacher ever mentioned that as we were learning to imitate the syntax of Caesar's Gallic Wars we were ignoring the slaughter of our Celtic ancestors. Moreover, no teacher ever emphasized twin facts that now seem to me the two most important lessons of a classical education. Greece, having invented democratic rule, warns us that we can have a democracy or an empire, but not both at the same time—or at least not for long. Rome, having invented republican rule, warns us that we can have a republic or an empire, but not both at the same time—or not for long. Do we think those lessons do not apply to a democratic republic? Or do we suspect that they may apply with doubled force?

Rome and Empire

I look at the Roman Empire neither to praise it nor to bury it, but to understand it as fairly and accurately as I can. Otherwise, I will not be able to understand where the Christian biblical tradition stands on Rome or any other empire (chapter 2) or why Rome crucified Jesus of Nazareth (chapter 3), executed Paul of Tarsus (chapter 4), and exiled John of Patmos (chapter 5).

First Among Equals—with All the Equals DeadRome invented an excellent solution to the danger of royal tyranny. There would be no dynastic kings, but two high aristocrats called consuls would rule together for one year. That way each could keep an eye on the other, and both would be out at the same time. That system was strong enough to withstand Rome's first great external threat, the attack of Hannibal from Carthage on the other side of the Mediterranean.

The consular system prevented royal tyranny for a while but eventually engendered civil war. Consular aristocrats became imperial warlords, and why then would they cooperate with each other? Too much, far too much, was now at stake. It looked as if the Roman system would self-destruct along the fault line created by that hyphen of republican-imperialism or imperial-republicanism, destroying the Mediterranean world as well in the process. The first round of that civil war set Julius Caesar against Pompey. It ended with both of these warlords assassinated, one in the Roman Senate, the other on an Egyptian beach. The second round set Antony and Octavian, Caesar's avengers, against Brutus and Cassius, Caesar's assassins. After two battles at Philippi near the eastern coast of Greece, the Caesarians were victorious, and the last hope for republican restoration died with the suicides of the defeated Brutus and Cassius. It was time for the third and final round.

Imagine San Francisco Bay as it opens westward to the Pacific Ocean with the twin promontories of that opening connected by the Golden Gate Bridge on a north-south axis. Imagine now another similar but smaller bay opening westward to the Ionian Sea between Greece and Italy. Its twin promontories extend and pass one another, and today they are connected by an underwater tunnel on an east-west axis. That is the Ambracian Gulf on the northwestern coast of Greece, and there by the summer of 31 bce Antony and Cleopatra had gathered an army of one hundred thousand troops and a fleet of five hundred ships. But despite their superior numbers on both land and sea, they had two intensifying problems.

First, their fortified camp was on the marshy and mosquito-ridden flats of the bay's southern promontory, and malaria had decimated their forces during the summer of 31 BCE. Second, though their fleet was safely moored inside the gulf, it was also securely trapped behind that difficult opening, whose exit demanded a sharp turn first to port and then to starboard around the narrows of the southern Cape Actium. By September 2, their initial numerical superiority had been lost to disease, desertion, and despair. When their much-diminished fleet finally cleared the gulf that morning, it was possibly for fight, but probably for flight.

Antony's line of battle had three squadrons in formation to left, center, and right, with Cleopatra's flotilla immediately behind his center. Her flagship had taken on board both sails and pay-chest, so that escape seemed their primary purpose. Octavian had a similar triple formation waiting out in the Ionian Sea, with himself and Agrippa leading their left squadron to oppose Antony leading his own right. With the expected afternoon breezes, both of these northern fronts maneuvered to outflank one another, but Antony, after closing with the enemy, abandoned his own flagship to join Cleopatra on hers. That northward drift had opened up gaps in Octavian's line that allowed Antony, Cleopatra, and their escort ships to escape to Alexandria—not to fight another day but to die another day.

Antiquity's last great naval battle was over with around five thousand casualties. The Assisi-born contemporary poet Sextus Propertius gave Augustus this encomium in his Elegies:

My songs are sung for Caesar's glory; while Caesar is being sung, do even you pray attend, Jupiter. . . . Where a bay lulls the roar of the Ionian Sea . . . hither came to battle the forces of the world. . . . Apollo, leaving Delos . . . stood over Augustus' ship. . . . Anon he spoke: "O savior of the world . . . Augustus . . . now conquer at sea: the land is already yours: my bow battles for you.". . . Second only to his bow came [Julius] Caesar's spear. . . . But Father Caesar from the star of Venus looks marveling on: "I am a god; this victory is proof that you are of my blood." (4.6)

God and Empire
Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now
. Copyright © by John Crossan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now by John Dominic Crossan
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