Empire studies, also known as empire-critical or imperial-critical approaches, are a recent development in biblical scholarship. Though some contemporary Hebrew Bible work has increasingly foregrounded engagement with empires (Horsley 2008; Carr and Conway 2010; Portier-Young 2011; Perdue 2012), Empire studies have largely examined New Testament (NT) texts. Because of space limits, the NT scholarship will be the focus of this article.

NT Empire studies developed in the 1990s. While a few previous NT works took the Roman Empire seriously as the context for the emergence of the early Jesus movement and its writings—for example, Adolf Deissmann’s groundbreaking Light from the Ancient East (1910)—twentieth-century New Testament scholarship has largely ignored the imperial world. Since the early 1990s, Empire studies have been redressing this neglect through journal articles (Union Seminary Quarterly Review 2005), edited volumes (Horsley 2008) and monographs (Carter 2006). Scholarship has examined interactions with the Roman Empire involving the historical Jesus, Paul and the Pauline tradition, the Gospels and Gospel communities, and other NT writings including Revelation.


Empire studies understand and engage the NT writings and early Jesus movement as products of the Roman Empire, namely the extensive area, people, and resources over which the central city of Rome exercised its power and extended its control by various political, economic, military, and religious means. Empire studies (hereafter ES) focus on the interactions between Jesus-followers and the Roman Empire. The approach recognizes that the early New Testament texts emerge from, are enmeshed in, and engage this world of empire in which power was located in the hands of a small wealthy, high status elite. ES thus investigate, make visible, and evaluate the represented interactions between this pervasive context of empire and the New Testament texts and early Jesus communities.

The task of “making visible” is fundamental because frequently contemporary readers of the NT writings, living in social contexts that differ significantly from those of the Roman Empire and socialized into reading strategies not attuned to imperial realities, are not familiar with the structures of imperial rule that pervade the texts and with which the texts are engaged in various ways. The plural language of multiple forms of engagements and interactions indicates that such engagements between Jesus-followers and the empire were not monolithic. New Testament texts are neither wholly opposed to the imperial world nor wholly in support of it. Rather, they negotiate it with diverse, simultaneous interactions.

Empire studies, then, investigate such matters as strategies by which Jesus-followers negotiated the Roman imperial order on a daily basis, how the NT texts represent and engage the vision of human existence and societal organization enacted by Rome, how the writers of the NT texts conceive of life in the empire for those committed to the purposes/empire of God manifested in Jesus, and how NT texts validate, cooperate with, imitate, reinscribe, contest, compete with, counter, or attack (and combinations thereof) the ways in which life and society are organized under Roman rule.

Empire studies also address two further matters. Much NT scholarship has not considered questions of imperial engagement, and so has interpreted NT texts without taking into account imperial dynamics. ES evaluate, critique, and expose the neglect of imperial dynamics in existing scholarship. In doing so, their readings frequently contest the nonpolitical, spiritualized, religious reading strategies that much biblical interpretation has employed. In addition, with a focus on matters of power and societal visions, ES are well placed to consider the implications of imperial-critical readings for contemporary ecclesial and neo-imperial contexts.

Emergence of Empire Studies.

At least seven factors account for the emergence of ES in the late twentieth century, partly as a reaction against the limited purview of existing methods, and partly as an embracing of new questions and approaches.

One factor reacts against the long history of depoliticized and spiritualized interpretations or readings of NT texts. Such readings have, more often than not, focused on ideas and concepts (“doctrine”), avoiding sociopolitical factors. They have constructed early Jesus-followers as minds without bodies, relationships, and societal interaction. Since the 1970s, social-scientific criticism, employing sociological and cross-cultural anthropological models, has emphasized the embodied, communal, and cultural practices of the early Christian movement. Such a focus inevitably requires consideration of the Roman imperial world.

Also contributing to the neglect of imperial realities in NT scholarship has been a widespread (mis)understanding of religion as a private matter of individual choice. In the Roman world, religion was much more civic and communal than private and individual. Likewise, contemporary emphases on the (imagined) separation of church and state have blinded scholars to the ways in which religion was embedded in political, household, civic, economic, and societal institutions and practices in the Roman world. To speak of religion in the Roman Empire is to speak of these dimensions. Engaging the NT texts must lead into, not away from, sociopolitical dimensions.

A third factor involves the irony of recognizing the nonhistorical manner in which historical studies have often misrepresented first-century Jesus and Jewish communities. Commonly the early Jesus movement and its texts have been examined as distinct from and against first-century “Judaism.” That approach is problematic for several reasons, not the least of which is that it artificially and anachronistically separates the early Jesus movement from Judaism. But it also constructs Jewish communities and Jesus-believers as “religion-only” communities, isolating them from the sociopolitical and economic realities of the invisible Roman imperial world. The construction fails to recognize, for example, the numerous ways that Diaspora synagogues were societally engaged, with multiple ways of negotiating imperial power (Carter 2011). Moreover, this pervasive emphasis on ethnicity in NT studies (Gentiles versus Jews) neglects other factors of power including gender and societal status.

Fourth, since the second half of the twentieth century, scholars have paid much attention to the diversity and vibrancy of first-century Jewish life and traditions. While the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and renewed attention to other collections of Jewish literatures have helpfully revised negative stereotypes, less attention has been paid to the Greco-Roman world. Empire studies trouble this exclusive Jewish focus by recognizing that Jewish and Jesus communities interacted with a complex world that comprised larger political (Roman imperial) and cultural (Hellenistic) forces all too often neglected by a monolithic focus.

Fifth, when scholarly attention has been paid to the Roman Empire, it has often misrepresented its structures and reach. To depict the empire as a “New Testament background,” for example, significantly diminishes the imperial foreground of sociopolitical, economic, cultural, and religious structures that the Jesus-movement engaged. The language of “background” distances Jesus-believers from the empire, thereby rendering invisible the numerous ways by which Jesus-followers negotiated that imperial world. Some “Church-and-State” approaches have, ironically, paid little attention to Roman imperial structures and practices (Pilgrim 1999). Others, including popular sentiments, have foregrounded persecution as the dominant dynamic despite the lack of evidence for first-century Jesus-followers being subjected to daily, empire-wide, life-and-death persecution. More adequate formulations are needed.

Sixth, postcolonial perspectives have foregrounded previously silenced, neglected, and marginal voices and groups, and focused attention on the means, impact, and legacy of imperial power over colonized peoples. Numerous studies of the experiences of colonized peoples, pioneered for instance in the work of Edward Said (1993), have provided NT scholars with a body of theoretical and lived knowledge that provides insights for investigating the NT writings and communities that also originate among colonized peoples. These studies have shown that such relationships are much more complex than a restricted focus on persecution, or a simplistic “fight or flight” alternative, or an opposition-accommodation dualism employed by early Empire studies.

And seventh, as often happens in NT studies, impetus for exploring questions concerning imperial power has come from contemporary situations. These situations include international discourse over the roles of superpowers such as the United States in the global village, as well as studies of empires in disciplines such as literary and international relations studies, and especially various and multidisciplinary forms of postcolonial studies. These situations of impetus also involve increasing numbers of scholars from former colonies of European powers with first-hand experience of colonial power.

Pioneering Studies and Practitioners.

While Empire studies have engaged most NT writings, space limits permit only a selective account here. Attention will focus briefly on work on the historical Jesus, Pauline and Gospel writings, and Revelation.


Within NT studies, the resurgence of work in historical Jesus studies in the 1980s provided initial openings. The axiom, articulated for example by E. P. Sanders (1985, p. 55), that accounts of Jesus’s life and teaching must account for Jesus’s crucifixion, required scholars to take seriously Jesus’s crucifixion as a distinctively Roman form of execution. Attention to this question meant locating Jesus in relation to imperial dynamics. Books such as Richard Horsley’s, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (San Francisco, 1987) and John Dominic Crossan’s, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco, 1991) sought to understand Jesus’s interaction with his imperial context, as did William Herzog’s Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Louisville, Ky., 1994). More recent discussions include Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire: the Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis, 2003), and John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (San Francisco, 2007).


Work on Paul’s negotiation of the Roman Empire gained initial momentum from several sources. Neil Elliott’s Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1994), spurred by contemporary geopolitical events such as the first Iraq war, employed a liberation hermeneutic to wrestle with Paul and his often oppressive legacy in order to construct a Paul who speaks a liberating word in the midst of oppressive empires past and present. Elliott’s goal was to find an ecclesially useful Paul, one that could shape liberative visions and acts of justice.

Further attention emerged from the Society of Biblical Literature’s Paul and Politics Group chaired initially by Richard Horsley and Cynthia Kittredge. Between 1997 and 2003, this section published three books exploring interaction between Paul and the Roman Empire, comprising some seven hundred pages and at least thirty-six chapters, the work of about thirty scholars (Horsley 1997, 2000, 2003).

The clearest methodological statements appear in the introductory essays to several of these volumes. In his introductory essay to Paul and Empire, Horsley observes the irony that before Christianity became the Empire’s established religion, it “was an anti-imperial movement” (Horsley 1997 , p. 1). Horsley rejects a Lutheran theological Paul but sees Paul as one who, while expecting the end of this imperially-dominated age, was establishing assemblies that were alternative to the “assemblies” of the empire’s provincial cities.

Horsley finds these emphases anticipated in Krister Stendahl’s significant essay (1963) that challenged the predominantly theological and individualized interpretation of Paul (Horsley 2000, pp. 5–15). Stendahl moved the emphasis from individual sin, salvation, and justification by faith to salvation history that included both Israel and Gentiles, and to social-human relations in the messianic communities Paul addressed. In turn, these emphases were developed by participants in social movements for liberation such as African American, feminist, non-European and/or “two-thirds World,” and Jewish interpreters, as well as by dis-eased western male scholars. These scholars shared a common concern with diverse and interrelated forms of domination such as race, gender, ethnicity, social status, etc. They exposed, for instance, the use of Paul by colonizing western missionaries to enforce submission of women and local peoples, and by Christian scholars to perpetuate anti-Judaism.

Horsley highlights the limits of Western privatized and depoliticized interpretations of biblical texts. He points especially to the imperialistic nature of scholarly inquiry that assumed and asserted European/American elite male interests to be universal and that silenced the interests, experiences, identities, and voices of all others. He also notes the silence of biblical scholars on major socio-political issues, the inability of the “new perspective on Paul” to move outside the traditional opposition of Paul to Judaism, and the continuing neglect of imperial and power dynamics in various other new methods (social-scientific; postmodernist; cultural studies).

In this context, the SBL “Paul and Politics” group emerged to investigate four interrelated areas: Paul and the politics of the Roman Empire, of Paul’s churches, of Israel, and of interpretation of Paul (Horsley 2000 , p. 11). Horsley outlines four principles that guide political interpretations of Paul. (1) Texts and interpretations are sites of struggle among various voices. (2) The production and interpretation of texts do not just involve ideas but power relations, interests, values, and visions. (3) Both texts and interpreters occupy particular social locations and contexts requiring systemic analysis of wider political-economic-religious structures and power relations as well as of local assemblies. There is a special interest in “readings from below,” in the marginalized and oppressed with demystification and liberation in view. (4) Interpreters’ identity and social location are hybrid and complex, embracing multiple positions and perspectives involving various interrelationships of class, gender, race, and ethnicity. Horsley summarizes the approach by saying: “The aims and agenda of the Paul and Politics group are, broadly, to problematize, interrogate, and re-vision Pauline texts and interpretations, to identify oppressive formulations as well as potentially liberative visions and values in order to recover their unfulfilled historical possibilities, all in critical mutual engagement among diverse participants” (Horsley 2000, p. 15).

Beyond the Paul and Politics group, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed’s 2004 book, In Search of Paul (San Francisco, 2004), presents Paul in a somewhat limited, monolithic, oppositional relationship to Rome’s Empire (“the normalcy of civilization”) with God’s kingdom embodied in alternative communities. Pursuing an analysis based on this oppositional dynamic, they see clashes between two visions of peace (the empire’s based on military victory and God’s based in justice), between Rome’s golden age and Paul’s eschatology (1 Thess), between the blessings of Romanization and gospel blessings (Gal), between contrasting visions of divinity (Phil), between hierarchical patronage and equality (1 Cor), between global imperial distinctions and global unity and justice (Rom). Moving beyond many of the discussions in the Paul and Politics volumes, Crossan and Reed explicitly engage implications for contemporary followers of Jesus living in the American empire.

Other contributions have continued to expand or nuance the discussion, particularly in moving beyond a monolithic antithetical interaction. Peter Oakes (2005) sought to move away from an exclusively oppositional model of interaction between Jesus-assemblies and the empire in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians. In relation to these Pauline letters, Oakes considers four possible interactions: Rome and Jesus-believers follow common patterns from the past; Jesus-believers follow or imitate Rome; Rome conflicts with and pressures Jesus-believers; Jesus-believers conflict with Rome. He finds option four in 1 Thessalonians and options three and four in Philippians. Ironically, his attempt to delineate more complex interactions, while well directed, emphasizes conflict and opposition, and fails to recognize imitation and self-protection in Paul’s eschatological formulations.

Davina Lopez’s Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission (Minneapolis, 2008) develops issues of both gender and ethnicity in Paul’s negotiation of empire. Rome commonly constructed conquered nations as women subjugated by manly power. Lopez argues that Paul abandons his imperially imitative, violent, masculine “power over” persecution of Jesus-believers to become their mother (Gal 4:19) in solidarity with the conquered. Lopez insists on the liberationist and transformational quality of Paul’s ministry and communities. Neil Elliott’s Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire (Minneapolis, 2008) examines the interplay between this letter to the churches in Rome and aspects of Roman imperial theology, notably rule by force, justice, mercy, duty, and courage. Significantly, Elliott recognizes that while aspects of Paul’s rhetoric subvert some imperial propaganda claims, Paul was a creature of his times who reinscribed imperial thinking and practices. Brigitte Kahl (Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished, Minneapolis, 2010) develops the analysis in relation to Galatians. A volume edited by Christopher Stanley (The Colonized Apostle: Paul Through Postcolonial Eyes, Minneapolis, 2011) extensively engages issues of gender, ethnicity, and colonialism.

This more recent work on Paul has generally recognized increasingly multivalent and complex interactions with the empire. It has become less confessional and “protective” of Paul, and more willing to identify a Paul who imitates or reinscribes imperial ways rather than always offers liberative visions and practices.


Scholarship on the Gospels has proceeded along similar lines. Initial empire-critical studies of Mark, Matthew, and John extended socio-political analyses of the historical Jesus, thereby countering conventional spiritualized readings of the Gospel narratives. This work exposed ways in which the Gospels constructed and negotiated imperial structures, matters ignored in previous scholarship. This initial work also commonly posited resistance as the dominant form of engagement. Discussions of interactions with Roman power in Luke’s Gospel and Acts, which had been ongoing through the twentieth century (Walton, 2002), received renewed attention (Rhoads et al, 2011).

Ched Myers’s Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, 1988) was a pioneering work in setting the Gospels in conversation with the Roman Empire. Myers sees Mark’s Gospel emerging from Rome’s reoccupation of Galilee in the late 60s C.E. It offers a strategy of engagement that was both subversive and constructive, but which rejected options such as collaboration, withdrawal, rebellion, and Pharisaic activism (Myers, 86–87). Richard Horsley’s Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Louisville, 2001) reads Mark as the story of Jesus’s renewal movement for Israelite villages in opposition to the subjugating Roman rulers and their provincial allies. Warren Carter’s Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, 2000) and Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations (Harrisburg, Pa., 2001) extended the discussion to Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew and Empire, Carter discusses Matthean christology, soteriology, eschatology, salvation history, and ecclesiology, along with various Gospel texts, to show Matthew’s pervasive engagement with imperial realities. While this initial work largely emphasized opposition to the Roman Empire, Carter’s subsequent work, such as his discussion of Matthew in the Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings (2007, pp. 69–104), presents a much more multivalent and ambiguous interaction involving contesting, imitating, and reinscribing imperial structures. Carter also argues that the struggles between Matthew’s community and a synagogue community that Matthean scholars have seen only in religious terms reflect the vertical pressure of imperial power (2011). Work on John’s Gospel has also developed with Lance Richey’s Roman Imperial Ideology and the Gospel of John (Washington, D.C., 2007), Warren Carter’s John and Empire Initial Explorations (New York, 2008), and Tom Thatcher’s Greater than Caesar: Christology and Empire in the Fourth Gospel (Minneapolis, 2009). Other scholarship has explored dimensions such as gender constructions (Moore and Anderson 2003 ; Conway 2008).


The book of Revelation has received much attention since Leonard Thompson argued convincingly that accommodation with the imperial world, not persecution, was the book’s pervasive context (1990). Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther developed this analysis for Revelation in relation to imperial politics, economics, culture, and myths. They moved beyond the book itself to draw connections with contemporary Global Capital (1999). In a series of studies, Stephen Moore has demonstrated that Revelation both mimics and replicates basic aspects of Roman imperial ideology and structures even while it resists and erodes them (2006, 2007). Particularly, Moore has attended to the intersection of gender representations and empire in Revelation, both the performance of masculinity, especially in relation to the recurring feature of war (1999), and of femininity in, for example, the presentation of Rome as a woman and prostitute (2009).

In summary, ES or imperial-critical approaches examine and evaluate the interaction between New Testament communities and texts and the Roman imperial world. ES examine these texts and communities through eyes interested particularly in multivalent negotiations of Roman imperial power.


Empire studies do not employ a formulaic or monolithic method, but are eclectic, interdisciplinary, and intertextual. The approach finds one starting point in historical-critical, particularly classical and archaeological, studies that investigate first-century conditions within the Roman Empire experienced by Jesus-followers (Huskinson, 2000; Morley 2010). Such investigation will, though, enact an agenda marked by a focus on power disparities and the circumstances of non-elites.

There are, however, numerous obstacles to such investigation. Sources, often from winners and elites, do not mention the Jesus movement. They are interested in the powerful and the exercise of power in politics, wars, and the lives and roles of “great men.” Conventional history pursues the establishing of when, what, and how something happened. The Jesus movement, though, was not a powerful and elite movement exercising political or military power. It was not under the patronage of great men. It was a subculture that has to be viewed from below, not from above, located in larger imperial structures, and understood as a collective movement marked by powerlessness.

Historical inquiry known as “People’s History” helpfully foregrounds such perspectives (Horsley 2005). Central for this inquiry are common folks and their everyday socioeconomic conditions within the larger imperial world. Crucial matters pertain to the distribution and exercise of power and resources, along with the complex negotiated interactions between dominant and subordinated groups. Dynamics of power, gender, ethnicity, and social status constitute vital dimensions. Historical and classical studies, viewed through the eye of People’s History, provide a starting point for identifying some of these dynamics such as the role of military power, vast economic disparities and exploitation including taxes and tribute, slavery, extensive poverty and food insecurity, the concentration of political power in the hands of a small elite, alliances between Rome and provincial, urban elites, the significance of the imperial cult especially in the east and promoted by agonistic provincial elites, and the foundational claims of the ruling ideology.

Yet the limited and partial nature of the surviving data, their bias toward elites, public political events and military actions, and the relative invisibility of non-elites and their discreet and self-protective actions means these sources cannot provide an adequate picture of the vast range of human and communal experience within the empire. Not only does the partial nature of the material or artifactual remains present one problem, so also does the challenge of relating the various existing pieces to each other. Importantly, material or artifactual remains gain significance in the context of a larger, complex, imperial structure of power relations which the archaeological record itself cannot reconstitute.

Social-science models of empires usefully provide a wholistic framework, a heuristic view or map of the imperial structure that allows dots to be joined and the significance of individual pieces of existing data to be seen in relation to the whole. Dennis Duling discusses numerous models of empires (2005). Gerhard Lenski’s model of agrarian-aristocratic empires (1984), modified by John Kautsky’s inclusion of commerce and trade (1982), has been helpful for empire studies. Lenski focuses on the exercise of power, posing the question, “who gets what and why?” and emphasizing the significant verticality in its social stratification. A small but powerful elite controlled resources, land, and populations. For the elite, life was quite comfortable; for most, living around subsistence levels to varying degrees, daily existence was a struggle.

Such a model of the larger structure of Rome’s empire, nuanced and elaborated by classical and archaeological studies, allows the function and significance of specific dynamics to be seen in relation to the whole. The model focuses on power and so broadens a conventional historical concern with politics, war, religion, or “great men” to the overall structure, to the interrelatedness of parts, to collective movements, and to non-elites so often ignored in historical studies but crucial for the early Christian movement.

Necessary, though, is access to how non-elites negotiate massive differentials of power. Several approaches provide access. The work of cultural anthropologist James Scott (1985, 1990) recognizes that whenever power and control are asserted in societies like Rome’s empire, opposition and resistance are inevitable. Scott identifies three means or spheres whereby elites extend domination and exploitation (1990, p. 198): material (appropriation of grain, taxes, etc.), status (acts of humiliation and assaults on dignity), and ideological (justifications for practices: coins, inscriptions, buildings, texts, ceremonies, personnel, speeches, etc.). These spheres of domination constitute a public transcript or “official” versions of reality that enhance elite power.

They also create both compliance and numerous forms of resistance. Open, violent and direct challenges to power such as boycotts, nonpayment of taxes, attacks on ruling personnel and their property and resources are relatively infrequent. But Scott deconstructs a false alternative of violent protest or ready compliance. Scott’s work exposes the inadequacies of the view that since Jesus did not advocate open revolt, the Gospels are “apolitical” or “politically indifferent” or “spiritual” (Horsley 2004).

Scott argues that more often in peasant societies, resistance is expressed not through violence but in more covert, self-protective, and calculated ways, taking the form of disguised and low profile resistance. Disguised forms of resistance to material domination may involve pilfering, foot dragging, poaching, and cheating on taxes. Disguised forms of resistance to status domination comprise non-expressions of honor (a sneer, no greeting), anger, subversive songs or stories, rumors, and disarming acts of seizing initiative from the powerful like carrying a soldier’s pack farther than the stipulated mile, or handing over one’s garments to expose the harshness of the powerful one’s demand (Matt 5:38–42). Disguised forms of resistance to ideological domination involve the development of a dissident subculture such as millennial religions (the eschatological expectations in Paul and the Gospels), social banditry, or world-upside-down imagery. Scott argues that where there is autonomous space away from the always-controlling eyes of the elite, non-elites nurture alternative versions of reality or hidden transcripts. These hidden transcripts of counter-ideology contest and negate the elite’s dominant public version, assert the honor and dignity of the powerless, keep alive hopes and visions of different forms of societal interaction, imagine another world, and legitimize self-protective (and occasionally publicly rupturing) forms of dissent.

In Scott’s terms, the Gospel stories of Jesus crucified by Rome, raised by God, and returning in power, can be seen as alternative transcripts that expose the limits of Roman power and contest (even while they also imitate) the public transcript, or elite, “official,” normalizing view of reality. Jesus articulates and enacts a transcript of the empire of God that condemns imperial domination, repairs its damage through Jesus’s healings, exorcisms, and feedings, and imitatively anticipates the establishment of God’s justice. Jesus exemplifies the politics of disguise and anonymity, notably through his proclamation and demonstrations of the rumor of God’s imminent removal of Rome’s world and establishment of God’s empire. The Gospels also recognize that Jesus occasionally ruptures the political order with direct challenges to the ruling powers (the temple attack) who respond by executing him.

The disputed and diverse multidisciplinary discipline of postcolonial studies also focuses on the exercise and effects of imperial power in relation to race, ethnicity, hybridity, marginality, and diaspora. According to R. S. Sugirtharajah (1998, p. 17), postcolonial studies unmask and resist the complex assertions and reassertions of imperial power, while also imagining and structuring an alternative world. Edward Said has emphasized a “contrapuntal reading” of imperial sources that engages both official and resistant discourse, especially the interactions between the two (1993, p. xxv). To do so means a refusal to accept colonialist readings as the definitive depiction of the past and present, and an embracing of hitherto silenced voices of subordinated groups with their experiences of marginalization, hybridity, and new identity.

Empire Studies and Contemporary Readers.

Empire studies or imperial-critical work employ such approaches to recognize that the NT texts and the early Christian movement emerge from a world of Roman imperial control. Neither the texts nor the movement were narrowly religious, isolated from sociopolitical, economic, and cultural life, but were embedded in and engaged with the imperial world. This approach brings the imperial context and content to the fore in order to identify the interaction with the pervasive Roman imperial world portrayed in the NT texts and practiced in daily lives by Jesus-followers. To address this issue, ES employ historical, classical, and archeological studies of the Roman imperial world, as well as cross-cultural anthropological models of empires. They also employ other approaches such as people’s history, anthropological, and postcolonial studies to elaborate the experience of powerless non-elites.

Such exploration is both historical and contemporary work. The attempt to determine the texts’ and movement’s interactions with the Roman world enables the evaluation of the influence of these texts on the interactions of subsequent readers with imperial and ruling powers. This work raises questions for contemporary readers, especially those of Christian communities, about the neocolonial structures, visions, and interactions of our own world. Some have criticized ES for not engaging these contemporary issues enough (Fiorenza 2007, pp. 2–7). Others have seen a focus on the ancient world and a neglect of contemporary social structures as a point of differentiation between ES and postcolonial studies. Moore elevates the latter while castigating Empire studies for (supposedly) evading difficult contemporary disparities of power by its focus on the past (Moore 2011, p. 22). Moore, though, does concede that ES are “not without teeth” in wrestling with the question as to whether biblical texts can be said to resist empire. Others have seen postcolonial studies as an umbrella entity engaging imperial power across a vast spectrum of human history involving the ancient world, reception histories, and the contemporary world (Segovia 2005, pp. 64–76). This vast spectrum necessitates selective attention, with ES more often examining the negotiation of imperial structures in the text’s originating circumstances rather than in contemporary reception. This focus, however, does not mean indifference to contemporary issues. It is undeniable that ES have pioneered investigations of NT texts in ways that have been accessible to contemporary readers. In doing so, ES have raised important questions about the origins and interpretations of these important texts, as well as posing for contemporary audiences, especially ecclesial and seminary communities, important questions about the challenges, benefits, and victims of contemporary imperial power. Unencumbered by some types of theoretical discussions that have often obfuscated postcolonial work, and marked by a constant attention on biblical texts, ES have created space for contemporary audiences to be aware of, engage, and evaluate contemporary neo-imperial realities. Empire studies have fostered readings of the biblical writings in relation to the worlds from which they have emerged and in which they are engaged, focusing attention on interactions between the NT texts and the power dynamics and societal structures of empires, ancient and contemporary.



  • Carr, David M., and Colleen M. Conway, An Introduction to the Bible: Sacred Texts and Imperial Contexts. Malden, Mass.: Wiley, 2010. An introductory exploration of the interaction between the Biblical writings and contexts of empire.
  • Carter, Warren. “The Gospel of Matthew.” In A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament, edited by Fernando Segovia and R. Sugirtharajah, 69–104. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2007.
  • Carter, Warren. “Matthew: Empire, Synagogues, and Horizontal Violence.” In Mark and Matthew 1: Comparative Readings: Understanding the Earliest Gospels in their First-Century Settings, edited by Eve-Marie Becker and Anders Runesson, 285–308. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 271; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011. Argues that conflicts between/within synagogues and Jesus-believers are examples of horizontal violence precipitated by vertical imperial pressure.
  • Carter, Warren. The Roman Empire and the New Testament. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 2006. Introductory discussion of structures of Rome’s empire and ways in which NT writings negotiate them.
  • Conway, Colleen. Behold the Man: Jesus and Greco-Roman Masculinity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Examines presentation of Jesus in relation to (elite) constructions of masculinity in the Roman Empire.
  • Deissmann, Adolf. Light from the Ancient East. The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World. London and New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910.
  • Duling, Dennis. “Empire: Theories, Methods, Models.” In The Gospel of Matthew in Its Roman Imperial Context, edited by John Riches and David Sim, 49–74. Journal for the Study of the New Testament: Supplement Series 276. London: T.&T. Clark, 2005. Important discussion of social-science theories and models of empires.
  • Horsley, Richard A, ed. Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1997.
  • Horsley, Richard A., ed. Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2000.
  • Horsley, Richard A., ed. Paul and the Roman Imperial Order. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2003.
  • Horsley, Richard A., ed. Hidden Transcripts and the Arts of Resistance: Applying the Work of James C. Scott to Jesus and Paul. Semeia 48. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004.
  • Horsley, Richard A., ed. Christian Origins. A People’s History of Christianity. Vol. 1. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005.
  • Horsley, Richard A., ed. In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2008. Series of articles examining interactions with empires across the biblical writings.
  • Howard-Brooks, Wes, and A. Gwyther. Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1999. Important study of the Book of Revelation and the Roman Empire.
  • Huskinson, Janet, ed. Experiencing Rome: Culture, Identity, and Power in the Roman Empire. London: Routledge/Open University, 2000. Excellent collection of articles about Roman culture, identity, and power.
  • Kautsky, John H. The Politics of Aristocratic Empires. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982. Important analysis of imperial systems.
  • Lenski, Gerhard. Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Provides an influential social-scientific model of empires, and engages the central question of “who gets what and how?”
  • Moore, Stephen D. Empire and Apocalypse: Postcolonial Studies and New Testament Studies. The Bible in the Modern World Series. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006.
  • Moore, Stephen D. “Metonymies of Empire: Sexual Humiliation and Gender Masquerade in the Book of Revelation.” In Postcolonial Interventions, edited by Tat-siong Benny Liew, 71–97. The Bible in the Modern World, 23. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009. Explores the presentation of Rome as a woman in Revelation in relation to the cult of the goddess Roma.
  • Moore, Stephen D. “Paul after Empire.” In The Colonized Apostle: Paul through Postcolonial Eyes, edited by Christopher D. Stanley, 9–23. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011.
  • Moore, Stephen D. “Revelation.” In A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings, edited by Fernando F. Segovia and R. S. Sugirtharajah, 436–454. The Bible and Postcolonialism Series. New York: T.&T. Clark International, 2007.
  • Moore, Stephen D. “War Making Men Making War: The Performance of Masculinity in the Revelation to John.” In The Apocalyptic Imagination: Aesthetics and Ethics at the End of the World, edited by S. Brent Plate, 84–94. Glasgow: Trinity St. Mungo Press, 1999.
  • Moore, Stephen D. and Janice Capel Anderson, editors. New Testament Masculinities. Semeia Studies 45; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003. Important study on presentations of masculinity in the Roman Empire and NT texts.
  • Morley, Neville. The Roman Empire: Roots of Imperialism. London: PlutoPress, 2010. Analysis of Roman power, especially attentive to its impact and victims.
  • “New Testament and Roman Empire.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 59 (2005) Nos. 3–4.
  • Oakes, Peter. “Re-mapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27 (2005): 301–22.
  • Perdue, Leo. Israel and Empire: A Postcolonial History of Israel and Early Judaism. London: Continuum, 2012. Employs postcolonial perspectives and insights in an analysis of Israel’s interactions with a succession of empires.
  • Pilgrim, Walter E. Uneasy Neighbors: Church and State in the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999.
  • Portier-Young, Anathea. Apocalypse against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2011. Focuses on the Seleucid domination of Judea and apocalyptic theologies of resistance.
  • Rhoads, David, David Esterline, and Jae Won Lee, eds. Luke-Acts and Empire: Essays in Honor of Robert L. Brawley. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2011. Important set of essays focusing on Luke-Acts.
  • Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Random House, 1993. Very influential contribution from a leading postcolonial and cultural critic.
  • Sanders, Ernest P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985.
  • Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. The Power of the Word: Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.
  • Scott, James. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990. Influential work on the many ways the powerless dissent from and resist oppressive power.
  • Scott, James. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.
  • Segovia, Fernando. “Mapping the Postcolonial Optic in Biblical Criticism: Meaning and Scope.” In Postcolonial Biblical Criticism: Interdisciplinary Intersections, edited by Stephen Moore and Fernando Segovia, 23–78. London: T.&T. Clark, 2005.
  • Stendahl, Krister. “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” Harvard Theological Review 56 (1963): 199–215.
  • Sugirtharajah, R. S. Asian Biblical Hermeneutics and Postcolonialism: Contesting the Interpretations. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1998.
  • Thompson, Leonard. The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Walton, Steve. “The State They Were In: Luke’s View of the Roman Empire.” In Rome in the Bible and the Early Church, edited by Peter Oakes, 1–41. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2002. Helpful classification of diverse views on Luke-Acts’ engagement with Roman power.

Warren Carter