Like many “isms,” postcolonialism pursues a particular grievance—the impact of European colonialism. The mention of postcolonialism raises the spectre of empire, conquest, slavery, racism, sexism, and orientalism, and it is seen as being implicitly critical. Postcolonialism, at its simplest, can be seen in two ways. One is historical, marking the dismantling of the empire and its attendant instruments of power; and the other is an intellectual project that searches for “alternative sources, alternative readings, alternative presentation of evidence” (Viswanathan 2001, p. 222). In the latter sense, it pays much attention to the intricate relations between the native and invader societies and cultures, wrestles with questions of identity and representation, and invests much in theories of indigeneity and diaspora. In this sense, essentially, postcolonialism identifies the dominant power, exposes it, and engages critically with it.

Empires and colonization—that is, the control of another people by power and force—have existed in all historical periods. Current postcolonial study began its career by investigating the modern colonization, which started with the European conquest of overseas countries in the sixteenth century and culminated in the nineteenth century. This subjugation was unique in its scope, scale, and style, and its cultural and political reverberations are still with us. Later, the same scrutiny was extended to other empires and other forms of colonization.

Postcolonial theory, like any critical category, has evolved over the years (see Ato Quayson, Postcolonialism: Theory, Practice or Process? [Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000]; Nicholas Postcolonial Criticism, History, Theory and the Work of Fiction [Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003]; Justin D. Edwards, Postcolonial Literature: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism [Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008]; Ania Loomba, Suvir Kaul and Bunzl Matti, eds. Postcolonial Studies and Beyond [Durham: Duke University Press, 2005]). The initial, primary phase consisted of textual analysis dense with new theoretical categories. This gave way to conceptual and disciplinary challenges posed by globalization, environmentalism, religious fundamentalism, and terrorism. The current phase confronts the contemporary neo-imperial practices of market economy and humanitarian intervention—the new form of the “White man’s burden” assumed on behalf of humanity. A new class of politicians, bureaucrats, corporate entrepreneurs, disaster-experts, and the like takes upon itself the task of civilizing and developing the uncivilized and underdeveloped. A noticeable example is that of Western trauma experts parachuting into disaster areas like the Asian tsunami and the Haiti earthquake. In the name of humanistic intervention, Western solutions are applied to health and psychological problems that could have been solved by indigenous resources (O’Hara 2011, p. 5). Postcolonialism has opened up a metropolitan canon dominated by English, French, and Spanish texts, to include literature produced in Swahili, Hindi, Chinese, Tamil, and so on. It has now come to embrace a larger set of conceptual and ideological positions and interests. It has also moved from the earlier hostile Occident-Orient binary division to cross-cultural contact and dialogue between the once colonized and the colonizer.

The nature of colonialism has also changed. External colonialism has been replaced by an internal type. Initially imperialism was an overseas venture and a European mercantile project procuring luxury goods for the aristocracy from foreign lands, later becoming a nationalist project where the economic benefits began to reach the working class. Now colonialism has turned inwards and the post-independence nationalist governments wage war against their own civilians, grabbing the lands, minerals, and other indigenous resources in the name of developing them.

Postcolonial Preoccupations.

Like many critical theories, postcolonialism reached biblical studies late in the 1990s. (See Fernando Segovia, Decolonizing the Biblical Studies: A View from the Margins [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000]; Musa W. Dube, Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible [St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000]; R. S. Sugirtharajah, The Bible and the Third World: Precolonial, Colonial and Postcolonial Encounters [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001]; Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002]; Postcolonial Reconfigurations: An Alternative Way of Reading the Bible and Doing Theology [London: SCM Press, 2003]; The Bible and Empire: Postcolonial Explorations [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005]; Exploring Postcolonial Biblical Criticism: History, Method, Practice [Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012]; and Stephen D. Moore and Fernando F. Segovia, eds. Postcolonial Biblical Criticism: Interdisciplinary Intersections [London: T&T Clark, 2005]). The academic climate of the time played a critical role. Postcolonial biblical criticism was an inevitable progression from the then prevailing interpretative practices that went under the name of contextual, vernacular, or liberation hermeneutics. While these interpretative approaches were rightly preoccupied with questions of economic exploitation and victimhood, postcolonialism was able to add another increasingly problematic issue—the cultural implications of living in diverse religious and racial communities in a globalized society. This was also the time when the biblical “orient” was re-discovered by those biblical scholars, especially in America, who were trying to apply social-science and anthropological approaches to biblical texts. In their attempt to wrestle with and give a form to the biblical orient, these scholars unwittingly regurgitated the old Orientalist stereotypes, thus forcing those from the Orient to investigate both the Orient itself and the Orientalist practices of these biblical scholars.

Postcolonial biblical criticism has several textual functions. Firstly, it pays attention to the presence of the empires of the biblical world. The ancient Israelites were under the control of the Egyptian empire. The Judean scribes, priests, and prophets, who shaped the Pentateuch and prophetic books of the Hebrew Scriptures, were confronted with Persian and Assyrian empires. The books of the New Testament emerged during the Roman empire. In studying the Bible, a postcolonial critic interrogates the texts with a series of questions such as: How are these imperial powers portrayed? Do the biblical authors support or challenge them? Where does their allegiance lie—with the subjugated people or the dominating power? Secondly, it asks how, in their examination of biblical texts, biblical commentators interpret these empires? Do they support or oppose them? How do they represent the “other”? What kind of oriental images appear in their work? Do they unwittingly re-orientalize the orient? Thirdly, it examines the role played by the Bible in colonial expansion and its veneration and degradation in the colonies. Fourthly, it engages in a work of retrieval. This involves (a) bringing to the fore forgotten, sidelined, and often maligned biblical figures and texts; (b) reclaiming the resistant literature of the ‘natives’ themselves as they talk back to the master using the very texts provided by them; and (c) recovering the hermeneutical work of a few missionaries and Orientalists who, though invariably compromised with the ideals of empire, were at the same time ambivalent about its usefulness Fifthly, it pays scholarly attention to Bible translation projects and their positive and negative contributions to indigenous languages. Finally, it addresses issues which have arisen in the aftermath of colonialism—migration, multiculturalism, nationhood, and diaspora.

Postcolonial biblical criticism has a number of allies that share its concerns. One of these is Feminism. (For examples of postcolonial feminist biblical reading, see Musa W. Dube, Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible [St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000]; Judith E. McKinlay, Reframing Her: Biblical Women in Postcolonial Focus [Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2004]; and Caroline Vander Stichele and Todd Penner, eds. Her Master’s Tools? Feminist and Postcolonial Engagements of Historical-Critical Discourse [Leiden: Brill, 2005]). While both oppose hierarchical and patriarchal systems and resist the political, economic, and cultural nature of colonialism, feminists point to the sexual character of colonialism and the supremacy of male power and authority. Another ally is Queer studies. Both recognize the struggles and stigmatization of the ‘other,’ and the hegemonic power of heterosexism and homophobia, and are involved in rethinking the conventional societal patterns and often present positions on behalf of the “othered.” (See Jeremy Punt, “Queer Theory Intersecting with Postcolonial Theory in Biblical Interpretation,” The CSSR Bulletin 35 [2] [April 2006]: pp. 30–34; “Intersections in Queer Theory and Postcolonial Theory, and Hermeneutical Spin-Offs,” The Bible and Critical Theory 4 [2] [2008]: pp. 24.1–24.16; see John C Hawley, ed., Postcolonial, Queer: Theoretical Intersections [Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001]).

A New Reading Practice.

One of the reading practices which postcolonialism can claim as a major contribution to reading strategies is contrapuntal reading. This is the re-reading of the approved sources and documents in conjunction with other texts. The aim is not to downgrade or disparage, or replace the former with the once marginalized texts as a revisionist reading would encourage. It is rather to question and expose some of the cultural, racial, and “oriental” suppositions of mainstream discourse with alternative texts and experiences. At its simplest, it makes connections between texts. As Edward Said explained, its function is to “read what is there or not there, above all, to see complementarity and interdependence instead of isolated, venerated, or formalized experience that excludes and forbids the hybridizing intrusions of human history” (Said, 1993 p. 115). It not a matter of one text incorporating another, but of allowing dissident voices to dialogue with the governing discourse with a view to relativizing it. The object is to read a variety of texts in juxtaposition in order to facilitate the interpretative process. Contrapuntal reading creates, as Said puts it, an “atonal ensemble.” It constitutes a polyphony rather than a symphony. (For how contrapuntal reading works in biblical studies, see Alissa Jones Nelson, Power and Responsibility in Biblical Interpretation: Reading the Book of Job with Edward Said [Sheffield: Equinox Publishing, 2012]; and Sugirtharajah 2012, 143–52.)

Empire Studies and Postcolonial Biblical Criticism.

Recently a new disciplinary division has emerged under the name of Empire Studies. Such studies arose mainly in the USA at a time when American hegemony was unsurpassed. The literature is voluminous, and includes Richard Horsley, ed. Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl, (Harrisburg, Pa: Trinity Press International, 2000); Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2003); John Dominic Crossan, God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007); Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper, 1994); and Warren Carter, Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2001); The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press. 2006); John and Empire: Initial Explorations (New York: T&T Clark, 2008). There is one common interest among those who practice postcolonial biblical criticism and empire studies. Both go beyond reading the biblical texts exclusively as intra-religious documents and view them as the literary products of empires, to be read over against Assyrian, Babyonian, Persian, and Roman imperial history.

Besides this shared aspiration, there are a number of differences. Empire studies largely uses historical-criticism and still work under the illusion of detached scholarship. The motivation for such work is not colonial or postcolonial concerns, nor are its investigations spurred on by colonial discourse analysis, but, largely, as a “consequence of new archaeological and epigraphic discoveries” (Harry O Maier, “A Sly Civility: Colossians and Empire,” The Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27/ 3 [2005], 323). A further spur is the American experience of the attack. In situating the New Testament in the Roman imperial context, one can see roughly four positions emerging. One is that the New Testament is not an anti-imperial text and not in conflict with Roman ideology (Mark).

A second, in the face of Roman supremacy, accommodates the message of Jesus as a religious reformer rather than as a political agitator (Luke). A third is critical of the imperial power, but the anti-Roman rhetoric is camouflaged in a series of visions and images set in an imaginary universe and invites readers to recognize themselves in the ongoing battle between good and evil (Revelation). (For explication of these positions, see Werner H. Kelber, “Roman Imperialism and Early Christian Scribality” in The Postcolonial Biblical Reader, R. S. Sugirtharajah, ed. [Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. 2006], 96–111.)

A fourth offers an alternative to the imperial power—Christ’s rule replaces Caesar’s rule. Those who opt for this last category argue that the politically charged imperial language is borrowed and adapted in order to describe the triumph of Christ (Harry O. Maier, “A Sly Civility: Colossians and Empire,” The Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27 [2005] 323–49). Christ’s rule is described as incorporating all humanity and providing peace and prosperity to the people. Christ’s work is described as a universal reconciliation brought about by the death of Christ on the cross. This reign brings together every ethnic, national, and religious group, not through the Roman idea of the sword but through sacrifice and love. These studies acknowledge that at the heart of the Roman empire is its “imperial theology,” which proclaims the emperor as not only divine but also as the prince of peace. This, however, is a peace built on conquest and compulsion, whereas there is another empire, also ruled by a prince of peace, but his peace comes with love and justice. It is this kingdom that one should advocate. Humankind is freed from one subjection and put under another, as it submits itself to the love of Christ.

Empire studies is largely risk-averse and concentrates on imperial cult and idolatry, and engages in philological discussion on words like arché (rule), exousia (authority), dynamis (power), and basileu (rule). There is a refusal and reluctance among its practitioners to consider the political implications of such studies. As with traditional historical critics, the ideological stance of the interpreter is rarely revealed. These scholars, largely white Americans, ceaselessly talk about the impact of, for instance, the imperial cult in the Mediterranean world, but shy away from discussing the implications for the contemporary world. Most of them avoid raising disturbing questions on the role of the US in imperial expansion. Rare exceptions here are Norman Gottwald (“Early Israel as an Anti-Imperial Community,” in In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance, edited by Richard A Horsley [Louisville Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008], pp. 9–24; and in that same book edited by Richard Horsley pp. 1–8, pp. 75–96).

Empire studies is marked by two characteristics. One is that some of its practitioners project the church as an alternative to the empire. They are deeply concerned about the church and its message of the kingdom of God. The concluding sentence in Dominic Crossan’s book God & Empire illustrates this: “In the challenge of Christian faith, we are called to cooperate in establishing the Kingdom of God in a transformed earth. In the challenge of human evolution, we are called to Post-Civilization, to imagine it, to create it, and to enjoy it on a transfigured earth” (p. 242). The other characteristic is that those who practice Empire Studies are, like any revisionist movement, in the business of rescuing the text from its tainted colonial uses and presenting it is anti-imperial. As Roland Boer put it, the whole enterprise is “a deeply confessional effort” and, to this, one could add it has a hint of Christian triumphalism.

Biblical Scholarship and Orientalism.

The emergence of biblical criticism is complicated. The popular perception is that it was Protestant Christianity and the Enlightenment ideals which led to the development of the field. But there are two other factors that are often overlooked. One is that biblical studies emerged at a time when Europe was gaining economic and political ascendancy on a global scale. This provided an opportunity to obtain, along with spices and cotton, a large number of Oriental texts from Egypt, India, and China which challenged the uniqueness of the Bible, its chronology, and its historical authenticity. A second is that it evolved in Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century in the field of theology where theology was a sub-speciality discipline of Oriental studies. This was the time when Europe’s understanding of the Orient was being shaped. The work and motivation of the Orientalists is a complex one. Was it simply a scholarly venture or in part political? Although there was a genuine interest among the European Orientalists in looking for spiritual and intellectual information in the East, the debate continues as to whether they were not also providing data that supported imperial policies.

Orientalism may not have been motivated by imperial policy, but what it did was to classify the “other” in ways that facilitated conquest. Even Suzanne Marchand, who had questioned Said’s link between knowledge production and imperial power, has conceded such a connection. Even though Oriental scholarship developed before Germany had any imperial ambitions, later, when it began to join the imperial race, it, too, Marchand admits, used Oriental scholarship to aid collaboration with the Ottomans and to “acquire colonies in Africa, in the Pacific, and in China” (Suzanne L. Marchand, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009], 158).

Biblical scholars who worked under the aegis of Oriental studies saw the Old Testament and the New Testament as Oriental scriptures worthy of study. Adolf Deissmann called the New Testament the “book of the East,” and, more pertinently, characterized Jesus and Paul as “sons of the East.” Much of the Orientalist project was concerned with Christianity’s early relationship with Judaism and cultural and theological aspects of the Middle East. As participants in Oriental studies, these biblical critics shared such earlier marks of Orientalism as treating the Orient as static, reducing culture to certain essentials, and contrasting people as “us” and “them.”

It was these scholars who schematized the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and privileged Greek philosophy and culture. Their work led to the creation of a binary perception of the Jews and Greeks—Jews as primitive, poetical, and pragmatic, the Greeks as sophisticated, rational, and judicious. Jewish and Christian faith were framed similarly. The former was seen as primitive, provincial, morally low, and ritualistic, whereas the later was seen as progressive, universal, cerebral, and morally superior. These typecasts enabled and encouraged later biblical scholars to come up with their own tendentious pigeonholing of the “other” (see Marchand, chapter 3).

Orientalist impulses continue, especially among some biblical scholars who apply social–scientific and anthropological methods in their work. Unlike the earlier Orientalists who showed little interest in the contemporary East and were concerned only with ancient cultures, some modern day scholars are interested in highlighting a contemporary East/West divide. For instance, commenting on Jesus’s refusal to accept the drink on the cross, John Pilch remarks that this action “stands in contrast to mainstream US citizens who seek alleviation for pain” (Pilch, Introducing the Cultural Context of the New Testament: Hear the Word, Vol. 2 [New York: Paulist Press, 1991], p. 217).

The Christian Bible and Colonizing Tendencies.

In their attempt to situate the Bible in its various imperial contexts, interpreters often overlook the colonialist character of the Christian Bible. The New Testament writings are a striking example of persistent seizure of other peoples’ gods and theological tenets. While some Jewish ideas were taken over, others were denied any continuing legitimacy or efficacy. The Christian Bible not only took over the God of the Jews, their prophets, and their sacred books, but also incorporated basic theological tenets of Judaism—the chosen people of God, salvation, eschatology, the concept of the Messiah, the suffering servant. In doing so, it claimed that its interpretation was accurate, effective, and final. In the colonizing imagination, the ideas and resources of other people belong to those who are best able to exploit them. There are many such requisitions by the New Testament writers which radically transform these Jewish concepts. A conspicuous case in point is the way the concept of the Messiah was reconfigured by the early Christains: among the Jews there was a wide range of ideas and expectations about the concept of the Messiah. These images of the Messiah, depending on the religious and political needs of the time, included being a king, priest, prophet, the one hidden and unrecognized, and the Messiah who would be slain on an eschatological battlefield (Jacob Neusner, William S. Green, and Ernest Frerichs, eds., Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987]).

These varied images were replaced with one final and fixed understanding of the Messiah whose theological properties were unrelated to the prevalent perceptions of the anticipated savior. In order to appeal to the Gentiles, Paul tweaks the existing expectations of the Messiah, going beyond the conventional notions. Among the New Testament writers, it is Paul who uses the word Christos most. The conferring of the title was shaped by the death and the resurrection of the historical Jesus. The resurrection was understood as the beginning of the eschatological act of the raising of the dead. In envisioning Jesus as the Messianic leader ushering in the end, Paul went beyond “the concept of Messiah as traditionally known” (George MacRae, “Messiah and Gospel,” in Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, ed. MacRae, 172). No Jew would recognize what Paul was saying about Jesus: he created a wholly new definition of the Messiah, something that few or no Jews recognized. A variety of earlier images were made redundant and Paul introduced a fixed content to the term.

In the history of religion, it is the Christian faith that has relentlessly summoned the principal themes of other peoples’ religious ideas and transformed them for its own purposes. In doing so, it has simultaneously disallowed the abiding spiritual strength these precepts have provided to those to whom they belonged, and contended that their reading is true and valid. No other religion has engaged in such a colonization of other peoples’ beliefs and doctrines. The Buddha incorporated a number of brahmanical ideas, but the Buddhist scriptures that record the Buddha’s thinking never claimed that they superseded the Hindu Vedas. These hermeneutical practices of the New Testament writers show that other peoples’ heritage and resources are treated as potential sites for the realization of Christian beliefs.

Colonialism is not simply restricted to the actual domination of another country. A comparable impulse can be seen in the way a dominating personality tries to control others. The obvious example is Paul. In his letters, he is very assertive and domineering. He demands absolute obedience in a number of ways. Firstly, he interlinks his faith and belief in God to instil submission: “And we have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you are doing and will go on doing the things that we command” (2 Thess 3:4). Secondly, Paul gains his authority by identifying himself with Christ and his death: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Such an identification in the eyes of his admirers makes Paul equal to Christ and creates difficulties for his congregation to oppose his authority. Thirdly, the churches he established were manipulated by the self-esteem of the founder and deceived into submission by false privileges. The following verse is characteristic of Paul: “with such yearning love we chose to impart to you not only the gospel of God but our very selves, so dear had you become to us” (1 Thess 2:8). He demands compliance and surrender. Fourthly, this submission is solicited through a mixture of disclaim and granting of status to himself. In the first letter to the Corinthians, he begins with modesty and humility, and disowns any eloquence and articulation. He tells them that when he came to them he did not have any lofty words or wisdom: “And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor 2:3). Then suddenly the message changes and he asserts his authority. “But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (1 Cor 2:7). Fifthly, subordination is achieved through urging his followers to imitate him. Paul often offers himself as an example to be followed by his congregations (2 Thess 3:7).

Elizabeth Castelli has shown how Paul uses the language of imitation as a powerful tool. Such language “identifies the fundamental value” of Paul’s own privileged position in relation to the “gospel, the Christian communities he founded and supervises, and Christ himself” (Castelli, Imitating Paul: A Discourse of Power [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991], 87). To go against what the apostle stands for is virtually to stand against Christ. What Paul does is to use the gospel of freedom and reconciliation to mask aggressive self-assertion. The conformity he insists upon makes criticism impossible. Internal critique and debate are ruled out by appealing to his bearing bodily the brand marks of Jesus. Paul’s branded body becomes both a token of his authority and a shield against opposition: “Let no one make trouble for me” (Gal 6:17).

The colonialist tendencies of the Bible are evident in its promotion of a single religion and culture. It tends to oppose social and cultural diversity—realties of a postcolonial condition. It encourages the collapse of ethnic differences and encourages conformity under Christ’s headship. Although the Bible emerged out of multicultural contexts there is no evidence of its supporting diversity and plurality. Paul, who himself was a product of diverse cultures, advises his converts that if possible they should refrain from mixing socially and culturally with the non-believing Gentiles. For Paul, these Gentiles are “slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil (Rom 1:30).” They commit all kinds of sexual transgressions. Their heinous traits include envy, deceit, malice, insolence, covetousness, malignity, haughtiness, and boasting. They are generally foolish, heartless, and ruthless (Rom 1:28–32 cf. also 1 Cor 5:9–13). In this context, the term “Gentile,” like the colonialist “Paki” and “Nigger,” is a term of abuse for Paul. He accuses Peter of being a Jew living like a Gentile and readily equates Gentiles with “sinners” (Gal 2:14–15). Equally he is scathing about Gentile piety. His savage comments should be seen against what he has to say about Christian devotion. Christians (in this case, Gentiles who believe in Paul’s message) are people of God who serve “a living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9), whereas others are idol worshippers blinded by the god of the world (2 Cor 4:4).

On reading Paul one gets the impression that he often viewed those who were not part of his community as lesser human beings and sometimes even worse. If the meat offered to idols is to be served at public banquets or private homes and this is going to cause a problem to the young in faith, then keep away from such occasions (1 Cor 8:1–13; 10:22–23). If a spouse who is not a Christian wants a separation, “let it be so” (1 Cor 7:15). To his Thessalonian readers, Paul says “live quietly” and “mind your own affairs” (1 Thess 4:11). Paul’s attitude to non-Christians is summed up in the words he quotes from Isaiah. He wrote to the Corinthians: “Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them says the Lord, touch nothing unclean” (2 Cor 6:17). Since the ways of the Gentiles are to a larger extent corrupt and polluted, social integration with them is not merely inadvisable, but even impossible for the newly converted. The simple message was that the followers of Jesus should not live as the non-believing Gentiles do.

There are friendly references to the Gentiles but this is conditional upon their submission to the gospel. They have followed the examples of the converted and have turned from idols “to serve a living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9). Those who have not, are seen as given over to lust and drunkenness (1 Thess 4:5; 5:7). Given such a view of the entire non-Christian world, the occasional references to showing love to them lack conviction (1 Thess 3:1; 5:15).

The traditional and popular image of Paul is that he supported and encouraged multicultural, multi-religious communities. As evidence of this, the famous passage from his Galatians letter is routinely cited: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” ( 3:28). A closer reading will reveal that what Paul envisaged here was not equality but inclusion by the dissolving of all cultural and racial specificities. To borrow a phrase from Daniel Boyarin, what Paul had in mind was “identicalness” or “coercive sameness” (Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994], p. 236). Such a melting down of various differences was the result of Paul’s passionate desire that humanity be One under the sign of One God. As Boyarin put it: “For Paul, the only possibility for human equality involved human sameness. Difference was the threat” (ibid., p. 156). Differences must be erased for the sake of harmony and order. Paul’s apparent tolerance “deprives difference of the right to be different, dissolving all others into a single essence in which matters of cultural practice are irrelevant and only faith in Christ is significant” (ibid., p. 9). Paul’s colonialist intentions are unambiguous in this statement: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph 4:5, 6). Such a hard-line approach rules out any possibility of pluralism or diversity. Paul’s vision of the unity of humankind under the headship of Christ serves to nullify and discredit other voices. This leads conveniently to our next point.

The concept of the cosmic Christ enshrined in the letters of Paul, especially in Colossians, is another case of colonial intention. The classical marks of colonialism can be seen in Paul’s threefold description: the enthronement of the exalted Christ who “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col 2:15); the worldwide proclamation of the gospel; and the incorporation of humankind into the “kingdom of his beloved son” (Col 1:13). Such an image is very well suited to the imperial dominion of a Christian empire, and history has shown how the admirers of empires and emperors have reminted this image to validate the imperial idea that it is “in the monarchs of this earth that Christ as a ‘heavenly monarch’ was considered to be manifested and revealed” (Saúl Trinidad, “Christology, Conquista, Colonization,” in Faces of Jesus: Latin American Christologies, edited by Jose Miguez Bonino [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983], p. 52). There are examples from antiquity to modern empires. Eusebius, the church historian, hailed Constantine as the earthly representative of Christ who, like Christ himself, overcame pagan religions and extended the Christian empire to include the Greeks and the barbarians. Constantine, in the words of Eusebius, “graced by his heavenly favor with victory over all his foes, subdues and chastens the open adversaries of the truth in accordance with the usages of war” (Oratio II, p. 4; see IV, p. 2). During the Spanish conquistador days, the royal pair Ferdinand and Isabella were seen as the celestial representation of Christ and Mary. They were glorified as “lord and master” and “lady and mistress.” Their portraits were framed with gold and had halos. Those who venerated the image of Christ were in fact honoring and accepting “the earthly representative of these glorified beings” (Trinidad, p. 52).

The Future of Postcolonial Criticism.

Postcolonialism has produced a whole host of phrases that no interpreter can ignore today: “Orientalism,” “knowledge and power,” “third space” (an ambivalent and contradictory state which has the ability to traverse and transcend both vernacular and metropolitan cultures), “hybridity” (cultural exchange which disrupts the culture and language of the colonizer and the colonized while mediating both affinity and difference), “interrelated histories” (histories that go beyond the ideological oppositions of East and West and see cultures, histories, and memories as intermingled and interdependent), and “speaking truth to power” (the intellectual’s role in questioning received histories). None of these concepts would have their current purchasing power if Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, and Gayatri Spivak—the supposed pioneers of the field—had not supplied their intellectual energy and achieved reputations.

Postcolonialism has its share of weaknesses and defects which have been well documented. Some of the oft-repeated accusations are that: it reinforces Western colonialism as the dominant experience, thus sidelining other experiences; it recycles the binary mode of production—colonial literary productions supplying the raw material and the West providing the vocabulary and criteria in the form of a neat theory; it depends excessively on Western theoreticians, is preoccupied with Western audiences, and is associated with expatriate academics whose credentials are open to question; it fails to engage with Marx; it is monotonous in its veneration of hybridity; its resistance discourse, bordering on triumphalism, is self-righteous in tone; by its dense style it distances the practitioners from the ordinary people whose interest it is supposed to serve; it is over-reliant on theory and acts of theorization. There is an element of truth in these accusations and, in the present writer’s opinion, the last of these is critical. If postcolonalism loses its ethical edge and political vigor in pursuit of theoretical finesse, its reason for existing is questionable.

What about the future of postcolonialism? Will it lose its usefulness as time goes on? Will it suffer from theory fatigue? Unlike other theories, postcolonial criticism does not depend on the whims and impulses of disciplinary fashions. Colonial impulse never goes away. The nature of colonialism may change but postcolonialism will have an important role to play as long as there are colonizing opportunities. As long as there are (a) markets to explore and exploit; (b) cultures which believe that their way of life is superior and that others should conform; and (c) sacred scriptures interpreted to promote the idea of an elected a chosen people of God and sanction conquest and conversion, postcolonialism will have a critical role to play.

Finally, the future utility of postcolonial criticism will not depend on the excellence of its theoretical framework. Its future lies in turning back to its earlier practice of producing imaginative literature where anti-colonial rhetoric first emerged and the study of historical texts. As Said has suggested, a historical study of the text is much more interesting than the “massive, intervening, institutionalized presence of theoretical discussion.” Historical textual studies facilitate many “more opportunities for genuine discovery” and make political and cultural issues “much clearer in terms of comparable issues in our times” (Power, Politics, and Culture, p. 216). It is both the creative literature and the study of these which can “dramatize oppositions, present the alternative voice” (Ibid., p. 223).



  • Dube, Musa W. Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice Press, 2000. Illustrates with biblical examples the intricate relationship between patriarchy and imperialism.
  • Liew, Tat-Siong Benny. Politics of Parousia: Reading Mark Inter(con)textually. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1999. Argues that Mark’s Gospel reinstates colonial ideology even as it tries to defy it.
  • Moore, Stephen D. and Fernando F. Segovia, eds. Postcolonial Biblical Criticism: Interdisciplinary Intersections. London: T&T Clark, 2005. Examines postcolonial biblical criticism from a number of important political and theoretical currents such as feminism, Marxism, and poststructuralism.
  • O’Hara, Mary. “Western Plague,” Society Guardian 6/4 (2011): 5.
  • Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto & Windus, 1993.
  • Segovia, Fernando and R. S. Sugirtharajah. The Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings. London: T&T Clark, 2007. Thematic commentary on each book of the Bible.
  • Sugirtharajah, R. S. The Bible and Empire: Postcolonial Explorations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Sugirtharajah, R. S. The Bible and the Third World: Precolonial, Colonial and Postcolonial Encounters. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Sugirtharajah, R. S. Exploring Postcolonial Biblical Criticism: History, Method, Practice. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. All these volumes offer a concise and multifaceted overview of the origins, development, and application of postcolonial criticism to biblical studies.
  • Sugirtharajah, R. S. Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Sugirtharajah, R. S. ed. The Postcolonial Bible, The Bible and Postcolonialism. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998. Interrogates colonial assumption embedded both in biblical texts and biblical interpretation.
  • Sugirtharajah, R. S. ed. The Postcolonial Biblical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. A collection of essays by the leading practitioners in the field. Assembled under four headings: “Theoretical practice,” “Empire Old and New,” “Empire and Exegesis,” and “Postcolonial concerns.”
  • Vuswanathan, Gauri. ed. Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said. New York: Pantheon Books, 2001.

R. S. Sugirtharajah