how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Review: Davina Lopez, Apostle to the Conquered

Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission, by Davina Lopez, is a good example of what has probably been the most significant turn that Pauline studies have taken following the New Perspective. As an overtly gender-critical analysis the book takes a step beyond the empire-critical work of scholars such as John Dominic Crossan, Richard Horsley, and Neil Elliott; but it operates, nevertheless, broadly from a theoretical position that has ‘rediscovered the Roman Empire as a world to which Paul responds’ (xii). The New Perspective has properly corrected the Western theological tradition’s preoccupation with the spiritual condition of the individual consciousness and a supposed anti-Jewish bias. But insofar as it still thinks of Paul’s ‘self-presentation and rhetoric as exclusively religious and theological’, it fails to take adequate account of the broader political questions of Jewish existence in an imperial context (122).

Lopez takes as her point of departure two classical images, one literary, the other sculptural. The first is taken from Suetonius’ account of Nero’s mental and political decline: in a dream he is ‘surrounded by the statues of the nations which had been dedicated in Pompey’s theatre and stopped in his tracks’ (Suet. Nero 46.1). The second is a relief sculpture from the imperial cult complex in Aphrodisias in Asia Minor, which shows the emperor Claudius subjugating the nation Britannia, depicted as a half-naked woman. Out of these Lopez creates a composite representation of the nations conquered and subsequently effeminized by Roman male power, and then asks what it would mean to examine Paul’s rhetoric in the light of this imagery. Paul’s ‘good news’ to the nations, she suggests, is that ‘they no longer are captive and enslaved to a victorious general or raped and killed by divine emperors, but are (re-)born as  children of Abraham and belong to the God who brought the Israelites (and others) out of Egypt’ (3).

At issue here, in the first place, is the sense that we give to ta ethnē – the ‘Gentiles’ or ‘nations’. Within the purview of contemporary New Testament scholarship the Gentiles are invariably construed non-sociologically and non-politically as peoples who are not adherents of the Jewish cult: ‘Gentiles do not have a real definition or substance of their own, except in relation to Jews and Israel’ (5). Even recent theological perspectives that have affirmed Paul’s essential Jewishness fail to consider the independent historical identity of ‘the nations’: ‘They exist only in an ideal theological other-world, where they are urged to become religious in the right way.

Normally speaking, within the closed symbolic world of the New Testament, images such as the sculptural depiction of Claudius and Britannia are permitted no significant interpretive function; but Lopez asks whether they might ‘tell us something about how to imagine the real world of the Pauline letters’. In opposition to the sort of ‘rational’ biblical scholarship that has generated ‘an ideal theological world, where there is no real context for Paul’s rhetoric besides personal religious piety and struggles over dogmatic correctness’, she describes a non-idealist hermeneutic that attempts to re-imagine Paul’s relationship with the Gentiles ‘through an examination of the ideology of conquest and universal domination in the Roman Empire’ (6). In other words, she wants to consider how Paul would appear to us if we considered ta ethnē in relation not to Jerusalem but to Rome – if we were to suppose that Nero’s nightmares about the insubordinate and obstructive nations were, in fact, of central symbolic relevance to Paul’s mission.

What she proposes is a ‘gender-critical re-imagination of Paul as apostle to the defeated nations as part of a non-idealist framework that draws on elements from contemporary empire-critical, postcolonial, feminist, and queer theoretical contributions’ (7). By ‘non-idealist’ she means an approach that obliges historical-criticism to take proper account, first, of the concrete social contexts of biblical texts (‘including political and economic structures, patterns of domination and subordination, and marginalization’) and, secondly, of the ‘wider variety of cultural artifacts’ by which a social context must be described. Moreover – and more urgently – a non-idealist reading is inherently liberationist in that it seeks to detach the Bible from interpretations ‘aligned with privilege, elitism, and imperialism that masquerade as value-neutral’ and which obscure the ‘gospel of the poor’ that is central to both the Old and the New Testaments. The empire-critical component is an extension of the non-idealist grounding of the text. The ‘New Testament is seen as a collection of documents demonstrating negotiation of and resistance to Roman imperial rule’ (9). Postcolonial analyses make a sharper, but for Lopez ambiguous, contribution. There is a repudiation of modern biblical exegesis as being ‘thoroughly implicated in the perpetuation of imperialism and colonialism’. But if the further conclusion is reached that the Bible itself endorses an inherently colonial project to dominate the world, ‘its texts and contradictions are rendered impotent for social transformation from the margins in the present’ (10). Finally, feminist and queer approaches put forward gender and sexuality as ‘useful optics for seeing more adequately the hierarchical relations of power operative in the Roman Empire of Paul’s time’ (15).

In light of these theoretical perspectives, Lopez argues that it is possible to ‘recontextualize, in a non-idealist way, the Gentiles and nations and position them as occupying the same semantic field as the poor and marginalized’. Paul then appears as apostle to the marginalized and the defeated, which connects with the ‘preferential option for the poor and marginalized at the core of the Bible’ (22). Within a Jewish framework the Gentiles are those peoples which are not Israel, and Paul’s mission appears as a struggle to ‘build different relationships’, subsuming both Jews and Gentiles under a common ancestor determined by his ‘trust’ in God. Within the framework of the Roman ‘imaginary’ or ideology, however, the fate of ta ethnē is to be ‘found, conquered, and incorporated into the Roman family through military violence and diplomacy, as well as subsequent enslavement and death’. From this perspective Israel is simply one among the many nations that have been subjugated by Roman military power (110-113). Indeed, Josephus has Agrippa warn the Jews that if they persist in their determination to go to war, the Romans will burn Jerusalem and destroy the nation in order to make of them ‘an example to other nations’ (Jos. War 2.397). In its apocalyptic resistance to empire Israel constitutes an outstanding instance of nationhood defined in relation to Rome. Lopez believes that the Jewish definition, drawn from the Septuagint usage, remains influential for Paul’s mission, but argues that in the process a re-mapping occurs so that in the end the good news that Paul proclaims to the nations may be construed from a quite different perspective: it is that the nations may be liberated from their enslavement to violent, exploitative imperialism through an alliance with liberated Israel on the basis of trust in God and inclusion in the multi-national family of Abraham.

It is an impressive thesis, but is there any evidence that the term is re-mapped in Paul to the extent that he understood himself as apostle to the nations as Rome’s other rather than as Israel’s other? Lopez puts forward two broad arguments. The first amounts to little more than a non-idealist inference: Paul was so exposed to and so fluent in the pervasive visual and literary narratives of Roman hegemony (described in detail in chapters two and three) that he was bound to have somewhat assimilated the reversed perspective on the nations that they entailed. The second argument has a more exegetical character. Lopez suggests that Paul’s conversion consisted of a radical shift of consciousness from violent persecutor to conquered Jew, from dominator to dominated, from ‘impenetrable masculinity to penetrable femininity’, and in that respect mirrored the relationship between Rome and the nations (124-137). ‘What Paul is forced to come to heightened consciousness about is that to the Romans, the nations include the Jews – and they all are persecuted ravaged, and re-created, by a larger force. God reveals to Paul that he has Christ “in him,” that he has the dynamics of defeat by the Romans within him’ (135).

How well does this work? The singular ethnos denotes a ‘nation’ or ‘people’ – never an individual ‘Gentile’ as such. In the New Testament, however, it does not always work in English to translate the plural ethnē as ‘nations’. For example, Luke writes that following the preaching of Paul and Barnabas in the synagogue at Iconium ‘a great number of Jews and Greeks believed’, but then ‘unbelieving Jews stirred up and poisoned the souls of tōn ethnōn against the brothers’ (my translation). Later an attempt is made by both tōn ethnōn and the Jews, along with their rulers, to insult them and stone them (Acts 14:1-5). In this context ta ethnē clearly refers not to the nations at a distance but to numbers of individuals who are not Jews; the term is virtually synonymous with ‘Greeks’. Presumably when Paul tells the pagan citizens of Lystra that in previous generations God ‘allowed panta ta ethnē to walk in their own ways’, he is thinking of the nations as peoples who have not known the one true God, who had revealed himself explicitly to the Jews (Acts 14:16). The ‘Gentiles’ are people or peoples, whether conceived abstractly or encountered concretely, who derive their identity from their non-Israelite nationality. It is easy enough to demonstrate that Paul’s usage does not break out of this pattern, even if it may be entirely appropriate in many instances to translate ta ethnē as ‘the nations’, with full awareness of the political resonances generated within the Greek-Roman oikoumenē.

The frequent use of the term in the New Testament, however, also presupposes two closely linked story-lines, both rooted in the Jewish scriptures, which are really determinative for meaning. The first views the nations as aggressive powers that oppose Israel, both religiously and politically; they are likely at some point to destroy Jerusalem and defile its sanctuary as a manifestation of God’s anger against his people; but there is always the prospect of an eventual victory over the nations and the establishment of the Jews as a preeminent people. At this point the second story-line is engaged: when YHWH intervenes decisively to judge and restore his people, messengers are sent to proclaim news of the event to the nations, which may lead to the participation of the nations in the worship of Israel’s God, potentially in fulfilment of the promise to Abraham that he would be the father of, and a blessing to, many nations.

The first of these stories provides a framework for understanding Jesus’ suffering: his crucifixion by an imperial power anticipates the mass crucifixion of Jews by Rome during the course of the war and becomes, therefore, symbolic of Israel’s punishment. Paul certainly identifies with this suffering, and he urges the communities to which he writes to participate in the same narrative of death and vindication. At this point, it seems to me, Lopez’s empire-critical argument – and to a lesser extent the gender-critical spin that she puts on it – offers credible and intriguing insight into the political-religious character of Paul’s very deliberate association with a crucified messiah.

However, Paul then assimilates the suffering into the second narrative, which is explanatory of his own calling: he is the messenger to the nations who is subjected to physical abuse by both Jews and non-Jews – indeed, it is precisely this persecution that validates his apostleship. He suffers not on behalf of the nations brutalized by Rome but on behalf of Christ implicated in Israel’s punishment. In this narrative the fact of oppression as a general political evil is not negated, but it is subordinated to the overriding issue of Israel’s salvation – that is, a salvation concretely and politically, and therefore not merely religiously and theologically, conceived as a matter of the ongoing integrity and survival of the community.

There is no moment in Paul’s narratively constructed self-understanding, therefore, that permits or requires the sort of re-mapping of the ‘nations’ that Lopez is arguing for. The distinction that she makes between a rhetoric of personal piety and a rhetoric of anti-imperial struggle is too simplistic. We may well think that Paul is fully aware of the theo-political implications of his gospel and the concrete, non-idealist existence of the communities that he addresses; but this does not necessarily mean that he understood himself as apostle to the nations subjugated by Rome rather to the nations that ‘worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator’ (Rom. 1:25) or that raged and conspired against YHWH and his anointed king (Ps. 2:1-3). The end point for Paul, as is clear not least from his Letter to the Romans, is deliverance not from Rome but from the wrath of God. What follows that story, however, is another matter.


I’m really grateful for your close reading of Apostle to the Conquered. Lots to think about, to be sure!