Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations
by Warren Carter
Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 2001
249 pages, paper.
Reviewed by Reta Halteman Finger
In the last issue I reviewed two books from a post-colonial perspective, one of them being Musa W. Dube’s Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. In it she indicts the Gospel of Matthew for taking a colonialist attitude, thus setting western Christianity on an imperialist journey that would eventually engulf her own African continent. Dube strongly critiques Matthew for not resisting Rome’s imperial occupation of Palestine, and even skewers Matthew’s Jesus for treating the Canaanite woman as a social inferior. In the review, I referred to Warren Carter’s book, Matthew and Empire, which I knew took a different position, though I had not yet read it. (Warren Carter is Professor of New Testament at Saint Paul School of Theology and author of Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading.)
Dube’s book and the course I taught on the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) this spring made reading Carter’s book irresistible. It has also strengthened my conviction that Jesus was a highly political figure who presented an alternate view of how society should be constructed.
The dominant view of Matthew’s Gospel holds that it says little about Roman imperialism. Instead it focuses on the deepening conflict between two Jewish groups — the Pharisees and the “Jews-for-Jesus” who both struggle for dominance during the 80s of the first century. This is the sort of conflict Dube recognizes as one of the effects of colonization — setting different groups of colonized people against each other so they don’t unite to resist their common oppressor. Certainly Matthew’s view of the Pharisees is extremely negative, and it is where we get our assumptions that to be a Pharisee automatically makes one a pompous hypocrite. Matthew, who almost certainly used Mark’s Gospel, cleverly edits various Markan texts to make the Pharisees look even worse. And his relentless attack on them in chapter 23 matches any mudslinging campaign commercial today.
But Carter insists that this Gospel must also be seen in the context of a world dominated by the Roman Empire. The reason we do not readily see this in Matthew is not only because much is implied from the historical context, but also because we forget that in the ancient world religion was never viewed as separate from political structures, economics, or social organization. Carter’s thesis is clear from his first paragraph. He writes:
I will argue that Matthew’s Gospel contests and resists the Roman Empire’s claims to sovereignty over the world. It sustains an alternative community of disciples of Jesus in anticipation of the coming triumph of God’s Empire over all things, including the destruction of Rome’s empire. That is to say, the Gospel resists Rome with a social challenge in offering a vastly different vision and experience of human community, and with atheological challenge in asserting that the world belongs to God not Rome, and that God’s purposes run through Israel and Jesus, not Rome (1).
Thus, in Matthew’s opening chapter with its Davidic genealogy, he never mentions Rome. Rather, God is at work in Israel’s history, not Rome’s. This directly challenges the poet Virgil’s glorified history of Rome in his Aenead, which shows how the gods have favored the Romans as the mightiest and wisest people on earth.
Carter first describes the nature of Roman imperialism, particularly as it would have existed in Syrian Antioch, where many scholars think Matthew’s Gospel was written. Besides an unimaginable life of overcrowded city streets, crumbling tenements, filth, disease, and endless threats of plague, drought, and war, conquered peoples in the ancient world were further subjected to the ubiquitous presence of thousands of Roman soldiers whom they were heavily taxed to support. Psychologically, Jews from Palestine and Syria would have been constantly reminded of their inferiority and subjection to the Romans, especially since they had been so devastated by the Roman victory over their people in the Jewish War of 70 CE. In this culture, the elite and educated wealthy despised the lower classes (who subsidized them) as ignorant, worthless, and undeserving of a better life.
Matthew’s Gospel is a response to this exclusivist, fragmented, and uncaring climate. The message of Jesus is “inclusive, egalitarian, merciful”(51). Other scholars have previously noted this, but Carter grounds this social alternative in a theological claim that the world belongs not to Jupiter and Rome but to the God of Israel as presented through his agent, Jesus. Substitute Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven” for “empire of God” (which means the same thing), and you have a direct and sustained challenge to Rome’s sovereignty.
Following this overview, Carter discusses Matthew’s Christology — how Jesus is shown as God’s agent to bring about God’s alternative empire. Focusing on Matthew 1:21 — “you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” — Carter asks, what sins? Those of us from religious backgrounds assume these are the private, individual, moral, and religious sins so often condemned from the pulpit. But the previous genealogy from Abraham through David through the Babylonian exile and beyond brings into view massive social sins of “deception, xenophobia, abuse of power, adultery, and murder” (79). King Herod’s subsequent massacre of babies to protect his own throne (2:1-18) follows the angelic announcement, and by the time Jesus is fasting in the desert, Satan himself asserts that he has control of all the world’s kingdoms (4:1-11). It is no accident that, after resisting Satan, Matthew’s Jesus announces the alternative: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17).
Carter also refers to Matthew 26:28, where Jesus shares the cup with his disciples, identifying it as “the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Again moving beyond the personal, individual relationship with God, what should come to mind here is the blood smeared on the doorposts of the houses of Hebrew slaves in Egypt (Exodus 12:1-13). Jesus’ blood is shed for communal liberation. In addition, the term “forgiveness” harks back to the year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, and to Deuteronomy 15:1-3, 9 where the same noun refers to the forgiveness of debts every seven years.
Jesus’ death demonstrates the deep sinfulness of the present structures of society, which killed him. His life and his anticipated return are meant to bring about “nothing other than the dismantling of the economic oppression, social inequalities, and political exploitation that mark imperial societies” (88).
Using this framework, Carter’s last section examines in minute detail several texts that demonstrate how the gospel resists Roman imperialism and lifts up an alternative community of disciples who look forward to the full establishment of God’s Empire. These texts are:
1:23 and 4:15-16 — why quote Isaiah?
11:28-30 — take my yoke upon you, not Rome’s.
17:24-27 — how paying the tax to Rome is subversive.
27:11-26 — Rome, through Pilate, condemns Jesus to death
Yet throughout his book, Carter notes a major irony characterizing Matthew’s Gospel. In spite of presenting an egalitarian community as a challenge to Rome’s imperialism, Matthew imitates the imperial worldview that it resists! Judgment is a strong theme in Matthew, and God’s violent revenge, not reconciliation, is promised upon those who have operated outside God’s Empire. Moreover, the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 uses imperialist assumptions in “making disciples of all nations.” And this is precisely the point of Musa Dube’s critique of Matthew as colonialist!
It is here that the reader must especially recognize the huge gulf between the ancient world and ours. Matthew has no other language to use but the language of imperialism and colonialism, for the ideals and practice of democracy simply did not exist in the public sphere. To me, this problem is similar to the instructions given to slaves in several New Testament letters telling them to submit to their owners, rather than condemning the institution of slavery itself as abusive and immoral. The NT writers could hardly envision a world without slavery, and certainly had no power to change it on a societal level. So also Matthew could not conceive of, for example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in South Africa to deal redemptively with colonial oppressors, or the nonviolent movements begun by Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr.
Warren Carter’s interpretation of Matthew’s vision of God’s Empire is meticulously researched and powerfully presented. Though he does underplay the religious conflict between the Jesus-Jews and the Pharisees, he believes Matthew presents all the religious leaders as the elite social class who are in league with the Roman occupation.
This book can be extremely helpful to Christian feminists who care both about properly interpreting the Bible and who oppose all kinds of private and public oppression. There are many parallels between the ancient Roman Empire and the “American Empire” of the 21st century. Certainly the billions spent on military defense (now more appropriately called “offense”), the tax cuts which mostly favor the wealthy, the increasing consolidation of media corporations which further limit free speech, and the lack of funds for basic social services on state and local levels all point to a growing imperialistic, classist, hegemonic attitude within our nation. The alternative which Jesus presents in Matthew’s Gospel should ground us in our struggle to bring about justice, peace, and reconciliation.
– Rita Halteman Finger
Reviewer Reta Halteman Finger has been a member of EEWC since 1978 and presently serves on the Executive Council. She teaches New Testament at Messiah College, Grantham, PA. For many years, she served as editor of Daughters of Sarah magazine and is co-editor (with Kari Sandhaas) of a compilation of articles from that magazine under the title, The Wisdom of Daughters: Two Decades of Christian Feminism (Innisfree Press, 2001).
© 2003 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 27 number 1 Spring (April-June) 2003