Reading the Resurrection in Imperial Context
By Daniel R. Streett
It is a common Sunday School bromide that Jesus’s Jewish contemporaries were expecting a political messiah, and thus misunderstood Jesus, whose mission was not political but spiritual. He came not to liberate his people from evil rulers but to save individuals from their sins. When the Scriptures are placed
in their proper historical context, however, it becomes clear that this is a grossly anachronistic way of understanding the gospel narrative. It imposes on the ancient text a modern dichotomy between religion and politics, theology and statecraft. Ancient Judaism had no such concept; nor, for that matter, did any other ancient Mediterranean culture. Further, this view cannot accommodate the transparently political nature of the message of the early church, which boldly proclaimed God’s kingdom and declared Jesus to be Savior, Lord, and King , despite the fact that those roles were already claimed by Caesar.
Largely as a result of the Enlightenment, moderns tend to compartmentalize religion and politics. Politics deals with public issues: how power, money, land, and other resources are distributed and used, how society is structured, and how laws are made and justice is upheld. Religion, on the other hand, is private and interiorized. It deals with the individual’s personal relationship to the divine, and is focused on providing psychological fulfillment in this life and ensuring happiness (or preventing punishment) in the next. The primary problem religion addresses is the certainty of death; religion seeks to provide assurance that death is not the end, that there is a meaning to life beyond the suffering and heartbreak intrinsic to human existence in this vale of tears.
When the early Christian proclamation of Jesus’s resurrection is seen through this modern lens, a severe distortion occurs. Often the resurrection is interpreted as part of a rationalistic apologetic to prove an abstract concept of Christ’s divinity. Or, in an individualistic soteriological framework, it is portrayed as an indication that Jesus’s “payment” for sins was accepted. More often, it is transmogrified to fit the watered-down Platonism that characterizes so much of pop Christianity in the West. On this misunderstanding , Jesus’s resurrection serves merely to make it clear that there is hope for life after death, that when the body dies, the spirit continues on, that death is just the beginning , etc.
All of this is quite far afield from the central message of Jesus and his followers, namely the kingdom of God. This message, from beginning to end, was couched in terms, stories, and symbols intended to provide a direct counterpoint to the dominant power of the day, the Roman Empire. My goal in this article is to explore the ways in which early Christian discourse on Jesus’s resurrection and its implications has a clearly anti- or counter-imperial texture. My survey of the counter-imperial nature of resurrection hope begins in the Old Testament, which funds much of the early Christian message. I will then touch upon several key texts in the Gospels, Paul, and the Apocalypse that express the heart of the resurrection message as the replacement of the Roman regime with the righteous empire of God.
We can beg in by examining three Old Testament texts that touch on resurrection in one form or another. These three, we will see, all use the imagery of resurrection in an imperial context, with clear counter-imperial force. While the dating of each of these texts is disputed, for our purposes all that matters is that the y formed a significant part of the Jewish heritage and worldview inhabited by the NT authors.
Ezekiel 37- From Dry Bones to a Powerful Army
Ezekiel 37 is situated in the wake of the Babylonian exile and the destruction of Jerusalem by the invading Babylonian army. In the aftermath of this devastation, Ezekiel is commissioned to present a message of hope to the exiles : the desolation wrought by that idolatrous empire will not be the end. Though Israel is currently scattered like abused sheep without a shepherd, the Lord will restore Israel’s fortunes and once again reunite them under a virtuous shepherd-king , a new David (34:23–24). He will avenge his people, renew the covenant, restore them to their land, and g rant them security and prosperity. After these promises in chs. 34–36, Ezekiel is taken away in the prophetic spirit to a valley. A devastating battle has clearly taken place here, for the valley is full of skeletal remains, now picked clean by the vultures and dried out by the sun. This is a g rim portrait of Israel in exile—a once might y people reduced to virtual non-existence. The situation is hopeless. The Babylonian Empire has prevailed and Israel is no more.
Or so it appears. But the same spirit that hovered over the face of the abyss at creation beg ins to move, a might y rushing wind summoned from the four corners of the earth. As it blows on the dry bones, a miracle occurs. Flesh, muscle, skin, and finally breath come back to the bones. The y stand up, a numerous and powerful army. The point is clear : while Babylon’s vicious empire may have the power to kill and destroy, it does not have the final word. Israel’s God will overturn Babylon’s edict and overthrow Babylon’s dominion, for he alone has the power to give new life, to raise the dead, and to restore his covenant people. Here it is clear that the resurrection of God’s people from the g rave of exile is God’s forceful rebuttal to the claims and actions of an oppressive empire.
The situation is much the same in Isaiah’s “little apocalypse,” as chs. 24–27 are known. Likely a Babylonian-era composition, this section depicts the imperial city as a capital of chaos (24:10) and a terrifying sea-monster (27:1). This once proud and arrogant fortress city will become a city of ruins, brought down to the dust (26:5). The imperial city has taken God’s people into exile and ruled oppressively over them. Isaiah depicts its power as a dark shroud or cloud, a veil of death that hang s over Israel and other nations. But, again, the empire’s death sentence against exilic Israel will not stand forever. The Lord
will come as a mighty warrior to avenge his people with a terrible swift sword, slaying the serpent Leviathan, trampling the oppressing city, and crushing the idolatrous altars to dust. More than that, however, he will reverse the empire’s death-dealing blow. The Lord promises to “swallow up death forever” (25:8), (verses in this article are from the NR SV translation). “ Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy !” (26:19). It is possible that the resurrection imagery here is more a metaphor for national restoration than a promise of individual resurrection. But deciding that issue is less important than realizing that, like Ezekiel, Isaiah depicts resurrection as God’s reversal of imperial evil.
Daniel 12 is the third key text about resurrection in the OT, and likely the latest. It is best understood as a second-century composition published in the heat of the Maccabean crisis. The Maccabean rebellion was a response to the oppression of the Hellenizing Seleucid king , Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Antiochus attacked Jerusalem, defiled the temple, outlawed traditional Jewish practices, and decreed the worship of Zeus. This met with a guerilla style insurgency led by Judas Maccabee and his brothers, who eventually succeeded in turning back the Seleucid onslaught.
In the midst of this, the apocalyptic circle responsible for Daniel
12 set forth a vision of hope in the face of such a great tribulation. Daniel 7–12 contains a cycle of visions which depict Israel’s suffering at the hands of blasphemous, beastly, and idolatrous kingdoms which violently oppress God’s people. The vision, however, assures its audience that the time of the beastly empires will come to an end. The prophet portrays the Seleucid empire and its oppression as the last, dying g asp of the bloodthirsty monster. In Daniel 12, the heavenly messenger Michael assures Daniel that this great tribulation will last only a short time. All who persevere in faithfulness to the covenant, even if the y are martyred for their fidelity, will be rewarded by God. According to Michael, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life. . . . Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever ” (12:2–3).
Here is the first explicit textual witness in Israel’s history to the idea of individual resurrection. But, like its textual forebears in Ezekiel and Isaiah, Daniel 12 also portrays resurrection as God’s response to imperial oppression and bloodshed. God will by all means vindicate the faithful ; even death cannot stand in the way. Notably, what is in view here is much more than simple resuscitation. That would not be true justice. Instead, the resurrected will be rewarded and exalted, g ranted a glorious existence of supernal radiance (astral immortality was a future often claimed for king s and emperors in the ancient world ). Resurrection, then, is tied up with a future righting of wrong s in which the tables are turned on the empires of this world— the lowly and oppressed are exalted, while the mighty and oppressive are brought low.
Jesus in His Context
When we come to the New Testament, the names have changed but the story is much the same. Some of Israel’s exiles may have returned to the land, but the vast majority of them were scattered throughout the Roman Empire, many living in Diaspora cities like Rome, Alexandria , Corinth, and Ephesus. The glorious visions of the prophets remained unrealized. The land promised to the fathers labored still under subjection to the Roman Empire. While Rome allowed a considerable amount of freedom to Jewish worshipers, ever y authority in the land, whether king , governor, or high priest, was chosen by the empire. The 10th Roman leg ion was a constant presence at Israel’s national festivals—a clear warning to Passover celebrants not to let their hopes for a new Mosaic liberator get out of hand.
It was in this context of imperial domination that a popular Galilean prophet named Jesus stepped onto the scene, heralding the soon arrival of God’s empire. The expectation of God’s empire had deep OT roots, as we have seen above. Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel all looked for ward to the day when the evil and oppressive kingdoms of this age would be toppled and replaced by God’s righteous rule. A new Davidic king would sit on the throne, ruling the nations in justice and mercy. God’s name would be treated as holy, and a new era of prosperity and joy for Israel would dawn. When the kingdom of God came, the Jewish elite who ruled Jerusalem and profited handsomely from their oversight of the temple would be brought low, while the dispossessed poor, whose ancestral lands had been seized through oppressive taxation and usury, would be exalted to prominence.
It is no surprise, then, that Jesus’s radical message and mission culminated in a Passover assault on the temple-industrial complex in Jerusalem. Here the priestly elite joined hands with Roman military power to keep a lid on the simmering discontent of the masses who had made pilgrimage to celebrate Israel’s great liberation from the imperial power of Pharaoh and Egypt. Fearful that Jesus’s popularity would spark an uprising and further weaken their fragile relationship with Rome, the Jewish elite had Jesus arrested and handed over to Pilate on charges of sedition. Jesus was executed with two other enemies of the state. The charge hung over his head : he claimed to be “king of the Jews.”
Many popular versions of the “gospel” virtually end here. Jesus, so this truncated story goes, was tragically misunderstood. His friends and enemies mistook him for a political revolutionary. This was never his focus. Rather, Jesus came with a single mission, to die as an atonement for sin, thereby propitiating God’s wrath against humans and ensuring an eternal life in heaven for all who would accept his sacrifice. While this account has slivers of truth (e.g . early Christians clearly came to interpret the death of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice), it effectively ignores the political realities of Jesus’s trial and crucifixion, sidelines Jesus’s central focus on the arrival of God’s kingdom, and relegates his resurrection and parousia to the status of afterthought or appendix .
When we place Jesus’s death into its proper first-century context— where crucifixion was a commonplace punishment meted out to enemies of the state—the resurrection and the parousia it looks for ward to take on a much fuller meaning . Jesus, the blameless lamb, the healing herald and agent of God’s emancipating empire, is brutally murdered by the bloodthirsty Roman beast. In this grievous miscarriage of justice, Rome’s pretense of bringing peace to the world is laid bare. Rome is revealed to be just like every other tyrannical regime, wielding its truncheon of death against all meaning fuldissent. But Rome’s verdict is not the final word. Jesus, God’s son, the rightful king , cannot be left in the g rave, his vision of the kingdom just another failed utopian fantasy. In the resurrection, God acts decisively, publicly and powerfully to overturn the judgment of Rome and to assert the impotence of Rome’s ultimate weapon— death—in the face of God’s life-giving Spirit. The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus and his message. By raising his Son from the dead, God declares that Jesus, not Caesar, is the rightful ruler of the world. Easter morning , then, is so much more than the promise of an afterlife to believers in Jesus. It is God’s powerful ‘NO !’ to violent imperial ideology, and his resounding ‘ YES !’ to the peaceful way of Jesus.
Gospel According To Mathew
We can now explore a sampling of NT texts that demonstrate the counter-imperial character of the early Christian resurrection message. Matthew ’s Gospel provides a compelling place to start. In Matt 28:16–20, Jesus appears to his disciples after his resurrection. He indicates that in the resurrection God has not simply restored Jesus to life, but has also invested him with ultimate and universal authority : “all authority in heaven and earth.” Who, living under the dominion of the Roman Empire and its priestly puppets in Jerusalem, could fail to hear the geopolitical nature of such a pronouncement? The Roman “golden age” was coming to an end (see Jesus’s reference in 28:20 to the “end of the age”). God’s kingdom would dawn, bringing regime change and justice to a corrupt world in need of a righteous ruler. The twelve, who had earlier been promised twelve thrones from which they would rule Israel (19:28), are now commissioned as the new world-emperor ’s international ambassadors. The y are to proclaim the good news that Rome’s government and gods have been shown powerless, their greatest weapon—death—utterly overcome by an infinitely more powerful government. Thus we see that in Matthew ’s account of the good news, the death of Jesus does not shift the focus from Jewish and Roman politics to individual salvation and atonement for sins. Rather, the death and resurrection of Jesus continue the powerful narrative centering on the coming kingdom of God, and Jesus’s place at the head of that kingdom.
Paul’s letters continue this conceptualization of Jesus’s resurrection as an exaltation to the place of universal king ship, a clear counterpoint to Roman imperial claims. In Paul’s magnum opus, for example, addressed to Christ-followers living in the imperial cit y, Paul beg ins his letter by summarizing his message about Jesus, which he delivers as an emissary of Jesus, the Jewish king -Messiah foretold by Israel’s prophets (Romans 1:1–2). Two key facts are highlighted : first, Jesus is from the royal line, a true son of David, and thus rightful king of Israel by birth (1:3). Second, at his resurrection, Jesus was declared Son of God in power (1:4). This title would not be lost on Paul’s audience, as Augustus, Tiberius, and Nero had also claimed such an appellation (divi filius). Noteworthy for our purposes, of course, is that it is precisely at his resurrection that Jesus is so identified. For Paul, Christ’s resurrection is his exaltation and enthronement as world-ruler. It is for this reason that Paul embarks on his international journeys, namely to bring about the submission of the nations to the newly crowned emperor (1:5). Paul reiterates this point at the end of his letter, drawing on Isa 11:10: “ The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the nations ; in him the nations shall hope” (Rom 15:12). Here again, Jesus is described in Davidic kingly terms (“the root of Jesse”), and again his king ship is worldwide, as he rules the nations. In the midst of such loft y rhetoric, it is easy to miss a key detail in Paul’s citation : this Davidic king “arises”—the same terminology used for Jesus’s resurrection (anastasis/anistemi) elsewhere. It is as the resurrected one that Jesus is the divinely installed Lord of the world.
We find similar notes sounded in other Pauline passages. In Ephesians 1, Jesus at his resurrection does not merely come back to life, but is exalted by God to sit at his right hand in the heavens (1:20). This exaltation grants Jesus a status and power superior to every other ruler; all governments and nations of the world are “under his feet” (1:21–22). The same language appears in 1 Cor 15:23–27, where Paul again draws on Psalm 8 as a promise of the Messiah’s universal reign. Philippians 2, likewise, recounts how Jesus obediently endured the humiliating slave- like death of Roman crucifixion. Because of his obedience, God reversed Rome’s punishment of death, and granted to Jesus a status higher than that enjoyed by any king , emperor, or potentate. According to Paul, at the divine name of Jesus, every human and angel would prostrate fall, recognizing Jesus as the universal Lord. The message was clear: Caesar and his ilk were pretenders whose time was limited, for the true emperor of the world had taken his throne.
We would be remiss if we did not mention the last book of the NT, Revelation, in this vein. Perhaps no other NT book beats the anti-imperial drum more loudly. From the outset, Jesus’s resurrection is closely connected to his identity as universal ruler. In 1:5 it is as the resurrected one, the “firstborn from the dead,” that he is “the ruler of the king s of the earth.” Notably, the verse first names him as the “faithful witness,” likely a reference to his martyrdom on a Roman cross for his faithful proclamation of the message of God’s kingdom (elsewhere in Revelation, the same terminology is used for the martyred Antipas [2:13], as well as the two executed prophets of ch. 11). The title “the ruler of the king s of the earth” here presents a clear counterpoint to Roman imperial power, embodied in the emperor, who ruled the ancient world through his client king s and governors.
The seer is acutely aware of the shameful death Jesus suffered under the Roman occupation. But, as he sees it, the crucifixion of Jesus has been transformed from tragic conclusion to promising prologue. At the cross, Rome thinks that it has completely stamped out Jesus’s kingdom revolution. In his resurrection, however, Jesus overcomes Rome’s most powerful weapon. He breaks the bonds of death, rising from the grave as a conquering hero, the keys of Death and Hades now in his possession (1:18; 3:21). Rome’s time is limited, for the new emperor is returning soon to judge his enemies (1:7).
Moreover, the martyrdom and resurrection of Jesus become a pattern and model for his followers. They are to be faithful unto death, just as he was. If they share in the Messiah’s death, they will also experience his resurrection. This resurrection, again, is no mere resuscitation, but a transformation and exaltation. The faithful martyrs will receive from God an exalted status and will sit on God’s throne just as Jesus did (Rev 3:21). They will participate in the glory of his victory as they judge the nations, reigning with Jesus as kings and priests (20:4; 22:5).
The eschatological vision of Revelation is geopolitical and theo-political through and through. Appropriately for the first century and the burgeoning Jesus movement, there is no dichotomy of spirituality and sociology, or piety and politics. The resurrection of Jesus is the turning point in a narrative whose telos is the worldwide geopolitical dominance of the Messiah, as expected in the OT (Rev 21:24; cf. Psalm 2:8–10). “Salvation” in this scheme of thought refers not to an individual’s blissful disembodied afterlife, but to the liberation of the land/earth from the violent overlords who through evil oppression corrupt and destroy God’s good creation (Rev 11:18).
Read in this way, the depth and richness of the early Christian message of Jesus’s resurrection is recaptured. If we can avoid imposing our modern biases and categories on the ancient text of Scripture, we will rediscover a dynamic and holistic gospel that speaks to every area of human existence, not merely to concerns about an individual afterlife. When we hear the story of Christ’s resurrection in its original context, we will encounter it as a declaration of Christ’s universal king ship that is thoroughly counter-cultural and even dangerously subversive, no matter whether we find ourselves in North America or North Korea . Perhaps it will be said once again of Christians that we “are turning the world upside-down . . . saying contrary to the decrees of Caesar that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6–7).
DANIEL R. STREETT, PhD, Associate Professor of Christianity at Houston Baptist University. His primary research and teaching interests are early Jewish esotericism and apocalypticism, the Johannine literature, Hebrews, and Greek pedagogy. He is currently writing on the reception of the Jewish festivals in early Judaism.