Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Sunday, October 22, 2006

was paul naive?

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

Romans 13:1-4

As we approach election day in the United States, I find myself reflecting on these words from the apostle Paul. Our attitude toward the government is much different from Paul's. You won't find many Americans who think the governing authorities have our best interests in mind. The phrase, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help," is considered an oxymoron.

Paul, though, seemed to have faith in secular political authorities. These weren't just idle words: When Paul himself was in prison in Caesarea, the governor offered to transfer him to the religious authorities for trial. Paul refused.

But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, asked Paul, "Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and be tried there before me on these charges?" Paul said, "I am appealing to the emperor's tribunal; this is where I should be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you very well know. Now if I am in the wrong and have committed something for which I deserve to die, I am not trying to escape death; but if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can turn me over to them. I appeal to the emperor." Then Festus, after he had conferred with his council, replied, "You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go."

Acts 25:9-12

What was Paul thinking? Didn't he know the Romans' reputation?

There is no nation beyond us; nothing but waves and rocks, and the still more hostile Romans, whose arrogance we cannot escape by obsequiousness and submission. These plunderers of the world, after exhausting the land by their devastations, are rifling the ocean: stimulated by avarice, if their enemy be rich; by ambition, if poor; unsatiated by the East and by the West: the only people who behold wealth and indigence with equal avidity. To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.

Tacitus, Agricola 30

Granted, this excerpt is taken from a speech by a Briton war leader who despised the Romans' intrusion into his territory. Still, this was not an uncommon attitude toward the Romans by the nations they had subjected. It was a common attitude among the Jews in Jesus's time. Many Jews were hoping for a Messiah who would destroy the Roman oppressors and set the nation free again.

The governing authorities in Rome were hardly the sort who could be said to be "not a terror to good conduct, but to bad."

So what was Paul thinking? Was he just naïve?

It's not as though Paul was unaware of Christians' problems with the Roman government. He had worked with Priscilla and Aquila, a couple who had been ordered to leave Rome by the emperor Claudius (Acts 18:1-2). The emperor at the time of Paul's letter to the Romans, as well as the time Paul appealed to the emperor for trial, was even worse than Claudius. This was an emperor who murdered his own mother.

Paul, on trial in Caesarea, appealed to emperor Nero.

Nero's greatest clash with the Christians was yet to come. In fact, it may have come while Paul was in Rome awaiting trial.

On July 19, 64 A.D., a fire spread throughout Rome, destroying as much as 2/3 of the city. Many Romans believed that Nero himself had started the fire:

When someone in a general conversation said: "When I am dead, be earth consumed by fire," he rejoined "Nay, rather while I live," and his action was wholly in accord. For under cover of displeasure at the ugliness of the old buildings and the narrow, crooked streets, he set fire to the city so openly that several ex-consuls did not venture to lay hands on his chamberlains although they caught them on their estates with tow and firebrands, while some granaries near the Golden House, whose room he particularly desired, were demolished by engines of war and then set on fire, because their walls were of stone. For six days and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for shelter to monuments and tombs. At that time, besides an immense number of dwellings, the houses of leaders of old were burned, still adorned with trophies of victory, and the temples of the gods vowed and dedicated by the kings and later in the Punic and Gallic wars, and whatever else interesting and noteworthy had survived from antiquity. Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas, and exulting, as he said, "with the beauty of the flames," he sang the whole time the "Sack of Ilium," in his regular stage costume. Furthermore, to gain from this calamity too the spoil and booty possible, while promising the removal of the debris and dead bodies free of cost, allowed no one to approach the ruins of his own property; and from the contributions which he not only received, but even demanded, he nearly bankrupted the provinces and exhausted the resources of individuals.

Suetonius, Nero 38

A later historian suggested that this wasn't the first time Nero had tried to destroy Rome:

Nero had the wish---or rather it had always been a fixed purpose of his---to make an end of the whole city in his lifetime. Priam he deemed wonderfully happy in that he had seen Troy perish at the same moment his authority over her ended. Accordingly, Nero sent out by different ways men feigning to be drunk, or engaged in some kind of mischief, and at first had a few fires kindled quietly and in different quarters; people, naturally, were thrown into extreme confusion, not being able to find either the cause of the trouble nor to end it; and meantime met with many strange sights and sounds. They ran about as if distracted, and some rushed one way, some another. In the midst of helping their neighbors, men would learn that their own homes were blazing. Others learned, for the first time, that their property was on fire, by being told it was burned down.

Dio Cassius, Roman History 62.16

After the great fire of 64, Nero found the majority of Romans outraged, blaming him for the loss of their property. Nothing Nero tried satisfied them. So, Nero did what any good politician would do: He looked for a scapegoat and tried to change the subject.

But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.

Tacitus, Annals 15.44

This is the man to whom Paul appealed in order to avoid being transferred to Jerusalem for trial. This was the man who was in charge when Paul wrote, "Those authorities that exist have been instituted by God," and, "Rulers are not a terror to good conduct." Did Paul know anything about Nero?

Paul's words in Romans have been misused for centuries by kings and other rulers seeking to put a divine stamp of approval on their own less-than-altruistic actions.

It seems safe to say, too, that most Americans completely disregard these words of Paul. In our society, both Republicans and Democrats are quick to demonize members of the opposite political party. Is it because we have a voice in choosing our leaders? If Paul had lived in a democratic society, would he have felt the same way? Was his faith in secular rulers misplaced?



At 10/29/2006 11:02 AM, Blogger John said...

I'm inclined to think that Paul wrote that passage in Romans because he suspected that the Roman authorities were reading his mail and he did not wish to appear subversive.

It's the least implausible explanation of the text that I've read.

At 11/05/2006 10:00 PM, Blogger BruceA said...

I guess that's possible, but that still doesn't explain his appeal to Caesar for trial. If he knew Nero was such a rotten guy, what did Paul think he could accomplish?

At 12/19/2006 9:54 PM, Anonymous John Lunt said...

Paul said the source of all authority was God. Proverbs essentially says the same thing
Proverbs 21:1. The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.

If you read some of the passages in Acts you see how shrewd he could be. In essence, Paul trusted God and understood that God in the end raises Kings up and tears them down.


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