The Apostle Paul lived in the Roman Empire. In the Roman Empire, a hierarchy existed between Rome and the nations. In English Bibles, the Greek word for “nations” is almost always translated as “Gentiles”. This enforces a hierarchy between Judean people and non-Judean people. While Paul certainly saw a difference between Judeans and others, Rome did not. Rome saw the Palestinian region as another place needing the “gospel” of the Son of the God, the Caesar. The Judeans needed a “savior” who would bring “peace”. Rome accomplished this by enslaving the people, instituting brutal policies against dissenters, and propping up an incredibly unjust dynasty, the Herods.
Saul, the Pharisee, drew heavily on the apocalyptic tradition to enunciate G-d’s power over the empire occupying the Holy Land. He believed Yhwh would raise from the dead those who properly obeyed Torah in order to resist the Roman imperial program. After the apocalyptic experience with the risen Jesus that transformed Saul to Paul, he renounced his Pharisaic station and joined the Jesus movement. Why? We must work backwards to know.
Paul traveled throughout the empire creating communities that obeyed Jesus rather than the Caesar. They organized themselves based on commitment to Israel’s god revealed in Jesus rather than on their own theistic views. The result of this message was a growing network of people unified in resistance to Rome’s way of power. Rome feared this immensely. It signified people united by something other than Rome’s state control. The Judeans believed their god, Yhwh, actually ruled the entire world. What the followers of Jesus realized was that this belief did not prevent Rome from viewing them as one of the other nations requiring enslavement. Put differently, belief in G-d’s power over the whole world and observance of G-d’s Torah did nothing to drive the Romans out of Palestine. What would?
The resurrection of Jesus showed Paul that the way of Jesus, in stark contrast to proper Torah observers, served as G-d’s way for dealing with Rome. What Torah observance failed to do was stretch resistance to Rome beyond the borders of Judea. What good to other tribes of people were complicated laws and foreign indigenous traditions? Furthermore, adhering to these laws at the exclusion of everyone else played right into the hands of the Romans. By keeping themselves divided through strict indigenous laws, the conquered nations had no hope of effectively resisting Roman dominance. This is why, for Paul, Torah is great but insufficient. It brought knowledge of G-d, but through the hands of the powerful in Judea, it became a way of preventing G-d’s sovereignty. Torah excluded those who shared the same lot as the Judeans did: Roman imperial domination. The apocalypse of Jesus to Saul showed him that if Rome was to rule the whole world, it would take the effort of the whole world under the guidance of the G-d of the whole world revealed in Jesus to undo that imperial might.
Basically, Paul stopped doing what the Romans wanted by perpetuating infighting within his own tribe, and he resisted the age-old phrase, “Do as the Romans do.” I believe a faithful reading of Paul must put him in this light. We must understand Paul as saying, “Don’t do as the Romans do, but imitate Jesus.” Furthermore, this explains why Paul so adamantly forbids forcing non-Judean people from becoming Torah observers. The resistance movement focuses on Jesus not Torah. The oppressed find solidarity in Jesus not in Judean traditions. This leads to Paul’s assertion, “There is no longer Judean 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” (Galatians 3.28). The global solidarity movement against Roman brutality made no discrimination in ethnicity, class, or sex.
I now return to the Roman hierarchical structure in which women are below men, slaves are below “free” people, and all ethnicities are below the Romans. Paul clearly denounces these hierarchies by asserting Jesus’ authority rather than Rome’s. This opens the door for people concerned about Paul’s patriarchy and oppressive tendencies to read the Pauline epistles with fresh eyes. Paul, like Jesus, overturned the accepted norms of power. He empowered the oppressed and became one of them. On the side of the raped woman, Brittania, not the powerful male, Claudius, Paul became the apostle to the nations. Not only were these nations not Judeans, they were also like the Judeans: conquered by Rome. He utilized this common bond between conquered peoples to create a solidarity movement under the Lord Jesus rather than the Lord Caesar.
Great questions arise out of this. If the early Christians were to not do what the Romans did, what were the Romans like? How did Jesus and Paul propose to deal with the Roman occupation in more specific terms? On what principles did they base their message? How did people live out the counter-imperial gospel then? While all good questions that aid in interpretation, they are not necessary for moving forward. What we should be asking is who Rome is now? What do the modern-day Romans do? What would it look like to resist that way of life? How can we help establish global solidarity against empire under the banner of Jesus?