Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Christians’ Responses

Written by Bruce Winter Reviewed By Bryan Litfin

In Divine Honors for the Caesars: The First Christians’ Responses, Bruce Winter, the former warden of Tyndale House in Cambridge, has offered a comprehensive work of historical scholarship. As a student of early Christianity myself, with a special interest in the reasons for ancient persecution, I found the book interesting and useful.

Yet I think most readers will need to be in my professional field to come to a similar conclusion. It won’t be an easy read for the average pastor or layperson. Anyone seeking an engaging style or briskly flowing prose will find instead a dense scholarly tome. This book will serve best as a well-researched resource for scholars and other experts investigating biblical backgrounds. Many specialists will be glad to have this handbook on their shelves, though it might rarely find its way into the pastor’s study or church library.

Readers familiar with contemporary trends in NT studies (particularly Pauline scholarship) will immediately perceive that Winter’s book takes the so-called “anti-imperial” approach to Scripture. This movement, associated with N. T. Wright and Richard Horsley among others, suggests that many Greek words used by Paul, such as kurios (“lord”), are in fact loaded terms rooted in Julio-Claudian emperor worship.

The implication here is that many NT writers were subtly refuting an aggressive propaganda machine that required Greco-Roman people to participate in the imperial cult. The significance of this, in turn, is that the message of the cross, seen especially in Pauline soteriology, was primarily focused on political emancipation from the domineering regime of Rome. Many of today’s anti-imperial scholars quickly turn to the contemporary applications of such a perspective, resulting in theologies that critique the perceived dominance of political/industrial/capitalist powers in the modern world. Often this methodological approach intersects with Marxist and postcolonial readings of Scripture, as well as with Liberation Theology.

Winter’s new book clearly stands in this scholarly tradition, though it makes its case without any apparent concern for contemporary politics. Instead, Winter’s main stimulus seems to be his appreciation for the rich texture Roman history can offer as background to NT studies. In other words, Winter has a scholar’s interest in classical antiquity, not a modern political axe to grind.

Though the overall argument of Divine Honors for the Caesars is easy to understand, it’s a painstakingly detailed rehearsal of evidence, not a crisp historical narrative. After an introduction orienting the reader to the central thesis and highlighting the most relevant bibliography, Part I offers abundant evidence for the ubiquity of the imperial cult in the Roman East, particularly Asia Minor and the Aegean. Chapter 2 describes the many popular festivals that made the imperial cult such an enjoyable and therefore pervasive part of everyday life. Chapter 3 argues that prayers and petitions to the emperors put them in the role of providing benefits to provincials, resulting in a mutually favorable patronage relationship between ruler and ruled. In Chapter 4 we learn that while the Caesars often declined the offer of temples in their honor as inappropriate for mere humans, they weren’t shy about adopting exalted titles that signaled their divine status. Chapter 5 demonstrates that Herod the Great adopted the imperial cultic system in Judea. The Jews soon adapted to this new requirement by offering temple sacrifices on Caesar’s behalf, though not directly to him; yet the Jewish uprising in AD 66 led to a repudiation of this compromise.

In Part II, Winter assesses the relevance of the “all-pervasive and inescapable” imperial cult for ancient church life. The earliest Christians embarked on several strategies as they attempted to cope with a widespread cultic system that demanded a loyalty they were reluctant to give in light of their commitment to King Jesus. Winter examines various historical situations such as:

  • Paul’s Areopagus speech in Acts 17;
  • the religious requirements and social pressures in first-century Achaea, Galatia, and Thessalonica;
  • the dire persecutions faced by the recipients of the Epistle to the Hebrews;
  • a new Asian initiative identifiable in Revelation and in pagan sources that required Christians to make a choice between highly visible ritual honors for the Caesars or maintenance of an undefiled faith—a decision that would have resulted in severe penalties for non-compliance, including economic sanctions or even execution.

In each scenario, Winter makes a compelling case that the first Christians faced a hostile and highly coercive state-sponsored cultus. Yet because Winter argues primarily from Greco-Roman background material, some readers may wish for a sustained exegesis of the biblical text to more fully establish the book’s thesis.

Recent trends in the scholarship on early Christian martyrdom have tended to downplay the extent (or even the existence) of ancient persecution (see for example Candida Moss. The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (New York: HarperCollins, 2013). Moss and others have argued that the earliest pre-Decian martyr stories are unreliable and datable to a later era than the ostensible time of their composition. Though a “myth” exists that Christians were persecuted, the argument goes, they were only occasionally prosecuted for standard crimes under Roman law. Whatever violence was done to the earliest followers of Jesus has left a barely discernible mark on the historical record.

Though Winter doesn’t confront this thesis directly, his work serves as a strong rebuttal to the theory of mythical persecution. He shows that even if the traditional second-century martyr stories were taken off the table as late forgeries, a dominant imperial ideology—widely disseminated, intolerant of resistance, and willing to deal in violence—stood opposed to Christianity at every turn. To the extent Winter highlights anti-imperialism as a relevant New Testament context, he challenges the scholarship of those who say we can’t discern much about early Christian persecution prior to the age of Diocletian. On the contrary, Winter claims, Rome was a dangerous adversary right from the beginning.

Divine Honors for the Caesars is an important book for the scholarly community. Exegetes reluctant to see political dimensions to a purely spiritual NT theology will not be able to proceed without engaging Winter’s meticulous argument that Roman imperial ideology dominated the biblical world. Likewise, historians who believe imperial persecution was not an important factor in ancient Christian experience will need to grapple with the evidence in Winter’s monograph of brutal struggles occurring early and often between Jerusalem and Rome.

Although most of today’s pastors will not feel compelled to enter into the nuances of these academic debates, scholars of early Christianity will no longer be able to continue their professional conversations without footnoting this pivotal new work.

Bryan Litfin

Bryan Litfin
Moody Bible Institute
Chicago, Illinois, USA

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