Rethinking Peter and the State

I recently wrote about Romans 13 and the state. I mentioned that I did not believe that text was even about the Roman government. I believe, based upon the evidence I have seen, that Romans 13 talks about reconciling Jewish and Gentile Christians in relation to the religious, community authorities. Tyler Tully picked up on this and wrote a far more detailed analysis of this here and here, which I strongly recommend reading.

Today, another questionable text in regards to the New Testament and the state has been brought up, this time from Peter instead of Paul:

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17 ESV)

This passage is a bit different than Romans 13. Unlike Romans 13, this passage is pretty straightforward. Romans talks about vague authorities, the sword, and taxes, and it is surrounded by teachings on religious instruction and ethics. Simply put, Romans requires a lot of unpacking in addition to looking at possible translation errors. On the other hand, this passage from 1 Peter is pretty much independent, and any issues in our reading of the text would primarily originate from possible translation errors.

First of all, there is a quick note that needs to be made about the context of 1 Peter. Like Romans, it is rooted in first century Jewish Christianity, and so its understanding of the world comes from that perspective. For example, just before the aforementioned passage, 1 Peter 2:11 calls for Christians to be sojourners and aliens. This means that Christians are living in the Roman Empire, but are to be independent of it. They are to be aliens and immigrants rather than citizens of Rome. That is important since it helps set the context for that passage above—and for my argument that the passage does not support Christian allegiance to the Roman imperial state. Essentially, in this area of Scripture, we have Peter making a case for something Stanley Hauerwas called “resident aliens,” which is firmly rooted in the anti-empire, counter-cultural nature of first century Jews and Christians.

As I mentioned before, I think the main problem with 1 Peter 2:13-17 is a problem of translation. We read with the assumption that we are reading a commentary on the state, and thus the text is inaccurately translated to reflect that assumption. Though, there are also places where the text is translated perfectly fine, but we still make the connection with the Roman state.

To show you what I mean—and why I think we need to rethink this whole thing—we just need to look at the term that is translated as “emperor” in this passage. I will make my argument in a couple of points:

  1. The term here in Greek is usually translated as “king” or “sovereign”. The term in Greek is basileus and a related Greek term, basileia, is what the New Testament uses to refer to the kingdom (or reign) of God (e.g. Matthew 6:10). Modern translations often translate it as “emperor,” but it is usually translated as “king,” and that “king” is often God or Jesus. Today, we often use the terms “emperor” and “king” interchangeably, since they both reflect monarchy, but in ancient Rome, this was not the case at all, which brings me to my second point.
  2. To translate the term basileus as “emperor” as many twentieth and twenty-first century translations do shows a complete ignorance of ancient Roman political life and history. Rome started out as a small kingdom that legend says was founded by Romulus. Eventually, that kingdom was overthrown and the Roman Republic established. Finally, right at the time of Christ, the republic transitioned to an empire. While Rome was, at this point, a de facto monarchy, you would never call the Roman emperor a king. Rome’s politics at the time were founded as a rebellion against monarchy, and the early Roman emperors (such as the ones in the Julio-Claudian dynasty of the first centuries BCE and CE) worked very diligently to keep the idea of a republic going. Roman emperors were not seen as kings, but as “commanders in chief” and “first citizens.” Roman emperors were not unlike our presidents today. Imagine someone calling Obama “king of the US.”

Simply put, I think we are taking a subversive passage about following the kingdom of God and turning it into a passage about allegiance to Caesar. We are even taking the Greek term for king or sovereign and reworking it to refer to the emperor, even though the emperors worked very carefully not to be seen as kings. Also, the last few sentences (“Fear God. Honor the emperor.”) especially do not make sense since to honor the emperor (who was seen as a god) would mean to not fear the biblical God. I want to offer a reworking of the text that I think makes more sense considering the context and language of the passage:

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every institution ordained for people, whether it be to the King (Jesus) as supreme, or to (religious/community) governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the King (Jesus).

This reading, I feel, makes more sense considering Peter’s resident aliens motif and first century Jewish-Christian context. Plus, it makes more sense of the term “king,” which is often used in the New Testament in relation to the Kingdom of God.

Cross-posted from Koinonia Revolution.

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