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.

Comment (1)

  1. JR

    The mental gymnastics involved here are pretty extreme. And I would suggest that you exercise a bit more humility in regards to your translation abilities. Have you actually studied the original languages?

    Regarding your thoughts on Romans 13, there is no suggestion anywhere else in the NT that Christians outside of Israel paid a temple tax, and certainly Gentiles wouldn’t have. We have record of Paul taking up offerings without ever referring to it as taxation. So it is a HUGE stretch to dismiss taxation as being remitted to religious authorities. In the only other reference to a sword in Romans, Paul obviously refers to a real threat of death (whether from an actual sword or another weapon likely – Romans 8:35) and in his only other reference to a sword in his entire corpus, which is figurative, he refers to it as the “sword of the Spirit” and makes it _clear_ that it is figurative. He talks extensively about church discipline without ever referencing a sword. When you are translating, you don’t just consider the meaning of words, but how the author uses (and doesn’t use) those words elsewhere in their writing.

    You claim the translators are ignorant of history. Considering their expertise requires them to read ancient Greek outside of the Bible, it is more likely to be your ignorance, and a brief search would help you discover that while Basileus is not a term that emperors used of themselves officially, others commonly did in the Eastern Mediteranean area in Greek (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basileus#Romans_and_Byzantines)

    But it doesn’t really matter if it is “the Roman Emperor” or “the local king” – either way you have to justify why he is not speaking of an earthly king when he does not indicate that he is referring to Jesus as he does EVERYWHERE else that he refers to Jesus/God as a king. (And it is an infrequent occurrence compared to “Lord” or use of the word for human kings. In Acts 17:7 Christians are indeed accused of referring to Jesus as king, but the only two references to God/Jesus as king we find in Paul’s writings make it explicit by referencing God: 1 Timothy 1:17 and 1 Tim. 6:15.

    Against you stands 2 Timothy 2:2, where we are called to pray for kings and all those in authority “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved…” – this makes it clear that evangelism is in view (all people to be saved) and it is obvious we would not be called to pray “for” God/Jesus in this passage. Nor are church leaders the authorities primarily in view, since they would have no influence over whether Christians were able to live peaceful and quiet lives, and the reference to wanting all people to be saved would be out of place, but makes perfect sense if we’re praying for non-Christians. The language here is very similar to Romans 13 & 1 Peter, which suggests they all have similar people in view.

    In 1 Peter 2, you also have to answer why Peter would use “hegemon” to refer to church leadership when it is not used anywhere else in the NT in that way. In fact, in Luke 21:12 Jesus warns that Christians will be brought before kings (baileus) and governors (hegemon) on account of His name.

    You say that emperors were careful not to use the title basileus, but you ignore the fact that the Bible is careful not to use kingly/lordly language for church leadership. Instead the Bible uses “elder,” and “overseer” or “apostle” both of which emphasize that they are placed under another authority.

    The other references to Basileus are: Acts 4:26; 7:10,18; 9:15; 12:1,20; 13:21-22; Acts 25:13,14,24,26; 26:2,7,13,19,26,27,30; 2 Corinthians 11:32; Hebrews 7:1-2; 11:23,27 In every single case these are human kings, not church leadership or Jesus/God.

    Also, submitting to church leaders would hardly “silence the ignorant talk of foolish people” – the point is that being model citizen except where to do so would be a direct disobedience of God is a way to silence accusation and win people to Christ. He says, “show proper respect for everyone, love the family of believers—so obviously “everyone” is wider than “believers.”

    Regarding 1 Peter 2:17, You claim that honouring the king/emperor would preclude fearing God—but it depends on what you mean by “honour.” The word can also be translated, value, respect, etc. And it is immediately followed by instruction to slaves to submit to their masters—who may or may not be Christians (and since he later talks about receiving beating for doing wrong we would hope Christian masters are not in view!)

    You also ignore the context of this passage: 1 Peter 2:12 “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong they may see your good deeds…13 submit yourselves to every human authority” then he moves on to look at slaves and masters, wives who have non-Christian husbands, Jesus who was persecuted by unbelieving authorities.

    Lastly, you say that “king” is often used in the NT in relation to the kingdom of God, when in fact it is NOT. Kingdom and king may have the same root—but they are different words, and we don’t find king used in the context of kingdom at all except in Jesus talk with Pilate, and in his parable (Matt 18:23/22:2-13/25:34ff etc).

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