Borg & Crossan on Paul’s View of the Emperor

For nearly two millennia, Paul’s letter to the Romans was used to establish that kings and rulers were appointed by God as His earthly representatives: “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” (Romans 13:1). This was used to establish the divine right of kings, and to support many tyrants, including Hitler.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan do not like this. In The First Paul, they say that “insofar as this could and would be taken as a general and unqualified principle, it is one of the most imprudent passages in all of Paul’s letters.” They realize that it was always taken as a general principle, and invent a new interpretation.

First, their complaint that Romans 13:1 was imprudent is very strange. Imprudence has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of a claim, which is presumably their primary concern. In fact, the term is often used for some action that is considered to be correct, while disparaging it for being premature and unrealistic. For example, when Billy Graham spoke about the efforts of Martin Luther King to end racial discrimination, he said they were imprudent, though he approved the concept. He opposed King’s program because it would lead to unrest, and preferred to put such measures off indefinitely.

Borg and Crossan know that rulers are not divinely appointed, and that Paul’s claim has led to enormous evil. They do not want Paul associated with such a concept, and claim that contrary to appearances, Paul had something very different in mind. They ask that we view this claim within the broader context of context of Romans 12:14-13:10. Romans 12:14 says “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Romans 13:10 says “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law.” Keep in mind as well that Romans 13:7 says “Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due.”

Thus Borg and Crossan assert that what Paul really meant in Romans 12:14-13:10 is that we should pay our taxes and not fight about it:

“We can now see what is Paul’s concern in 13:1-7 when it is replaced within its fuller context of 12:14-13:10. It is, of course, about taxes and revenues demanded by Rome but precisely about refusing them violently, about the specter of violent tax revolts among Christians. It is something that appalls him so much that – in rather a rhetorical panic – he makes some very unwise and unqualified statements with which to ward off that possibility.”

In other words, when Paul says that the emperor is God’s representative, he really wants you to ignore it. And when Paul says, “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” (13:4) -- ignore that as well.

These scholars claim Paul wants you to go directly from 12:14 to 13:10, with perhaps a very brief stop at 13:7 to discover that it is really all about taxes. This is very creative casuistry, and yet another pious fraud. The reason that in 2000 years, no one connected the verses of Chapter 12 with those in Chapter 13 about the divinity of kings is that that they are essentially independent. And if Paul simply wanted to tell people to pay their taxes – which was not a major issue, especially in Rome -- it was much more than “unwise” for him to proclaim the divinity of rulers.

First Corinthians on Rulers

Borg and Crossan conveniently overlooked the fact that Paul previously preached a very different tale about earthly rulers. In First Corinthians, Paul said “none of the powers that rule the world has known [God’s] wisdom” (2:8). Surely God would have passed on some of his wisdom to His earthly representatives! Furthermore, Paul said that when Christ returns, “when he hands over the kingdom to God the father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (15:24-25). Note that this was the standard Christian message. This is what happens in the Book of Revelation.

That is, several years before Paul preached the divinity of rulers to the Romans, he told the Corinthians that they were God’s enemies and that Jesus would soon crush them. There is nothing subtle about this contradiction. Borg and Crossan knowingly suppressed it. I challenge you to find any New Testament scholars who openly acknowledge the contradiction, much less make an honest attempt to explain it. In this field, religious zealotry far outweighs intellectual integrity. I very much doubt whether an honest discussion could be published in one of their respected journals.

Paul’s Roman Audience

Paul singled out many members of the Roman “Church” in Chapter 16 of his letter. At least two groups – the families of Narcissus and Aristobulus – were members of the emperor’s household. The emperor was patron to many people. These men and their households became part of the emperor’s household, which numbered in the thousands. It is likely that others named in Chapter 16 were also part of the emperor’s household. This is occasionally documented, though it is never connected to Paul’s message.

Paul preached the divinity of the ruler when he addressed members of the emperor’s household, and condemned rulers as God’s enemy elsewhere. This is not what we expect of a saint, but it is quite normal for a con artist or Christ-hustler. It is entirely consistent with Paul’s claim that he was a Jew to the Jews, and a Gentile to the Gentiles.