Are counter-imperial readings of the Bible about to make a comeback?

Over the weekend, Mike Bird made a canny prediction on Twitter:



If you are not familiar with “empire criticism,” it is an approach to reading the Bible (especially the New Testament) that approaches Scripture as a “coded” critique of imperial regimes. According to this approach, those who are reading the biblical text carefully will notice parallels between gospel terminology and that of the first century Caesar cult. When read in that light, it is clear that the gospel is meant to oppose imperial regimes–especially the mighty American imperial regime that is afflicting the world.

Admittedly, that’s an oversimplification, but that’s the gist of it. This approach to reading the Bible seemed to have reached it’s peak in the mid to late 2000’s, when the United States was mired in the war in Iraq and being led by a Republican president. At the time, counter-imperial readings were all the rage and offered biblical scholars a basis upon which to oppose American foreign policy in general and President George W. Bush in particular.

Curiously, this approach to reading the Bible seems not to have been as popular over the last eight years during the presidency of Barack Obama. I suspect that left-leaning biblical scholars find Empire criticism unappealing during the administration of an American president that they like. But this really calls into question the legitimacy of counter-imperial readings to begin with. If the Bible really is counter-imperial, then it would be that way no matter who the American president is.

I have long regarded counter-imperial readings as problematic. And one of the biggest reasons was because many of the major proponents seemed motivated by a political agenda. If counter-imperial readings become a thing again as another Republican assumes the American presidency, I think my skepticism will be confirmed. In any case, I think it’s a flawed approach. If you’re interested in reading an extended explanation for why I think so, read this:

“Is Paul’s Gospel Counterimperial? Evaluating the Prospects of the ‘Fresh Perspective’ for Evangelical Theology.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51 (2008): 309-37.

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