Book Review: Roman Imperial Texts – A Sourcebook

reasonerTitle: Roman Imperial Texts: A Sourcebook

Author: Mark Reasoner

Bibliographic info: 224 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the digital review copy.

When it comes to background material for New Testament studies, I’m much more acquainted with the Jewish world than the Greco-Roman world. I’ve read my fair share of primary and secondary literature on the pseudepigrapha, Philo, Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and so forth, yet I am definitely not as familiar with texts pertaining to the Greco-Roman world (e.g. Homer, Hesiod, Orpheus, Virgil, Julius Caesar, Plotinus, etc). Although, the Roman Imperial Cult is one area in that sphere of studies that I am at least reasonably acquainted with.

Roman Imperial Texts consists of various texts from the Roman world, including speeches, poems, inscriptions, and more. The author provides a look at the Emperors from Augustus to Hadrian, and discusses a whole range of topics such as games, war,  commerce, community, and social life. He doesn’t just draw from literary texts, but also utilizes archaeological and numismatic evidence to validate certain details. The book is quite visual. I read this book on my Kindle Paperwhite and the images were very good quality, though not as good as seeing them in color in the print edition (of course).

The author doesn’t explicitly state (as far as I can remember) whether the apostle Paul (and other early Christian writers) was directly opposing the Roman imperial system. Reasoner does discuss the two different views of this issue in the introduction: one view being that of N.T. Wright who sees Paul and company directly opposing empire, and the other view being that of John Barclay who thinks empire was basically ignored. Reasoner does seem to come down more on the side of Wright, though he leaves the question open. He says that “the fact remains that the Roman Empire found something wrong with Paul, even if he did not oppose the Roman Empire as directly as N.T. Wright suggests.” For my two cents on this issue, I think it is (at least somewhat) erroneous to think that Paul wasn’t concerned about the power and politics of the Empire, as in his perspective the terrestrial powers are inextricably tied in to the spiritual powers (e.g. this interconnectedness is important to understanding the NT phrases “rulers, principalities, and power”).

He states in the conclusion:

Did Rome’s hold on its empire influence the ideas found in the New Testament? Certainly it did in the sense that the New Testament describes Roman officials, such as the procurator Pontius Pilate or the centurion Cornelius, encountering Jesus or his followers. But are the New Testament’s descriptions of Christ’s rule, its records of the church’s growth, or its pictures of end times written in light of or in reaction to Roman rule and the golden age that Roman propaganda traced back to Augustus? If the texts and images in this volume motivate readers to discern new dimensions in the New Testament’s voices, then this sourcebook’s venture to Rome will bear some fruit.

I think Reasoner approaches this whole issue of empire, in this book at least, with the understanding that regardless of whether the early Christians were directly opposed to the Roman empire (and all the stuff related to it), it is nevertheless worthwhile to have an adequate knowledge of the Roman imperial system.

All in all, I think that anyone interested in New Testament studies, who has not already delved into Roman imperial studies to any great depth, could benefit from this book. The intro books to the New Testament that I remember reading years back didn’t cover the Roman world to the same depth as they did the Jewish world (which is understandable), so this would actually be quite a useful supplemental text.

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