A: Back in August 2005, before I’d set foot in graduate school, or even considered doing so, you wrote a piece about “the peace sequence.” At the time, you flagged what John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed had written at the beginning of their book In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004). Crossan and Reed wrote this:
“Paul’s essential challenge is how to embody communally that radical vision of a new creation in a way far beyond even our present best hopes for freedom, democracy, and human rights. The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace. Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus’ footsteps, and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace. A subtext of In Search of Paul is, therefore: To what extent can America be Christian? (page xi)”
I can still remember your reaction when I read this paragraph back in 2005. At the top of the page, I wrote down your response: “Jesus: peace through personal responsibility in the sequence of education, mentorship, personal responsibility, then peace.” It’s taken me years of research and ongoing discussion with you to more fully understand what you meant that day.
J: As I said then, I don’t disagree with Crossan and Reed’s formulation of Paul’s peace sequence. Paul did, in fact, teach his followers to reject the Roman ideal of peace through victory — the Pax Romana — and to choose peace through divine justice or justification. But this isn’t what I taught. So they’re wrong to state that Paul was following in my footsteps. Paul wasn’t following me or my teachings. If anything, he was going along with a straw broom trying to erase all evidence of my footsteps.
A: Last week on the Vision Channel, I watched an episode of The Naked Archaeologist where Simcha Jacobovcivi looked at the idea that Paul was actually an agent of the Romans. Biblical scholar Robert Eisenman has been saying this for years — and in fact Eisenman was interviewed by Simcha on last week’s episode. If Paul actually was an agent of the Romans, why would he have taught his followers to reject the Roman version of the peace sequence and accept his own Christ-based peace sequence? It doesn’t make any sense.
J: It doesn’t make sense if you view Paul as being an agent of the emperor in Rome. However, it makes a ton of sense of you view Paul as being an agent of other powerful Roman figures — members of the Roman elite who wanted to seize power for themselves. It would have been in their best interests to set up a religion to compete head-on with the Roman Emperor Cult.
A: Oh. Why haven’t I read that anywhere else?
J: Because it sounds like a low-down, dirty rotten, scandalous political ploy. A cold, calculating, ruthless attempt by one party to seize power from another party. With Paul as the chief spin doctor for the down-and-out party. Who wants to say that out loud?
A: Maybe the producers and writers of the Rome TV series? That series certainly pulled back the curtain on the behaviour of the Roman aristocracy — the things they did to try to get power.
J: The truth about Paul isn’t pretty. He was no saint. On the other hand, he believed in what he was doing. He believed he was doing the right thing. He felt totally justified in trying to convert the Diaspora Jews and the Gentile God-Fearers to “the cause.”
A: And what cause was that?
J: Deposing the evil, corrupt Julio-Claudian dynasty and restoring the One True Religion and the One True Emperor.
A: You’ve got to be kidding.
J: Nope. I’m not kidding. There was a huge group of disaffected Romans still living in Alexandria, Egypt, and they believed that their divine right to rule over all lands had been usurped from them by the upstart Julius Caesar and his family. They were convinced that Alexandria, not Rome, was meant to be the centre of the world, and that one of their own bloodline was destined to be Emperor. When Augustus manoeuvred to have Rome declared a Principate — until then it was officially a Republic — the Alexandrians went beserk. The situation was not improved by the institution of the Emperor Cult — meaning worship of the man who sat on the throne in Rome. The Alexandrians believed this was sacrilege. Furthermore, the Emperor Cult was undermining the Alexandrians’ ongoing efforts to gain popular support for a shift in power from the West to the East. They knew they needed a strong religious structure in place before they could gain that popular support.
A: So they needed a new religion — one tailored to their needs.
J: Some of the greatest religio-political thinkers that ever lived found their way to Alexandria.
A: Because the Great Library was there?
J: In part. But powerful mystery cults had their roots there, too. The importance of mystery cults in the history of ancient politics can’t be overstated. Official rulers couldn’t rule without the support of the local religious priests — a reality that still exists in many parts of the world today.
A: So Paul’s Christ-Saviour religion was invented as a way to secure a widespread religious power base for the Alexandrian group. By the way, did this group have a name?
J: Not one you’d recognize today. For the purposes of our discussion, we’ll call them Seekers of the Rock. There’s a reason for this name — a reason based on their occult beliefs.
A: Okay. Seekers of the Rock. Why did this group conscript Paul to do its work?
J: Paul was an angry man — a man looking for a way to undermine my teachings. You could say that Paul and the Seekers had many interests in common. Paul had no love of the Emperor Cult, and he had no love of me. The Seekers of the Rock offered him a deal he couldn’t refuse. Over a number of years he developed a religious formula he thought would work in the new religious climate of the Empire. Then he went on the road to preach it and gauge the response. He had to fine-tune it as he went along. This is why you see changes in his theological claims over the course of his “ministry.”
A: Well, whatever he did, it turned out to be spectacularly successful.
J: He didn’t do it by himself. The Seekers were powerful and wealthy, and they did everything they could to back him up. They footed the bill for his “Amazing Race” around the Eastern Mediterranean, kept him in hiding when the Romans were getting too close, arranged to have his scrolls copied and distributed. It was very much a team effort.
A: Sounds a lot like the federal election we just had here in Canada.
J: It’s a good analogy. Except they weren’t trying to win an election — they were trying to establish a theocracy with their own man as divinely-appointed emperor.
A: Who was “their man”? Was it Paul himself?
J: No. Paul’s job was to lay the theological groundwork for the coming “return of the king.” The original plan was to build on Jewish apocalyptic and prophetic texts so people would be expecting the imminent return of the Saviour. The Saviour was given a new and distinctive name — Jesus Christ, Jesus the Anointed One. Once enough people were “on board” with the idea of the return of the Saviour, and once the necessary political and military and economic measures were in place, the idea was to “reveal” the newly returned divine Saviour. They planned to secretly train a prince from their own bloodline and present him publicly as Jesus-Christ-returned-in-the-flesh when the time was right. They would claim he was the divine son of God and therefore the rightful claimant to the religious and political power of Rome. This is why they needed a religious power base in Rome. The Seekers believed that pious Christians would roll out the welcome mat for the man they claimed was the Messiah. All they needed was enough time, patience, and money to bring their plan to fruition.
A: Obviously it didn’t work out the way they planned. What happened?
J: God made sure that an obscure scholar in Judea got his hands on Paul’s key doctrinal statement: the letter now called First Corinthians.
A: Your great-nephew. The man we know as Mark.
J: Mark saw right away what they were doing. And he answered it word for word with his own non-covenantal, non-pious testament to the power of education, mentorship, and personal responsibility in achieving peace and relationship with God.
A: I love a good conspiracy theory!