Obedience to the state; An exegetical exploration of Romans 13.

“There is the indigenous law and government of Israel on the one hand and there is the global empire of Caesar on the other. The two are not the same thing yet they are both lumped in together in Christendom’s interpretation of Romans 13.”

It seems to me that the principle of submission to government, that many rely on Romans 13 to justify, is a direct contradiction to the principle of the radical sovereignty the Kingdom of God that underpins the rest of the New Testament, and indeed the Old Testament too.

The easy conclusion to draw is that the religious authorities of the Roman Empire inserted passages such as Romans 13 into the text to legitimise the authority of the Roman state.

However, after an examination of the Greek vocabulary used in Romans 13, it appears that the ideology of Rome has simply miss-interpreted and de-contextualised a teaching that is fully in accord with the radical sovereignty of Jesus. In fact, the radical sovereignty of the Kingdom of God over and above state and empire is its essential point.

It seems to me that the imperial trickery of Romans 13 involves the singular notion of government – there is only one government and you are either for or against it. The Kingdom of God is reduced to something that manifests only in the minds of the faithful and not in real history and place.

When the New Testament was written Israel was in a major political upheaval. We learn from Acts that the new Jerusalem church expanded massively after Pentecost. We also learn that the gentile Samaritan nation turned to God and joined the Jerusalem church, unifying the Northern Kingdom of Israel with Judea and Galilee. We learn from the histories of Josephus that the Roman military and government was evicted from Israel during this time and a reformed Sanhedrin, no longer bound by compromise with Rome, ruled the land. Acts tells us that some members of this Sanhedrin were leaders of the Jerusalem church.

There are two governments in the New Testament – one is the kingdom of God as instituted by the covenants of Abraham and Moses in the land of Israel. This is the Jubilee law that Jesus proclaimed and the law that Matthew tells us that Jesus came to fulfil. This government was the brief historical reality of Israel 30 years after the execution of Jesus and some unspecified time after Pentecost. This is the government during the time of the writing of the New Testament. It is the repression and persecution of this government after the smashing of the temple in 70 AD that is recounted in the epistles.

The other government is the kingdom of Caesar – the gentile idolatrous foreign empire that did the persecuting during the time of the New Testament.

There is the indigenous law and government of Israel on the one hand and there is the global empire of Caesar on the other. The two are not the same thing yet they are both lumped in together in Christendom’s interpretation of Romans 13.

If we look at the Greek words used in Romans 13 we see that there are indeed two different concepts used, one being the supreme and ultimate authority of a theocracy and its ministers and the other being an evil state and its agents.

It seems to me that Romans 13 is a juxtaposition of the two governments and not a one-dimensional call for obedience to the state. Paradox is central to biblical story telling and this passage is no different.

Romans 13:1 demands that all must submit to the governing authorities. The Greek words used are – hyperechō (higher, excellent, supreme) and exousia (power, authority). These higher powers are appointed by God. Verse 2 tells us that to rebel against these higher authorities is to rebel against God.

Verse 3 says – “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong”. The Roman state certainly meant terror for indigenous Jews. The execution of Jesus was clearly not a matter of anything that Jesus had done wrong. To call for obedience to the state machine that executed the Messiah just simply does not make sense. The freedom from death that manifested in the execution and resurrection also means freedom from the machine that threatens death as a means of social control.

The Greek word for ruler in verse 3 is not the same word for the higher authorities in vs. 1 and 2. The word used in vs. 3 is archōn (ruler, prince, chief). I see no reason to assume that this different word is referring to the same thing but this is how Christendom has interpreted it.

The Greek word for terror in vs. 3 is phobos – which means fear and reverence. The same word used in describing the fear of God by the faithfull.

The first sentence of verse 3 is saying the rulers (as different from higher authorities) are not feared and revered by those who do right. It is those who do wrong that hold the fear and reverence for the rulers.

The second sentence of verse three returns to the word exousia – the higher authorities refered to in verse 1, in saying…”Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.”

This is the juxtaposition of the story – are you going to fear the servants of God or the rulers? Are you going to be worried about what the government might do to you or are you worried about what God and his agents might do to you?

Verse 4 again does not refer to rulers or chiefs – archōn, but rather to servants – diakonos and leitourgos (where we get the words deacon and liturgy from), This is a crucial differentiation that is at the heart of Jesus teaching on leadership in saying the first will become last and the last first. The higher authorities are servants. But beyond that, the specific meaning of this passage is again, to be afraid of what Gods servant will do to you.

Verse 4 says – “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing.” In New Testament times, it was not the Roman government who was killing people with swords; their preferred method of killing was the humiliation of public impaling. It was the Sicarri, the Jewish armed nationalist zealots whose method of assassination was the sword. Their targets were Jews who collaborated with Rome, just as was the method of indigenous resistance to imperialism in the Maccabees revolt as well as Moses’ massacre of the unfaithful (Exodus 32).

Without getting too deep into the issue of swords, that deserves its own essay, we know that Jesus identified with the tradition of swords in saying that he had come to bring a sword and on the eve of his death he urged his disciples to carry swords. Whatever our interpretation of these things, it is clear that swords had something to do with the mission of Jesus and it is simplistic and inaccurate to suggest that the sword in Romans 13 is referring to Caesar’s regime and its divine right to kill. The servants of God, for one reason or another or by one meaning or another, wielded swords in accordance with Hebrew history and tradition and this is what Romans 13:4 is referring to.

Verse 5 “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” Is a reinforcement of the transcendence from the fear of consequences by the state referred to in Verse 3. Despite the sword threat in verse 4, the leadership of servants can only exist with the willing participation of those being lead which is the antithesis of the way that rulers (archon) maintain power.

Verse 6 and seven is a reinforcement of the laws of Moses; it is a command to pay tributes in accordance with the Kingdom of God. This verse holds exactly the same principle as Jesus’ statement “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. Like Romans 13, this is not a command to pay Caesar’s tax but rather a juxtaposition of God and Caesar. It is a differentiation between God and Caesar.

Verse 7 says…. “Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

The Greek word for respect in verse 7 is phobos, the same fear and reverence as in Verse 1. Like “Give unto Caesar” this verse is not a call to pay Caesar’s tax but a call to choose between the sovereignty of Caesar and the Kingdom of God. Who are we going to fear and revere, God or Caesar?

Verse 7 has to be understood in the context of verse 8….. “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law”….. This is clearly a call to Moses’ Jubilee law (Leviticus 25); it is not about paying tax to Caesar.

Verse 9 must demolish any assumption that the writer is calling for obedience to Caesar… “The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Verse 10 -“Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Love is certainly the fulfillment of the law in the Jubilee restoration and the person Jesus himself who proclaimed the Jubilee. However there can be no reasoning that an imperial state that brutally massacred, enslaved and persecuted anyone, let alone the people of God and the Jesus movement that the writer of Romans was a part of, could be said to be fulfilled by love. It is an absurd assumption yet one that Christendom has maintained.

The law and government that the writer of Romans is calling us to be obedient to is the Kingdom of God. The writer dismisses the authority of the rulers who are feared and revered by wrong-doers.

The book of Romans is strong advice to a gentile church. It is not about how that church might relate to its own gentile government or Caesar’s regime but how that church might relate to the authority of the Jerusalem church, its ministers/servants and the covenants of Abraham and Moses – the Kingdom of God on Earth. It is the government of the Jerusalem church who the Roman church was being asked to submit to, not Caesar.

John Tracey

(Bible quotes are from the New International Version. Greek vocabulary from Strong’s lexicon)


6 responses to “Obedience to the state; An exegetical exploration of Romans 13.

  1. Thank you for this! Too often this passage is looked at as ending with v.7. I think looking at it as continuing is so important, and not having studied Greek myself, this is helpful.

  2. Thank you for this exploration! People often are misinterpreting this passage. Would you please help him to get more information with regards to this.

  3. Hello Abhishikta,

    I am not sure where to refer you for more information. This position is not the church’s orthodox understanding.

    I suggest you search for information about the Roman Jewish wars (search those keywords) to get an understanding of what was going on at the time of the writing of the new testament. The whole new testament is worth re-visiting in the light of its Hebrew history and the wars of the Roman empire at the time.

  4. c. Michael Snow

    Remember that after Antiochus IV intervened in a Jewish civil war [168 B.C.] and desecrated the Temple, that the autonomy won by the Maccabees only lasted a few decades. Following Pompey’s capture of Jerusalem [60 B.C.] they were subject to the Romans. The Senate conferred the title “King of the Jews” on Herod in 40 B.C.. And for four decades he bore the sword under which many Jews chafed.

    Following Herod’s death in 4 B.C., revolts again broke out. When Archelaus’ rule ended in A.D. 6, Judas the Galilean led a revolt. Varus with three legions who bore the sword, crushed it and 2,000 Jews were crucified [Josephus, Ant. 17:295].

    From this period until the outbreak of the Jewish War in AD 66, Zealots and assassins would continue to foment rebellion and violent outbreaks against the Roman rule and taxes. During the insurrections from 46 to 48 A.D., two sons of Judas the Galilean were executed by Rome. After that, probably in A.D. 49, Claudius issued an edict expelling the Jews from Rome because of disturbances [Acts 18:2]. When he died in A.D. 54, Jews began returning to Rome.

    In A.D. 57, Paul wrote to them, “…I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect…
     Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn….
    Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. On the contrary:
       “If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
          if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
       In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
     Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor…

  5. Hello Michael,

    I am not sure if you are for or against what I am suggesting and would be curious to hear your critique.

    If as you say, Paul was speaking to Helenised Jews returning to greater Israel – then would this not give weight to my hypothesis that Paul is referring to two kinds of authorities, the authority of Rome – the one who evil men revere and the Authority of either the Jerusalem Sanhedron or the Jerusalem church of Jesus witnesses – the authorities appointed by God.

    The Greek does not read the same as the translation you have quoted which only uses the singular concept “authority”.

    While I can imagine the hot coals on the head thing can be referring to Roman oppressors/persecutors, I can also see that it is might be referring to tribal authorities in matters such as circumcision and Sabbath that were used to exclude Hellenised Jews (and gentiles) from equality with tribal Jews in Judea. I believe Jesus poured hot coals on the Pharisees and Saducees heads many times while still acknowledging their priestly authority, for example.

    Keep in mind, the hot coals bit is in the context of feeding the hungry.

    Also, the tax business is more likeley to be an appeal to the principles of the sermon on the mount and Moses law regarding debts than it is a call to pay Caesar’s tax in the context of independent Israel’s (6th decade) boycott of not only Caesar’s tax but any coin with his face on it, specifically referred to in recounting of the Jesus story.

    If Israelites throughout the empire were returning to Israel, either fleeing persecution or by pilgrimage to the newly re-dedicated temple after Herod/Caesar’s defilement (which is where my mind goes in considering the Pentecost gathering, ) – then it makes sense that Paul would give some instruction as to relationships with the indigenous sovereign authorities in Israel rather than proclaim the sovereignty of Caesar – in contradiction of his repeated insistence of the sovereignty of Jesus.

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