Epistles, Part 4: Romans 13…Isn’t It Ironic?
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | June 28, 2018Hi friends, last week I responded to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ use of Romans 13 during his comments about the enforcement of immigration policy along our southern border. I argued that Mr. Sessions misused Romans 13:1 in three ways. Yet my critique of his comments took for granted that Paul actually means what he says in that passage. Today, I want to offer an alternative possibility: in advocating subjection to the governing authorities, Paul is being deliberately ironic.1 When I say Paul is being ironic about the authorities, I mean that Paul praises them for virtues, motivations, and behaviors they obviously lack. It’s as though he’s praising the cat for its compassion and restraint towards the mouse. I offer two primary reasons for this reading.
I. First, and most significant, if Paul is not being ironic, then the historical events of the decade leading up to Paul’s letter to the Romans render much of Paul’s language in Romans 13 either grossly insensitive or nonsensical. A likely date of the composition of Romans is 56 CE, about two years into the reign of the Emperor Nero. Several years before this, around the year 49 CE, the Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome, apparently for rioting at the instigation of a figure one Roman historian refers to as “Chrestos.” This figure is probably a (Roman non-believer’s) misspelling of “Christ.” As Christ had already died, risen, and ascended by that point, the proclamation of the Christian gospel probably caused the riots. It’s unlikely that Roman imperial authorities would’ve spent much time distinguishing between traditional Jews and Jewish Christians, or between Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians associated with them. To Rome, everyone was guilty.
So, around 49 CE, Emperor Claudius sends his goons to round up and expel from Rome a host of Jews, Jewish Christians, and (likely) Gentile Christians. However, around five years later (around 54 CE), Emperor Nero suspends that edict, allowing everyone to return. These are the people to whom Paul is writing in the letter we have today: people who were forced into exile by the authorities’ swords, who lost their property and livelihoods and homes in the process, and who had to start all over upon their return. It’s likely all these Roman believers were poor, which meant they had almost zero support from the authorities even before the exile. (For example, if a robber attacked a poor person, the poor person was personally responsible for catching the robber and bringing him to trial.)
To recap the timeline: in 49 CE Emperor Claudius expels all Jews, Jewish Christians, and their Gentile associates from Rome. Homes and livelihoods are lost. In 54 CE, Emperor Nero undoes that edict and allows everyone to return, but after exile, they’re materially very weak. In 56 CE, Paul writes his letter to the Romans.
Keeping all of this in mind, an ironic reading of Romans 13 actually makes the most sense. When Paul writes, “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad,” he is clearly attributing characteristics to the Roman authorities that aren’t true! These very “rulers” were a terror to everyone, not just the “bad.” They indiscriminately rounded up everyone with even a hint of Judaism about them and kicked them out of Rome because some of them were preaching the gospel. If Paul is not being ironic, then Paul must be suggesting that the Roman believers’ expulsion from Rome was God’s “wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:4). And if Paul is suggesting that, then we must either say that Paul is being intentionally insensitive to the experience of Roman believers, or that Paul is ignorant of their situation.
The former objection does not make sense. Unlike with the Corinthian church, for example, with whom Paul had a good deal of contact both in person and via letter, Paul has never been to Rome (Rom. 1:13). Paul is also not the founder of the Roman church. Thus, while Paul clearly knows some members of the Roman church (see below), he has very little relational authority there. If he wants the Roman church to take seriously his reflections on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation, for example, he jeopardizes his own credibility by being insensitive to his recipients’ history of being persecuted. Thus, insensitivity is counter to Paul’s purposes.
The latter objection, that Paul simply was unaware of the Roman authorities’ oppression of believers in Rome, also doesn’t hold up. Even though he had never been there in person, the specificity of some passages in Romans demonstrates that Paul knows what’s happening on the ground. For example, Paul responds to a lack of clarity regarding what kinds of food are appropriate to eat (14:3-4, 14-15). Furthermore, Romans 16 is filled with Paul’s namedropping of people he knows there. Paul greets Prisca and Aquila in 16:3, for example. Acts 18:2 lists them as having been expelled from Rome by Claudius. Perhaps Paul met them and heard their story during his travels, while they were themselves in exile. By the time of Paul’s writing, they had returned to Rome.
II. Second, irony serves to unite ‘insiders’ while leaving ‘outsiders’ in the dark. In other words, Paul is offering up an inside joke to the Roman believers. Folks who are on the inside feel united, while those who are on the outside are left ignorant of anything beyond the surface meaning of the text. It’s as if a bunch of Texas A&M fans traveled to England together, and one of them makes a wisecrack about Longhorns in reference to, say, some rude Londoner on the sidewalk. The Londoner, who is ignorant of the ways of Aggies and Longhorns, likely wouldn’t know he was being made fun of.
By being deliberately ironic in Romans 13, then, Paul accomplishes two goals: first, Paul’s ‘inside joke’ builds a sense of community between himself and people he has never met. Paul knows Roman officials have persecuted the people to whom he is writing, just as he himself has been persecuted. To suggest that the authorities have been ordained for their collective “good” (13:4) generates a shared, if grim, laugh. Another example: for poor Roman believers, tax collectors are notorious extortionists. Thus, Paul’s recipients are smiling wryly when they hear Paul say, “[pay] taxes to whom taxes are due” (Rom. 13:7). Everybody knows that tax collectors ask more than what is due. They work for Rome for free; extortion is how they pay themselves! Paul’s irony communicates, “Hey, I’m one of the gang!”
Two weeks ago, I wrote that in Paul’s day letters were frequently delivered by messengers who were familiar with the author. This is no doubt true of the deacon Phoebe (Rom. 16:1), who delivers Paul’s letter to the Romans. Whereas we may have a harder time picking up on Paul’s irony while reading it, the original recipients heard it read aloud by someone who knew Paul’s intentions and could accentuate her presentation accordingly. In short, Phoebe may have hammed it up during her presentation of Romans 13 so as to better communicate Paul’s irony.
This brings me to the other goal Paul accomplishes with irony: keeping Phoebe safe. For Paul and his contemporaries, one risk of sending a letter was that it might fall into the wrong hands. In Rome, the ‘wrong hands’ were Roman authorities who, as demonstrated above, had a history of picking on Jews and Christians. By using irony, in one stroke Paul not only creates an inside joke for him, Phoebe, and the Roman believers, but he also leaves Roman officials in the dark. If they were to confiscate Phoebe’s letter, they would simply interpret it the same way Attorney General Jeff Sessions did in his comments earlier this month: at face value. Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities. No irony, no nuance, no complexity—just “be subject.” Full stop. No reason to arrest Phoebe for that.
Other factors suggest Paul is being ironic in Romans 13. As an apocalyptic thinker, for example, Paul understands the existing political order as broken, as counter to God’s purposes, and as ultimately fading away. In 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, for example, Paul writest that the “rulers of this age” who “crucified the Lord of glory” are “doomed to perish.” The “rulers of this age” are the same “authorities” Paul is talking about in Romans 13. This is hardly an unequivocal endorsement of state power and suggests we should be cautious in assuming there’s nothing beneath the surface of a verse like Romans 13:1. I’ll continue this theme next week and try to bring some of these ideas to bear on our own context.
1. I am indebted to T.L Carter’s argument throughout this piece. See “The Irony of Romans 13” in Novum Testamentum XLVI: 3, January 2004. Pages 209-228. Carter does not, however, attend to Phoebe’s potential role in performing Paul’s meaning. Her performative role only strengthens the rest of Carter’s argument.