Paul & the Roman Empire

Romans 13.1–7

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.


In previous articles I've talked about New Testament pseudepigrapha, texts falsely attributed to their namesake authors. Scholarship largely agrees on six letters being pseudepigraphical, with a few others still under debate. For example, it is essentially unanimous that the so-called ‘Pastoral Epistles’ — 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus — were not written by Paul: they do not match his writing style, they barely reflect his theology, their historical context far more fits the turn of the century (circa AD 90–110) than the period of Paul's career (c 40–65), and in several ways they actually contradict Paul's values as expressed in his authentic letters.

A similar problem to pseudepigraphical books are interpolations. These are shorter passages of text written by anonymous Christians, but now simply inserted into an authentic book. Because these are embedded into Paul's letters, interpolations can be difficult to spot; they're designed to blend in. While some interpolations have been discovered thanks to a critical examination of manuscript copies and a book's internal context, they are harder to find if they were added at such an early date that all existing copies of a book contain the fraudulent addition.

In the present case, I want to look at the evidence that Romans 13.1–7 may be an interpolation. While it is not a majority position of scholarship, there are several reasons given that cast doubt on this passage's authenticity.

A Summary of Romans

Paul has not yet met the Christian community in Rome. He is writing to them so they can become acquainted with his message, ready to welcome him when he finally visits. Hence, his goal with this letter is to explain his understanding of the complete message of the Gospel. (1.1–15) Paul outlines the universal problem of sin; even the Judeans, who have the law and prophets, have gained no advantage from their scriptures and still sin. Jesus alone did not sin, so through him God will save. This doesn't devalue the law and prophets, it only shows salvation is predicated on something bigger than having the right books. (1.16–5.11)

All humanity dies because of sin, but Jesus' act of justice (his self–giving death) reaches further and saves all humanity. This is not a license to sin; people must turn away from sin, condemned by the law and prophets. This doesn't mean the law is bad; the law exposed sin. But God saves through Jesus, and his spirit changes people's lives, in readiness for the future resurrection. God's love overcomes all things, even death. (5.12–8.39)

This brings us to Paul's theodicy: If nothing separates us from God, why do most Israelites not have faith in Jesus if they were the ones God gave the law and prophets in the first place? Paul reiterates that salvation must come from faith in the message that ‘Jesus is Lord’, but he says the current rejection of the Gospel by most Israelites is being used by God to provoke ‘the full number of the gentiles’ to salvation, and when that happens ‘all Israel will be saved’. In the end, God will not mercilessly condemn Israel and save only gentiles; God will be ‘merciful to all’. (9.1–11.36)

Because the full sweep of the Gospel is salvation out of death, the rejection of sin, the renewal of new life, and the reconciliation of all people to God, Paul exhorts the Roman church to live according to this future goal: (12.1–2)

  • Christians must live in harmony and cooperation. (12.3–8)
  • Christians must endure in love, patience, hope, and hospitality. (12.9–13)
  • Christians must love their enemies, never responding to evil in like manner, but extending mercy and compassion, leaving the fulfillment of justice up to God. (12.14–21)
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them—taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Romans 13.1–7
  • Christians must owe nothing to anyone except love, which fulfills the law and prophets. (13.8–10)
  • Christians must emulate Jesus above all else, because they know salvation is near. (13.11–14)
  • Christians must welcome people of diverse views, not judging them over unsettled matters like foods or holidays, because they're all living their lives for God and everything will be sorted out in the end. Likewise, Christians must not deliberately offend people with opposing views, because then they have failed to love them. God's kingdom is not about foods or holidays, but about justice and harmony. Welcome all people, Judeans and gentiles. (14.1–15.13)

Paul is writing to the Roman church not to overstep boundaries, as if they need any evangelism, but to remind them of the complete Gospel message and what it means for their lives. His readers now familiar with his understanding of the Gospel, Paul intends to finally visit the Roman church and looks forward to their reception. With that, Paul closes his letter. (15.14–33)

An appendix greets people in Rome Paul knows, and warns the Roman church to avoid people provoking division. With that, Paul closes his letter. (16.1–27)

Initial Reactions

Keeping Paul in his historical context immediately raises some red flags. Paul's message was an inherently political statement.

It is widely recognized that words like gospel, Lord, and Savior were not technical Christian religious terms but shared a linguistic background in the politics, propaganda and pantheon of the Roman Empire. … these parallels suggest a deliberate challenge to Roman imperial power, especially that associated with the imperial cult and its worship of the emperor. For many scholars, Paul's gospel has a clear sociopolitical texture and a counterimperial posture by parodying the imperial rhetoric in his “gospel” announcement.1

Yet Christians are to obey that Empire because ‘rulers are not a terror to good conduct’ and Caesar is ‘the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer’? It is incredible, then, that Paul would dedicate his entire life to boldly proclaiming a dissident message that legitimately risked death at the hands of the Empire while simultaneously instructing Christians to obey that Empire because it is a bastion of justice.

Romans 13.1–7 is unambiguous in its decree: Christians must obey the authority of the Roman Empire because God set the Empire in place to rule, and rulers punish only bad people. Yet this is nonsensical when held up to the last few centuries of Israel's history: Anticohus Epiphanes killing Judeans who followed the Torah, Rome eroding Judean autonomy and installing a client-king, Caligula attempting to place an idol of himself in Jerusalem's temple. Not to mention the unjust execution of Jesus by Roman and Judean authorities which serves as the entire basis for Paul's message.

Even Paul himself had been on the receiving end of unjust punishments from governing rulers. The inherent incompatibility between Paul's Gospel and the Roman Empire is the driving force behind Paul's arrest, trial, and delivery to Rome in the final chapters of the Book of Acts, culminating in his execution just a year or two after the narrative's end. The idea that the Roman Empire is a servant of God's justice flies in the face of Paul's historical knowledge and personal experience, not the least that Paul has already mentioned persecution of fellow Christians (8.35–36).

External Evidence

References to Romans 13.1–7 in Christian literature are absent until the second half of the second century.

A possible allusion to the passage comes from the Valentinian gnostic Heracleon (circa 175), though this is given second-hand by Origen of Alexandria several decades later. Definite quotations of Romans 13.1–7 come from Irenaeus of Lyons and Theophilus of Antioch (both c 180–185). The Martyrdom of Polycarp also appears to borrow from Romans 13.1–7, but there is no consensus when The Martyrdom of Polycarp was written, with many dating it to the third century or later.

First Clement (c 85–100), a lengthy exhortative letter written from the church in Rome, evidently knew and used Romans, but lacks any reference to 13.1–7. It has also been argued that Marcion of Sinope's copy of Romans (c 120–160) lacked the seven verses, though this is harder to verify since we don't have the full text of Marcion's copy, only an incomplete second-hand account.

A Contextual Interruption

Romans 13.1–7 appears in the middle of a series of instructions in 12.1–15.13, describing how Christians are to live. On the face of it, Romans 13.1–7 seems to fit because it is also an instruction on how to live. But closer examination shows some cracks.

There is an immediate contradiction between Romans 13.7, ‘Pay to all what is owed to them, [taxes, revenue, respect, honor]’, and the very next sentence in 13.8, ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another’. Is Paul saying Christians are to comply with a life where they owe many things, or are they to owe nothing but love?

All the other instructions in Romans 12.1–15.13 tell how Christians are to live so that they may ‘not be conformed to this world’ (12.2) but may be fit for God's kingdom (14.16). Paul is giving instructions on personal ethics as a consequence of the life-changing salvation offered by the Gospel, but this is suddenly split up by a command for total obedience to the Roman Empire, which is praised as a protector of justice and punisher of evil.

Although Romans 13.1–7 is one more instruction in a long list, there is a severe break in purpose between 13.1–7 and the rest of Romans 12.1–15.13. The prevailing theme in Romans 12–15 is love, harmony, and peace within the church. Romans 13.1–7 simply doesn't contribute to that theme. When Romans 13.1–7 is removed, the surrounding text flows much smoother and its theme continues uninterrupted.

Paul's Apocalypticism

Another major disjunction between Romans 13.1–7 and the rest of Paul's letters is his apocalyptic worldview.

A common theme in Second Temple-era apocalypticism is that something is not right with the world.

The Book of the Watchers in 1 Enoch attributes all the cruelties of the world to corruptions taught by fallen angels in the time before the flood. The Animal Apocalypse heaps blame on foreign kingdoms, twisting Israel with their influence or oppressing good people. The Book of Daniel likewise symbolizes the Babylonian, Median, Persian, and Greek kingdoms as monsters wreaking havoc until God finally intervenes.

The Revelation of John, borrowing from earlier prophetic literature, calls the Roman Empire a ‘beast’ bent on persecuting Christians for refusing to comply with the state religion. John criticizes ‘the kings of the earth’, claiming they have been drawn to evil by a ‘dragon’ (the satan) and ‘unclean spirits’. He even calls the capital city Rome a ‘prostitute’ who seduces those kings.

In so few words, apocalypticism sees empires as the world's problem. They are tyrannical powers, led by demonic forces, working in opposition to God. When God brings judgment to all these powers and their demons will be condemned.

Paul does not write in the hyperbolic symbolism of these other books, but the apocalyptic strain is still present in his authentic letters. Jesus ‘sets us free from the present evil age’ (Gal 1.4), and the ‘rulers of this age’ are ‘passing away’ (2 Cor 2.6). In the final judgment Jesus will ‘destroy every rule and every authority and power’, which are ‘his enemies’, in league with death itself (1 Cor 15.24–26).

Further instances of this apocalyptic worldview peek through in Paul (Rom 8.38, 16.20; First Cor 4.5, 6.2–3, 8.4–6, 11.32) and Paul's students (Col 2.15; Eph 1.21, 2.2, 6.12; Heb 2.14, 13.14).

When it comes to Romans 12–13, Paul's series of instructions on how Christians are to live ethically in relation to each other runs straight into his apocalyptic expectations: ‘Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.’

To harmonize Romans 13.1–7 with Paul, it is claimed Paul was ‘not meant to be unchecked or unqualified’:

Paul acquiesces to political submission for the sake of respecting God's appointed servants who genuinely benefit the city, and he recognizes that respect for authorities is a sensible way of staying under the radar of the imperial security apparatus.2

In this approach, Paul is seen as merely discouraging the Roman church from setting out to start a political revolution; he wanted them to bide their time until the eschaton. However, this view hardly accounts for the legitimate break between the opinion that the Roman Empire is God's servant and punishes only evil seen in Romans 13.1–7, and Paul's apocalypticism which saw such world powers as enemies of God needing to be subjugated in the eschaton.

Paul knew the Roman Empire regularly crushed and conquered regions, terrorized people (like the Judeans) into obedience, and compelled submission to the state religion. This can't be reconciled with the passage's, indeed, ‘unchecked and unqualified’ bright portrait of rulers like Caesar. There is a real disparity between Romans 13.1–7 on the one hand, which says world rulers are evil-punishing paragons of morality established by God, with the apocalypticism integral to Paul's theology on the other hand, which says that world rulers are expressions of the ‘evil age’ and will be ‘destroyed’.

Household Codes

The choice of language in Romans 13.1–7 stands apart from Paul's authentic letters in a few ways. The passage uses four terms that are only found once each in other letters from Paul (τάσσω, φορέω, ἔκδικος, προσκαρτερέω). Three terms are found nowhere else in his letters (ἀντιτάσσομαι, διαταγή, φόρος).3

However, there is extensive overlap with a passage in 1 Peter.

In Greek and Roman culture, the order of society was predictable: the father was the ruler of his estate; wives submitted to their husband, children to their father, servants to their master. In Roman law, this ‘rule of the fathers’ (patria potestas) was key to maintaining a functional society.

Second- and third-generation Christians began to provide their churches with their own ‘household codes’, and there is a distinct progression in how they were adapted into Christianity in the second half of the first century.

Scholars continue to debate why such rules for the household came to be emphasized by the second generation of Christianity. The following are among the more interesting theories: (a) since Christians stopped believing that the end was coming right away, they needed to devise better rules for how they could continue to function in their social arrangements with one another; (b) some Christians were claiming that all people had an equal standing in Christ (see Gal 3:28) and had begun to urge a radical egalitarian form of community, in which no one had precedence over anyone else (i.e., men and women / slaves and masters were all on equal footing); the household rules were intended to put a halt to this way of thinking; (c) Christians began to experience severe persecution from those who were outside, and needed to formulate stronger social bonds with one another, so as to provide a more cohesive front with which to withstand the barrage of persecution; (d) Christians had been accused of social improprieties and needed to demonstrate to the world that they were social respectable and free from any radical tendencies.4

A direct and simple form of this is found in Colossians 3.18–4.1. This is copied and elaborated in Ephesians 5.22–6.9. The pseudo-Pauline ‘Pastoral Epistles’ use the format to give instructions on how to order church communities under a bishop and deacons.

The household code in Peter 2.13–3.12 begins with a command that Christians must submit to the Roman Empire. The command being made, and the vocabulary used to do so, is nearly identical to Romans 13.1–7.5

Romans 13.1–7 // 1 Peter 2.13–17

Let every person be subject [ὑποτάσσω] to the superior [ὑπερέχω] authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good [τὸ ἀγαθὸν ποίει], and you will receive its praise [ἔπαινος]; for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong [τὸ κακὸν ποιῇς], you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God, a punisher [ἔκδικος] of wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject [ὑποτάσσω], not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them—taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. For the Lord's sake be subject [ὑποτάσσω] to authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as superior [ὑπερέχω], or of governors, as sent by him to punish [ἐκδίκησις] those who do wrong [κακοποιός] and to praise [ἔπαινος] those who do right [ἀγαθοποιός]. For it is God's will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the king.

In other words, Romans 13.1–7 has far more in common with the household codes seen in later Christian literature than it does with Paul's own mode of thought.

Conclusion

The manuscript evidence has nothing to offer in way of Romans 13.1–7 possibly being an interpolation; we don't find it ‘floating’ throughout the book in ancient copies, nor are there any copies where it is absent. There is also minimal external evidence; we know it was extant by about AD 160 at the latest, but we have little that tells us it was definitely absent in earlier times.

In contrast, the internal evidence is conducive to interpolation. Romans 13.1–7 has vocabulary untypical of Paul, but more common in later texts (Luke-Acts, James, 1 Peter). The tone is far closer to the household codes of later texts, with a high degree of verbal overlap with 1 Peter 2's household code (and Titus 3.1, to a lesser extent). Romans 13.1–7 unnaturally breaks the surrounding text of Romans 12–15, with reads smoother without it. The block's insistence that world powers are unquestionably in service to God is extremely contrary to Paul's apocalypticism.

Many insist that external evidence is necessary to determine interpolation, so we can't say with certainty that Romans 13.1–7 is a non-Pauline addition. However, on the basis of the internal evidence, I do find the argument for interpolation convincing.

Footnotes

1 Michael F. Bird, ‘“One Who Will Arise to Rule Over the Nations”: Paul's Letter to the Romans and the Roman Empire’, Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (ed. McKnight, Modica).

2 Ibid.

3 William Walker, Interpolations in the Pauline Letters, 224–225. (Walker in turn borrowed heavily from Ernst Barnikol and James Kallas.)

4 Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 388, Box 24.3.

5 Walker, 228–229.