Acts of the Apostles and the Rhetoric of Roman Imperialism

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Drew Billings
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , September
     2017.
     248 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781107187856.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Acts of the Apostles and the Rhetoric of Roman Imperialism is a “thoroughly revised” version of Drew Billings’s McGill University dissertation, supervised by Ellen Bradshaw Aitken. Billings argues that the composition of the book of Acts—particularly its characterizations of male protagonists, “the Jews,” and women—reflects certain strategies of self-representation that appeared in imperial monuments during the reign of Trajan (98–117 CE). He holds that Acts was written during this period as a type of “apologetic historiography”—tipping his hat to the work of Gregory Sterling—that reflects the postures appearing in Roman monumental historiography, calling Acts “an example of monumental rhetoric” (37). He uses the Column of Trajan as his primary interpretive comparandum.

The Column of Trajan, nearly 100 feet tall, was constructed in Rome in 113 CE. It features a continuous visual narrative depicting Trajan’s military conquests against Dacia across a frieze that wraps around the column twenty-three times, comprising a total of approximately one hundred and fifty-five scenes. Given these characteristics, the Column was effectively inaccessible to viewers, but it nevertheless offers insight into Roman self-conceptualizations of its imperialism under Trajan, including its relationship to those it conquered.

Billings analyzes the Lukan characterizations identified above in chapters 3, 4, and 5. Chapter 3 foregrounds the networks of benefaction in the Acts narratives, wherein Paul acts as a broker of God’s benefactions, much as Jesus does in Luke’s gospel. Both Paul and Jesus perform miracles, which distribute the benefaction of healing, and both are “endangered benefactors” (see especially 107–110). Billings traces this theme through the second half of Acts: in Lystra (Acts 14) and Ephesus (Acts 19), Paul performs miracles and so acts as a broker; Paul’s leadership during the sea voyage from Caesarea to Crete to Malta (Acts 27) reflects a Trajanic Romanitas; and after reaching the shore of Malta (Acts 28), Paul again acts as a broker, distributing God’s beneficence through miraculous healings. Through his work as a broker, Paul cultivates loyalty, establishing “a trans-regional patronage network” (119). Billings argues that interpreters can most credibly make sense of this characterization by reading it within the cultural context of the reign of Trajan, who amplified the official discourse of benefaction while aggressively expanding the domain of Rome’s imperium. As evidence, he refers to the manner in which the Column of Trajan depicts the emperor interacting benevolently with a variety of ethnic groups, skillfully navigating waterways, and pursuing the expansion of Rome’s territory.

Billings regards Luke’s characterization of “the Jews” as on balance negative, in agreement with such scholars as Shelly Matthews and Jacob Jervell. In chapter 4, Billings situates this negative characterization of “the Jews” amid “the resurrection of the misanthropy theme in Roman literature” (149). Jewish uprisings during Trajan’s reign impeded his expansionist ambitions by diverting military resources away from his Parthian campaign. These uprisings, which occurred “in Libya, Egypt, Cyprus, Judaea, and possibly Mesopotamia as well” (153), precipitated a cultural resentment among Romans toward Judeans as misanthropic and inhospitable, a sentiment that Billings exemplifies with excerpts from Tacitus and Juvenal. In Acts, Jewish groups frequently oppose Paul’s mission, sometimes using force. Luke often attributes their opposition to jealousy over Paul’s success. Accordingly, Billings contends that Luke’s characterization of Jewish opposition in Acts participates in the Trajan-era cultural resentment of Judeans. He writes, “this becomes one of the most salient patterns of the Pauline mission: expansion provokes resistance and missionary success prompts repression” (143), a scheme that “presupposes a pervasive prejudice among Greeks and Romans against the Jews as a pressure group whose way of existence is characterized by misanthropy” (144). Just as Roman writers articulated frustration over Judeans impeding the expansion of Rome’s imperium, so Luke characterizes “the Jews” as impeding Paul’s missionary progress using misanthropic tactics that—according to Tacitus and Juvenal, anyway—were typically directed toward non-Judeans.

In chapter 5, Billings argues that Luke’s representation of women in Acts “conforms to contemporary standards of representation in the Roman Empire” (186). These standards entail the intentional de-emphasis of women in such a way that they serve primarily as foils for the characterization of men. On the Column of Trajan, Billings observes three categories of women: dislocated Dacian women to whom Trajan offers protection; provincial women who offer sacrifices on Trajan’s behalf; and integrated Dacian women who express gratitude for Trajan’s paternalism. “Thus,” writes Billings, “ he variety of types of women represented on the Column serve to create various contrasts that elucidate Roman imperialism as a benevolent undertaking that brings civilization, security, and a sort of modernization to Dacia” (184). Billings reads Luke’s narrativization of women in Acts as functioning in much the same way, with female characters serving primarily as foils for the characterizations of Peter, Paul, and the church generally. For instance, Luke narrates the neglect of Greek-speaking widows in the distribution of food in Jerusalem, only to then appoint male overseers (Acts 6:1–6), “clarifying the protective nature of the church’s male leaders” and “enhancing the men’s philanthropic investments” (188).

Acts of the Apostles and the Rhetoric of Roman Imperialism thus interprets the Acts narratives as participating in strategies of representation that are well attested in imperial monuments during the second decade of the second century CE. Billings’s comparisons of Acts with graphic representations of Rome’s imperium are credible and compelling. Indeed, the Acts narratives are composed in such a way that they would have been particularly meaningful during the reign of Trajan. This date of composition, of course, aligns with the conclusions of many critical Acts scholars. Future studies can build on this interesting work by incorporating at least two additional considerations: Roman self-representation from the Julio-Claudian and Flavian eras that continued to linger in the cultural consciousness under Trajan, and the Second Sophistic sensibility of appealing to classical Greek literature as a resource for constructing identity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Kochenash has a doctorate in New Testament Studies from Claremont School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
January 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Drew W. Billings is visiting assistant professor of religion at the University of Miami in Florida and has taught at Kalamazoo College, Michigan, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York, Pepperdine University, Malibu, Saint Michael's College, Vermont and McGill University, Montreal.

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