Roman Self-Representation and the Lukan Kingdom of God

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Michael Kochenash
  • Minneapolis: 
    Lexington Books/Fortress Academic
    , October
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


More than thirty years ago, J.Z. Smith observed among scholars of early Christianity a stubborn insistence on the historical and cultural uniqueness of their subject matter. This way of thinking entirely circumscribes the possibility of comparison, of identifying and parsing degrees of “sameness” among various religious traditions and their related texts. What is needed instead, Smith ascertained, is “the development of a discourse of ‘difference’, a complex term that invites negotiation, classification and comparison, and, at the same time, avoids too easy a discourse of ‘same’” (Drudgery Divine, University of Chicago Press, 1990, 42). In the book based on his impressive doctoral dissertation, Roman Self-Representation and the Lukan Kingdom of God, Michael Kochenash has developed just such a discourse of difference, and put it to fruitful use in his reading of Luke and Acts.

Kochenash lays out his primary thesis in the introductory chapter: Comparing Luke’s narrative allusions to popular Greco-Roman myths highlights what Luke believes to be some of the key differences between prevailing attitudes toward Roman imperial power and the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus and the apostolic church. The book is divided into two substantive parts: part 2 compares Jesus to other foundational figures like Aeneas and Augustus, while part 3 considers the question of incorporation into the empire as opposed to Luke’s view of inclusion into the Kingdom of God.

Chapter 2 begins with a Lukan crux interpretum: What exactly does the author of the Gospel mean when he claims that Adam was the “son of God” (3:38)? Finding virtually no analogous support for such an idea among earlier Jewish writings, Kochenash turns instead to the mythical accounts of Augustan lineage. Just as Augustus was adopted by Julius Caesar, whose own genealogy was traced back to Aeneas, the son of Aphrodite, so also Jesus was adopted by Joseph, whose genealogy Luke traces back to Adam, the primordial son of the God of Israel.

In chapter 3, Kochenash examines the movement of material and social capital in relation to these foundational figures, concluding that while the movement of resources within the Roman imperium is characteristically centripetal, flowing from the general populace toward the emperor, Luke contrastingly presents the Kingdom of God as centrifugal, with divine blessings flowing outward from the central figure (Jesus) toward the suffering and marginalized. Chapter 4 compares the ascension of Jesus in Acts to the ascension of Romulus as depicted in the writings of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Livy, Ovid, and Plutarch. While the latter accounts provide ideological underpinnings to support Roman imperial conquest, the former promotes a nonviolent spreading of the Kingdom of God by word of mouth and personal testimony.

Kochenash turns his attention in chapter 5 to the question of inclusion: how is one incorporated into the Roman Empire or the Kingdom of God, and what sorts of responsibilities does this inclusion entail? Here Kochenash argues that Luke’s naming of Aeneas (Acts 9:32–35) evokes the legendary figure as a “structural metonym” for Imperial Rome. This metonym serves one of two narrative arcs in Acts which highlight (1) the incorporation of gentiles into the Kingdom of God, and (2) the establishment of God’s kingdom within the heart of the Empire.

Similarly, in chapter 6 Kochenash sees in the resuscitation of Tabitha/Dorcas at Joppa (Acts 9:36–43) an intertextual allusion to the figure of Dido. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, Dido (whose name, like that of Dorcas, also means “deer”) is driven to suicide by her unrequited love of Aeneas, who abandons her as he pursues his fate with the Trojans. This leads Kochenash to a quasi-allegorical reading of Peter’s raising of Tabitha: “Whereas Rome leaves people dead in its progression toward imperial destiny, the kingdom of God brings restoration of life” (111).

The most intriguing chapter of the book, chapter 7, compares the Roman centurion Cornelius’s prostration before Peter (Acts 10:25) with similar gestures of obeisance found among imperial victory coinage. Here, Kochenash sees Cornelius acknowledging his incorporation into the Kingdom of God by bowing at the feet of a Judean, just as other vanquished peoples were expected to bow before their Roman captors. According to Kochenash, however, Peter’s response in Acts 10:26 suggests a rejection of this “Roman logic” (135), raising the conquered gentile on equal footing with himself. Finally, in chapter 8, Kochenash compares the incorporation of superordinate ethnic identities within the Roman Empire and the Kingdom of God. His conclusion is remarkably simple: While the gods of Greco-Roman myths are deceitful, unpredictable, and capricious, Luke portrays the God of Israel as being trustworthy, assuring the salvation and full inclusion of ethnic outsiders.

Roman Self-Representation and the Lukan Kingdom of God is well organized, written with a clarity that would make Luke himself proud (see Luke 1:3), and adds to the mounting evidence that the author of Luke and Acts may not have been as deferential toward the imperium as scholars once supposed. Perhaps Kochenash’s most valuable contribution to the discipline, however, is his careful maintenance of the distinction between the form and content of narrative, which allows him to avoid some of the obstacles inherited from oversimplified scholarly binaries (Jew or gentile; Christian or pagan).

When forced unnecessarily into a comparative framework that assumes a simple correspondence between texts and their socio-religious backgrounds, some readings are left unexplored that ought not be. Kochenash begins with the suggestion that Luke and Acts belong to the broad stream of Hellenistic Jewish literature, a claim which adds a layer of nuance to his thesis: Luke almost certainly drew upon popular Greco-Roman literary motifs to distinguish and clarify his conception of the Kingdom of God; he also may have been enculturated within a thoroughly Hellenistic Jewish setting. Kochenash’s method of contrastive reading helps account for both of these conclusions, and opens up exciting new possibilities for future interpretations of Luke and Acts. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Paul Smith is an adjunct instructor in religious studies at Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

Date of Review: 
October 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Kochenash is postdoctoral research fellow in Christian studies at Hunan University’s Yuelu Academy.


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