Had an interesting discussion today with an old grad school friend about Michael Walzer's new book, In God's Shadow, where Walzer interprets and discusses the political implications of the Hebrew Bible. Surprisingly, given his work on social criticism, on the politics of Exodus, and his general political leanings, he mostly rejects the idea that there is any discernible political vision embodied in the text. We pondered the strangeness of this view, especially coming from one committed to the project of Israel, and eventually segued into the strange idea that the New Testament, of all things, is the decisively political portion of the Christian Bible. The evidence is straightforward:
1. Paul and Peter both feel it necessary to enjoin Christians to follow the political authorities (Romans 13 was once memorably summarized to me as "pay your taxes"), which implies that it was unclear whether Christians had to follow any political authority at all. Obviously, Christianity's roots in Second Temple Jewish messianism are relevant here: Paul et al are mostly reminding Christians that they are not to be the Essenes or other radical/revolutionary Jewish sects.
2. On the other hand, the central insistence of the New Testament is that "Jesus is Lord," which has been helpfully glossed by Oliver O'Donovan, N.T. Wright and others as "...and therefore, Caesar is not." Christianity is incompatible with empire, and anti-imperial in its most basic essence.
3. Paul saves himself from execution in the book of Acts by announcing himself as a Roman citizen. The idea that citizenship could possibly matter is as foreign to the Hebrew Bible as the idea that following the political authorities is something that a person might choose to not do.
It was #3 in particular that led us to wonder whether the heightened political nature of the New Testament had to do with the very different circumstances of politics under Roman as opposed to Near Eastern empires. Hebrew Bible politics are limited in part because there are very few potential outcomes for the average person: you fight or you don't; if you fight, you win or you lose; if you lose, you're enslaved or killed. Roman politics, for however autocratic it was, opened up ever-so-slight a space for individual-level political action.
(We also discussed the possibility that the date of canonization in the Hebrew Bible had something to do with this: post-biblical works like the Wisdom of Ben Sira mention, with admiration, the Senate, but Biblical politics have already been decisively settled by the failure of the monarchy and the experience of exile. Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, which include the post-Biblical books and those denoted by Protestants as 'Apocrypha' have a smaller margin to close in this regard.)