Tuesday, March 20, 2018


Drew W. Billings, Acts of the Apostles and the Rhetoric of Roman Imperialism. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xiii, 231. ISBN 9781107187856. $99.99.

Reviewed by Allen Brent, King's College, London (alb13@cam.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site


The Acts of the Apostles has been assigned to various dates in early imperial history with a scholarly consensus falling between 80 and 90 C.E. Drew Billings is not convinced by the grounds cited for that period. He considers that consensus to be based on a compromise between claims that the author is an eyewitness of the events described and skepticism about that claim (12). His original approach to this problem is to invite us to recognize that the Lukan narrative is a rhetorical construction of whatever original facts there might exist behind such a reshaping. Billings believes that he has found the shape of Lukan historiographic rhetoric in the reign of Trajan (98-117 C.E.) and in both literary and material artefacts that describe and proclaim that reign. It is with this reign that the writers of the second sophistic (Dio Chrysostom, Aelius Aristides, the Younger Pliny, Suetonius, etc.) flourish, along with a refashioned model of imperial values and of empire itself under the Optimus Princeps.

The ubiquitous presence of images of the emperor and their idealization of him as a moral figure reached a new height with Trajan when Pliny in the Panegyrus attributed a large accumulation of existing individual public virtues to a single imperial person (56). This was what justified the description of Trajan as Optimus. Indulgentia ('generosity') comes to assume a specific meaning when applied to Trajan as a paternal quality, requiring in response the filial duty of the subject, namely, his pietas that is appropriately associated with his beneficia. The paternalism thus created modifies the claim that the emperor is a princeps and not a dominus, and is assimilated to the patronus-cliens relationship that involves the inferiority of the suppliant in the light of the patronal generosity (58-64).

The emperor as pater or patronus delivering his beneficia to his subjects was to transform with Trajan the concept of imperium. The latter concept had developed from Republican times. Billings makes a claim that I find questionable, namely, that 'imperium was used to refer to a person's or a collective power over another,' and thus he can argue that in Trajan's time it had grown into 'power as a territorial extent.' It would seem to me that, on the contrary, even in Republican times 'imperium' as applied to a particular magisterial rank referred to constitutional authority exercised within a specific geographical area, as with a consul over a prouincia (66-67). Certainly however, by Trajan's time, the claims of maius imperium had resulted in the concept of the Principate as the guarantor of an imperial whole (54-58).

The advantage of his use of both literature and a material artefact in order to construct a pagan rhetorical narrative in which the early Christian Acts of the Apostles can the read is that he can thereby avoid the demand to state the specific genre in which it has been written: 'biography,' 'novel,' or 'homeric epic' (18). The narrative of Acts cannot be classified within 'a single generic category,' but rather is to be viewed 'within an eclectic mixture of literary works that transcends any one particular category' (22). Billings seeks a 'multimedia' approach in which different types of media as well as different types of genre created the general perspective that provided the legitimation of political power (23). Parallel with literary evidence, Billings therefore proposes to examine those material artefacts which enjoyed a large popular viewing in the public spaces in which they were located, and whose chronological endurance guaranteed the continuing presence of their ideological message.

Billings selects as his exemplar Trajan's column set up in the Forum (113 C.E.) (27-46, 58-91). Here Trajan is depicted as the patronus whose military expedition brings the beneficia of Roman rule to his Dacian clientes. In scenes depicting violence and bloodshed the Emperor is absent and the violence is done by his provincial auxiliary troops (28, 129, Fig. 14). Trajan appears as generously granting pardon to suppliant Dacian captives (32): he is not so much a conqueror than a εὐεργέτης providing εὐεργεσία (72-73; 104). Trajan's mission to Dacia is a civilizing mission, witnessed by the building activity of his troops (33, Fig. 4).

Acts can now be read through the prism of this pagan rhetorical narrative in which genres and images afford a rhetoric of Christianity. Miracles are regarded as acts of εὐεργεσία performed by Peter and Paul as expressions of Christ's patronal favour, of him who 'went around benefacting (διῆλθεν εὐεργετῶν)᾽ (Acts 10:38 cf. 4:9 and p. 92). The commission from the Church at Antioch for Barnabas and Saul to take famine relief to the Judaean community represents the former as a 'benevolent society … with Barnabas and Saul as their delegate brokers' (97). Indeed, Paul's conversion is seen in terms of his change from an angry individual exhibiting no features of Trajan's Romanitas. That he persecutes by hunting down the Christians is quite opposed to the policy articulated in Pliny's famous letter to the emperor (in 10.97, p. 95-96). Pliny was not actively to hunt Christians down but only act if they were accused. Paul's subsequent travels, his good relations with Roman magistrates of whose attitudes he approves, witnessed how well Christianity, in the view of the author of Acts, corresponds with the Trajanic imperial virtues. Paul at Lystra performs a miracle of healing on a lame man, in an event that connects him with the similar actions of Peter and John earlier on in the account (Acts 14:8-10 cf. 3:8-16, p. 104-106). Miracles are acts of euergetism confirming the elite status of the apostles (109).

Paul lands in Malta as a result of shipwreck, whilst he acts in accordance with the Traianic ideal of the emperor as guider of the ship (115-166, cf. Fig. 13 on 119). Furthermore, Paul's travels as part of the apostolic ministry from Judaea and Samaria to the ends of the earth mirrors the Traianic view of imperium as a beneficium (121-128).

Billings' contribution to Lukan studies is impressive and his thesis is one that was clearly worth trying out. My problem is that his interpretation of the narrative data only partially fits that data in that non-Traianic features and issues cannot be picked out and included in the discussion. Regarding the Traianic dating of Acts as a product of the second sophistic I find it problematic that the language of ὁμόνοια does not explicitly occur even though such descriptions as ὁμοθυμαδόν characterize the author's idealization of the first apostolic community (Acts 2:46). ὁμόνοια language first occurs with Domitian as a means of cloaking imperial subjugation under the term that describes natural harmony between autonomous city-states: its absence from the Lukan narrative would indicate Domitianic rather than Traianic concerns that had not yet experienced full conceptualization.1

Whilst accepting the apologetic character of Luke-Acts aimed at Graeco-Roman imperial culture, I believe that the author is addressing the claims of Augustus himself and his program rather than the Traianic object in presenting the justification of imperial rule in terms of patrons with benefactions and the virtues that such actions imply. The enduring character of monuments, in this case the Ara Pacis Augusti, means that the iconography of the Augustan Principate remained available and enduring to all who observed it. There are in Luke-Acts deeper, religious claims implicit in the description of the Saviour who establishes εἰρήνη in both heaven and earth, and thus achieves the pax deorum in nature and in society.

Converts like Theophilus and his circle needed to feel that their new found faith did not threaten the pax deorum, which the Principate had succeeded in achieving where the Republic had failed.2 It was to Theophilus and his neophyte Christian circle and not to the general Hellenistic public, whether or not imbued with Traianic ideals of imperial rule, that Luke-Acts is addressed: its immediate purpose was not to make Christianity more acceptable to a pagan public but ἵνα ἐπιγνῶς περὶ ὧν κατηχήθης λόγων τὴν ἀσφάλειαν (Luke 1:4).3 The Hellenistic neophytes were to be reassured that the benefits of peace, security, and prosperity brought by the Principate were guaranteed by Christians who were part of the imperial peace, bringing Christ's peace and the prospects of a renewed aetas aurea. The hostility expressed to Judaism in the scenes in which its adherents were dogging the steps of Paul by provoking dissension was not a reflection, as Billings thinks (142-163), of increasing conflicts in the time of Trajan, but of the failure of Judaism to achieve the divine pax in which Christianity was to succeed.4

Billings has produced an analysis based upon a fine argument but which I consider flawed by the inadequate construction of a Traianic matrix within which to interpret his data. A good model to use in a comparative analysis should include rather than exclude important features of the data that require interpretation.


1.   Allen Brent, Ignatius of Antioch and the Second Sophistic, (Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum 36; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2006), 245-257.
2.   Allen Brent, The Imperial Cult and the Development of Church Order: Concepts and Images of Authority in Paganism and Early Christianity before the Age of Cyprian (Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 45; Leiden: E.J. Brill 1999), 82-106.
3.   Brent, Imperial Cult, 75-78; 137-139.
4.   Brent, Imperial Cult, 108-130.

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