Christians urged to honour the emperor
This passage from 1 Peter has been seen by many to offer a similar sentiment to Paul in Romans 13:1-7, where the Christian community is urged to respect the ruling authorities, who are only in power because God desires it to be so. The line of argument that Paul adopts in Romans can be compared on one level with Jesus’s teachings about Jews paying taxes to Caesar (see Mark 12:13-17; Matthew 22:15-22; Luke 20:20-26), where Jesus refuses to make an issue of the disparity that his Pharisaic opponents see between remaining faithful to God’s law and doing what the Roman authorities require. Jesus’s response simply implies that paying taxes to Caesar remains relatively harmless as long as it is understood within the context of God’s purposes - Caesar must be relativized to God, as he would not be in power unless God has allowed it to be so. Paul’s argument is slightly more positive than that of Jesus, however, as Paul chooses also to emphasise the beneficial aspects of Roman rule – protection of the good (including honouring benefactors who perform services for the community) and punishment of the bad. For both Jesus and Paul, the Roman state as God’s earthly tool has legitimate rights to some things, and this need not conflict with a living a Godly life (see Proverbs 8:15; Daniel 2:21, 37-38). Granted, the author of 1 Peter does instruct the audience to be appropriately subordinate to Roman rule, but unlike Paul in Romans 13, does not assert that the authorities are divinely sanctioned. As Paul J. Achtemeir (Achtemeir, 1 Peter, p. 180) argues, therefore, while both Paul and the Petrine author draw on a common early-Christian tradition about appropriate attitudes to civil authorities, there are prominent differences in their thinking, and as we shall see below, it seems that the author of 1 Peter holds the authorities in much lower esteem than Paul does in his letter to the Roman church.
We know little for certain about the first readers/hearers of 1 Peter, but what seems clear from the letter is that the Christians addressed are facing criticism and backlash from their contemporaries, likely because of their lifestyle which conflicted with certain aspects of Greco-Roman life, such as participation in idol worship and religious festivals. 1 Peter 4:3, for instance, states that Gentile contemporaries were shocked that the Christians no longer joined in with things that they formerly had done. Two prominent voices on the issue of the Petrine Christians and their relationship with wider Greco-Roman society have been David Balch and John H. Elliott. The former argues that the author encourages the audience to integrate themselves fully into society (Balch, “Household Codes”), while the latter suggests that the Petrine Christians needed a distinctive identity, and so the author calls for them to separate themselves from the world (Elliott, A Home for the Homeless, p. 111). A more balanced suggestion, however, comes from Torrey Seland, who argues that we are likely dealing with a Christian community consisting in the majority of reasonably recent converts, mostly Gentiles, with perhaps a small minority having a Jewish background. Therefore, the community was in particular need of help with assimilating into Christian life and learning which aspects of their former lifestyle were and were not now acceptable (Seland, Strangers in the Light, p. 169).
The message of the present passage is certainly not marginality – the Christians are encouraged to honour the emperor and remain obedient to the Roman authorities. They should conduct themselves in such a way that their behaviour is a positive example to non-believers (hence 1 Peter 3:1, where wives are instructed to submit to their husbands in order that any unbelieving husbands might be won over for Christ through the good conduct of their spouses). As Paul Achtemeir points out, the accusations against Christians alluded to in verse 12 are most likely popular reactions against non-conformist behaviour. There is little to point towards anything more formal (Achtemeir, 1 Peter, p. 177) (although for an older counter view, see James Moffatt, The General Epistles, p. 120-121, who despite slender evidence, believed legal accusations and trials before civil authorities are in view here). The notion of good behaviour in society as a remedy for such negative opinion against Christian believers draws on the ideology of Matthew 5:16, whereby one should be a guiding light to the unbeliever through their day to day conduct, in the knowledge that eventually, on the day of judgement, non-believers will realise that Christian behaviour is sanctioned by God.
Roman authority is clearly limited by the Petrine author in relation to divine authority – the emperor, while commanding the respect of his subjects, is ultimately a human being. Verse 17 commands that while Christians “fear” God (φοβέομαι), they should “honour” (τιμάω) the emperor (here referred to as a βασιλεύς – “king”) as they should also “honour all men.” This effectively places the emperor on the same level as other human beings. While he is worthy of respect as a civil authority, he is distinguished from God. Achtemeir argues that this may be partly in response to the growing prominence of the imperial cult in Asia Minor, prompting the author of 1 Peter to firmly differentiate between civil obedience (which is perfectly acceptable) and seeing the emperor as a deity (which is not compatible with Christian beliefs) (Achtemeir, 1 Peter, p. 180). On this issue, see Horst Goldstein, “Die politischen Parӓnese, p. 102, who argues for a “demythologizing” of the emperor by the Petrine author. This would have been an important message both for Christians who thought it unproblematic to participate in the imperial cult, and for those who on account of their belief that Christ was the one and only Lord were reluctant to obey civil authorities. This latter viewpoint was potentially dangerous for the community, as it could draw undue attention to Christians and attract avoidable criticism.
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