Saturday, May 09, 2020

REVIEW OF “Caesar and the Sacrament”

A review of CAESAR AND THE SACRAMENT on Goodreads by Luke Eshelman -

"In the world of Biblical scholarship, there are very few authors who have the ability to write original analysis which appeals to both an academic and a general audience. As a result, the average Christian has little access to some of the most important developments in Biblical studies. The rich contribution of historical and rhetorical criticism often remains out of reach, which reinforces the false dichotomy between history and faith.

"This book, which in many ways functions as a sequel to his earlier work, “Subversive Meals”, breathes new life into both the historical and contemporary understanding of baptism. Streett is careful to note the influence of both Roman occupation and the rich matrix of Jewish-Israelite religion, history and Scripture. Of particular interest, is the development of the Latin word sacramentum – what we in English call the “sacrament.” We know from Tacitus and other Roman sources that sacramentum was understood as a “verbal pledge of allegiance a soldier gives to his emperor.” As Streett expounds, “Tacitus was the first to speak of “receiving the sacrament” (sacramentum acciperent) because the oath was being administered to the soldier on behalf of the emperor. The wording of the oath remained constant; only the object of the oath changed from one Caesar to the next. Through the reign of Caesar Tiberius (14–37 CE), soldiers were required to take the sacrament only once during their career, but during a time of great turmoil in the Empire, Galba (68 CE) required them to take the sacrament on a yearly basis.” The early Christians employed the now familiar word as they gathered to pledge allegiance to Jesus as Lord and Savior.

"Streett then discusses a well-known letter from Pliney the Younger to Emperor Trajan, in which Christians subjects 'pledge themselves by a sacrament.' Such a pledge was treasonous and invited the wrath of Rome unless one denied his or her allegiance to Jesus. Tertullian specifically equates baptism with the sacrament as an individual’s initiation into the Kingdom of God as opposed to that of Rome. From here, Streett moves on to the Jewish context of baptism which seems to emerge initially with John the Baptist. He pays close attention to the exile/exodus theme running through both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. John begins his movement in the very wilderness where Israel initially journeyed from Egypt to the Promised Land. He baptized in the Jordan, which echoes the crossing of the Red Sea and seems to marry the symbolism of water purification for the forgiveness of sins with a new political exodus from the Roman occupation and the Temple establishment.

"Streett also stresses the importance of resurrection – a theme which has its roots in the OT prophets – especially Ezekiel, Isaiah and Daniel. Paul describes baptism as a symbolic act of death – in which the individual dies with Christ. Jesus linked baptism with his own death and glorification on the cross, and Paul echoes this theme in his letter to the Romans. In Romans 6:4, he declares “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life.”

"Thus, baptism is an initiation rite in which one pledges allegiance to Jesus and puts to death the old life for the sake of the new life in the Kingdom God. Streett makes it clear that in the first century, such actions were not only subversive but at times treasonous. Allegiance and fidelity to Jesus comes at a cost and we would do well to consider what that means in 21st Century America. Streett does not elaborate on practical applications; instead, he bestows his readers with enough historical exegesis to think for themselves. The clear divide between political and religious did not exist in the ancient world, and modern Christians are consequently in need of the historical analysis provided in this book. Streett is skilled at surveying the layers of history and dispensing his message in a clear and readable style. With an endorsement from Walter Brueggemann (who wrote the forward), it is clear that his thesis will find a home amongst both scholars and laity alike. I especially recommend this book to anyone who is curious and open to considering how history can inform one’s interpretation of Scripture."

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