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HTS Theological Studies

Print version ISSN 0259-9422

Herv. teol. stud. vol.64 no.4 Pretoria Oct./Dec. 2008

 

BOEKBESPREKINGS / BOOK REVIEWS

 

 

Hardin, J K 2008 - Galatians and the imperial cult

Publisher: Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck. 188 Pages. Price: Unknown

Reviewer: Prof Dr W Carter (Brite Divinity School - Christian University Fort Worth, USA)

This book intends to examine "Galatians against the backdrop of the imperial cult in order to determine its value for understanding the social and religious setting of the recipients of Paul's letter" (p 19).

In Part 1 on the imperial cult, chapter 2 provides a somewhat generalized and simplified introduction to the imperial cult and ideology. The first half identifies some ways in which the cult proliferated, while the second part discusses the cult's "reception" among local populations. The division is awkward, suggesting that Rome exported the imperial cult while provincials willingly received/consumed it. Previous studies of this interaction - not considered here - indicate a much more interactive and ambivalent process. The discussion also does not consider the relationship between "Romanization" and the imperial cult. The use of a sociological model of empire (G Lenski's?) might have helped to establish the hierarchical empire's concentrations (and deprivations) of power, status, and wealth. While the discussion rightly notes the involvement of non-elites, it neglects gender and observances in associations and households.

Chapter 3 examines the degree to which the imperial cult and ideology impacted on Galatia. The discussion catalogues archaeological evidence for the imperial cult and ideology. A lack of methodological sophistication prevents examination of a range of negotiations. The use of James C Scott's work, and postcolonial theory might have complexified and teased out the multivalent and ambiguous ways the powerless (and powerful) negotiated imperializing power. There is little contribution to be found in these chapters.

Part 2 turns to Galatians. Chapter 4 argues that Paul's statements in Galatians 6:12-13 about the agitators are reliable. Engaging Winter's analysis, Hardin argues that the agitators were local Jewish Jesus-believers, not Galatian outsiders (pp 92-94). They participated in the imperial cult (pp 102-110), but sought to avoid civic and synagogal persecution for associating with separated Gentile Christians who did not observe the cult (pp 91, 114, 144). The agitators sought to circumcise them not because Jewish groups enjoyed exemption as religio licita (rightly rejected) but to regulate their status by reintegrating the Gentile believers with a more societally "normalized" (cult-participating) group, thereby also securing their own protection from persecution.

Chapter 5, "'Days, Months, Seasons, Years' and the Imperial Cult (Gl 4:10),"

argues that Galatians 4:10 refers not to the Mosaic law but to the imperial cult and its festivals. The salvation-history sketch in 4:1-7 awakens "the Galatian Jesus-believers from their observance of the emperor cult" (pp 138; also 134, 138-139, 141, 145) to which they have returned under social and familial pressure in order to allay their social dislocation (pp 143-144, 146-147). The agitators advocate circumcision to normalize the Gentile believers in society thereby avoiding their own persecution from civic authorities for being affiliated with a Gentile group that did not observe the imperial cult (p 144).

I find this reconstruction of the Galatian crisis in relation to the imperial cult unsatisfactory. At best, it is imprecise in terms and confused in articulation; at worst the main argument is simply incoherent. In chapter 4, for example, Hardin argues initially that the Gentile Galatian believers have separated from the agitators (Jewish Jesus-believers, 93-94). But within ten pages he contradicts himself by arguing that the agitators urge circumcision for Gentile believers because civic authorities and synagogues were persecuting the agitators for associating with a group that did not observe the imperial cult (pp 91, 111-113, my emphasis). So were they associating or not? "No" on pp 93-94; "yes" on pp 111-113, and "not yet" on p 111 (Paul is "attempting to persuade the Galatians to dissociate themselves from the opponents;" p 96).

Or again, Hardin argues in chapter 4 that the Gentile Galatian believers do not participate in the imperial cult (pp 91, 114) while the agitators do (p 91). But in chapter 5, initially Hardin argues - plausibly - that Galatians 4:10 refers to the imperial cult in which Paul's addressees were participating ("you are observing …" present tense). Hardin then builds his argument on their NOT observing the cult. That is why the addressees had, so the argument goes, created an ambiguous social location for themselves "in no man's land" (p 112) and why Jewish Jesus-believers pressured them to be circumcised, partly to alleviate this ambiguity (normalize status, 143) as well as to protect themselves from persecution. But if the addressees are already observing the imperial cult as Hardin's exegesis of 4:10 claims (contrary to his argument of chapter 4), they do not have an ambiguous status that needs to be resolved, they are "normalized," there are no association difficulties for (participating) Jewish Jesus-believers (if they were associating?) because everyone is participating in the imperial cult, there is no reason for circumcision, and there would be no persecution! Chapter 5 destroys chapter 4.

Throughout, Hardin asserts the key role of persecution for both the Gentile believers (for not participating in the cult) and for the agitators in associating with them. Hardin produces no first-century provincial evidence that civic authorities routinely persecuted those who did not participate in the imperial cult or those who associated with groups that did not participate. While there was societal pressure to participate, participation was not required.

There are other problems. Despite the book's title and Hardin's insistence on exegesis (18), the discussion of both Galatians and the imperial cult is minimal. Only 2 passages - generously 12 verses - receive detailed discussion. The inadequate understanding of the pervasive presence of empire is reflected in the frequent use of the image "background/backdrop" (e.g. 19, 47, 48, 86 [2x], 91, 113, 114, 116, 123, 149 [3x], 150, 151, 155 [2x]). The empire was foreground not "background," constituting the multi-faceted daily reality negotiated by millions, as previous work (that Hardin at times disparages) has established. The book's minimal contribution is also evident in that much of the (confused) "argument" comprises modifications to previous proposals from B Winter and T Witulski. Throughout there are typos (p 2 "bene"), wrong words (p 58, "catch site" should read "catch sight;" p 137, "Christ's son" should read "God's son").

This is not to conclude that Galatians has nothing to do with the imperial cult. The good work of Brigitte Kahl, Davina Lopez, and Crossan and Reed, to name some not engaged by this discussion, suggests otherwise.