Colossians: Through An Imperial-Critical Lens

“No one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24)

There is an African adage which goes; “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” This confronts the Empire(s) of our modern times. The history from the margins is either silenced or deliberately unheard for the survivability of the Empire rests on the silence of the margins. Therefore the only way to overthrow the Empire is to redeem the voice of the margins and subalterns. Christian faith is seditious to the Empire because it affirms a God who took flesh and became human exposing Himself to the social, cultural, economic and political contingencies of his own time and context. Therefore the Incarnation of Christ impedes us from making theology a sequestered academic discipline. It compels us to engage with the lived experiences of the people especially those who are on the fringes. This is what postcolonial hermeneutics endeavours for; to reclaim the voice of the margins. As Christopher Bryan poignantly puts it; “If postcolonial studies have taught us anything, it is surely that in examining historical situations, we must listen for the voices of those who were ruled as well as for the voices of those who ruled them. Often the voices of those who were ruled are not easy to hear. They have been ignored or silenced, and so forgotten. What we call “history” tends to be written by the powerful.”[1]

This blog presents Christianity as counter-imperial by taking Colossians Christ Hymn (Col 1:15-20) as the frame of reference. The hymn is analysed from an imperial-critical vantage point to unravel the subversiveness of Christian ethos which upends not only the Roman Empire but the Empires of our times as well.

Christianity: A Critique of Imperial Hegemony

Christian Scriptures identify Christ as the “Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6). It is tempting to romanticize the idea of peace with an elitist interpretation. But true peace is achieved only when the margins realize peace. It mandates the repentance of the dominant. The often quoted scriptural analogy of peace reaffirms this; “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat.” (Is. 11:6). Notice the syntax of the verse. It’s the powerful (wolf and leopard) who should forsake their hegemonic privilege for the oppressed (lamb and goat) to achieve peace.

A similar syntax is found in the Magnificat as well; “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52). The emancipation of the lowly is hinged upon the dethronement of the powerful. Jesus’ birth not only subverted the wisdom of the “wise men” but also transfigured the margins as sites of theophany. Wati Longchar expatiates; “Margin is a theological principle that critiques all the dominant value systems that dehumanize, exclude and push some people to marginality. It critiques cultures, traditions and theology that justify and nurture unjust institutions advocating marginality as a part of the divine creation and they will inherit the Kingdom of God life after death.”[2]

It is not only the birth and life of Christ that sabotaged the imperial wisdom but also his death. Christ by choosing the ignominious death on the Cross – “the imperial instrument of terror”[3] – not just unveiled the violence implicit in the imperial narratives[4] but more importantly transfigured the very means of imperial oppression; He converted the Cross – the imperial means of annihilation – as the very means of life itself. Christ through his crucifixion and resurrection has seized the cross from the hands of the oppressor and transformed it into a symbol of resistance and hope for the oppressed. As Jonathan Martin writes;

“The power of the cross from the very beginning of the Christian story is this: the oppressed took the very means of terror out of the hands of the oppressor & subverted it, transfigured it, & transmuted it into a sign of defiant, hard-edged hope. The oppressed stole the language & iconography of the empire, emptied it of the meaning assigned by the empire, and made it mean what they wanted to mean. If you thought the cross was a sign of piety, you were only half right. The cross is not what compliance looks like, but defiance.”[5]

Christ was never subservient to the ethos of the Empire. To the contrary he was always at loggerheads with it and never spared an opportunity to call out its devaluating traits. The way he chose to begin his public ministry with being baptized by John the Baptist itself has anti-imperial reverberations. Marianne Sawicki proffers an intriguing interpretation that the baptism initiated by John the Baptist was to oppose the Italianization of Israel by Herod Antipas. John did not want the waters of Jordan – the resource of the commons of Israel – to be colonized by tourists and foreign business travellers making their way between Tiberias and Jerusalem. John used the waters to signal ‘repentance’. Hebrew word for repentance is ‘Shoob’ which means ‘to turn back’. Jesus asking John to baptize him shows the disengagement of Jesus with the colonial industrial complex and powers.[6]

Furthermore, the anti-imperial attitude of Christ is reflected in his calling of his first disciples Simon, Andrew, James and John (Mark 1:16-20). The exhortation of Christ to abandon their fishing nets could be interpreted as an attempt to divest themselves from the exploitive economic structures furthered by the imperial system because “the Roman Empire tightly controlled the fishing industry through a series of high taxes and licensing fees, which together functioned to extract wealth from the laboring classes and transfer it to the imperial elites.”[7] Therefore Christianity is by all means a faith that critiques the imperial hegemony.

Paul and Empire

It is detrimental for New Testament scholarship to consider that the letters of St. Paul are only theological rather than political because such a binary was unknown to the Roman Empire. Religion and politics were interconnected in antiquity especially in the Roman imperial milieu.  Only few scholars have attempted to study Paul within the matrix of the Roman imperial context. N.T. Wright comments on Paul and Empire;

“His missionary work, it appears, must be conceived not simply in terms of a travelling evangelist offering people a new religious experience, but of an ambassador for a king-in-waiting, establishing cells of people loyal to this new king, and ordering their lives according to his story, his symbols, and his praxis, and their minds according to his truth. This could only be construed as deeply counter-imperial, as subversive to the whole edifice of the Roman Empire; and there is in fact, plenty of evidences that Paul intended it to be so construed, and that when he ended up in prison as a result of his work he took it as a sign that he had been doing his job well.”[8]

Warren Carter further opines; “Much twentieth-century New Testament Scholarship…was simply oblivious to the empire, preferring spiritualized and individualized readings of the New Testament that rendered the empire – the empire of Rome that is – invisible or dismissing it with the woefully inappropriate term “background.”[9]

The vocabulary of Paul is impregnated with imperial imageries. For instance; “ekklesia (‘church’, used for the gathering of citizens), euanggelion (‘the gospel’, used for imperial good news), savior (an official title of the emperor since Augustus), dikaiosyne (‘justice’, attributed to Augustus), eirene (‘peace’, used to describe the peace established by Augustus), and especially the Christological kyrios (‘lord’, used for the emperors after Augustus).”[10]

Paul cannot be read in political vacuum for he existed in a context where politics was intertwined with faith. Although Paul was Jewish he was nurtured in a Roman imperial milieu and it is highly improbable to assume that the language Paul used in his epistles did not evoke in the mind of his readers a response to Roman politics. Joerg Rieger argues; “One must seriously wonder why Paul would have been persona non grata in the Roman Empire, spending much time in its prisons and enduring constant harassment and repression including torture (not a thing to take lightly in any context), if he did not pose a challenge to empire and if all he wanted was to address some of the more intricate points of intra-religious discourse.”[11]  

Paul’s affirmation of Jesus Christ as Lord is indeed a threat to the Empire. The shift in the allegiance to the Lordship of Christ from the Lordship of Caesar in imperial parlance is known as “regime change.”[12] Christ is now the object of faith, worship and devotion as opposed to Caesar.[13] Notice how Seneca quotes the words of Emperor Nero who perceived himself to be the divine representative on earth;

“Have I of all mortals found favour with heaven and been chosen to serve on earth as vicar of the gods? I am the arbiter of life and death for the nations; it rests in my power what each man’s lot and state shall be: by my lips fortune proclaims what gift she would bestow on each human being: from my utterance peoples and cities gather reasons for rejoicing; without my favor and grace no part of the whole world can prosper; all those many thousands of swords which my peace restrains will be drawn at my nod, what nations shall be utterly destroyed, which banished, which shall receive the gift of liberty, which have it taken from them, what kings shall become slave and whose heads shall be crowned with royal honour, what cities shall fall and which shall rise—this is mine to decree.” (Clem. 1.1.2).[14]

Therefore the imperial dimension of Pauline epistles should not be overlooked. It is a sense of complacency and privilege to take solace in unveiling only the spiritual meanings of the epistles rather than venturing further into the political reverberations of these texts. The motive of anti-imperial scholarship – as commonly misunderstood – is not solely finding anti-imperial claims in the Scripture but more particularly appropriating how the early Christians negotiated their lives within the Roman imperial context especially the strategies they resorted to confront the same.

Colossians: An Anti-Empire Epistle

The Epistle to the Colossians demands radical allegiance to Christ, an unwavering and exclusive worship and devotion to Christ. It envisions an alternate worldview which is at variance with the Roman imperial worldview. Colossians is a highly theological as well as pastoral letter impregnated with political implications. The Roman imperial system identified itself as a familial household with the Emperor as the paterfamilias (father of the family). Colossians contradicts this system by acknowledging God and not the Emperor as ‘Father’[15] (Col. 1:2)

The fascinating feature of this Epistle is that Paul’s Christology expands horizons as he perceives a cosmic Christ and a realized eschatology (3:11). This becomes more interesting when we realize that “the primary means of publication in the Greco-Roman world was oral performance.”[16] Thus Scot McKnight asserts; “We perhaps need to remind ourselves that a majority at Colossae would have been unable to read this letter and that the letter was sent by Paul and Timothy to them along with someone with directions on how to read it publicly. It was not read privately but – and this is our point – was read publicly, and a public reading of things said in Colossians is a forthright social, economic and political announcement that King Jesus rules the cosmos.”[17]

To read publicly a letter like this that demands unflinching allegiance to Christ in an imperial context which mandates utter subservience to the Emperor cannot get anymore rebellious and anti-national. Hence Maier writes; “Colossians twists Empire and makes it slip. This hybrid vision from the cross disavows Empire even as it mimics it.”[18] To comprehend better we shall very briefly examine Col 1:15-20, the Christological Hymn, so as to be intrigued by its imperial tropes and political language.  

Colossian Hymn (1:15-20): The Carol of Protest

The title “hymn” should not propel us to discover its strict poetical meter instead we are to focus on the rhetoric employed in this hymn with a motive to “show that the audience and the author are allied in a common Christocentric faith.”[19] The Christological hymns of the New Testament including Col 1:15-20 are believed to be inspired from the tradition of resistance poetry of Second Temple Judaism. This Jewish form of “lyrical protest” literature, Gordley affirms, was “the ways in which they resist ideologies of empire and promote Jewish ways of thinking, being, and responding to crisis.”[20] Such a “lyrical protest” was a challenge to the Roman imperial system in which “hymns were imperial tool of indoctrination.”[21] I reminiscent how similarly even the Magnificat turned into a “lyrical protest” for those countries who were under the yoke of colonialism and fascism and how the ramifications of this song among the subalterns tormented the empire.

“Mary’s song is a prophetic song, and it is not civil. It is not polite. This song is so revolutionary that governments have banned its singing or recitation: The British colonial government in India prohibited the singing of the Magnificat in church. In Guatemala, the government realized that Mary’s song was uniting the poor and giving them hope of changing the system that kept them poor, and so they banned it. In Argentina, at about the same time, the mothers of children kidnapped and murdered by government terrorists began to gather and organize, and they posted Mary’s song in the main plaza of the capital city. In retaliation, the government made it illegal to recite the Magnificat or to post its words publicly.”[22]

We shall now succinctly look at the anti-imperial implications of each verse of the Colossian hymn because as Walsh and Keesmaat assert; “This poem is nothing less than treasonous. In the space of a short, well-crafted, three-stanza poem, Paul subverts every major claim of the empire, turning them on their heads, and proclaims Christ to be the Creator, Redeemer and Lord of all creation, including the empire.”[23]

v. 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation

The epistle to the Colossians underscores that Christ is the “image (εἰκὼν) of the invisible God.” (1:15) which itself is an anti-imperial claim. As Walsh and Keesmaat contends;

“Images of the emperor were as ubiquitous in the first century as corporate logos are in the twenty-first century. The image of Caesar and other Roman symbols of Roman power were literally everywhere—in the market, on coins, in the gymnasium, at the gladiatorial games, on jewellery, goblets, lamps and paintings. The sovereign rule of Caesar was simply assumed to be the divine plan for the peace and order of the cosmos. Of course, this is the way the world works. Under such conditions it becomes hard to imagine any life alternative to the empire.”[24]

Another significant word in this verse which qualifies Christ is πρωτότοκος (first-born). This accentuates the priority and hence the superiority of Christ for in the ancient world “antiquity is authority”[25]; therefore the antiquity of Christ surpasses all authorities including the Romans. He is “temporally before all things, hierarchically above all things and ontologically sustains all things.”[26]  

v. 16 For in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities all things were created through him and for him.

One word that permeates this verse is πᾶς (all). This communicates the all-encompassing and universal scope of Christ. Nothing escapes the purview of Christ for all things are created in, through and for him. As Judith Diehl opines; “The poem . . . declares that a new and different kingdom exists, and that it is ruled by One who forgives, redeems, reconciles and establishes peace, not only on earth but also in heaven. Greater than everything ‘visible and invisible’, this Ruler surpasses all ‘thrones or powers or rulers or authorities’ and existed before any human ruler. These are bold and risky words from a man already imprisoned in the empire (Col 4:10).”[27]

v. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together

This verse emphasizes the recapitulation of the salvation of creation in Christ. His all-inclusive pre-eminence is sustained by the verb συνέστηκεν which in the perfect tense depicts a hyperpresence. He not only precedes the creation but is also its telos. As Harris puts it; “What Christ has created he maintains in permanent order, stability and productivity.”[28] It is Christ and not Caesar who “holds all things together.” John Yoder understands this in a much broader way. He remarks; “If we can analyse more abstractly this wealth of allusions, we might say that we have here an inclusive visions of religious structures (especially the religious undergirdings of stable ancient primitive societies), intellectual structures (-ologies and -isms), moral structures (codes and customs), political structures (the tyrant, the market, the school, the courts, race and nation). The totality is overwhelmingly broad.”[29]

v. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent.

Pauls uses κεφαλὴ (head) multiple times in a metaphoric sense. Head is that which grants, sustains and maintains the integrity of the body. The recapitulation in Christ that we spoke about in the preceding verse is achieved through the means of the Church. As Colin Gunton remarks; “the church is elected as the particular means by which particular anticipations of the promised reconciliation of all things in Christ are achieved.”[30] At the same time the Greco-Roman readers cannot overlook the political overtures of the word ἐκκλησία used in this verse. George Zachariah expatiates;

Ekklesia is a term originating from the democratic traditions of the Greco-Roman political order. So when the Church adopted Ekklesia as its name, it was a theological statement on the self-identity of the Church as a democratic community of equals and disciples. The Church used the name Ekklesia as self-description: To present the faith community not only as a new creation which practices equality and inclusiveness, but also as a pluriversal community that converges different voices.”[31]

v. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

Christianity is very much a personal faith. We do not believe in abstract ideas but in an enfleshed and embodied person i.e. Jesus Christ. This verse reaffirms that the “πλήρωμα (fullness) of God” dwelt in Christ and not in Caesar who claimed to be the Divi filius (Son of God). Also significant is the rarity of the word κατοικέω (to indwell) in Pauline corpus. This word is used by Paul only three times viz. Eph 3:17; Col 1:19; 2:9. Ched Myers brings out the anti-imperial nature of the Incarnation of Christ;

“The notion of God-in-the-sarx was as scandalous in antiquity as it is in modernity; intensifying the scandal, this is torn-up flesh in particular…These mangled extremities verify that the Risen One is the Crucified One. The one neither negates nor replaces the other. The theological point is that the resurrected Christ is not unscathed by the violence of empire. He is still numbered among those who have been brutalized and left for dead. Except that he didn’t stay dead. His risen body thus now becomes the central object lesson of both lynching and liberation.”[32]

v. 20 And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Colossians is a Prison epistle as Paul concludes by saying “Remember my chains” (4:18). In Prison epistles peace and peacemaking are emphatic themes.[33] Another significant term that should not be overlooked in this verse is εἰρηνοποιέω (reconcile/ making peace). This is the only place where the word is used in the entire New Testament. Christ the eternal King grants peace through the blood of His Cross. Cross is how the coronation of Christ appears from the heavenly register.[34] Cross is also apocalyptic in nature for it “is the crux of God’s plan for unmasking and overthrowing the powers of this world.”[35]

An imperial-critical lens inspires us to introspect whether we have placed the blame of the crucifixion of Christ entirely on Jews – a group that held no power to execute in the Roman imperial system (John 18:31) – thereby exonerating the real culprit i.e. the Roman Empire and “depoliticizing the Cross” by associating the Cross with mere grotesque sentimentality. Maier beautifully sums up the peace offered by Christ through His Cross;  

“It is from the cross—a symbol of Roman pacification of enemies—in the body of Jesus’ death, that a new Imperium issues forth (1.20; 2.15). Enemies are pacified and incorporated in the body of this βασιλεία, but not by the Roman vision of a sword wielded to ‘rule the world, to crown peace with justice, to spare the vanquished and crush the proud.’ Reconciliation comes through the death of the ruler, not the ruled, and in the ethical life of love for and care of others (3.12-14), who share the rule of Christ (3.1; 1.18; 2.10, 15) and his riches (1.27; 2.2-3), not through the dominion of one over the vanquished who owe him honour. This is an imperial pax by other means.”[36]

To conclude, Paul was an apostle who overtly affirmed that he would “never boast of anything except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14). One cannot be oblivious to the imperial underpinnings of this statement for it mocks the imperial propaganda for “to announce Jesus as Lord and Saviour was calculated treason”[37] in the Roman Empire. Paul being spared from the disgrace of crucifixion owing to his Roman citizenship explains well the political dimension of the Cross. The epistle to Colossians especially the Colossian hymn is a Christological carol drafted employing the linguistic tools of the Empire yet as a counter-discourse to the Empire which has left “little doubt as to who is sovereign in creation, who images the invisible God, who holds the cosmos together in peace and who brings about the reconciliation of all things.”[38] Empire theology is certainly not immediately obvious; it needs to be meticulously located and resisted because to not resist it would mean to comply with it.

In Christ

Dayroyo Fr. Basil

[1] Christopher Bryan, Render to Caeser: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower (Cambridge: CUP, 2005), 11.

[2] Wati Longchar, “Together Towards Life: Mission FROM the Margins – Implications for Theological Education” Yu-Shan Theological Journal No. 24, 21-38 at 25.

[3] Neil Elliott, “Anti-Imperial Message of the Cross” in Richard Horsley ed. Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1997), 167.

[4] “On the Cross these stupid powers displayed for all to see the one secret that they had to keep if they were to retain their power, the secret of founding violence.” Robert Hamerton Kelly, Sacred Violence: Paul’s Hermeneutics of the Cross (Mineapolis: Fortress, 1992), 85.


[6] Marianne Sawicki, Crossing Galilee: Architectures of Contact in the Occupied Land of Jesus (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), 158.

[7] Robert Williamson Jr. “The Politics of Scripture: Fishers for a New Kingdom – Mark 1: 14-20”

[8] N.T. Wright, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” in Ricahrd A. Horsley ed. Paul and Politics (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2006), 161-162.

[9] Warren Carter, “Roman Imperial Power: A New Testament Perspective,” in Jeffrey Brodd and Johnathan L. Reed eds. Rome and Religion: A Cross- Disciplinary Dialogue on the Imperial Cult (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), 138.

[10] Joerg Rieger, Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 31.

[11] Joerg Rieger, Christ and Empire, 29.

[12] Cynthia Briggs Kittredge and Claire Miller Colombo, “Colossians,” in Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Wisdom Commentary 51 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2017), 146.

[13] The Roman imperial ideology perceived the Roman Emperor as the true sovereign God. See Arthur M. Wright, Jr., The Governor and King: Irony, Hidden Transcripts, and Negotiating Empire in the Fourth Gospel (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2019), 59-62.

[14] As cited in Klaus Wengst, Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 47.

[15] Although the term Father has resonance with Second Temple Judaism there is an interpretation that this has been co-opted from the Roman imperial context. As Adam Winn elaborates; “There is no attempt here to deny such Jewish significance. But when this language was read by Greeks and Romans, it no doubt called to mind, at least for some, the unavoidable imperial realities through which they daily saw this language (e.g., on Roman coins, Roman temples, Roman public inscriptions). Instead of choosing one background over another, interpreters might be better served to recognize the multivalent nature of this language that makes it useful for contrasting the kingdom of the God of Israel with Rome’s empire.” Adam Winn, “Striking Back at the Empire: Empire Theory and Responses to Empire in the New Testament” in Adam Winn ed. An Introduction to Empire in the New Testament (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2016), 7.

[16] Loveday Alexander, “Ancient Book Production and the Circulation of the Gospels”, in Richard Bauckham ed. The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 86.

[17] Scot McKnight, The Letter to the Colossians (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2018), 2.

[18] Harry O. Maier, “A Sly Civility: Colossians and Empire” in Journal for the study of the New Testament 27/3 (2005), 323-349 at 349.

[19] Scot McKnight, The Letter to the Colossians, 132.

[20] Matthew E. Gordley, New Testament Christological Hymns: Exploring Texts, Contexts, and Significance (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2018), 136.

[21] Mark S. Medley, “Subvesrive Song: Imagining Colossians 1:15-20 as a Social Protest Hymn in the Context of Roman Empire” in Review and Expositor 116/4 (2009), 421-435 at 428.


[23] Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 84.

[24] Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed, 83.

[25] Carter further proposes that “this remembering as a form of self-presentation and purposeful self-assertion defines Jesus-believers and is to empower the living of God’s purposes that are at odds with and resisted by Rome’s world.” Warren Carter, John and Empire (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 115.

[26] Scot McKnight, The Letter to the Colossians, 149.

[27] Judith A. Diehl, “Anti-Imperial Rhetoric in the New Testament,” in Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, eds. Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2013), 66.

[28] Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament: An Essential Referential Resource for Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 47.

[29] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 142-43.

[30] As cited in Scot McKnight, The Letter to the Colossians, 154.

[31] George Zachariah, “Church without Walls: Church Happening in the Streets”

[32] Ched Myers, “Jesus’ Risen, Mutilated Body”

[33] Eph 2:14-17; 4:3; 6:15, 23; Phil 4:7, 9; Col 3:15.

[34] This is particularly visible in the Gospel of John. In the Gospel of John, Christ is not mocked (unlike in the Synoptic Gospels) by the soldiers while putting a crown of thorns on His head. (John 19:2). The author seems to emphasize the concreteness of the coronation of Christ.

[35] Robert Hamerton Kelly, Sacred Violence, 82

[36] Harry O. Maier, “A Sly Civility: Colossians and Empire”, 348.

[37] John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed, In Search of Paul (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2004), 11.

[38] Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed, 84.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s