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Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism: A Rite of Resistance

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When the earliest Christ-followers were baptized they participated in a politically subversive act. Rejecting the Empire's claim that it had a divine right to rule the world, they pledged their allegiance to a kingdom other than Rome and a king other than Caesar (Acts 17:7).   Many books explore baptism from doctrinal or theological perspectives, and focus on issues such a When the earliest Christ-followers were baptized they participated in a politically subversive act. Rejecting the Empire's claim that it had a divine right to rule the world, they pledged their allegiance to a kingdom other than Rome and a king other than Caesar (Acts 17:7).   Many books explore baptism from doctrinal or theological perspectives, and focus on issues such as the correct mode of baptism, the proper candidate for baptism, who has the authority to baptize, and whether or not baptism is a symbol or means of grace. By contrast, Caesar and the Sacrament investigates the political nature of baptism.   Very few contemporary Christians consider baptism's original purpose or political significance. Only by studying baptism in its historical context, can we discover its impact on first-century believers and the adverse reaction it engendered among Roman and Jewish officials. Since baptism was initially a rite of non-violent resistance, what should its function be today? "In this wide-ranging discussion across New Testament texts, Alan Streett locates baptism in the context of and in relation to Roman power. He argues that baptism was a believer's sacramentum, a pledge of allegiance that sets up complex interactions with allegiance to Caesar and the imperial system. This is a significant and much-needed contribution to understandings of baptism." --Warren Carter, Professor, Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University "Centuries of comfortable Christendom have tended to domesticate baptism to a benign religious ritual entirely at home within the empire. But Caesar and the Sacrament awakens us to the true radical nature of Christian baptism. Alan Streett's latest book is an important and timely work that calls Christians to live out their baptismal identity in fidelity to Christ and resistance to empire." --Brian Zahnd, Pastor, Word of Life Church, St. Joseph, Missouri "Alan Streett's fascinating Caesar and the Sacrament places the meaning and practice of baptism in early Christianity into a full and nuanced context . . . Streett's carefully researched and well written book joins a number of other studies that have appeared in recent years rightly underscoring the importance of knowing well the Roman world in which Jesus and his movement emerged." --Craig A. Evans, Professor of Christian Origins, Houston Baptist University "In this bold, comprehensive, and compelling study, Alan Streett makes a convincing case that the earliest Christians understood baptism as their pledge of allegiance to Christ and his kingdom, which involved renouncing all other allegiances . . . when most view baptism as nothing more than an innocuous 'religious' sacrament, it would be hard to overstate the importance of digesting this remarkable work." --Gregory A. Boyd, Senior Pastor, Woodland Hills Church, St. Paul, Minnesota "Streett does nothing less than show that the understanding of baptism in Constantinian Christianity that privatized and spiritualized baptism was a gross misinterpretation that we, at the end of Christendom, may now unlearn. One may hope that Streett's study will awaken the church to the wide and deep accents of baptism that is both a gift from God and mandate to an emancipated transformed public life." --Walter Brueggemann, Professor Emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary R. Alan Streett is Senior Research Professor of Biblical Theology at Criswell College, Dallas, Texas. He is author of Subversive Meals (Pickwick, 2013).


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When the earliest Christ-followers were baptized they participated in a politically subversive act. Rejecting the Empire's claim that it had a divine right to rule the world, they pledged their allegiance to a kingdom other than Rome and a king other than Caesar (Acts 17:7).   Many books explore baptism from doctrinal or theological perspectives, and focus on issues such a When the earliest Christ-followers were baptized they participated in a politically subversive act. Rejecting the Empire's claim that it had a divine right to rule the world, they pledged their allegiance to a kingdom other than Rome and a king other than Caesar (Acts 17:7).   Many books explore baptism from doctrinal or theological perspectives, and focus on issues such as the correct mode of baptism, the proper candidate for baptism, who has the authority to baptize, and whether or not baptism is a symbol or means of grace. By contrast, Caesar and the Sacrament investigates the political nature of baptism.   Very few contemporary Christians consider baptism's original purpose or political significance. Only by studying baptism in its historical context, can we discover its impact on first-century believers and the adverse reaction it engendered among Roman and Jewish officials. Since baptism was initially a rite of non-violent resistance, what should its function be today? "In this wide-ranging discussion across New Testament texts, Alan Streett locates baptism in the context of and in relation to Roman power. He argues that baptism was a believer's sacramentum, a pledge of allegiance that sets up complex interactions with allegiance to Caesar and the imperial system. This is a significant and much-needed contribution to understandings of baptism." --Warren Carter, Professor, Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University "Centuries of comfortable Christendom have tended to domesticate baptism to a benign religious ritual entirely at home within the empire. But Caesar and the Sacrament awakens us to the true radical nature of Christian baptism. Alan Streett's latest book is an important and timely work that calls Christians to live out their baptismal identity in fidelity to Christ and resistance to empire." --Brian Zahnd, Pastor, Word of Life Church, St. Joseph, Missouri "Alan Streett's fascinating Caesar and the Sacrament places the meaning and practice of baptism in early Christianity into a full and nuanced context . . . Streett's carefully researched and well written book joins a number of other studies that have appeared in recent years rightly underscoring the importance of knowing well the Roman world in which Jesus and his movement emerged." --Craig A. Evans, Professor of Christian Origins, Houston Baptist University "In this bold, comprehensive, and compelling study, Alan Streett makes a convincing case that the earliest Christians understood baptism as their pledge of allegiance to Christ and his kingdom, which involved renouncing all other allegiances . . . when most view baptism as nothing more than an innocuous 'religious' sacrament, it would be hard to overstate the importance of digesting this remarkable work." --Gregory A. Boyd, Senior Pastor, Woodland Hills Church, St. Paul, Minnesota "Streett does nothing less than show that the understanding of baptism in Constantinian Christianity that privatized and spiritualized baptism was a gross misinterpretation that we, at the end of Christendom, may now unlearn. One may hope that Streett's study will awaken the church to the wide and deep accents of baptism that is both a gift from God and mandate to an emancipated transformed public life." --Walter Brueggemann, Professor Emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary R. Alan Streett is Senior Research Professor of Biblical Theology at Criswell College, Dallas, Texas. He is author of Subversive Meals (Pickwick, 2013).

41 review for Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism: A Rite of Resistance

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    As a student of Latin in High School, I learned that the word "sacramentum" meant a military oath of loyalty and allegiance to the Emperor. As a Christian, I was familiar with the English word "sacrament." I wondered vaguely why: coincidence? But neither my Latin teacher nor my parish priest ever mentioned it and I was left vaguely puzzled for about 60 years. Now, in recent years, there has been a strong interest and much study of the relationship of the earliest followers of Jesus to the Empire As a student of Latin in High School, I learned that the word "sacramentum" meant a military oath of loyalty and allegiance to the Emperor. As a Christian, I was familiar with the English word "sacrament." I wondered vaguely why: coincidence? But neither my Latin teacher nor my parish priest ever mentioned it and I was left vaguely puzzled for about 60 years. Now, in recent years, there has been a strong interest and much study of the relationship of the earliest followers of Jesus to the Empire which was the omnipresent experience of the world at that time. And Streett takes those two uses of "sacramentum" and shows in closely reasoned and well documented writing, exactly how the very basic event of Christians' lives- our baptism- is a deliberate and world changing choice, a loyalty oath, for Jesus, Our Lord, and therefore necessarily against the ruler-Lord-of the Empire (the Roman one in their time or any subsequent equivalent power structure promising peace and justice through force and violence.) I thought Streett's "Subversive Meals" was an important call to the church to a renewed attention to the sharing, equality and commitment needed in the hostile culture of the first couple of centuries of the Christian era. This book rounds out the view of Christian sacraments as involving belonging to, and being supported by, an alternative way of life. I hope to see ways in which Christians live this vision today and tomorrow.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Luke Eshleman

    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 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.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Harding

    A refreshing look at the purpose of baptism. Examines how baptism in the 1st century was a believer pledging their allegiance and in so doing denying the authority of the Empire. Clearly written, simple to follow, and encouraging to pastors and lay leaders alike to commit to the text.

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    David

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