I consider myself blessed to have grown up in a warm Christian family
with very loving parents. I made a public decision of faith at a very
early age, although I cannot actually remember a time when I didn't
believe that Jesus is Lord.
I grew up in a small town in East Texas, and it was there I met my (future) wife. After "dating" two years in high school – this was a bit tricky, since her dad was also my
basketball coach(!) – we attended different colleges and broke off the
relationship for a time, but found our way back together and married
after graduating from college. This year we will celebrate our 10th
anniversary. While living in England, we had two children (boys), and
as I write this interview, our third (a girl) might well come at any
moment (the pre-labor contractions have started, so this interview may well be
(2) How did you eventually get involved in biblical scholarship?
Actually, my aim to be a biblical scholar/teacher began my freshman
year in college at a small liberal-arts university called Ouachita Baptist
University. At Ouachita, I was invited to join an on-campus student
group called the Pew Younger Scholars Society, which was part of a
larger program established at Notre Dame to foster a network (of sorts)
for Christian students interested in doing research and teaching in the
Humanities. It was in this group that my interest for teaching and
research was first kindled. My postgraduate educational history, first
at Beeson Divinity School (M.Div, 2001) and then at Cambridge (M.Phil.
2002; Ph.D. 2006), pretty much explains the rest.
(3)What made you decide on attending Cambridge, and who was your
I was attracted to Cambridge for three primary reasons: 1) As one of the world's best universities, it boasted of having a first-class Divinity Faculty with a wonderful and long-standing reputation; 2) I would have the opportunity to work at the Tyndale House, a thriving scholarly community with a wonderful biblical studies library; 3) After completing a BA in Biblical Studies and an M.Div., I preferred the UK system for postgraduate studies, which began with research, not coursework. I would thus be able to begin work on my Ph.D. Thesis from day one of the program.
My doctoral supervisor was the recently retired Professor Graham N. Stanton. He was a wonderful supervisor, and is still a dear friend and mentor to me.
(4) What was your dissertation topic? What drew your interest to the
My dissertation title was: Galatians and the Imperial Cult? A Critical Analysis of the First-Century Social context of Paul's Letter. As the title indicates, my thesis assessed the imperial cult as the background for understanding the social setting of Paul's letter to the Galatian
churches. After discussing the influence of emperor worship and imperial ideology during the Julio-Claudian period, specifically in the province of Galatia, I offered a fresh hypothesis for the situation of the Galatian churches. In Part One of the thesis, I provided a thematic sketch and assessment of emperor worthe Julio-Claudian period. In Part Two of the thesis, I then turned to Paul's letter in order to evaluate the imperial cult as a backdrop from which to understand the crisis in Galatia.
I was drawn to this topic for two primary reasons: 1) One of my mentors, Dr Bruce Winter, who has recently retired as the Warden of the Tyndale House in Cambridge, had written a very thought-provoking essay in his book, Seek the Welfare of the City (Eerdmans, 1994) on Galatians 6.11-18. In these verses, the Apostle Paul claimed that the "agitators" in the churches were trying to get the Galatian believers circumcised only to avoid persecution. Winter argued a very interesting thesis that the persecution was coming from the local authorities because the
churches were eschewing their civic obligations to observe the imperial cult. After speaking with him at length about his essay, he encouragedme to pursue this idea further within the rest of the letter. 2) My supervisor, Prof Stanton, is keenly interested both in Galatians and in
the imperial cult (see e.g. his recent discussion in Jesus and Gospel, CUP, 2004, pp. 9-62). Naturally, then, he was very optimistic in my pursuing this topic.
5) How did you end up at Oklahoma Baptist University and tell us of your recent appointment to Wycliffe Hall, Oxford?
Simply put: Oklahoma Baptist University advertised for the position, I applied, and I was very
happy when they invited me to fill the post. My colleagues here have been absolutely wonderful, both as friends and as teaching mentors. In particular, I have learned so much from Dr Bobby Kelly (my NT counterpart), Professor Kevin Hall, and Dr Jerry Faught.
We are very happy to announce that this summer, my family and I will be moving to Oxford, England, as I have recently been appointed Tutor in New Testament at Wycliffe Hall, a theological college and one of the permanent halls of Oxford University. In this teaching post, I will provide NT lectures and also supervise students on a regular basis. The post will also provide more time for me to research and to write.
(6) During the "Paul and Empire" session at SBL, N.T. Wright mentioned
your forthcoming Galatians and the Imperial Cult: A Critical Analysis
of the First-Century Social Context of Paul's Letter (WUNT II.237;
Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck)strong> as a very important work in the field of Paul
and Empire. How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel happy that a few people might now actually read my work! At the same time, however, it also makes me feel somewhat nervous, since Professor Barclay, with whom Wright was debating in this session, was the external examiner of my Ph.D. Thesis! Oddly enough, Professor Barclay and I happened to bump into each other just before this debate at SBL, at which point he greeted me with a smile and said, ‘Well, Justin, I know what side you’ll be on in the next few minutes!’ All that to say, although I disagree with Professor Barclay's primary argument that the imperial cult was insignificant for Paul, I do so only with
fear and trembling (even with N. T. Wright in my corner!).
(7) This question is closely related to the previous, what did you make
of the Barclay v. Wright 'debate'?
I thoroughly enjoyed the debate and thought it was a delightful dialogue, not without its surprises during the course of the debate.
For example, I fully expected Wright to put on his best rhetorical flourishes in his defense of reading Paul through the lens of imperial cult. So I was rather taken aback when Professor Barclay began the debate with his own oratorical display. Not many of us, I am sure, had
ever seen Wright so stunned from a sparing partner who displayed such wit and eloquence, so stunned in fact that Wright was unable to offer any decisive rebuttals to the attack. At several points during Barclay’s paper, I actually felt as if I were witnessing Buster Douglas land the
knock-out punch against the Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson.
Despite his rhetorical flare, I did think Barclay overstated his case that the imperial cult
was insignificant in Paul. All I will try to do in the limited confines of this interview is to
challenge this central claim. And I will do so only by pointing to one passage in Paul’s
letters, which seems to be an intentional jab at Roman ideology regarding the golden age
of Augustus and his successors—1 Thessalonians 5.1-11:
1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need for anything to be written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night. 3While they are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will certainly not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers and sisters, that the day would overtake you as a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day.
We are neither of the night nor of the darkness. 6 Therefore, let us not sleep, as the rest, but let us keep
awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But because we are (children) of the day, let us be sober by putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet, the hope of salvation, 9 because God did not appoint us for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, in order that whether we are alive or dead (when he returns) we might live together with him. 11 Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, even as you are doing.
In this passage, Paul explained to this suffering church that those who were alive at Jesus’
parousia would not be disadvantaged (neither would those who are dead, as he had just
described in 4.13-18).1 Indeed, God’s judgment in the Day of the Lord would overcome
those who were outside the believing community, while those within the church would
obtain salvation. Although we could attend to various topics that crop up in this passage
(e.g. Jesus tradition on the parousia, Jewish apocalyptic metaphors), I think two questions
must be asked in order to grasp Paul’s primary aim in this passage.
The first question has two parts: Who was the ‘they,’ in 5.3, and why were they proclaiming
‘peace and security’? I, along several other scholars, suggest that the ‘they’ were
those outside the church who propagated and/or clung to Roman imperial ideology.2 After
all, the slogans ‘peace’ and ‘security’ (pax et securitas) were the eschatological slogans
of the Julio-Claudian emperors. One could point to imperial coins, for example,
which advertised the imperial message across the Empire like billboards. In Ephesus, a
coin was issued in 28 BC that was meant to remind those within Asia Minor of the peace
and prosperity Octavian had brought into the world, as both sides of the coin make clear.
The obverse legend is remarkable: ‘IMP(erator) CAESAR DIVI F(ilius) CO(n)S(ul) VI
LIBERTATIS P(opuli) R(omani) VINDEX’ (‘Imperator Caesar, son of god, consul for
the sixth time, protector of the Roman people’s liberty’). The reverse depicts personified
Pax, holding a caduceus (an emblem of peace and harmony) and standing by a cista mystica
(symbolising Asia). As pax was accomplished only as a result of the emperor’s military
strength, the entire symbol was situated within a laurel wreath (BMC Augustus 691).
Of course, this intricate imagery required few words to convey the imperial message, the
symbols of which would certainly not have been lost on first-century observers.
We could also point to the well-known calendar inscription from 9 BC, first discovered in
Priene (Asia), but surviving fragments of which have now been discovered in various
other cities in the region. The text, inscribed on two stone slabs, records the results of a
competition that had been held in Asia (29 BC) with a prize for the individual who could
devise the most splendid honors for Augustus. The first stone records that the victor,
Paullus Fabius Maximus, had proposed (or perhaps better, had instructed, given that he
was the proconsul) the New Year in Asia should be realigned to coincide with Augustus’s
birthday, 23 September:
(It is difficult to tell) whether the birthday of the most divine Caesar (τοͅͅͅͅῦ ͅͅͅͅͅθειοτάτου Καίσαρος) is something of greater pleasure or benefit, which we could rightly accept to be equivalent to the beginning of all things (τῆι τῶν πάντων ̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓ἀρχῆι); and he restored, if not to its nature, at least to serviceability, every form, which was falling away and had carried over into misfortune; and he has given a different look to the whole world, which gladly would have accepted destruction had not Caesar been born for the common good of all
things (lines 4-9).
The second stone records the subsequent decrees of the Asian koinon in 9 BC, and the
language of the decree overtakes even the kow-towing exaltation of the proconsul:
Since the Providence (Πρόνοια) that has [divinely] ordained our life, having harnessed her energy and liberality, has brought to life the most perfect good, Augustus, whom she filled with virtue (̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓ἀρετῆς) for the service of mankind, giving him, as it were, to us and our descendants a saviour (σωτῆρα), he who brings an end to war and will order [peace (ἐ̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓ἰῤήνην)], Caesar, who by his [epiphany (̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓ἐπιφανείς)] surpassed the hopes (̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓ἐλπίδας) of all those who anticipated [good news (ἐ̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓ὐανγέλια)], not only [outstripping the benefactors] coming before him, but also leaving no hope of greater benefactions in future; (And since) the [birthday]
of the god initiated to the world the good news (ἐ̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓̓ὐανγελίων) resulting in him…(and since) Paullus Fabius Maximus…has invented an honour for Augustus that until now has been unknown to the Greeks – to begin time (χρόνον) from his birthday – for that reason, with good fortune and safety (σωτηριά) , the Greeks of Asia have decided in all the cities, to begin the New Year with the 23rd September, which is the birthday of Augustus (lines 31–41, 44, 47–53).
We could even turn to literary sources to find similar eschatological fervor for the Julian
emperors, such as Virgil’s Roman epic, the Aeneid (which was published shortly after his
death in 19 BC). When Aeneas was taken to the underworld to see the future of Rome’s
greatness, he was shown how the Julian dynasty would bring about a golden age in
Here is Caesar and all the Julian stock destined to cross under heaven’s expansive sphere. Here, in truth, is he whom you so often hear being prophesied to you, Augustus Caesar, son of a god, who again will
establish a golden age in Latium across the fields formerly ruled by Saturn (Virgil Aen VI.789–94).
Given the eschatological messages of the golden age, of hope and salvation, of the Augustan
age of peace and prosperity, slogans that dominated the landscape of Roman society
during the Julio-Claudian period, 3 I think we can safely conclude that the ‘they’ in 5.3
referred specifically to those in Roman society who found their hope in such imperial
This brings me to the second question in our discussion of this passage in 1 Thessalonians.
In 5.8, Paul seems to be adapting a quotation from the prophet Isaiah regarding
God’s vindication of his people by fighting for them: ‘He put on righteousness as a
breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head’ (Isa 59.17a). Now, we should not be
surprised that Paul would adapt this verse by adding the triad of faith, hope, and love, but
why did Paul set off ‘hope’ from the others by attaching it to the helmet and by putting it
in an appositional position?
Here, I (along with others) would argue that Paul again was countering the eschatological
claims of the Roman Empire. The Julio-Claudian emperors brought new hope to the
world, the most famous designation in Latin being spes Augusta (‘the hope of Augustus’).
The first known evidence of this slogan, in fact, appeared under the emperor Claudius
(who, in AD 44, had granted Thessalonica the honor of being named the provincial seat
of Macedonia). Upon his ascension to the imperial throne, Claudius issued a sestertius
(RIC Claudius 115), which proudly displayed Spes (Hope) personified and holding out a
flower. She was situated within the legend: ‘Spes Augusta,’ and at the bottom of the coin,
the senatorial mark of approval (SC) appears. 4 Although the emperor Claudius clearly
promulgated the hope of the Julian dynasty, Paul reminded the believers at Thessalonica
that their hope was firmly planted in the parousia of Christ (cf. 1.3). In this regard, I wonder
if it was no accident that Timothy’s report of the church’s progress apparently made
no mention of their hope, but only of their faith and love (3.6). It seems that Paul needed
to remind them of this hope, which was not fixed on any imperial message, but was
firmly planted in the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ (5.2, 8).
If we are correct in our answers to the two questions posed above, we can now detect
Paul’s primary aim in these verses; namely, that Paul was encouraging this suffering
church by reminding them of the eschatological hope in Jesus’ return, especially when
contrasted with the empty hopes of those who belonged to night or to the darkness (5.4-
5). While those who persecuted them clung to the imperial promises of peace and security
offered by the emperors, Paul reminded the church that such slogans had nothing to offer
in the light of Jesus’ return. Paul was thus heaping insults on the imperial eschatology of
the Roman Empire in order to ‘re-map the universe’ (to borrow the phrase used by P.
Oakes) of the believers in Thessalonica.5
Having explained above that at least in one Pauline passage, the apostle is explicitly countering the imperial claims of Rome as a way to encourage the church to stand firm in the midst of persecution, I think we have called into question Barclay’s attempt to sweep the eschatological agenda of Rome into an undifferentiated pile, labeled ‘the rest’. To be sure, Paul subsumed Roman ideology under much larger powers (e.g. Satan, sin, flesh, death), but this does not mean that Paul therefore refused to confront directly the fleshly ideology of the emperor cult.
To be sure, I agree with Barclay that Paul certainly relegated Rome to the periphery, and
I also agree that Paul subsumed the imperial cult and ideology under much larger powers,
such as ‘flesh, and spirit, death and life.’ (to quote Barclay’s concluding analogy of
Paul’s ‘Drama of History’). Barclay is surely correct that while the world still focuses on
earthly powers and ideologies, to Paul there was a new creation (2 Cor 5.17), and with the
resurrection of Jesus and the giving of God’s Spirit, a new reality in Christ had dawned.
But I do not therefore conclude, as Barclay does, that the imperial cult and its ideology
were thus insignificant in Paul. There seem to be clear instances in Paul’s letters, as we
observed in 1 Thessalonians 5 above, where Paul dealt a decisive theological blow to
Roman ideology. Of course, his basis for doing so was the new age inaugurated with the
death and resurrection of Jesus, resulting in the bestowal of the life-giving Spirit, all to
the glory of God.
1 See the helpful discussion of this passage in C. Nicholl, From Hope to Despair in Thessalonica, Situating 1 and 2 Thessalonians, SNTSMS 126, Cambridge, CUP, 2004, although I do not think he provided adequate attention to the imperial background of the slogan in 1 Thess. 5.3.
2 For the pro-Roman stance of Thessalonian society, see H. L. Hendrix, ‘Thessalonicans Honor Romans,’ Ph.D. Thesis, Harvard University, 1984.
3 For a much fuller discussion here, see Chapter 2 in my monograph, Galatians and the Imperial Cult An Analysis of the First-Century Social Context of Paul’s Letter, WUNT II.237, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck,
4 See also M. E. Clark, ‘Spes in the Early Imperial Cult: “The Hope of Augustus”’, Numen 30 (1983) 80– 105.For an excellent discussion of this and other imperial terms that crop up in 1 Thessalonians, see J. R. Harrison, 'Paul and the Imperial Gospel at Thessaloniki,' JSNT 25 (2002) 71-96.
5 See esp. P. Oakes, ‘Re-mapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27 (2005) 301–22, here 315-18.
8) One final question and perhaps most important, as a Christian and a scholar what are the most important things that you try to convey to your students?
I am glad you asked, since this one is what gets me up in the morning. As a professor, I am chiefly interested in the transformation of my students as a result of the integration of a vibrant faith and rigorous academic learning. When asked to state the greatest commandment, Jesus
answered, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength’ (Mark 12.29-30, quoting Deut 6.4-5). In obedience to the Lord's command, I thus challenge students to flesh out this complete
love for God in their own lives. I am thus concerned with both the mind and the heart, with the transformation of my students as critical thinkers, responsible persons in society, and faithful believers in Jesus, all to the glory of God.
Thanks for a great interview, Justin!