Jesus as Savior: An Early Conception

savior 1In our current North American cultural context, sin is seen as an archaic category, hinting at things like evil and depravity: concepts rejected as both overly simplistic and demeaning. The solution for sin then—salvation—drums up unwanted connotations of things like heaven or hell, judgment, and theodicy. On the one hand, savior rails against an American virtue of rugged independence, in which one who needs saving is looked on with pity. On the other hand, it rails against an unwillingness to make moral judgments about one’s self, another person, or humanity in general: savior points to the controversial figure of Jesus and toward questions about how we should interpret or re-interpret His significance in our day. Savior then, as a title, could be very offensive to those either inside or outside of the church.

What is the origin of this title, and what did it mean as applied to Jesus? In light of the intriguing world of the New Testament, I will argue that a fuller picture of what is meant by savior is needed, one that hopefully leads us to a fuller picture of what salvation meant in the first-century. This title of Jesus both leans into, as well as changes, the cultural heritage from which it arose. Savior as title is a key concept of Christology and Christian theology whose nuanced legacy powerfully shapes our reading of the New Testament. This paper will take a serious look at the New Testament texts such as the Pauline epistles and Luke/Acts, to glean an earlier Christian conception and function of this title. In addition, this paper will look at how New Testament historical scholarship may help strip away cultural and theological biases to help interpret the meaning and significance of these key texts and what it means to call Jesus the savior.

Cultural Backgrounds of Savior Title

In the Jewish sense, savior was tied into a covenantal redeemer framework and was nearly exclusively attributed to YHWH, the creator God Himself. “savior” has connotations of victory, help, safety, welfare or ransom. In general the root, yesa, and its variants implies help to people in the midst of their trouble rather that rescue from it. Theological usage consistently points to the acts of God’s salvation in Israel’s history. This concept of savior is anchored in a paradigmatic salvation event, the Exodus (Ex. 14), and is often used in a formulaic sequence like that of the book of Judges, usually following a cry for help to God from His people, Israel. Many texts of the Old Testament emphatically point out that help comes from no one other than YHWH, even when a messenger such as a judge delivered Israel militarily (e.g. Judg 7:2, 10:14; 1 Sam 17:47). Outside of proper names, there is little attestation to this root beyond Hebrew usage.[1] These conceptions of savior likely played a substantial role in how the authors of the New Testament saw this title.

One scholar, John. R. Hinnells, argues that many key ideas in the New Testament concept of savior all come from Zoroastrian roots. These ideas include the savior being a Messiah figure born of a virgin: one who brings about an eschatological restoration of the world, resurrection of the dead, and judgment. He argues that these conceptions of savior passed into Jewish culture during a window of political unity between Israel and what is now modern-day Iran.[2] Hinnels asserts these ideas cross-pollinated through first-century cultures from a necessity to borrow a Satan figure to explain theodicy during the reign of the Seleucids.[3] While not much is known about the mystery religions, others point to religions such as the Mithra cult as the source of these types of imagery. However, due to a lack of evidence to substantiate claims of a mystery religion origin, recent scholars have been reluctant assign origin based on similarities alone.[4] While these types of theories of the background of the concept of savior are fascinating, they are often based on a somewhat contrived and simplistic typology. For example, Hinnels’s argument and evidence, after wading through multiple layers of hard-to-date materials that have been recombined into their present form, is in the end a largely uncompelling attempt to show correlation as causation. These often-forced schemas of parallelism pale in the light of the clearly attested evidence of the foundational Hebrew theme of YHWH as savior, and the centrality of this theme to the story of Israel to which the New Testament is anchored.

The Greco-Roman understanding of savior, soter, was also a tightly knit religious/political one. For Romans, there was absolutely no separation between church and state, and religion was seen as a unifying force similar to modern propaganda campaigns. Caesar demanded not just taxes but sacrifices, and demanded not only loyalty but worship as well.[5] Savior, like many words and phrases borrowed by the New Testament such as Son of God, Lord, and Gospel were in regularly religio-political use in the Roman world. Scholars have often  pointed out that this terminology and verbiage stems from the Cult of the Emperor and that Caesar was also known as the “savior” of the world sent from heaven, solely responsible for the “Pax Romana”: the peace,  justice, and order to the Roman world.[6] This inscription from 9 BCE, written after a long time of intense civil war, truly captures the conception of savior in the Roman mind:

The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere…; the birthday of the god [Agustus] was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him.[7]

Far from being simply one religion among many at the time of the New Testament the Cult of the Emperor was by far the dominant and fastest-growing religion of the Roman world and made the emperor’s presence ubiquitous throughout its many lands.[8] Just as for Christians today, the concepts of Lord and savior were closely connected and mentioned together, with the concept of Lord speaking to authority and the concept of savior speaking to the social benefits of that authority.[9] Cullman points out that savior (soter) is likely a less commonly used title than lord (kurios) because the first is supplemental to the latter.[10] As in the aforementioned inscription, the titles of savior and Benefactor were closely related and nearly synonymous in the Roman mind. These were terms that were used regularly even by Jews like Josephus and Philo, despite their refusal to worship the Emperor.[11] Savior in a Roman sense is tied culturally to a sense of patronage, with benefactors being those at the top of the food chain, so to speak.[12]  Thus, the savior concept in Roman society was intimately wed both to safety, as well as to the possibility of upward mobility in all levels of life in the empire.[13]

Speaking of the broader New Testament conception of the title of savior, Oscar Cullmann sees the title as firmly anchored in a Jewish understanding, though with the Roman conception possibly playing a secondary role. This title savior presupposes the completion of Jesus’ earthly work, and the truth of the message that He came to bring Israel repentance and forgiveness of sin. For Cullmann, this points to Jesus saving His people from their sins and not necessarily from physical harm. Cullman sees savior as a more developed concept coming from a time of expanding Christianity. He points out that the translation of Jesus’ name to Greek brought about redundancy (Yeshua also means savior), and that its use, in connection with other important Christological titles, may have added to its later importance.[14]

Use of Savior in Paul and Luke/Acts

As mentioned earlier, savior is not used as often as many of the other Christological titles and is often used alongside the title Lord. It is mentioned only once as a title in the undisputed letters of Paul, in Philippians 3:20. Luke uses the title once in relation to God in Luke 1:47, and three times in relation to Jesus in Luke 2:11, Acts 5:31, and Acts 13:23. If one looks further into the New Testament, one can see it attributed to both God and Jesus fairly evenly in the pastorals (six time and seven times each, respectively), and a handful of occasions elsewhere, twice in Johanine and five in Petrine literature. To get the earliest evidence for the use and function of the title this paper focuses on Paul’s use of soter in Philippians 3:20, as well as its use in the Lukan passages which uniquely trace the term from its use in Luke’s Gospel beyond Easter and Pentecost and into the era of the church. Though Colossians is a disputed letter, it is both possible, as well as early church tradition, that the authors knew each other. They mutually attest to this, and reference each other in their works (Phlm 1:24; Col 4:14; Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15, among others), and therefore may well share a similar, and early view of Jesus as savior.

Savior in Paul

Paul’s one “undisputed” use of savior as title is Phillipians 3:20-21:

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.[15]

From these short verses and their surrounding context, one can readily see that in Paul’s conception of savior, Jesus is distinct from the Father, yet also has a heavenly origin. Paul here uses savior along with the titles Lord and Christ, with the savior title grammatically tied to a heavenly origin through the preposition ek “out of.” Here Paul’s conception of savior is one that involves an all controlling and transformational power over physical matter (at least human bodies), and which will eventually, in death, preserve His followers’ earthly bodies to be like His own. The enemies of the believers, whose citizenship and Lord are not from heaven, will not have their bodies transformed as the faithfuls’ will (3:18-19). In response to this, Paul exhorts his hearers to remain “standing firm in the Lord” (4:1) and mentions that in contrast to these enemies, some of his coworkers’ names are written in an enigmatic Book of Life. Rather than Paul’s conception lending itself to a Roman idea of savior as a divinized ruler, Paul’s conception seems to be thoroughly Jewish in nature and tied to the idea of a general resurrection, in which Jesus as savior is seen as an eschatological somatic transformer[16] who conquers death through the power of His resurrection, as alluded to in 4:10. One could argue that the citizenship language of the Philippians 3:20-21 indicates a more Roman political interpretation, or read the reference to the general resurrection in light of patronage. Yet these powers of eternal somatic transformation—if they are to be seen as political statements at all—are political statements about the afterlife over against the short term “worldly” politics of Paul’s present. Instead however, this clearly point to a new—though thoroughly Jewish—covenantal redeemer framework, in which the redemption of bodies is made possible through Jesus’ death.

Beyond Paul’s singularly undisputed use of soter and building on this Jewish understanding is his use of ruomai (deliverer) in Romans 11:26 and 1 Thess 1:9-10. This pushes beyond merely a conception of a somatic transformer, and expands Paul’s conception toward what his concept of saving is from. In Romans 7:25, Paul hints at an understanding of sin and death connected to Jesus’ saving work as he exclaims, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers (ruomai) me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”[17] Paul, clearly shows his concept of salvation, and therefore savior, as coming from YHWH, through Jesus, and being from sin and death.While the concept of sin was regularly lamented by Roman poets as a function of a Roman propaganda[18],  this seems to point away from a Roman conception of a divinized ruler, who would likely care little about morality or ethics in the heart alone, and toward YHWH who calls His people to both ritual and moral purity.

In Romans 11:26 Paul quotes Isaiah 59:20 saying, “The deliverer (ruomai) will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.” Thus, Paul’s idea of savior is one that is also connected to Israel’s faith in YHWH. Echoing this theme in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, Paul commends believers for turning away from idols to YHWH and that Jesus is the one who rescues from “the wrath to come” by His resurrection. For Paul then, both resurrection and Israel’s story were central to his concept of savior. Moreover, whereas a Roman idea of savior likely secured one from untimely death at the hands of one’s enemies through the might of empire, Paul’s seemed to both possibly lead to, and yet transcend physical death, and hinged on the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Savior in Paul Vis-à-Vis Other Scholars

N.T. Wright, contra Cullmann, sees Paul’s use of savior as largely a Jewish critique of paganism, though with plenty of critique to Judaism as well.[19] Wright speaks of four factors in Paul that point to this: that Paul draws from Isaiah 40-55 for his conception, he locates Jesus within a Jewish monotheistic framework, draws from imperial poetry and symbols of power in Phil. 2:5-11, and uses words like parousia and apantesis which are almost used exclusively for the arrival of an Emperor.[20] Because there was no separation between church and state so to speak, these imperial symbols were simultaneously pagan religious symbols. Therefore  Paul’s critique of empire was explicitly a religious one on religious grounds. For Wright, Jesus being spoken of as Lord or savior, was an emphatic proclamation that Caesar was not.[21] Paul, rightly interpreted then, announces that Jesus as Messiah, is the true king and Lord of the world, long promised in the Scriptures, who is bringing Israel’s history to its God ordained climax.[22] Paul warns his hearers not to compromise their allegiance to Jesus, because He alone could give them the only glory worth possessing.[23]

Roetzel sees the traditional, convenient dichotomy between Judaism and Hellenism as largely a false one, with these boundaries in the first-century being likely very fluid and permeable.[24] To Roetzel, the title savior arises from Jewish royal mythology, and far from being insulated from Roman conceptions, is blended with them and therefore preserves Hellenistic nuance in New Testament usage. Jesus, then, is set apart and designated the conveyer of salvation. Roetzel sees the church as skillfully appropriating Roman language to define itself as it opposes the imperial cult, writes hymns of worship, and fashions new language surrounding its messianic community.[25]

Savior in Luke/Acts

 In Luke’s usage, the very first mention of soter is in the magnificat (Luke 1:47) and is attributed to God. Mary’s song is rooted in the Old Testament conception of YHWH as savior of Israel and in His identity with the children of Abraham’s understanding of their ancestry and history. Later in 2:10-11, Luke begins to identify the savior title with the title Messiah, and with the line of king David:

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

Here Luke seems to be using the title savior in an Old Testament conception of that of a judge of Israel, and yet the author also deliberately blends in Roman royal ideas of the good tidings of a Caesar-like king, along with their possible divine overtones. The tail end of the Roman inscription about Caesar mentioned earlier states:

The birthday of the god [Agustus] was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him.[26]

Yet despite the near parallels in inscription about Caesar as savior, Luke 2:10-11 remains an extension of Israel’s story in the larger narrative context; it is set in the city of David and among poor circumstances no less. In verse 14, it is clear there is a distinction and separation between YHWH who is praised in angelic song, and Jesus the one on whom His favor rests.

On the other side of Pentecost, Luke’s concept of savior expands to become a part of a kerygmatic proclamation. In a sermon placed on the lips of Peter directed to the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:29-31), we see that Jesus as savior was offensive to this leading body of Israel, who is seen in the author’s eye as using their authority in rebellion to God. Peter asserts that YHWH sent Jesus on a mission to bring Israel to repentance and gave Jesus authority to forgive Israel’s sins; That YHWH raised Jesus from the dead after His death on the cross and exalted Jesus to His right hand as Prince and savior. The Godhead of the Christian Trinity are all represented in close textual proximity as YHWH sends Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is present as a fellow witness given by YHWH to the apostles. The exaltation of Jesus within the sermon is also matched by the references to His name surrounding it on either end; the exaltation of Jesus’ name is the source of the dispute in verse 28. Exalting the name of Jesus by teaching was forbidden in verse 40, yet later the apostles rejoice at being worthy to suffer for proclaiming his name in verse 41. This scandalous message is met with near lethal criticism, and is framed by the author as a holy struggle misperceived by the leading Jews of Jerusalem.

While Jesus and God are still distinctive entities, one can begin to see Luke overlapping divine attributes with Jesus assuming the divine prerogative of forgiving sin and with the Apostle’s exaltation of Jesus to one-step removed from the exaltation reserved to God alone. Jesus’ divine significance seems to be the major point of contention.  The author’s portrayal of the Jewish ruler’s dialog reveals them (or at least Gamaliel) to be in a state of self awareness to the possibility that they may be in fact fighting with YHWH Himself.

In Acts 13:16-41 Luke records another sermon, this one from the lips of Paul at Pisidian Antioch. During a synagogue service Paul is invited to speak and gives a brief history of Israel from Abraham to Moses and then to the dynasties of Saul and David. In verse 23, Paul uses the savior title saying, “From this man’s [David’s] descendants God has brought to Israel the savior Jesus, as he promised.” Paul follows this statement with a history of the events that transpired in Jerusalem such as Jesus’ trials, death, and resurrection, and also by informing his audience that the religious authorities in Jerusalem have rejected Jesus in a way historically similar to a prophet of old. Luke, by way of his portrayal of Paul in his Gospel, also frames Jesus as an eschatological somatic transformer who is greater than King David because God raised Him from the dead (v. 30) and His body did not decay (v. 34-36). Luke records Paul as seeing Jesus’ role of savior as an expected fulfillment of the Davidic covenant and as one that is prophesied of in advance in Psalm 2.

In summary, both Paul and Luke share a vision of the title savior that has some overlap with the concept of Jesus’ lordship. Their concept of savior is one that includes a separation and distinction from YHWH, even while keeping a heavenly origin in view. The savior is a bringer of God’s forgiveness from sin and thereby His deliverance from either destruction, wrath, or decay upon death at a general resurrection of all people. For both Luke and Paul, the role of savior is connected to Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection and is to be proclaimed in the face of opposition.

Paul seems to connect his conception of savior to being rooted in Isaiah 59:20. Paul may differ from Luke in emphasizing the somatic transformation of bodies after their death and relating this concept to an eschatological and enigmatic book of life. However, in Luke’s portrayal of Paul at least, Paul there also roots his conception in the promises of the Davidic covenant by way of Jesus’ lineage and the historical story of Israel anchored to Psalm 2.

Luke explicitly uses the savior title in reference to YHWH, but more often than not embraces the usage of the title in ways similar to a Judges-style redeemer figure, or as a rejected prophet or prince of Israel. Luke is comfortable using Roman divinized ruler language in relation to this title, though Luke connects His concept of savior much more explicitly in the story of Israel than Paul, bolstering the somatic transformer concept of Jesus in His surpassing King David in the incorruptibility of His physical body.

Regarding distinction from God, Paul mentions Jesus as the Lord “from heaven” but does not explicitly state “Lord of Heaven.” Jesus is a corporeal savior and salvation stems from the death and resurrection of a corporeal body, albeit they both see this as incorruptible after death. God delivers “though Jesus” but not as Jesus per se, but on the other hand there is an overlap of divine functionality: it is Jesus that has power to transform human bodies to be like His own at the resurrection! It is Jesus to whom God’s power brings everything under His control! In Paul’s conception Jesus is also connected to a book of life in some way that is divinely and soteriologically significant. Luke keeps his conception of savior distinct from God by textually separating the members of the trinity, though he mentions them in close proximity to each other. While Luke’s conception does allow for the use of Roman divinized ruler language, it also points to Davidic Jewish descent. Luke has angels sing praises to both YHWH and Jesus with distinction and separation, with the one’s favoring resting on the other. We see in Luke that God both sent and raised Jesus. However, we also see some potential overlap of divine significance with Jesus being exalted nearly to the level of God Himself (His right hand) and that Jesus has divine authority as savior to forgive sins. Moreover, we find in Luke that the Jewish people opposing the gospel about Jesus are to be seen as in opposition to a divinely significant message, and therefore to the Jewish God YHWH Himself.

Savior in Luke Vis-à-Vis Other Scholars           

Ben Witherington sees the title of savior in Luke as one that points a largely gentile audience away from Caesar and toward Jesus who is the real savior, even as Witherington ironically points out that Luke’s Gospel seems to repudiate the idea of political connotations in calling Jesus king, contra Wright’s interpretation of Paul’s early use. Witherington points out that throughout Luke, Jesus is alternately praised and mocked as king, and misunderstood by His people as a political king instead of rightly as a king “not from this world,” for Jesus rules through what the people would see as weakness: He suffers, is crucified, and killed.[27]

Matera sees Luke’s use of savior as one that also points away from Caesar, and to a Jewish deliverer, or “Horn of Salvation.” Looking into the story of Luke’s infancy narrative, Matera highlights the God of Israel bringing salvation to His people through rising up a savior from the house of David who will free Israel from their enemies. Jesus is the Davidic Messiah who will fulfill the covenant to Abraham.[28] For Matera, Jesus the Messiah is the leader and savior of Israel inasmuch as He is the one through whom God effects repentance and the forgiveness of sins.[29]

Conclusions on the Significance of the Savior Title

While one can agree with Roetzel that it is hard to pin down the parameters of first-century Judaism and Hellenism, one sees in Luke and Paul’s savior Christology a firmly Jewish royal conception, albeit with Luke freely borrowing Roman royal language to use descriptively. The extent of Roman influences is hard to ascertain because Luke seems to be using a Roman term in Jewish way. More work would need to be done to see if Hellenistic nuances fit a later conception of savior, like that found in the Pastorals, yet Greco-Roman conceptions do not easily line up with Paul and Luke’s careful framing of their usage of savior in terms of the story of Israel. Wright’s interpretation of Paul’s use of savior as stemming from a Jewish critique of Pagan religion has great explanatory power regarding Luke’s use of borrowed imagery from the Cult of the Emperor, but struggles to merge with Jesus’ radical redefinition of kingship and rule through suffering and death that Witherington rightly points out in Luke.

The title savior then, in its early use, seems to have radical political ramifications while rooting itself solidly in the story of Israel. Savior in its early use is as applied to Jesus is not used in a way that is synonymous with YHWH Himself, as we are often prone to read it, but points to Jesus through whom salvation is sent as YHWH’s messenger. Savior, and therefore salvation then, is rooted in a rereading of Isaiah 40-55 and Psalm 2 in light of Jesus, and has to do with a Judges-style Redeemer who comes on a mission to bring a message of repentance from sin to His people. The true savior comes from God via the promises to Abraham and David, and delivers the believer from sin and bodily decay at the eschatological resurrection, or the great “day of the Lord.” While often using borrowed terminology from paganism, Paul and Luke redefine this imagery in light of a savior whose kingdom is “not of this world” and will remain even beyond the grave, standing long after King David’s, or even Caesar’s kingdom has long fallen or been cast aside.


[1] Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (Grand Rapids Mich.: Zondervan, 1997), s.v. “Yesa.”

[2] John Hinnells, “Zoroastrian Saviour Imagery and Its Influence On the New Testament,” Numen 16, no. 3 (Dec 1969): 181-182.

[3] Ibid., 181-185

[4] Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: a Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1997), 28-31.

[5] Richard A. Horsley, ed., Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl (Harrisburg, PA: T&T Clark, 2000), 168.

[6] N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 43.

See also Wright’s “Paul”; Horsley’s “Paul and the Roman Imperial Order”, or “Paul and Politics”; Carter’s “The Roman Empire and the New Testament”; or Meeks’, The First Urban Christians: the Social World of the Apostle Paul”, among others.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Horsley, ed., Paul and Politics, 160-161.

[9] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 57.

[10] Oscar Cullmannn, The Christology of the New Testament, Revised ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1963), 238.

[11] Calvin J. Roetzel, The World That Shaped the New Testament, rev. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 113-114.

[12]  Richard A. Horsley, ed., Paul and the Roman Imperial Order (Harrisburg, PA: T&T Clark, 2004), 103-106.

[13] Warren Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament: an Essential Guide (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006),44-62.

[14] Cullmannn, The Christology of the New Testament, 238-245.

[15] Unless otherwise specified, all biblical references cited are from the NIV 2011 version.

[16] Somatic transformer is a term borrowed from Gary Nebeker. His use of the term stems from Christ being described in Phil 3:20-21 as the direct agent of the believer’s future bodily transformation.

See Gary Nebeker, “Christ as Somatic Transformer: Christology in an Eschatological Perspective (Phil 3:20-21),” Trinity Journal 21, no. 2 (2000): 167.

[18] Horsley, ed., Paul and Politics, 37.

[19] N. T. Wright, Paul: in Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 63-79.

[20] Ibid 73-74.

[21] Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: the Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: SPCK Publishing, 2004),127.

[22] N.T. Wright in Richard A. Horsley, ed., Paul and Politics,168-169.

[23] Ibid. 179.

[24] Calvin J. Roetzel, The Letters of Paul: Conversations in Context, Vol 1(Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975), 6-8.

[25] Roetzel, The World That Shaped the New Testament, 112-116.

[26] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 43.

[27] Ben Witherington III, The Many Faces of the Christ: the Christologies of the New Testament and Beyond (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998), 160-161.

[28] Frank J. Matera, New Testament Christology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 53.

[29] Ibid. 72.

Annotated Bibliography

Carter, Warren. The Roman Empire and the New Testament: an Essential Guide. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006.

In his fourth chapter, Carter introduces the spaces of empire and how patronage, taxes and religion overlapped as spheres of power. Carter wades though Jesus’ teachings and Paul’s writings to mine them for cultural and socioeconomic data, and examines how these factors related to the audiences at the time of the writings. Carter’s sections on parousia, and other NT terminology and how these words were used in the public sphere of imperial theology of the time is both insightful and well written.

Cullmannn, Oscar The Christology of the New Testament. Revised ed. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1963.

Cullman’s systematic book of Christology centers around Christological titles and introduces them in their broad New Testament usage. Cullmann takes into account a variety of factors and looks at the development of terms in light of the changing circumstance of the early church. His work, though now somewhat dated, is helpful among the bulk of modern scholarly work that it seems has heavily emphasized Lord and largely simply combined the title with that of savior.

Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: a Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1997.

Ehrman’s historical critical introduction to the New Testament unflinchingly points out controversy and inconsistency in the Biblical writings. I found his comparisons of the Jewish and Roman religion’s hierarchies of divine and angelic beings very helpful as well as his look at mystery religions and their possible influence on Christological titles. However, his chapter on Luke entitled “Savior of the World,” had surprisingly little to say about the title of savior focusing more on and the synoptic problem and its significance for problems of genealogy among the Gospels.

Hinnells, John. “Zoroastrian Saviour Imagery and Its Influence On the New Testament.” Numen 16, no. 3 (Dec 1969): 161-185.

Hinnell’s work on Zoroastrian savior imagery was indeed fascinating, and truly the only voice I ran into from this viewpoint. He argues that the imagery of the New Testament savior concept was influenced by Zoroastrian apocalyptic literature. He sees parallels in the savior figure raising the dead, defeating demons, gathering people for judgment and administering that judgment. He asserts that the political climate before and up to the time of Herod the Great allowed for a building of cultural and religious bridges with Iran, both inside Palestine and outside it among the Diaspora.

Horsley, Richard A., ed. Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl. Harrisburg, PA: T&T Clark, 2000.

This collection of essays from leading scholars has large offerings on a variety of topics of first-century church thought, especially in relation to modern interests such as politics, slavery and gender roles. N.T. Wright’s very useful article on Paul’s Gospel goes into detail about how Paul challenged the conception of Caesar as Lord, in his assertions that Jesus is Lord. Wright goes into exegetical and contextual detail into many of Paul’s Christological passages, accentuating their pushback on the Cult of the Emperor, and showing how Paul was not anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish (though he was anti-non-messianic), nor dualistic.

———. Paul and the Roman Imperial Order. Harrisburg, PA: T&T Clark, 2004.

Another delightful collection of essays from leading scholars on Paul, which tend to relocate him not as a critic of Judaism, but as a critic of Roman Imperial Order. This collection picks up themes in Romans, 1 Thessalonians, Phillipians and 1 Corinthians that look at redemption, power, resistance to rule, and patronage. It is useful for understanding the socioeconomic, and political systems of Paul’s day, and how they relate to the interpretation of his writings.

Matera, Frank J. New Testament Christology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.

Matera’s Christology work examines the stories behind the titles of the New Testament. For Matera, Jesus’ story, and Paul’s writings operate differently, though without losing sight of what came before. He roots the NT story firmly within the story of Israel, looking at terms like Messiah, and Lord, and writing on such themes as suffering, mystery, and revelatory word.

Meeks, Wayne A. The First Urban Christians: the Social World of the Apostle Paul. New Haven: Yale Univ Press, 1983.

Meeks explores the urban environment of Pauline Christianity, and its relations with the surrounding countryside, as well as the roles of class and social stratification. He looks into fascinating connections and differences between urban and rural Judaism, and various social roles and categories. Meeks maps out the social world of early Christianity, its governance, rituals, and cultural boundaries.

Nebeker, Gary. “Christ as Somatic Transformer Christology in an Eschatological Perspective: (Phil. 3 20-21).” Trinity Journal 21, no. 2 (2000).

In this eschatologically focused journal article, the author takes a look at how the concept of savior could be tied in Paul’s writings to concept of Jesus’ body, (and then by extension our own). Jesus as a somatic transformer affects Paul’s Soteriology and is therefore tied to his own conception of what savior means. The author attempts to set Phillipians 3:20-21 within its occasion and context (by way of his audience’s eschatological hopes), and takes a fairly in-depth look at the Greek grammar on which this passage rests.

Roetzel, Calvin J. The Letters of Paul: Conversations in Context. 2 vols. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975.

Roetzel’s slim and useful volume attempts to peel back the layers on the occasion of Paul’s letters, looking to his writings for clues and possible explanations of their occaisions, as well as interacting with the theories of other scholars. Written to familiarize his students to the backdrop of the NT, it broadly sweeps toward a comprehensive understanding for the reader who may never have read Paul’s letters before. Roetzel’s chapter on “Paul and His World” explores who Paul was and the forces and world that shaped his life and theology, and that of his hearers, and dips into such diverse topics ranging from Paul’s Damascus Road experience to Gnosticism.

———. The World That Shaped the New Testament. Rev. ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

Roetzel unpacks the political, social, economic and religious features of Judaism and Hellenism as a background for reading the New Testament. Roetzel concisely moves through the political setting of Israel and Rome, and the Jewish resistance and wars that shaped the thought life of the ancient world, forms of religious expression, institutions such as the Temple and synagogue, and the scriptural interpretation people like Philo, and of groups like the Qumran community, and rabbinic Judaism.

VanGemeren, Willem, ed. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Grand Rapids Mich.: Zondervan, 1997.

This vast scholarly compendium of knowledge merges the theological topics of the Bible with the lexicon and writings of the ancient near east. Working from a systematic framework, it has articles of profound depth on the biblical usage of words in their original a languages, as well as connections with the DSS, Akkadian writings, and later rabbinic works.

White, L. Michael. The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks. Minneapolis: Fortress Pr, 1995.

This collections of essays inspired by Meeks looks at Paul and his communities, early Christians and their social world, the religious and social environment of early Christianity, and the shaping of Christian culture. There are many insightful articles on themes in Paul and other Christian writings, as well as articles from literary critics, a sociologist, and an anthropologist with unique perspectives on scripture from these fields. Though I did not use it for this paper, it provides a wealth of information pertinent to the study of the interplay between Christianity and Roman culture as lived out through the pages of the Bible and beyond.

III, Ben Witherington. The Many Faces of the Christ: the Christologies of the New Testament and Beyond. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998.

Witherington looks at the many facets of Christ through an informed historical Jesus perspective, and does not try to harmonize them into an overarching systematic system. In regards to Luke’s Christology of Messiah/savior he uses a dialectical approach of understanding what it meant for Jesus to be a kingly figure. Witherington shines at working closely with the text and framework of one author while bringing that author’s breadth of perspective to a general understanding of the New Testament as a whole.

Wright, N.T. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Wright examines the perspectives and influences of scholars like Bultmann, Kasemann, and Sanders and how these works have changed the scholarly conversation about Paul. Working to clear Paul of the modern charge of hijacking Christianity and making it something other than it was originally, N.T. Wright delves into answering it by examining who he was, his story of transformation, and what he proclaimed as the Gospel.

———. Paul: in Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.

N.T. Wright takes a “new perspective on Paul” look at the Gospel and its relationship to the terminology of Empire from the Roman World. Wright tells the story of Romans and Phillipians (and others) through the eyes of a Jewish critique of pagan occupation, and beyond Roman politics to its theology. Paul’s counter imperial theology then weaves together these extremes, simultaneously lifting up Jesus’ divinity while demoting Caesars as illegitimate.

———. Paul for Everyone: the Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. 2nd ed. Louisville, KY: SPCK Publishing, 2004.

Wright, publishing under a variant name, offers his own translation and commentary on Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Wright brings to bear his extensive understanding of the geography and cultural background to frame each pericope in light of its audience. This concise and easy to read commentary had an interesting take on how Paul’s audience in Philippi would see their role of being a Roman Colony contra his message of being citizens of heaven.


About jtower11

Hi there! I am James Tower: A husband, father, dreamer, visionary, thinker, poet, mystic, metal-worker, and scholar. I have served College Avenue Friends since 2013. I like to describe the way God has been at work in my life by saying that "He has been creating in me the heart of a pastor, the mind of a scholar, and the zeal of a missionary." I have an extremely nontraditional background as Jesus has given me freedom from the slavery of addiction to drugs, and my journey to faith came later in life after an overdose in 2000. I graduated with a M. Div with an emphasis in biblical studies from George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland Oregon in 2016. I have a love for teaching and revealing the historical and doctrinal context from which the biblical text arises, and connecting its redemptive message to life today. Other interests include teaching a leadership class based on the Friends Testimonies at William Penn University, writing, and metalwork such as blacksmithing, a passion which I enjoy teaching others as a way of discipleship. View all posts by jtower11

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