The Roman Empire cast a vast shadow over the world of the New Testament. In the past couple of decades, biblical scholars and theologians have rediscovered this fact. The ripple effects in the twenty-first century of this fresh focus on how imperialism shaped the writings of the New Testament cannot be overstated.
Something is emerging in American Christianity. Many in the church were brought up to believe that the United States was given to us by divine right. We are not only “proud to be American,” but we will sing out “God bless America, land that I love.” Sitting in certain churches on Independence Day could leave one wondering if it is a worship service honoring the Christian God or the American flag.
On the surface there is nothing wrong with liking a particular heritage or location, but what happens when you realize that the consumption of your so-called blessed nation may be fueling the oppression of many across the globe? What happens when the things that you grew up taking for granted are now the very things that perpetuate suffering?
Our world is one in which over a billion people lack access to clean water, where every seven seconds a child dies of hunger, where a billion people live on less than a dollar a day, where one hundred million children are denied basic education, where forty percent of people in our world lack basic sanitation, and where Americans spend more annually on trash bags than nearly half of the world does on all goods.
This is the reality of empire. The empire creates the façade of peace and security, all the while perpetuating suffering for other parts of the world.
The realization of many about the American empire has moved them to take a closer look at the historical context of the New Testament. Numerous students of the Bible are discovering that the Roman Empire had a major influence on the characters and writers of the gospels, Acts, the epistles, and the Apocalypse.
In the Gospel of Luke in particular, there are some obvious references to the Roman Empire and its interaction with Jesus. Because both the authors of the New Testament and contemporary American Christians are faced with the task of living faithfully in the midst of empire, it will be our aim to examine the emergence of Roman Imperialism in the first century. Then our attention will shift to examining two key texts in the third gospel (the birth narrative of Jesus, and the question of tribute to Caesar) as they relate to the Lukan view of empire.
Many consider the Roman Empire one of the greatest civilizations in history. In regards to the New Testament, the story of early Christianity finds its setting under the shadow of a metanarrative (a grand self-legitimizing story) that dominated most of the Mediterranean world and even beyond, namely the great myth that Cesar was the divine harbinger of peace and salvation for the world. Caesar Augustus is the earliest figure of the Roman Empire that the New Testament makes reference to, as he was the emperor during the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2).
Born in 63 BCE, he came to power in 31 BCE after a period of political unrest following the murder of Julius Caesar. The Roman Republic struggled for a time in civil war when Octavian (later called Augustus) took the throne. Octavian was the adopted heir of Julius Caesar and would rule in the footsteps of his surrogate father, who had led with near dictatorial authority. After his death, Julius Caesar was officially deified while mourners chanted, “Those whom I saved destroyed me.”
Celebrated as a hero after the strife of civil war, Augustus was considered the great source of peace for Rome. After defeating the enemies of Rome, he was celebrated as a great “savior” to the people who would have likely been hopeless had victory not been achieved. The themes of freedom, justice, peace and salvation permeated his reign. Whenever the great deeds of Augusts were proclaimed, they were presented with the Greek term euangelion, which is translated, “good news” or, “gospel”.
From those themes emerged what John Dominic Crossan has called a “Roman Imperial Theology,” which “was advertised with poems and inscriptions, coins and images, statues, altars, and structures.” Through this cultic propaganda, the Empire justified its dominance throughout Rome and the conquered territories. Before exploring the dimensions of the so-called “emperor cult,” it will be productive to examine Augustus’ reign in relationship to his subjects.
In order to remain in high regard before the Roman Senate, Augustus never fully claimed to be the ‘dictator’ of Rome (although it seems that for all practical purposes he wielded such authority). The structure of his leadership was similar to that of a constitutional monarchy, in which he was able to acquire great power without creating animosity between him and the senators.
Early in his reign, Caesar Augustus came to recognize the necessity of providing for three particular groups of Romans: 1) senators and equestrians, 2) the citizens of Rome, and 3) the soldiers of the Roman military. Such an approach to leadership gained him much popularity among his people.
In Christians and Roman Rule in the New Testament: New Perspectives, Richard J. Cassidy describes the political and economic conditions of Augustus’ rule in detail. The senate and equestrian classes (including Augustus) enjoyed great wealth from the purse of conquered peoples and the trade that increased as the borders moved outward.
Not only so, but many slaves were acquired during the military conquests that were to the benefit of the wealthy people of Rome. Augustus appeased the general population of Rome’s citizens by instituting a free monthly distribution of grain to each local family. These portions were distributed in conjunction with the monthly games for the populace to enjoy (often referred to as “bread and circus”).
For those who served in the Roman military, one that by the end of Augustus’ rule included about twenty-five legions, there were also great benefits that were granted by the emperor on their behalf. Compensation for soldiers included monthly salaries, discharge payments, opportunity for full Roman citizenship, and land grants for many who served twenty-five years or more.
In fact, those who received land grants were strategically placed into clustered settlements at key locations throughout the Empire. This helped deter any would-be agitators of the Roman peace, and promoted loyalty to the emperor beyond Rome.
If Augustus was successful with pleasing the residents of his homeland, what about those who were outside of Rome? How did he keep conquered peoples from revolting and overthrowing his dominion? As mentioned above, he had a large army at his disposal for any would-be revolutionary movement against the Empire. Augustus, who was hailed as the bringer of Pax Romana, ironically sustained the so-called peace of Rome through instilling fear within the conquered territories.
In other words, the peace that Rome claimed was actually from “military exhaustion rather than virtue, and one Roman cynic did put into the mouth of a conquered foe, a century later, the accusation that the Romans created a wilderness and labeled it ‘peace.’”
With that said, Augustus also took many steps to ensure his popularity in the various parts of the Empire. For instance, in 12 BCE, when the province of Asia was undergoing some economic difficulties, the Emperor actually paid a whole year’s taxes from his own treasury. Many would eventually see Augustus as a blessing, in spite of the subjugation he imposed.
What did the subjugation actually look like for people who were part of the Empire? Something that becomes evident when reading the New Testament is that Rome imposed heavy taxation (a simple reading of the canonical gospels highlights this reality in several ways). One example of the immensity of the taxes could be found in the distribution of grain (“bread and circus”) mentioned above. It has been estimated that 250,000 men were given a portion of grain that fed about 670,000 citizens, excluding the other 30 percent of the population that were slaves.
The only way for Rome to acquire the huge amount of grain needed to feed its population so generously was through heavy taxation of the conquered territories. It took between 200,000 and 400,000 thousand tons of imported grain to feed the residents of Rome for a year! Later, in 66 CE, Josephus records the words of Herod Agrippa II stating that the people of Africa gave “their annual produce, which feeds the populace of Rome for eight months of the year” (Judean War 2.383).
In addition to the grain toll, there were also taxes on produce, sales taxes, temple taxes, occupational taxes, custom taxes, transit taxes, and many others. Taxation was the means by which the Roman elite were able to provide gifts for its citizens and build up the Mother City.
This is not to say that it did not also benefit other territories outside of Rome, for much construction was accomplished throughout the Empire, which benefited many outside of the capital. Nevertheless, it is clear that Augustus and his successors made it their goal to collect as much money in the form of tax revenue as possible, causing a great divide between the economic elite and the ninety-seven percent of those in the Empire who lived in some degree of poverty.
In spite of the demands of taxation, the Empire ensured stability throughout its subjugated territories. Cassidy (mentioned above) lists four key elements that the Roman elite implemented to make life in the Empire pleasing to its subjects so that they would cooperate with the system of their overlords.
- First, taxes that were collected often went toward great building campaigns that enhanced the quality of life in the various provinces. Some examples of this are the great amphitheaters that were constructed in antiquity, as well as public baths, aqueducts, and many other projects that would have benefited the general population outside of Rome.
- The second element was “the achievement of relative peace and order, paz atque quieta, within the conquered territories.” This was a vague reality, as discussed above, but nonetheless such an imposed peace kept civil and regional campaigns to a minimum.
- Third, Augustus decided to partner with local elites to use their loyalty as an extension of his rule. He appointed client rulers, not least the Herodian dynasty, all of whom fell into line with the system of governance and profited greatly from such an allegiance.
- The fourth and final key element of Augustus’ campaign to keep order in the territories of the Empire was the use propaganda which has become known as the “Emperor cult” or as was mentioned earlier in this study, “imperial theology.”
We shall now turn our attention to that Imperial religion in greater detail.
In 27 BCE, Octavian became Augustus. This was not simply a change of name, but a change of identity. Although Octavian did not desire to be known as the dictator or dominus, the Senate found that the name Augustus (which means worthy of veneration/worship) would be the way to express his unique status and authority. He readily embraced this name and eventually became the object of worship throughout the Empire. Ethelbert Stauffer states:
In the framework of ancient liturgy he was invoked like one of the ancient national gods of Rome…and he was surrounded with such an abundance of religious honour that many people thought there was nothing left for the worship of the heavenly gods (Tacitus).
It was not merely a name that gave Augustus this divine status, but also the fact that his father Julius had been divinized after his death. This meant that Augustus would now have ground for claiming the title of “son of god.”
Although many have claimed that imperial theology was merely a propaganda tool that was leveraged for the security of the emperor’s rule, pertaining particularly to outside territories, evidence suggests that it was in fact a sincere religious practice among many Romans.
Crossan points out an interesting quotation originating in Rome that seems to imply that Augustus was also venerated or even worshiped within the region of the Capital. He states:
Imperial divinity is sometimes described as if it were merely a propaganda ploy for the provinces but was not, of course, believed in Rome or Italy. But in his Epistle to Augustus or around 15 BCE, for example, the poet Horace noted that while all previous deifications had occurred only after death, “upon you [Augustus], however, while still among us, we already bestow honors, set up altars to swear by in our name, and confess that nothing like you will arise hereafter or has ever arisen before now” (Epistles 2.1.15-17).
Imperial theology was spread through various forms of ancient media. In Greek cities in particular, several ways of honoring the emperor developed. Statues of Augustus were built to stand alongside other traditional gods, shrines were placed strategically throughout cities, and temples were often built as the focal point of metropolitan areas.
For example, Ephesus changed the orientation of its buildings in the public square so that temples dedicated to the emperor would be prominent. Also, great games combined with feasting, celebrations, and ritual sacrifices were implemented to honor the emperor.
Coinage from the period had the image of goddess on one side and the image of Augustus on the reverse with the inscription of a deity: CAESAR DIVI F. Emperor worship became ingrained in the culture of many parts of the Empire. N. T. Wright points out that in most of the Roman world, the belief in the emperor as divine would have been both “obvious and uncontroversial.”
This was especially true in the East, where rulers had long been divinized. Belief in the divinity of Augustus was so profound that even the succeeding emperors after Augustus were considered the “son of god,” because they continued the tradition of deifying the former emperor by claiming to have seen his soul ascending to heaven. One form of ancient media from about 9 BCE in the form of an inscription gives a good overview of the kind of language that was attributed to the Caesar as being more than a man:
The most divine Caesar…we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things…; for when everything was falling [into disorder] and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave to the whole world a new aura; Caesar…the common good Fortune of all…the beginning of life and vitality….All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year….Whereas Providence, which has regulated our whole existence…has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us [the emperor] Augustus, whom it [Providence] filled with strength for the welfare of men, and who being sent to us and our descendants as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and [whereas,] having become [god] manifest (phaneis), Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times …in surpassing all the benefactors who preceded him…, and whereas, finally, the birthday of the god [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of good news (euangelion) concerning him [therefore let a new era begin from his birth]. (OGIS 2.#458)
From this evidence we can see that the deification and worship of the Emperor was common throughout the Empire, both as a means of social control to legitimate Rome’s economic and military dominance, and as a sincere religious piety. It will come as no surprise, then, that this Imperial Theology had grave implications for the people of Israel and, by extension for Jesus and the authors of the New Testament.
Israel During the Time of Jesus
During the first century, Rome had dominion over Israel. In 63 BCE, after much turmoil and civil war within Israel, the Romans invaded and conquered Jerusalem. In order to keep control over the Galilean and Judean peoples, Julius Caesar and the Senate installed Herod as king. It would take Herod three years to finally gain all control over the still hostile Jews, but he would in due course keep a firm rule over the whole region. He eventually became one of Augustus’ favorite military leaders, and was admired by the new emperor because of his immense development program.
Not only did Herod expand the Temple in Jerusalem to be more grandiose and Hellenistic-Roman in style, but he also imposed a sacrifice that the priests would give on behalf of Rome and the emperor. Additionally, Herod had whole cities named to give reverence to Caesar as well as imperial temples and fortresses to reinforce Roman control. The great building campaigns were not possible without taxing the peoples of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea greatly; leaving the majority in poverty.
Not only were they required to pay taxes to the Empire, but they continued to function as a “temple-state” and were also required to pay the tithes and sacrifices of the Jewish religion. The offensiveness of being forced into what could be labeled idolatry along as the difficult economic reality must not be understated. Horsley states:
The demand for tribute to Rome and taxes to Herod in addition to the tithes and offerings to the Temple and priesthood dramatically escalated the economic pressures on peasant producers, whose livelihood was perennially marginal at best. After decades of multiple demands from multiple layers of rulers many village families fell increasingly into debt and were faced with loss of their family inheritance of land. The impoverishment of families led to the disintegration of village communities, the fundamental social form of such an agrarian society. These are precisely the deteriorating conditions that Jesus addresses in the Gospels: impoverishment, hunger, and debt.
After Herod’s death in 4 BCE, the Romans would appoint Antipas to rule and would eventually install Roman governors to help create more stability. The Jews responded in various ways to the rule of Rome and the appointed governors and client-kings. Some, as in the case of the Sadducean priestly order and the Herodian dynasty, chose to live in compromise to the Empire and to implement their wishes.
The second kind of response was a basic acceptance of Roman rule, with a readiness to challenge the Empire when injustice was evident. This was usually carried out as nonviolent subversion.
The third response was a nonviolent rejection of Roman rule. Many scholars put Jesus into this category although several others would challenge this assumption. The fourth way that Jews responded to this circumstance was embodied by the Zealots in violent rejection of Rome, which would lead to the eventual destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In light of the above responses, it will serve our purposes to turn our attention to Luke’s gospel to see how Roman rule is depicted in some key texts.
As we turn our attention to the gospel of Luke, it is helpful to consider the broad approach he pursues before looking at the two key texts in relation to circumstances surrounding Roman rule. For as much as the Empire was able to appease many of its subjects, it was also a forced appeasement – often accepted as the only option. Many in various territories (especially outside of Rome) were frustrated by their situation, not least many of the Jews.
As stated above, with the exception of those who chose the first option of compromise with the Empire, those who lived in the Israel were not fully satisfied with the situation. This dissatisfaction finds a voice in Luke’s gospel.
Luke’s Jesus finds his earthly story beginning during the reign of Caesar Augustus. His entire life takes place in the context of being part of a dominated people, who believed that they were a special people group in the eyes of their Creator. Being a people under foreign rulers was nothing new to the Jews leading up to the period that Luke’s gospel describes.
They had been subject to Babylon, Assyria, Persia, the Greeks, and finally Rome. It was the Persians that allowed the Jews to return to their homeland after years of exile; however they were now to be set up as a client state. Freedom had not arrived, just a new kind of exile. This self-understanding becomes evident in the intertestamental writings.
For the most part, Israel did not ever feel that they had been liberated from exile, so leading into the New Testament era is an ingrained hope that a “new exodus” would free God’s people from the “oppressive weight of empire.” As we shall see in our chosen texts, Luke’s gospel takes full opportunity to situate Jesus within the time-space reality of Roman rule, and demonstrates over and again how “the kingdom of Jesus subverts and overthrows the kingdom of Rome.”
This subversion does not come in through revolt-like force. Rather, Rome’s desire for domination over the world is challenged by Jesus’ Lordship, which is manifested through humility.
From Luke’s perspective, Jesus challenges the socio-political norms that were the result of Roman rule. Interestingly, Luke attributes the “kingdoms of the world” to the rule of the devil in the temptation narrative (see Luke 4.5-6). Cassidy says that “Satan’s boast that he orchestrates the power of all kingdoms implies the claim that he directs and manipulates the Roman authorities.” The perspective of Luke is that the Roman system is under the control of the devil and yet it is in place for a reason.
The emperor and his system may indeed be under the influence of evil and worthy of judgment. However, God has chosen to keep such rulers in place to keep the world from anarchy. God’s people are called to learn to live within the governing systems, while holding such to God’s high standards and confronting them in the face of injustice.
The first key text that we will examine is the story surrounding the birth of Jesus. Luke’s birth narrative is perhaps the text that is most blatantly related to the Roman Empire. Caesar Augustus had issued a decree that the whole world would be counted. This was so that the emperor would be able to tax the people with greater accuracy. Emperor Augustus would have used the money to fund his military, for building expansion projects, and for overall imperial control.
As was discussed earlier, taxation was part of a system designed to maintain the security of Pax Romana. The more revenue the Empire could take in through taxation, the more Augustus was able to make life for the citizens of Rome pleasant and thus ensure his favorable status among the Senate. We need not say more about how this system caused those in Judea and surrounding areas to find themselves either as part of the morally compromised, colluding aristocracy, or in poverty. This is the world in which Jesus is born.
It has already been established that Caesar Augustus was called the “son of god” who was the great “savior” of the whole earth through bringing “peace” to Rome. The announcement of this was heralded as “good news.” The four above themes are examples of the propaganda that was spread via the media of the imperial religion. What is quite interesting is that these are the same four themes that permeate the birth narrative in Luke’s gospel.
When the angel Gabriel visits Mary to tell her that she will give birth to Jesus, the child is proclaimed as the “son of God” (Luke 1.35) – the same title Augustus claimed for himself.  Also, we must consider the announcement of Caesar’s birth that was quoted earlier in this study:
“All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year…the birthday of the god [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of good news (euangelion) concerning him [therefore let a new era begin from his birth].”
The birth of Augustus is correlated with the beginning of a new era. His birth and continual birthdays are “good news” for the whole world. Caesar is depicted as having been born, and therefore as human, but also in some mysterious way he is simultaneously divine. When other sections of this imperial quote are considered, we find out even more in relation to the above four themes.
…who being sent to us and our descendants as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and [whereas,] having become [god] manifest (phaneis), Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times…
In this section of the quotation, Augustus is also referred to as the long awaited “Savior.” He is the great source of peace because he is the one who “put an end to war” and who “set all things in order.” Notice the way in which the birth announcement about Jesus by the angels has similarities to the birth proclamation of Caesar:
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord… And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace…” Luke 2.10-11, 13-14 (NRSV)
What Augustus claimed about himself (or at least allowed others to claim for him), is turned upside down by a baby that was born into the system of oppression created by the Romans. What was supposed to be true of Caesar, it turns out is actually true of Jesus! Jesus is the true Savior and the qualities that were given to the Roman emperor have turned out to be a cheap imitation. Luke having used this language to describe the birth of Jesus puts him “in religio-political opposition to the emperor.”
The second of our key Lukan texts is one of the most famous passages in the New Testament in regards to politics. In Luke 20 Jesus is approached while teaching in the Temple and asked whether it is lawful to pay tribute to Cesar. He answers famously that his hearers are to, “give to Cesar what is Cesar’s and give to God what is God’s. This passage is often interpreted to support a dichotomy between church and state affairs. Spirituality is viewed as heavenly while politics are considered an earthly affair. Or put another way, religion is the private part of one’s life and politics are what must be carried out in public.
It is unfortunate that this is the lens through which a Westerner will approach this text, because the answer to “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” does not enforce such a dichotomy in any way. This sort of split-level worldview was unknown in the ancient Jewish world. Jesus’ answer is not simply an easy way to avoid trouble by dividing ethics into two separate categories. From the perspective of a first century hearer, this answer was much more.
For the Jew, it would have been illegal by the law of Torah to have a coin with a graven image such as the coinage of Caesar – not to mention a divine inscription. On the other hand, what choice did they have considering their position of being dominated? So Jesus has two options for addressing this trapping question at hand: either tell them to pay the tax and thus compromise the kingdom of God, or tell them not to pay which would have been directly disobedient to Rome.
The second option could have resulted in trouble for an already suffering people. Deliberate disobedience to paying taxes to Rome would cause military force against them. Joel B. Green rewords Jesus’ answer in the following fashion: “Give to Caesar what is his already.” In other words, the coin obviously bears the image of the emperor, so it must belong to him anyway; therefore, give it back to him.
Jesus’ second half of his answer is where things get subversive. His answer begs another question: what exactly are the things that are God’s? Well, for the Jew, several things would come to mind. First, would be Genesis 1.26 where humanity is said to have been created in the image of God. Caesar’s coins are the only kind of thing that bore his image, but God’s people are his image, and he is claiming their allegiance to his kingdom that was being announced and inaugurated by Jesus. This would imply that Caesar did not actually have any claim on the Jewish people (or anyone for that matter) because they belong to another kingdom whose emperor is God’s own self!
The second thing Jesus’ answer would bring to mind for his Jewish hearers is the inscription that is on the heart of those who have the Law of God (as opposed to the inscriptions of coins that claimed the divinity of the emperor). Through these first two areas, Jesus was reminding his hearers that God’s demand of those who bear his image is to live in obedient relationship to him. The third area is even more subversive. It seems that Jesus could have also been referring to the land of Israel as his possession, which God had given them long ago and had been overthrown by foreign enemies. Horsley says the following about the land:
The land from which the produce came belonged to God, who had given it to the people in their respective family inheritances (see, e.g., Lev.25). “The things that belonged to God” were therefore everything, all produce, which was in turn for the support of God’s people. While couched in a clever circumlocution, Jesus’ answer was still a blunt declaration of the people’s independence of Roman imperial rule/kingdom, since they belonged directly under the rule/kingdom of God.
While Horsley may take his argument in the above quote to the extreme, it is helpful to see some of the overtones of Jesus’ clever answer to the question about taxation. We can be sure, as Wright states, that “underneath was the strong hint that Caesar’s regime was a blasphemous nonsense and that one day God would overthrow it.” Clearly, speaking this way in the Empire threatened the manipulated obedience of the people to Caesar. So, out of a posture of defiant wisdom, Jesus speaks in hints and inferences that had significance for his subjected Jewish hearers.
This paper explored the contextual realities in which Luke’s Jesus finds his narrative. The subjugation, tax burden, and imperial worship of the Roman Empire/Emperor served as the backdrop to Luke’s gospel. For Luke, the Empire was an inescapable certainty as he recorded the story of Jesus and as he lived much of the story of his second volume (Acts). Luke’s Jesus, who was born as a lowly baby during the reign of the powerful Augustus, still beckons us to “give to God the things that are God’s” as we call the empires of this day to their accountability to the benevolent King – the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.
For the church in the West – and specifically in the United States – realizing Jesus’ challenge to imperial realities beckons us to name and undo the oppressive elements of modern manifestations of empire. Rediscovering our unique place as a people whose authority comes, not from power and might, but from identifying with the margins of empire, potentially could transform the world as we know it.
Our recent history is filled with economic privilege and security, so perhaps Luke’s summons involves using our status for the humanizing benefit of those who have none. Although such a change will take discernment and self-sacrifice, the invitation of the gospel is to begin that journey by identifying with the lowly baby who undermined the emperor’s modus operandi. In doing so, Jesus invites all people into a better way of being human together.
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- McKnight, Scot. The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians can Embrace the Mother of Jesus. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007.
- Stauffer, Ethelbert. “Augustus and Jesus.” In Christ and the Caesars. 1952, Wittig Verlag. Reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2008.
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Author: Kurt Willems
Kurt Willems is a pastor, author, and spiritual director. His first book, Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain, releases in March 2021. Kurt is also the host of the Theology Curator podcast. He has a master of divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a master of arts in comparative religion from the University of Washington.
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