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The “Son of God” in/and the Roman Empire: A Review Essay

January 17, 2013

A couple of days ago I mentioned that I was reading a book for review:  Michael Peppard, The Son of God in the Roman World:  Divine Sonship in its Social and Political Context (Oxford University Press, 2011).  The commissioned review, to be published in the Autumn in Expository Times, had to be kept brief within a tight word-limit, so in this posting I take the opportunity to comment more fully on this ambitious and occasionally provocative study.  (An alert here to readers:  This will be an exceptionally long posting.)

Essentially, Peppard contends that Roman emperor-cult, and particularly the title of “son of god” (Latin:  divi filius; Greek: θεοῦ υιός), and additionally the practice of adoption of a son as imperial successor, are significant factors to take account of in engaging early Christian affirmations about Jesus’ divine sonship.  On the one hand, this basic view is nothing new, going back at least to the foundational (and still instructive) work of Adolf Deissmann, especially Licht vom Osten (1908; 4th ed 1923; ET, Light from the Ancient East, 1927), although Peppard’s additional emphasis on dynastic adoption is a new wrinkle that deserves credit and consideration.  On the other hand, Peppard bids to shift the focus a bit from more traditional questions about origins and influences on early christology, with a stated emphasis on imagining how the presentation of Jesus in texts such as the Gospel of Mark (hereafter GMark) might have been taken by people coming to them with no other preparation than associations of words from their pagan background.  In Peppard’s language, he seeks to explore the “resonance” of christological divine sonship language for such people.  Even here, however, as he freely acknowledges, Peppard develops an approach laid out earlier by Adela Yarbro Collins.

Peppard also aligns himself enthusiastically with some other recent scholars who have posited an “anti-empire” stance in some NT texts/authors, including R. A. Horsley (Jesus and Empire:  The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder, Fortress Press, 2003), and especially J. D. Crossan and J. L. Reed (In Search of Paul:  How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, HarperSanFrancisco, 2004).  In short, Peppard proposes that in GMark and some other early Christian texts we see Jesus presented as a kind of counter-emperor figure, with strongly contrasting traits ascribed to his status as “son of God”.

The book certainly repays reading it.  It gives an impressively erudite synthesis of scholarly work on emperor-cult and Roman-era adoption practices, with special attention to the adoption of successors as sons by several Roman emperors.  Peppard rightly notes how our understanding of Roman emperor-cult has been enhanced in a number of ways thanks to scholarly work of the last few decades, beginning with the influential study by S.R.F. Price (Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor, Cambridge University Press, 1984).  I recall reading Price’s splendid book shortly after it appeared, along with his fine study of Greek terms for deity, which ought to be required reading for NT scholars/students:  “Gods and Emperors: The Greek Language of the Roman Imperial Cult.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 104 (1984): 79-95.

Peppard’s particular point about dynastic adoption is that it involved a person being given the highest human honor (being appointed successor to the emperor), and so this likely meant that in the first century (when dynastic adoption was particularly frequent) adoption as an imperial successor (and so in due course “son of god”) would have given the whole idea an honourable association.  So, in that context, NT references to Jesus having been appointed by God as “Son of God” (and/or “Christ” and “Lord”), e.g., Rom 1:3-4; Acts 2:36; Philip 2:9-11, do not reflect some supposedly “low” christology.  Instead, they represent efforts to ascribe to Jesus the highest sort of status imaginable, invoking associations with imperial adoption.  Peppard urges that we should not read these texts anachronistically in terms of “adoptionist” controversies of later Christian centuries.

In chapter 4, Peppard finally gets down to making his case about the relevance of all this for the GMark.  After quickly indicating his preference for Rome as the likely provenance of the text, he then lays out his argument.  He rightly emphasizes that the emperor was a figure with impact across the empire, images of emperors plentiful (citing an estimate of 25,000 to 50,000 portraits of Augustus alone), and that Roman Judaea was not immune to this (with temples dedicated to Augustus by Herod in Sebaste, Caesarea and Banias).  But Peppard seems to me to fudge things a bit when it comes to judging the likely attitude of Jews to emperor-cult.  True, we should not over-simplify matters.  But, to cite only a few illustrative data, we know that Jews firmly avoided any image of the emperor in the Jerusalem temple, that instead of offerings to the emperor there was sacrifice on behalf of the emperor there, that masses of Jews rioted when Roman troops attempted to bring the cultic emblems of their legions into Jerusalem, and that there was protest and the threat of outright revolt when Caligula ordered his image to be set up in the Jerusalem temple. Certainly, Jews (and Christians as well) typically sought to avoid confrontation with imperial authorities over emperor-cult or anything else, and negotiated their existence as best they could, but we should not obfuscate things.  Unlike many (most?) others in the time, they did not typically take part in giving cultus to the emperor, and indeed seem to have viewed it as only one of the many idolatrous practices of pagans.

Peppard’s discussion of GMark focuses on the scene of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-11), contending that it reflects and even alludes to imperial adoption, Jesus adopted in the scene by God as the true divine Son (in implicit contrast to the claims of the emperor).  To be sure, others have noted places in GMark that (more overtly?) allude to Roman imperial themes and claims, in particular the extensive account of Jesus’ confrontation with the “legion” of demons in 5:1-20, and the centurion’s curious acclamation of the dying Jesus in 15:39.  So, in principle it is at least plausible to consider whether the baptismal scene may have been taken this way too.

But Peppard may appear to urge this at the expense of recognizing the other things in the narrative that point to other associations more obviously.  For example, it is a baptism (hardly something that brings to mind imperial adoption practice), and the utterance of the (divine) voice from heaven rather obviously alludes to biblical texts, especially to Psalm 2:7.  The scene is quite likely to be taken as the divine commissioning of Jesus as messiah and chosen servant of God, and that does set up a tension with the claims of the emperor (more obviously alluded to in the passion account in Pilate’s derision of Jesus as “king of the Jews”), but it is not quite so obvious that the baptismal scene is strictly an “adoption” patterned after Roman practice.  (For all Peppard’s detailed discussion of the use of the verb ευδοκεω, he slides too quickly over the phrase in which it is used here, εν σοι ευδοκησα, which isn’t the sort of construction used in those places where the verb seems to mean “to choose”.  Cf., e.g., Adela Yarbro Collins’ more plausible translation in her Hermeneia commentary on GMark: “I take delight in you.”)

A somewhat similar complaint about one-sided discussion can be lodged about his handling of the transfiguration scene in Mark 9:2-10.  Peppard urges an association of the scene with reference in 8:27 to “villages (in the vicinity) of Caesarea Philippi” (where Herod Philip had erected a temple to Augustus) as a basis for reading the transfiguration as a “challenge” to the Roman emperor-cult there.  But the geographical association with Caesarean Philippi isn’t so obvious as Peppard asserts (e.g., the transfiguration-scene is put “six days later” than the events in the preceding narrative).  In any case, the emphasis in the scene on a mountain location, the presence of Moses and Elijah, the cloud from which comes the divine voice, and other data all combine to draw attention to biblical/Jewish traditions.  Any contrast with the emperor is, to put it kindly, very subtle indeed, and certainly not foremost.

I come now to consider his stated approach.  Early on (pp. 26-28) and at several points thereafter, Peppard declares his project as imagining how someone shaped by general Roman culture (and not by Christian teaching) might have taken the texts such as GMark, the “resonance” of these texts for such a person.  He declares this “best exemplified” in two articles by Adela Yarbro Collins (“Mark and His Readers,” in Harvard Theologicial Review 92, 1999, pp. 393-408 & HTR 93, 2000, pp. 85-100).  But, I find it curious that when he actually engages Mark and other texts one notices an unacknowledged shift from this interest in “resonance” to arguing that emperor-cult imagery and themes were factors influencing the author and the way the texts were written.  Indeed, it seems to me that his discussion of GMark and other texts is actually focused on this, and not really on how your typical pagan might have heard the text.  So, what he offers is often stimulating, but it’s not as innovative as he avers, and doesn’t really seem to carry out his announced project.

In any case, I have my doubts about the sort of reading of GMark that Peppard asks us to imagine.  Surely, GMark was from the first typically read (and, I think intended to be read) in gatherings of early Christians, who at the likely time of GMark’s composition were heirs of about two decades or so of Christian proclamation and teaching.  Moreover, GMark was likely read corporately, not by isolated individuals left to their own devices.  So, the uninitiated pagan who might drop in or join the group would also be exposed to the “group think” of the Christian circle.

It is noteworthy that the explicit literary references, and even more the many literary allusions that we can identify with any confidence, are pretty much all to biblical (OT) texts, suggesting an intended readership with (or able to access) a good knowledge of these texts.  Certainly, at some point some interested pagans (such as Celsus in the second century) took an interest in the Gospels.  But even then they seem to have done so in response to, and so acquainted with, early Christian teaching and claims.  In short, I fail to see the fruitfulness of the imaginative project Peppard sets out.  And it appears that he too found it either not really feasible or perhaps less interesting than surmising about the purposes of the authors of texts such as GMark.

On a more affirmative note, in his final chapter, Peppard surveys a selection of early Christian texts, including Luke-Acts, Paul, GJohn, Shepherd of Hermas, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Origen, and various other texts of “the Nicene era” and thereafter, showing that Christian christological discourse across this period dropped references to Jesus as adopted divine Son, preferring to emphasize him as “begotten”.  Moreover, it appears that a stronger distinction was made between the divine sonship conferred on believers, by adoption, and Jesus’ divine sonship as his by having been “begotten” (ultimately portrayed as an eternal begetting).  This impressively erudite and stimulating discussion is very much recommended.

I have delayed till now one matter that is a bit awkward for me.  In his first chapter, and reflecting the PhD thesis from which the book is derived, Peppard performs the obligatory review of previous scholarship, and (as one expects) emphasizes both the importance of his subject (“son of God” language) and that he will redress its alleged neglect or misconstrual by “most biblical scholars”.  He then classifies selected scholars “according to the method by which they deal with the ‘son of God’ concept.”  Among these approaches is “the religionsgeschichtliche Schule and its heirs” (14-26).  After brief discussions of Bousset’s Kyrios Christos (1913), Hengel’s Der Sohn Gottes (1975, ET 1977) and Dunn’s Christology in the Making (1981, 2nd ed 1989), to each of which he offers some commendatory and some critical comments, he turns to a more extended discussion of my work.  On the one hand, it is perhaps better to have one’s work noticed than ignored, and I suppose that I should feel some sort of compliment in having my work given such a larger discussion.  On the other hand, I am puzzled and dismayed at the distortion and sustained negativity in his treatment of my efforts to analyse early Jesus-devotion (especially in Lord Jesus Christ, 2003).  In the nearly six pages of discussion of my work, it is hard to find more than the occasional (and somewhat grudging) positive comment.

His accusations are varied.  He ascribes to me “a spirit of neo-orthodoxy” (!), and alleges that my work is, “if not apologetics, unapologetically Christian, with an emphasis on orthodox Christology,” comments which appear to be intended to mean that I’m not really committed to (or not capable of) genuine historical analysis.  But it is amusing, and surely indicative of Peppard’s misconstrual of things, that he then refers to the EHCC (“Early High Christology Club,” to whom Lord Jesus Christ was dedicated) as indicative of these religious “convictions”.  He seems not to know that the EHCC is simply a friendly group of pals who agree (as he does) that devotion to Jesus as in some sense divine began quite early, that the EHCC it is not a religious association, and that it includes friends of various religious stances (including Jewish scholars such as the late Alan Segal).

Granted, as candidly stated in my discussion of methodological issues in Lord Jesus Christ (8-11), “I confess to being guilty of Christian faith,” but I also indicate there that and why I think that historical investigation of early Jesus-devotion should be pursued for its own sake, and not (to cite myself) “either to refute or to validate the religious and theological meaning of early devotion to Jesus.”  So I do take exception to his facile accusation that I’m simply engaged in asserting an unexamined “orthodox” (or “neo-othodox”! ) theological position.  Moreover, given Peppard’s own evident theological convictions (pp. 177-79), one thinks of a traditional saying about pots and kettles.

Likewise, I reject as unfounded Peppard’s claim that “a Platonic framework undergirds the analysis” in my discussion of the references to Jesus as “son of God” in the Gospels.  With most other scholars, it remains clear to me that various data, for example, in GMark the demonic acclamations of Jesus, are intended by the authors to indicate that Jesus bears a significance and status that transcend what other characters in the narratives recognize.

Two more matters of substance, and further illustrations of Peppard’s curious misrepresentations of certain things.  He accuses me of omitting data about the larger pagan religious environment in order to make my claim that we have no true analogy for the dyadic devotional pattern characteristic of earliest Christianity (p. 24).  But the fact is that there isn’t such an analogy, and I don’t see that Peppard has offered one.  As I’ve indicated now for some 25 years, what we require is some other group of the time that practiced a “monotheistic” cultic exclusivity (worship of one deity only) and also incorporated a second distinguishable figure into their devotional practice in the programmatic way that Jesus was in earliest Christian circles.  Neither emperor-cult nor any other known phenomena in the Roman religious environment provides us such a parallel. Those who worshipped the dead and/or living emperors were simply accomodating one more of the many deities that Roman-era people generally treated as worthy of worship.  The idea of a divine ruler is neither innovative nor remarkable in the history of the ancient near east or the history of religion.  But I maintain that the incorporation of a second and distinguishable figure into the worship practice of those who otherwise practiced a cultic exclusivity was a most remarkable development.

As my second example of Peppard’s puzzling take on things, attempting his most withering prose he complains that in my discussion of “tributaries” of second-century proto-orthodox Christianity I ignore “the influential thesis of Walter Bauer,” omitting “heterodox influences” and selectively focusing on phenomena to give an artificial picture of things (pp. 24-25).  In fact, I discuss Bauer (Lord Jesus Christ, 494, 520-21).  Moreover, Peppard seems unaware that Bauer’s “influential” thesis has suffered a number of rather strong refutations in specifics over the last several decades, and that its stocks have fallen quite dramatically.  More to the point, I do actually discuss important examples of “heterodox” Christianity and the remarkable diversity exhibited particularly in the second century (Lord Jesus Christ, 519-61), and have sought simply to describe the phenomena as fairly as I can.  As for the image of “tributaries”, I think I rather clearly indicate that my focus was on those texts that shaped, and were acknowledged by, what became “proto-orthodox” Christianity in particular.  Furthermore, I explicitly emphasize that “proto-orthodox” Christianity “was not a monolithic entity, but instead comprised an interesting variety in expressions and practices” (Lord Jesus Christ, 563), and I devote substantial space to describing them (pp. 563-648).  Here again, I am at a loss to account for Peppard’s representation of things.

I will not take up further space here to reply specifically to the numerous other misleading and unfair statements in Peppard’s discussion of my work.  At times, they seem quite simply silly, as in his claim that “Hurtado’s analysis ignores just about everything religious going on in the Roman world” (p. 25)!  Having devoted a number of publications over some 25 years to the religious life of early Christians and their larger religious environment, I will let readers judge the matter.  I am honestly at a loss to know why he takes such a condemnatory tone and with such disdain and hostility (an unaccountable crabbiness for such a young man).

Actually, so far as I can see, there is no serious clash (or need be none) between our respective work, for we engage distinguishable questions, and rightly so take different (but not to my mind contradictory) approaches.  Peppard’s whole critique, however, rests upon the misguided notion that I set out to engage his (more delimited) question, and so he finds my work so very unsatisfactory.  But, whereas Peppard focused more narrowly on the meaning of divine sonship language and particularly possible “resonance” with the rhetoric of emperor-cult, my own work has focused more broadly on questions about when and how Jesus-devotion emerged, how it was expressed and how it developed across the earliest period of Christianity.  In particular, I have been concerned with how Jesus-devotion was exhibited in cultic actions and phenomena, as well as in christological affirmations.

Indeed, as I see it, Peppard’s study essentially addresses and illustrates one feature of  “the religious environment,” which I posited as one of the key factors shaping early Jesus-devotion (Lord Jesus Christ, 74-77).  I note both “historical connections” with the Roman religious environment and also early Christian efforts to “differentiate their religious views and practices,” and I suggested in particular that the use of divine sonship language, particularly“in Christian writings of the late first century and thereafter,” may very well have been shaped by, and may reflect a reaction to, the contemporaneous use of the similar rhetoric in Roman emperor-cult of the time.  Among those Christian texts are the Gospels.

But my grievance over what I regard as unfair characterizations of my work should not obscure other features of Peppard’s book that make it a stimulating, informative and provocative study.  It is not without its problems, but the book does repay reading it and is a real contribution to the ongoing scholarly effort to understand the fascinating place of Jesus in earliest Christian life and thought.

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  1. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III permalink

    Dear Larry,

    I thank you for allowing Dr. Peppard to respond and your reply. It appears from the statements of Dr. Peppard and you that question is, “Who was the original audience?” If the original audience is more Roman/Gentile, then Dr. Peppard’s premise might, and I state again, “might,” be cogent. Unfortunately, the GMark, does not indicate too well who the original audience was. Again, as has been stated, there are indications of use of Latin terms and explanations of Jewish rituals, but that would occur when one considers that the majority of the congregations of believers would be unfamiliar with all that went on in 2nd Temple Judaism. Most of them would have originally been “god-fearers.” It is clear that the knowledge of the OT is quite familiar to these believers since Paul has extensively quotes or allusions the OT in Romans. I & II Corinthians, especially II Corinthians, has extensive quotes or allusions to the OT. Your premise would be that the background would be 2nd Temple Judaism for early devotion to Jesus.

    In fact, I see the Pauline epistles as reflecting the on-going interaction of the Gospel with the surrounding Gentile, Pagan, Polytheistic environment with the Jewish-Christian environment that gave birth to it. This is where you books and article especially LJC comes to the fore. Adoption was not unknown in Jewish culture. It is seen in Matthew 1 where Jesus, although not Joseph’s son in the strictest sense, is still considered Joseph’s son; cf. also Zerubbabel in the geneaology who is considered a ‘son of David.’ What needs to be considered is the interplay of the phrase, “in Christ,” with the adoption. We, as believers, are now considered, to be full-blown sons of God with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities that come with that position. We, were not physically born into it, but we were spiritually born into it. Paul does not use “baptism” within an adoption framework more than as a symbol or mark of identity of one being “in Christ.”

    I remind myself that the NT has 27 books of which 25 are written by Jewish-Christian believers with a Jewish-Christian worldview or mind-set. Luke would be the only lone Gentile; and even he would have worldview different of that of most Gentiles since he was with Paul for quite a long time.

    • Mr. Williams: It’s not so crucial whether the original readers/recipients of GMark were Jewish or gentile (though it seems likely gentile), but rather whether they were people already somewhat oriented to/by Christian teaching and use of the OT, etc., or were outsiders or people with little/no such background. I think the former. The category of “god fearers” may be a bit over-precise.
      As for the authors of the NT writings, given that the Gospels are anonymous, and that some other texts are widely thought to be pseudonymous (e.g., 2 Peter, Paulaine “pastoral letters”), I don’t know that we can state quite so categorically the ethnicity of all their authors.

  2. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III permalink

    Dear Larry,

    It appears that many within the Academy still believe in some form of Hellenistic “High Christology.” When I the NT I read of Jesus that is quite at home in a Jewish context: concepts, culture, literary contexts and forms, etc. . . .
    Example: The use of “Son of Man” is clearly found within Judaism (Daniel 7; I Enoch; 4 Ezra). Yet it is the Danielic passage that the I Enoch and 4 Ezra get their ascription to the divinity of the “Son of Man:” while the “Son of God” indicate His humanity as reflected in the David Covenant of II Samuel 7; cf. Matthew 16 and Peter’s Confession. Frequently, it appears that scholars want to invert the two. These two titles along were used extremely early in the Church. Jesus did not deny their use for Himself from those who confessed them and who believed that He was who He claimed to be. The Apostles and Authors of the NT already were well aware of these titles and could have only have gotten them from Jesus.

    • Mr. Williams: I presume that by “some form of Hellenistic ‘High Christology’” you means christological claims/categories largely attributable to early Christian borrowing from pagan ideas of the time. There certainly are scholars who emphasize the relevance of the larger pagan religious environment, and I don’t want to dismiss it. But I don’t think that it can account for the impetus for “high christology”.
      As to your views on “son of man” and “son of God”, I find them puzzling, and (if I may so say) perhaps a bit ill-informed. As has been noted for some decades now, “Son of Man” isn’t in fact used as a title or fixed expression in any of the texts that you mention. E.g., in Dan 7:13-15, there is only reference to some figure who appears “like a son of man” (i.e., looking like a human). In ancient Jewish usage, “Son of God” doesn’t seem primarily to have connoted whether the figure was human or divine, but rather divine approval of the figure, and special intimacy of the figure with God. So, e.g., Israel can be referred to as God’s “son”, and so can the (Davidic) king.
      As for use of the expressions, “son of Man” isn’t used as a confessional title anywhere in the NT, and earliest uses of the title by believers seems to be from Ignatius and thereafter, and there to signifiy Jesus’ authentic humanity. “Son of God” developed in the direction of connoting Jesus’ divine status/significance in the late first century and thereafter, and also in that period became much more frequent as a confession of Christian faith.

  3. Michael Peppard permalink

    This is by far the longest review of my book I have yet seen, and I thank you for it. I am pleased by your positive comments about chapters 2, 3, and 5, and I can respond here to some of your comments about chapters 1 and 4.

    First, it is true that my rhetoric in the 5 pages where I discuss your work is probably the most colorful in the book. In attempting to be incisive or witty, I can see how some lines come off as too clever for my own good, or even shrill. At several points it is snarky, to use a word currently in vogue here in the United States. I can see that more clearly now. It’s a testament to your magnanimity that you separated your comments on the rest of my book from your responses to my direct criticisms of your book.

    But I also want to say that your book set itself up as a (or even THE) major book on early Christology with which to be reckoned. When I read it in the course of my research and did not find in it discussion of something I perceive to have been very important—the emperor and imperial ideology—the book did then serve for me as a major work by a major scholar against which to push back. In your review of my book here, you say “there is no serious clash (or need be none) between our respective work, for we engage distinguishable questions, and rightly so take different (but not to my mind contradictory) approaches.” I’ll confess that is not how I interpreted Lord Jesus Christ. I did not read its message as, “This book will cover the emergence of Christ devotion in its Jewish context and others will cover the equally important material in the Greco-Roman contexts.” If that was the intended tone, then I definitely misread it, and I apologize.

    I interpreted the book’s goal to be and to be regarded as the primary scholarly work on early Christology of its generation and to become the standard-bearer for the “new Religionsgeschichtliche Schule.” It aims to supersede Bousset, as you say: “I think he was seriously wrong on some rather important matters.” Its title is magisterial. The book has been widely read and has achieved its goal as a new standard. In my experience, it is often the first book people bring up when asked what to read about early Christology. My anecdotal experience is backed up by data too about the book’s reception. This morning, when I Googled the phrase Lord Jesus Christ, even without quotes around the words, that search turned up your book as the third hit! It seemed to me at the time, and I still hold this opinion, that such a book aiming at heft, influence, and “(re)shap[ing] scholarly opinion” about earliest Christianity in its “religious environment” ought to engage the gentile religious environment, which was the environment of almost everyone in the world.

    As to our main disagreement about whether there are helpful analogies to early Jesus-devotion: you say there is “no true analogy” for binitarian monotheism. I think I agree, though I would dwell more on the fuzziness of notions of intermediation and the topic of transcendence / immanence in monotheistic religions. But that claim about binitarian monotheism is a more specific claim than you make at other points in your work.

    To wit, in your main statement of the book’s thesis #2: there is no true analogy for devotion to Jesus, which was “exhibited in an unparalleled intensity and diversity of expression”; “no precedent or parallel for the level of energy invested by early Christians in expressing the significance of Jesus for them.” Here we disagree—or rather, I don’t know via the book whether we disagree. The other examples of divine human sons of god are not assessed in the book.

    The emperor was the most visible and known person in the world. First they put Caesar on a coin. Then Augustus took the title son of god, which was not a phrase in common use before him. The “intensity and diversity of expression” concerning the emperors followed: Coins, temples, processions, statues, standards, milestones, sacrifices, compital altars, household shrines, mealtime libations, feast days, birthdays, auspices, augury ex avibus, omens, priesthoods, games, eclogues, poetry, panegyric, hymns, the job title of sebastologos, the retelling of oral stories about the emperor’s magnificence, the transfiguration of Tiberius at Rhodes, the papyri that record scripts for liturgical acclamation of a new emperor… cetera. These are the things I had in mind when I criticized the book for “ignoring just about everything religious going on in the Roman world.”

    It’s clearer to me now than it was when I wrote the book that my argument began from a starting point completely different than yours. You wrote: “Second Temple Judaism was certainly the central component in the religious environment of the earliest Christian circles.” I, for my part, don’t think that is certain. That’s not how I understand the audiences of 1 Thessalonians or 1 Corinthians, for example. “How you turned to God from idols,” and “When you were Gentiles…,” Paul writes. Even “those from Caesar’s household especially” send greetings (Phil 4:22).

    I don’t think Mark thought the centrality of the Jewish religious environment was certain either, when he felt the need to explain Jewish ritual practices and use Latin words. Nor do I think Clement of Alexandria thought that was certain, when he records the tradition that Mark wrote his Gospel at the request of “certain imperial equites,” who had heard Peter’s preaching in Rome. As I asked in my book, “How would a listener more attuned to Roman culture than Jewish scriptures have understood this short narrative?” In another part of the book, I stated: “There is little evidence of the first-century Jewish environment unmediated by the Greco-Roman world.” And so we really do have completely different starting points.

    On to some other specifics from your review:

    – “the likely attitude of Jews to emperor-cult.”

    I don’t know what the likely attitude of Jews was. I know that there were available points on the spectrum between complete accommodation and armed resistance. From the first century, we have Jewish examples of both ends of the spectrum (Tiberius Julius Alexander / Judas the Galilean), and I expect that the spectrum was filled out in between. For example, what does 1 Peter imply when it says, “honor the emperor?” To have positive thoughts about him? Or to participate in the usual practices that honor him? Certainly that is a phrase open to multiple interpretations in actual practice. What does it mean when an early Jewish-Christian passes the compitum of one’s vicus, and the local magistri are making a sacrifice to the genius of Lord Caesar along with the Lares compitales? What does it mean, in that moment, to honor the emperor? “No idol in the world” really exists, right? It’s hard to say what that person was likely to do. In my chapter on Mark, I followed Monika Bernett’s work on the presence of imperial ideology in Judea and Galilee. Perhaps I need to give her work another close look. But regardless of where the text was written, I argued that the idea of colonial mimicry might provide a helpful way to understand some of the seemingly imperial aspects of the Gospel of Mark. I think it offers a cross-culturally attested means of thinking about the challenges of negotiating imperial domination.

    – “For example, it is a baptism (hardly something that brings to mind imperial adoption practice), and the utterance of the (divine) voice from heaven rather obviously alludes to biblical texts, especially to Psalm 2:7.”

    I do not think it is an obvious allusion, as it would be with a full quotation of Ps 2:7. But even if the author of the text meant to allude to part of Ps 2, the text “You are my son” is among the most common phrases that could be uttered in any language; moreover, it resembles the simplicity of adoptive formulae attested from the Roman world, scant few though they are. And the second clause of the baptismal voice is not an allusion or quotation from the LXX at all. You’re right that rulers weren’t baptized, of course. But the baptismal act proper is not emphasized in the narrative. I point to the bird and the voice, the two things that make this baptism different from all others (and which serve to de-emphasize the fact that Mark had just told us that the baptismal ritual was for repentance and forgiveness of sins).

    – “he slides too quickly over the phrase in which it is used here, εν σοι ευδοκησα, which isn’t the sort of construction used in those places where the verb seems to mean “to choose”.

    I’m confused by this criticism. I discuss 1 Macc 10:47, which uses the same formulation to describe the Jews’ preference for Alexander over Demetrius. I like the NAB’s translation: “decided to favor.” I also interpret Ps 151, which uses the same formulation to describe how God did not choose David’s brothers but instead chose to anoint him. The DSS version of this psalm uses “to choose” (bachar) in place of the Greek formulation. In short, the phrase in question is used in the LXX both to acclaim a preferred ruler and to explain God’s lack of preference for electing or anointing one of David’s brothers. These are very solid comparanda for the phrase.

    – “it is not quite so obvious that the baptismal scene is strictly an “adoption” patterned after Roman practice.”

    Again, I agree that my argument is not obvious. Few published arguments are. That’s a distinct challenge in NT scholarship: to say something coherent, illuminating, and possibly even true that hasn’t already been said by so many commentators before. How do we see things anew? To use a metaphor from theater: in my work, I’ve tried to change how we view the meaning of the “scene” by changing the backdrop behind the stage. A powerful father declares / acknowledges / adopts an adult male as a son, granting him the power of the family spirit and control of the father’s inheritable goods (the kingdom). The event is accompanied by a bird omen. The son has no paternal genealogy, even where the reader expects one. In Roman culture, how would this scene have been interpreted? As highly as humanly possible. Or, in the words of Irenaeus: “There is none other called ‘God’ by the Scriptures except the Father of all, and the Son, and those who possess the adoption” (Adv. Haer. 4.Preface.4). That changed backdrop was one way of thinking about my project, and I’m not completely alone in it. I offer other examples of early Christian usage of the imagery of upward mobility in a household via adoption. In my conclusion, I also elaborate on John Chrysostom’s comparison of baptism to imperial adoption.

    – “With most other scholars, it remains clear to me that various data, for example, in GMark the demonic acclamations of Jesus, are intended by the authors to indicate that Jesus bears a significance and status that transcend what other characters in the narratives recognize.”

    Indeed we agree on this point. But the analysis in Lord Jesus Christ goes beyond saying that Jesus has a status beyond what the characters recognize. Perhaps I misunderstand your use of the word “transcendence.” On p. 306, you connect your use of that word to “intrinsic divinity.” And you say that “Jesus operating in the human/historical sphere” is distinct from “who this human figure really is.” I suppose I haven’t understood your distinction between transcendence and immanence or divinity and humanity in your reading of Synoptic Christology.

    – “It is noteworthy that the explicit literary references, and even more the many literary allusions that we can identify with any confidence, are pretty much all to biblical (OT) texts, suggesting an intended readership with (or able to access) a good knowledge of these texts.”

    I don’t reject biblical allusions in the book. But they have been harvested for generations. I think it’s appropriate to let some fields lie fallow for a time and harvest from somewhere else too. This is why I laid out chapters about divine sonship in the Roman world and social practices of father-son relationships in Roman society and imperial ideology, using what evidence we have to understand transmissions of power, tensions between natural and adopted sons, and the ways in which imperial power was acclaimed.

    On my reading, a powerful man-god is acclaimed as a son by a powerful father under the auspices of a bird omen. Then Jesus’ “battles” are mostly with unclean spirits, the exorcisms of which have been interpreted fruitfully through postcolonial criticism—the Roman colonizers being symbolized as the “spirits” convulsing the people of Palestine. Mark cues the reader toward this interpretation in the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac, in which Jesus purges and fantastically destroys the violent and indomitable “legion.” After his battles are completed, and after his status is announced above the site of imperial worship in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus marches into Jerusalem in a mock triumphal entry. While there, he himself initiates a direct contrast between his father, the God of Israel, and the father-son gods imaged on Roman coins (having already overthrown the tables that dealt with those blasphemous coins). He then declares himself to be the son of the God of Israel, but is mockingly clad in imperial purple by Roman soldiers of the praetorium.

    The first and final public declaration of Jesus’ divine sonship—the statement of the centurion, “Indeed, this man was God’s son”—is perhaps explained best by colonial mimicry. Roman power, concentrated in the figure of its military, is at once both the challenge to and the legitimation of Jesus’ divine sonship. Up to this point, Mark had narratively characterized Jesus as a counter-emperor, a “son of God” whose rise to power in the cosmos had mimicked imperial power on a kind of parallel cursus and triumphus. Now the course ends with a mockery and subversion of the triumph. But with the Roman centurion’s cry, the parallel tracks of analogy and reality converge and intersect, like a cross: the acclamation of the army was in reality a necessary element of imperial power, and the death of an emperor was in fact the time when his exalted status was finally evaluated.

    The centurion therefore got it right: vere hic homo divi filius erat. Almost the same, but not quite. In the end, Mark’s view of divine sonship, which had been refracted throughout the gospel in the light of the Roman emperor, now shines through unmediated. It is Jesus who is the Roman world’s “son of God”— sorrowful as a Roman criminal, and powerful as a Roman emperor.

    Again, I thank you for your detailed review, and I am grateful for this blog comment platform to add some responses.

    • Dr. Peppard: I don’t usually encourage long comments, but, given both that the posting to which you respond was on your book, and the importance of the issues involved, I happily make an exception to allow you some fair opportunity to reply. I also appreciate your cordial tone and focus on specific matters of substance. As I hope that others as well as we may be able to benefit from the exchange of views, I want to offer some comments of my own in response to yours. In the interests of concise use of space, I’ll confine myself to a few points that I think are comaparatively more important.

      First, about my own book, Lord Jesus Christ: It was “inspired and shaped” in some respects by Bousset’s classic (Kyrios Christos), and I did try to produce something worth the attention of other scholars and also accessible to a wider readership. But, despite its bulk I never intended it to be taken as the definitive, exhaustive treatment of any/all questions of “christology”. (I thought that from the Preface onward I had made this clear.) The size of the book reflects both the diachronic coverage (ca. 30-150 CE) and an effort to engage with some adequacy the data and also the complex scholarly issues involved.
      But, as the Preface indicates, my focus (shaped, as indicated, somewhat by Bousset’s study) was on questions about when and where devotion to Jesus as divine first appeared, how it developed over time, and how to account for it. Bousset, Weiss, and more recent scholars such as Aune, agree that the emergence of cultic devotion to Jesus is perhaps the most significant religious development marking earliest Christianity. Bousset tried to account for it by placing its emergence in diaspora cites dominated by “pagan” cultic ideas and practices, but I’ve contended (with others) that this explanation fails.
      So, I didn’t treat (certainly, not to your satisfaction) the question of how christological rhetoric might have “played” with people generally in the Roman era. Not that this isn’t a worthy question; it just wasn’t mine. I don’t think I promised it, and I don’t see that I’ve demeaned it. So, given my efforts at clear indication of my scope and focus (e.g., p. 4 bottom), it is puzzling to me that you seem to have taken me otherwise and so pilloried me as you did.
      As for how to take my claim about there being “no true analogy”, I am sorry for your misunderstanding again. On p. 7 of LJC, I itemize features of of early Jesus-devotion that make it remarkable, and I note there as “one key matter” that “we have no other Roman-era example of a religious movement with similar ties to the Jewish religious tradition of exclusivistic monotheism and with a devotional pattern that involved so thoroughly a second figure in addition to God.” I should have thought that rather clear. As I’ve indicated, emperor-cult isn’t an analogous “dyadic” (or “binitarian”) devotional pattern. The emperor was given cultic honors by people who freely gave cultic honors to all sorts of figures and beings. It’s not the same religious phenomenon.
      Sure, through the investment of various elites of the time (in Rome, and local elites in the cities and provinces), references to the emperor’s divine status were ubiquitous, and cultic phenomena (temples, altars, images) plentiful. But I really don’t see that, beyond those elites who sought to be members of the priesthoods of particular provincial emperor-cults, people identified themselves particularly and solely as devotees of the emperor. People did do that with reference to Jesus (e.g., 1 Cor 1:2). Believers were baptized in/into Jesus’ name as the entrace rite. People called upon Jesus, apparently as the identifying feature constituting themselves as believers (e.g., Rom 10:9-13). The Christian common meal was specifically identified with reference to Jesus, and him alone (e.g., “the Lord’s supper”). I’ve itemized the small galaxy of cultic phenomena that comprised the devotional pattern that seems typical (or at least prevalent) in earliest Christian circles. I stand pat: neither emperor-cult nor anything I know of matches it in intensity, and significance for adherents.
      As to the GMark, I’m puzzled at your contention that the author didn’t think the Jewish religious tradition important or central. The text assiduously portrays Jesus in that context (and doesn’t read into things later questions such as disputes about circumcision). The deity whom Jesus represents is emphatically the biblical one, and the questions are all about whether Jesus is the legitimate agent of THIS deity. Jesus himself mouths the Shema. I could go on, but, though GMark was likely written for circles that included (or were made up primarily of) non-Jews, the “vector” from which the story of Jesus is told is thoroughly Jewish. One can pose possible associations that pagans might have made to this or that scene (as you do), and that’s interesting in a way. But it’s not the matrix out of which the storyline emerges.
      And that emphasis on things Jewish (contra your judgement) is there also in such texts as 1 Thess or 1 Cor, letters manifestly sent to gentile churches, but the religious standpoint mainly shaped by biblical/Jewish tradition (re-shaped, of course, to include Jesus). So, e.g., the rhetoric of 1 Thess 1:9-10, about forsaking “idols” (a Jewish word for the gods!) to serve “a true and living God” (note the combativeness of this phrase); and the hostile and disdainful treatment of pagan religion in 1 Cor 8 and 10 . . . these are all attitudes so very Jewish in derivation. Paul addresses questions pertaining to those converts from a pagan background, but he does so from what seems to me a Jewish perspective that has been “mutated” to take account of Jesus as God’s unique agent.

      I won’t go on. These will do for major points that I hope will produce some clarification (if not consent on your part).

  4. Richard Harrison permalink

    (Mr. Harrison: I’ve edited your comments in the interest of conciseness, and to focus on key matters as I see them. LWH)
    Thanks for your extended review. I have not read Peppard’s book, but from what you say here I think I can follow its main lines . . .
    I continue to be surprised (though I guess I shouldn’t be) by the failure of many Markan scholars to ignore the work of Don Juel and his teacher Nils Dahl. To my satisfaction at least, Dahl established the attachment of the term messiah to Jesus as the title under which he was crucified, and therefore, by being raised by God, rightly assumed it. Juel took Dahl’s work further, especially in Master of Surprise, where his discussion of the baptism, the centurion’s confession, and other points, helps us to hear these texts as they may well have been recited orally. . . .
    With Mark’s Gospel, tone is of great importance. This is clear from its unusual language, which was long dismissed as crude, and its structure of abrupt shifts, sudden leaps, and an undisguised disregard for normal conventions to accommodate audiences. Mark is clearly the most oral of the gospel texts, meant to be, in a sense, performed. Modern performances of it have given us a clearer sense of this.

    Thanks for the opportunity to reply. Richard Harrison

    • Don Juel was a friend and he is missed greatly by all who knew him, and Dahl was an unusually perceptive exegete. You’re right to point to their works as still instructive, on GMark and other matters too.

  5. C.J. O'Brien permalink

    I think it should be considered that the baptism in GMark, rather than an adoption, is actually the recognition by the Lord of a foundling as a true son. A literary trope rather than a polemic. In this reading, the preexisting Son, “born” in heaven, is abandoned in material creation and recognized by his divine father prior to embarking on his journey, just as in many other prose narratives of the period, a royal son might be exposed as an infant, be raised as a foundling and only at some later crisis point come into the presence of his father to be recognized in dramatic fashion and thus legitimized.

    • O’Brien: Hmm. Interesting. I don’t recall seeing this suggestion before (though that may only reflect the limits of my familiarity with the oceanic body of publications on the Gospels).

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