The “Son of God” in/and the Roman Empire: A Review Essay
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 (under whose supervision was written the PhD thesis from which the book developed).
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 Hermeneai 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.