Nearly everything I learned in high school about early Roman emperor-worship was wrong. Luckily before I die I’ve since read The Son of God in the Roman World by Michael Peppard and I can now go to my grave with one more misconception eradicated from my mind.
I had once been taught that the people who participated in the forms of emperor-worship did not really believe their object of worship was a god (unless, perhaps, they lived in that more benighted oriental half of the empire). Living emperors, I was told, were not worshiped in those earlier years of Pax Romana. They had to die first. Hence Vespasian’s quip on his death-bed: “Oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god!”
The gulf between the material world and gods was, at least in the West, absolute. Emperor-worship was little more than a game of empty flattery from below and political manipulations from above.
We know better now. That’s not how it was at all. What misled us into the above notion of how things were was our reliance upon the writings of the philosophers like Cicero as the gateway to understanding how everyone else thought and acted. Archaeological and cultural studies research has since demonstrated that worship of the living Roman emperors was widespread from the earliest days of the empire. There was no sharp Platonic gulf between humans and gods among the general populace and imperial institutions.
So what does this have to do with the Gospel of Mark?
How to write about a Son of a Celibate God?
Michael Peppard opens with a little mind game of trying to imagine how an author who wanted to write down for others lots of the stories he had heard about a Jesus who supposedly lived a good generation ago and who was considered to be the Son of God. How would he start, especially given that the god in question was known not to procreate? The clue, Peppard says, lay in that author’s cultural environment. All about you were images, symbols, reminders of your emperor.
I cannot accept Peppard’s presuppositions in his mind-game. The Gospel of Mark is clearly not a collation of reminiscences that someone has collected and cherished over years and wishes to share with others in writing. Such authors have little reason to write anonymously or conceal their sources. Nor do they leave literary clues that their stories are for most part adaptations of other popular narratives such as those found in the Hebrew Bible. Nor do they write cryptically or metaphorically (with unexplained characters, behaviours, sayings and bizarre endings) to convey esoteric theological messages.
But I do believe Peppard asks a valid question. How would an author who knows the theological systems found in writings like those of the letters attributed to Paul begin to tackle a metaphorical narrative (a parable, if you like) to portray his beliefs about the Son of God? As Peppard writes: read more