This post presents a snippet from The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in Its Social and Political Context by Michael Peppard. There is much more in this book that deserves closer attention and that will probably be given in the coming year. Till then, I think some of us may be interested in the following.
At one point Peppard “tries to imagine how a listener attuned to Roman culture might understand the dove”, the bird associated* with the Spirit as it descended from heaven at the baptism of Jesus. (Peppard’s approach stands in contrast to most interpretations in that they have sought to explain the dove in terms of Palestinian and Babylonian Jewish traditions.) After discussing bird omens in Roman culture generally, he comes to a survey of the dove in particular. In Roman literature the dove was often regarded as standing in opposition to the eagle, that bird of prey well known as the symbol of Roman imperial power.
Romans Read Omens Like Jews Read Scriptures
One could say that Romans used omens to interpret and explain their experience of the world in analogous ways to how Jews used Scriptures to interpret and explain their experience of the world. (The Son of God in the Roman World, p. 116)
There were the official readings of the flights of birds in the quadrants of the sky by colleges of augurs. There were also interpretations of individual flights of birds that were sanctioned by common opinion.
As for the meaning of the dove descending at the baptism of Jesus, Peppard suggests the widely varying views found in the literature are possibly the consequence of scholars failing to study this image within the full range of the cultural milieu of the earliest evangelist and his readers.
Peppard brings forward “the Roman historian and collector of tales” Suetonius. In his several “lives of the emperors” Suetonius speaks of many bird omens, and according to Peppard, they are all related to two themes, “and two only”:
the rise of imperial power and the fall from it. (p. 116) read more