Author: Michael Peppard
Bibiographic Info: XII + 247 + 42
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Cover: Hard with dust jacket
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With thanks to Oxford University Press for the review copy!
It is common amongst Christians to believe that there is an ontological obstacle separating humanity from the divine; humanity and divinity are generally seen as occupying two separate non-overlapping realms of existence. This book by Peppard situates itself in the growing stream of thought which contends that, in the first-century, divinity and humanity were actually seen as occupying a continuous spectrum of existence. The author weaves together recent scholarship on Roman culture – specifically emperor worship, familial relationships, and imperial ideology – in order to illuminate the depiction of Jesus as the Son of God in earliest Christianity, expressly as seen in the Gospel of Mark.
Apart from the introduction and conclusion this book is comprised of five main chapters. In the first chapter, the author deals with the varying frameworks through which scholarship has viewed the concept of divine sonship. While mainstream Christians view Jesus as the Son of God in light of what the Council of Nicaea determined regarding this issue, it is obviously not what is meant by divine sonship in the Gospel of Mark (though that doesn’t stop people from anachronistically reading Nicaea back into the Gospel). Peppard provides overviews on four different methods by which scholars have deal with the divine sonship concept in the Gospels (the Nicene approach; narrative critical approaches; the religionsgeschichtliche schule approach; and a newer quasi-religionsgeschichtliche approach). Throughout this chapter the author provide some good critiques of some popular authors. For instance, he gives a brief critique of Simon Gathercole’s attempt (in The Preexistent Son) to describe Jesus’ divine sonship in the Synoptic Gospels, saying that he relies upon a Platonic philosophical worldview. There is a more lengthy critique of Larry Hurtado’s work (One God, One Lord; and Lord Jesus Christ) which Peppard says too sharply bifurcates divinity and humanity, relies upon an idealized view of monotheism in Second Temple Judaism, and generally ignores the Roman religious world.
In the second chapter, Peppard discusses what the title “son of God” meant and what emperor worship reveals about how divinity was viewed in the Roman world. The old perspective of emperor worship believed that it was just an empty formality from the hoi polloi and that there was no worship of the living emperor, but rather only the dead, albeit apotheosized, emperors. Recent scholarship, however, has shifted to a new perspective on emperor worship. The impetus for this change is due to archaeological findings which suggest that the worship of the living emperor actually did occur, as well as the realization that the conclusions of the old perspective were based on viewing the data through a Platonic framework. This new perspective posits that in the Roman world divinity was not so much an essence but rather a (relative) status.
Chapter three discusses adoption in Roman society, specifically as it relates to imperial succession. Most of what I read in this chapter was new to me and fascinating. The fourth chapter then takes what was discussed in the previous three chapters and uses it to rethink the concept of divine sonship in the Gospel of Mark. Peppard begins with the issue of the Gospel’s provenance which in his assessment “slightly favors Rome” (89). What follows is a nearly forty page examination of the baptismal scene and divine sonship in Mark. Here is a snippet of what Peppard says regarding the dove which came upon Christ after the baptism:
Hence the eagle and the dove: a bird descends and absolute power comes upon a son of God – almost the same, but not quite. Read in the light of Roman imperial ideology, the narrative characterization of Jesus’ baptism mimics the accession of imperial power even as it disavows the authority and methods of imperial power. It mimics Roman imperial adoption but disavows the militaristic type of power transmitted through adoption. It mimics the bird bird omens of Roman warfare and imperial lore but disavows the dominating war-symbol of the Roman eagle. The bird omen of the dove instead portends the accession of a different son of God, whose rise to power, though it would be mocked and suspended by the colonial authority, would ultimately be vindicated by his adoptive father. (124)
He concludes the chapter with these words:
Reading Mark from the perspective of Roman adoption and imperial ideology allows us to see the ingenuity of Mark’s theological mind. Faced with an unprecedented challenge – narrating the divine sonship of a human being in relation to a God that did not procreate – Mark articulated a model of sonship that was theologically coherent and also resonated in his cultural context. Later authors chose incarnational moments or virgin birth vignettes to characterize the divine sonship of Jesus. Therefore, compared with these narrative developments, Mark’s Christology is usually labeled “low.” And that label certainly fits in the terms of later christological debates, heavily influenced by philosophical categories. But viewed in the political ideology of its time period – Mark’s Christology was as high as humanly possible. The Roman emperor, the most powerful person in the world, gained his sonship by adoption. If Mark was crafting a narrative that presents Jesus to Roman listeners as a counter-emperor, the authoritative son of God, then adoption was the most effective method of portraying his divine sonship. (131)
In the fifth and final chapter Peppard traces how the divine sonship motif evolved through the first three centuries until it finally arrived at what is generally considered the pinnacle of Christian orthodoxy, the Nicene Creed. The chapter focuses upon divine sonship in Paul, John, the Shepherd of Hermas, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Origen, and the Nicene era.
This book is a great study. If you want to understand how Jesus is portrayed as the son of God in the Gospel of Mark and earliest Christianity, then forget the christological orthodoxy of Chalcedon, the philosophical foundations of Nicaea, the logos Christologies of John and Justin, and the virgin birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. Instead, read this book and be enlightened!