Review: The Son of God in the Roman World

Title: The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in Its Social and Political Context

Author: Michael Peppard

Bibiographic Info: XII + 247 + 42

Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Cover: Hard with dust jacket

Buy it at Amazon

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!

9 responses

  1. You mentioned a critique present within the book regarding Larry Hurtado’s work. Contrasted with James Dunn’s work on worship in early Christianity, what do you think of Larry Hurtado’s work on early christology? Does it hold water or is it to conservative to withstand the criticisms of biblical scholarship?

    • While it is fair to say that Hurtado’s work on early Christology is unapologetically Christian, it isn’t Christian apologetics. In other words, while Hurtado does adhere to mainstream orthodox Christology, his work doesn’t come across as merely an attempt by a Christian to make the New Testament be in-sync with later Christological developments.

      With that said, I think Peppard is correct in a couple of his criticisms of Hurtado’s work, specifically: (1) the lack of Roman religious context, and (2) that he retrojects a monotheistic rubric when examining the Christology of the NT and earliest Christianity. In other words, he uses monotheism as the constant by which he interprets how devotion to Jesus should be interpreted.

      I forgot to mention in the review, but Peppard also discusses the Christological work of Dunn, but I can’t remember any criticisms that he gave of Dunn.

      • Where do you stand in relation to Hurtado and Dunn? Do you think Jesus was actually worshipped and reverenced or more with Dunn who thinks that the religious actions were quite unprecedented towards Jesus but thinks its near impossible for worship to have occurred given the strict monotheism of 2nd temple Judaism?
        Either way, whether hurtado’s thesis holds or not, I think that the actions and words the disciples spoke about Jesus hurtado describes would be shocking for just another dead messiah. But that’s just my thought process.

  2. Thanks for the review. I’m particularly curious if he elaborates or explains how “platonic” the old perspective is. My research interest is in the interaction of early Christians with philosophy in late antiquity (specifically in the doctrinal formation of the Trinity), and I find that more often than not, this idea of “platonic” influence is thrown around like a boogeyman with no explanation of how they relate and little or no understanding of what “Platonism” was (for our concerns, the differing “schools” within “Middle Platonism” or later under the influence of Plotinus and his heirs of the so called “Neoplatonists”). In other words, does he just throw around the word “platonic” or does he actually argue it?

    • I actually read this book quite a while ago so I’m going off of the top of my head…. but I cannot remember Peppard getting into an in-depth discussion of platonism. I’m almost certain he didn’t delve into any sort of in-depth discussion of it (I mean, I can’t remember him discussing what neo- or middle-platonism are or anything like that). When discussing the old and new perspectives of emperor worship, his case rests more upon arguments for the new perspective rather than arguments against the old perspective being platonically based.

  3. Have you read Gathercole’s book, “The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke”? I think he argues quite convincingly that the Christology of a preexistent Son found in John is shared by both Paul and the rest of the gospel writers.

    • I have read some of it. I wasn’t terribly convinced by what I did read (e.g. his argument of how the “I have come” sayings in the Synoptics reveal a pre-existent Christology).

  4. Pingback: Does Mark have an Adoptionist Christology? « Euangelion Kata Markon

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