Larry Hurtado Reviews Michael Peppard’s The Son of God in the Roman World”

I have written a lengthy summary of the chapters in Michael Peppard’s The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in its Social and Political Context before and linked to his Bible & Interpretation article.  Larry Hurtado has now critically interacted with the book in detail in his blog review.  In my mind, Hurtado scores points on reading the verb eudokeō in context (en soi eudokēsa) and on the primacy of the Jewish context in the baptism and transfiguration scenes.  On the other hand, the emperor is present in Mark (Hurtado notes the demoniac “legion” and the centurion’s acclamation; I would add the parallel of Mark’s opening verse to the Priene inscription to Augustus and Jesus whole “triumphal entry” and the crufixion scene as an imperial parody) and I wonder if it could be countered that the resistance of (the majority?) of Jews to cultic devotion to the emperor was that he was not viewed as Yahweh’s true representative and annointed king (see, for instance, Daniel Kirk on 1 Chronicles 29:20).  Jesus was God’s annointed (e.g., the allusion to Psalm 2:7 at the baptism) and representative of Israel (the Son of Man with the Danielic background in Mark), and as the one destined to be heir of the vinyard (Israel) and gatherer of the elect from the nations at the apocalyptic coming of the kingdom and Son of Man, it seems to me fitting for Jesus to be described as a counter-emperor and for parallels to be drawn with the current one.  Anyways, check out the review and let me know what you think…

Update: While I am not sure Professor Hurtado would have seen my little notice here, in light of his recent post I should clarify that he would reject both the imperial cult and Jewish intermediatory figures like the Davidic king (or other exalted humans [Adam, Moses, etc], the eschatological figure of the Similitudes of Enoch, a heavenly vice-regent like Metatron or Yahoel, etc) as true analogues to what he sees as the unique binitarian or dyadic cultic devotion offered to Jesus alongside God in early Jewish-Christian circles.

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6 Responses to Larry Hurtado Reviews Michael Peppard’s The Son of God in the Roman World”

  1. Hurtado maintains 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.”

    I’m not certain about exactly how remarkable such a development is. Early Israelite worship seems to have incorporated a council of deities, multiple places of worship, perhaps multiple deities as well, even a divine female consort, and it was not easy to get the people to agree to a centralized single place of worship and only a single high god, and even when they did, they acknowledged the existence of gods, but said they must not be worshiped “before Yahweh.” That’s of course early Hebrew history, not first century. But such vacillations do occur in Hebrew history — which of course was written by the monotheistic winners.

    Likewise, Christianity is a tale written by dual divine (even tri-divine), winners. Early Christians who believed Jesus was not God, but the end times kingpin compared to all previous prophets, miracle workers, and men of God, probably could not help to view Jesus in an increasingly more glorious sense with more affectionate praise to distinguish themselves from their Jewish brethren. Just as early Jews could not but help to increasingly glorify Yahweh as the lord of lords of heaven to maintain their distinctiveness among major rival cultures bombarding them north and south (and having major Hebrew thinkers in Babylon where Marduk was already the lord of lords, the high god of all gods there, made the Hebrews compete to maintain their identity, probably inspiring them to create their own creation stories (the Babylonian creation tale was recited in the streets on holidays), and to create tales of God handing down their people’s holy laws (The Babylonian god Shamash allegedly inspired king Hammurabi to write down laws before the so-called days of Moses who was allegedly inspired by Yahweh to write down laws).

    Then the Persians conquered the Babylonians and the Persian king sent Hebrew intellectuals back to Jerusalem, which showed the Hebrews that a ruler who believed in a single high God could even overturn the Babylonian kingdom! That recognition must have had a tremendous effect on the Hebrews and their drive toward singular monotheism. They even named that Persian king a “Messiah,” the only non-Hebrew “Messiah” mentioned in the Bible.

    Likewise, the rise of even the earliest stories about Jesus probably reflected to some extent the first century environment where the winners and rulers of “the world” were Romans and not the monotheistic Persians. So in the case of the rise of Christianity we have an environment where the winners were reversed compared with the environment in which monotheistic Judaism arose. The monotheists were not on top as in the case of the Persians. The Romans were on top. And judging by the way the OT writers copped praises from Marduk and Ahura-Mazda, applying them to Yahweh, it’s LITTLE WONDER THAT NT WRITERS WOULD COP PRAISES OF ROMAN GODS/RULERS.

    And one need not mention the unbalanced insanity of the apoplectic apocalyptic times when Christianity arose. Imagine how crazy it was for thousands of people to follow rebel leaders and even alleged prophets/miracle-workers as Josephus describes, because such people felt that God was going to turn things around for the Jews, either supernaturally and directly or via supporting the Jews in battle.What mad faith to contest the world’s more overpowering armies that had tested themselves all over “the world,” and to contest Rome at the height of her strength, during the hundreds of years of peace throughout the rest of the Empire, when one knew that Rome could concentrate all of her armies in Palestine. And to try and contest Rome TWICE! Once during 70 AD and then again during the early part of the second century! What utter madness.

    It is not inconceivable that some new religion might not arise under such unsettling circumstances and among ingenious religion-intoxicated minds living in the Roman Empire, who developed new ways of conceiving a prophet’s life and message as the adopted Son of God, even as the begotten Son of God. And opposition from fellow Jews and their rejection of early versions of that particular message was PRECISELY what drove Christians to continue to EXALT JESUS further. Like a Darwinian arms race, in order for Christianity to survive and not simply be reabsorbed into Judaism it felt it had to distinguish itself further and further, just as the Jews during the Babylonian exile felt they had to distinguish themselves and their faith and stories about creation and origin of their laws, but with plain echoes of ancient Near Eastern thinking.

    I suspect the earliest followers of Jesus were expecting God to intervene directly, and so there was nothing to be done but wait and keep expecting the best, and keep tossing out anyone else in the early congregations who didn’t go along with the growing exultations directed at Jesus exultation and end times expectation, especially in light of tales of Jesus conquering death itself. Because Jesus was going to return soon, with the clouds of heaven itself, and everything would be great. To deny such a trajectory of growing exultation was to deny hope itself. And against the empire of Rome one needed all the hope one could muster, especially in light of the two failed rebellions previously mentioned.

    Personally, I don’t see any evidence that Christianity arose in the sanest of circumstances or among the sanest of people.

    In fact when I read the Gospels and the way their authors stuck their thumbs into the OT to pluck out half-ripened plums, actually more like half-plums, plucked out of context, and then presented them as “prophecies” related to Jesus, I see a cultist’s mad mind at work, the same kind that reads today’s headlines and finds connects galore, shouting “Ezekiel predicted that!” or like DSS pesher on OT passages similarly plucked out of context but which that community of apocalyptic-minded Jews imagined were speaking to them and their circumstances. Even the genealogies of Jesus are made to fit the artificial patterns of a cultist’s mind, namely by leaving out the names of certain people in GMatthew’s case so that the generations before and after the Babylonian exile equal the same number, or, in the case of GLuke’s genealogy by mentioning seventy seven generations (the number of generations mentioned in the book of Enoch and Daniel, apocalyptic literature). Or the way GMatthew begins with a fanciful tale of Jesus’ nativity making him seem like a baby Moses in danger of execution by the Pharaoh, and follows through with a sermon on the “mount” and adding plenty of other Mosaic features. While GLuke in its fanciful tale of Jesus’ youth makes it fit the author’s scheme of having even the Roman Emperor involved in the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy by instituting an empire-wide census that gets Mary to Bethlehem, as if to say, “little did even the Roman Emperor know he was acting in fulfillment of God’s plan.” Though the stories are far from harmonious, and both seem only to serve to get Jesus to Bethlehem, when neither author probably any firm idea where Jesus was actually born, that’s just how the tales happened to grow by the time GMatthew and GLuke were composed.

    Based on the NT writings and what is known of first-century history any reasonable scholar would conclude that Christianity did not arise in the sanest of times and places.

    • I would add that the growing praises heaped on Jesus as the ultimate prophet of prophets of the final days naturally wound up connecting him with God’s wisdom, until the prophet who preached God’s message became the message himself. The man who preached God’s words became THE word. Because then you HAD to acknowledge their little cult, or, well, go to hell. What mad times and mad people.

      It’s also like the old Zen proverb about someone pointing at the moon, and people became obsessed with the finger rather than following to see where the finger was pointing.

      • Mike K. says:

        Thanks Ed for the long comment, my reply will be brief. You may be right in following OT scholars that monotheism (or preferrably monolatry) was a late-comer on the scene, but the issue is whether by the Second Temple period the majority of Jews were interpreting such texts with a monotheistic lens and clearly differentiated Yahweh from all other intermediary figures. If Hurtado is correct that this is the case and that the devotion to Jesus went above and beyond what was offered to other intermediary figures in its own historical context, then it may be a novel development. But questions remain whether the lines were so clear-cut rather than more blurry and whether no parallels to the cultic devotion to Jesus can be adduced in other Jewish literature, which is where I think the debate lies. I am also not sure that their christology or apocalyptic thinking is necessary a sign that they were “mad” “cultists”. It could also be read as the protest literature of a colonized people under imperial Roman oppression, holding out a vision of a world where oppression would cease when God reversed the situation and denying that the sentence pronounced by the powers over Jesus by crucifying him had the final word (i.e. the one they crucified had been exalted as Lord and Christ). And about the scriptural interpretations of the early Christians, I think we do well to acknowledge our historical distance as influenced by the Enlightenment and historical-criticism from first-century Jews who saw the scriptures as primarily coded texts that addressed their own situation.

        • edwardtbabinski says:

          Excellent summary of the debate. Yes, I know that is where the technical elements of the debate lay. But the emotional elements considered as a whole is what I was considering. It was certainly a type of madness not seen elsewhere in the Roman Empire, Because there was relative peace throughout the whole rest of the Roman Empire at that time where people appear to have taken a saner view rather than oppose Rome by having thousands of people following leaders of rebellion and prophets. (Josephus mentions two other people with thousands of followers, allegedly miracle workers/prophets, and there’s a nice summary of just how mad the times were in Palestine in this article on Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire ) You cannot detail the arrival of a new religion without considering the madness peculiar to that time and region. People were interpreting the book of Daniel and Enoch as prophesying a coming kingdom, end times, judgment, kingdom of the Jews with God ruling the earth. Thousands followed “the Egyptian” and there was another figure also whom Josephus mentions, neither of them being Jesus, but claiming miraculous powers. Neither can one demarcate Enlightenment ideals as if no one thought skeptically or sanely until the Enlightenment. There were Hellenistic skeptics, and plenty of other people living in the ancient world who would have considered it madness to go up against Rome. They each exhibited more sanity than the Jews did, and their aggrandizing of various first century generals, martyrs, and prophets. As I said from the days of the Greek and Roman rule over Palestine and the Jews, the Jews began writing religious-inspired rebellion literature, from the books of Daniel and Enoch (to a lesser extent), when God would come and reign and set up His kingdom in Jerusalem. And people were on the lookout for teachers, prophets, miracles, signs, anointed leaders, and every clue they could pluck out of the Bible or other sources and paint blue to match the color of their madness. It disturbs me that biblical scholars wish to grant everything about the times but their madness, and the religious cult-mentality behind the origin of a new religion. Date: Mon, 21 Jan 2013 15:29:43 +0000 To:

  2. Michael Peppard says:

    A note to let you know that I have responded to Larry Hurtado’s main criticisms in the comment section of his blog. Thanks for your contributions on this blog. I’ve enjoyed reading it.

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