THE IMPERIAL CULT AND THE RESURRECTION
OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST
In 1987, I was participating in the “Who is the Pharaoh of the Exodus?” conference in Memphis, TN. During one of our lunch breaks, a group of us, who were alumni of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem, went to a local eatery. Sitting opposite me was Bishop Mesrob Mutafyan, a bishop of the Armenian Church in Istanbul, Turkey. (He has since been elevated to one of five Patriarchs in the Armenian Church). During our conversation, the subject of liturgy and creeds came up. Since I was from a non-liturgical church I asked him why they repeated the liturgy and creeds over and over again. His answer was very helpful. He said that historically, many people in the churches had never learned to read. When they repeated the liturgy (which is mostly Scripture verses) over and over again, it helped them memorize the Word of God. By repeating the creeds, the participants became grounded in the doctrinal truths of their faith.
One creed that the Western Church recites is the so-called Apostle’s Creed. While it was not composed by the early apostles, one church historian described it as “by far the best popular summary of the Christian faith ever made within so brief a space,” and went on to say “It is not a word of God to men, but a word of men to God, in response to His revelation” (Schaff 1990:1:15, 16). It is solid theology in a concise creed. I believe that Romans 1:3-4 was one of the original creeds concerning the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The creed in Romans 1:3-4 is composed of two lines with three clauses in each line and a summary statement at the end. It was formulated by either the Apostolic Church in Jerusalem, or by the great Hebraic minds of the apostle’s Peter (cf. Matt. 16:16) or Paul, based on the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures (Romans 1:2).
“Concerning His Son:
A. Who was born
B. of the seed of David
C. according to the flesh,
A’. and declared
B’. to be the Son of God (with power)
C’. according to the Spirit of holiness, (by the resurrection from the
Jesus Christ our Lord.”
In the literary structure of this creed, the central thought of each line is the Person of the Lord Jesus in His role as the “Seed of David” (His humanity) and the “Son of God” (His deity). In order to appreciate these two roles, we must understand the world of the First Century church in Rome, the church that Paul addressed in this letter. They, more than any other church in the Roman Empire, would understand the imperial cult and emperor worship and the sharp contrast Paul was making in these verses between the Lord Jesus and all the Roman emperors.
The “son of God” in the First Century Roman World
On March 14, 44 BC the tyrannical dictator, Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of men, lead by Brutus and Cassius, who identified themselves as the “liberators.” Brutus commemorated this event by issuing a coin with a liberty cap, flanked by two daggers and the Latin words EID MAR [“Eids of March”] (Vagi 1999:2:198, coin 95). After Caesar’s death, the Roman senate “voted to give Caesar divine honors” (Plutarch, Caesar 67:4; LCL 7:603; see also Suetonius, Deified Julius 88; LCL 1:119). In other words, they added him to the Roman pantheon as a god! This was the first time in Roman history that a mortal was deified. This Roman Senate decision would significantly affect the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ in the years to come.
Plutarch, a Greek writer who wrote a series of books about the lives of famous Greek and Roman personalities, recounted events of “divine ordering” (his words) surrounding the death of Julius Caesar. Among other things, he states there was a “great comet, which showed itself in great splendor for seven nights after Caesar’s murder” (Caesar 69:3; LCL 7:605-607). This was interpreted as a sign that Julius Caesar was taken up to the heavens to join the Roman gods. His adopted son, Octavian, minted coins with the comet on it and the Latin words DIVVS IVLIVS [“divine Julius”]! (Kreitzer 1990:213; Vagi 1999:2:221, coin 278).
Octavian (reigned from 27 BC to AD 14), the grand-nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, and known to us from the New Testament as Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1), minted coins with the title DIVI F [“son of God”] on them in Latin (Vagi 1999:2:217-231). He considered himself the son of the divine Julius Caesar. Some consider that Caesar Augustus was Satan’s puppet and counterfeit “messiah” to distract people from the real Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Suetonius (AD 75-140), a Roman historian, reports that after Augustus died and was cremated, an ex-praetor took an oath that he had seen the form of the Emperor on his way to heaven (Deified Augustus 100:4; LCL 1:283-285).
The next emperor was Tiberius (reigned from AD 14-37). He was the son of Livia, the stepson, son-in-law and heir of Augustus. Thus began the Julian dynasty. People married so they were somehow related to by blood or adoption to Augustus and thus by adoption to Julius Caesar, and would consider themselves the “seed of Julius.’ When Tiberius died, however, he was not deified by the Roman Senate.
Caligula (reigned from AD 37-41), the adopted grandson and heir of Tiberius, could not wait to die so he deified himself. He ordered statues of himself placed in temples, shrines and synagogues so people could worship him. After he was assassinated, the Roman Senate cursed him and had his name erased from all inscriptions and his statues smashed.
Claudius (reigned from AD 41-54) was the grandson of Livia (wife of Octavian), Mark Antony and Octavia (grand niece of Julius Caesar). He was the nephew of Tiberius and the granduncle and adoptive father of Nero. Claudius was also an uncle of Emperor Caligula and was made emperor by the Praetorian guards after Caligula was assassinated. He had physical disabilities, but was an effective administrator, however brutal at times. Suetonius states that after Claudius died, he was “buried with regal pomp and enrolled among the gods, an honor neglected and finally annulled by Nero, but later restored to him by Vespasian (Deified Claudius 45: LCL 2:81). Seneca (4 BC – AD 65), on the other hand, wrote a religio-political satire that dripped with sarcasm, entitled Pumpkinfication. (LCL 15:437-483). The title of this book was a slam on emperor worship. The word “pumpkinfication” was chosen instead of deification. In Seneca’s satire, Claudius is considered a pumpkin instead of a god!
Permit me to use my sanctified imagination for a minute. I would like to think the book made the International Herald Tribune best seller list for AD 55 when it was published. Perhaps it was a hot item in the bookstores of the Roman colony of Corinth when the Apostle Paul was there in the winter of AD 57-58. Since he wanted to improve his Latin before he went to Rome, he bought a copy of the book and read it in order to get a sense of the imperial cult. When he penned the letter to the church in Rome, he began with the creed concerning God’s Son: “Born of the Seed of David according to the flesh, declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” What a contrast to the recently deified Emperor Claudius!
Nero (reigned from AD 54-68), the adopted son of Claudius, and some say his natural born son (Burns 1996: 6-11), was not deified by the Roman Senate when he died, but in fact, was cursed by them. Following his death there was civil war which saw three emperors in quick succession: Galba, Otho and Vitellius (from June AD 68 to December AD 69), until General Vespasian was hailed emperor by the Senate.
Emperor Vespasian (reigned from AD 69-79) was born a common man and not related by blood or adoption to the Julio-Claudian dynasty. In other words, he was not of the “seed of Julius”! He came to realize that emperor worship and the imperial cult was a scam. Suetonius reports that Vespasian “did not cease his jokes even when in apprehension of death and in extreme danger; for when among other portents … a comet appeared in the heavens, he declared that [the comet was an omen about] the king of the Parthians, who wore his hair long, whereas I am bald.” When he finally realized his number was up, he said: “Woe’s me. Me think I am turning into a god” (Vespasian 23:4; LCL 2:319; and also Dio Cassius, Roman History 66:3; LCL 8:295). If he was going to become a god, what did he have to worry about?!
After his death, he was cremated and his ashes put in an urn and the urn placed in the family mausoleum in Rome. A coin was minted by his son Titus with Vespasian’s urn on the reverse side, flanked by two laurel branches (Mattingly and Sydenham 1926:123, coin 62; Vagi 1999:2:311, coin 958). This coin might have been Vespasian’s last joke from the grave. Whereas there was a posthumous coin of Julius Caesar being taken to heaven on a comet to join the gods, Vespasian knew he would be relegated to ashes in an urn! The Roman Senate, however, did deify him.
Vespasian’s two sons, Titus (reigned from AD 79-81) and Domitian (reigned from AD 81-96), were very much into the imperial cult. When Titus died, his brother Domitian constructed an arch in his brother’s honor that commemorated the victory of the Romans over the Jewish people and the destruction of Herod’s Temple. The tops of each side of the arch contained the inscription: F. DIVI [“the son of the god”]. In the center of the interior of the arch, Titus is on the back of an eagle being taken to heaven (Kreitzer 1990: 210). When Domitian became emperor, he, like Caligula, could not wait to die in order to become a god, so he deified himself in AD 86. And Domitian, like Caligula, was cursed by the Roman Senate after he died. The Emperor worship of Domitian is the background to the book of Revelation (Franz 2006:73-87).
By sharp contrast, Paul writes that the Lord Jesus was “born of the Seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” It was the covenant promise of God to David and the bodily resurrection that set Him apart from all the Roman emperors.
One other aspect of the Person of Christ that set Him apart from the Roman emperors is bringing peace with God to the individual. Some of the emperors could boast that they brought peace to the Roman world “on land and sea”, but one thing they lacked was the ability to bring peace to the hearts of men and women. That, only God manifest in the flesh – the Lord Jesus, could do. Later in the epistle to the Romans, Paul wrote: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1).
The bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated that the payment for sins on Calvary’s cross had been paid in full and accepted by God the Father. It also demonstrated that Satan had been defeated and death vanquished. When people put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior, they are justified, or declared righteous, by a Holy God. Have you trusted the Lord Jesus as your Savior?
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