1. Introduction

Chapter Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Need
  3. Delimitations
  4. Previous Works
    1. Monographs and Dissertations on Roman Religion
    2. Monographs and Dissertations on Roman Religion and Christianity
    3. Periodicals and Popular Books
    4. Summary
  5. Method of Procedure
  6. Conclusion

Introduction

The edge gained by uncovering the historical background to Scripture cuts two ways. On one hand, historical background adds focus, clarity, and accuracy to the reader’s knowledge of the biblical text. On the other hand, historical research presents a unique challenge to interpretation. Not all background information has equal bearing on exegesis; therefore, the student must discriminate among the data, setting aside what connects tangentially to the text and keeping what directly influences interpretation.

The dilemma affects a current trend in the interpretation of Paul’s writings: the relationship of his epistles to the imperial cult in first‑century Rome. As more information about early emperor worship comes to light, the allurement to relate Paul’s letters to this fresh data becomes more irresistible. Resisting novelty merely for the sake of tradition or conservatism does not serve the text, the interpreter, or the Church. A cautious evaluation of the evidence, however, will provide two key benefits: it will safeguard against errors that stem from an uncritical use of historical data and it will improve theology with accurately evaluated background information.

2. The Official Development of the Imperial Cult in Rome

Chapter Outline

  1. Greek Background
    1. Alexander the Great
    2. Godlike Honors: Isotheoi Timai
    3. Divine Titles
  2. Roman Practice
    1. Granting Divine Status to Generals
      1. Marcus Claudius Marcellus (268–208 BC)
      2. Scipio Africanus (236–183 BC)
      3. Titus Quinctius Flamininus (229–174 BC)
      4. Gaius Marius (157-86 BC)
      5. Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (138-78 BC)
    2. Granting Divine Status to Emperors
      1. Julius Caesar
      2. Caesar Augustus
      3. Tiberius
      4. Caligula
      5. Claudius
      6. Nero
    3. Limiting Deification to Dead Emperors
  3. Conclusion

Introduction

To understand the extent to which Paul’s Christology utilizes the words and concepts of the Roman imperial cult, one must understand the development and practice of Roman emperor worship. Paul ministered the Gospel under the reigns of two remarkably different emperors: Claudius and Nero. In order to ground conclusions on more than isolated data from individual emperors, this chapter will trace the development of the officially sanctioned imperial cult from its earliest days in Rome, providing a fuller context in which to interpret the reigns of emperors cotemporary with Paul and their effects on the historical setting in which he wrote.

Conclusion

From the time of Alexander the Great and other Greek leaders to the Roman emperors ruling during Paul’s life, the bestowal of divine honors upon prominent leaders happened on a regular basis. Not every divine honor, however, indicated a direct equation of its recipient with absolute deity. The emperors’ ability to accept or refuse honors offered by the Senate or citizens reveals that the imperial cult honored its recipients as something less than what a monotheist would call “God.” The pattern of sharing honors with another Roman deity also indicates that the Roman imperial cult treated the emperors as something more than man, but less than absolute deity. Gradel labels this “relative divinity,” arguing that Romans viewed the emperor as a man with “divine status,” as opposed to believing him actually to be a god. Julius Caesar is the only emperor to be deified by the Senate during his lifetime; all his successors who were deified received that honor posthumously. The imperial cult was not a theological system purporting the emperor to be a god; it was a system of rituals and honors treating the emperor as one with uniquely elevated status.

This chapter explains the official development of the imperial cult in Rome itself. As noted above, the rest of the empire did not necessarily act in accordance with official decrees, and there were subtle nuances of each emperor’s acceptance and refusal of certain honors. For this reason, the next chapter will attempt to describe the unofficial practice of emperor worship in province, towns, and homes across the empire. Visualizing the common man’s experience with emperor worship will provide a clearer understanding of the historical context in which Paul communicated the humility and majesty of Christ.

3. The Organic Development of the Imperial Cult across the Empire

Chapter Outline

  1. Household Worship
    1. Imperial Images
    2. Libations to the Emperor
    3. Father’s Genius
    4. Household Gods
  2. Local Worship
    1. Festivals
    2. Sacrifices
    3. Temples
  3. Emphasis on the Living Emperor
  4. Conclusion

Introduction

The student of Roman history should not denigrate the value of understanding the official Roman conception of imperial cult as approved by the Senate and emperor and implemented in and around Rome. A truer measure of the impact the cult made on Paul’s world, however, is the role that emperor worship played in provinces, cities, and homes across the empire. In many cases, the common expression of the cult differed significantly from the cult’s official Roman formulation. Differences between Roman policy and ordinary practice stand in especially sharp relief in the eastern part of the empire. If Price’s hypothesis that the imperial cult was less about religion and more about politics, the cult may have been directed deliberately toward the East, formulated in part as a way of helping the formerly independent Greek city-states relate to a new centralized power.

Conclusion

The imperial cult was inescapable in Paul’s world. Its traditions were carried out in private homes and based on common household rituals. Its celebrations and sacrifices littered the calendars of cities and provinces across the empire and its temples embodied the majesty ascribed to the emperor. Though the official position paid honor to deceased emperors, rituals performed outside of the city limits of Rome served to honor the living emperor. The people who heard and read Paul’s letters certainly would have been familiar with the rituals and words of the imperial cult. The remainder of this dissertation will compare words and phrases from the imperial cult that also appear in Paul’s letters, seeking to understand how the original recipients would have understood those words in their context.

4. Titles of Divinity

Chapter Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. God – Θεός
    1. Imperial Usage
    2. Pauline Usage
      1. Occurrences
      2. Authority
      3. Prominence
      4. Spirituality
      5. Salvific Work
    3. Similarities and Dissimilarities
  3. Son of God – Υἱὸς θεοῦ
    1. Imperial Usage
    2. Pauline Usage
      1. Occurrences
      2. Jesus as “Son of God”
      3. God’s People as “Son(s) of God”
    3. Similarities and Dissimilarities
  4. Conclusion

Introduction

One of the primary ways in which any system of worship reveres its honorees is the use of special titles. Unique titles indicate unique character, nature, or position. Honorific titles serve two purposes: to elevate their recipient and to communicate specific reasons why the recipient deserves to be elevated. Honorific titles for the emperor were prominent in first century Rome. The special labels given to the emperors often had their roots in Egyptian or Greek history. These titles serve as an optimal means for studying the imperial cult because of their substantial historical attestation. While rituals would also be helpful in understanding the cult, they often are recorded only in images or anecdotes: no comprehensive guide for worshiping the emperor exists. A ruler’s titles and name, on the other hand, often appeared stamped on coins, inscribed in statues, and recorded in history. This availability makes honorific titles a useful tool for understanding the Roman imperial cult.

Of course, the New Testament authors assigned many titles of honor to Jesus as well. Several of these titles and words closely related to them appear in both the New Testament and the historical evidence of the imperial cult. The remainder of this dissertation will examine those titles and phrases that are common to both emperor worship and Pauline Christology. By examining the historical context of the emperors’ titles and the theological context of Paul’s letters, the remaining chapters will seek to answer the question, “To what extent did Paul borrow honorific titles and their meanings from the imperial cult?”

The first category of titles to be examined is titles relating to divinity. This category includes the titles “God” (θεός) and “Son of God” (υἱὸς θεοῦ). This chapter will treat these two titles individually, defining their meaning in the imperial cult, explaining their use and significance in Pauline theology, and comparing the two spheres of meaning for similarities and dissimilarities.

Conclusion

Both the imperial cult and Paul’s epistles use the titles “god” and “Son of God.” The ways in which their respective uses overlap, however, are few. Both use the title θεός to communicate a position elevated above ordinary humanity and a measure of authority that matches that position. Both use the phrase υἱὸς θεοῦ with at least a distant connection to the ideals of unity and truth.

The differences between the meanings invested in these titles by their respective users weigh heavily enough to preclude the conclusion that Paul borrowed them from the imperial cult. For the Romans, “god” was a relative label, indicating a measure of respect and reverence without necessarily carrying the life–and-death theological weight that Christianity invests in that title. For Paul, “God” is the one who “made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth” (Ac. 17.24) and identifying Jesus as “God” meant that in Jesus “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2.9). In Paul’s writings, this title is invested with rich implications of a unique kind of being, an exclusive position, and a spiritual nature. The Romans in no way assigned such traits to their emperors. Paul recognized that human leaders usurped the title “god” and affirmed the exclusivity and ultimate victory of the one true God against all adversaries.

The title “son of God” functioned differently in each usage. For the Romans, this title linked a ruling emperor to a deified predecessor, while maintaining a healthy distance from directly calling the current emperor divine. For Paul, this title formed a theological equals sign between the words “Jesus” and “God.” Identifying Jesus as God’s Son communicated that he shared essential characteristics of the Father’s nature and that they shared an intimate familial relationship. Beyond this obvious difference, the context of Pauline usage of this title differs greatly from the imperial cult. While the Romans used this phrase only to elevate the emperor, Paul used to it credit his spiritual life to his intimate personal relationship with Jesus. He also used this title to present the resurrection as the chief proof that Jesus is the pre-appointed messianic king of the Old Testament, a meaning entirely absent from the imperial cult. Paul also linked the title “Son of God” with God’s Spirit. No such theology of the Trinity existed in Roman emperor worship.

The dissimilarities between Paul and the imperial cult stand in such sharp relief that it is impossible to conclude that Paul modeled his use of the titles “God” and “Son of God” after the imperial cult in any way. The similarities between the titles are so slight that they can be easily seen as unavoidable similarities that almost any two systems of worship would share. Paul’s foundation for these titles is the Old Testament, not the imperial cult.

5. Titles of Lordship

Chapter Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Lord – Κύριος
    1. Imperial Usage
    2. Pauline Usage
    3. Occurrences
      1. “Lord” and Authority
      2. “Lord” in the Old Testament
      3. “Lord” and the Apocalypse
      4. Summary of the Meaning of “Lord”
    4. Similarities and Dissimilarities
  3. Principalities and Powers
    1. Pauline Usage
      1. Primary Words
      2. Related Words
      3. Theological Emphasis
    2. Similarities and Dissimilarities
  4. Conclusion

Introduction

Few titles are used as commonly for Jesus as “Lord,” yet few escape real scrutiny today as much as “Lord” does.  The blame for this taking for granted of the title “Lord” surely does not lie with the Scripture writers. Paul used this title with great meaning. The title “Lord” also grew into important usage in the Roman imperial cult. The comparison of the two uses of this title and an examination of several synonyms relating to lordship will provide a clearer answer to the question, “To what degree did Paul borrow honorific titles for Jesus from the imperial cult?”

Conclusion

Titles relating to authority play a major role in the comparison of imperial cult terminology and Pauline Christology. From κύριος, the most prominent title of authority, to the range of synonyms in the “principalities and powers” word group, these titles indicate ownership of possessions and authority over subjects. The ways in which they were used in their respective contexts, however, grew quite dissimilar. The emperors used the title “lord” from the time of Nero on and, by it, invoked the image of a master over a slave. This meaning was initially foreign to the imperial cult because it reminded Romans more of the old dictators than the new, balanced Senate. As that association died down, the title “lord” became acceptable in the imperial cult. Pauline usage began with the same semantic foundation. References to Jesus as κύριος in Paul’s letters reveal that his speech and actions are authoritative, that he receives acts of submission, and that other legitimate authorities derive their power from him. Paul’s foundation for this title, however, has little to do with the imperial cult. The chronology makes any claim of Pauline dependence on emperor worship difficult to maintain. Paul was already in the practice of calling Jesus κύριος before Nero acceded and used the title “lord.” Paul’s foundation for this title lies in his Old Testament knowledge. A series of Old Testament quotations linking Jesus with Yahweh communicate several truths about Jesus that far outstrip what the imperial cult intended to communicate with this title. By using those Yahweh quotations with reference to Jesus, Paul ascribed to him the ability to deliver his people, omniscience and wisdom, moral authority, sovereignty, and fame. Not only does Paul base his use of κύριος on a different foundation from the imperial cult, he also takes its extended meaning in a different direction. In Romans and the Thessalonian epistles, Paul uses the title κύριος Ἰησοῦς to predict Jesus’ return with its hope for his people and vengeance over his enemies. No evidence points to a Roman equivalent of this eschatological use of the title “lord.”

The words in Paul’s “principalities and powers” groups bear significance, not because they are used for Jesus or for the emperor, but because they reveal an essential aspect of Paul’s theology of human and supernatural authorities. Since the imperial cult put the emperor in a category above normal men, the relative authority structure Paul presents with these words has direct bearing on the relationship between Pauline Christology and the imperial cult in ancient Rome. Paul uses these words primarily with reference to angelic and demonic powers and secondarily with reference to human leaders. Regardless of the nature of the referent, Paul’s theological point is always that Jesus stands above all other authority figures. His logical argument moves from Jesus’ authority over supernatural beings and implies that he has just as much authority over mere humans, including the emperor.

In titles and words of authority, Paul’s primary foundation is the Old Testament. Some similarity of words and meaning exists, but Paul uses κύριος with a different background and communicates Jesus’ authority with much more nuance and clarity than the imperial cult did for the emperor.

6. Titles of Benevolence

Chapter Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Protection: Σωτήρ
    1. Imperial Usage
      1. Vocabulary
      2. Collocate Titles
      3. Summary
    2. Pauline Usage
      1. Occurrences of Σωτήρ
      2. Occurrences of Σωτηρία
      3. Occurrences of Σῴζω
      4. Occurrences of Σωτήριος
    3. Similarities and Dissimilarities
  3. Good News: Εὐαγγέλιον
    1. Imperial Usage
    2. Pauline Usage
      1. Occurrences of Εὐαγγέλιον
      2. Occurrences of Εὐαγγελίζω
    3. Similarities and Dissimilarities
  4. Conclusion

Introduction

The Roman imperial cult used divine titles to portray the emperor as a benefactor who cared for and provided for his empire. This use of divine titles can be traced as far back as the Egyptian belief that the Pharoah was responsible to provide protection and prosperity for his nation. Nearly twenty different Greek words ascribe benevolent provision to the emperor. The most prominent titles of benevolence from the imperial cult that also appear regularly in Paul’s epistles are σωτήρ and εὐαγγέλιον. This chapter will examine the use of cognates of both words in both the imperial cult and Paul’s letters, concluding that while the imperial cult provides helpful context for understanding Paul’s letters, the available evidence does not suggest that Paul used these titles in a politically subversive way.

Conclusion

The titles σωτήρ and εὐαγγέλιον, along with their cognates, are shared by Paul’s epistles and the Roman imperial cult. At times, understanding the Roman ideas behind these words helps in the interpretation of Paul’s letters. Cultural background for σωτήρ provides a starting place for understanding Jesus’ work of delivering his people from danger. Understanding the function of the imperial εὐαγγέλιον as an accession announcement sheds light on Paul’s teaching on obedience to the gospel.

The components of meaning shared by the imperial cult and Paul’s letters do not provide adequate grounds for interpreting Paul’s use of these titles as politically charged propaganda. The eternal salvation that Jesus provides does not conflict with the emperor’s temporal salvation. The good news about Jesus does not present him as a competitor to Caesar’s rule, but as a sacrificial provider of spiritual benefits. Paul’s use of both word groups is clearly in Old Testament prophecies that identify Yahweh as savior and as subject of good news. Thus Paul’s use of the σωτήρ and εὐαγγέλιον word groups serves to identify Jesus with Yahweh, not to position him as a challenger to the emperor.

7. Titles of Stability

Chapter Outline

  1. Introduction
    1. Peace: Εἰρήνη
    2. Imperial Usage
    3. Pauline Usage
      1. Occurrences
      2. Εἰρήνη in Epistolary Greetings and Benedictions
      3. Εἰρήνη in Standard Theological Usage
      4. Summary
    4. Similarities and Dissimilarities
  2. Security: Ἀσφάλεια
    1. Imperial Usage
    2. Pauline Usage
    3. Similarities and Dissimilarities
  3. Peace and Security
    1. Peace and Security in Greek
    2. Peace and Security in Latin
    3. Peace and Security in Secondary Literature
  4. Conclusion

Introduction

While the Greek words εἰρήνη (peace) and ἀσφάλεια (security) are not technically titles, their function within the imperial cult and in one of Paul’s letters has earned them a place of prominence in contemporary scholarship and in this dissertation. Some authors have called this phrase a “slogan” of imperial propaganda. To properly evaluate this claim, it will be necessary to identify the role that each of these words played in both the imperial cult and Pauline Christology. After surveying broad and specific usage of each word individually, this chapter will examine the collocate occurrences of εἰρήνη and ἀσφάλεια to ascertain whether they can be identified accurately as a “slogan” and to understand what impact that identification has on conclusions about Paul’s potentially anti-imperial use of this phrase in I Thessalonians 5.3.

Conclusion

Paul’s use of εἰρήνη and ἀσφάλεια in Christological contexts reveals a different view of peace and security than the one offered by the Roman Empire. The peace that Paul ascribes to Jesus is not military or political; rather, it begins with the creation of peace between a sinner and God, then fosters peaceful relationships among believers. Imperial propaganda emphasized peace from hostile armies and criminals; Jesus’ peace does not supplant the safe conditions created by wise imperial rule. Furthermore, Paul’s quotations from the prophets and greetings using shalom indicate that the Old Testament provides the primary context for interpreting these words in his letters

Paul’s sole use of ἀσφάλεια follows no pattern in imperial usage because no such imperial pattern appears to have existed. Ἀσφάλεια receives close attention because of its collocation with εἰρήνη in I Thessalonians 5.3. Contrary to some contemporary authors, that phrase does not appear to function as an imperial slogan in either Greek or Latin literature. While peace and security both played a role in imperial propaganda, their combined occurrence in this verse does not necessarily constitute a “frontal attack” on the emperor. On the contrary, in Pauline usage, these words operate in spiritual realms and present no overt challenge to the Roman emperor.

8. Titles of Presence

Chapter Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Appearance: Ἐπιφάνεια
    1. Imperial Usage
    2. Pauline Usage
      1. Occurrences
      2. Ministry Motivation from Jesus’ Ἐπιφάνεια
      3. Hope for Believer Derived from Jesus’ Ἐπιφάνεια
      4. Final Victory at Jesus’ Ἐπιφάνεια
      5. Summary
    3. Similarities and Dissimilarities
  3. Arrival: Παρουσία
    1. Imperial Usage
    2. Pauline Usage
      1. Theological Uses of Παρουσία
      2. Timing(s) of the Παρουσία
      3. Summary
    3. Similarities and Dissimilarities
  4. Conclusion

Introduction

The presence of the emperor would have brought great honor to a town in the Roman Empire. Citizens treated an imperial visit accordingly and spoke of the emperor’s presence with honorific words. The two most prominent honorific words relating to the presence of the emperor are ἐπιφάνεια and παροuσία. These synonyms emphasize both the splendor of his appearance and occasion of his arrival. Each section of this chapter will begin with an examination of the imperial use of one of these words in first-century Greek literature.

Paul uses both ἐπιφάνεια and παρουσία with reference to Jesus as well. These words appear most frequently in the Thessalonian letters and pastoral epistles, featuring prominently in eschatological sections of these letters. Comparing Paul’s use of ἐπιφάνεια and παρουσία to the secular first-century use will reveal the degree to which Paul borrowed imperial meaning and show that he did not use these words to subvert the Roman emperor.

Conclusion

The words ἐπιφάνεια (and cognates) and παρουσία both refer to one’s presence, often used of a dignitary or leader. Ἐπιφάνεια emphasizes the appearance of the one present, referring either to the external appearance of the subject or to the act of his appearing. Παρουσία emphasizes the physical presence of its subject, referring either to his state of being present or to his act of arriving. Both these words appear infrequently with imperial referents and both play an important part in Paul’s theology of Jesus’ return.

Paul’s use of ἐπιφάνεια runs parallel to certain secular uses. As a general or leader making an ἐπιφάνεια often brought deliverance and relief to his subjects, Paul anticipates the ἐπιφάνεια of Jesus as an event at which he brings deliverance and relief to his people (II Tim. 4.8; Tit. 2.13). He also predicts that Jesus will prevail with military victory at his appearance (II Thess. 2.8). Paul is not bound merely to parrot Greco-Roman usage, however. He uses ἐπιφάνεια to communicate the accountability that God’s servants will experience at Jesus’ appearance. This theme is strong in the teachings of Jesus, but does not appear frequently in Greek literature. Paul exalts the Father for his sovereign control over the timing of Jesus’ ἐπιφάνεια. While a Roman official’s appearance may have been governed by his superior, the emperor would not have answered to anyone else.

Paul’s use of παρουσία likewise bears both similarities to and differences from the Roman usage. Like ἐπιφάνεια, παρουσία appears to take its basic Pauline meaning from the arrivals of dignitaries in the Greek and Roman empires. The eager anticipation that he conveys to his readers reflects the honor of a Roman city visited by the emperor or one of his emissaries. Paul calls his readers to look for Jesus’ παρουσία during difficulties and to live so that he will find them obedient at his arrival. Unlike the normal Roman use, Paul connects the παρουσία of Jesus to the beginning of unfettered enjoyment of resurrection life for his people. The arrival of Jesus also marks the completion of God’s sanctifying work in his people’s lives. Neither of these ideas have any counterpart in secular or imperial cult usage of παρουσία.

Both ἐπιφάνεια and παρουσία have wide ranges of non-imperial meaning. Even in the sense that most resembles imperial use, each word appears with multiple non-imperial referents in Greek literature. Since these words did not belong exclusively to the imperial cult, Paul’s use of them ought not be construed as subversive or anti-imperial.

9. Conclusion

Chapter Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Chapter Summaries
  3. General Observations and Trends
  4. Practical Value for Christians
  5. Avenues of Further Research
  6. Conclusion

Introduction

This dissertation set out to answer the question “To what extent does Paul borrow the vocabulary and ideology of the Roman imperial cult as he describes Jesus in his letters?” The pursuit of that answer began with an examination of the development and expressions of the imperial cult in first-century Rome. That part of the study revealed that Rome’s official development of the cult was careful and restrained, while the eastern embrace of the cult was enthusiastic and less restrained. For a specific point of comparison between the imperial cult and Pauline Christology, the rest of this dissertation examined honorific titles used in both systems. The respective uses of these titles from first-century Greek literature and from Paul’s epistles were analyzed individually and compared for similarity of both syntax and thought. These comparisons revealed that although Paul occasionally honored Jesus with the same titles used to honor the emperors, Paul’s use of those titles often had more in common with Old Testament occurrences of the titles than with imperial cult usage. Furthermore, Paul’s use of these shared titles did not pose any threat (direct or veiled) to imperial authority.

Conclusion

Paul regularly describes Jesus with words and titles that also serve to honor the emperor in first-century Greek literature. In some of these parallels, the Greco-Roman use of the title provides helpful background to Pauline use. In other comparisons, both Paul and the imperial cult draw from a common use of the title, but develop divergent meanings in their own contexts. In yet other cases, Paul and the imperial cult use the same words in the same way, but present their honorees as rulers of differing spheres. None of the words studied in this dissertation appear to be subversive or anti-imperial in Paul’s letters. Paul’s letters certainly set Jesus as the Lord of a higher realm than the Roman Empire, and his commitment to Jesus’ exclusive deity certainly precluded participation in emperor-centered idolatry. These implications of the lordship of Jesus, however, do not constitute a rhetorical assault on the imperial government or a call to political revolution. The words of Modica and McKnight conclude this study well: “The New Testament conclusion that Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not, is not a direct assault on the Roman Empire or even a veiled attempt to usurp it. Rather, to claim that Jesus is Lord is to place oneself in the servitude of a radically different kingdom—one which has no equal, now and forever.” [Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012), 214]