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?”
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.