Book Reviews

The Son of God in the Roman World

Divine Sonship in Its Social and Political Context

Michael Peppard Oxford, UK 2012-09-01

For most evangelicals (and even the wider culture), the title “son of god” would immediately and exclusively refer to Jesus. This was not the case in the first couple centuries of the common era. The primary referent would have been the living Caesar or possibly a late predecessor such as Augustus. Although today some might also think of a trinitarian Father-Son relationship, few would think of this title as primarily a familial metaphor. However, in the early church, without a pre-understanding of other associations, the family relationship would have had to be a significant part of the meaning of the title. In this book, Michael Peppard desires to understand the title “son of god” as it was heard and understood in the first century.

In addition to a short introduction and brief conclusion, Peppard’s study includes five substantial chapters. Chapter 1 looks at the history of study of the “son of god” concept. He explores four approaches. First he deals with what he calls the “Nicene approach” (pp. 10–12). Most evangelicals will probably assume that this is the only way of looking at the issue and have not considered other possibilities. Essentially, for people today, the title “son of god” is a dead metaphor and (usually without realizing) anachronistically considered from the perspective of the Christological decisions expressed in the Nicene Creed. Peppard suggests that the question of becoming versus eternally begotten is imposed from the outside (pp. 10–11). In this approach “the term carries with it the philosophical and theological categories of the Nicene era” (p. 10). Further, Peppard suggests that this approach is highly influenced by Plato, who “divides the static world of Being from the dynamic world of Becoming” (p. 11). Basically, in this approach, “Son of God” has a fourth-century meaning.

The second approach is narrative criticism, which focuses on literary aspects of the Gospels (pp. 12–14). These studies focus on the final form of a book without implying reliance on other books or theological development. One such study suggests Matthew’s interest in Jesus’s origin is primarily Davidic (p. 13). Matthew assumes his readers understand the title “Son of God” and does not defend its use; however, he seems to be interested in demonstrating Jesus’s connection to David (p. 13).

The third approach is that of the so-called “history-of-religions school” (religionsgeschichtliche Schule) and its modern heirs (pp. 14–26). This movement mainly flourished at the beginning of the twentieth century in Germany. During this time new research into ancient religions uncovered material that was used comparatively with the New Testament and often resulted in the conclusion that early Christianity was influenced by other religions (p. 15). Peppard begins by discussing the influential work of Wilhelm Bousset (Kyrios Christos, 1935; English translation, 1970) (pp. 14–17). However, most of the section is devoted to more recent scholars he considers to have followed Bousset in some way, namely, Martin Hengel, James Dunn, and Larry Hurtado (pp. 17–26). He has both positive and negative things to say about these scholars; however, he is particularly harsh toward Hurtado. Some of this criticism may be valid, since Hurtado underplays Greco-Roman influences on this topic. However, Hurtado’s emphasis on Jewish concepts is not necessarily out of line. Peppard somewhat polemically states that “Hurtado fashions a history of early Christianity of which Irenaeus would be proud” (p. 25) and maintains that Hurtado “ignores the influential thesis of Walter Bauer, that Christian orthodoxy developed over several centuries through a diverse process of distillation and exclusion” (p. 25). Hurtado’s views are not so simplistic, however, and for the first century, Bauer’s theory has many difficulties. The available first-century material does not support it. There is evidence of diversity in the second century. However, this was after a foundation had been laid. Hurtado is correct to avoid dependence on Bauer’s reconstruction.

The fourth approach is called “listening for resonance” (pp. 26–28). This is primarily based on the work of Adela Yarbro Collins and focuses on how the title “son of god” would have been received by the original readers. There is an emphasis here on the Greco-Roman “son of god” in the form of the emperor. It is not surprising that this is the approach that Peppard will take (pp. 28–30). As described here, Peppard is correct to pursue this avenue. However, reception is not identical to composition. Peppard correctly argues for a saturation of imperial son of god ideology throughout the empire. Yet one must not ignore that there were Jewish nuances and traditions of which the New Testament authors were aware but that average Gentile readers were not. Simply put, a dominant culture’s ideologies will be known by almost all, while a subjugated people’s unique ideas and contributions are easily ignored.

Chapters 2 and 3 survey important topics that contribute to Peppard’s analysis of the use of “son of god” in the New Testament. Chapter 2 discusses issues of family and divinity in the Roman context of the day, when the emperor was the most prominent son of god in the readers’ environment. Peppard includes an excellent discussion of divinity generally and imperial cults specifically (pp. 31–44). He considers the old view on these topics and describes the present new perspective that most notably began with Simon Price (pp. 32–44). He also begins his discussion on the difference between a son of god being “begotten” or “made” (pp. 47–48). It is refreshing to see both an understanding of the importance of the emperor during this time and a careful discussion of the evidence.

In chapter 3 Peppard further explores the difference between begotten and made through the Roman practice of adoption. In and around the first century, when a natural heir (begotten) was not present, it was an option for Romans to adopt (made) (p. 52). Unlike today, adoption was primarily focused on the father’s need for an heir, not nurture or for the good of the adopted son, who was usually an adult (pp. 51–52). The chapter discusses the Roman practice (pp. 51–60) and its use among imperial families (pp. 60–86). Like chapter 2, this is an excellent overview of its subject.

Chapter 4 applies the findings to the Gospel of Mark. Although Peppard acknowledges difficulties and does not trace Mark’s source to Peter, he cautiously concludes that the connection with Rome is most probable (pp. 87–90). Essentially, this chapter suggests and defends a view that Mark presents Jesus as an adopted son of God. The argument is too detailed for a brief review to do it justice. After surveying Roman imperial ideology, Peppard finds many parallels that provide him with a fresh means of looking at Mark. The main focus is on the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:9–11), and the parallels with Roman ideology are impressive. For example, exploring Roman adoption, Peppard suggests that the proclamation of Jesus as son is similar to emperors proclaiming their successors through adoption (p. 94). Peppard considers the verb εὐδόκησα (“I am well pleased”) in God’s statement “You are my beloved son, in you I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11; NASB95; see also NRSV, NIV, ESV) to mean “I consent” with a performative function (pp. 107–12). He concludes that this is not so much a statement of acknowledgement of who Jesus already is but rather God’s choice of Jesus at that moment (p. 112). Peppard finds parallels between the Roman concepts of genius and numen (roughly similar to life-force and will), and the Spirit in Mark 1:10 (pp. 112–15). Peppard also explores the importance of bird-signs in ancient Rome and the role of the dove in Mark 1:10 (pp. 115–23). The actions of birds often were seen to precede important events (pp. 118–19). The Romans contrasted the powerful eagle with the peaceful dove (pp. 118–19). Peppard includes a passage from Suetonius, Augustus 94, in which Julius Caesar’s plan to adopt Octavian (the later Augustus) is confirmed by doves (p. 117).

Peppard concludes that this leads to an interpretation of Mark 1:9–11 that suggests that at this time Jesus was adopted by God. This appears to be an adoptionist interpretation of this passage. If compared to the more common theological teaching of this type, Peppard would disagree. He is correct. This is not typical adoptionist theology. It differs in at least two ways. First, he has already made a case for an adoption in which the status is essentially equal to that of a naturally born son. Thus, this is not the low Christology of typical adoptionist thinking (p. 131). Second, he is considering only Mark’s portrayal of Jesus. He is not making systematic theological claims about who Jesus is in the Bible. Although suggesting there are adoption-friendly texts in the other Gospels, he freely admits that Matthew, Mark, and John portray God as the “natural” father and Jesus as pre-existent (see p. 133).

Peppard’s view of Mark does share some aspects with developed theological adoptionism. As already noted, in Peppard’s view Jesus is not essentially pre-existent or eternally divine. Although Peppard’s view expresses a “higher Christology” than adoptionist, it is not high enough to reach divinity in the Old Testament sense. Peppard states, “Mark’s Christology was as high as humanly possible” (p. 131).

Peppard’s view is too focused on his interpretation of adoption through baptism, and it fails to consider the way in which Jesus is portrayed throughout Mark’s Gospel, especially through Jesus’s activities, which include things that only God can do. Peppard has done some significant work and does not pursue the issue further. However, it can go in one of two directions. One can insist that Mark did not believe in Jesus’s preexistence. Or one can conclude that Mark was not considering this issue at all. He was merely recording an event. This was an early stage of development that the other Gospels develop further. I suspect Peppard is not concerned with either of these approaches but is simply stating what he believes to be Mark’s portrayal of Jesus. This is a commendable goal in itself, but Peppard’s presentation is not completely accurate. He has provided some excellent detail and simply takes the evidence too far within the Gospel itself. His lexical and grammatical work on εὐδόκησα is helpful, but he concludes too quickly on what is possible against what is probable. Peppard, who is very critical of the dogmatic tradition of the son of god title, seems to be making the same error by reaching beyond his evidence. Since the word for adoption is not used in Mark 1:9–11 and there was a well-known Jewish practice of baptism, other options are possible and may even be preferable to Peppard’s interpretation. Is it not just as possible (or more so) that Matthew and Luke are either developing Mark’s description further or explaining it more clearly for their audiences?

Chapter 5 traces the chronological relationship between the two metaphors of natural, begotten son(s) and adoptive, made son(s) of God. Peppard argues that the New Testament and periods before Origin mixed the two metaphors for both Christ and Christians (pp. 133–60). Origin maintains both the notions of begotten and made for Christ but he does not use the adoption metaphor (pp. 160–61). For Christians he continues to mix the begotten and made (through adoption) metaphors (p. 161). However, once the Nicene era takes hold, the adoptive metaphor for Christ is minimized or lost and the begotten metaphor for Christians also fades away. Thus, the theological statement, “Jesus is God’s begotten son by nature; you are all God’s adopted children by grace” (p. 171).

After a brief conclusion and an epilogue, the book concludes with a twenty-page bibliography (pp. 249–68) and three indexes: subject (pp. 269–81), ancient sources (pp. 282–87), and modern authors (pp. 288–89).

This is a well-researched and important study. However, it is not without flaws. In addition to specifics already mentioned, Peppard dismisses too quickly first-century Jewish contribution to the biblical authors’ thought and assumes Roman categories without much defense. Certainly, first-century Jews were part of the Roman empire and were significantly influenced by Rome. Peppard should be commended for his emphasis on the Roman world view. Most do not give the Roman material its due. Where his use of it is most problematic, however, is in his view of divine humans. Although it is true that most if not all of the Roman empire was familiar with humans who were or became divine, this was generally not a Jewish concept. Certainly Jews in the first century would have been aware of this belief. However, this does not mean they would have accepted it.

Peppard notes Ittai Gradel’s important observation about the Roman view of the relationship between human honor and divine worship (p. 36). The difference between these was one of degree, not kind (Gradel, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002], 29). Peppard states it this way, “If the entire cosmos is a spectrum or gradient of honor, this ‘problem’ of the ruler cult ceases to be a problem” (p. 29). This is why a Roman could worship a man, especially one who accomplished acts normally only performed by gods. For example, gods could shape the destinies of people and communities. A Roman emperor with one word could exempt an entire city from taxes. For most Romans, I suspect this type of direct intervention was more powerful than they had experienced from any other deity. We can apply Gradel’s distinction to the relationship between humans and God as well. For Jews, the difference between God and man was not simply one of degree but rather, God is a completely different type of being. He is different in kind. I am not sure that the Romans had such a deity. If I understand Peppard correctly, he would disagree and views Jewish belief on this matter closer to the Roman (see pp. 23–24 on Peppard’s critique of Hurtado). However, it seems that Jewish monotheism found the Roman concept of deity to be idolatry. It is unlikely that the Jewish writers of the New Testament would have simply applied the Roman concept of the son of god to Jesus. Yes, they were aware of it, but they were also aware of the Jewish context as well. It is from this perspective that they would have written. The writers derived their understanding from Judaism but were aware of their wider context, and this may have resulted in contextualization of the message.

Certainly, many heard the title “son of god” in the Roman sense. It is likely this is the way the centurion at the cross understood it (Mark 15:39). This may also be the issue that ultimately resulted in Herod Agrippa’s judgment and death (Acts 12:20–23). Agrippa may not have accepted a Jewish concept behind this divine title. However, his relationship to the imperial family would have provided many opportunities to observe the Roman concept firsthand. The authors of the New Testament were Jewish. Their writings in part were to help people understand who the Son of God really was. Thus, both contexts, the Jewish and the Roman, must be considered.

One positive contribution to Peppard’s emphasis on the Roman categories is that it is likely that many of the original readers would have approached the New Testament this way. This may provide insight into the reception of some New Testament books and the task before the original leaders of the church. Although the authors and readers would have shared much, allowance must be made for differences.

Despite the previous criticism, this is an excellent study. It and others like it provide a great opportunity to further our understanding of the New Testament as well as a danger if misapplied. Peppard reminds us of the platonic influence on post-New Testament exegesis and theology and that we ought not read fourth-century theology back into first-century documents. We have an opportunity to go back before the creeds and consider how the first readers would have responded to the claim that Jesus was the Son of God when the assumed primary referent would have been someone else and when social practices such as adoption were positive and a means for advancement. Jesus, the son of God, and the Roman son of god both demanded absolute allegiance. The later had power, society, and the means of punishing dissent on its side. This demanded a response from the early Christians that few in the Western world can imagine. Peppard challenges us to read the New Testament with a first-century mind-set. It is likely we will discover some things that have been lost. I am not suggesting we will discover things that will challenge foundational doctrines of the faith; however, our creeds and other such statements have distilled for us abstract doctrines that can eclipse other teachings of the Bible if allowed to do so. If we impose a fourth-century meaning on a biblical text, it is possible we may miss something the author intended. It is not entirely possible to return to the first century, of course. But it can be a helpful exercise to try to suspend our theological conclusions temporarily and hear God’s Word anew. It is possible we will see some things we had not seen before. I am not suggesting that we abandon our theological constructs but only suspend them briefly to explore the text in a fresh way. This opportunity brings with it a challenge. We often search for a simple answer to understand apparent tensions in the text. Going back into the first century may bring up issues in the church today. For example, how do we reconcile the believer’s adoption (e.g., Eph. 1:5) with the believer’s begottenness (e.g., John 1:13)? The simple theological statement mentioned above that Christ was begotten and the believer was adopted is not satisfactory. We can either ignore this or see it as a challenge to bring the church to a higher level of biblical sophistication.

Another benefit of this study is Peppard’s reminder that the “son of god” title would naturally suggest some type of procreative activity to the earliest readers (not necessarily the authors’ intention). These readers would probably sense some tension here. Peppard’s suggestion that this metaphor is essentially dead today means that such implications are lost to us. This is true. When we hear this title today, few if any consider such implications. Our trinitarian explanations take precedence. Peppard reminds us that the title may have meant more in the first century than it does today. If the earliest Christians had to wrestle with this before the creeds became authoritative, we can try to do the same. Such theological reflection may contribute to the on-going, sometimes heated, debate about how to translate the title in Muslim contexts. Although the concerns are not the same, the earliest Christians had to navigate a similar situation in which their use of the title for Jesus may have resulted in direct confrontation with their society.

Finally, it is worth noting that the study and the implications discussed here are narrowly focused on the title for Jesus as “son of God” and believers as “children of God.” However, neither our understanding of Christ nor of the believer’s relationship to God is exhausted by this phrase. Rather, there is a rich biblical theology of the person of Christ and the identity of the believer. The phrase “son(s) of God” does not need to shoulder the entire burden of our understanding of these topics.

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