Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament
There are things you can tell about an entire ocean even if you have only one cup of water from it. Naturally a scientist would like to have as many cups and as broad a sampling as possible, but even a single cup is of some help. The same is true when investigating the world of the New Testament. You can learn something even from one ancient document, though the explorer of the ancient world would like to have as many documents as possible.
I hope to occasionally present a small sample of information that mirrors some aspect of the ancient world surrounding nascent Christianity.
I have commented earlier in this blog on the use of astral language and imagery in the book of Revelation. In fact, at times astral language both in Revelation and in the Magi story of Matthew resonated with imagery found in non-biblical texts.
It seems appropriate to also comment on John’s use of other sidereal imagery to explain God’s purposes in Jesus Christ. In Revelation 22:16 John writes, “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” John is probably not attempting to anticipate the much later musical “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” but he certainly has stepped unto the stage of astral symbolism and cosmic imagery. Earlier in Revelation the victorious believer is promised “To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star” (Rev. 2:28). Most interpreters rightly believe that this phrase “morning star” refers to the planet Venus.
A Roman denarius with the obverse showing the
bust of Julius Caesar with star, and the reverse
showing the goddess Venus with a Victory goddess
and a star at the bottom of her regal scepter. Used
by the kind permission of the Classical Numismatic
Two historical observations deserve mention. This use of the planet Venus by John is most likely a direct retort to the Emperor Cult, which in its early decades rooted aspects of its theology in the worship of the goddess Venus. Julius Caesar and later emperors relied upon older mythological traditions about the descent of their clan from Venus (=Aphrodite) and Mars (=Ares). Consequently, veneration of the goddess Venus and her close association with the planet Venus were closely tied to the worship of the Roman Emperor. Even from the 1st century BC, there is an Ephesian Greek inscription that mentions the divinity of Julius Caesar and his divine parents, Venus and Mars. Accordingly, whatever celestial power and strength was observed by the Romans in their attitude toward Venus and her planet, it was now subsumed under Christological titles for Jesus Christ himself.
A Roman denarius showing a diademed bust of the goddess
Venus on the obverse and a reverse depicting the mythic connection
between the clan of Julius Caesar and the founding of Rome
[Aeneas with Anchises]. Used by the kind permission
Second, this imagery provides another example in the book of Revelation of the judicious use of Graeco-Roman ideas and iconography to present Christian theology and apologetics. In this instance, it is the context of Roman animadversions against the gospel and its proponents. Whether it is John’s use of the “Seven stars in the hand” [see blog, Oct. 12, 2011] or well known regal titles such as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16), the book of Revelation makes clear that it is comfortable in presenting its message about the supremacy of Jesus Christ through sacred texts that employ and adapt material from the surrounding culture, even when animated by a highly pluralistic zeitgeist. All of this seems to have worked well and to the advantage of the Christian gospel as long as these Graeco-Roman streams of thought could adequately communicate the ideas and theology of the early apostolic church.