I am certain that the young couple I saw was not only enjoying their kiss and embrace for obvious romantic pleasures, but also for some of the intentional symbolism, standing as they were at the front of what in Roman times was the magnificent Temple of Venus (= Greek Aphrodite). Venus was regarded as the divine mother of the Roman people as well as the goddess of romance, love, sexuality, beauty, etc. — Just the right place for a young couple to enjoy a pleasurable kiss and embrace!
All cultures are filled with some contradictions and paradoxes. On the other hand, sometimes what at first seems to be a contradiction can in reality be the evidence of a somber situation. If you stand on the west side of the famous Flavian Amphitheater (=Colosseum) in Rome and look westward toward the equally famous Roman Forum, you see the sparse remains of this temple of Venus. Since many tourists often only look at what is currently standing tallest and most intact among the ruins, this temple is not one of the most visited monuments among the numerous remains within the rectangle formed by the Roman Forum and the Colosseum.
This temple of Venus was initially built within a generation of the writing of the book of Revelation during the reign of the Philhellenic emperor Hadrian. Unknown to many visitors interested in the ancient city of Rome, these temple remains situated at the eastern end of the Roman Forum apparently formed the largest temple in ancient Rome. Since this structure was closely associated with the goddess Venus, it is not a total surprise when Dio Cassius (Roman historian and consul) reports that,
it was decreed by the senate that silver images of Marcus [Aurelius] and Faustina [the Younger, wife of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius] should be set up in the temple of Venus and Rome and that an altar should be erected whereon all the maidens married in the city and their bridegrooms should offer sacrifice (Roman History, LXXI.31).
The reason Dio Cassius mentions the temple of Venus and Rome is that there was one large temple for two distinct
goddesses, the goddess Venus and the goddess Roma. Often temples with two deities had two cellae (inner chambers where the idol stood). In this particular arrangement the cellae were not next to each other but rather back-to-back, forming one long temple. The part of the temple with the cella of the goddess Roma faced the Forum Romanum, while the part with the cella of the goddess Venus faced the famous Colosseum, a venue seating about 70,000 spectators.
What seemed to me at first to be a major contradiction —the juxtaposition of the temple of Venus and the Colosseum —made sense after further reflection. Although initially disoriented by the physical proximity of these two marvels of Roman engineering, one designed to promote the worship of love and beauty and sexuality and the other to celebrate the comfortable viewing of massive carnage and pain, the wholesale slaughter of human beings and animals, in the end it made complete sense.
This “city planning” stratagem by the Roman Emperor Hadrian did bespeak loudly the zeitgeist of Rome at its peak of luxury and wealth. In Rome, the coin of the realm in the time of Hadrian was personal pleasure, likewise attested by Juvenal’s famous reference to appeasing the masses in Rome with “bread and circuses” (panem et circenses). These two monuments, the temple of Venus and the Colosseum, represent both sides of the same coin of the realm.
Although we Westerners might approve of Venus’s love and beauty while we wince and blanch at the extraordinary human pain, injustice, and carnage in the Colosseum, many denizens of Rome found the activities in the Colosseum to be quite pleasurable also. To be sure, the pleasures afforded by Venus were different from those pleasures provided by the excitement coming from human torture and bloodlust (as the latter was clearly depicted by the Roman author Seneca). But never doubt, for even a moment, whether both venues offered pleasures to the Roman population.
A stroll from the temple of love, beauty, and sensuality to the venue for the cries and screams coming from the Colosseum was a matter of only a few minutes. The proximity of these two architectural behemoths seems to followers of Christ to reveal an unfathomable absurdity, that was not apparent to those living during this ostensible zenith of Roman civilization.
The more the inhabitants of Rome looked for satisfaction from pleasure as the gold standard to evaluate a “good time in the city,” the more counter cultural and anti-urban culture the early Christian movement appeared. What a vast gulf separated the dystopian values associated with these architectural masterpieces of Rome from the contrarian views proclaimed by the Apostles and others! The inexorable intrusion of the Christian faith into the Roman Empire came about because of the proclamation of a different Empire with a different King than Rome could ever have imagined, and all this without benefit of the marvels of engineering and architecture or the political bully pulpit!
As I was completing this post, the thoughts of an early Christian writer came to mind, and you deserve to read his thoughts if you do not already know them.
The author is unknown, but the work is usually called the Epistle to Diognetus (edited and adapted),
They [Christians] dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives. . . . They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life. They are in beggary, and yet they make many rich. They are in want of all things, and yet they abound in all things (chapter 5:5-13).
And marvel not that a man can be an imitator of God. He can, if God wills it. For happiness consists not in lordship over one’s neighbours, nor in desiring to have more than weaker men, nor in possessing wealth and using force to inferiors; neither can any one imitate God in these matters; nay, these lie outside his greatness. But
1. whosoever takes upon himself the burden of his neighbor
2. whosoever desires to benefit one that is worse off in that in which he himself is superior
3. whosoever by supplying to those that are in want possessions which he received from God becomes a “God” to those who receive them from him
this one is an imitator of God (chapter 10:4-6).
Choose your Kingdom and its pleasures wisely!
Gambling affords the proper metaphor here; I will lay my cards on the table. I believe that the prophet John, just like the Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 12:1; Gal. 1:12; 2:2; Eph. 3:3; Acts 16:9; 18:9), the Apostle Peter (Acts 10:17), gifted believers (1 Cor. 14:26, 30), and followers of Jesus (Matt. 17:9; Lk. 24:23; Acts 2:17) had visions and revelations from God. There were many prophets and prophetesses in early communities of believers (Acts 2:17; 15:32; 1 Cor. 11:4-5). What happens, however, when one sees visions and revelations and does not draw what is seen, but puts it into words? Some ancient religions would put their visions and revelations into pictures on papyri or stone monuments. Apparently earliest Israelite faith and earliest Christianity thought that prophetic visions should be put into words, not pictures and paintings; perhaps, faith is based upon words and not pictures. In one case, the prophetic book Obadiah begins “The vision of Obadiah“ and then continues with ”This is what the Sovereign LORD says about Edom — We have heard a message from the LORD.“ Both pagan monuments and papyri earlier than Obadiah contain visuals, drawings, and paintings to accompany religious texts. Or, Nahum 1:1, “An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite.“ Then this book of the vision of Nahum continues with text and words.
The point is that images and scenes in visions must be rendered into words, and this process, in my judgment, involves the prophet’s choice of words and the decision of what to describe and what not to describe from the vision and its many scenes and colors. It is in this sense that I talk about Ezekiel’s and John’s involvement in the process of writing the content of their respective books and making choices about the wording, themes, and so on. It is similar to God’s allowing NT authors the right of their own vocabulary, themes, etc. in the books they author and compose.
One of John’s favorite prophets was Ezekiel and his reliance upon Ezekielian imagery about metaphysical experiences (Ezek. 40:2 || Rev. 21:10) certainly indicates that John placed himself in a sphere of mysticism similar to Ezekiel’s. This 6th century Jewish prophet demonstrates that strict adherence to literalism is sometimes unnecessary and other times even unfeasible when studying writings within the prophetic genre. Even before noting how John alters and adapts some of the scenes preserved in the writings of this exilic prophet Ezekiel, we must note how Ezekiel himself reveals a non-literalistic outlook within his own material. A celebrated text in Ezekiel is his depiction of the “four living creatures” in Ezek. 1:4-14, and then a supplementary text in Ezek. 10:1-22. Aspects of the intriguing iconography from Ezekiel’s picture, including the ocular ornamentation (Ezek. 1:18; 10:12), is not our concern here. I do, however, find it very instructive for my point to notice the ease with which the Ezekielian depictions shatter any rigid sense of literalism. With these chapters of Ezekiel (1 and 10), we can readily discern that one of the prophet John’s most significant spiritual mentors had neither hesitation nor apprehension in depicting a heavenly scene without reflecting a rigid devotion to literalism. This is especially worthy of our attention since Ezekiel deals here with the “four living creatures” (Ezek. 1:5; cf. 1:13, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22; 3:13; 10:15, 17, 20.) who dwell at the ganglion of each and every activity of God, both earthly and supernal.
In chapter one of Ezekiel he received a vision while he was by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians (Ezek. 1:3). In this vision he saw the four living creatures (=cherubim=cherubs, Ezek. 10:20), and each of the four living creatures is depicted with these four following faces: face of a man; on the right side each had the face of a lion; and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle (Ezek. 1:10-11a). In contrast, Ezekiel chapter 10:14 reads,
Each of the cherubim had four faces: One face was that of a cherub, the second the face of a man, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.
Clearly the face of the ox has been replaced by the face of the cherub. Later Rabbis themselves could not tolerate Ezekiel’s disregard for literalism and created a tradition that has no basis within Scripture to solve the “problem” of the genre of prophecy having this kind of diversity. The Rabbis suggested that Ezekiel was bothered by the ox because it reminded him of the episode of the golden calf and idolatry (Exod.32), apparently overlooking the fact that the term for “calf” in Exodus 32:4, 8 is not the term for ox in Ezekiel 1:10. According to this Rabbinic “tradition,” Ezekiel asked God to remove the four faces of the oxen distributed across the four cherubs and replace it with the four faces of a cherub distributed across the four cherubs. What the Rabbis might have chosen as an alternative is to believe Ezekiel’s estimation in 10:22 when he wrote, “Their faces had the same appearance as those I had seen by the Kebar River.“ Even though the faces were clearly not literally identical in both chapters (1 and 10), since Ezekiel is not addicted to literalism in the genre of prophecy he could say with complete inspiration that the four living creatures had ”the same appearance“ in both chapters.
Turning to the book of Revelation and John‘s perspectives on the four living creatures, we can see that as a Christ follower who writes within the genre of biblical prophecy John also does not have a slavish commitment to literalism when recording his visions from Patmos. For John, the four living creatures no longer exist in the form recorded by Ezekiel. Rather than accepting a straightforward reading of John’s prophecies, some dispensational scholars with an unwarranted devotion to literalism assert that the forms of the living creatures are identical in the time of Ezekiel and John. These writers attribute the “ostensible” differences between John and Ezekiel to the phenomenon of parallax, where one’s description differs from another based upon one’s location at the time of observation. Parallax, however, cannot explain all the significant differences between John and Ezekiel. John sees four faces (as in Ezekiel), but now, unlike Ezekiel, each creature has a single countenance, not multiple ones.
Following the description of each face (lion, ox, human, and eagle) in Ezekiel 1 rather than Ezekiel 10 (lion, cherub, human, and eagle), John writes (Rev. 4:7),
The first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle.
Furthermore, the four living creatures have evolved into a form that resembles both Ezekiel‘s cherubs in chapter 1 and Isaiah‘s seraphim in chapter 6 of Isaiah. This prophetic adaptation is clear in John‘s discourse (Rev. 4:8),
Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”
The concept of the four living creatures having “six wings,” clearly not the number four seen by Ezekiel, can only be traced back to Isaiah’s seraphim vision (Isa. 6:2-3). Six winged beings are seen nowhere else in Scripture except Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4. The close association of John’s imagery with Isaiah’s is furthermore demonstrated in the singular appearance of the Trisagion, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” again only in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4.
Instead of resorting to either tortuous exegesis or a preclusionary reading of the texts of Ezekiel and Revelation, a student of Scripture ought to experience no hesitation in acknowledging the disregard for a strict literalism in the writings of biblical prophets. When any biblical author shares vignettes from the eternal, unseen world associated with God’s throne, we should remind ourselves, with the Apostle Paul, that ”now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face“ (1 Cor. 13:12). In my judgment the rendering from the Message wonderfully captures Paul‘s insight on this point,
We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then.
This adaptable iconography of this Ezekielian “visions of God” (Ezek. 1:1), when “the heavens were opened” (Ezek. 1:1), provides an important example of the prophet’s visionary disinterest in literalism. These inspired presentations of heavenly scenes and supernal creatures, vouchsafed by prophetic images, are abused when contorted to fit within the limits of a narrow, unscriptural literalism.
Quest Post this week is from Clint Burnett. I am delighted to have a friend and former student write this week’s post. Clint has academic training that has given him the opportunity to study the historical backgrounds of early Christianity. Clint has completed the MDiv degree from Harding School of Theology and the Master of Sacred Theology (STM) from Boston University. He is currently enrolled in the doctoral program at Boston College, working on a PhD in Biblical Studies. Clint has had opportunity to combine work done in a graduate course in papyrology at Harvard University with his longstanding interest in the mistreatment of early followers of Christ during the Roman Empire. He was kind enough to write up a post about one aspect of the persecution of early disciples for this blog on the book of Revelation (Clint also has a blog that looks at material cultural and the historical context of early Christianity, which you can find at http://www.clintburnett.com/
Egyptian Papyri and the Persecution of Christians
For the first 220 years of the movement, no empire wide, systematic persecution of Christians occurred. While there is evidence for persecution of Christians from the earliest days of Christianity (e.g., the testimony of Acts, Paul’s letters, 1 Peter, the book of Revelation, the Neronian persecution of Christians in Rome in the AD 60s), these persecutions seem to have been localized, and with the exception of the persecutions of Christians under the Roman Emperors Nero (AD 54-68), Septimius Severus (AD 193-211), and Maximinus Thrax (AD 235-38), not state sponsored, i.e., the Roman government did not actively seek out Christians. It seems that most Roman officials were content to follow the modus operandi of the Emperor Trajan. That is, when Pliny the Younger wrote to Trajan c. AD 110 and asked him what he should do about Christians, Trajan instructed the governor of Pontus-Bithynia, “These people (i.e., Christians) must not be hunted out; if they are brought before you and the charge against them proved, they must be punished” (Pliny, Letters 10.97; translation from LCL, Betty Radice).