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 once a week to present a small sample of information that mirrors some aspect of the ancient world surrounding nascent Christianity.
“Two Things Awe Me Most, the Starry Sky Above Me and the Moral Law Within Me”
Early Roman Empire; Julius Caesar
with nativity star/comet above head.
Used with the kind permission of
Millennia before the writings of the 18th century European philosopher Immanuel Kant, humans were in awe of celestial marvels. They both delighted in and were terrified by meteorological phenomena. The Romans were no exception to this outlook. When it was thought that Julius Caesar became a deity after his death [i.e., apotheosis] a comet appeared in the skies over the city of Rome for some days and was immediately regarded as a nativity star/comet. It celebrated the birth of Caesar becoming a god. It did not take long for the portrait of Caesar to be accompanied by a star/comet above his head.
Students of Scripture know that there were similar thoughts about a star and divine nativity in Matthew’s Gospel. In that narrative certain Persian astronomers/astrologers are looking for the King of the Jews. According to non-Christian authors of that time period, “Ruler of the world” expectations abounded in the Middle East during the early Roman period. Thus, we are not surprised to learn of oriental astrologers searching among the Jews. Looking back upon the 1st century AD, the late 1st century–– early 2nd century AD Latin biographer Suetonius reports,
There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world. This prediction, referring to the emperor of Rome, as afterwards appeared from the event, the people of Judaea took to themselves; accordingly they revolted” (Suetonius, Lives of the 12 Caesars; “Life of Vespasian” IV.5).
According to the 1st Gospel, “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him. . . . After they had heard the king [Herod the Great], they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh” (Matt. 2:1-2, 9-11).
It makes sense that the book of Revelation might use sideral iconography to depict divine truths, whether of God’s divine punishments (6th seal; Rev. 6:12-17) or of the grandeur of one’s elevated status from God (Rev. 1:16-17). The intersection of the prophet John’s starry symbolism and the symbolic language in the religious atmosphere of that
|Aureus coin minted during the reign of Domitian.
Used only for educational purposes.
culture is clearly seen in John’s depiction of the Son of Man in Rev. 1:16.
In particular, a coin minted during the reign of Domitian depicts the divinized son of Domitian sitting on the globe of the earth, surrounded by 7 stars and with hands looking like stars. Unlike the other components of the imagery of the Son of Man in Revelation one, this sideral imagery cannot be located in the Hebrew Scriptures like it can in the propaganda of the imperial cult. In part, this aspect of John’s imagery is a response to the imperial cult and its idolatry.
Immanuel Kant probably did not have the celestial Messiah in mind when he associated personal awe with the “Starry sky above me,” but the prophet John experienced a terrifying awe when he contemplated the celestial image of the Son of Man who could hold 7 stars “in his right hand” (Rev. 1:16-17).
4 thoughts on “Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament”
I have seen a silver coin (minted between AD 81-84) that looks like the gold Domitian above. However, it depicts the Emperor grasping for six stars.
Paul: Use of sideral imagery abounded in the Roman Empire. Since "we" possess hundreds of thousands of coins from the Graeco-Roman world, it is difficult to keep up with all of them. Do you happen to have the reference to the coin you mention? I would love to know more about it.
There is a picture of (The dead and deified son of Emperor Domitian) at this blog:https://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/01/18/The-King-and-I-The-Apostle-John-and-Emperor-Domitian-Part-1.aspx
Paul, thanks for the citation. FYI, It seems that on most occasions the author of that blog misspells the term "Sebastoi" by spelling it "Sabastoi." That kind of mistake is easy to commit.