gods everywhere

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.
gods everywhere
“Deities are so prevalent in our neighborhood that you are more likely to bump into a god than a man.”
Petronius, Satyricon
The above 1st century AD quotation reflects the ubiquity of ancient polytheistic beliefs and people’s desire to create deities and religious festivals whenever possible.  There is a Greek language inscription from early Roman Sardis, for example, that depicts this so well.  It merits a mention on this blog because it deals with veneration of the Imperial family, and although first published about 100 years ago, I have not seen a widespread awareness of this relevant artifact among New Testament scholars.
Roman coin showing Augustus’s two 
maternal grandchildren.  Used with the kind 
permission of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.,

The Roman Emperor Augustus was the maternal grandfather of Gaius Julius Caesar [20 BC-AD 4] and Lucius Julius Caesar [17 BC-AD 2].  Since Augustus had no sons himself, he adopted them  as his heirs.  Roman society had a special ceremony when young boys reached their middle teen years and could wear the new garment, the toga virilis, indicating their arrival into manhood.  This rite of  passage in Rome for Gaius Caesar was acknowledged and celebrated many miles away by one of the 7 cities of Revelation.  

Gaius Julius Caesar; British Museum

Not only does this decree from the city of Sardis mention prayers being offered to Augustus for the safety of his children, but the city proclaims this day of transition from youth to manhood for Gaius Caesar as an annual “sacred day” on which the city of Sardis will offer prayers and sacrifices to the gods and “all shall wear wreaths and festal garments.”  Furthermore, a statue of Gaius Caesar was to be erected in the imperial Temple of Augustus located in Sardis.  In addition, this news was regarded as such “good news” [euangelisthē] by those in Sardis that they wore wreaths and gave sacrifices to the gods on that very day that such “good news” was received.  The “good news” language of this inscription is noteworthy since it uses the same Greek verb [euangelizō; e.g., Matt. 11:5; Lk. 4:18; Acts 5:42; 17:18; 1 Cor. 1:17; 15:1; Gal. 1:11] that would be used later by Jesus and his followers when describing the proclamation of their own “good news.”  

Neither Gaius Julius Caesar nor Lucius Julius Caesar was able to fulfill divine destiny.  They both died prematurely and Augustus had to adopt Tiberius to become the next Emperor at his death.

One thought on “gods everywhere

  1. I love the analogy you give in your Corinthian letters class, and I think it fits here: Imagine a vast, raging, stormy ocean with massive waves (one can think of the show "Deadliest Catch" or something like that). Now throw a cork into that ocean. There you have monotheism in the midst of polytheism.-Jr

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