Graeco-RomanAntiquities & 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.
The book of Revelation often employs imagery that was well known in the surrounding cultures. This is certainly the case in regard to the idea of God’s victory for the followers of Jesus the Messiah. The Greek term used in each of the 7 letters that is translated “overcome” was used by pagan folks in describing their own religious victories in life. Moreover, the Greek term used for overcoming [nikao] is associated with the name of the Greek goddess of victory, Nike. Most students of Revelation know that the use of the term “crown” in Revelation (Rev. 2:10; 3:11), as well as in other writings of the Greek New Testament (1 Cor. 9:25; 2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8; James 1:12; 1 Pet. 5:4), resonates with the longstanding and widespread use of crowns in Graeco-Roman culture.
It is sometimes a shock for a modern student of Revelation to learn that the crowns spoken of in the New Testament were not like those worn by royal families in the modern world. Unless stated otherwise, most Graeco-Roman crowns were made from vegetation such as laurel or perhaps celery. This situation, so different from the contemporary construction of royal crowns, meant that those who were victorious were usually expecting “to get a crown that will not last” (as the apostle Paul observed in 1 Corinthians 9:25).
Less well understood by modern readers of the New Testament is that an equally well known “vegetation for victors” regularly came from the palm tree. That is, beyond the leafy twigs twisted into wreaths for winners, the Gospels picture schlepped palm fronds used to portray Jesus of Nazareth as the victorious king. With palm branches in hand the crowds “went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!’”(John 12:13).
It is not at all unusual to see Greek and/or Roman art using the palm frond in a scene or with a deity in order to depict victory.
|Roman coin issued soon after Octavian’s
victory against Mark Antony. In addition to
her crown of victory, Nike also carries the
palm branch of victory.
When Octavian became the sole ruler of the Roman world following his defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the sea battle of Actium, the iconography chosen by Octavian and his administrators naturally employed well known images representing divinely assisted victory. So, this coin uses the globe to show world domination, a victory only possible by divine assistance. Engraving the words DIVI F next to the name Caesar tells the world that he, Octavian, is world ruler and son [FILIUS] of the deified [DIVI] Caesar, Julius Caesar. As is frequently the case in Graeco-Roman iconography of the goddess Nike, the goddess of divine victory, she is holding a palm frond.
When those believers in Christ, that “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” are pictured in the vision given to the prophet John (Rev. 7:9), we learn, among other things, that these followers of Christ have come through a great tribulation (Rev. 7:14). It is small wonder that in their experience of heavenly salvation and eternal comfort from God that they are shown “wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9).