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Yeshua in Context » Background to Gospels, Greco-Roman Background, Messiah, Son of God » Greek and Roman Background: Son of God

Greek and Roman Background: Son of God

Some people use the kind of information I’m sharing here to say things like, “The virginal conception of Jesus by Mary and the Holy Spirit is the kind of story pagans would make up about their rulers.” That is not where I am going with this. But it is vital background for understanding Yeshua as the gospels present him.

Yeshua and his disciples likely had limited knowledge of the Greco-Roman world (with some exceptions in his larger group of disciples since some may have been part of the aristocracy). The evangelists, however, would likely have had much more involvement in the Greco-Roman world and their audiences would as well.

Mark, by the traditional theory and even more so for those who reject the traditional theory, likely wrote from outside the land of Israel. The author of Matthew was not one of the Twelve (or else why would he use Mark) and wrote in decent Greek. Luke is even easier to locate in the Greco-Roman world. The author of John according to tradition lived in Ephesus in Asia Minor and in non-traditional theories might have had even more Greco-Roman background.

It is relevant to the notion of Yeshua as some sort of king, as a divine man of some sort, as being called by some with the title Son of God, that these types of claims were made about other rulers in the Greco-Roman world. The following is a sampling of the kind of divine titles and savior language used of Greco-Roman rulers. These examples are drawn from Adela and John Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God:

(1) Alexander the Great went to the shrine of Amun (Ammon-Re) in the Siwa Oasis in what was then Libya (now Egypt) and was greeted as a “son of Amun,” which to the Greeks meant “son of Zeus.” To clarify that this was divinity, he also in that account demanded proskynesis, or a form of worship.

(2) Ptolemy I delivered Rhodes in 304 BCE from a siege. He was known thereafter as Savior and at the Siwa Oasis the oracle confirmed that Ptolemy I was a god. The Ptolemies thereafter used title including divinity, some of them even using the Greek word theos in their titles.

(3) The Rosetta Stone (196 BCE) hails Ptolemy V as “god like the sun” and “image of Horus, son of Isis and Osiris.” Horus has a long history in the Egyptian pantheon, but in some ages was the Falcon, god of the sky and war, and kings were regarded as manifestations of his being. The idea of a divine king could be something like a man in whom the divinity of Horus dwells and manifests his power.

(4) Antiochus IV (Epiphanes, 215 – 163 BCE) was perhaps the first of the Seleucids to emphasize divinity. He minted his divinity right onto coins. He showed Zeus enthroned and the title theos epiphanes (god manifested) appeared on coins.

(5) Seleucus (358 – 281 BCE) the founder of the Seleucid (Syrian) dynasty and a general of Alexander, had an origin story that his mother was visited in her bed by Apollo.

(6) Octavian, a.k.a. Augustus Caesar and Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus (63-14 BCE) was known as divi filius (son of a god) as early as 40 BCE. He was called Savior of the World.

Adela and John Collins go on to present evidence that Greco-Roman ideas about kings as deity did not influence the translation of the LXX (Septuagint) and were in general not accepted in Jewish thought (though Philo did seem to accept some type of divinity in Augustus). The Jewish idea of the Davidic king as divinely empowered and even preexistent (see Psalm 110), according to Collins, does not show visible signs of influence from the Greco-Roman notions (for example, terms like savior and manifestation, soter, epiphanes, do not show up).

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Filed under: Background to Gospels, Greco-Roman Background, Messiah, Son of God

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