By John Dominic Crossan
The Washington, Post
December 20, 2006
For me, as a Christian, Jesus was and still is the “Son of God” as a transcendental alternative to Caesar as ”Son of God.”
High above the Meander plain, on the mid-Aegean coast of Turkey, lies a broken beam from above the entrance to ancient Priene’s main temple. It proclaims in large Greek letters a dedication to that city’s patron goddess, Athena, but also to the “Autocrat Caesar, the Son of God, the God Augustus.”
Greeks and Romans distinguished between a god who was eternal backwards and forwards – for example, Jupiter – and a deified human, eternal only forwards – for example, Hercules. Romans distinguished those two categories linguistically as deus or dea versus divus or diva. Greeks used the same word for both types of divinity – theos or thea. (And, of course, since the New Testament was written in Greek not Latin, the fully human Jesus is designated there as divine with theos- not divus-language.)
In any case, and by whatever term, the essential job-description of a deified human, of a person raised to divine status was quite clear. Required: major salvific service to the human race.
Deification was usually accorded only after death but Caesar Augustus received it even while he was alive. He was called Divine, Son of God, God, and God from God; Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Why? What service had he rendered the Roman Empire or - as it preferred to style itself - the world, the earth, the human race?
He had brought permanent internal peace to an empire almost wrecked by twenty years of civil war – a nightmarish strife with battle-hardened legions led by predatory warlords on both sides. They even called it Augustan Peace (Pax Augusta) although we usually say Roman Peace (Pax Romana). Roman imperial theology formed around the emperor as divine – and with all those other titles just given - that is, around a human being who had executed fully and incarnated perfectly its core creed of peace through violent victory. In other words, the eternal and imperial creed of all those who cannot distinguish between peace and lull.
Early Christians, with whom I stand as a contemporary Christian, claimed that Jesus was Divine, Son of God, God, and God from God; Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Those titles, taken from a Roman emperor on the Palatine hill and given to a Jewish peasant on the Nazareth ridge, were either low lampoon or high treason.
Since the Romans did not roll over laughing, I trust their judgment that they were deliberate anti-titles. They announced that, not Caesar the Augustus, but Jesus the Christ had incarnated and contributed the fullest transcendental service to the human race. What, then, was that alternative service to the imperial chant of peace through victory? It was the call of peace through justice and that vision came straight from the heart of Judaism.
Jesus’ alternative vision was utterly Jewish even if not every first-century Jew would have agreed with it – not Josephus, for example, nor similar faith-based Roman collaborators. His vision came from the non-violent creation in Genesis 1, from the core of Torah in Leviticus, from the relentless critique of injustice and inequality in the prophets, from the insistence that the world belonged to God in the psalms. It came from God’s opposition to Empire – Egyptian in Exodus, Assyrian in Nahum, Babylonian, Medean, Persian, Greek, and Syrian in Daniel.
Jesus confronted the Empire of Rome with the Kingdom of God and his followers later confronted the Roman emperor as Son of God with the Jewish Jesus as Son of God. Today we may like or dislike their choice of theological language, but we should at least recognize that they proclaim God’s opposition to Empire – Egyptian or Roman, British or American – because of its violent injustice.
Finally, titles of Jesus like Lamb of God, Word of God, and Son of God are relational metaphors. They are not literal but they are real because we humans can only see by seeing-as, that is, metaphorically. But metaphor is never simply Rorschach. It never means just whatever we need or want. It always requires some integrity of interpretation from the constraints of meaning born of time and place, society and culture.
But among those three metaphors, Jesus as Son of God is very special because that was the title of Caesar on coins and inscriptions, statues and structures all over the Mediterranean world at the time of Jesus’ birth. To confess that title of Jesus was to de-confess it of Caesar, that is, to commit your life to peace through justice rather than peace through victory. It still is.