Graduation Year

2004

Document Type

Thesis

Degree

M.A.

Degree Granting Department

Religious Studies

Major Professor

Strange, James

Keywords

Christology, theology, imperialism, religion

Abstract

Long before the writings of the New Testament gospels, where Jesus was being proclaimed as the Son of God, and Savior, the world existing under the influences of Hellenism resulting from the conquests by Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, had already been well acquainted with and expected to hear certain symbolic language in determining titles for their divine ruler the emperor. Living within a cosmological framework, i.e., a sacred cosmos, the citizens of the empire accepted the emperor as the manifestation of divinity in the world. This belief existed for centuries prior to Christianity as a reality that was taken for granted. In fact, this belief system was never questioned until the time of the emperor Constantine, during the middle of the fourth century C.E. (MacMullen, 85)

The Julio-Claudian dynasty, beginning with the reign of Julius Caesar in the year 62 BCE, through the end of the Flavian Dynasty, beginning with the emperor Vepasian in 69 CE through the year 117 CE, will be the timeframe of this work. It represents the period of time when the writers of the Synoptic gospels were writing their accounts of the life of Jesus and also for those writing for and about the imperial court reporting on the lives of the emperors. The geographical location in this work will include the territories of the Mediterranean regions, since this was where the extant texts used in this study originated. This particular time period in and around the area of the Mediterranean was commonly referred to as the early Roman Empire. Within the empire, a worldview that influenced and shaped a belief that the emperor as understood in terms of divinity were already well-established beliefs in the minds of the people.

Living within a worldview shaped by imperial theology,the writers of the Synoptic gospels would borrow the existing symbolic language already in use by the imperialistic writers in their legitimating of the emperor as a divine representative of the gods on earth, and then apply these same terms in legitimating Jesus as the Son of God. My purpose is not to ignore the Jewishness of the gospel texts, since it is quite obvious that Jewish symbols appear throughout all of the gospel, indicating that members of the existing community of Jews are presenting these writings. However, I am suggesting that the Jewish community living in the Mediterranean area during the period of empire building existed as a minority culture. Hellenism and a Roman imperialistic form of government, which was dominating and oppressing the majority of the membership of the community including the Jews, shaped the prevailing social milieu of the empire.

In my thesis, I will support the work of these scholars by showing how Hellenistic and Roman traditions, alongside of Jewish traditions, shaped the way in which these writers attempted to legitimate Jesus as the Christ. Furthermore, I will argue that the existing symbols already established within a Roman imperial theology were used to legitimate the superiority of the emperor as ordained through the will of the gods, and as an object of favor by the gods. In other words, imperial theology would support a belief that the emperor and the gods were in special relationship. This ideology will develop through the Julio-Claudian and will also prevail in the minds of the believers through the early years of the Flavian Dynasty. By the middle of the Flavian period, the emperor will be perceived as the sole representative of a sovereign, father/god whose main function will be to unite the people as one community under one god.

Meanwhile, the writers of the Synoptics will borrow these same symbols used under imperialism in their own search for meaning in a world oppressed by Roman authority. These writers will also assign power to Jesus, with the purpose of legitimating him as the sole representative of the one, sovereign god over all people. Writers such as Cassius Dio (40-110 CE), Suetonius (69-140 CE) and Tacitus (54-117 CE) historians reporting on the lives of the emperor from this period will be presented as examples of the view that existed within Roman imperialism. These writers and the writers of the Synoptics were, perhaps, writing in reaction to one another's claims in defining their heroes in terms of divinity. I am also suggesting that the symbols used by all of these writers understand the purpose of their hero-figures in terms of power.

The writers of the gospels will claim to have the ultimate word, in their effort to override the old political/religious system found within imperial theology and replace it with a new form of power offered by their hero-figure, Jesus of Nazareth. This new ideology sought to legitimate not only Jesus in terms of power, but also assigned power to the marginal members of society. The terminology that the gospel writers used in legitimating Jesus as the Son of God is understood as the Christology of the gospels in this work.

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