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Son of God in Roman World

In this series of articles we have been trying to take a look at the message of the New Testament from the eyes of the people alive in the first century. We have been asking the question: what would the apostles message sounded like to the average Jew and Roman. In the last article we noticed that the gospel of peace would have an additional message beyond what the 21st century mind would recognize. While the gospel of peace was the message of the reconciliation of the sinner to God, it also implied the celebratory news of a conquering emperor subjecting the world unto him. Christ, of course, is the conquering king of the whole earth. In this article, I would like for us to look at the implication and significance of teaching Jesus to be the Son of God.

Roman context

The Romans spoke about the gods in a unique way. The Latin word deus was the word used to refer to the traditional Roman gods. A living Roman emperor was never called deus. But we know the emperors thought of themselves as gods and called themselves gods. But they used a different Latin word divus. At first, this word was assigned to an emperor after his death, but over time was used for the living emperors. While this convention was useful for the Romans in Latin, the common person in the empire did not speak Latin. Greek was the language of the common person. The Greek language has no distinction for the word “god” like the Latin does. In the Greek, the only word to use for “god” is theos.

I believe we can immediately see the problem that would arise when the emperors would demand recognition as a god. While the Roman emperors did not refer to themselves as theos when they communicated in Greek, the rest of the world did. For a Christian to speak of theos would be an obvious reference to the true Creator. But to the Greeks, the word theos had no such significance. In fact, they would speak of the emperor as theos. By using this word, the people were acknowledging that the emperor had a certain kind of divine power. Further, the assembly of the province of Asia marked on the calendar “the birthday of the god,” and decided that in the games “a crown be awarded to the one suggesting the greatest honors for the god.” In both cases, the references to “the god” are references to Augustus Caesar.

The conflict

While the Latin had a word to place the emperors as divine, but not to the level of their traditional gods, this was completely lost in the Greek. The common and official title of Augustus Caesar in Greek documents was “Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of god.” An inscription from Pergamum refers to Augustus as “The Emperor Caesar, son of god, Augustus, ruler of all land and sea.”

This issue was part of the issue the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus with concerning the question of taxes. In Matthew 22:15-22 we read about the conflict. Jesus asks a denarius to be brought to him and asks, “Whose image and inscription is this?” We recognize that the image on the coin was Tiberius Caesar and Jesus then say to give to Caesar what is Caesars. But what did the inscription say? On the front, the coin said “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” The reverse side of the coin read “Greatest Priest.” But that is how it was inscribed in Latin. In Greek, Tiberius coins and inscriptions read theou huios (“son of the god”). Note with special emphasis that Tiberius put the word “god” before the word “son” in his inscriptions and coins.

Jesus, Son of God

This background sets the stage for understanding the impact of Jesus teaching and the apostles teaching. As you may know, the synoptic gospels were written to three different audiences. Matthew was written to a Jewish audience and Luke was written to a Greek audience. But the gospel of Mark was for a Roman audience. Notice how Marks gospel begins: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Remember in our last lesson that the word “gospel” in a Roman context spoke of the celebration and joy concerning news about the emperor. Therefore, Marks gospel opens declaring the beginning of the celebratory news of the emperor, Jesus, the divine. We must see how the apostles message was adversarial to the minds of imperial Rome. Tiberius declared himself to be emperor, son of Augustus, the divine one. Jesus declares himself to emperor or ruler, son of God, the divine one.

Matthew also seems to impress this comparison in his gospel. Matthew 14:22-33 records Jesus walking on water. Peter comes out of the boat and also begins to walk on the water toward Jesus. After Peters failure, Jesus and Peter get in the boat and the winds cease. “Then those in the boat worshipped Him and said, “Truly You are the Son of God! (theos huios)” (Matthew 14:33). As the crowds are shouting out to Jesus on the cross, they said, “He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, “I am the Son of God ” (Matthew 27:43). The crowd challenges Jesus to show himself to be the theos huios, the Son of God.

But even more impressive to me is the Roman centurion who is witness to all the events of Jesus. His confession should shake us now that we understand the Roman mind of saying these words, “Truly this was the Son of God! (theos huios)” (Matthew 27:54). This Roman centurion had seen enough to know that Jesus was the real Son of God. We are impressed with the first century disciples who would preach a message that was counter imperial to the empire and declare Jesus to be the true ruler of the world.