from jesus to christ - the first christians

The Gospel of Rome vs. the Gospel of Jesus Christ:

Two New testament Responses from the Churches Founded by Paul

by Marianne P. Bonz
May 30, 1998, Harvard University


About 75 years before the apostle Paul began proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to the gentiles of the mid-first-century Roman world, Rome had already begun formulating its own gospel and spreading its message to the peoples of the new empire. The small churches that Paul founded were established as communities of a new age–an age inaugurated by Christ’s death and resurrection, an age that would soon reach its fulfillment with Christ’s return. For Paul, the message of the gospel was embodied in the institutional reality of Christian community. And if the Christian gospel had to compete with the gospel of Rome, then these Pauline churches were institutional reflections of that competition.

This essay addresses the challenge posed both by the theological message of the gospel of Rome and by its institutional embodiment in the social and civic organization of the empire. In discussing early Christian responses to these two aspects of rivalry with Rome, I will focus on New Testament writings that were produced in communities originally established by Paul. The most significant response to the theological challenge posed by the gospel of Rome is found in the major New Testament narrative Luke-Acts, whereas the group of letters known collectively as the Pastoral Epistles are an interesting example of a pivotal stage in the church’s response to the social and institutional challenge posed by Rome. Since Luke-Acts was written at the end of the first century and the Pastoral Epistles were probably written a generation after that, these examples reveal something of the dynamic quality of this competition and its historical consequences.

The Gospel of Rome

Our story begins in the last century before the common era. The Greek cities had fallen prey to corrupt Roman administrators and sporadic local insurrections, as the power struggles between rival Roman factions signaled the death of the Roman republic. However, all of the territorial wars and factional infighting that characterized the late Republican era came to an end when Octavian (who, as emperor, assumed the name Augustus) defeated the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. With the advent of the reign of Augustus in 27 BCE, life in the provincial cities of the Greek East became far more stable, and the hope of a prosperous future was far greater than it had been for a very long time. The relief of the subject peoples was immense, and a number of the cities issued decrees honoring the new emperor as the earthly appearance of a benevolent god. One of these inscriptions reads in part: "Providence . . .by producing Augustus [has sent] us and our descendants a Savior, who has put an end to war and established all things. . . ."

Such a response was not without precedent. Since the time of Alexander the Great, the Greeks had been accustomed to giving their rulers divine honors. But, unlike the earlier successors of Alexander the Great, the worship of Augustus was not tied to specific benefactions or civic improvements. Rather, Augustus was worshiped throughout the empire as the savior and benefactor of the entire world, as the one who had rescued the world from the evils of war and chaos. And the proclamation of his heroic deeds and extraordinary benefactions constituted the essence of the new gospel of Rome.

Another thing to keep in mind is that, from the very beginning, the gospel of Rome represented a complete merging of religion and politics. That is to say, the Greek and Roman deities played an important role in support of Roman power. And this role of the gods in support of the ruler also had its origins in Greek custom.

With the exception of a few gods and goddesses who ministered solely to the private needs of individuals, the role of the deities who resided in the clouds above Mt. Olympus was to care for the various aspects of the natural world and of human society. For example, Demeter was the goddess of grain and the harvest, Poseidon ruled over the seas, Athena was the goddess of wisdom, and so on. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that in the fourth century BCE, when a young and dashing Alexander the Great conquered all of the territory from Greece to India and bestowed the gifts of Greek culture and civilization on the barbarian regions under his armies’ control, in the popular mind he became associated with the youthful version of Dionysus–the god who was also believed to have traveled from Greece to India spreading the fruits of cultivation and civilization. Also like the god Dionysus himself, Alexander came to be worshipped as Zeus’s own son.

Centuries later, when Augustus came to power, he claimed the special protection of the god Apollo. Primarily because Apollo was the god of the sun’s light and of prophecy, the poets of the Augustan era depicted this god as one of the heralds of the return of the Golden Age of human prosperity and happiness.

From a purely literary perspective, the most famous and complete expression of Augustan ideology is without doubt Virgil’s Aneid, an epic narrative that casts Augustan achievements as the fulfillment of divine prophecy and Augustan rule as the defining moment of Greco-Roman history. Virgil managed this symbolic appropriation of the Greek past through his incorporation of the legendary figure of Aeneas as the hero of his epic story.

Now, the character of Aeneas goes back to the beginning of Greek literature and the poetry of Homer. Homer’s two great epics the Iliad and the Odysseywere the foundational stories of the Greek peoples. By the dawn of the first century, they had easily achieved the status of sacred texts throughout the Greek world. Aeneas was a relatively minor character in Homer’s Iliad, a Trojan warrior whose life had been spared by the gods before Troy’s destruction. But whereas the Iliadended with the destruction of Troy and the eventual triumph of Greece's favored ancestors, the Achaeans, Virgil’s epic created a dramaticreversal of this earlier explanation of the meaning of history. In Virgil's narrative, it is the Trojan Aeneas who becomes the hero of a new day. The gods, who had previously willed Troy’s destruction, now commission Aeneas to found anew city. Trojans and Latins will join to form a new people blessed by the gods. By Virgil’s clever literary invention, therefore, this later story of Aeneas becomes the surprising new end of the story begun in Homer’s Iliad. Most importantly, viewed from this new perspective, all of Greece’s long and glorious past is reduced to mere prologue for the history of Rome and its rise to world power.

At its most basic level, the Aneid tells the story of the legendary migration of the Trojan hero Aeneas and a faithful remnant of the Trojan people, as they make their way from the ruins of Troy to the shores of Italy. And throughout the narrative, Virgil emphasizes the crucial role of divine guidance, both in establishing the mission of Aeneas and his followers and in enabling them to overcome all obstacles blocking the mission's fulfillment.

In terms of its literary structure, the Aneid is divided into twelve books. The first half draws heavily on themes from Homer’s Odyssey in its narration of Aeneas’s exile and wanderings. The second half is equally influenced by themes from Homer’s Iliad and narrates the hostilities that erupt after Aeneas’s arrival in Italy.

But even though Virgil intentionally narrates his story to show its links with Homeric epic, there are also many elements that are distinctly new. For one thing, the disclosure that Aeneas’s mission is undertaken in obedience to the will of Jupiter and in accordance to the plan of Fate has no parallel in Homer. In the Aneid, the will of Jupiter is stated at the outset of the narrative and in the god’s own voice: "On these people [meaning the future Romans] I place neither boundaries nor periods of empire; I have granted them dominion without end."

Furthermore, Virgil’s epic is consciously structured so that the narrative center of the poem focuses on the grand themes of Aeneas’s lofty mission and its ultimate fulfillment, namely, the restoration of the Golden Age that will be inaugurated by the reign of Augustus. For example, the famous description of Aeneas’s journey to the Underworld, which fills all of Book 6, is the narrative means by which Virgil presents the first of the poem’s two great prophetic visions. In the blissful groves of Elysium, where the shades of the virtuous dead reside, Aeneas meets his father, Anchises, who imparts the divine revelation of a glorious Roman future. This revelation takes the form of an awesome parade of heroes, the famous leaders of Roman history–whose future existence depends on the successful outcome of Aeneas’s mission.

And, of course, the most illustrious among this collection of future Roman leaders is Augustus himself. He is described as son of a god, the second founder of Rome, and the leader who will reestablish the Golden Age and extend his empire beyond the boundaries of the civilized world. In other words, Augustus is the historical fulfillment of the divine prophecy revealed by Jupiter–the prophecy from which I quoted a few minutes ago.

As this prophetic scene from the Aeneidso dramatically attests, explaining Rome’s rise in human history and its role in the cosmic order was the underlying purpose of this great poem of the Augustan age. At the emperor’s behest, Virgil had created a powerful and appealing foundational epic–truly, Rome’s own great salvation history. Although Virgil had made use of a number of earlier sources, the Aneid represented a profoundly new epic of national origins and eschatological promise in which not only the future rule of Augustus and his descendants, but the entire history of Rome was portrayed as one of heroic struggle, culminating in predestined triumph and universal salvation. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the Aeneid became the definitive literary embodiment of the gospel of Rome.


But what sort of influence, if indeed any, did this powerful promulgation of the gospel of Rome exert on the writings of the New Testament? For one particularly important answer, I turn to Luke-Acts. As many of you are now aware, the vast majority of New Testament scholars believes that Luke’s Gospel and Acts of the Apostles were not only written by the same author but are really two halves of the same work. Taken together, Luke-Acts is really an extraordinary writing within the disparate collection of writings that make up the New Testament canon. First of all, it is unusually long, taking up fully one-third of the entire New Testament. Secondly, despite its conscious incorporation of many older biblical themes and its heavy flavoring of traditional biblical linguistic style, Luke-Acts is the most Greco-Roman of all the major New Testament works, both in its relatively sophisticated Greek phrasing and in its overall literary style. Third, Luke-Acts is full of colorful descriptive detail, high adventure, and a carefully constructed narrative plot.

So who was the author of Luke-Acts and what was he trying to do in composing this unusual departure from New Testament literary norms? As is the case with many New Testament authors, the identity of the author of Luke-Acts is unknown, and both the date and the location of his composition remain open to speculation. But it is generally agreed that Luke-Acts was written between 90—100 CE, in a community originally founded by Paul, and probably located in or near the important city of Ephesus, which is situated on the Aegean coast of modern Turkey.

By the end of the first century, the Christian proclamation was beginning to meet with some success, particularly among the more pious inhabitants of the Greek-speaking provinces of the Roman empire. In fact, so surprising was this success that, writing just a few years later, in his capacity as acting governor of the province of Pontus and Bithynia, the younger Pliny found it necessary to consult with the emperor concerning the social and economic problems caused by extensive local Christian conversions (Pliny, Ep. 10.96.9—10).

Equally as stunning as the progress of the Christian mission among Gentiles, however, was the finality of the rupture of Christianity with its religious past. The definitive break with Israel, probably occurring as early as the late eighties for some early Christian communities, coupled with the continued growth of the gospel among Gentiles, greatly intensified the need to define Christian identity and to affirm the status of the new community as the true Israel.

It now appearsthat Luke’s solution to the historic problems presented to the predominantly Gentile Christian communities of his generation was remarkably similar to that applied by Virgil to the problems and challenges of Augustan society. That is to say, just as Virgil had created his foundational epic for the Roman people by appropriating and transforming the works of Homer, so also did Luke create his foundational epic for the early Christian churches by appropriating and transforming the sacred traditions of Israel’s past. In Luke’s two-part narrative, the story of Jesus and the birth of the church become the surprising and miraculous fulfillment of God’s long history with Israel. That Luke should ground his presentation of Christian origins within the context of ancient Jewish biblical traditions is, of course, what one would expect. But what is somewhat surprising is the degree to which Luke adapted his presentation to imitate the narrative style and accommodate some of the artistic forms commonly associated with contemporary Roman epic.

In fact, with the important exception of its lack of poetic form, Luke’s narrative incorporated a number of the stylistic and dramatic devices characteristic of Greco-Roman epic in general and the Aneid and its literary successors in particular. Like the Aeneid and other epics of this period, Luke-Acts is structured in two parts (that is, the mission of Jesus and that of his followers). And, like the Aneid and other epics of the period, it is the central section of Luke-Acts (that is, the final chapters of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning chapters of Acts) that contains the most essential elements of Luke’s religious message (that is, the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and the birth of the church). It is around this central religious core that Luke arranges the rest of his narrative. Also like the Aeneid and other epics of this period, the plot of Luke-Acts is structured around a central action, in the form of a divinely-ordered mission.

Another important similarity to the Aeneid is that the accomplishment of the mission involves the pervasive use of divine guidance and supernatural intervention. Now, at first glance it may not seem remarkable that a gospel writer should incorporate the pervasive use of the supernatural into his narrative. But if you look closely at the narratives of Mark, Matthew, and John, you will see that supernatural beings are of relatively little consequence. By contrast, in Luke-Acts supernatural beings are rather important. And particularly in Acts, angels actually participate in the narrative action–much as gods and goddesses do in epics such as the Aeneid.

In Acts 5, for example, when the apostles have been thrown into prison by the Jerusalem authorities, an angel opens the prison doors, brings the disciples out, and tells them where to go next and even what to say (Acts 5:19—20). In chapter 8, an angel also supplies the apostle Philip with traveling directions. When Peter is thrown into prison by Herod in chapter 12, an angel enters his cell, removes his chains, tells him to rise and dress and then instructs the apostle to follow him as he weaves his way past guards and through an iron city gate (Acts 12:7—10). Furthermore, angels not only rescue the good, they also punish the wicked; king Herod is killed by an angel in Acts 12 as divine punishment for having put Peter in prison. Luke’s use of angels as agents from heaven who rather routinely descend to earth to guide human events illustrates his adoption of a literary convention that, outside of Luke-Acts, can only be found in the great epics of Greece and imperial Rome.

Above all, Luke appears to have been inspired by Virgil in his presentation of the church as the natural and, indeed, the only legitimate successor to ancient Israel. Seizing upon the divine origins of the Trojan people, long established in legend, Virgil’s epic extends those claims to encompass Rome and its inhabitants. The promise of ancient Troy reaches its fulfillment in the creation of the Roman people, just as, in Luke’s narrative, the promise of ancient Israel reaches its fulfillment in the establishment and growth of the Christian church.

That Luke intended to present a definitively different interpretation of the Christian message is indicated by the wording of the prologue of his gospel. Although acknowledging his indebtedness to earlier written sources concerning Jesus, Luke invites the reader to make a determination concerning the validity of the Christian claim based upon Luke’s own ordering or interpretation "concerning the events that have come to fulfillment among us." At the center of Luke’s theological reflections is the conviction that the divine solution for human salvation involvesnot just the death of the beloved son but also the rebirth of the people of God. And in his emphasis on the formation of the Christian people, Luke is not only seeking to define the true Israel in contrast to rival visions of Israel. Luke is also affirming that this new Israel is the true historical fulfillment of the authentic and authoritative prophecies of the one and only God. Thus, Virgil’s Aeneid, with its alternative vision of prophecy and history culminating in Roman rule, is the literary model Luke seeks to imitate. And in this case, imitation is not a sincere form of flattery so much as a profound expression of rivalry.

The Pastoral Epistles

If Luke-Acts may be taken as the most eloquent response to the challenge of Rome by the Pauline mission of the second generation, I will end my presentation with a rather oblique but nonetheless historically important response to the rivalry as it existed a generation later, sometime during the reign of Hadrian, the time period in which many scholars place the writing of the so-called Pastoral Epistles (that is, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus). Tradition attributes all of these letters to Paul himself, and at least one well-known New Testament scholar has recently argued that these letters should be considered genuine. There are, however, a number of formidable reasons for believing that these particular letters were written a good deal later than the original Pauline correspondence.

The Church Hierarchy One of the strongest arguments for concluding that the Pastoral Epistles were not written by Paul and indeed were not written until sometime in the second century is that these letters reflect the beginnings of church institutional organization and a hierarchy of church offices that was simply unknown in first-century Pauline communities. (See diagram, "The Church Hierarchy..."). This is especially evident in the letters known as 1 Timothy and Titus, which devote a great amount of space to defining a proper social order and behavioral codes to be followed within Christian communities.

Christian HouseholdNow, the hierarchical social order depicted in the lower pyramid (the "Christian Household" diagram) simply reflects the general cultural norm of Greco-Roman antiquity, and its acceptance by the churches established by Paul is explicitly stated already in the late first-century letters to the Colossians and Ephesians.

But the hierarchy depicted in the upper pyramid is a hierarchy of church organization not developed to this degree in the churches of the first century. 1 Timothy discusses in some detail the criteria for selecting bishops (1 Tim 3:1f.), deacons (1 Tim 3:8f.), and women who serve as deacons (1 Tim 3:11f.). It also recommends extra compensation for elders, who stand at the top of the local church hierarchy and for widows who lead lives of exemplary piety. An even more important clue to the progressive development of church organization is provided in the letter to Titus, which implies that bishops are selected from among the pool of qualified church elders within a given city–one Christian bishop for each provincial city (Tit 1:5—7). If this inference is correct, it is very significant from a developmental standpoint because, since most cities would have more than one local Christian church, the bishop of a given city would have jurisdiction over several local congregations. Thus we begin to see in the Pastoral Epistles the rudimentary development of a church organization that transcends local, purely parochial concerns.

Another distinctive element of these letters is their emphasis on the importance of sound doctrine and their appeal to the authority of a tradition that now includes Paul as an important element of the treasured past. Although the precise details of this so-called sound doctrine are never actually spelled out within the letters, its spirit and essence appears to be in general agreement with the philosophical and ethical norms of Roman imperial times.

Now, most of the interpreters of the Pastoral Epistles agree that their concentration on institutional structures and their corresponding emphasis on proper doctrine reflect the fact that the primary problem that the early Christian writer of these letters is addressing is an internal problem of heresy. Be they Gnostics, followers of Marcion, or just radical Pauline ascetics, we can infer that the author’s various Christian opponents lead social and religious lifestyles that tend to call attention to themselves vis a vis the wider Greco-Roman society. And from the author’s perspective, the one thing that the churches do not need is to call attention to themselves. According to 1 Timothy, for example, the churches should respect the imperial authorities, even say prayers in the form of intercessions and thanksgivings on the emperor’s behalf, in order that Christians may be left in peace (1 Tim 2:1—2).

And in fact, throughout most of the second century Christians were generally ignored by the governing authorities of the empire. These relatively peaceful times allowed the Christian movement to take firm root and to grow. In the viewpoint of the author of the letters, therefore, benign neglect by the governing authorities is a good thing. But does it necessarily follow that the Pastoral Epistles express only or even primarily accommodation with the religious values and social institutions of the empire? Do they reflect complete passivity to the powerful theological and political challenge posed by Rome that I described to you earlier? The answer to this question appears to be an emphatic "no," and in the few minutes remaining I would like to explain why.

The Pastoral Epistles clearly reflect the Pauline communities in a period of historical transition in which, as one New Testament scholar points out, the legacy of Paul is being disputed and fought over by various groups of Christians–all of whom claim the great apostle as their authority. Furthermore, I think it must be conceded that from a theological as well as from a social perspective the Pastoral Epistles clearly represent the conservative side of the Pauline tradition. The ideal of Christian citizenship expressed in the Pastoral Epistles is tonot make waves, and to lead a life of undisturbed piety.

However, the urging of prayers for the ruling authorities in 1 Timothy is immediately followed by affirmations that there is just one God and just one mediator between God and human beings, namely Jesus Christ (1Tim 2:5). This statement, together with further affirmations elsewhere in the letter that Jesus is the blessed and only sovereign, the king of kings and lord of lords, and that both immortality and dominion belong to him and him alone leave very little room for accommodation with the social and political structures of imperial society. Therefore–and this is an important point sometimes overlooked–even for the author of the Pastorals, Christian piety means exclusion from the celebrations and civic rituals of the elite social and administrative structures of the empire. For as we have seen, these institutional structures were permeated with both implicit and explicit affirmations of the existence and power of the Olympian gods andwith the claims of imperial Rome to be the divinely ordained recipient of that power.

Hence, among the Pauline communities represented by the author of the Pastoral Epistles, the solution to this impasse with the empire is to strengthen and expand the institutional structures of the church. Illustrated within these letters is the beginning of the institutionalization of a kind of state within a State. The developing hierarchy of church offices, the establishing of criteria for both the giving and receiving of Christian charity, the assignment of roles of service for every level of membership within the church–all of these aspects of developing community formation correspond to analogous structures within the social organization of the empire. But this correspondance–to the extent that it may be seen as a form of imitation–is much more an expression of rivalry than of accommodation.

In the Pastoral Epistles, individual Christian communities may no longer resemble the utopian alternatives to secular social organization that Paul appears to have favored. But then Paul believed that what he termed "the present evil age" would soon be swept away by Christ’s return in glory. What we see in the Pastoral Epistles is a more realistic appreciation of the durability of the imperial system and the corresponding recognition that effective allegience to the Christian king meant the establishment of a fully functioning institutional alternative to the social and political structures of the imperial commonwealth.

As we have already seen, the social and political order of the empire rested on two fundamental assumptions: one, that Rome had achieved its virtually unlimited earthly domain at the will of the gods; and two, that the emperor was the divinely chosen agent of Zeus himself, the human manifestation of divine protection of and authority over the civilized world. That is why the struggle between the Christian gospel and the gospel of Rome inevitably became a political struggle for the governing power of the empire itself. And the New Testament writings Luke-Acts and the Pastoral Epistles illuminate critical junctures in a rivalry that could only end in complete victory or unconditional surrender.

Read more on the Gospel of Luke in this essay by Marilyn Mellowes.

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published april 1998

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