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Was Jesus Divine? Part Two
The Other Son of God
Last week I began a series that responds to the question, “Was Jesus the divine Son of God or just a human being?” The first post focused on the understanding of the title “Son of God” through the lens of Judaism. What we discovered is that, in the text and tradition, “Son of God” wasn’t a reference to biology but function. It wasn’t a claim that, if we somehow could test Jesus’s DNA that the result would come back as “God is the father” (this scenario is obviously playing out on the Maury Povich show). The application of the title “Son of God” meant that the person attached to it was the rightful Davidic king. The implications of applying this title to an itinerate Jewish teacher who was proclaiming another kind of kingdom under Roman rule, are fairly obvious. It would be treasonous to say the least.
In this post I want to explore more of the Roman context, and how the title “Son of God” would be heard through the filter of Roman Imperial Theology—which is vital for seeing a more complete picture of what it meant for this title to be applied to Jesus by his followers. Let’s begin here: When Jesus’s followers pronounced him to be “Son of God” the job wasn’t open. There were no vacancies. The Roman world already had that position filled by the reigning Roman Emperor. Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus was already the Son of God.
How did he get that job? I’m glad you asked.
To explain Tiberius’s occupation of that role, we have to go all the way back to March 15, 44 BCE. It was on that day, the Ides of March, that Julius Caesar, the dictator of Rome, was assassinated. Several months later, during some games held in his honor, his nephew and adopted heir Octavian declared him to be divine. In his “The Twelve Caesars,” Suetonius writes:
[Julius Caesar] died in the fifty-sixth year of his age, and was ranked amongst the Gods, not only by a formal decree, but in the belief of the vulgar. For during the first games which Augustus, his heir, consecrated to his memory, a comet blazed for seven days together, rising always about eleven o'clock; and it was supposed to be the soul of Caesar, now received into heaven: for which reason, likewise, he is represented on his statue with a star on his brow.
Julius Caesar had died, but after death he ascended to the Gods in heaven, making him a God himself. He would officially be the first Roman deified by the Senate two years later, in 42 BCE, but he was considered divine by the Roman populace after the events of 44 BCE.
If Julius Caesar was now a God, what does that make his son and heir, Octavian?
Divi filius. Son of the deified one. Son of God.
In the eastern provinces of the empire Augustus was considered divine in his lifetime, but he would officially join his father in achieving the status of Godhood, being deified in 14 CE, upon his death.
When Augustus died he was succeeded by his stepson, Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus. Or, the Son of God. It said so on coins and in inscriptions. Tiberius reigned from 14-37 CE, which means he is the Caesar that is mentioned during Jesus’s public ministry in the Gospels. After his death he, unlike Augustus before him, was not deified. Son of God was as high as he climbed on the divinity ladder.
With this context in mind, for Jesus’s followers to proclaim him as the “Son of God” would have been a counterclaim to that of Caesar and Roman Imperial Theology. As through the Jewish lens, in which “Son of God” would be a claim that Jesus is the rightful Davidic king, through the Roman lens this title would mean that Jesus, not Caesar, was “Lord,” and the one whose vision should shape the world. This conflict is encapsulated in a provocative scene from Mark’s Gospel, when, at Jesus’s death, a Roman centurion makes a shocking statement:
Now when the centurion who stood facing him saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39, NRSVue)
Can you imagine the gasps when people first read these words? A Roman centurion—who I presume played a role in the execution of Jesus—proclaims the crucified Jesus as “truly the Son of God.” Death by crucifixion was one of the most shameful and humiliating ways to die. The crucified person was publicly displayed in defeat and total domination. To be crucified was to be exposed as weak, as a failure. And this centurion sees in this moment, Jesus’s last breath while hanging on the cross, a revelation of what it means to be Son of God? What is going on here?
First, I hope the implications of a Roman solider calling Jesus the “true Son of God” are evident. This isn't a claim about Jesus's DNA. He's not declaring Jesus the second person of the Trinity. He's saying something far more bold: Caesar is an imposter and is being relieved of his duties. If Jesus is the Son, then Caesar isn’t. Further, this is a statement about whose vision and program for the world should be followed and implemented. Remember, Mark is writing around the year 70 CE. He likely crafted his story during or right after Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by Rome. Could Mark’s point be that Jesus’s nonviolence, his program of compassion and justice, is the way? That adopting Caesar’s method of “making a desert and calling it peace”1 would always end with pain and destruction? After all, you can't out Caesar Caesar.
Perhaps this scene sums up what Mark has been offering to his readers. This is the choice: Which Son of God will you follow? Whose way will you commit to? How will the world be transformed: through violence, domination, and retributive justice or through nonviolence, compassion, and restorative justice?
As I look at what Christianity has become over the past two thousand years, it seems we have far too often chosen Caesar. Or, worse, we have attempted to transform Jesus into Caesar. Our desire for power over, wealth, and control cannot coexist with the vision of Jesus, so we have discarded the program of the prophet from Nazareth, and embraced instead the methods of Caesar. How tragically ironic it is that we have largely missed what this Roman centurion understood: Caesar’s way, even wrapped in Christian dogma and doctrine, cannot heal the world. We have been offended by the scandal of the cross, that God is found at work among one who looks so weak and defeated. Caesar looks powerful and in control. Too often, we have traded the former for the latter.
One other interesting contrast between Jesus and Caesar as Son of God is how they came to the role. One became divine in the Roman world by the vote of the senate. You were essentially elected into divinity. Jesus, however, is divine by proclamation of God, which means that God has surveyed the options/vision for how the world should be ordered, and They chose Jesus’s vision over Caesar’s. May we do the same.
Next week in part three we’ll ask the question “When did Jesus become God’s Son?” The answers according to the New Testament might surprise you.