Powerful Sons Were Adopted Sons: A Roman Imperial Perspective

To read Mark as having some general connection to Rome is not a novel idea, but new and surprising interpretations do emerge when specific aspects of Roman culture and ideology are emphasized. Through analysis of archaeological and textual remains, I argue that, whether located in Rome or elsewhere in the Empire, Mark’s narrative characterization of Jesus can be justifiably construed in the light of Roman imperial ideology. Regardless of exactly where Mark began to narrate the Son of God, he was doing so in the Empire governed by the other “god” and “son of god,” the emperor who had even begun to be worshipped by some in Palestine itself.

See Also: The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in Its Social and Political Context (Oxford University Press, 2011).

By Michael Peppard
Assistant Professor of Theology
Fordham University
December 2012

In the past decade or so, the fields of New Testament and early Christianity have grown prolific new scholarship on the Roman Empire. In many cases the worship of the emperor, as it is now understood, has invited fresh comparisons to the worship of Jesus Christ. Some scholars have assessed the relationship of early Christianity to the Roman emperor and imperial ideology through text-specific studies on the Gospels, the epistles, or Revelation, asking how particular texts have resisted or accommodated the demands of Empire. Other scholars have addressed a certain topic or theme that spans different texts and centuries, such as the titles or narratives shared by Jesus Christ and the emperor, conceptions of the imperial family and the Christian family, and the relationship between imperial power structures and Christian communal self-understanding. Yet despite this excellent work, which brings the historical fact of emperor worship to bear on diverse aspects of early Christianity, the most obvious connection between the Roman emperor and Jesus Christ had (in my estimation) still yet to be analyzed in detail: the imperial “son of god” title has been often noted but rarely analyzed.

According to standard encyclopedic resources, the origin of the “son of god” title in the Roman Empire was simply explained. Julius Caesar was considered divine during his lifetime by some and was, in any case, declared a god of the Roman state—divus Iulius—after his assassination. During the ensuing battle for power with Mark Antony, Octavian (later “Augustus”) used his status as Caesar’s son to bolster his legitimacy—a status that Antony had desired for himself. Octavian was therefore able to call himself, and was called, divi filius or “son of god.” This claim of continuity with Caesar was sufficient to rouse troops and public support for the defeat of his rivals and consolidation of imperial powers. So goes the handbook version, and it is correct, as far as it goes. But my recent book, The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in Its Social and Political Context,1 asks many further questions: Why did Octavian choose this particular claim to portray his legitimacy? To what social mores was he appealing? Did it matter that he was not a biological son of Caesar, but an adopted son? Within what matrix of cultural practices was that intelligible? After Augustus, how did divine sonship propagate through later emperors?

To state this more boldly, I claim that many New Testament scholars have a blind spot the size of the Roman emperor. To be “son of god” in the Roman Empire, in the time period under consideration, meant primarily to be the son of the emperor. Divine sons and daughters were otherwise always sons and daughters of a particular named deity, such as Zeus, Hermes, or Apollo. The imperial use of “son of God” (θεοῦ υἱός in Greek titulature) is crucially important because of its rarity as a title for an individual combined with its wide dissemination as a title used by the emperor. For this imperial sonship, both begetting and adoption functioned to grant legitimacy, though in different modes. Both had resonance in a Roman understanding of father-son relations. Most scholars, however, have focused almost exclusively on natural, begotten, dynastic relationships in the study of Roman imperial ideology; my research sheds light on the role of adoption in that ideology. For Augustus, the first famous “son of God,” the different expressions of divine sonship were mutually beneficial.

For the other famous “son of God,” the situation was surprisingly similar. In the first century, before the philosophically rooted conception of divine sonship became the standard, Jesus’ status as “son of God” was grounded in multiple claims: there were dynastic considerations in depicting him as a son of David, who himself was a royal son of God; his miraculous infancy and childhood narratives suggested a divine begottenness from birth; and his baptismal, transfiguration, and resurrection experiences suggested an adult divine election or adoption for diverse authors. Yet it is not surprising that a concept as challenging to grasp as divine sonship should be expressed in diverse, and even mutually exclusive, ways. One ancient scholar, well known for grappling with the concept of divine sonship, expressed the tension of the begotten/made distinction in these words: “concerning subjects that are obscure, and which require advancement toward understanding, often not only different but even contradictory demonstrations can become clarifications of the things sought for.” The source of this quotation is Athanasius, who favorably excerpted these words while defending a colleague’s beliefs about the divine sonship of Jesus Christ. Even Athanasius himself, champion of Nicene orthodoxy par excellence, acknowledged the complexity of portraying divine sonship.

When one investigates father-son relationships in the Roman family, one finds a strong emphasis on inheritance and transmission of power. Despite the appearance of smooth patrilineal transitions, Roman familial and political succession exhibited a tension between meritocratic and dynastic ideologies. However, the Romans had a technique at their disposal—the adoption of adult men—that enabled the different ideologies of succession to coexist for hundreds of years. To read a list of powerful Roman men is necessarily to read a list of adopted Roman men: Scipio Africanus the Younger, Caesar Augustus, Tiberius, Germanicus, Gaius Caligula, Nero, Pliny the Younger, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, and Constantius I, to name only the most famous.

In law, rhetoric, and social practice, adoption was a crucial technique for sustaining the peculiarly Roman perspective on fathers and sons, in which every Roman was under the patria potestas or “paternal power” of the eldest male in the family. Adopted sons were chosen for the job and then assimilated into new families as natural sons through text and image. An adopted son became literally “affiliated” with his adoptive family. In the early principate, Romans began to live not only under the potestas of their proximate fathers, but also under the emperor, who was pater patriae—the “father of the fatherland.” Substantial cultural changes were necessitated by refashioning the entire Empire as a large family under the emperor. Over time the consistent use of adoption as a method of imperial succession, of transmitting power from father to son, could not help but become a kind of ideal in the Empire. Regardless of whether such adoptions were private or public in their ceremony, they were highly publicized through coins, portraits, texts, and tales. The Empire was a family, after all, and the family needed to know what was going on at the top. Whether Augustus, Nero, Trajan, or Hadrian, adopted sons such as these were “affiliated” into their roles and Roman observers accepted them as “natural” members of the ruling “dynasty.”

From these social realities, the scholar of early Christianity can carry the following conclusions into his or her work: In the Roman worldview, sonship did not primarily point backward to begetting, but forward to inheritance, often through the medium of adoption. For emperors, this observation is especially crucial, since these “fathers” of the Empire had no small trouble propagating their family lines through natural begetting. These divine fathers usually had to adopt their divine sons. Therefore, the transmission of power from a powerful father to a powerful son necessitates an understanding of the competing family ideologies of natural (“begotten”) sons and adopted (“made”) sons. My research further shows that scholarship on divine sonship has been hampered by mistaken assumptions about adopted sons. Far from being second-class family members, they were pivotal and often favored. The adoption of adult males helped to stabilize or expand ruling families and formed a key part of imperial ideology. When read in the light of Roman social practices, emperor worship, and imperial ideology, several early Christian texts take on new meaning. We can hear new resonances in the same old texts.

One of these “same old texts” is the Gospel of Mark, which has long been linked to Rome and has sometimes been read in connection with Roman political ideology. My research demonstrates the ways in which Mark’s image of Jesus and his followers interacts with that of the Roman emperor and the imperial family. To read Mark as having some general connection to Rome is not a novel idea, but new and surprising interpretations do emerge when specific aspects of Roman culture and ideology are emphasized. Through analysis of archaeological and textual remains, I argue that, whether located in Rome or elsewhere in the Empire, Mark’s narrative characterization of Jesus can be justifiably construed in the light of Roman imperial ideology. Regardless of exactly where Mark began to narrate the Son of God, he was doing so in the Empire governed by the other “god” and “son of god,” the emperor who had even begun to be worshipped by some in Palestine itself.

Traditional interpretations of Mark in the context of early Judaism are not dismissed in my reading, but it asks rather: How would a listener more attuned to Roman culture than the Jewish scriptures have understood this short baptismal narrative? What connections and conclusions might that listener have made concerning the identity of Jesus? The practice of adoption in the political ideology leading up to Mark’s era allows us to re-imagine his Christology in unexpected ways. Reading the baptism of Jesus through the lens of imperial ideology encourages one to see the baptismal voice as a kind of adoption, the beginning of Jesus’ accession as a counter-emperor. The dove is interpreted as an omen and counter-symbol to the Roman eagle, which was a public portent of divine favor and ascension to imperial power. Finally, the adoptive relationship, which can be traced later in the Gospel, also relates to the divine sonship offered by God to all people through the Spirit. I contend, though, that the supposedly “low” connotations of such adoptive sonship are a misconstrual of ancient evidence. Using the concept of “colonial mimicry,” I argue that the baptism, transfiguration, and passion narrative—the end of which culminates in a postmortem declaration of divine sonship by a representative of the Roman army—articulate a vision of Jesus’ power that subverts Roman political power even while relying upon its symbolic grammar.

In the end, reading Mark from the perspective of Roman adoption and imperial ideology allows us to see the ingenuity of Mark’s theological mind. Faced with an unprecedented challenge—narrating the divine sonship of a human being in relation to a God that did not procreate—Mark articulated a model of sonship that was theologically coherent and also resonated in his cultural context. It is true that Mark’s Christology could aptly be labeled “low” according to the terms of later Christologies, which were heavily influenced by philosophical categories. But viewed in the social and political ideology of its time period—a view of the cosmos more widely held than the Platonist philosophy which inspired Nicea—Mark’s Christology was as high as humanly possible. The Roman emperor, the most powerful person in the world, gained his sonship by adoption. If Mark was crafting a narrative that presents Jesus to Roman listeners as a counter-emperor, the authoritative son of God, then adoption was the most effective method of portraying his divine sonship.



1 Excerpts and summary of contents used by permission. http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/

Comments (2)

A couple of questions - not hostile, just probing.
Your list of noteworthy Romans who were adopted sons comes mainly from the imperial period and would include people who were not much admired. Is that sufficient evidence for an ideology of adoption that might have influenced Mark?
The adoptive relationship between the older and the younger Caesar (Augustus) was of questionable legality or at least innovative, since it was done by the adoptive father's will. The moral justification was perhaps summed up in Virgil' 'tu nunc eris alter ab illo', with its various implications of loss, continuation, an even better performance in the next generation. I can see how this fits a situation where one human being has achieved apotheosis and wants to hand things on. Not so easy to see how it fits emotionally or symbolically with a more transcendent deity whose own presence in the world never falters.
The extent of childlessness among Roman emperors is indeed remarkable. Partly a matter of accident, partly perhaps a matter of preference - the Senate went when it could for childless monarchs in what was still a republic. Diocletian tried to institutionalise non-heredity, the usurper Constantine made heredity the guiding principle of European government for 1,500 years. How unthinkable it has been for Christian kings to solve their succession problems by adoption.
What is understood by high and low in Christology? I would have thought that 'high' refers to some kind of natural commonality between God and Christ, 'low' to some kind of election on merit in spite of there being a certain lack of natural linkage. Wouldn't the relationship established in Roman-style adoption be lowish?

#1 - Martin - 09/16/2012 - 13:21

Prof. Peppard:

Your emphasis on the "Roman-ness" of Mark's gospel makes interesting reading, and I'm especially pleased that you are NOT focused entirely on that gospel's origin in Rome itself to the exclusion of other places.

For reasons parallel to your own interest in the "son of god" aspect of Mark you may find of interest some aspects of an article of mine:"Berytus & Byzantine Christianity: Codex Bezae and the Gospel of Mark," Electrum 12 (2007) 63-72.

Its intent is to suggest the Roman colonial city of Berytus as appropriate to both the tone and some specific incidents in Mark's gospel, and the role of Codex Bezae (which may have originated in Beirut)in preserving the unique Latin/Roman flavor of Mark.

#2 - Henry MacAdam - 09/16/2012 - 21:48

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