Going Through Hell is Finally Published

I am happy to say that after three long years, my latest article, “Going Through Hell; ΤΑΡΤΑΡΟΣ in the Greco-Roman Culture, Second Temple Judaism, and Philo of Alexandria,” Journal of Ancient Judaism 4 (2013): 352-78 [click the hyperlinked title to gain access the article], has finally been published.

In the article, I question the long-standing assumption that a divided afterlife with rewards for the righteous and punishment for wicked developed during the Persian period. On the contrary, my thesis is that Second Temple Jews, especially Philo of Alexandria, are indebted to Graeco-Roman culture and not the Bible for the theological concept of postmortem punishment for the wicked.

Scripted Prayers in Civic Religion and the Gospel of Matthew

While this blog is dedicated to studying Paul in his Graeco-Roman context, since I have lived all semester with Matthew, I felt the need to address one grave error that is popular among Matthean scholarship.

One of the things Matthew constantly disparages throughout his Gospel is pagan mores. Readers of the First Gospel are encouraged to love their enemies and thus not be like Gentiles (Matt 5:47), they are not to seek after the necessities of life like the non-Jewish nations (Matt 6:31-21), and anyone excommunicated from the churches of which Matthew was a part was considered a Gentile (Matt 18:17). Not only does Matthew belittle Gentile customs, but also he disdains the way in which the non-Jewish nations pray. Hence, Matthew’s audience is specifically instructed not pray like them: “When you pray, do not βατταλογέω like the Gentiles, for they suppose that with their many words they will be heard” (Matt 6:7; translation mine).

Most commentators suggest the Greek term βατταλογέω means to stammer non-sensically and they surmise that Matthew condemns pagans for their unintelligible prayers to their deities (cf. Sim, “Attitude to Gentiles,” 177; Luz, Matthew 1-7, 1.305; France, Matthew, 240-41; Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 1.588)

The difficulty with interpreting this verse is that not only is βατταλογέω a hapax legomenon (i.e., it appears only one time) in the NT, but also βατταλογέω is a rare term in the broader Graeco-Roman world, with the majority of its subsequent uses by authors dependent upon the NT (BDAG, 172; LSJ, 311; MM, 107). As a result, I am suspect of the definition provided by the majority of commentators.

Contrary to popular opinion, I suggest that Matthew’s critique of Gentile prayer accurately reflects the manner in which prayer was offered in civic religion of Matthew’s day.

With regard to prayer in Graeco-Roman religion, Valerie Warrior, Roman Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 18 notes, “In any kind of prayer, precautions had to be taken to ensure that no error (vitium) might prevent its fulfillment. Formulaic invocations were like passwords that opened communication with the gods. If any mistake in the prayers or the ritual should occur, the gods would not respond to the request.”

This accords well with the polymath Pliny the Elder’s description of prayer in the first century CE:

“In fact the sacrifice of victims without a prayer is supposed to be of no effect; without it too the gods are not thought to be properly consulted. Moreover, there is one form of words for getting favourable omens, another for averting evil, and yet another for a commendation. We see also that chief magistrates have adopted fixed formulas for their prayers (certis precationibus); that to prevent a word’s being omitted or out of place a reader dictates beforehand the prayer from a script; that another attendant is appointed as a guard to keep watch, and yet another is put in charge to maintain a strict silence; that a piper plays so that nothing but the prayer is heard. Remarkable instances of both kinds of interference are on record: cases when the noise of actual ill omens has ruined the prayer, or when a mistaken has been made in the prayer itself; then suddenly the head of the liver, or the heart, has disappeared from the entrails, or these have been doubled, while the victim was standing” (Pliny Hist. Nat. 28.10-11; translation from LCL).

One of the reasons for scripted prayers was the fact that the gods were not mind readers. Because Graeco-Roman religion was founded on the principle of orthopraxy and not orthodoxy, one had to spell out word for word what one wanted from them. It was not that you said something to the gods, but what you said, how you said it, and when you said it that mattered. As Pliny indicates above, there were devastating effects if prayers were not properly offered: “when a mistaken has been made in the prayer itself; then suddenly the head of the liver, or the heart, has disappeared from the entrails, or these have been doubled, while the victim was standing” (For more information see Jean-Louis Durand and John Scheid, “‘Rites’ et ‘religion’. Remarques sur certains préjudgés des historiens de la religion des Grecs et des Romains,” Archives de sciences sociales des religions 85 (1994): 23-43).

In sum, the necessity of the right words at the right time accounts for scripting prayers, which I suggest is what Matthew has in mind with his use of the term βατταλογέω and that Gentiles use numerous words (πολυλογία) as they petition their deities (Matt 6:7).

Contrary to popular Christianizing assumptions not only about Matthew, but also Graeco-Roman religion (cf. Craig Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 210, who suggests Matthew means you do not pray “to manipulate an answer from their deities”), by actually examining the way in which prayer was offered in Matthew’s day, something about which Matthew was indeed familiar, we are able to arrive at a better explanation for Matthew’s condemnation of pagan prayers.

 

SHACKING UP WITH THE GODS: THE INCLUSION OF ROMAN EMPERORS INTO THE TEMPLES OF DEITIES IN THE ROMAN WORLD

One of the many ways in which the grassroots phenomenon of emperor worship manifested itself in the Roman world was the incorporation of the emperor into the sacred spaces of the Roman world. This inclusion of a living ruler into temples of the gods is predicated upon the manner in which the denizens of the Roman world treated their deities. Since the gods of civic religion were the first citizens of the city, it was only natural for the gods, like the other citizens of the city, to dwell together. As a result, Plutarch (Quaest. conv. 7.6) says that people frequently not only pray to the deity for whom the temple, altar, or shrine was constructed but also they petition the gods who were sharing that particular sacred space with said deity. Consequently, this incorporation of the emperor into the sacred space is evidence to the extent that the denizens treated the emperor as a god and thus believed the living ruler to be divine.

For example, on the Greek island of Cyprus a sanctuary of the island’s patron goddess Aphrodite was re-dedicated in 79/80 CE to include the worship of the living emperor Titus:

Αὐτοκράτορι Τίτωι
Καίσαρι Οὐεσπασιανῷ
Σεβαστῷ καὶ Ἀφροδείτηι
Τόπον ἱερὸν ἀπο-
κατέστησεν τὸν ἐν-
τὸς τῶν στηλῶν
ὄντα Λούκιος Βρούττιος
Μάξιμος ἀνθύματος
ἔτους δευτέρου

“To Imperator Titus Caesar Vespasianus and to the great goddess of Cyprus Aphrodite. In the second year, Lucius Bruttius Maximus, proconsul, restored [this] sacred place confined by the steles” (Amathous no. 3).

From this inscriptions a few observations are evident. First, the emperor was worshipped alongside of the patron goddess of Cyprus. While there may have been a hierarchy in the temple with placement of the cult images of Titus and Aphrodite and Aphrodite may have remained (and probably did remain) the chief deity of the temple, that the emperor was included in the inscription in the same manner as Aphrodite (both Aphrodite’s and Titus’s names are in the dative case) indicates that Titus is in an exalted position and was probably given the same honors as Aphrodite. Thus the living Titus was treated as a god and in the same manner as Aphrodite. Second, although Titus was treated as a god, he is not called one in the inscription. It is possible that since the dedicator is a high-ranking Roman official he has followed Roman protocol and intentionally not referred to the living Titus as a god (cf. Cassius Dio, Rom. Hist. 51.20.6-8). Third, contrary to the manner in which many NT scholars interpret emperor worship, this honor given to the emperor was at the behest of Lucius Bruttius Maximus and not the emperor Titus. Therefore this is evidence of the political, religious, and monetary allegiance that people within the Roman empire gave to the emperor.

 

INDIVIDUALISTIC PIETY TOWARDS ROMAN EMPERORS ON ROMAN CYPRUS

One of the biggest problems with studying Paul and the world in which he lived, moved, and had his being is the modern Christian baggage that we bring to the table. When many Protestants read Paul, they read Martin Luther’s and the Reformation’s Paul. Still, others read Paul in light of 2,000 years of Christian doctrine and believe that Paul worked with Chalcedonian and Nicean Christologies (which is clearly false); and that Paul was a Christian. However, Paul never uses the term and if we allow Paul to speak for himself, he says he is an Israelite and a Jew who confesses Jesus as the Messiah.

Notwithstanding our Christian baggage with Paul, we also bring it to the study of his world. In the early 20th century, because they could not fathom humans worshiping other living humans, many dismissed the phenomenon of Roman emperor worship as something devoid of all religious sentimentality. However, since the late 1970s and early 1980s, a turn has occurred in thinking about emperor worship. Many scholars are now aware of their modern Christian biases and the dangers of projecting them back on the Roman world. That is, looking for a similar Christian religious experience in ancient Roman religion. Moreover, noting that Roman religion was a religion of orthopraxy and not orthodoxy and accepting that the religious experience of the ancient Romans and Greeks was fundamentally different than the modern Christian experience, great work is being done in the area of emperor worship.

For example, I just finished Takashi Fujii’s excellent treatment of emperor worship on the island of Cyprus (an island Paul and Barnabas visited on their first missionary journey cf. Acts 13.4-12), Imperial Cult and Imperial Representation in Roman Cyprus (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2013). Fujii’s work should be highly praised and read by everyone working on emperor worship, for he shows how different emperor worship could be across the diverse Mediterranean Basin. From his work, two things stuck out to me. First, he concludes that emperor worship on Cyprus differed from emperor worship in Asia Minor in that it “was part of a system that functioned without direct do ut des relationship between the emperor and the Cypriots” (p. 157). Thus: “this fact illuminates one of the most important characteristics of the imperial cult—the provincials venerated the emperor, not because he benefitted them in a direct way (with financial support and political benefaction), but for the very reason that he was the emperor of the Empire to which the provincials belonged” (p. 157). That is, while the denizens of Asia Minor had reason to worship to the emperor because of his continuous beneficence and aid to their cities, the inhabitants of Cyprus did not receive that kind of attention from the emperor. As a result, instead of having a practical reason to worship the emperor, i.e., he constantly provided money, games, buildings, etc. to the island, the Cypriots worshiped the emperor because he was the emperor!

Roman Cyprus is highlighted on the map. Map courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

Roman Cyprus is highlighted on the map. Map courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

This grass roots desire to worship the emperor is evident in my second take away from Fujii’s work. Fujii provides new critical editions and translations of some inscriptions from Cyprus. Four of these inscriptions are a testimony to individuals venerating and worshiping the emperor. First, a Greek inscription evidences that a certain man named Adrastos set up a temple for Tiberius Caesar Augustus in the gymnasium, instituted a hereditary priesthood for it, called himself and his son a “lover of Caesar,” and even called Tiberius his god:

“To divine Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus, Imperator, pontifex maximus, holder of the tribunician power 31 times . . . Adrastos, son of Adrastos, lover of Caesar, hereditary priest of the temple and statue of Tiberius Caesar Augustus, which he founded at his own cost in the gymnasium, . . . founded the temple and the statue for his own god at his own expense. . . . Adrastos, son of Adrastos, lover of Caesar, consecrated (them) with his son Adrastos, lover of Caesar, . . . at his own cost, on the birthday of Tiberius . . .” (Lapethos no. 2; Fujii, Imperial Cult, 179-80).

Second, individuals dedicated votive offerings to the emperors. This means that they made vows to the emperors in the same manner they did to the gods and goddesses.

“Onesilos? (dedicated this) to Apollon Kaisar on behalf of his wife Themisphas in fulfillment of a vow. . .” (Kourion no. 7; Fujii, Imperial Cult, 173).

“Polyktetos, son of Timon, potter, (dedicated this) to Apollon Hylates and Apollon Kaisar on behalf of himself in fulfillment of a vow . . .” (Kourion no. 8; Fujii, Imperial Cult, 174).

“Sextus Cornelius Tychikos, having made a vow, (dedicated this) to Apollon Hylates and Apollon Kaisar” (Kourion no. 10; Fujii, Imperial Cult, 174).

Consequently, Fujii’s work is a great example of documenting the actions that individual Cypriots took toward the emperor. Actions that are a window into their beliefs about the divinity of their hegemonic overlords, i.e., to act is to believe in Roman and Greek religion.

CALENDARS AND RULERS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE AND THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

The inclusion of (deceased and in some cases still living) Roman emperors into the calendars of Roman coloniae (i.e., colonies) was a deliberate political and religious action taken by local magistrates and civic leaders. In the process, these government officials demarcated certain days related to Roman emperors as sacred, which is unlike any phenomenon in the modern American calendric system. In short, the inclusion of Roman emperors into the sacred time shared by the deities of the Roman world was an attempt to foster a closer connection between the emperors and deities, and the city-states themselves with their Roman overlords. In order to exemplify this, I shall examine the calendar from the Roman colonia (i.e., colony) of Praeneste.

The persons in charge of establishing the calendar of Praeneste were its own government officials. These men were supposed to ensure the health of the city by ensuring the proper sacrifices occurred on the proper days. Thus the civic leaders of Praeneste divided sacred days in honor of the gods and goddesses from profane ones. Hence, the Praeneste calendar evidences a close connection of religion and politics foreign to the calendar of the modern United States. This close association of religion and politics is evident in that the Praeneste calendar includes events from the lives of Roman emperors (including Julius Caesar). The calendar, which dates about 6-9 CE with later interpolations during the reign of Tiberius, was displayed publicly in the forum of Praeneste inscribed on very costly marble columns.

The persons in charge of establishing the calendar of Praeneste were its own government officials. These men were supposed to ensure the health of the city by ensuring the proper sacrifices occurred on the proper days. Thus the civic leaders of Praeneste divided sacred days in honor of the gods and goddesses from profane ones. Hence, the Praeneste calendar evidences a close connection of religion and politics foreign to the calendar of the modern United States. This close association of religion and politics is evident in that the Praeneste calendar includes events from the lives of Roman emperors (including Julius Caesar). The calendar, which dates about 6-9 CE with later interpolations during the reign of Tiberius, was displayed publicly in the forum of Praeneste inscribed on very costly marble columns.

Concerning the association of emperors into the sacred time of the city, on April 6, the inhabitants celebrated a “holiday because on this day Gaius Caesar son of Gaius [conquered] king [Juba] in Africa” (Beard, North, and Price, Religions of Rome, 2.65). There are two noteworthy matters concerning this festival. First, it marked an event that occurred in 46 BCE. Thus the calendar not only honored days from hallowed Roman antiquity (e.g., the Roman festival of Parilia), but also events that recently occurred within Rome’s history. Second, the celebration was designated as NP (possibly meaning nefastus publicus, the exact interpretation is unknown), which meant that neither the courts nor the assemblies met on that day and it was considered a great public festival.

Notwithstanding the celebrations of victories of Roman rulers, on April 23, while the occupants of Praeneste honored Jupiter because of Jupiter’s aid in a past battle, they also remembered the day that Julia and Tiberius “dedicated a statue of their father divus Augustus at the theatre of Marcellus,” which is evidence for later interpretation in the calendar during the reign of Tiberius (Beard, North, and Price, Religions of Rome, 2.65). What is important concerning this festival is that it was included within an already existing celebration.

Not only were events to deified emperors remembered in Praeneste’s calendar, but also events in the life of the reigning emperor were celebrated. On April 24, the city honored the day that Tiberius transitioned from childhood to adulthood as he put on his toga virilis in 27 BCE (Beard, North, and Price, Religions of Rome, 2.65). While the day was not as sacrosanct as the previous two festivals associated with emperors (only being designated C, i.e., comitialis and thus a day when public assemblies and courts met), it is noteworthy that this celebration was added during the reign of Tiberius, for no one knew in 27 BCE that he would succeed Augustus as emperor. Hence, the Praeneste calendar reflected the current political events of Rome.

When the above information is contrasted with the modern American calendar the differences are striking. The only official national American holiday dedicated to rulers of any kind is Presidents’ Day, which is a day when Americans honor all presidents past and present. The American calendar neither has a day dedicated to the baptism of Bill Clinton, the wedding day of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, nor the dedication of any presidential library. The American calendar is also not as contemporary as Praeneste’s. As evident, the civic leaders of Praeneste attempted to have their calendar reflect the contemporary political situation in Rome. Moreover, beside banks, schools, and all government offices being closed, Presidents’ Day is probably one of the least celebrated holidays on the American calendar. No American city honors Presidents’ Day with a “great public festival” like the inhabitants of Praeneste were to celebrate a victory of Julius Caesar.

Picture Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

Picture Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

The inclusion of days devoted to honoring events associated with the lives of Julius Caesar and Tiberius are evidence of the close connection of religion and politics in the Roman world, which is unlike the modern United States. Furthermore, the evidence from the Praeneste calendar witnesses a deliberate political/religious action taken by local magistrates and civic leaders to incorporate events contemporary to their time into their city’s calendar. Occasionally, this included the assimilation of events associated with emperors into existing festivals to deities. In this regard the calendar witnesses a close connection between the deities of the Roman world and the emperors. Notwithstanding this conclusion, we have no evidence that suggests how large and to what extent the populace of Praeneste celebrated the festival commemorating Tiberius’s transition from childhood to adulthood. It may have been celebrated with as much fervor as Americans remember Presidents’ Day. On the contrary, it may have been a huge party. We simply do not know.  Nevertheless, it is significant that the civic leaders of Praeneste attempted to forge a closer association of their city with the rulers of the Empire by assimilating them into their civic calendar.