Monday, April 06, 2009

Notes From My Knapsack 4-9-09
Jeff Gill

Who Do You Say Is Lord?

“Dominus Caesar est.”

Three words, and a pinch of incense on a sacrificial altar.

“Caesar is Lord.”

Statements like that, and statues and inscriptions on public buildings proclaiming the “King of Kings” and “Prince of Peace” all were common almost 2000 years ago. They referred, of course, to the ruler of Rome, whether Julius Caesar who made his family name a title, his adopted son Octavian, soon known as Augustus Caesar, the first Emperor, or the Roman rulers who followed – Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.

Julius was born in the month that was known as Quintilis, but after his death, famously on the Ides of March, became known as July, named for the man who was believed to have become a god upon his death. Octavian saw with all of Rome a daytime comet in the sky, and declared his father “Divus Iulius,” or the “God Julius” – which conveniently made the August one “divi filius,” “God’s son.”

The month he died, Sextilis, became August as part of the proclamation that the “Son of God” was now a member of the Roman pantheon himself. Worship of at least the “divine spirit” of the ruling emperor began with Augustus, but it was Caligula who began to insist that he be considered a god while alive, and in person.

So all around the Roman Empire, it became a part of simple transactions and legal business, already taking place in the basilicas, or law courts, of the imperial authority, that participants would step to the altar on the elevated platform before all witnesses, and say “Caesar is Lord,” dropping a pinch on incense into the perpetual vestal flame.

John Dominic Crossan is a controversial Biblical scholar, but one I hope Denison or some other local effort could bring to town. He is a charming and brilliant fellow, who is not at all afraid of controversy while trying to provoke careful and consistent thought about the claims of the New Testament, particularly about Jesus of Nazareth.

One of the debts I feel that I owe this scholar is a greater awareness of the very personal, yet extremely social tension in the earliest days of the Roman Empire, and for the birth of the Christian Church.

To say “Caesar is Lord” is to make a much broader statement than those three words appear to say. “Caesar is Lord” is to say that the methods and approach of Julius and Augustus and even crazy old Caligula were divinely ordered, the expression of an ultimate nature about how human creatures were to relate to each other.

“Caesar is Lord” is saying that the crushing grip of military conquest is the best way to reach a “Pax Romanum,” a peace that is easily understood as the absence of war, under the authority of emperors and consuls and prefects and procurators. You know, procurators, like that sharp-edged tool of empire, Pontius Pilate.

Or you could say something else, a different statement that not only cut you off from the protection of empire, but left you open to the punishment, the ‘poena,’ the penalties of the amphitheater and Colosseum. You could claim a peace that passes all understanding, but one that grows far beyond even the reach of a Caesar.

You could say instead “Dominus Iesus est,” but God help you if you did.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a story at or follow on Twitter at “Knapsack.”

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