The Pokey Finger of God

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The Flavian Gospels

September 2nd, 2014 · No Comments · christianity, history

It occurs to me that Atwill doesn’t say in Caesar’s Messiah that the Flavians invented Christianity, but rather that they had commissioned the Gospels to be written, alongside a history of the violent, decade-long destruction of the Hebrew state. Atwill’s main premise is that these works were meant to be read side-by-side. Each was like a plaid pattern that created a solid whole when laid together, and Josephus was the author of the entire work.

This work then became an element of the Imperial Cult, further exalting the Emperor and his family, and acting as the royal origin myth. Wars of the Jews, along with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, comprised a single document that celebrated the military successes of Titus while mocking and humiliating the Jewish state he had decapitated. What I want to understand is how this was used in the context of the Imperial Cult.

We know that Titus is frequently referenced as the “Son of God” in passages attributed to Jesus, and had his late father deified by the Roman Senate, so he was literally the son of a god. It would make sense that the idea of “Son of God”, along with other traditional elements of the Roman Cult like the “Spirit of Rome” and the “City on the Hill” with the “Light of the World”, were all frequently invoked.

We also know that the Imperial Cult was an amalgam of all of the religions celebrated throughout the Empire. The Emperor was the head priest of every cult, and the chief deity in every pantheon. Every home and workshop in the Empire would have had an image of the Emperor that the occupants worshiped, along with images for familial, local, and economic deities. Articles from the temples of their conquered lands resided in the vaults of the Imperial Cult; their gods had been captured and taken to Rome. And it was the Roman Emperor who thus became the chief pontiff of their faiths.

We know that Titus captured Jerusalem because of that Josephus book Wars of the Jews, and we know that he carried back the goodies from the Temple in Jerusalem because Titus erected an enormous arch in Rome that glorifies the plunder. Titus had every right to claim every element of the Jewish faith as his own — indeed, he had an obligation to do so!

We know the Imperial Cult already had temples in every major town and city throughout the Empire, and that the infrastructure to support such an organization had been around since the Republic. The Imperial Cult wasn’t a mystery cult in any way: its rituals were public and well documented. It also was not a singular entity over the centuries, either. A number of emperors made adjustments as they felt appropriate. Gods were added, taken away, and shuffled in the hierarchy. The Invincible Sun was popular at the top for quite a while, largely at the urging of Marcus Aurelius, who insisted that the Eastern states would only bow to a pantheon with the Sun at the apex.

Some say the emperors had made a hobby of inventing whole new cults. Some stories point to Hadrian as the creator of the Mithraic mystery cult, devised as a means to culturally unify the vast Roman army. It’s not impossible that Diocletian could have been behind the development of Manichaeism. Even without this supposition, we have many well documented cases of Emperors inventing fabulous origin stories for themselves. Titus would have had a great deal of precedent to take the faith of his conquered peoples and form a new testament to the power of Rome.

It also addresses the mystery of Elagabalus. Known for three years as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, this emperor began his rule at the age of 14, and he was assassinated by his own guard before he was 18. He was the next-to-last gasp of the Severan Dynasty, which was the last successful ruling dynasty for a century of imperial crisis and perpetual civil war. He was reputed to be the son of Caracalla, and it was Caracalla’s maternal aunt who engineered his elevation to the purple.

He was called Elagabalus because prior to becoming emperor, he had been the high priest of Elagabalus, so when he became Emperor, he set aside the Invincible Sun and established Elagabalus as the chief deity in the official Imperial pantheon. Naturally, this upset many people, and was likely a factor of his early demise. Interestingly, both Elagabaluses (both god and emperor) were Syrian. The deity was culturally related to the gods “El” and “Elohim”, familiar to the peoples from that same area in the stories of Genesis.

The mystery was how this Syrian family became so well placed as to capture the . I understand about how dynastic work, and recognize that it didn’t happen overnight or on accident. Given the dramatic destruction of the neighboring states  by prior emperors, and the extreme distance of Syria from Rome, I didn’t understand what could have been the leverage used to bring such a distant family — no matter how wealthy — to power.

But if there had already been an established context with Eastern gods and faith systems brought about by Titus 140 years previously, and with familial connections to the wealthy and powerful in Palestine and Syria, it was simply a matter of time before Imperial candidates from that region would appear. The Palestinian precedent established by Titus would allow Elagabalus to remain at the peak of the Imperial Cult during his namesake’s rule. (But not longer. After the priest was dead, the Invincible Sun retook his place of glory.)

This would also imply that the weight of the Gospels, and their impact within the Imperial Cult, had been retained — perhaps even with a patina of legendary history — at least until the beginning of the Century of Crisis (as the period is dramatically named), 150 years later. This makes it more reasonable that Constantine would have been able to find the Flavian Gospels during his education in Syria.


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