K:JNWTS 32/1 (May 2017): 53-55

Book Review

Bruce W. Winter, Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Christians' Responses. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015. 348pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-8028-7257-9. $35.00.

It is no secret that the Roman emperors from Augustus Caesar on regarded themselves as gods on earth (this book is a full review of this religio-political myth of fabricated superstition). It is no secret that the emperors were worshipped as gods on earth by members of their cult, i.e., citizens of the empire (this book is a full review of the idolatry and vanity of the mythic superstition which imposed itself on an empire hungry for gods in human, marble and metallic form). It is no secret that the emperors were portrayed as gods on earth with statues, images, festivals, sacrifices and worship celebrations (this book is a full review of the cult worshipping idolaters practicing homage and obeisance to the emperor). Winter has detailed the reciprocal aspects of the divine cult in the Roman empire in reflexive mirror paradigm. What the emperor claimed of divinity was mirrored in the divine honors paid to him by his culture/citizens/ethos/imperium/devotees. The pattern was quite simple: (Emperor) I am god and I will be revered as such. Matched by the dutiful reciprocal: (People) You are god and we will revere you as such.

The tyranny of such arrogance is patent, while the groveling lackey mentality of the reciprocal is even more patent. Serfs are no more wretched than when they regard their rulers as divine messiahs and fawn before them in abject humiliation (perhaps with tingles running up their legs in those olden days). The inevitable end of the narrative is the same as the end of the story of the Roman empire: god-on-earth tyranny and self-destruction by the cultic devotees produces the death of both. Cult of ruler mirrors ruled as slaves of the ruler cult which is the policy of the death-wish.

This generated a crisis for early Christians of the first century A.D. Jews received a free pass by offering daily sacrifices for the safety of the emperor (not sacrifices to the emperor) in the Temple at Jerusalem (all of which ceased with the Jewish revolt of 66 A.D.). Winter explores the response of Christians who were conscience bound in loyalty to Christ and not to Caesar nor his imperious ilk.

After reviewing the ‘messianic' (his word) ages of Augustus and Nero, Winter sums up the activities of imperial veneration in the East (Asia) (pp. 48ff). He translates Greek and Latin inscriptions with other records of deification. He cites material from temples erected to the emperor as to a god. Offerings are made to their images and statues by cultic priests and worshippers. All to promote and indoctrinate via a state cult-machine deifying one person—the imperial magnate—as very god on earth. Man and state = true god; all else = servile and sycophantic abjection and adulation.

Conformity was the expected (yeah, demanded) response. Expressed via making offerings to the emperor, bowing in worship to the emperor, making prayers to the emperor, expressing devotion for the emperor—all this was reciprocal, tit for tat. He is a god and does god-like things for you and the empire. You do things in turn to honor the god, secure his favor and preserve his benevolence through your works/deeds/acts of devotion, fidelity, homage, belief. Your worldview reciprocates his worldview or you suffer. Even where there is apparent hesitation, it is judged clotured expediency, i.e., simply stalling the inevitable full endorsement of divinity in the more ‘backward' regions of the empire. These were eventually transformed to conform with the new epiphanies from the imperial person and his professional handlers. As chapter 4 points out, duplicity/deceit/lying was essential to advance this ‘divine' tyranny.

Chapter 6 details the imperial cult at Athens. Here, Winter reviews Paul's apologia on Mars Hill (Acts 17:23-34). For those interested in his Areopagus address, cf. pp. 143-48 and 156-65. His contention that Paul is using themes of general or natural revelation at the Areopagus will be of interest to all parties with a vested interest in the topic.

Details of the emperor cult at Corinth/Achaea follows in chapter 7. Our author notes that Christians were given "de facto cultic exemption" (192) because Gallio declared them "to be de facto a Jewish gathering" (195) with the same exemption which applied to Judaism. Winter details the compromises of some of the Christians after Paul's departure (chapter 8). Paul's response (1 Cor 8-11) is carefully examined with instructive exegesis relative to implications of the imperial cult.

Chapter 9 examines the strategy for Galatian Christians to avoid granting divine honor to the emperor. Winter focuses on the practice of circumcision among Gentile Christians in this region (232ff.), i.e., that it was mandatory for Gentile Christians to be circumcised (Gal 6:12). Why would Gentiles in Asia Minor submit to this? Because they would be recognized legally as "distinctly Jewish" (241) and thus endorsed as part of a religio licita ("legal religion"). Consequently, they avoided the necessity of paying divine devotion to the emperor cult. The result was the marginalization of uncircumcised Gentile Christians, as Gal 4:17 suggests (241-42). Gal 6:12 supports this reconstruction—the Galatian Christians did this solely in order not to be prosecuted for the cross of Christ, i.e., to avoid honors paid to the emperor cult which all segments of Roman imperial culture were required to do (Jews alone exempted).

Chapter 10 treats Thessalonica. Paul was accused of promoting another king (Jesus Christ) besides Caesar (Acts 17:3, 7). According to 1 Thess 1:9, the Thessalonian Christians stopped giving divine honors to the emperor and his cult and turned "to serve a living and true God." The consequences were "persecutions and afflictions" (2 Thess 1:4) and "suffering" (2 Thess 1:5). They refused and were abused for so doing.

Chapter 11 carries Winter's theory of potential exile for Christians per the epistle to the Hebrews. In fact, Winter portrays Hebrews as a subtle polemic against the entire emperor priest-craft notion of the tyrannical Roman imperial state. This is an interesting if unpersuasive suggestion as it reduces the epistle to a politico-cultural tract and thereby completely misses the eschatological pilgrim motif dominating the letter (cf. here: http://kerux.com/doc/2602A3.asp). Winter notes the sufferings of Heb 10:32-34 and catalogues them as imposed by Roman law. He then argues that 13:12 ("outside the gate") means physical exile or legal banishment. This seems problematic to this reviewer as it constructs a case on a metaphor—a metaphorical case which collapses on closer examination. NB: the displacement and replacement motif of NT Christianity supersedes both Judaism and paganism—the Hebrews Christians stand outside both cultures as Christ himself stands outside both. 

Winter's final chapter is a speculative exercise in Hebrew and Greek gematria by which he attempts to justify his preterist opinions about the book of Revelation.

We step back from this instructive volume schooled in the Roman imperial reality. An omnipotent, single person with a single party line and a single narrative (construct) state whose leader is, in fact, a god. The god's pals and gals are untouchable because they too are brushed with the aura of divine oracles. The narrative spun by the god and his pals and gals is woven seamlessly from divinity to humanity so that the humanity of the story is always subject to the divinity of the god on earth and his/her lackeys.

This, of course, is tyranny—intolerant, oppressive, crushing tyranny. And the end of tyranny past and present is mirrored in the end of the Roman imperium. Foreign aliens destroyed the empire showing the god on earth that he was a fake and a liar (impotent and incompetent to boot); showing the cadres of the man-‘god' that they were no match for the narrative of conquest, terror, rape, pillage, bloody death. So much for the ruler god; so much for his worshipful devotees; so much for the narrative fabricated to promote the man and the myth. Death and destruction inevitably follows such hubris, vanity, idolatry, sophistry, mendacity, treachery, brutality, idiocy!

Christianity has no such myth and is the only salvation from such benighted stupidity. In Christ is a true God-man; a true divine person worthy to be worshipped and adored; a true ruler of a kingdom which can never be attacked; nor can any of its subjects and inhabitants be put to death by alien forces of evil because the divine Son of God is an omnipotent Savior "to the uttermost" (Heb 7:25, KJV).

A typo and a suggestion. Page 73 reverses the Colossian proof-texts, i.e., 1:17 should be 1:27 and 1:27 should be 1:17. I could not locate an abbreviation table for the plethora of primary Latin and Greek documents which Winter mines. This amazing body of research remains inaccessible to the reader because there is no table of abbreviations which identifies these initialisms (e.g., RPC, IG, etc. with full bibliographic information). True, one can search the internet for the full titles, but as an aid to the reader, the author and the publisher should have furnished this full disclosure information in a handy "table of abbreviations" as is customarily done with scholarly publications at the beginning or end of a book.

—James T. Dennison, Jr.