An early imperial afterlife for Jesus
In the founding myth of ancient Rome, we read about twin boys: Romulus and Remus. They had been abandoned in a forest with the intention of killing them and thus frustrating an oracle predicting that one of them would become king.
The myth existed in numerous versions and was an especially common theme on Roman imperial coins. Even Constantine I, the first Christian emperor of Rome, issued coins with this design to celebrate the founding of Constantinople as the New Rome in 330–33 CE.
Here is one example:
18 x 19 mm. 3.0gm. OBV: VRBS-ROMA [City of Rome] Roma, helmeted, wearing imperial cloak. REV: She-wolf with circle on shoulder standing left with twins (Romulus and Remus); above, two stars. In ex. SMTSE (Signata Moneta, Thessalonica, 5th factory) [RIC VII Thessalonica 187]
That coin, by the way, was issued some five years after Constantine presided over the Council of Nicea in 325 CE.
The coin celebrated the founding myth of Rome and applied the ancient myth to his new city, the New Rome, the future Byzantium. Today’s Istanbul.
The myth exists in several versions, including this one from Plutarch ca. 75 CE:
There was an oracle of Tethys in Tuscany which Tarchetius consulted, and received an answer that a virgin should give herself to the apparition, and that a son should be born of her, highly renowned, eminent for valour, good fortune, and strength of body. Tarchetius told the prophecy to one of his own daughters, and commanded her to do this thing; which she avoiding as an indignity, sent her handmaid … the waiting-woman was delivered of two boys, whom Tarchetius gave into the hands of one Teratius, with command to destroy them; he, however, carried and laid them by the river side, where a wolf came and continued to suckle them, while birds of various sorts brought little morsels of food, which they put into their mouths; till a cowherd, spying them, was first strangely surprised, but, venturing to draw nearer, took the children up in his arms. Thus they were saved, and when they grew up, set upon Tarchetius and overcame him.[Plutarch, ca 75 CE]
More on the Romulus and Remus legend here. (Encyclopaedia Britannica online).
Some 200 years before Constantine founded his New Rome, an anonymous Christian author we call Luke, compiled a two-volume account of the origins and early development of the Jesus movement. We know those volumes as the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, and scholars often refer to them as Luke-Acts.
In this two-volume work, the author traces the movement of God’s plan for the salvation of the world from Jerusalem to Rome. All the while, the author is promoting the idea that his readers can retain their Roman culture and identity while also being followers of Jesus and “God-worshippers”.
For a recent masterful discussion of this understanding of Luke-Acts, and especially the stark contrast between its message of accommodation and the violent anti-Roman rhetoric of the Apocalypse of John, see John Dominic Crossan, Render Unto Caesar: The Struggle over Christ and Culture in the New Testament. (HarperCollins, 2022)
While the story of Jesus really begins at Luke 3:1, the author has created an impressive overture for the whole two-volume text. We find that overture in Luke 1:5–2:52.
Luke has crafted one of the first written afterlives of Jesus by creating a kind of imperial prequel, with Jesus now imagined as Romulus, the future king of all the world.
Luke weaves a story about the special births of two boys destined for greatness in the divine plan of universal salvation and world peace. In this case the boys are ostensibly John the Baptist and Jesus, but we need to look more closely and to peer through the eyes of an ancient Roman reader.
Legends about miraculous births and even rival twins were not uncommon in the ancient world, but Luke has created an infancy legend for Jesus which not only has him in competitive parallel with John the Baptist, but also encourages the discerning Roman reader to see John as Remus and Jesus as Romulus.
Unlike Matthew, whose account Luke will have known but whose Jewish birth story (dripping in Exodus symbolism) he rejects, Luke tells the story of Jesus in a way designed to strike a chord with citizens of the Roman empire familiar with the legends of Romulus and Remus.
As Romulus, Jesus becomes the once and future king. Rome’s divine emperor.
Luke arranges his account of the childhood of Jesus in a series of seven scenes that parallel Jesus and John the Baptist: two boys whose special births are the prophetic signs of the dawning of a new age for all people.
- Scene 1 – John’s miraculous conception (Luke 1:5-25)
- Scene 2 – Jesus’ miraculous conception (Luke 1:26-38)
- Scene 3 – Mary visits Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56)
- Scene 4 – John’s birth and naming (Luke 1:57-80)
- Scene 5 – Jesus’ birth and naming (Luke 2:1-21)
- Scene 6 – Presentation in Temple (Luke 2:22-40)
- Scene 7 – 12-year old Jesus in Temple (Luke 2:41-52)
When Luke addressed his elite Roman Christian audience represented by the “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:4), he was not so much seeking to describe the birth of Jesus as to celebrate the significance of the Christ Child.
One of these two boys—and Luke clearly indicates that it is Jesus, not John— is destined to establish the empire of God (basileia tou theou in Greek), to bring peace, and to be the Saviour of the world.
This evokes the traditional imperial propaganda that claims that the emperor is a son of God (F DIV on Roman coins), the Saviour (SERVATOS in Latin, soter in Greek) and the ultimate guarantor of peace (PAX).
Note how this imperial propaganda is expressed and preserved in the calendrical decree from Priene in Asia Minor (western Turkey):
It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [εὐαγγέλιον] for the world that came by reason of him,” which Asia resolved in Smyrna.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calendar_Inscription_of_Priene
With his overture featuring the births of two special boys, Luke is proclaiming the divinity of the Christ Child, as well as Jesus’ destiny as the ruler of the empire of God. This was powerful public theology and one of the earliest afterlives of Jesus.