Every Monday, I will provide a glimpse into the research I am doing into the persecution of the Christian and Jewish communities during the reign of Domitian. My advisor at Piedmont International University has already given me the preliminary greenlight for this topic, he has assigned me a chair for my dissertation committee, and now we are waiting on my completion of two more classes and comprehensive exams in order for me to get final approval. In the meantime, I am plunging headlong into the research and loving every minute of it.
My interest in Domitian began with research I undertook in summer of 2014 into Johannine studies. Today, I present to you that research, and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
DOMITIAN: LORD AND GOD
Recent trends in Johannine research are pushing once held beliefs in introductory matters to the fringe. Those who take a late date for the Apocalypse of John have typically placed the writing around the reign of Domitian locating him as a fierce and despotic ruler whose persecutions highlight for the Apostle the Antichrist coming in the future. However, recent research is toppling that belief by showing one that Domitian was not as despotic as once thought and that second an imperial cult had risen up in Ephesus which could explain John’s concern for an Antichrist better.1 This paper will survey the views on Domitian, appraise and critique them, survey the Ephesian Imperial cult research, critique it, show the exegetical difference made from each, and finally give some avenues of further research.
Domitian the Man
Caesar Domitianus Augustus reigned over the Roman Empire from A. D. 81-96 (the longest reign since Tiberius), and was assassinated by officials of his court. His assassination was due in large part to his own bloody campaign against rivals in the Roman Senate during his final years after the failed revolt of Antonius Saturninus in A. D. 93.2 Classically, Emperor Domitian has been seen as a self-absorbed, ruthless leader who persecuted Christians and Jews who refused to join in the feasts to his name or who insisted in not granting him the title “lord and god,” according to Suetonius.3 Once he assumed the throne, Domitian sought to control public affairs and morality, enacted economic reforms in face of a fiscal crisis, extended the empire successfully through war campaigns, and embarked on an extensive building program which included many Roman precincts.4 Domitian was viewed negatively by his contemporaries, and in the view of Chilver, “it seems certain that cruelty and ostentation were the chief grounds of his unpopularity, rather than any military or administrative incompetence.”5
His reign has undergone a re-evaluation at the hands of modern scholarship. The work of Brian Jones proffers the most accepted view of a narcissistic, totalitarian-minded leader, but not a religious persecutor.6 Jones’ view reflects the culmination of almost a century of doubt of the classical sources.7 Within Biblical scholarship, L. L. Thompson expanded this view on Domitian and its implications for Johannine studies by moving along the same currents as Jones.8 The two primary evidences of Domitian as a persecutor are that he required his subjects to call him by the title “lord and god,” and that he officially persecuted the Christian community through economic and physical persecution.
Dominus Et Deus?
Thompson objects to the classical view of Domitian requiring himself to be called by the title “lord and god” on two grounds. First, he casts doubt on the reliability of ancient witnesses such as Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, and Dio Cassius as not being “neutral” but rather being far too politically and emotionally motivated due to Domitian’s killing of their compatriots. In Thompson’s view, they fail to mention the positive policies of Domitian, and rather “distort” his record.9
Thompson primarily quotes from Suetonius who comments concerning Domitian’s love for hearing “lord and mistress,” however fails to show the immediate context of that comment where Suetonius is simply stating Domitian loved to be called by that while he and his wife sat in the royal seats to the gladiatorial games.10 Suetonius later comments on how the usage of “our Master and our God” came about through a “custom” of the people calling him that, and Thompson mentions the claims to numerous statues of Domitian. The second problem Thompson locates with the classical view is that the the historical claims of the ancient witnesses do not correspond to the actual evidence.11 The evidence, he states, points toward a thoughtful and positive rulership.
Thompson argues that Christian life under Roman rule was peaceful and integrated, rather than persecuted and reclusive. The persecution that did exist was localized and not empire wide.12 Rather, Domitian was a generally liked and accomplished ruler, who turned violent at the end of his reign due to conspiracies against his throne. The classical view of a persecutor has been called “exaggerated” in the Introduction to the New Testament by Carson and Moo, and is only held now by a few exegetes.13 Most scholarship, including the SBL (Studies in Biblical Literature) group, have accepted the perspective of a more benevolent ruler, with only a few arguing for a moderated view.14
Next week, I will continue the second part of Domitian: Lord and God
1The significance of the Domitian question is noted due to the two sections devoted to it by two different authors in a work devoted to current research trends, Scot McKnight and Grant R. Osborne, eds., The Face of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Recent Research (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004) 50-54, 479-486.
2Guy Edward Farquhar Chilver, “Domitian,” Encyclopædia Britannica, February 17, 2014, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/168802/Domitian.
4Chilver, “Domitian,” Encyclopædia Britannica.
6Brian W Jones, The Emperor Domitian (New York, NY: Routledge, 1992). His work is the basis of the consensus of current scholarship and many popular historical novelizations of ancient Rome.
7Elmer T. Merrill, “The Alleged Persecution of Christians by Domitian,” Anglican Theological Review II, no. 1 (May 1919): 1–26.
8Leonard Thompson, “A Sociological Analysis of Tribulation in the Apocalypse of John,” Semeia 36, 1986, 147–74.
9Thompson, Semeia 36, 1986, 155.
10“When he became emperor, he did not hesitate to boast in the senate that he had conferred their power on both his father and his brother, and that they had but returned him his own; nor on taking back his wife after their divorce, that he had ‘recalled her to his divine couch.’ He delighted to hear the people in the amphitheatre shout on his feast day: ‘Good Fortune attend our Lord and Mistress.’” Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, trans. John C. Rolfe, Online, Loeb Classical Library, 1914, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/ Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Domitian*.html, Dom. 13.1-2
11Thompson, Semeia 36, 1986, 156-157.
12Leonard L Thompson, The Book of Revelation Apocalypse and Empire (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 116-32.
13D. A. Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 709. Carson and Moo argue for a moderated view. Those arguing for the classical view are D. L. Jones in, “Christianity and the Roman Imperial Cult,” ANRW, no. 2.23.2 (n.d.): 1023–54, and P. W. Barnett in, “Revelation in Its Roman Setting,” RTR, no. 50 (1991): 59–68.
14McKnight and Osborne, The Face of New Testament Studies, 51.
Photo of the Statue of Emperor Domitian by Steerpike, Vatican Museums, Vatican City, is published under a Creative Commons License.