Brigitte Kahl

It is an iconic scene: Jesus being baptized in the Jordan, with a heavenly voice declaring him “my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,” while the Holy Spirit descends from above as a dove. But what if an eagle had come down on Jesus instead and perched on his shoulder? What if a more adequate translation of Mk 1:11 were, “You are my beloved son; I have adopted you”? In a fascinating tour de force, Michael Peppard takes his readers back into the world of the New Testament, where none of these questions would sound odd or out of place as they do today.

The council of Nicaea (325 C.E.) had not yet spoken, authoritatively condemning any “adoptionist” heresy. Platonism with its static divisions between humanity and divinity, metaphysical essence (“begotten”) and historically situated status (“made/adopted”) was not yet the all-defining thought system. And the “Son of God” represented a surprisingly dynamic, multivalent concept that could embrace both divine adoption and begetting, including a wide range of other elements like divine election, genealogy, virgin birth, creation and pre-existence in varying configurations. It was not the issue of orthodoxy that loomed large when Mark, as the first among the Gospel writers ventured into the uncharted territory of transforming Paul’s message about Christ as the divine son into a narrative.

What loomed large was the massive and oppressive presence of that other divine father who had just destroyed Jerusalem and subdued the rebellious Judaea with brutal force, claiming that all of humanity was under his paternal power and jurisdiction (patria potestas): the Roman emperor.

Drawing on recent studies by historians of the ancient world like Ittai Gradel, Clifford Ando and Monika Bernett, Peppard dispels some persistent misconceptions among New Testament scholars, who have traditionally underestimated the significance of imperial ideology and played down the divinity attributed to the Roman emperor. In Roman Palestine, as in all other parts of the Roman world, the emperor was omnipresent as universal God, universal Father (pater patriae) and Son of God (divi filius) through temples, images, coins and public manifestations of all sorts—and he was worshiped as such in multiple ways. Imperial divine fatherhood and imperial divine sonship both played a pivotal role as empire-wide unifying power constructs that could draw on the social microcosm of the existing patriarchal household structure. As the emperor morphed into the divine super-father of the largest family on earth (pater patriae), the designation of his successor through an adoption as “son” became a crucial issue of power and political stability.

According to Peppard this has direct implications for the opening scene of Mark’s Gospel. If the heavenly father in Mk 1:11 in all likelihood pronounces a divine adoption formula, this implies by no means a “low” Christology devoid of divine essence, nor a sort of heretic Proto-Arianism; rather it competes with the “highest” possible and most potent divine adoption story in place, the transfer of world power to Caesar’s divine son. Mark frames the beginning of the Jesus narrative as the story of an adopted divine son who is going to be a counter-emperor.

Peppard makes very clear that such an act of “colonial mimicry” does not simply duplicate Roman colonial ideology but has strongly resistant traits. The “son” who is adopted to all-powerful divinity in Mark 1 will in the end be executed for his insubordination against Roman law and order, sharing the lot of the conquered rather than the glory of the conquerors. The dove represents weakness, vulnerability and peace in contrast to the violent majesty of the warlike eagle, which in Roman imagination was a common accessory whenever a new power figure appeared on the stage of history.

Furthermore, the sonship embodied by Jesus, especially in the Pauline matrix, rejects all exclusivity. It integrates the universal community of Jesus-followers, to use nonhierarchical and noncompetitive terms, into a horizontal family of sisters, brothers and mothers, where “fathers” have no more role to play, including the imperial divine father. At the same time, the paternal “inheritance” is no longer a matter of individual privilege and power but a communally shared good. All this marks a striking dissonance with the most basic ground rules of the Roman patriarchal and imperial order that consequently turned Christians into martyrs.

Peppard has written a stimulating and eminently readable book that courageously cuts through established theological conventions and presents new scholarship in a careful and nuanced way without ever becoming tedious. He uses the tools of his trade to reconstruct the rich reservoir of meaning-making encapsulated in New Testament and early Christian traditions, enabling us to see the “son of God” with entirely new eyes. In an exemplary way, this book shows that a fruitful encounter between critical biblical scholarship and dogmatic tradition does not lead to skepticism but instead breathes fresh air into those compartments of Christian doctrine where rethinking and reimagining, instead of reciting old formulas, is urgently needed. Far from relativizing the “son of god,” Peppard demonstrates where the present-day relevance and true challenge of this term might be located: not in metaphysics but in concrete social models for how the human family can truly become humane.

Brigitte Kahl is a professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York.