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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Messianic Themes in The Aeneid and the Ancient World

I have challenged myself this year to read (or re-read) several of the classics of western civilization.  I have already read The Iliad and The Odyssey and have written a little bit about each of them.  I am currently working my way through The Aneid by the Roman poet, Virgil. 

Virgil’s Aeneid was written during a time of political and social upheaval; everything was in flux and flummox.  The Roman republic had fallen, Rome had just come through an extended period of civil war – or rather wars.   The Aeneid was written to legitimize and validate the rule of Julius Caesar and, by extension, his adopted-son (and grand-nephew)  Augustus who, it was expected, would bring back the traditional Roman values (highlighted in Virgil’s epic poem) and restore peace and prosperity.

Virgil thought very highly of Augustus - describing him in the fourth of his Eclogues (poems written somewhere between 44 and 38 BCE) in terms that will seem familiar to Christians:
The firstborn of the New Ages is already on his way from high heaven down to earthWith him, the Iron Age shall end and Golden Man inherit all the world.Smile on the Baby’s birth, immaculate Lucina [goddess of childbirth];your own Apollo is enthroned at last.

 In 9 BCE (a few years after Virgil’s work) an inscription from the Provincial Assembly of Asia announced the rule of Augustus in even more explicitly messianic terms: 
The most divine Caesar…we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things…; for when everything was falling [into disorder] and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave to the whole world a new aura; Caesar…the common good Fortune of all… The beginning of life and vitality… All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as their new beginning of the year… Whereas Providence, which has regulated our whole existence…has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us [the emperor] Augustus, whom it [Providence] filled with strength for the welfare of men, and who being sent to us and our descendants as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order, and [whereas] having become [god] manifest, Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times…in surpassing all the benefactors who preceded him…, and whereas, finally, the birthday of the god [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of good news (evangelion) concerning him [therefore let a new era begin from his birth]. (OGIS 2.#458)

 Back to Virgil - in the first book of his Aeneid he describes Jove (Zeus in Greek mythology) unrolling the scroll of fate in order to reveal to Venus (Aphrodite in Greek mythology) the fate of her son, Aeneas.  He would endure many trials and difficulties, but would eventually become the ancestor of the Roman people (and specifically of Julius and Augustus…). In his revelation to Venus, Jove says: 
On them [the Romans] I set no limits, space or time:
I have granted them power, empire without end. (1. 333 – 334)

Which brought to my mind two things from the Hebrew/Christian scriptures.  First, in the New Testament book “The Acts of the Apostles” we find the apostle Paul speaking to the philosophers of Athens at the Areopagus:
The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.  (NRSV Acts 17: 24 – 27)

 It also brings to mind the promises God made to David for a never ending dynasty: 
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. (2 Samuel 7: 12 – 13)

 These Messianic expressions and expectations were familiar across the ancient world.  Christians reading the New Testament should not be threatened by these similarities; they are part of the context and culture of the world in which those scriptures were written.  These familiar messianic expectations and expressions even helped to shape and form those New Testament descriptions of the God/Man Jesus of Nazareth.

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