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Isaiah 40.3 and the Synoptic Gospels’ Parody of the Roman Road System

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 December 2019

Edward P. Meadors*
Affiliation:
Department of Biblical Studies, Taylor University, Upland, IN46989, USA. Email: edmeadors@taylor.edu

Abstract

This article proposes that the Synoptic Gospels’ pronouncements of Isa 40.3 (Matt 4.3; Mark 1.2–3; Luke 3.4–6) invite a comparison with the Roman road system and its extensive broadcast of Roman imperial ideology. Heralding the sovereignty of a coming king on newly constructed roads through difficult terrain, Matthew, Mark and Luke portray the coming of the kingdom of God in terms analogous to the laying of Roman roads followed by the enforcement of Roman rule throughout the Roman Empire. If Isa 40.3 heralded the arrival of the true God through the ministry of Jesus, as the Synoptic Gospels proclaim, then Rome's pretentions were by implication counterfeit. The engineering feats of raising ravines, levelling heights, smoothing terrain and making straight highways denoted Roman expansion, conquest and the standardisation of Roman imperial ideology. In contradistinction, the Synoptic Gospels’ citations of Isa 40.3 presage the triumph of God, while simultaneously parodying Roman imperial ideology.

Type
Articles
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019

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References

1 I use the term ‘parody’ in reference to ‘any cultural practice which provides a relatively polemical allusive imitation of another cultural production or practice’ (Dentith, S., Parody (London: Routledge, 2000) 9Google Scholar). The terms παρῳδία, παρῳδός and παρῳδή share a complex, dynamic semantic history with origins as early as Aristotle (384–322 bce) and as contemporary as post-modernism. The early Christian usage we envision constructs its message upon corrective polemical comparison but without the comic nuances that characterise most literature that has been classified as parody throughout literary history. On the literary and etymological history of parody, see: Rose, M. A., Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-modern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 447Google Scholar; Dentith, Parody, 39–54; Householder, F. W. Jr., ‘ΠΑΡΩΙΔΙΑ’, Journal of Classical Philology 39.1 (1944) 19Google Scholar. On distinguishing the ancient form from its modern iterations, see Hutcheon, L., A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000) 3049Google Scholar.

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8 For a photo of the King's Highway (Num 20.17; 21.22) used by the invading kings in Genesis 14, see G. E. Wright and F. V. Filson, eds., The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956) 40.

9 Hence Strabo: ‘The Romans had the best foresight in these matters while the Greeks make but little account of, such as the construction of roads and aqueducts’ (Geogr. 5.3.8.235).

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23 See Cassius Dio 54.8.4. Staccioli, Roads, 58.

24 Staccioli, Roads, 55.

25 Pfanner, M. (‘Über das Herstellen von Porträts: Ein Beitrag zu Rationalisierungsmaßnahmen und Produktionsmechanismen von Massenware im späten Hellenismus und in der römischen Kaiserzeit’, Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 104 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1989) 157257, at 178Google Scholar) has approximated the number of portraits of Augustus in antiquity to between 25,000 and 50,000, basing his calculation on the number of portraits typical of each city multiplied by the number of cities in the Roman Empire. The most comprehensive compilation of extant portraits of Augustus is found in Boschung, D., Die Bildnisse des Augustus: Das römische Herrscherbild, Part 1, vol. ii (Berlin: Gebrüder Mann, 1993)Google Scholar, which corroborates the ubiquitous presence of Augustan statues and busts throughout and beyond the empire.

26 See Cooley, A. E., Res Gestae Divi Augusti: Text, Translation, and Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) 148Google Scholar.

27 Translation from Strabo, Geography, vol. ii:Books 3–5 (trans. H. L. Jones; LCL 50; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960) 275.

28 Translation from Strabo, Geography, ii.405.

29 Translation from A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb, trans. Reliefs of Roman soldiers constructing roads on the way to Dacia may be seen on Trajan's column in scenes 13, 22–3, 41–2 (see F. A. Lepper and S. S. Frere, Trajan's Column: A New Edition of the Cichorius Plates (Gloucester: Allan Sutton, 1988) Plates xvii, lxvi, lxvii).

30 Translation from Josephus, The Jewish War (trans. G. A. Williamson, rev. E. Mary Smallwood; Middlesex: Penguin, 1985) 198 (emphasis added). For epigraphical evidence for Vespasian building roads in Syria, Cappadocia and Asia Minor during the mid-70s ce, see Isaac, B., The Limits of Empire: The Roman Army in the East (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992) 34–6Google Scholar.

31 Translation from Josephus, The Jewish War, 200 (emphasis added).

32 Isaac, B. and Roll, I., ‘A Milestone of ad 69 from Judea: The Elder Trajan and Vespasian’, JRS 66 (1976) 1519Google Scholar; ‘The Roman Road System in Judea’, The Jerusalem Cathedra 3 (1983) 136–61, at 140.

33 Chevallier, R., Roman Roads (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976) 204Google Scholar. On the intensity of Roman road building leading up to the Jewish revolts of 66–70 and 132–5, see Avi-Yonah, M., ‘The Development of the Roman Road System in Palestine’, IEJ 1 (1951) 5460Google Scholar.

34 Laurence, Roads of Roman Italy, 39.

35 Translation from Plutarch, Lives, vol. x:Agis and Cleomenes. Tiberius and Caius Gracchus. Philopoemen and Flaminius (trans. B. Perrin; LCL 102; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921) 212–13.

36 Roll, ‘The Roman Road System in Judea’, 152.

37 Chevallier, Roman Roads, 39–47. Polybius (ca. 200–118 bce), describing a distance in north-eastern Spain from Emporiae to the Rhône, comments: ‘this last part of the road has now been carefully measured by the Romans and is marked with milestones every eighth stade’ (The Rise of the Roman Empire 3.39 (trans. I. Scott-Kilvert; London: Penguin, 1979) 212). With approximate measures for the stade being 600 ft and the Roman mile 5,000 ft, every ‘eighth stade’ would be close to a literal mile. Research has identified over 600 milestones in Anatolia (Cimok, F., Roads of Ancient Anatolia: A Turizm Yayinlari: Istanbul, 2008) 13Google Scholar.

38 Cimok, Roads of Ancient Anatolia, 14.

39 French, D. H., ‘Pre- and Early-Roman Roads of Asia Minor: The earliest Roman, paved roads in Asia Minor’, Arkeoloji Dergisi 5 (1997) 179–87Google Scholar, at 181.

40 I. Roll, ‘The Roman Road System in Judea’, 153. See also Plutarch, Life of Caius Gracchus (7.1–2). The Roman milestones Roll describes in Israel were post-70 ce but nonetheless document the same Roman strategy of subordinating and ideologically centralising the provinces through epigraphic propaganda as witnessed by Paul and the earliest apostles in Galatia, Pisidia, Asia, Macedonia and Achaia. At the time of Roll's writing, close to 500 milestones had been discovered in Israel (152).

41 See Cooley, Res Gestae, 1–55.

42 See P. Thonemann, ‘A copy of Augustus’ Res Gestae at Sardis’, Historia-Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 61.3 (2012) 282–8.

43 For text and translation of the Priene Calendar Inscription, see F. W. Danker, Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of a Graeco-Roman and New Testament Semantic Field (St. Louis: Clayton, 1982) 217. The broad distribution of the inscription is documented by the instruction ‘And the same announcement shall be made in all the cities where the contests are held in honor of the Caesars, and the rescript of the proconsul is to be inscribed together with the Asian decree on a stele of white marble, which is to be placed in the temple precincts of Roma and Augustus’ (Danker, Benefactor, 218). See Evans, C. A., ‘Mark's Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel’, JGRChJ 1 (2000) 6781Google Scholar. On the extra-biblical backgrounds of the term εὐαγγέλιον, see Dickson, J. P., ‘Gospel as News: εὐαγγελ- from Aristophanes to the Apostle Paul’, NTS 51 (2005) 212–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 See M. W. Wilson, ‘Hilasterion And Imperial Ideology: A New Reading of Romans 3:25’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 73 (3), no pages; online: a4067, at https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v73i3.4067: ‘The altars of Metropolis functioned similarly as social and psychological expressions of the belief among the elite in Metropolis that Octavian was the divine gift of God sent to re-establish order and peace in the world through his reconciling power. Thus, it was inevitable that the imperial ideology that Octavian/Augustus was the reconciler of the world would conflict with Paul's theology that Jesus Christ was in fact that reconciler.’ Pace P. Stuhlmacher, Das paulinische Evangelium i: Vorgeschichte (FRLANT 95; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1968) 207–44.

45 Cooley, Res Gestae, 58. This paragraph is dependent on Cooley, Res Gestae, 13–16.

46 On Paul and Empire, see Horsley, R. A., Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 1997)Google Scholar; Wright, N. T., Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013) 12711319Google Scholar.

47 See Wilson, M., ‘The Route of Paul's First Journey to Pisidian Antioch’, NTS 55 (2009) 471–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar: ‘by far the easiest and probably the safest route for Paul and Barnabas to travel to Pisidian Antioch was the western route along the Via Sebaste – a conclusion supported by such experts on Anatolia as French and Mitchell’ (482).

48 D. H. French, Roman Roads and Milestones of Asia Minor; Electronic Monograph 2 (2012), at: http://biaa.ac.uk/ckeditor/filemanager/userfiles/3.2%20gal%20final%20optimised.pdf (No. 90 (C) 150–1; No. 94 (B) 160; No. 95 (D) 161–).

49 For translations and abbreviations, see C. Bruun and J. Edmondson, The Oxford Handbook of Roman Epigraphy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) 787–98. The author wishes to thank Jonathan Edmondson for his translation and explanation of these inscriptions.

50 Wilson, Biblical Turkey, 170. On the dating of the Roman governors of Galatia, see R. K. Sherk, ‘Roman Galatia: The Governors from 26 bc to ad 114’, ANRW ii.7.2, 954–1052.

51 Wilson, Biblical Turkey, 206, 270. See also Burn, L., The British Museum Book of Greek and Roman Art (London: British Museum, 1991) 42Google Scholar, Fig. 29.

52 For Paul's walk from Troas along the sacred way to the Smintheum, see Thompson, G. L. and Wilson, M., ‘Paul's Walk to Assos: A Hodological Inquiry into its Geography, Archaeology, and Purpose’, Stones, Bones, and the Sacred: Essays on Material Culture and Ancient Religion in Honor of Dennis E. Smith (ed. Cadwallader, Alan H.; Atlanta: SBL, 2016) 269314CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 See Beard, M., The Roman Triumph (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007) 92–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54 Beard locates the religious association of Rome's gods with her military triumphs at the font of Rome's collective memory (SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (New York: Liveright, 2015) 53).

55 Translation from Ovid, Metamorphoses, vol. i:Books 1–8 (trans. F. J. Miller; LCL 42; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966) 15. The NT counterpart to the Roman myth is the heavenly Jerusalem disclosed in Revelation 21, whose one street (πλατεῖα) is pure gold, like transparent glass (Rev 21.21), and whose temple is ‘the Lord God, the Almighty (παντακράτωρ) and the Lamb’ (Rev 21.22).

56 For a detailed reconstruction of the Babylonian procession, see Finkel, I. L. and Seymour, M. J., eds., Babylon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 54–9Google Scholar.

57 Probably aware of both the Babylonian festival and its OT correspondences, the NT author of Revelation contextualised the pseudonym ‘Babylon’ to symbolise Rome, the city of contemporary pagan triumphs that marginalised Christians as Babylon had once marginalised Jews – parody being a major literary feature of Revelation. That the ‘Babylon’ of Revelation 17 is Rome is virtually beyond doubt as the reference to the seven mountains in 17.9 is clearly a reference to the celebration of Septimontium (‘seven mountains/hills’) held each December in ancient Rome. Beard comments, ‘“Septimontium” was the name of Rome before it became “Rome”’ (SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, 80).

58 Goldingay, J., The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014) 127Google Scholar: ‘From this use of “the nations” to refer to the empire, we might infer such a reference in other passages where there is no direct indication in the context.’

59 Num 20.19; 1 Kings 5.20; 20.31, 2, 45; 21.19; 2 Kings 18.17; 1 Sam 6.12; 2 Sam 20.12 (2x), 13; 1 Chron 26.16, 18; 2 Chron 9.11; Ps 84.6; Prov 16.17; Isa 7.3; 11.16; 19.23; 33.8; 36.2; 40.3; 49.11; 59.7; 62.10; Jer 31.21; Joel 2.8. The related term מַסְלוּל is used in Isa 35.8.

60 Koch, K. (‘דֶרֶךְ’, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. iii (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) 270–93, at 278)Google Scholar and, similarly, Dorsey, D. A., The Roads and Highways of Ancient Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1991) 229)Google Scholar. Tidwell, ‘MESILLÂ’, 256–8, 63, 69.

61 Tidwell, ‘MESILLÂ’, 258.

62 See also Tidwell, N. L, ‘A Road and a Way’, Semitics 7 (1980) 5080Google Scholar.

63 Westermann, K., Isaiah 40–66 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969) 38Google Scholar. Diodorus Siculus (writing ca. 60–30 bce) transmits the divine associations of road building through the myth of the goddess Semiramis, the Assyrian/Babylonian queen who became the prototype for every goddess and female cult figure in the ancient world: ‘she became ambitious both to leave an immortal monument of herself and at the same time to shorten her way; consequently she cut through the cliffs, filled up the low places, and thus at great expense built a short road, which to this day is called the road of Semiramis’ (The Library of History of Diodorus Siculus (ed. C. H. Oldfather; LCL 279; 1.1–2.34; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1933) 397).

64 However, the association of the building of a highway with the return from exile does appear in Isa 35.10, which has clear parallels with Isa 40.3–5.

65 Oswalt, J. N., The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40–66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 51Google Scholar; Blenkinsopp, J., Isaiah 40–55 (New York: Doubleday, 2002) 181Google Scholar; Goldingay, J. and Payne, D., Isaiah 40–55 (2 vols.; ICC; London: T&T Clark, 2006) ii.75Google Scholar.

66 Goldingay and Payne, Isaiah 40–55, ii.74.

67 Westermann (Isaiah 40–66, 38), following P. Volz, Jesaja ii (Leipzig: Scholl, 1932) 4.

68 Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40–55, 183.

69 See Evans, ‘Mark's Incipit’, 67–81.

70 Luke 1.79; 2.14, 29; 7.50; 8.48; 10.5, 6; 11.21; 12.51; 14.32; 19.38, 42; 24.36.

71 Luke 1.19; 2.10; 3.18; 4.18, 43; 7.22; 8.1; 9.6; 16.16; 20.1.

72 For further development of imperial correspondences in Luke, see Brent, ‘Luke-Acts and the Imperial Cult in Asia Minor’, 411–24.

73 Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20, lxxxix: ‘Christians well understood that their confession that Jesus was “Lord,” “Savior,” and “Son of God” directly competed with and challenged the Roman Emperor and the cult that had grown up around the office.’

74 Pace Kim, S., Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) 8Google Scholar; Barclay, J. M. G., Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011) 387CrossRefGoogle Scholar; McKnight, S. and Modica, J. (‘Conclusion’, Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in the New Testament (ed. McKnight, S. and Modica, J.; Downers Grove: IVP, 2013) 211–14, at 212)Google Scholar.