The Lord among lords: Christ’s imperial cult

Proponents of the early emergence of divine christology sometimes appeal to Paul’s creedal formulation in 1 Corinthians 8:6. These interpreters maintain that the Apostle attests to the widespread acceptance of Christ’s deity just two decades after the death of Jesus.

For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

One academic advocate of this reading, Richard Bauckham, writes: “The only possible way to understand Paul as maintaining monotheism [in 1 Cor 8:6] is to understand him to be including Jesus in the Shema1… [Paul] is identifying Jesus as the ‘Lord’ whom the Shema affirms to be one… the unique identity of the one God consists of the one God, the Father, and the one Lord, his Messiah.”

For Bauckham and others who locate the birth of divine christology shortly after the crucifixion, Paul has in 1 Cor 8:6 split Israel’s shema into two parts (God & Lord) but also conserved Jewish monolatrous faith (“there is no God [worthy of worship] but one”—1 Cor 8:4).2 Accordingly, Israel’s single divine patron—the being long ago revealed to Moses at Sinai—is composed of Elohim (God, i.e. the Father) and Adonai (the Lord, i.e. Jesus the Messiah). In this way Paul has adapted the shema so as to divide it, and in dividing it he has included Christ in what Bauckham calls the “divine identity” of the one God. Whether this christological insight was provoked by Jesus’ words, by his resurrection, or by the testimony of his spirit, in Bauckham’s view earliest Christianity—at least inasmuch as it is represented by Paul—recognized Christ as the God of Israel.

Monarch and son

Bauckham’s insistence that this is the only way—or even the best way—to understand Paul’s adaptation of Israel’s ancestral confession is flawed. In the first place, Christ’s status as “Lord” need not identify him as the Adonai of the Hebrew scriptures (i.e. Yahweh). On the contrary, Paul and other early Christian writers recognize Jesus as κύριος insomuch as he has come into possession of the earthly political order. “Lord” in this context is a practical and not an ontological designation.3 Christ receives God’s lordship but is not himself the Lord God. Rather, allowed to rule in his father’s stead for a time, the prince remains the monarch’s son.

Consider these examples of this dynamic:

  • Jesus was “made both Lord and Christ” after his death (Acts 2:34-36, cf. Genesis 45:6), thus receiving the “holy and sure blessings promised to the ancestor of King David” (Acts 13:34, cf. 2 Samuel 7:8-16, Luke 1:32).
  • Jesus was “highly exalted” and given the highest “name” after his death so that every authority might submit to him as “Lord” (Phil 2:9-11).
  • “All authority in heaven and on earth” was given to Jesus after the resurrection so that “all nations” might obey God’s commands (Matthew 28:18-20).
  • Jesus “received authority” after his death with which to rule the nations with an “iron rod” (Revelation 2:26-27).

The narrative logic of these texts is not that Jesus became the Lord God, but that the Lord God entrusted to him his own lordly authority. For these first Christians, God’s shocking action to exalt the crucified Christ as Lord—that is, as imperial sovereign over the nations—conformed to the mythic skeleton latent in Psalm 110:1—”Yahweh says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.'” What was at stake in this lordship, the lordship of Christ, therefore, was not Christ’s identity as God but his function as God in these last days of the present evil age. Now installed as God’s right-hand man, Christ alone would “shatter kings” and “execute judgement among the nations” on the day of God’s wrath (Psalm 110:5-6). He alone would exert and establish God’s rule, God’s judgement, and God’s mercy within the world by subjugating “every ruler and every authority and every power” (1 Cor 15:24, cf. Rev 2:27-27, Mt 28:18). Once this task had been accomplished—the messianic kingdom firmly rooted in the inhabited world—Christ would then hand over the kingdom to its true owner, God the Father, and thus dispose of the authority he had been given when the purpose of delegated divine lordship had finally exhausted (1 Cor 15:27-28). As in his obedient death, therefore, Christ would again prove to be a submissive son—first by dutifully managing his father’s estate (i.e. Israel’s kingdom) and second by humbly ceding the property back to God once every enemy had been defeated.

Granted then that Paul understands Christ to be Lord in this practical sense rather than in an ontological sense, he has not split the shema in 1 Cor 8:6 so much as supplemented it with the standard christological confession of the earliest churches: “Jesus is Lord” (cf. Rom 10:9, 1 Cor 12:3). It was now incumbent upon Israel and the nations to honor God’s king alongside God himself (cf. Psalm 2).4

Earthly gods and lords

One contextual problem threatens to sink this supplementary reading of Paul’s shema confession. In the larger context of 1 Cor 8:6 the Apostle contrasts the polylatrous and idolatrous worship of the pagans with the monolatrous and aniconic worship of the Christians. While Greeks served a multitude of dubious gods, Paul demands Christians serve the one transcendent creator God alone. In this rhetorical context, therefore, the Lord Christ stands in parallel with the heathen deities—being, like them, a divine object of worship.

Yet given the nature of pagan idolatry this problem is not insurmountable. While it is true that Paul is discussing the idolatrous worship of “many gods and many lords,” many of whom exist “in heaven,” he also acknowledges that some of these gods and lords exist “on the earth” (1 Cor 8:5). That Paul has in view only the pagan deities (e.g. the Olympians) is therefore unlikely. Various self-aggrandizing kings and emperors incorporated themselves into the idolatrous system, becoming, like their heavenly counterparts, recipients of pagan worship. Jewish tradition reviled such figures for their impious claims and presumptuous interference in Israel’s cult.

These men included Pharaohs (Ez 29:1-5), kings of Tyre (Ez 28:1-10), kings of Babylonia (Is 14:3-23), Antiochus Epiphanes (Dan 7:23-37, 11:36-39, 2 Macc 9:5-12), and some Roman emperors. These despots hoisted upon themselves divine epithets (e.g. “god”) and, in the opinion of pious Jews, seized the authority reserved for God alone. The emperor Domitian, ruling towards the end of the 1st century, for instance, emulated this long line of megalomaniac princes by making himself the “lord and god” of his subjects (cf. John 20:28).

Identifying themselves as god-kings then, such rulers demanded the worship befitting a god through sacrificial and idolatrous means. Antiochus erected a statue of himself as Jupiter in Jerusalem’s temple. Statues of Augustus as Jupiter incarnate and of Nero as Apollo incarnate were treated as idols across the empire. Christians regarded the ascendancy of other blasphemous god-kings as an eschatological certainty. A “man of lawlessness” would take his seat in the Temple “declaring himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:4, cf. Mark 13:14) and an all-powerful “beast” would receive worship through his “image” (Revelation 13). For these early Christians, the cult of the divine emperor was surely coming to once again test God’s people.

Paul would have therefore included these rulers among the “many [so-called] gods and many lords” who live “upon the earth.” They too were objects of idolatrous worship and their cults uniquely threatened Jewish integrity in the past and Christian integrity in the present. Paul’s intention, moreover, is not to contrast the Lord Christ with, for instance, the Lord Jupiter, but rather to situate Jesus in opposition to the pagan god-kings of the nations, namely Caesar. Christ alone, not Rome’s regent, was Heaven’s son, the single divinely-appointed lord of the world.4

One true emperor

Still, like those pagan pretenders, the Lord Jesus would serve as the mediator and representative of his divine patron, the God of Israel. “Through” Christ the paternal source of “all things” would bring about “all [eschatological] things” by manipulating the world toward his own ends, toward his absolute rule (cf. Matthew 6:10). Like Caesar then, the one Lord Jesus would hold the office of high priest so as to grant his churches access to divine favor and divine security into the eschaton. At the glorious close of this wicked age Jesus would publicly confirm his status as the one Lord, killing his imperial rival and supplanting the idolatrous cults once and for all.

1—”Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4 NET).

2—While other lesser gods may exist and exert their influence among humans, there is only one true creator God who is all-powerful and thus worthy of worship.

3—New Testament authors sometimes allow the Lord Jesus to fulfill Old Testament prophecies concerning the Lord God because they believed Christ had become the agent of God’s action in the world. Ontological identification of Christ with God (i.e. Christ is God) would therefore not have been necessary to generate this hermeneutic phenomenon.

4—In Israel’s gloried past the people had “bowed down” (προσκυνέω) before “the Lord and the [Davidic] king” (1 Chronicles 29:19) so as to demonstrate their submission to God and God’s son, Solomon. The Psalmist awaits a future king who will secure the same obeisance: “May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust. May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service” (Psalm 72:9-11).

2 thoughts on “The Lord among lords: Christ’s imperial cult

  1. There would be no debate if Christianity and Judaism admit a single corrupted scripture answers the ‘why’ of being wrong. Yeshua delivered an amended Sinai covenant to the Jews to prepare them for the fall of the 2nd Temple. Obvious had the early church not rewritten Jeremiah 31:30-32:

    “Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, and I will form a covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, a new covenant. Not like the covenant that I formed with their forefathers on the day I took them by the hand to take them out of the land of Egypt, that they broke My covenant, although I was a lord over them, says the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will form with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will place My law in their midst and I will inscribe it upon their hearts, and I will be their G†d and they shall be My people.”

    Compare the Hebrew translation to those taken from the Christian NIV: “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.”

    The only instance a new testament is mentioned was distorted. The words “…after those days” refers to Yeshua and the fall of the 2nd Temple after which the Torah would survive in their midst and inscribed on their hearts as a collective memory and aspiration; a people released from the strict dietary, civil and temple laws in anticipation of living under the roof of the house promised to David in 1 Chronicles 17:8-14…Christian western civilization.

    The covenant was not “passed” but rather two covenants in perfect accord with Jeremiah 31:30-32 were issued for entirely different reasons for two entirely different peoples; the convergence of forces and circumstances in first century Judea made the destruction of the Jewish institutions of the time inevitable, and G†d knew long before that the second temple would fall…G†d simply made long term plans for that eventuality.

    “And it will come to pass when your days are finished to go with your forefathers, then I shall raise up your seed after you, who will be of your sons, and I shall establish his kingdom. He will build Me a house, and I shall establish his throne forever. I shall be to him as a father, and he will be to Me as a son, and I shall not remove My loving-kindness from him as I removed [it] from he who was before you. And I shall station him in My house and in My kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever.”

    In this context every verse makes uncommon sense despite the efforts of the early church fathers to squeeze a round world into the square hole of human designs.


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