Worshipping Apollonius, Orpheus, Jesus, and Abraham
by James Tabor
Julia Domna, who was born in Syria, became the wife of the Emperor, Septimius Severus (193-211 AD). She was highly regarded as a patron of artists and writers. It was she who commissioned Philostratus to research and write the Apollonius of Tyana biography. The book proved very popular, and exerted an influence on subsequent emperors. The immediate successor to Septimius Severus, Caracalla (211-217 AD), built a shrine to Apollonius. A few years later, Emperor Severus Alexander (222-235 AD), according to one ancient writer, had a very interesting array of statues in his private chapel, namely images of Apollonius of Tyana, Orpheus the Greek mystic, Jesus of Nazareth, and Abraham. Talk about an eclectic mix, or “covering ones bases.” I think this shows that in the early 3rd century CE, a hundred years before the emperor Constantine, Jesus was being made into a cult figure that was popular within Roman culture–even by the emperor himself. It is even more fascinating that Abraham (not Moses) is included, showing, I think, the widespread popularity of the Hebrew tales of origins that were increasingly attracting crowds of “God-fearers” in the synagogues of early Roman empire. Recall that Paul writes to non-Jewish converts in Greece and Rome, freely mentioning “Abraham” as a figure they might know something about (Galatians 4, Romans 4).
In the late 1990s on the prison grounds at the base of Tel Megiddo in northern Israel archaeologists discovered further evidence of devotion to Jesus as a god by the Roman army. They uncovered a chapel or “Prayer Hall” of the Second Traiana and the Sixth Ferrata Roman legions that were stationed there. On one of the mosaics was the inscription “The God-loving Akeptous has offered the table to god Jesus Christ as a memorial.” You can read a fascinating report here in Biblical Archaeology Review, plus the excavation report here. I highly recommend the little booklet by Yotam Tepper and Leah Di Segni, A Christian Pray Hall of the Third Century CE at Kefar ‘Othnay (Legio): Excavations at the Megiddo Prison 2005, published by the Israel Antiquities Authority. It contains wonderful maps, photos, and illustrations and should be part of every library on Christian Origins.
I will write more on pre-Constantinian evidence of early Christianity among the Romans in subsequent posts, so stay tuned.
- Lampridius, Vita Alexander Severus xxix. This reference has been dismissed by some as a Christian interpolation but I think there is no reason to doubt this tradition, especially given the Megiddo finds and other evidence of Roman army devotion to Christ as a god, including the mysterious palindrome Sator-Rotas graffiti at Pompey and elsewhere. [↩]