“My Lord and my God”

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In his discussion of the imperial cult in Paul and the Faithfulness of God Tom Wright notes that Domitian liked to be addressed as dominus et deus (“lord and god”)—a phrase “familiar to readers of John’s gospel” (341).

Domitian was emperor from AD 81-96. He revived the imperial cult, which had languished under Vespasian. Among other self-aggrandizing projects, he constructed an imperial temple at Ephesus, where, according to Wright, “fragments of what must have been a positively enormous statue of Domitian have come to light”. He also came down hard on foreign religions. Suetonius records that the tax on the Jews was “levied with the utmost rigour” (Suet. Dom. 12.2), and according to Eusebius, Domitian “became a successor of Nero in his hatred and enmity toward God”: he was “the second that stirred up a persecution against us” (Eus. Hist. eccl. 3.17). Tertullian accused Domitian of a rather half-hearted approach to persecution:

Domitian, too, a man of Nero’s type in cruelty, tried his hand at persecution; but as he had something of the human in him, he soon put an end to what he had begun, even restoring again those whom he had banished. (Tert. Apol. 5.4)

Suetonius maintains that Domitian was himself deviously responsible for the “lord and god” innovation:

With no less arrogance he began as follows in issuing a circular letter in the name of his procurators, “Our Master and our God bids that this be done.” And so the custom arose of henceforth addressing him in no other way even in writing or in conversation. (Suet. Dom. 13.2)

That Domitian actively encouraged the practice is sometimes disputed, but it is at least clear that it was customary for supplicants and sycophants to address him in this fashion:

For [Domitian] even insisted upon being regarded as a god and took vast pride in being called “master” and “god.” These titles were used not merely in speech but also in written documents. (Dio Cassius Hist. 67.4.7)

When he was on the point of being condemned, he begged that he might speak to the emperor in private, and thereupon did obeisance before him and after repeatedly calling him “master” and “god” (terms that were already being applied to him by others), he said…. (Dio Cassius Hist. 67.13.4)

Since the majority view is that John’s Gospel was written in Ephesus (see Irenaus Adv. Haer. 3.1.1) towards the end of Domitian’s reign, it is certainly worth considering whether Thomas’ exceptional confession “My Lord and my God” (ho kurios mou kai ho theos mou: Jn. 20:28) was not intended as a direct rebuttal to the popular, blasphemous and self-serving acclamation of Domitian as “my lord and my god”. In that respect it would be similar to the centurion’s ambiguous pronouncement following the death of Jesus: “Truly this was the son of God / a son of a god” (theou huios: Matt. 27:54).

The point of this observation is not that the Christological conclusion that Jesus is divine is thereby brought into question. It is rather that our Christology—our understanding of the “divinity” of Jesus—should take the polemical construction of the belief into account. There is a historical dynamic to the confession—and therefore a degree of contingency—that I think a narrative-historical theology might usefully preserve. Christology is confession before it is metaphysics, and confession is a political act.

It seems to me that the jury is still out on the dating of John. I don’t have much to go on at the moment, but this article by Stegall seems reasonably balanced—and inconclusive. Köstenberger is clearly not persuaded by Wallace’s argument about the present estin in John 5:2. The likelihood that the Gospel contains earlier traditions would account for much of the difficulty in dating it, and it may well be that Thomas’ confession was inserted at a late stage in the process as a direct counter to Domitian’s pretensions.

I think this is far from true. Evangelical scholars still hold that the books attributed to John come from c.95. It’s only the other books they generally agree came before 70. Critical scholarship, however, has consistently placed everything but the ‘authentic’ letters of Paul to a range of 70-110. J.A.T. Robinson was an anomaly, and his book barely made an impact on critical scholarship. Gentry’s book has weighty arguments, but is really only defended by other preterists. In general, both conservative and critical scholars agree Revelation was written c.95. What is slowly being considered is that (some of) the book’s content may have originated pre-70, but was written down during or after a couple of decades.

Gentry is full of holes and frequently misquotes and misrepresents his sources. His use of gematria is also odd, becasue he fails to take into account the rules of Jewish numerology, as in when the letter Nun appears a second time in a word, it is known as a “Final”, and takes the value of 700. So to be precise, NRWN QSR actually adds up to 1316 and not 666, which unfortunately for preterists supporting this error, can find no comfort in this argument at all, and if they do, they do so by being historically and etymologically inept. Robinson affrims the gospels as being circulated before 70 AD, but he never fully admits Revelation to have been written before then.  He slyly nudges his way back into the prevailing views of a later date when he attempts to insert John’s banishment on Patmos while “Domitian” was co-regent for Vespasian after the temple had been destroyed.

Mark Edward | Fri, 01/17/2014 - 17:16 | Permalink

On the topic of the phrase ‘lord and god’, I would recommend the article ‘ “Our Lord and God’ ” in Rev 4,11’, by Floyd O. Parker. He suggests the phrase has little relation to imperial claims of divinity, and instead simply go back to old testament sources where the two titles are frequently used of God. I think his final point was that the appearance of the two titles cannot be used to date the Revelation (or GJohn) with any certainty.

Thanks for the helpful comments, Mark.

It’s been amply demonstrated that much of the characteristically “Christian” language that we find in the New Testament can be mapped against both the Old Testament and Hellenistic-imperial discourse: gospel, son of God, salvation, etc. The words “Lord” and “God” obviously have an Old Testament background, but I think we have to assume that they would have had distinct pagan resonances too.

I don’t know the article you mention, but Suetonius’ dominus et deus noster seems to provide a closer parallel to ho kurios kai ho theos hēmōn (Rev. 4:1) than anything I can find in the Old Testament. In fact, it’s an exact parallel, given that Latin doesn’t have a definite article.

Alex Finkelson | Fri, 04/28/2017 - 16:52 | Permalink


Have you considered this text from Philo in relation to Thomas’ confession?

“For he [Moses] also was called the god and king of the whole nation, and he is said to have entered into the darkness where God was; that is to say, into the invisible, and shapeless, and incorporeal world, the essence, which is the model of all existing things, where he beheld things invisible to mortal nature; for, having brought himself and his own life into the middle, as an excellently wrought picture, he established himself as a most beautiful and Godlike work, to be a model for all those who were inclined to imitate him.”

Life of Moses 1.155-158

Perhaps John understands ‘God’ as a title bestowed upon Jesus after he underwent his glorification. This seems to be how Hebrews 1 uses Psalm 45 to describe the Son’s enthronement as ‘God’ after making purification for sin. Like Moses on Sinai then, Jesus entered into the presence of God by means of his death, resurrection, and exaltation. In that experience he “established himself as a most beautiful and godlike work.”

Marc Taylor | Wed, 05/03/2017 - 02:16 | Permalink

Virtually every time “my God” is employed in Scripture it always refers to the true God with only 2 examples of this expression referring to idols (Isaiah 44:17; Daniel 4:8). Being raised a monotheistic Jew Thomas would have known full well that by referring to the Lord Jesus as “my God” he placed Him in the category of the true God in opposition to any idol.