WordPlay: Roman Power (Ῥώμη Ῥώμη), Part 2

In part 1 we explored the connection between power and Rome on the basic level of linguistics. In part 2 we will look at the Greek usage of ρώμη in the Bible.

Greek Evidence

How often was ρώμη used by ancient Greek authors? You can see for yourself here. While  ρώμη was not the most common word for “power” or “strength,” it was used by many authors. It was not a little known or idiosyncratic word.

LXX Evidence

Ῥώμη never occurs in the most widely accepted books of the OT. However, the Greek Bible (LXX) contains a number of writings that were not included in the Masoretic Hebrew canon. Do any of these books use the term ρώμη to indicate “strength”?

It turns out that they do, but it is very unusual. 1 Maccabees has the term 12 times, all of them denoting the city of Rome, while 2 and 3 Maccabees include the word as denoting “strength,” as does Proverbs 6:8.

Here is Proverbs 6:6-8 according to the LXX (the MT is missing most of v.8):

6 Go to the ant, O sluggard; and see, and emulate his ways, and become wiser than he.

7 For whereas he has no husbandry, nor any one to compel him, and is under no master,

8 he prepares food for himself in the summer, and lays by abundant store in harvest. Or go to the bee, and learn how diligent she is, and how earnestly she is engaged in her work; whose labours kings and private men use for health, and she is desired and respected by all:

though weak in body (τῇ ρώμῃ ἀσθενής),

she is advanced by honouring wisdom (τὴν σοφίαν τιμήσασα).

The juxtaposition of weakness (or sickness) of the “(strength of the) body” (ρώμῃ), is a key Pauline idea, as we will see, as well as the preeminence of wisdom over physical strength.

2 Maccabees 3:26 has ρώμῃ, and below is the fuller context of the passage (3:7-30):

7 Now when Apollonius came to the king, and had shewed him of the money whereof he was told, the king chose out Heliodorus his treasurer, and sent him with a commandment to bring him the foresaid money.

8 So forthwith Heliodorus took his journey; under a colour of visiting the cities of Celosyria and Phenice, but indeed to fulfil the king’s purpose.

9 And when he was come to Jerusalem, and had been courteously received of the high priest of the city, he told him what intelligence was given of the money, and declared wherefore he came, and asked if these things were so indeed.

10 Then the high priest told him that there was such money laid up for the relief of widows and fatherless children:

11 And that some of it belonged to Hircanus son of Tobias, a man of great dignity, and not as that wicked Simon had misinformed: the sum whereof in all was four hundred talents of silver, and two hundred of gold:

12 And that it was altogether impossible that such wrongs should be done unto them, that had committed it to the holiness of the place, and to the majesty and inviolable sanctity of the temple, honoured over all the world.

13 But Heliodorus, because of the king’s commandment given him, said, That in any wise it must be brought into the king’s treasury.

14 So at the day which he appointed he entered in to order this matter: wherefore there was no small agony throughout the whole city.

15 But the priests, prostrating themselves before the altar in their priests’ vestments, called unto heaven upon him that made a law concerning things given to he kept, that they should safely be preserved for such as had committed them to be kept.

16 Then whoso had looked the high priest in the face, it would have wounded his heart: for his countenance and the changing of his colour declared the inward agony of his mind.

17 For the man was so compassed with fear and horror of the body, that it was manifest to them that looked upon him, what sorrow he had now in his heart.

18 Others ran flocking out of their houses to the general supplication, because the place was like to come into contempt.

19 And the women, girt with sackcloth under their breasts, abounded in the streets, and the virgins that were kept in ran, some to the gates, and some to the walls, and others looked out of the windows.

20 And all, holding their hands toward heaven, made supplication.

21 Then it would have pitied a man to see the falling down of the multitude of all sorts, and the fear of the high priest being in such an agony.

 22 They then called upon the Almighty Lord to keep the things committed of trust safe and sure for those that had committed them.

23 Nevertheless Heliodorus executed that which was decreed.

24 Now as he was there present himself with his guard about the treasury, the Lord of spirits, and the Prince of all power, caused a great apparition, so that all that presumed to come in with him were astonished at the power of God (τοῦ Θεοῦ δύναμιν), and fainted, and were sore afraid.

25 For there appeared unto them an horse with a terrible rider upon him, and adorned with a very fair covering, and he ran fiercely, and smote at Heliodorus with his forefeet, and it seemed that he that sat upon the horse had complete harness of gold.

26 Moreover two other young men appeared before him, notable in strength (τῇ ρώμῃ), excellent in beauty, and comely in apparel, who stood by him on either side; and scourged him continually, and gave him many sore stripes.

27 And Heliodorus fell suddenly unto the ground, and was compassed with great darkness: but they that were with him took him up, and put him into a litter.

28 Thus him, that lately came with a great train and with all his guard into the said treasury, they carried out, being unable to help himself with his weapons: and manifestly they acknowledged the power of God.

29 For he by the hand of God was cast down, and lay speechless without all hope of life.

30 But they praised the Lord, that had miraculously honoured his own place: for the temple; which a little afore was full of fear and trouble, when the Almighty Lord appeared, was filled with joy and gladness.

 31 Then straightways certain of Heliodorus’ friends prayed Onias, that he would call upon the most High to grant him his life, who lay ready to give up the ghost.

32 So the high priest, suspecting lest the king should misconceive that some treachery had been done to Heliodorus by the Jews, offered a sacrifice for the health of the man.

33 Now as the high priest was making an atonement, the same young men in the same clothing appeared and stood beside Heliodorus, saying, Give Onias the high priest great thanks, insomuch as for his sake the Lord hath granted thee life:

34 And seeing that thou hast been scourged from heaven, declare unto all men the mighty power of God. And when they had spoken these words, they appeared no more.

35 So Heliodorus, after he had offered sacrifice unto the Lord, and made great vows unto him that had saved his life, and saluted Onias, returned with his host to the king.

Here again we have a juxtaposition of human power and hubris (Rome as represented by Heliodorus) and divine power (ρώμῃ as the two angels). Irony is added by the play off of Heliodorus’s name, which means “gift of the sun”: he is cast to the ground and surrounded by “great darkness.” The representative of the sun beaten and cast into darkness, showing that he is not truly ρώμῃ. He even is at the point of death and is saved only by the priest sacrificing to God on his behalf.

(note: this episode is quite similar in some aspects to the Damascus Road experience of Paul)

3 Maccabees 2:4 has the last instance of ρώμῃ. The book begins with the attempt of Antiochus to enter the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem (similar to the actions of Heliodorus above). The was a profanation of the Temple and greatly distressed the Jews. Chapter 2 reads:

1 Now was it that the high priest Simon bowed his knees over against the holy place, and spread out his hands in reverent form, and uttered the following supplication:

2 O Lord, Lord, King of the heavens, and Ruler of the whole creation, Holy among the holy, sole Governor, Almighty, give ear to us who are oppressed by a wicked and profane one, who exulteth in his confidence and strength.

3 It is thou, the Creator of all, the Lord of the universe, who art a righteous Governor, and judgest all who act with pride and insolence.

4 It was thou who didst destroy the former workers of unrighteousness, among whom were the giants, who trusted in their strength (ῥώμῃ) and hardihood, by covering them with a measureless flood.

5 It was thou who didst make the Sodomites, those workers of exceeding iniquity, men notorious for their vices, an example to after generations, when thou didst cover them with fire and brimstone.

6 Thou didst make known thy power when thou causedst the bold Pharaoh, the enslaver of thy people, to pass through the ordeal of many and diverse inflictions.

7 And thou rolledst the depths of the sea over him, when he made pursuit with chariots, and with a multitude of followers, and gavest a safe passage to those who put their trust in thee, the Lord of the whole creation.

8 These saw and felt the works of thine hands, and praised thee the Almighty.

9 Thou, O King, when thou createdst the illimitable and measureless earth, didst choose out this city: thou didst make this place sacred to thy name, albeit thou needest nothing: thou didst glorify it with thine illustrious presence, after constructing it to the glory of thy great and honourable name.

10 And thou didst promise, out of love to the people of Israel, that should we fall away from thee, and become afflicted, and then come to this house and pray, thou wouldest hear our prayer.

11 Verily thou art faithful and true.

12 And when thou didst often aid our fathers when hard pressed, and in low estate, and deliveredst them out of great dangers,

13 see now, holy King, how through our many and great sins we are borne down, and made subject to our enemies, and are become weak and powerless.

14 We being in this low condition, this bold and profane man seeks to dishonour this thine holy place, consecrated out of the earth to the name of thy Majesty.

15 Thy dwelling place, the heaven of heavens, is indeed unapproachable to men.

Again we have the contrast between earthly power and the power of God. In all 3 instances kings and/or representatives of kings are contrasted with the weak in body who are strong in wisdom. Human power is therefore set up as the antithesis of divine wisdom, which is the ultimate power of God.

NT Evidence

In the NT ρώμη always means Rome. While the OT literature was read in the Roman context in the 1st century, it preceded the rise of Roman power. But in the NT Rome was always in control. The play on words was therefore implicit. When Paul says that he “must also see Rome” (Acts 19:21) the reader also heard that he “must also see power.” Paul, whose “bodily presence is weak” (2 Cor. 10:10) is the antithesis of ρώμη both in terms of Rome and bodily strength. Jesus himself was made to look weak by the powerful Rome, yet just as we saw in Maccabees this weakness was overturned by the power of God and Roman power was put to shame but the risen Christ. Jesus and Paul both carry names that denote victory through weakness when coupled with their personal stories: Jesus (“YHWH saves”) is killed by Rome but saved by God, while Paul (“small one”) was formerly the powerful persecutor Saul (“desired one”) who became weak for the sake of the Gospel.

 

Conclusion

The idea that Rome was the world power and for all intents and purposes would remain so until it was conquered by God himself was reinforced in 1st century minds by the meaning of the term for Rome itself: it literally meant “power.” This power was human and fundamentally at odds with the power of God, who sided with the oppressed and powerless. The Davidic empire in the minds of readers was just that: it was only in their minds and their texts. It was tale told about the distant past, and one that fostered the hope that their current lack of power would somehow be reversed and a Davidic ruler would again emerge to vindicate Israel and their God.

This reversal, the readers were told, would be accomplished by God and would be a result of both God’s mercy and the turning of Israel to God. It was the apostasy and sin of Israel that had resulted in their current powerlessness, and their return to God that would usher in the Messianic age and the conquering of the power of men (Rome).

For the followers of Jesus, this teaching became reinterpreted after the Resurrection. Rome had conquered Jesus, and yet Jesus had emerged victorious days later by the power of God. The intervention of God in raising Jesus was exactly what the hope of Israel should have been, in retrospect. Not a military conquest, but a victory over death itself and the power of man to inflict death. The humble and powerless Jesus on the cross had been shown by God to be the exalted and powerful Christ at the right hand of God. The hope of Israel had been transferred to another plane and register. The very idea of power had been transformed, and this transformation had been exploited by Paul, who, like Jesus, made weakness a sign of power. Not just any weakness, mind you, but weakness in bodily strength (ρώμη) coupled with power in wisdom and humility. It was the ultimate rejection of Rome and all that Rome stood for. Rather than seeking a ρώμη Israel, Jesus and Paul taught by example that weakness (non-ρώμη) was more powerful than Rome (ρώμη). Rather than living and dying by the sword, they were to live and die by the sword of God, the Scriptures. The Messiah was to return and slay the enemies of God with “the sword of his mouth” (Rev. 19:15), and in the meantime it was the words from the mouth of God (Jesus) that the followers of God were to use to bring about his kingdom.

It was, therefore, no longer a problem that Rome appeared to be in control. Their power was superficial, given that God had demonstrated his ultimate power in raising Jesus from the dead. Let the ρώμη have their ρώμη, since believers in Jesus knew that YHWH saves, not Rome. David’s kingdom fell, Rome will fall, but the kingdom of God and his Christ had been instituted and would be fully realized in the future. It was only a matter of time until Rome saw the Divine Rome (ρώμη) coming on the clouds with great power to invest the faithful with the ρώμη of God and the age of peace, the true and eternal Pax Romana.

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