Critical Review:

Steven J. Scherrer's
"Signs and Wonders in the Imperial Cult: A New Look at a Roman Religious Institution in Light of Rev 13:13-15

Offered by JA

I. Publication Data:
Steven J. Scherrer, "Signs and Wonders in the Imperial Cult: A New Look at a Roman Religious Institution in the Light of Rev 13:13-15," Journal of Biblical Literature 103/4 (1984), pp. 599-610. The author is from Nairobi, Kenya.

II. Subject Matter:
The author cites what he considers a consensus among commentators (Kraft, Lohse, Caird, Yarbro-Collins, Wikenhauser, Rist, R.H. Charles, Bousset) that Rev. 13:13-15 is a "thinly veiled polemic...against the Roman Imperial cult" to wit: "The two beasts...represent respectively the Roman Imperium and the political-cultic personnel connected with its cultus on the local level." (P. 599). The goal of the article is to examine whether the language in these verses is "simply a part of the mythological imagery of the chapter as a whole..." or "...[reflects] actual phenomena in the imperial cult..." (pp. 599f). While he does not define what would be meant by "mythological imagery," Scherrer goes on in the article to make his case for the latter of the two options. He launches a comparison of history-of-religion texts (cf. below), which are offered as support "...that such 'great signs' [i.e. making fire come down and images to appear life like] actually did play a part in the imperial cult...Symbols such as thunder, lightning, and sunbeams...have been transferred from the gods to the princeps." (P. 600).

He then proceeds to compare examples of "staged cultic wonders" where 1) miraculous images move and/or speak and 2) lightning and amazing fire signs occur. His opening reference is to an account of Alexander of Abonuteichos (in Lucian's essay Alexander the False Prophet, LCL, 1925), who put on a convincing show before awestruck worshipers at the oracle shrine of Asclepius by fashioning a lifelike image of the god. Here as elsewhere in Lucian the matter is met with great skepticism, but the "technology" whose deception was great, nevertheless, had the power to convince. Scherrer often asserts throughout the article that whereas ancient skeptics scoffed, others like the writer of the Apocalypse would have considered the "sight" to be "real" and clearly the work of evil. In support of this view he cites the Christian apologist Athenagoras, taken to be typical of a general readiness toward credulity among the general populous, who thinks "...a vision [was] planted in the mind by demons." (p. 603). Scherrer cites examples of other "staged cultic wonders" - most of which are from the context of theater performances and deus ex machina devices - from the works of Suetonius, Callixenus, Heron, Plutarch, Hippolytus, Dio Cassius, and others. All of these he adduces to show that the technology existed at the time of the imperial cult and could have been used in cultic ceremonies associated with spectacles intended to evoke veneration. His closing section refers to related technologies and simulations of nature in connection with the princeps. As conclusion he says: "We suggest that Rev 13:13-15 should be accepted as describing a part of the actual practice in the cult of the princeps in the East." (p. 610).

III. Evaluation:
This article makes a significant contribution to the work of our seminar for several reasons: 1) since it never takes up the genre question of what he calls "mythological imagery" the article offers a stimulus by leaving undone work in this area for us to do; 2) the large number of primary sources quoted provides a very helpful backdrop for the visual (and auditory) imagination of what people of the time would have been seeing, especially in the theater; and 3) it delineates the devices of public deception toward religious and political ends in a graphic way. Since at this early point in our seminar (Feb/Mar) we have already looked into primary sources like Daniel, Eth. Enoch, and the Mithra liturgy etc. Scherrer's contribution of other such texts serves us well. Methodologically we would, however, ask for greater exegetical differentiation for Rev. 13, which is left here unfortunately to a kind of general political echo from the milieu of early Christianity.

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