Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Mt. Nimrud-- The Turkish Mt. Olympus
Climbing up Mt. Nimrud did not prove to be as difficult as I had expected because we were able to drive to within about 1500 feet below the top of the mountain. I have a variety of pictures and thoughts to share with you in this post. What you are looking at above is in order: 1) the head of Zeus; 2) the next two are heads of local deities it would appear; 3) the top of Mt. Nimrud, and artificial mound inside which is said to be the burial chamber of Antochus; 4) Antiochus I the King of the Commagenes, complete with astral hat and garments, and his tambourine, or offering bowl (take your pick); 5) Heracles (aka Hercules), Antiochus' favorite deity; 6) further statue of Antiochus on the west slope of the mountain (there are thrones and statues on both the east and west sides of the mountain facing the rising and setting sun respectively); 7) royal lion next to the altar to the gods; 8) heads on the western slope; 9) longitudinal view of the thrones and heads and burial mound from the eastern side.
Antiochus I was a remarkable king of a relatively small kingdom in eastern Turkey. His lineage was impeccable. He was the 16th generation direct descendant of Darius I of Persia, and the 15th generation direct descendant of Alexander the Great. Not a bad pedigree, and it is easier to demonstrate his connection with Alexander than with the Persians. But like the Persians he was especially fond of astrology, hence his wearing the astral hat and garment with stars on both. My interest in this king is several fold. For one thing he left us on top of this mountain some far more impressive ruins than one finds atop Mt. Olympus to help us understand how ancient peoples viewed the Greco-Roman gods, but he also left us a remarkable inscription, the famous Nemrud-Dagh inscription which is the parade example of Asiatic Greek, a form of Greek we also find in the NT in Ephesians and 2 Peter. It is Greek which is verbose, long-winded, prone to complext sentences and big words. It is simply not true that all we have in the NT is Koine Greek, and this inscription helps us see what is going on in Ephesians and 2 Peter. The honorific inscription (in which Antiochus toots his own horn) in part reads-- 'It was, as being of all things good, not only a most reliable acquisition but also-- for human beings-- a most pleasant enjoyment that I considered piety; and the same conviction I held to be the reason
for a most successful authority, as well as for a most blessed employment thereof; furthermore in my lifetime I appeared to all in my monarchy as one who regarded holiness as both a most trustworthy safeguard and an inimitable satisfaction." In other words, 'the key to my success as a king was I was a truly spiritual and pious dude, and the gods not only favored me, they took me up into their company or pantheon, like Herakles was treated'. In other words, Antiochus decided to place himself on his own personal Mt. Olympus, right up there with Zeus and the gang.
Now this reminds us, if we needed reminding, that in the eastern part of the Roman world, the line between human and divine was much more easily blurred. Persian rulers, and others were regularly claiming to be gods or the sons of gods. The imperial cult of the Roman Emperors was just an extension of this idea into the western part of the Empire. You can see from this I think that the eastern part of the Empire would be more ready to consider even Jesus a deity, than the western part-- if Hercules or Antiochus could make such a claim, why not Jesus? Of course the difference was that Jesus was a monotheist and he served an exclusively monotheistic God Yahweh, which complicated matters when divine claims were being doled out. For Jesus to say 'hi I am God' in Galilee or Judea, if he was speaking to Jews, would be tantamount to saying 'hi, I am Yahweh'. But Gentiles would not have heard such a claim in that way. This is why Jesus is so very careful in the way he refers to his divine sonship. He does not wish to violate Jewish monotheism, and yet he wishes to make divine claims about himself and his ministry. Early Jews before or during Jesus' day did not already have a concept of a Trinity, and it was Jesus who set in motion a Copernican revolution in their thinking about the one God and his character and personhood.
But there is something more to contemplate on the basis of the hike up Mt. Nimrud. Ancient peoples in all these cultures believed the gods were 'up there', and so one could draw closer to them by being on top of a high mountain. We see this of course in the Bible as well with the Mt. Sinai theophanies to Moses and Elijah, and also in the stories of the Transfiguration of Jesus. High places of worship, altars, even temples like the temple on Mt. Zion, needed to be built up high to be closer to the divine zone, the holy space, the realm of God. This is the way ancient people's thought. Furthermore, they not only believed the benevolent deities were 'up there' in the sky or in the heavens, they believed the malevolent one's were as well. It is thus not a surprise to hear of Satan being in the heavenly court in Job 1-2, or about the Devil being the prince of the power of the air, or one demons and powers and principalities being in the heavenlies. The later cosmology that placed Satan and demons under the ground was based in part on the conclusion of Revelation where Satan is cast into the lake of fire, combined with the Greco-Roman ideas about Hades being below, and being equivalent to the land of the dead (e.g. like Sheol). The ancients even believed that the stars were gods, they were the heavenly hosts, which is understandable when one goes out every night and sees those bright lights moving around in the sky. They seemed to be alive, animated. Ancient astrology, unlike modern astrology, was not about human lives being fated in certain ways because of the alignments of inanimate matter. Ancient astrology was trying to chart how the celestial deities were affecting us in various ways.
And this leads to an important point. What about heaven. Where is it actually? Is it part of the material universe or not? Is it just above the mountain tops? The ancients mostly thought it was-- passing through the sky led into the lower regions of heaven, and there were various levels of heaven (see Paul's comments about the third heaven in 2 Cor. 12.1-2).
I would suggest that since heaven is properly speaking the dwelling place of God, and since God existed before there was a material universe, and God created that material universe from heaven, that heaven is NOT a part of the material universe. I remember the snide comments of a Soviet astronaut in the 60s who was orbiting the earth and commented that he did not see God or heaven out his window. Well, actually he had a point. You don't get to heaven by blasting off from earth and turning left at our moon, or for that matter at the end of the Milky Way Galaxy. Heaven to be sure is 'out there', but it's not really up there if we are talking about merely being beyond the earth's atmosphere. In fact I would suggest that heaven is part of a parallel universe, the spiritual universe which is contiguous with the material universe at every point-- like two hands folded together palm to palm in prayer. I would suggest that the Ascension was not an attempt by Jesus to leave earth and turn left at Mars in order to enter heaven. The Ascension was not for Jesus' benefit , but rather the disciples, to let them know he would no longer be on earth in the flesh. And this leads me to another point.
Does the Bible really require of us a belief in a cosmology that requires a three story universe with heaven above, the earth in the middle, and hell below? Well no-- that is how various ancients conceived of things, as did the medieval church (read Dante's Divine Comedy). But the Bible does not require us to think in this sort of way about where heaven and hell are. It DOES require us to believe that heaven and hell are realities-- realities beyond our earthly and also our material existence.
So the next time you are longing for a 'mountain top' experience of God, ask yourself this question-- since God is everywhere, isn't it just as possible to get close to God down in the valley as up on the mountain? Antiochus I didn't think so and so he built his shrine on Mt. Nimrud--- but we are not required to follow his example.