Isis and the New Testament

11 11 2012

While the New Testament is a written document, the script most often “read” by the illiterate person in first-century culture was the coin in his or her hand.  Here was the message (gospel—good news) of the Empire and its propaganda.  By paying attention to Roman imperial coinage and provincial coinage, some interesting connections to the New Testament with arise.  To that end, here is an interesting coin

This coin is a bronze coin called a hemidrachm and was minted in Egypt (Alexandria).  On the obverse (front) is Emperor Vespasian (ruled 69-79 C. E.).  The inscription reads [AVTO]K KAIS SEBA OVESPIANOV, and would be translated something like, “Ruler Caesar Augustus Vespasian.” On the reverse is a draped bust of Isis.  She is portrayed with a solar disk upon her head, a typical portrayal.

While some gods and goddess are mentioned in the NT, Isis is never mentioned.  However, this lack of explicit reference does not means that Isis is not implicitly found in the NT.  One of the places that seems most likely to me for being an image of Isis is in Revelation 12:1:  “And a great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars.”  Note on the reverse of the coin that the woman is wearing a solar disk.  She is in a sense clothed with the sun.  Also in the cult of Isis, she is often associated with an infant (not unlike the woman in Revelation 12).  The infant of Isis is called Horus (whose father was Osiris).  And finally, note that the woman in Revelation 12 is given the “two wings of the great eagle that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness” (v. 14).  Isis is often depicted in artwork as having two wings.  In myth, Isis protects infant Horus from the wrath of Set who is seeking to kill him.

Also in many of the cities and regions associated with Pauline mission work, the cult of Isis was to be found:  Ephesus, Tarsus, Mysia, Thessalonica, Athens, Phrygia, Galatia, Macedonia, Philippi, Troas, Rome, and Corinth.  In Corinth, for example, one could find a well-established Isis cult complete with a temple.  Could Paul be making an allusion to this cult when he writes this enigmatic phrase:  That is why a woman ought to have authority (veil) on her head, because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10)?  As the coin image above graphically illustrates, Isis had a symbol of authority upon her head.

A recent work that seeks to explore the background of Isis within the NT is by Elizabeth, A. McCade:  An Examination of the Isis Cult with Preliminary Exploration into New Testament Studies (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2008).  As far as I know, this work is the major study on this topic.

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