by Gordon Franz
During the last two decades of the First Century AD, Rome was in the grip of the self-deified Emperor Domitian. Imagine a small group of believers in the Lord Jesus walking pass the Coliseum in Rome and turning westward toward the Roman Forum and the Capitoline Hill. They observe at the highest point of the Via Sacra (Sacred Way) the newly erected Arch of Titus. Perhaps a few in this group might be struck by the olive groves on both sides of the road and caught the irony of this view. The Arch of Titus commemorated the triumphal procession by the Roman army after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and also memorialized the apotheosis of Titus, but what of the olive trees?
Imagine again that one of these individuals in the group had survived the destruction of the Holy City of Jerusalem by the Roman army, was brought to Rome as a prisoner and was paraded as a captive in the triumphal procession of Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus. He was later sold as a slave in the Eternal City, Rome. Perhaps the household this individual was sold into also had Christian slaves. Eventually one of the Christians shared with this Jewish person the gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ. The message was simple. God loved the world and sent His Son, the spotless Lamb of God – the sinless Lord Jesus, to die and pay for the sins of all humanity. He offers the free gift of eternal life, the forgiveness of sins, God’s righteousness and a home in Heaven to any and all that would put their trust in the Lord Jesus as their Savior. Doing good works and obeying the commandments were not good enough to merit God’s righteousness. Only faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ alone would gain God’s favor (John 3:16; Rom. 4:5; Phil. 3:9; Eph. 2:8, 9: I Pet. 1:18, 19; I John 2:2). This Jewish slave was touched by this message and trusted the Lord Jesus as Messiah and Savior.
As this group of believers walks up the Via Sacra, the new convert ponders some verses that were read that morning at a meeting of the brothers and sisters in the Messiah Jesus. The verses said: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’ Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35-39, NKJV).
The Jewish convert was joyful in the fact that absolutely nothing could separate a believer in the Lord Jesus from the love of God. But there were several burning questions in his mind, who as a teen-ager had experienced tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword at the hands of the Romans in Jerusalem several decades before. When he viewed for the first time the panel on the Arch of Titus with the Temple implements being carried off in the triumphal procession he asked the group: “Does God still love ethnic Israel? He said He did (Deut. 7:8; Jer. 31:3). Is He finished with her, or is there still a future for the nation of Israel?” The leader stepped off the Via Sacra and walked over to a branch in the olive groves and said, “The answer to your question, dear brother, is found in this olive tree. Yes, our loving God still has a future for the nation of Israel!”
The Arch of Titus
Emperor Domitian erected this single-fornix arch with elegant proportions in memory of his deceased brother, Titus, after he was deified by the Roman Senate in AD 81. Above the arch was an inscription that read: “The Senate and the Roman people to the deified Titus Vespasian Augustus the son of the deified Vespasian” (Holloway 1987:184). This arch stood 15.40 meters high, 13.50 meters wide and 4.75 meters deep and was faced with Pentelic marble (Richardson 1992:30).
There were three reliefs that would have caught the eyes of anybody walking under the arch. As one looked up to the crown of the arch there was a relief with an eagle carrying the deified Emperor Titus to heaven. This was his apotheosis (deification).
There are also two passageway reliefs to note. On the south side is a relief of the Roman army carrying off the booties from Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem in the year AD 70. The relief includes a menorah (lamp stand), the table of showbread with two vessels on it, and the two silver trumpets. There were also soldiers holding signs with names of the cities conquered or pictures of various battle scenes.
On the north side of the passageway is a relief with Titus riding a chariot being driven by Roma. Nike, the goddess of victory, is crowning him with a wreath, showing his victory over the Jewish nation.
Josephus, the first century Jewish historian and an adopted member of the Flavian family, gave a detailed account of this triumphal procession in his book, Jewish Wars, written about AD 75 (7:123-157; LCL 3:541-551). After the triumph, some of the objects were placed in the Temple of Peace (Templum Pax) built by Vespasian near the Roman Forum and other objects were placed in his palace on the Palatine Hill (Wars 7:158-162; LCL 3:551-553; Richardson 1992:286-287).
There was another arch built a few years earlier that was dedicated to Emperor Titus’ victory over the Jewish people in the Circus Maximus but it is not known archaeologically today. It is, however, known from coins, reliefs and mosaics (Richardson 1992:30). One of the inscriptions on this arch states:
“The Senate and the Roman People to the Emperor Titus Caesar Vespasian Augustus the son of the deified Vespasian Pontifex Maximus, holder of the tribunician power for the tenth time, imperator for the seventeenth time, consul for the eighth time, father of the fatherland, the very princeps of Rome because by example and advice of his father he overcame the Jews and destroyed the city of Jerusalem which even before was besieged by generals, Kings and peoples in vain or left unmolested by them” (Holloway 1987:191).
The Olive Tree in Romans 11
The Apostle Paul wrote an epistle to the church in Rome about AD 58. At the end of chapter 8 of this epistle, he asks the question, “What can separate us from the love of God?” (8:35). He answers his own question by saying, absolutely nothing! (8:35-39). A Jewish believer in the Lord Jesus, reading this statement after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 might ask the question, “What about ethnic Israel? Is God finished with her?” Paul answers these questions in the next three chapters of this book (Rom. 9-11). In chapter 9 he discusses the past history of Israel and her election by grace. In chapter 10 he presents present day Israel and how they are seeking righteousness from God by their works, and not by faith alone in Christ alone. Finally in chapter 11 he reveals the future for ethnic Israel. One day, all Israel will be saved (11:26).
Our imaginary group gathers around an olive tree near the Arch of Titus. The leader points to a wild olive branch that had been grafted into the olive tree and says: “The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to our church and described the root of an olive tree as the blessings to all the families of the earth promised in the Abrahamic Covenant (Rom. 11:16-18; cf. Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:6-9). Some of the branches of the olive tree, ethnic Israel, had been broken off because of their unbelief; yet wild olive branches, Gentiles, were grafted in (11:17-22). The salvation of Gentiles was to provoke ethnic Israel to jealousy (11:11-14). If an individual Jewish person returned to the Lord Jesus and trusted Him as Messiah and Savior, they would be grafted back into the tree (11:23-25). But there is a day coming when “all Israel shall be saved” when they look upon Him whom they have pierced (11:26; cf. Zech. 12:10; Rev. 1:7).
For a discussion on grafting by one who was contemporary with the Apostle Paul, see Columella, De Re Rustica 5.11; LCL 2:101-113. For a discussion on the arboriculture of Romans 11:17-24, see Baxter and Ziesler 1985:25-32; Ramsay 1905:16-34, 152-160; Bruce 1988:203-210.
The Conclusion of the Whole Matter
There are at least two theological truths that could be drawn by a believer in the Lord Jesus in the 1st century AD who visited the Arch of Titus. First, Emperor Titus was declared to be the son of a god by a vote of the Roman Senate and his apotheosis was validated by large inscriptions over monumental structures, by coins, and by a relief showing him ascending to heaven on the back of an eagle. In sharp contrast, the Lord Jesus was declared to be the Son of God by His bodily resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:3-4), and this declaration was validated by the many eye-witnesses who saw Him after His resurrection (I Cor. 15:1-9). The resurrected and living Lord Jesus is infinitely superior to the dead and cremated Emperor Titus (Aitken 2001:73-88; 2005:82-85).
Second, the two scenes from the passageway of the Arch of Titus indicated that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and some might conclude that God had rejected ethnic Israel. However, the Apostle Paul illustrated from the olive tree in Romans 11 that Israel’s rejection was not complete, but only partial and that there remains a remnant of Israel according to the election of grace (11:5). Their rejection was not final, but only temporary because one day in the future “all Israel shall be saved” (11:26).
Aitken, Ellen Bradshaw
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2005 Reading Hebrews in Flavian Rome. Union Seminary Quarterly Review 59: 82-85.
Baxter, A. G.; and Ziesler, J. A.
1985 Paul and Arboriculture: Romans 11:17-24. Journal for the Study of the New Testament 24: 25-32.
Bruce, F. F.
1988 The Letter of Paul to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.
Columella, Lucius Junius Moderatus
1968 De Res Rustica (On Agriculture), Books 5-9. Vol. 2. Trans. by E. S. Forster and E. H. Heffner. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 407.
Holloway, R. Ross
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1979 Jewish Wars, Books 4-7. Vol. 3. Trans. by H. Thackeray. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 210.
1905 The Olive-Tree and the Wild-Olive. Expositor, 6th series, 11:16-34, 152-160. Reprinted in Pauline and Other Studies in Early Christian History. New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1906: 219-250.
Richardson, L., Jr.
1992 A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University.