Cameo: Gemma Augustea (fragment) by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Cameo: Gemma Augustea (fragment), 9–12 CE, Onyx, two layers, 19 x 23 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, IXa 79, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

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Whose Gospel?

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Harry O. Maier

The letter to the Colossians is a polemical writing addressed to Christians at Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis in central Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), who are following what Paul calls ‘philosophy and empty deceit’ (2:8). But Paul quickly shifts his focus from his audience to the grace of God and the gospel that is the source of any commendation he can offer.

The Gemma Augustea proclaims another gospel spreading throughout the world. Indeed Paul’s word ‘gospel (euangellion)’ is an imperial term that was used to describe the ‘good news’ of the coming of Augustus Caesar and the peace he brought to his empire. This luxury object offers a snapshot of the ‘fruits’ of Augustus’s reign. It is divided into two registers. Above, Augustus, in the guise of the top Roman god, Jupiter, is seated alongside his wife Livia represented as the goddess Roma. Below are the fruits of this rule: Roman auxiliaries with helmets representing different corners of the Empire pull up a Roman trophy displaying despoiled enemy arms.

Two gospels: one of Jesus and the other of Augustus, both spreading through the world; there could not be a sharper contrast between them. One is centred in conquest and violence, the other is rooted in the grace and peace from God our Father (1:2), a grace and peace that Paul will go on to describe as won and proclaimed in the one vanquished and brutalized by Rome, Jesus Christ (v.20). In the Gemma Augustea there is a transfer—riffing verse 13—‘into the kingdom of his [Jupiter’s] beloved son [Augustus]’ as attested by the brutal absorption into the empire through military victory. In Colossians the transfer is through ‘redemption, the forgiveness of sins’ (v.14) through Jesus’s paradoxical victorious defeat on the cross (Colossians 2:15).

For Paul’s listeners there could not have been a more striking contrast in ‘gospels’ and as the letter proceeds from affirmation to censure, they will need to choose what version of good news they will cling to and follow: the one that exercises dominion by way of slavery or the one rooted in the grace and peace that bears the fruit of ‘love in the Spirit’ (v.8).