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Why Was Worshiped? the Emperor This will be my last post about the worship of the Roman emperor as a god. I have been trying to make several major points in this thread. So let me begin by summarizing them: The reason worshiping the man who ruled the empire would not have seemed bizarre to ancient people was that there was not thought to be an enormous chasm between the divine and human realms (as there is for most people today). There were some gods who were beyond our imagination, and others that were far less powerful – but still more powerful than the guy living next door to you, by an amazing margin. So too, there were some humans who were SO powerful (or smart or beautiful) that they seemed to be more than human. The gods generally were worshiped because they could provide things for humans that humans could not provide for themselves. Worship was a way to secure divine benefits – that is, it was a way to be given access to divine power when human strength was not enough to make life livable or enjoyable. Gods could provide health, prosperity, victory in war, and so on. And so Gods were called “Savior” “Benefactor” “Lord” and so on. The emperor too was amazingly powerful, and could bring deliverance from foreign aggression, the conditions for wealth and prosperity, and so on. And so he too could be called Savior, Benefactor, and Lord. It was a very small step, then, to identify the emperor as a kind of God. Not as the greatest god – say Zeus or Jupiter – but as one of the divine beings who was providing assistance to people who could not always help themselves. Now I want to make a few additional points about how unevenly distributed the worship of the emperor was. As it turns out, he was not worshiped everywhere in the empire, or in the same way, and one question historians have asked is why that is. One question that has perennially interested historians of ancient religion is… THE REST OF THIS POST IS FOR MEMBERS ONLY. If you don’t belong yet JOIN! For about 50 cents a week, you get meaty posts, regularly. And every penny that comes in goes to fight hunger and homelessness. One question that has perennially interested historians of ancient religion is whether the *living* emperor (the guy there in Rome now, as we speak) was adored as a god, or if only the *deceased* emperors who had ascended to heaven (and thus been “divinized”) were the gods, and the living emperor was not, at this point (though he might have an element of the divine about him). It is usually thought that the emperors were given cultic status, as divine beings, during their *lifetimes* in the Eastern provinces of the empire, but not in Rome itself and in the western, Latin-speaking part of the empire. In those western places (as well as the East) the emperor was recognized and treated as God only after his death and divinization. The question is why a living emperor would be worshiped in the East but not so much in the West. There are two theories that I find particularly attractive. The first is that the Greekspeaking East had a long history of revering mighty generals and rulers as divine, but the West did not, so these traditions came to be applied to the emperor once there was an emperor for them to be applied to (i.e., with the first emperor, Caesar Augustus). The second is that Romans wanted those people subject to them to revere the emperor as God as a kind of political leverage to control the subject people. So Roman citizens, living in Rome (and to a lesser extent the western parts of the empire) were not expected to worship the living emperor, but those living elsewhere, especially in the East, were. Whatever the emperor’s status while living, the actual divinization – the emperor’s ascent to heaven to dwell with and be with and be one of the gods – happened at death. The decision of whether this had happened to an emperor was made by a vote of the Roman senate. It is not that the senate was *making* the emperor a god. Instead, it was *recognizing* that he had been made a god. As you might suspect, they voted these honors only for the “good” emperors. The awful emperors – e.g, Caligula, or Nero – were decidedly not divinized. The older view of scholarship, which is receiving a bit of a revival in some places, is that emperor worship generally was promoted by the central authorities in Rome, who very much wanted people in the provinces to worship the living emperor as a god. (Note: until 212 CE, most people living in the provinces were not “citizens” of Rome with privileges of citizenship; they were subject peoples.) The reason should be obvious: you can imagine rebelling against a political ruler you don’t like. But are you likely to rebel against a *god*? More recent scholars have more widely insisted that the imperial cult was not imposed by the Roman government itself, but that it was almost always pursued on local initiative in the provinces. The idea, in this case, is that local aristocrats would sponsor the building of temples and the worship of the emperors as a way of promoting their own status. They, the local elite, had close ties with the *emperor himself*. In a world that stressed the importance of honor and status, the imperial cult provided an obvious opportunity for the very wealthy to be seen as connected with the ultimate power of the empire. That, for them, was a very good thing. In short, it may seem to us today to be very strange indeed that anyone would worship a human being (though even today people, in a sense, revere some humans more than others – think major athletes and major monarchs). After all, these people were human with human needs, bodily functions, and all the rest, so it was clear they were human, right? Yes, that too was right. But some humans are far superior to the rest of us, so much so that their status and power cannot be accounted for except by saying they are more closely connected to the divine realm that everyone else, that in some sense they are not only human but also divine. The God Julius Caesar I mentioned in a previous post the scarcely-remembered-thesedays Diogenes Poliorcetes (Diogenes, the Conqueror of Cities), who was acclaimed as a divine being by a hymn-writer (and others) in Athens because he liberated them from their Macedonian overlords. I should point out that this great accomplishment paled with time, and he did some other things that the Athenians did not find so useful or approve of, and the rescinded their adoration of him. My point was that sometimes military men/political rulers were talked about as divine beings. More than that, they were sometimes *treated* as divine beings: given temples, with priests, who would perform sacrifices in their honor, in the presence of statues of them. Does that make the person a god? In many ways they would be indistinguishable. If it walks like a god and quacks like a god…. Best known are the divine honors paid Empire, starting with Julius Caesar. dedicated to him in 49 BCE (five assassinated) discovered in the city this about him: to rulers of the Roman We have an inscription years before he was of Ephesus, which says Descendant of Ares and Aphrodite The God who has become manifest (θεὸν ἐπιφανῆ) And universal savior (σωτῆρα) of human life Prior to Julius Caesar, rulers in the city of Rome itself were not granted divine honors. But Caesar himself was – before he died, the senate approved the building of a temple for him, a cult statue, and a priest. None of these were actually put in place before he was assassinated in 44 BCE. But soon after his death, his adopted son and heir, Octavian (who later was to become Caesar Augustus) promoted, successfully, the idea that at his death Caesar had been taken up to heaven and been made a god to live with the gods. Octavian had reasons of his own … The Rest of this Post is for Members Only. If you don’t belong yet, JOIN!! It costs less than 50 cents a week, it gives you a lot, and all money goes to charity! Octavian had reasons of his own for wanting the divinization of Caesar. In the political realm, there was still civil war taking place, and by having his father divinized, it marginalized the enemies of Caesar who had assassinated him (senators such as Brutus and Cassius). That didn’t put an end to the civil war, because Octavian still had to deal with Mark Antony (the one, as it turns out, who had been appointed to be the priest for Caesar’s cult!), who was off now in Egypt conspiring with his lover Cleopatra for power. But the divinization of Caesar did put the party supported by Cassius and Brutus in a deeply problematic position. They were eventually taken out of the equation, in a rather brutal way. As happens with civil wars…. There was another obvious reason that Octavian wanted his adopted father to be declared a God. If his father was God, what does that make him? There was a celestial event that helped solidify the idea that Caesar had been divinized. In ancient Rome, religious ceremonies and other major events were sometimes accompanied (strangely in our view) by staged athletic contests. In 42 BCE, there were athletic contests organized to commemorate the death of Caesar, organized by Octavian. On the first day of the contests, a comet appeared in the sky, and it remained visible for seven days. Octavian declared that it was in fact the soul of Caesar ascending to the realm of the gods. A rather fortuitous event! This divinization of Caesar set the precedent for what was to happen with the emperors, beginning with the first of them, Octavian himself, who became “Caesar Augustus” in 29 BCE. Even during his lifetime Augustus was revered in some parts of the empire – some of the Eastern, Greek-speaking provinces (where there had been a long tradition of revering rulers as embodiments of divine power) – as a divine being. And so, there is an inscription that survives from his lifetime found in the city of Halicarnassus (modern Turkey), which calls Augustus: …The native Zeus and Savior (σωτὴρ) of the human race So he is God, the Savior. Sound familiar? He was also the “son of God.” And the “Lord.” These, of course, are all titles widely used by Christians of Jesus. They did not come up with these titles out of the blue. These are things said of another divine-man – the Roman emperor – before they were said of Jesus. For the early Christians the idea was not that Jesus was the only person who was ever called such things (even though that is the case for most modern Christians). Jesus was being called things that the emperor before him was called. This was a competition. Rulers as Gods: The Context of Ancient Religion Why did ancient people in the Greek and Roman worlds sometimes consider political leaders as gods? That’s the question I’m dealing with in this series of posts. And I think now, after a good bit of background, I’m able to begin to answer it. The gods in Greek and Roman thought were considered to be superhuman. Unlike, say, the (animal-shaped) gods of Egypt, the Greek and Roman gods were literally in human form. When they appeared here on earth to humans they were often “bigger than life,” but they could assume regular human form when they wanted to and they were human-shaped even when attending to their heavenly duties. In the Greek and Roman myths, they acted in human ways, they experienced the range of human emotions, they manifested human foibles, and so on. But they were different from humans in several ways. For one thing, they were far more powerful than mere mortals. They could accomplish things that no human could. None of them was infinitely powerful, but on the scale of power, they were off the charts. Moreover, they did not have a lifespan. They did come into existence at some point, but (with few exceptions) they would never go out of existence. They were immortal. I should stress at this stage a very important point. the ways… One of THE REST OF THIS POST IS FOR MEMBERS ONLY. Think about joining. It costs about seven cents a day. That’s it. And you get TONS for your money. And every penny that comes into the blog goes out to important charities. So JOIN!!! One of the ways that ancient people talked about and imagined the gods was through telling, retelling, shaping, creating, and passing along myths about the gods. Many of us studied ancient Greek and Roman myths in school at some point. A very big mistake that many modern people make is to think that the myths are what ancient religion was all about. turns out, is not really the case. That, as it Ancient pagan religions (that is, the religions everyone had in antiquity, with few exceptions – such as the Jews – in which many gods were worshiped) were not about the myths per se. The religions were principally about certain practices that people engaged in. These practices can be grouped into several categories. Principally they involved (1) Prayers (petitioning the gods for favors; thanking the gods for what they have done; acknowledging the gods’ greatness); (2) Sacrificial offerings (giving to the gods sacrifices of animals, other food stuffs, incense, flowers, etc.); and (3) Divination (discerning the will of the gods by various means, such as by observing the flight or activities of birds, or – this one seems a bit strange to most modern sensibilities – by examining the entrails of an animal that had been sacrificed to determine if the sacrifice had been accepted by the gods [this was done by a special priest trained in the practice, named a haruspex]). Religion involved participating in these cultic acts. What strikes many modern people as very odd indeed is that the religions practiced by ancient people almost never involved believing any doctrines or ideas about the gods. Religion was not about what you believed. It was about the cultic acts you performed. The gods, for the most part, didn’t care what you believed about them. They cared that you prayed and sacrificed to them. Granted, these acts themselves presuppose some minimal amount of belief (for example, that this particular sacrifice has to be performed in this particular way for this particular god). But there were no “statements of faith” in ancient pagan religions, no creeds, no beliefs that had to be subscribed to. orthodoxy in pagan religions. There was no heresy and no No heretics. Religion was about cultic practices. This is another way of saying that ancient religions were not really about the myths that people told. The myths did provide a way for people to talk about and think about the gods. But for the most part they were only loosely connected to the actual worship of the gods. I’m trying to think of an analogy, and am not sure I have a good one. But I suppose it is kind of like asking what a law-observing American citizen would be. It would be someone who acted in ways that observed the various laws and did not break them. You are lawobservant by what you do. You are not law-observant by learning the Constitution and studying it in your spare time. That might in some way be *related* to being law-observant, but it is not what we mean by saying that someone *is* lawobservant. That’s kind of like the relationship of religion and myth in antiquity. You engaged in religious practices. That’s what religion was. You could also think about and tell myths – but your religion did not depend on your doing so. It was a different kind of thing. In addition – this part seems even more weird to modern people – religion for the most part was not directly connected with ethics. The gods were not (with a few exceptions) all that concerned about how you lived your daily lives. They were concerned that you worshiped them in appropriate ways – through prayer and sacrifice. It usually did not matter much if you were a good person or not, whether you were a loving and caring person or a real mean-spirited, arrogant, pain in the neck. You could be a liar, and philanderer, a powerhungry egotist – none of that had much if any bearing on whether you were highly religious. I’m not saying that ancient people were less ethical than people today. In fact, they were about the same, so far as we can tell. But ethics were not part of religion, generally speaking. Instead, if there was a realm to speak about how we ought to live our lives, it was in the realm of philosophy, not religion. So good behavior was indeed important for people. But not as part of their religious practices. The gods were to be worshiped by prayer and sacrifice. They were worshiped because they were super-humans who could do things for people that people could not do for themselves. I’ll pick up at this point in the next post in the thread, as a way of explaining why great rulers were sometimes considered to be divine beings. When Men Became Gods: Lecture in Denmark My As I indicated earlier, I am in Denmark this week giving talks. I’m staying in Copenhagen, a fabulous city, but two of my talks are in Odense, an hour and a half (very pleasant) train ride from here. I am being sponsored by the University of Southern Denmark, which invited me almost a year ago now to give a lecture to students and faculty on the relationship between the Roman Imperial cult (the worship of the Roman emperor as a divine being) and the rise of Christology (the understanding of Christ as a divine being). The lecture was yesterday, and I thought it might be worthwhile here on the blog to explain the topic and the issues it raises. I called the talk “When Men Became Gods: Caesar and Christ.” The overarching idea that I tried to develop was that the Christian acclamation of the divinity of Jesus had a clear historical context within the broader GrecoRoman world. There were other humans in that context who were considered divine. emperors. And none more prominently than the Roman The idea that a political leader could be seen as a divine being is alien to most of us. True, there are people who think that Ronald Reagan had a touch of the divine about him. But I don’t see too many voters lining up to bestow the title of “God” to either Donald or Hillary. Did people in the ancient world really think their political leaders were divine in some sense? Really? Well, as it turns out… The Rest of this Post is for MEMBERS ONLY. If you don’t belong yet, JOIN! It costs little, gives a lot, and every dime goes to charity. So GET WITH IT!!! Well, as it turns out…yes. And it did not start with the Roman emperors. The idea is fairly well known from ancient Egypt, where the Pharaoh was understood to be an incarnation of a god. But for the imperial cult, and then for Christianity, the more relevant precedents, probably, were from the Greek world. It did not start with Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE), but he was certainly the most prominent ancient Greek to receive divine honors. Alexander became the ruler of Macedonia after his father Philip was assassinated, and early in his reign he decided to go on military campaigns of conquest. And conquest he did, taking over Greece, Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Palestine, Egypt, and on then, most significant of all, to conquer the massive Persian empire. For the question of the rise of “ruler worship” in the Mediterranean world (the world of both the Roman Empire that emerged soon after Alexander, and of Christianity after that) a key event occurred during Alexander’s conquest of Egypt. Among other things, he founded a city there – a rather significant city, culturally and historically, the city he named after himself, Alexandria. While assuming control of Egypt and establishing this city, Alexander made a trip to a famous oracle-shrine in a remote oasis called Siva. An “oracle” in antiquity was a sacred spot where a divine being would make revelations to those with particular urgent inquiries. This particular shrine was devoted to the Egyptian god Ammon, who was identified as well as the Greek God Zeus. We don’t know what Alexander wanted to ask Ammon-Zeus that made the long trek important to him. Possibly he just wanted to know how things were going to turn out when he headed East to confront the Persian armies. But while there (we have varying accounts of how it actually happened) he came to be identified at the oracle as himself a divine being. From then on, Alexander was (in some times and places) considered to be more than human. He was in some sense a god, worthy of worship. In his presence petitioners would bow in obeisance. There were temples set up to him, with priests who performed sacrifices to him. He was still recognized as a man, of course. But he was more than a mere mortal. He also in some sense was revered as a divine being. Alexander was not the only one. Other mighty military leaders were acknowledged to be manifestations of a god. The example I started off with in my lecture yesterday was a far lesser known figure named Demetrius Poliorcetes (Demetrius, the Conqueror of Cities). Demetrius was the son of Antigonus, one of the generals who served under Alexander. Demetrius became a military man, like his father, and among other things, in 307 BCE, he liberated the city of Athens, Greece, from its oppressive overlords, the Macedonians. In response, an anonymous poet wrote a hymn celebrating the actions and character of Demetrius, associating him with the great goddess of Greece, Demeter. Here is an extract of his hymn: The greatest among the gods have drawn close to our city… Both Demeter and Demetrius… Hail to you, O Son of the mighty god Poseidon and of Aphrodite. The other gods dwell so far away, or else they have no ears, or they do not exist, or do not care at all about us We see you in our midst, not a wooden or stone presence, but bodily And so we pray to you… bring about peace for you are the Lord (κύριος) Notice what is said of Demetrius. He is one of the “greatest gods,” the son of God” (specifically of the gods Poseidon and Aphrodite), one who is “near” his own people – not remote, off on Mount Olympus, the one who “brings peace,” who can be called “Lord.” These ascriptions to Demetrius should sound familiar to anyone who knows about early Christianity, where Jesus too was known as the incarnation of a divine being, the Son of God, the bringer of peace, the Lord, and God in the flesh. My ultimate point: Jesus was not the first to be called such things, or thought to be a kind of incarnation of the divine. He had predecessors. But how could anyone really think that Demetrius (or Jesus) was more than human? Didn’t anyone who spent any time with them fully realize otherwise? And what did they really mean by calling him God, and treating him like a God? That’s what I tried to explain in my lecture, and I’ll say more about it in the posts to come. The Divine Realm in Antiquity I have started a thread on my current interest, the relationship of the imperial cult (the Roman worship of the emperors) to the rise of Christology (the understandings of Christ). Both Caesars (especially deceased ones, but in some parts of the empire, also the living one) and Christ (by most of his followers, now that he too was deceased) were thought of and called “Savior,” “Lord,” “Son of God,” and even “God.” Most people would know that was true of Christ. But why was it true of the Roman emperor? Why would you worship your political leader? Does this mean we’re going to have to call either Hillary or Donald “Lord” or “God”? It seems unlikely. So why did ancient people in the Roman Empire do it? That’s what I want to explore over a few posts. To get there, I need to provide a refresher know this, simply a course!) the divine realm in relation taken this description from my course (or, for those who don’t on how ancient people imagined to the human realm. I have book How Jesus Became God: ************************************************************* When ancient people imagined the emperor – or any other individual – as a god, that did not mean that the emperor was Zeus or one of the other gods of Mount Olympus. He was a divine being on a much lower level. Or instead of a continuum, possibly it is helpful to understand the ancient conception of the divine realm as a kind of pyramid of power, grandeur, and deity. The Divine Pyramid Some ancient people – for example, some of those more philosophically inclined –thought that at the very pinnacle of the divine realm there was one ultimate deity, a God who was over all things, who was infinitely, or virtually infinitely, powerful and who was sometimes thought to be the source of all things. This God – whether Zeus, or Jupiter, or an Unknown God – stood at the apex of what we might imagine as the divine pyramid. Below this God… The Rest of this Post is for Members Only. So JOIN! It costs less than a Starbuck’s a month [a *month*] and will perk you up at least as well. And every dime goes to charity! Below this God, on the next lower tier, were the great gods known from tales and traditions that had been passed down from antiquity, for example, the twelve gods on Mount Olympus described in the ancient myths and in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, gods such as Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Athena, Mercury, and so on. These gods were fantastically powerful, far beyond what we can imagine. The myths about them were entertaining stories, but many people thought these myths were just that, stories – not historical narratives of things that actually happened. Philosophers tried to “demythologize” the myths, that is, to strip them of their obvious literary features to see how, apart from a literal reading, they told deeper truths about the world and reality. At any rate, these gods were worshiped as the most powerful beings in the universe. Many of them were adopted by cities and towns as their patron gods; some were acknowledged and worshiped by the state as whole, which had clear and compelling reasons to want the mighty gods to look favorably upon it in times of both war and peace. But they were not the only divine beings. On a lower tier of the pyramid were many, many other gods. Every city and town had its local gods, who protected, defended, and aided the place. There were gods of every imaginable function: gods of war, love, weather, health, childbirth – you name it. There were gods for every locale: gods of forests, meadows, mountains, and rivers. The world was populated with gods. That is why it made no sense to ancient people – apart from Jews – to worship only one God. Why would you worship one God? There were lots of gods, and all of them deserved to be worshipped. If you decided to start worshiping a new god – for example, because you moved to a new village and wanted to pay due respect to its local divinity – that did not require you to stop worshiping any of the other gods. If you decided to perform a sacrifice to Apollo, that didn’t stop you from also offering a sacrifice to Athena, or Zeus, or Hera, or any of the other great gods. This was a world of lots of gods and lots of what we might call religious tolerance. Below these levels of gods there were still other tiers. There was a group of divine beings known as daimones. Sometimes this word gets translated as “demons,” but that gives completely the wrong connotation.. Some of these beings could be malevolent, to be sure. But not all of them were; and they were not fallen angels, wicked spirits that could possess people and make them do hurtful things like fling themselves in harm’s way or twist their heads 360 degrees or projectile vomit (as in the movie, The Exorcist). The daimones instead were simply a lower level of divinity, not nearly as powerful as the local gods, let alone the great gods. They were spiritual beings far more powerful than humans. Being closer in power to humans, they had more to do with humans than the more remote great gods, and could often help people through their lives, as in the famous daimon that the Greek philosopher Socrates claimed guided his actions. If displeased they could do harmful things. It was important to keep them happy by paying them their due in reverence and worship. In our divine pyramid a yet lower tier, near or at the bottom, would be inhabited by divine humans. This is where the “pyramid” analogy breaks down because we should not think that these divine humans were more numerous than the other deities above them. In fact, it was relatively rare to run across someone who was so mighty, wise, or insanely gorgeous that they must in some sense be divine. But it did happen on occasion. A great general, a king, an emperor, a great philosopher, a fantastic beauty – these could be more than human. Such persons could be superhuman. They could be divine. Maybe their father was a god. Maybe they were a god temporarily assuming a human body. Maybe because of their own virtue, power, or physical features they were thought to have been accepted into the divine realm. But they were not like the rest of us, we lowly humans. We too, as I have pointed out, are on a continuum. Some among us are quite lowly – those whom some ancient commentators, for example, would consider the scum of the earth. Others of us are about average in every way. Others of us think that we, and our entire families, are well above average. Some of us recognize that there are fellows among us who are superior in remarkable ways. For ancient people, there are some of us who are so vastly superior that we have begun to move into the realm of the divine. The Rise of the Roman Empire I want to suspend for a time – not cancel altogether! – the thread I have been pursuing on how I came to be interested in the textual criticism of the New Testament, which itself is a spin-off (using roughly similar metaphors) of the bigger thread that I started, which at the time of inception I anticipated would be all of two posts long, of why I ended up being equipped to write trade books more than most of my colleagues who were doing research that, on the surface, seemed to be far more amenable to trade books. But I want to suspend the thread for now, to be resumed soon, because there is something else I’m particularly interested in and I want to strike it while the iron is hot. I’m flying off to Denmark on Sunday to give a lecture and a couple of academic discussions at the University of Southern Denmark. The topic: the relationship between the worship of the Roman emperor (the “imperial cult”) and the rise of Christology (the understanding of Christ). The Roman emperor was called “Savior,” “Lord,” “Son of God,” and “God.” So was Jesus. At the same time. Was that a historical accident? I touch on that question in my book How Jesus Became God. In the book I was focused almost entirely on how the early Christians understood who Christ was, and how this understanding developed over time – that is, how the followers of Jesus who originally thought he might be the Jewish messiah (the human king of Israel) began to think he was a divine being, to thinking he was in some sense, along with the Father, also God, to thinking he was the eternal God who created the universe and was the second member of the Trinity. I continue to consider this one of the most important questions of the Christian religion, and in some sense an absolutely vital question for anyone interested in the history of our civilization (since it had such an enormous impact). Over the past few weeks I have shifted my focus of interest onto another question, the question of why and how the emperor of Rome also came to be thought of as the Son of God, and in some sense God, the Lord, the Savior of all people. There is a ton of scholarship on this question, and it is a very interesting question I think. My sense is that many people who have some vague sense that the emperor was worshiped don’t quite understand … THE REST OF THIS POST IS FOR MEMBERS ONLY. Join!!! You’ll get tons of valuable information and discussion, and for very little money indeed. And all money goes to charity! So get with it and join today!! My sense is that many people who have some vague sense that the emperor was worshiped don’t quite understand how it all worked. So I thought it would be useful to discuss the issue for a while, now that I have been thinking hard about it. First a bit of background, for those not up to speed on their Roman imperial history (that is, most people in the known universe!). So, to begin with, the Roman Empire did not always have an emperor. That may seem strange, but it is the case. According to hoary old legends, which may have a nugget of truth in them, even if the details are all based on later imaginations rather than historical facts, in the early years, before it had any control over anything other than itself, Rome started out as a small village/community and as it grew in size it had kings as its leaders. After a couple of hundred years the people of Rome became disenchanted with their kings and abolished the institution, arranging to have a body of its own elite (wealthy) members of its own aristocracy run the affairs of the city. This is normally dated to 509 BCE, so half a millennium before the beginning of Christianity. For those five hundred years, Rome was a “republic” ruled by its senate, who made all the major civic and military decisions and appointed skilled administrators to various governmental tasks. The brief background to the shift to become an “empire” ruled by an “emperor” involves a series of civil wars that took place among the various powerful leaders of the Roman senate, and their armies, in the first century BCE. In an attempt to calm the situation and assume full control himself, Julius Caesar declared himself dictator (i.e., sole-ruler) for life. Other powerful factions in the senate were violently opposed to this, and him, and they assassinated him in 44 BCE (on the “Ides of March”). Caesar’s great-nephew was a young man named Octavius, whom he had adopted to be his legal son. Caesar had an actual physical son, born to his union with (the famous) Cleopatra, ruler of Egypt, a child named Caesarion. But it was Octavius who was given all the privileges of sonship and was made Caesar’s heir. When Caesar was assassinated, Octavius inherited his vast – mind-bogglingly vast – wealth and property. Civil war resumed, principally between Octavian (as he was now called), and Mark Antony, who was now Cleopatra’s lover in Egypt. The war all came to a climax at a major battle at Actium in 31 BCE. Octavian won. Mark Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide. And Octavian was now on top. Octavian realized that it would be a very bad move indeed to declare himself the dictator of Rome. That had not turned out so well with his adoptive father, Julius Caesar. So rather than grab all the power, he went to the senate and relinquished all his power. The senate was thrown into a frenzy, knowing that if Octavian did not rule, they would be thrown back into another horrible power struggle and civil war. So they willingly bestowed on him complete power. He was *granted* power; he didn’t *grab* it. Octavian claimed not to be dictator but to be the “princeps” which means something like “first citizen,” the “first among the people.” In 27 BCE he was awarded the name Augustus (“most venerable one”) and he then became the first Roman emperor. For the rest of its history, Rome – and the lands it controlled — would be ruled by emperors. Emperors were not merely humans in the view of many of their subjects. They were actually in some sense divine men. And they were worshiped as such. They were called gods and they were treated and revered as gods (within certain very important limits). That’s what I’m interested in talking about, in the next several posts. Roman Religion as the Context for Christianity I have started to indicate how I laid out my prospectus for my next book The Triumph of Christianity, as I developed the idea this past summer. Remember: the prospectus was designed to get a publisher (or hopefully more than one) interested in publishing the book, and was based on, and presupposed, already a good bit of research. The prospectus was to show what the book was to be about, why it is both interesting and important, and how it would be, tentatively, be laid out. The qualifier, “tentatively,” is very important. The book has to cohere from the outset. But the reality is that as an author does more and more and more research, certain areas of interest emerge more clearly, and the final framing of the book is often quite different from the tentative sketch of the prospectus. Still, it is important to give a publisher a good sense of what the book will look like – what it will argue and how it will argue it. In my previous posts I have discussed basically what the book is *about* (how Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman world in less than four centuries, from remarkably inauspicious beginnings) and about how lots of previous scholarship had inadequately dealt with the matter. In my prospectus I proposed a book comprising five major sections. Here is what I said about the first section: ************************************************************** *********** 1. The Religious chapters) Context of the Ancient World (two To make sense of the rise of Christianity… THE REST OF THIS POST IS FOR MEMBERS ONLY. If you don’t belong yet, JOIN UP! It costs less than a Starbuck’s a month, and it will perk you up *way* more. proceeds go to charity! And remember, all To make sense of the rise of Christianity, it is first necessary to understand the nature of religion generally in the ancient world. There were literally hundreds – thousands – of religions in the Roman Empire, each with its own distinct character. But there are some features they shared that make them strikingly different from religion as known in our world today (which I’m defining as the Judeo-Christian tradition of the West). These religions were all polytheistic, believing that there were many gods, of many descriptions, many levels of power, and many functions, who were located in many places. They were worshiped not by having creeds to confess or doctrines to believe, but by ritual acts of prayer and sacrifice. The reason for worshiping these gods was not in order to assure a good afterlife – which for most people was not an issue (it wasn’t complicated: people who were good would be rewarded, people who were wicked would be punished; specifically religious practice had little to do with it). The gods were instead needed to make life in the present livable and prosperous. A good relation with the divine realm was essential in a world where most people were living very near the edge: if rain did not come one year, your village would starve the next; masses of women died in child birth and masses of infants died before the age of two; a neighboring village could destroy yours with impunity; a tooth abscess would kill you. People needed divine help to provide them with the things they needed just to survive: life, health, rain, crops, productive livestock, peace, healing – not to mention all the things that people still today want and cannot much control (love, prosperity, happiness, contentment). The gods – of all sorts – did not require much. They did not require faith. They did not require constant and regular devotion. They did not require (for the most part) ethical behavior. They simply required the proper form of worship. Prayers and sacrifices. There was no separation of church and state. On the contrary, so closely intertwined were church and state that the ancient languages do not have distinct words to differentiate what we today think of as “politics” and “religion.” For ancients, the gods made the state succeed and so the state naturally sponsored the worship of the gods. Moreover, on the whole the state was extremely tolerant about religion – as were the vast majority of ancient pagans themselves. No one insisted that you worship only their gods. If you did decide to start to worship a new god, this did not require (or even suggest) that you stop worshiping your other gods. the gods deserve to be worshiped. Why would it? All Judaism stood out as somewhat unusual within this ancient pagan context. To be sure – and a point that needs to be stressed — Judaism was a recognizable form of worship: it too involved prayer and sacrifice; it too focused on these cultic acts rather than doctrine; it too did not emphasize an afterlife but the here and now; it too was concerned with divine power and God’s ability to provide his people with what they wanted and needed. Where it was distinct was in its insistence that there was only one God to be worshiped, the creator of all things and God of Israel, and its claim that the Jewish people (and only they) were in a close covenantal relationship with this God. Their God had given them their “law,” which gave them guidance both about how to worship him and about how to live in community with one another, distinct from all other peoples of earth. It was within this Jewish context that Christianity began, even though its major successes came to be found among the mass of pagans. Miraculous (Not Virgin) Births in Ancient Pagan Texts In my previous post I pointed out that there do not appear to be any instances in the other religions of antiquity of a virgin birth – where a woman gives birth without having sex. In this post I’ll lay out the more typical view of how a “son of God” came into the world. It very much does involve sex. Most of the post will deal with one (very funn) story in particular which is emblematic of the rest. For this post I will quote a section from my recent book, How Jesus Became God. ************************************************************* ****** Even though Apollonius of Tyana was understood to be a preexistent god come in the flesh, that is not the normal Greek or Roman way of understanding how a divine human could be born of a mortal. By far the more common view was that a divine being comes into the world – not having existed prior to birth – because a god has had sex with a human, and the offspring then is in some sense divine. In Greek myths it is most frequently Zeus who engages in these morally dubious activities, coming down from heaven when he sees an attractive woman that he has to have, leading to a rather exotic sexual encounter and a highly unusual pregnancy. But tales of Zeus and his mortal lovers were not simply the matter of entertaining mythology. Sometimes such tales were told of actual historical figures, such as Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). According to his later biographer, the Greek scholar Plutarch, whose book on famous Greek and Roman men provides us with biographies of many of the greatest figures of both Greece and Rome, Alexander’s birth was sometimes believed to have been altogether miraculous. Many people believed that Alexander was one of Zeus’s offspring. Alexander’s actual father was the famous and powerful Philip, king of Macedonia, who had fallen in love with a woman named Olympias. According to Plutarch, the night before the two were to consummate their marriage, Olympias dreamed that a thunderbolt came down from heaven and entered into her. Presumably this was Zeus doing his magic. In any event, Philip apparently looked in on his wife that night and saw a serpent engaged in conjugal embrace with her. As Plutarch indicates, and as one might understand, this sight very much cooled Philip’s passion for his bride. In ancient times Zeus was often represented in the form of a snake. And so, for those who believed this tale, the child – Alexander – was no mere mortal. He was literally the son of a god. In mythology we have even more striking accounts of Zeus, or his Roman counterpart Jupiter, engaging in such nocturnal activities. No story is more intriguing than the tale of the birth of Hercules. There are several forms of the tale in antiquity. the most memorable is the hilarious recounting… But perhaps THE REST OF THIS POST IS FOR MEMBERS ONLY. If you don’t belong yet, YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE MISSING!!! But perhaps the most memorable is the hilarious recounting found among the plays of the Roman comic playwright Plautus, in his work Amyphytrion. The play is named after one of the main characters, a military general of Thebes who is married to an extraordinarily beautiful woman named Alcmena. Amphytrion has gone away to war, leaving his pregnant wife at home. Jupiter casts a lustful gaze upon her from heaven, and decides that he has to have her. And he knows just how to do it. Jupiter disguises himself as Amphytrion and tells his “wife” that he has now come home from battle. She welcomes him with open arms and takes him to bed. So much does Jupiter enjoy the ensuing activities that he orders the constellations to stop in their circuit. In other words, he makes time stand still, until he – even he, the mighty god with divine capacity for enjoyment – has his fill. The constellations resume their motion, Jupiter returns to his heavenly home, and Alcmena is obviously worn out from the very long frolic. As it turns out, Amphytrion himself, the real general, returns home that morning. And he is more than a little surprised and dismayed to find that his wife does not welcome him with all the enthusiasm that one might expect from such an extended absence. From her perspective, of course, that’s completely understandable: she has just spent a very long night in his arms. Be that as it may, there is an interesting gestational result of this episode. Alcmena had already been made pregnant by Amphytrion. But she becomes pregnant yet again by Jupiter (some of these mythological tales were not strong on anatomy or biology). [My friend Michael Penn, professor of Religious Studies at Mount Holyoke, informs me that there are indeed cases of twins from different fathers – a phenomenon known as “heteropaternal superfecundation” – but the woman’s two cells need to be fertilized within a relatively short interval from one another. Amphytrion has been away at war presumably for several months.] The result is that she bears twins. One is the divine Hercules, the son of Jupiter; the other is his twin brother, a mortal, Iphicles. One can find numerous such Greek and Roman stories of mortals who give birth to a child spawned by a god. The tale of Amphytrion and Alcmena, of course, is a myth, and it is not clear that anyone actually “believed” it. It was instead a great story. Still, the idea behind it was one that was plausible to many people of the ancient world. Some of the great beings who stride the earth – great conquerors like Alexander, for example, or even great philosophers with superhuman wisdom such as Plato – may well have been born in ways different from us mere mortals. They may have had a divine parent so that they themselves were, in some sense, divine. I should stress that when Alcmena gave birth to Hercules, the son of Jupiter, it was not an instance of a virgin birth. Quite the contrary. She had already had sex with her husband, and with Jupiter she had what you might call divine sex. In none of the stories of the divine humans born to the union of a god and a mortal is the mortal a virgin; the very point of the stories is that she is not. This will be one of the ways that the Christian stories of Jesus differ from those of other divine humans in the ancient world. It is true that (the Jewish) God is the one who makes Jesus’ mother Mary pregnant through the Holy Spirit (see Luke 1:35). But the monotheistic Christians had far too an exalted view of God to think that he could have temporarily become human to play out his sexual fantasies. The gods of the Greek and Romans may have done such things, but the God of Israel was above it all. Widespread Claims of Pagan Virgin Births I have devoted several posts to the issue of Jesus’ virgin birth, as recounted in Matthew and Luke. As I pointed out, there is no account of Jesus’ virgin birth in the Gospel of John, and it appears that the idea is actually argued *against* (implicitly) in the Gospel of Mark. Several readers have asked me (or told me) about the parallels to the virgin birth stories in pagan texts, where a son of God, or demi-god, or, well, some other rather amazing human being is said to have been born of a virgin. Aren’t the Christians simply borrowing a widely held view found among the pagans, that if someone is the son of God (e.g., Hercules, or Dionysus, or Asclepius, etc.), his mother is always thought to have been a virgin? As it turns out, that’s not the case at all. I don’t know of any parallel to … THE REST OF THIS POST IS FOR MEMBERS ONLY. If you don’t belong yet, GET WITH THE PROGRAM!!! I don’t know of any parallel to the Christian idea that a virgin gave birth to the son of God in any other religion of antiquity. I’ll devote a couple of posts to this issue. In this one I’ll talk about how it is widely thought and claimed that in fact this is a wide-spread pagan idea. In the next one I’ll show what in fact the more typical pagan idea typically was (it was not that a woman was a virgin! Far from it. Even if the child’s father is not a mortal but a god.) First: the widely stated view (which is wrong) that virgin births were common in pagan religious traditions. I’ve dealt with this view in my book Did Jesus Exist?, and here I’ll simply cite an example of two authors who state this view, as if it were common knowledge and so needed no evidence to support it. There are, as you know, a lot of books written by non-scholars claiming Jesus did not exist. Here I deal with one of them that makes this claim about alleged virgin births among pagans: ************************************************************** ***** Appearing in 1999 was the (intended) blockbuster work by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries: Was the ‘Original Jesus’ a Pagan God? Freke and Gandy have collaborated on a number of books in recent years, most of them uncovering the conspiratorial secrets of our shared past. In their book they argue that Jesus was invented by a group of Jews who resembled the Therapeutae in Alexandria Egypt, leading to the invention of a new mystery religion (the Jesus Mysteries) that flourished at the beginning of the third century CE. In their view, however, Jesus was not a sunGod. He was a creation based on the widespread mythologies of dying and rising gods known throughout the pagan world. so their main thesis: And The story of Jesus is not the biography of a historical Messiah, but a myth based on perennial Pagan stories. Christianity was not a new and unique revelation but actually a Jewish adaptation of the ancient Pagan Mystery religion. (Jesus Mysteries, p. 2) At the heart of all the various pagan mysteries, Freke and Gandy aver, was a myth of a godman who died and rose from the dead. This divine figure was called by various names in the sundry pagan mysteries: Osiris, Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Baccus, Mithras. But “fundamentally all these godmen are the same mythical being” (p. 4). The reason that Freke and Gandy think so is that all these figures share the same mythology: their father was God; their mother was a mortal virgin; they were each born in a cave on December 25 before three shepherds and wisemen; among their miracles they turned water to wine; they all rode into town on a donkey; they all were crucified at Eastertime as a sacrifice for the sins of the world; they descended to hell; and on the third day they rose again. Since these same things are said of Jesus as well, it is obvious that the stories believed by the Christians are all simply invented as imitations of the pagan religions. Real historians of antiquity are typically scandalized by such assertions – or at least they would be, if they bothered to read Freke and Gandy’s book. The authors provide no evidence for their claims concerning the standard mythology of the godmen. They cite no sources from the ancient world that can be checked. It is not that they have provided an alternative interpretation of the available evidence. They have not even cited the available evidence. evidence exists. And for good reason. No such What, for example, is the proof that Osiris was born on December 25 before three shepherds? Or that he was crucified? And that his death brought an atonement for sin? Or that he returned to life on earth by being raised from the dead? In point of fact, no ancient source says any such thing about Osiris (or about the other gods). But Freke and Gandy claim that this is common knowledge. And they “prove” it by quoting other writers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who have said so. But these writers too do not cite any historical evidence. This is all based on assertion, believed by Freke and Gandy simply because they read it somewhere. This is not serious historical scholarship. It is sensationalist writing driven by a desire to sell books. *********************************************************** In my next post I’ll show what the typical pagan view actually was about the miraculous births of their sons of gods. Their mothers were never virgins – quite the contrary. Male Domination in Antiquity In this thread I’ve been laying out the view that in Paul’s own churches, women were granted places of prominence, possibly because they had been prominent at times from the very beginning, going back to the ministry of Jesus. But eventually women were silenced – as evidenced in the Pastoral epistles and the interpolation of 1 Cor. 14:35-36 by a later copyist of Paul’s letter. I continue this line of thought again by referring to the discussion of my Introduction to the NT, based on what is a broad consensus among scholars of antiquity who study such things: So… why did the Pauline churches move to the position embraced in these later texts (wrongly assigned to Paul), restricting the roles that women could play in the churches, insisting that Christians be married, and making Christian women submit to the dictates of their husbands both at home and in the church? It would be easy enough to attribute this move simply to male chauvinism, as much alive in antiquity as it is today. But the matter may be somewhat more complicated than that. In particular, we need to consider what male domination might have *meant* in an ancient context. For odd as it might seem, not everyone means the same thing when they speak about gender relations, and most people in the ancient Roman world thought about these relations in terms that are quite foreign to those of us who live in the modern Western world. Log in to read the complete post. People in our world typically consider males and females to be two different kinds of human beings related to one another like two sides of the same coin. And so we sometimes refer to “my better half” or to “the other half of the human race.” In antiquity, however, most people did not think of men and women as two entities that were different *in kind* but as entities that were different *in degree*. That is to say, for many ancient people there was a single continuum that constituted humanity, with some human beings more fully developed and perfect specimens along that continuum. Women were on the lower end of the scale for biological reasons: they were “men” who had been only partially formed in the womb, undeveloped, imperfect from birth. They differed from “real” men because their penises had never grown and the rest of their bodies would never develop to their full potential. Thus, by their very nature, women were necessarily the “weaker” sex. This biological understanding of the sexes had momentous social implications. Ancient Roman society was somewhat more forthright than ours in its appreciation of the importance of personal power. It openly revered those who were strong and domineering; indeed, the virtue most cherished by males was “honor” — that is, the recognition of one’s precedence over others, established chiefly through one’s ability to achieve physical, economic, or political dominance. Other virtues were related to how well one behaved in light of this domination, for example through courage and “manliness” when it was threatened, and with self-control and restraint when it was exercised. In that kind of society, those who were “weaker” were *supposed* to be subservient to those who were “stronger.” And women were, by their very nature, “weaker” than men. That is to say, nature itself had set up a kind of pecking order, in which men were to be dominant over women as imperfect and underdeveloped beings, and women were accordingly to be submissive to men. This notion of dominance played itself out in all sorts of relationships, especially the sexual and domestic. Most people in the Roman world appear to have thought that women were to be sexually dominated by men. This view was sometimes expressed in terms that might strike you as crass: it was widely understood that men were designed to be penetrators while women were designed to be penetrated. Being sexually penetrated was a sign of weakness and submission. This is why same-sex relations between adult males were so frowned upon: not because of some natural repulsion that people felt for homosexual unions — in fact, in parts of the ancient world it was common for adult males to have adolescent, and therefore inferior, boys as sex partners — but because this meant that a man was being penetrated and therefore dominated. To be dominated meant to lose one’s claim to power and therefore one’s honor, the principal male virtue. Women’s virtues, on the other hand, were derived from their own sphere of influence. Whereas a man’s were associated with the public arena of power relations — that is, the forum, the business place, and the military — a woman’s were associated with the domestic sphere of the home. To be sure, women were extremely active and overworked and burdened with responsibilities and duties; but these were almost always associated with the household: making clothes, preparing food, having babies, educating children, taking care of personal finances, and the like. Even wealthy women shouldered considerable burdens, having to serve as household managers over family, slaves, and employees, while husbands concerned themselves with “public” affairs. The domestic nature of a woman’s virtues generally required her to keep out of the public eye — at least this is what the Roman men who wrote moral essays for women urged them to do. This meant that they were not to speak in public debates, they were not to exercise authority over their husbands, and they were not to be involved with other men sexually, since this would mean that one man was dominating the wife of another, calling into question the consequently, his honor. husband’s own power and, For this reason, women who sought to exercise any power or authority over men were thought to be “unnatural.” When women did attain levels of authority — as was happening with increasing regularity in the Roman world during the time of the New Testament — they were often viewed suspiciously and maligned for not knowing their place of submission, for not maintaining properly female virtues, and for being sexually aggressive, even if their personal sex lives were totally unknown.