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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
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…
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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
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.
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
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
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 …
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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
…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.
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
I should stress at this stage a very important point.
the ways…
One of
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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
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.
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
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?
Well, as it turns out…
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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
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
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
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
Below this God…
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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
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
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
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
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
A great general, a king, an emperor, a great
philosopher, a fantastic beauty – these could be more than
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.
among us are quite lowly – those whom some ancient
commentators, for example, would consider the scum of the
Others of us are about average in every way.
of us think that we, and our entire families, are well above
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.
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
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
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 …
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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
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
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
To make sense of the rise of Christianity…
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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
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.
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
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
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?
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.
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
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
If you don’t
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
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
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,
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.
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 …
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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
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
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:
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.
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.
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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
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
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.
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