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Why Was the Emperor Worshiped?

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…

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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 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 Greek-speaking 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.





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  1. stokerslodge  September 28, 2016

    Thank you Bart. Is it true that Christians were persecuted and tortured and even put to death for refusing to worship the emperor? Also, what form did this worship take, was there a designated place or temple that people were required to attend and participate in a formal ritual ?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 29, 2016

      Ah, complicated question. I think I’ll make a thread of it! Short answer: emperor worship was voluntary. But anyone who flat-out *refused* and was known to do so could get in trouble.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  September 28, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, in a somewhat related issue I learned that the English word “demon” comes from the Greek δαιμων, which itself means a personal spirit of sorts that would interact with natural world of human beings, for good or ill — it seems a modern person could think of a δαιμων as like a combination of a ghost and guardian angel, or possibly like the Medieval concept of a familiar, or maybe even the Arabic Djinn. Anyway, is it possible that the very first Christians (i.e. the surviving disciples, et al.) thought of the resurrected Jesus as something like a δαιμων but more exalted and powerful? That is, the resurrected Jesus was for them kind of like a super-duper ultra-guardian angel, who would work to assure them a place in coming Kingdom of God? And it was only later that Jesus rose the ranks to being God in his own right?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 29, 2016

      It’s unlikely, in part because there was already a strain in apocalyptic Judaism (the kind of Judaism Jesus and his followers subscribed to) to see daimones not as neutral but as evil beings (the spirits connected with the “fallen” Watchers, known, e.g., from the Enochic literature). My sense is that some of them did see Christ as an angel (I think Paul thought this) who had been elevated to a higher divine status

      • talmoore
        talmoore  September 29, 2016

        So the distinction between a δαιμων and an αγγελων was already firmly set by that point in time, the former being malevolent, the latter benevolent?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 30, 2016

          In some circles, but not all. Certainliy in the circles out of which the early Christians emerged.

  3. godspell  September 28, 2016

    Caligula did try to make people worship him as a god while he was alive, even insisting that people refer to him as Jupiter or another of the supreme deities. He removed the heads from statues of gods and put representations of his own head in their place. He arguably took Emperor worship further than anyone else ever did, at least in this time period. But compliance with his edicts was probably done mainly out of fear, not agreement. Nero merely wanted people to revere him as a great musician and actor, which I’m tempted to say was worse. 😉

    Since the Old Testament is heavily composed of battles between people who believed in this more flexible vision of the divine, and those who wanted to say that there was one God and one God only (while allowing for the existence of powerful subordinate beings like angels and demons), how affected by the pagan religious culture would early Christians, almost unanimously Jewish, have been?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 29, 2016

      For much of the OT the issue is not whether htere are other gods, but whether they are to be worshiped. And my sense (I develop this in my new book) is that most early Christians in fact did not come from Jewish roots, but were converted from paganism. Maybe I should post on this.

      • godspell  October 3, 2016

        Kind of depends on what you mean by early Christians, right? How early? And for that matter, what you mean by Christian. The very first Christians still considered themselves Jews, and the really important early figures in the new church were Jewish by birth. I’ll be interested to read that post.

        My own take on the OT is that there are no other gods recognized AS gods. Prayers to them are never answered. There are evil powers, yes. But a Jew could explain this by saying that these are demons posing as gods (and in fact, many of our names for Satan are drawn from pagan gods named in the OT). I’ll be interested in seeing your take on this as well.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 4, 2016

          I think it’s possible to be both a Jew and a Christian. I would define a Christian as someone who thinks that Jesus Christ is the one who brings salvation.

          • godspell  October 4, 2016

            I think early Christianity was certainly an offshoot of Judaism, but in a relatively short time, it became something entirely new. As Judaism was an offshoot of an earlier polytheist form of worship, which became centered around just one of the old gods.

            However, the Jews who were the founders of Christianity never stopped being Jewish, because if history teaches us anything, it’s that Jewishness is an ineradicable identity (otherwise it would certainly have been eradicated by now). Paul was a Jew to the day he died. He just didn’t think being Jewish was an essential attribute for being a follower of Christ. In fact, as we’ve discussed in past, his desire to get rid of the requirement that new converts follow the Jewish Laws was really his way of saying that these gentiles could never be Jewish in the way that he was, and they shouldn’t even try.

        • Helmut  October 10, 2016

          It seems that worship of other gods was very common even by Israelites. See this lecture by the archeologist William Dever on YouTube, “Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZADRRdaUG8
          You can skip the first 15 minutes because it is all introduction.

  4. Jana  September 28, 2016

    Wasn’t this human divinization a bit risky? I can understand when times were good, the “system” functioning but what would happen when crops failed, famine, natural calamities, wars were lost, mass suffering? Wouldn’t the “divine being” be held personally responsible?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 29, 2016

      Could be — but if the divine being is responsible, it usually means s/he is angry and needs to be appeased. I don’t think divinized emperors (more than other gods) were typically blamed though.

  5. TWood
    TWood  September 29, 2016

    Remember Obama’s temple and Greek columns? What you’re saying reminds me of that… even the foreign press picked up on it… I know you lean left but I follow that stuff and there were a lot of people who thought Obama was a demigod savior… it’s too that different from some past US presidents either… if you look at the The Apotheosis of Washington frescos for example… even Mt. Rushmore in a sense… do you see some parallels at all?



  6. TWood
    TWood  September 29, 2016

    This is off topic I know… but this is in the news and I assume you have some interesting thoughts on it:


    • Bart
      Bart  September 29, 2016

      It’s just sensationalizing to say that a discovery like this “proves” the Bible is literally true, other than in a massively general way! (The Bible doesn’t talk about a latrine being placed in this temple, e.g.)

    • HawksJ  October 3, 2016

      An article titled as “Archaeologists In Israel Find Evidence That Proves Literal Truth Of Bible” contains the following sentence: ‘According to the Bible, city gates were where “everything took place”.’

      Just like my teenage son, that writer doesn’t understand what ‘literal’ means.

    • SidDhartha1953  October 4, 2016

      Did they also find residue of the kerosene Elijah’s sacrifice was doused with? 😉

  7. RonaldTaska  September 29, 2016

    Thank you for this series and I encourage readers of this blog to read your book entitled “How Jesus became God.”
    I did not know about he difference between the “west” and the “east.”

  8. rburos  October 3, 2016

    I was reading that Greek had one word for god (theos), while Latin had two levels (deus and divus). How important were the two distinctions? I feel like your divinity pyramid accords with this–

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2016

      It’s debated whether they are to be seen as equivalents or not.

  9. CarlWeetabix  October 29, 2016

    Perhaps too late and maybe answered elsewhere, however, do you know why leaders after the advent of Christianity were considered divinely ordained (God’s will), if not divine, as well? It certainly seems convenient and my cynicism would think that the state promoted such ideas, but it feels a bit un-Jesus-like to me (if anything he seems a rebel against state power), however perhaps there is historical or Judaic precedence, even when talking essentially pagan or clearly corrupt (un-Christian-like) leadership.

    It’s interesting to me that some modern Christians still seem too adhere to this idea, at least in attest to the biblical truth of it, even if they might seem to conveniently forget when it is a leader to which they disagree.

    Any information would be interesting here.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2016

      Yes, early in Chrsitianity the idea of apostolic succession developed: our leaders were chosen by their predecessors who were chosen by the apostles who were chosen by Jesus who was sent from God. Therefore our leaders speak divine truth. It was indeed a very useful argument!

      • CarlWeetabix  October 30, 2016

        Thanks – always great information here!

  10. Christopher
    Christopher  January 11, 2017

    I have a question about how you qualify your statements. When you use phrases like, “few scholars” or “most scholars”, how exactly are you determining what these percentages are? I know, for example, in most of your books you’ll state that “most scholars” don’t believe the authors of the gospels are the ones whose names are on them. However, I attended a conference last year hosted by a conglomerate of Dallas Theological Seminary professors who stated the opposite, in regards to Luke and John (it was actually Dan Wallace, Justin Bass, Darrel Bock, and Mike Licona). They actually stated that “most scholars” believe that Luke wrote Luke, and a John wrote John. I asked them how they were getting these estimations and D. Bock referred me to someone’s book on Luke which they said exhaustively covered everyone’s opinion and that they got their estimate on scholarly opinions from. My point is that it’s one thing to say “most scholars”, “a few scholars”, “more scholars” believe x on any particular claim, but to those of us who spent time engaging with the other side, we find that the other side is sometimes saying “most scholars”, “a few scholars”, “more scholars”, too, for a completely opposite take on a claim, and it’s all very confusing. What’s the best way to check the validity of these majority opinion claims, short of buying out all the commentaries and counting everyone’s opinion out. You Biblical Scholars really need to get out there and just hand out survey’s at one of these conventions that you all do, all the time! 😉

    With much love!
    Garrett Sanders

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      I try to be careful in how I phrase this, when I say it, but possibly I’m not always careful? What I try to say, every time, is what most “critical scholars” think. I don’t include fundamentalists or hard-core evangelicals who believe in the infallibility of Scripture among critical scholars. Once you count fundamentalists among the scholars, then the balance necessarily shifts.

      • Christopher
        Christopher  January 17, 2017

        Thanks for the reply!

        “What I try to say, every time, is what most “critical scholars” think.”

        Not to be persnickety, but how do you even come to “that” conclusion? How do you decide who is a “critical” scholar, and who isn’t? I ask in utmost seriousness. Dr. Darrell Bock of DTS told me, to my face, at an apologetics conference in Dallas, last year, that “most scholars” thought that Luke was written by Luke and John by John. He pointed me to Craig Keener’s huge work on Luke/Acts as the exhaustive guide to everyone’s opinion, on the matter. I presume he would consider himself and his aforementioned scholars “critical” scholars, in the sense that they do want to at least see themselves as thinking critically about the question, and not just assuming inerrancy (even if they believe in innerrancy, in the end). I would assume, if I took your prior response back to Bock, he would brush it off as an attempt to dismiss conservative/evangelical scholarship. Now I’m not saying that many evangelicals don’t deserve to be dismissed (because I think they probably do – just from my own prior experience), but I’m sure you see my dilemma. How do you determine who is a “critical” scholar? How do you determine whose opinion “counts”? How do you do this without just simply unfairly brushing off conservative and evangelical scholarship?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 18, 2017

          Ah, this is an excellent question! I think I’ll address it in the Readers’ Mailbag!

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