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Gods Who (Apparently) Become Human

I’m happy to say that I began writing my book How Jesus Became God today.  Here is a chunk from the first chapter.

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Christianity arose in the Roman Empire immediately after the death of Jesus around the year 30 CE.  This empire was thoroughly infused with Greek culture – so much so that the common language of the empire, the language in fact in which the entire New Testament was written – was Greek.  And so to understand the views of the early Christians we need to situate them in their own historical and cultural context, which means in the Greek and Roman worlds.  In the next chapter I will show that even though Jews had many distinctive views of their own, in many key respects of immediate concern for our study, they shared (in their own ways) many of the views of their Roman friends and neighbors.  This is important to know because Jesus himself was a Jew, as were his immediate followers – including the ones who first proclaimed that he was not a mere mortal, but was actually God.

But how was it possible for God, or a god, to become, or to appear to become, a human?  We have seen one way with Apollonius of Tyana.   In his case, his mother was told before his birth that he would be the incarnation – the “coming in the flesh” – of a pre-existent divine being, the god Proteus.   Even though this basic conceptuality was to become the standard theological interpretation of Jesus – that he was God who became incarnate by being born of his mother Mary — I don’t know of other cases in ancient Greek or Roman thought of such a thing, where an already existing divine being is said to be born of a mortal woman.  But there are other conceptions that are close to this view.   Here I will map out the three most common ways ancient people understood the appearance of a god in human flesh.

Gods Who Temporarily Become Human

One of the greatest Roman poets was Ovid, an older contemporary of Jesus (43 BCE-17 CE).  His most famous work is the Metamorphoses, a fifteen-book work that celebrates changes or transformations that are described in ancient mythology.  Sometimes these changes involve gods who take on human form, in order to interact, for a time, with mortals.

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Who Is Really God?
Pastor Goranson, the Son of God, and I

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    tcc  March 19, 2013

    Apollonius Of Tyana is pretty fascinating, with how similar his story is to Jesus’. Was The Life Of Apollonius Of Tyana supposed to be a pagan riff on the gospels, or was that just a case of two godmen/prophets/sages whose followers ended up having really, really similar ideas about who they were?

    Man, imagine if Rome ended up picking Apollonius as their godman, instead. William Lane Craig would be doing lectures where he’d say that he’s got mathematical proof that Apollonius rose from the dead, that his Mom was a virgin, and that swans danced around her at his birth. Then he’d say stuff like “well yeah, those gospels about Jesus Of Nazareth are just legends, but Apollonius’ story was written by EYE-WITNESSES!”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 19, 2013

      Yes, it’s debated whether Philostratus knew of the Gospels or not. But I should stress that Apollonius’s mother was not at all a virgin! quite the contrary….

      • Avatar
        RLSteve  March 20, 2013

        Well, this may or may not count as sexual intercourse, but Danae, the mother of Perseus, got pregnant when Zeus descended upon her as a golden shower. Didn’t Mary similarly get pregnant by the Holy Spirit coming upon her? Of course, Perseus wasn’t an incarnation of Zeus.

        I read somewhere that Krishna was supposed to be an avatar of Vishnu. Krishna’s mother wasn’t a virgin either, but I read that her pregnancy wasn’t the result of sexual intercourse.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 20, 2013

          Yes, usually Danae is taken to be a case of celestial intercourse. And absolutely about mary.

  2. Avatar
    toddfrederick  March 19, 2013

    Mary did not have sexual intercourse to concieve Jesus…that’s the story. She was a virgin. One who has not been penetrated. So why is this not called the “Virgin Conception?” Yet it’s called the “Virgin Birth.” It must really be a “mystery” ;D

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 19, 2013

      Yes, more precise scholars speak of the virginal conception. There did develop an idea later of the virgin birth, which meant that even after giving birth Mary was still intact (her hymen had not broken).

  3. Avatar
    Pat Ferguson  March 19, 2013

    Hi, Bart! You wrote: “I will show that even though Jews had many distinctive views of their own, in many key respects of immediate concern for our study, they shared (in their own ways) many of the views of their Roman friends and neighbors.”

    οἱ ᾿Ιουδαῖοι and their occupiers were “friends and neighbors”? 😀

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 19, 2013

      Most Jews were living outside Palestine; and Romans did not live within Palestine. Those who did were cheek and jowl with the Jews there….

  4. Avatar
    Mikail78  March 19, 2013

    Bart, you said, “This empire was thoroughly infused with Greek culture – so much so that the common language of the empire, the language in fact in which the entire New Testament was written – was Greek. And so to understand the views of the early Christians we need to situate them in their own historical and cultural context, which means in the Greek and Roman worlds. In the next chapter I will show that even though Jews had many distinctive views of their own, in many key respects of immediate concern for our study, they shared (in their own ways) many of the views of their Roman friends and neighbors.”

    Here’s my question. Would it be fair to say that the traditional Christian belief of hell/a place of eternal fire and punishment is borrowed from and has its roots in the greek concept of hades/the underworld? After all, there’s very little to NO mention of a place of hellfire and damnation in the old testament. Thanks in advance.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 19, 2013

      I think it comes more immediately from Jewishy apocalyptic thought. I talk about where heaven and hell came from in my book Jesus INterrupted.

      • Avatar
        Mikail78  March 20, 2013

        Bart, I’ll reread the section on heaven and hell in “Jesus interrupted”. Is it plausible that hell comes from BOTH jewish apocalyptic thought AND greek myth? I’m not arguing with you. I’m just asking out of curiosity.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 20, 2013

          My sense is that most Jewish apocalypticists didn’t read pagan mythology, so I’m not personally inclined that way….

          • Avatar
            RLSteve  March 21, 2013

            It would seem to me that the Jewish Sheol and Gehenna are analogous to the Greek Hades and Tartarus. Sheol/Hades was a more neutral place for the dead, while Gehenna/Tartarus was a destination for the wicked. It may be that the pagans and the Jews received these ideas from shared “ancestral” cultures, rather the Jews being influenced by the pagans.

            However, as Tartarus was a place where “the punishment fit the crime,” I could see the writer of Apocalypse of Peter being influenced by pagan ideas of Tartarus when he wrote about the tour of Hell.

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 19, 2013

    Oh yes, very interesting! I read Ovid so many years ago that I’d forgotten what became of the couple who treated the gods so well. (When I was a child, my father showed me a “reader” he’d used in elementary school. It included this story about the visiting gods! Stories about the heroes Sigurd and Roland, too – nothing like “readers” from my own era.)

    When we were discussing “degrees of divinity” before, I thought of saying this and didn’t. I was raised Catholic; and personally, I think Catholicism’s emphasis on the Virgin Mary, saints, and angels is thinly disguised polytheism. But I don’t think Catholics would acknowledge that, even to the extent of calling those beings “divine.” I think they’d insist that only the Trinity should be called “divine.”

    • Avatar
      Pofarmer  March 20, 2013

      “But I don’t think Catholics would acknowledge that, even to the extent of calling those beings “divine.””

      That’s when the get into “degrees” of worship. We’re really not worshiping Mary, we’re giving her “adoration” etc. Just like you aren’t praying to the Saints, you are asking for their intercession. It’s all very convoluted, unless you are raised in it.

  6. Avatar
    DMiller5842  March 19, 2013

    I am really looking forward to this book!

  7. talitakum
    talitakum  March 19, 2013

    So Jesus’ story in the gospels is nothing but a pastiche of pagan stories..! Amazing! In particular, I’m impressed by the birth of Apollonius of Tyana, that finally explains the origin of the virgin birth stories about Jesus. Fortunately Church fathers and christian scribes didn’t manage to suppress all these stories, so we now have a glimpse of truth!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 19, 2013

      Actually, Apollonius’s mother was not a virgin. I don’t know of any virgin birth stories among pagans.

      • Avatar
        Emmett  March 19, 2013

        Was it not Julius Caesar whose mother was said to be a virgin mother?

      • Avatar
        RLSteve  March 21, 2013

        Well, Justin Martyr wrote, “And if we even affirm that He was born of a virgin, accept this in common with what you accept of Perseus.” To me, this would indicate that the pagans during the 2nd century thought of Perseus’s birth as a virgin birth, and considering the “celestial intercourse” between the mother and the god, similar to Mary and the Holy Spirit, this would make sense. It would make sense that Danae WAS a virgin because her father kept her locked up because he didn’t want her conceiving any male children. In today’s contemporary age, when we read Greek mythology, it’s never emphasized that Danae was a virgin, not in the way Mary’s virginity is emphasized, so it never occurs to readers, “Perseus was born of a virgin,” but that doesn’t mean that the pagans back in the day didn’t emphasize that idea more, and this quote by Martyr gives an indication that Perseus was thought to have been born of a virgin.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2013

          It would help if we had a pagan who said so. Justin had clear reasons for wanting to claim that the Xns were saying nothing different from pagans. If he were right — why were the pagans persecuting the Xns? (That’s his point)

      • Avatar
        Chrystal Keeney  January 5, 2014

        In response to your comment, “I don’t know of any virgin birth stories among pagans”, wasn’t Mithra the Sun God supposed to have been born of a virgin? Correct me if I’m wrong, this may be Dan Brown speaking… I still have yet to read your book Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code, which it is on my to-do list… After an internet search on Mithra,I’ve read more than one account that claims this… What are your thoughts? Is there any truth to this?

  8. Avatar
    Dr.Context  March 19, 2013

    Entire NT written in greek? If I recall, 7 Early Church Fathers make mention of Matthew being written in Hebrew. What are your thoughts about this claim?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 19, 2013

      Well, there’s a virtual consensus among scholars today that our Matthew was originall composed in Greek. One reason for thinking so is that Mark was one of its sources, and it replicates Mark word for word in places in Greek.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 19, 2013

    So, although this seems quite odd to us today, the idea of movement between human and divine realms did not seem so odd in ancient antiquity. Good luck with the book.

  10. Avatar
    Macavity  March 19, 2013

    In your book are you going to include dates for the occurrence and source of the Apollonius of Tyana story? If all of this occurred years before the birth of Jesus then I would find it very interesting. However, if the source is years after the writing of the gospels then I would be inclined to think that this is probably a case of the author or whomever he got the story from playing copy cat in which case the birth of Jesus interpreted as God being born of a mortal woman remains a unique story from antiquity.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 19, 2013

      Yup, could be. But there weree stories of divine men in pagan circles before both Apollonius and Jesus.

  11. Avatar
    Pofarmer  March 20, 2013

    “Even though this basic conceptuality was to become the standard theological interpretation of Jesus – that he was God who became incarnate by being born of his mother Mary — I don’t know of other cases in ancient Greek or Roman thought of such a thing, where an already existing divine being is said to be born of a mortal woman. ”

    Isn’t this probably a case of where the Apostles had to explain how Jesus had gotten here, when is family was already known? Kind of like all the miracles in Mark where nobody is supposed to be informed?

  12. Avatar
    fred  March 22, 2013

    This may explain how Jesus’ divinity came be be accepted, but I fail to see what bearing this would have on Cephas’ deciding that Jesus was deified. He was an illiterate, Gallilean, Jewish fisherman. Neither he nor his circle of friends would have read Ovid.

  13. Avatar
    SHameed01  October 19, 2013

    some claim that the earliest folowers of Jesus did not see him as God, is there any way that history can be used to back up this claim? and you have Christians on the other hand that say that the belief in Jesus as being God was the belief of the earliest followers of Christ rather than a doctrine that was later introduced, as a historian what’s your take on this subject?

  14. Avatar
    Cliff  December 5, 2013

    Africans held beliefs in gods that which they worshipped. They were thought to be omnipotent and omniscience gods. Each tribe had a name to their gods in thier native tongues. And everything they seek for or help they needed from these gods were provided including protection and instant punishments to disobedience, crime, and taboos (dos and don’ts). To me, explorers, voyagers caused colonization of Africa and other parts of the world through which the English Bible got spread changed the world completely, wiping out so many important ancient beliefs in Africa . Today, most Africans indentify themselves as Christians and Moslems. They have been taught to believe in gods of other nations and cultures. And their faiths in these religions are now deeply rooted. But as the evidence points, every region or peoples of this planet had in the past ancient stories, myths, about some sort of deities or divine beings interactions and men who actually had access to these supernatural beings or deities. If Africa is the continent said to be the first place human creation began and led to migration later to various parts of the world today why are its gods and history never considered and taken seriously? Why the Jews and Arabs have the greatest influence in human history through their religious mythology and culture? If Africans were able to develop writing in ancient times, I would think that their stories could have been most credible in every sense giving the fact that first humans appeared there. The Old Testament began with the geneology of God’s creation in Adam was the first. Where did it happen? I don’t think I grasp the idea of God, His Son, and Holy Spirit. If God begets sons and daughters then that might as well indicate that God can be plural as each of His sons and daughters can be ascribed to as Gods themselves and so worshipped. My thoughts.

  15. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  August 5, 2014

    your jesus teachings are too easy I’m gonna read on the OFFSPRINGS OF ZUESS

  16. Avatar
    Blackie  October 17, 2014

    Great substance! It seems Jesus birth is unique in the sense of virgin conception but Lord Ragland’s book, “The Hero”, in chapter 16 goes through the heroic claim that being born to a virgin(“royal virgin”). I know Mary was a descendant of the Davidic blood line so to is Joseph his earthly father. It’s been years since I read Kersey Graves, “The World’s 16 Crucified Saviors”, but Jesus has precursors but seems to be an anomaly. As a past Mennonite – we did believe Jesus had brothers and sisters. However, the Marian dogma of many Christian churches insist otherwise including the immaculate conception of Mary by her mother. Jesus was divine either by incarnation or exhalation. There are parallels in other ancient accounts. About hell fire, I was threaten by it as a youth but what about the threat of the “second death” and ” the wages of sin is death” and “the dead know nothing”. Of course in our disbelief we break the” unpardonable sin” which cannot be forgiven or so I was told. Was Christ the firstborn of creation and the literal son of God or co-eternal. The language of the baffling Trinity is very confusing and modalism is out. Just some thoughts from an old man of disbelief. . . .

  17. Avatar
    Adam Beaven  August 20, 2015

    are there any pagan miracle workers who never died and went straight of to heaven like elijah ?

    i am sure i heard/read somewhere that pagans did believe in humans who didnt die

    when the pagans associated miracles with thier heros did they believe that the miracles were created by /inherent in the miracle worker?

  18. Avatar
    RolloMartins  August 14, 2016

    “The elderly couple bit “= the elderly couple bid
    later on, “Just punismet; but to you there shall be given”=Just punishment

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