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What Did Ancient People Think (a) God Was?

A number of people have asked me how anyone could imagine a human being or becoming God in the ancient world, based on my claims that for Paul and other early Christian writers Jesus was a divine human.  But if he was human, how could he be God?   To answer that I have to stress a point I made repeatedly in my book How Jesus Became God.   Anyone who wants to say that “Jesus is God” according to an early Christian text, has to explain “in what *sense*” is he God?

Now is a good time for me to lay out how again how ancient people understood the divine realm. It was very different from the way most people today do – at least the people I run across.

People today think of God as completely Other than us humans. We are mortal and limited in every respect; he is immortal and unlimited. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere-present. We are by comparison weak, ignorant, and in one place at a time. He is infinite and eternal; we are finite and temporal. There is an unbridgeable gap between us and God. (Although in Christian theology, it is Jesus who bridges that gap by being a divine being who becomes human; in traditional theology, he did that so that we humans could then become divine)

People in the ancient world did not think of the divine realm o that way– both pagans (more obviously) and Jews (less obviously).  Stick with the multitude of pagan religions for now.   True, the major Gods were enormously powerful and knowing and were immortal (you couldn’t kill them, and they couldn’t kill each other. And they never died). But there were lots of different gods with lots of different power and knowledge. And many of the gods (nearly all of them) came into being at some point in the past. They haven’t always existed, so they were *immortal* not *eternal*.  Like us, they get born. And like us, gods have strengths and weaknesses, and rarely were gods imagined as all-knowing, and almost never as all-powerful.

But there were gods and there were gods. I try to illustrate the divine realm to my students by speaking in terms of a divine pyramid.

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Shawnmrmsh  March 5, 2020

    Very informative and helpful.

  2. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  March 5, 2020

    Some ancient rulers and kings used divinity to have power over others. I don’t think they were all good/in the light, although we are all born good and in the light.
    Now we have the Pope, the Queen of England, and other heads of churches. Different countries have different governments.
    I think some people were in light/heaven. I think Ancient Egypt at first kept it to royalty then shared it with the upper-class and then everyone could have a book. I think they did it because they valued Eternal life over inequality. They knew people were all born in the light. So they made eternal life available to all.

    Are there some spirits more evolved than others? I think this is possible. With each life on earth, they may learn and grow.
    So although we are all equals, we are at different stages/levels of growth and development. Each with unique strengths. Like the different gods and goddesses.

    I also think it is a spiritual rising to heaven and possibly spiritual rebirth after many years or it could just be a spiritual guardian/connection to someone after many years. I think there are many in heaven, all greater than one individual. Maybe the greater good.
    Some people see angels before rising. The angels are loved ones in heaven. So I think we can still communicate through prayer with them.
    I think all people are born in light and can go to heaven. Babies are connected and don’t need to know their names. I think your heart matters. Love and kindness.

    I think sin causes unnecessary suffering and pain.
    We need 5 times or more positive than negative. Some stories and prayers are too negative.
    So we are all born immortal and divine, many learn to sin, but they may still be able to get back into the light before passing. It may help to call their name in your silent prayers.

    Not everyone sees angels. And it would seem that from ancient Egypt, these people did not live again, and they also would not die again.

    Unity is love and kindness. Equality. People from different religions can go to heaven. We don’t have to be perfect. It is our hearts that matter.

    I am working to help people to empower themselves without the false belief of needing power over others.

    Bernice, daughter of Julia Bernice

  3. Robert
    Robert  March 6, 2020

    “I married a Greek God, and now I’m married to a goddam Greek.”

    A Greek god, really?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2020

      Hey, we were newlyweds. And you should have seen my six-pack. (OK, no one else ever saw it either…)

      • Avatar
        KingJohn  April 14, 2020

        Dr. Ehrman, what is the Primary difference between the Son of God and the Son of Man?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 15, 2020

          They each mean different things in different contexts, different periods, and different authors. But for the MOST part the “Son of God” is a sentient being (angel or human) who is so closely connected/related to God as to stand in a special familial relation with him, so that it is a person through whom God mediates his will on earth; the Son of Man is a cosmic judge who comes from heaven to destroy what is opposed to God and perform God’s judgment on the people living here.

  4. Avatar
    godspell  March 6, 2020

    Elijah was raised up into the heavens, and some Jews believed he would return someday. (And perhaps some thought John or Jesus was Elijah returned, and perhaps they at times encouraged this comparison).

    Was Elijah referred to as God? Certainly there are divine or semidivine aspects implied in his story (and he could raise the dead). But this is in the area of divinization, or adoption. Elijah was never supposed to be a pre-existent divine spirit come briefly to earth. He was a man empowered by faith, and at the end, as you say, lifted up into the heavenly realm (by a whirlwind and a blazing chariot, no less).

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2020

      There aren’t as many traditions about Elijah in post-canonical literature as Enoch, for some reason. The Christian texts that refer to him think of him not as a permanent resident in heaven (and thus one made divine) but a mortal who was to come back to earth finally to die.

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 10, 2020

        In the gospels, Elijah looms pretty large–he seems to be treated as an equal to Moses in the story of the Transfiguration (and he does go back to heaven when that’s over). Perhaps there was some localized veneration for him in Galilee, or emanating from the strain of Apocalyptic Judaism John and Jesus represented?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 10, 2020

          Possibly. But my sense is that he was a big deal throughout Judaism as well. think of the empty seat for Elijah still. He was, after all, one of only two people that God thought important enough to take to heaven without dying.

          • Avatar
            godspell  March 11, 2020

            I was struck by something Joel Marcus said in his book on John the Baptist–that there might have been a perception in John’s cult that Jesus was Elisha to John’s Elijah. (How literal such an understanding would be is of course impossible to measure–the line between metaphorical and literal interpretations can be fairly porous among people of a spiritual bent, and indeed, people in general).

            If I recall correctly, he thinks it might have worked out roughly to Elijah being seen as higher in rank, closer to God–but Elisha perhaps more gifted (and more unpredictable).

            Then he got really creative and compared them to Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, though I guess given the name of the elder in that duo, kind of a gimme. Obviously there are some significant differences in terms of how those two famous teacher/pupil relationships worked out. 😐

  5. Avatar
    stokerslodge  March 6, 2020

    Thank you Bart, very interesting and informative. Re “I married a Greek God, and now I’m married to a goddam Greek”. Your wife sounds like a wonderful, funny woman. Is there any chance she might write a blog or two giving her thoughts and insights?

  6. Avatar
    jhague  March 6, 2020

    “…and certainly not most educated ancient people – actually believed the myths as telling events that truly happened”

    Interestingly, modern educated people today often believe the myths of the Bible…six 24 hour days of creation, walking on water, healing of blind, raising of dead…as historical events. But only if in the Bible. Similar stories outside of the Bible are considered nonsense.

  7. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  March 6, 2020

    God has so many forms in the different religions. One and the same religion also finds different understandings of God, depending on which group / orientation one is listening to. Even the Christian God has a very different form from the beginning to the end of the Christian Bible. Judaism, which we consider to be a source of Christianity, has a significantly different conception of God, everything from an external and somewhat distant god, to an all-present power in which the human soul originated and its goals and return (Jewish mysticism), and where man was born in the image of God (God is spirit, and man was first created as a spirit – Adam Kademon who came before the physical Adam Ha Rishon.

    The understanding of God is very different, even 2000 years ago. I believe that understanding many of the New Testament scriptures must be seen in light of the author’s religious grouping / understanding of God, unless the meaning of the texts can quickly become “Greek”.

  8. Avatar
    Scott  March 6, 2020

    Great Book – Buy it!!

  9. Avatar
    muneebzia  March 6, 2020

    Yes I was definitely one of those who was thinking if this had any relevance to do with Judaism! 🙂 This particular post clears out a lot of confusion. In my experience, there are a lot evangelical christians who have misquoted you and have said something to the effect of : ‘Even Dr. Ehrman agrees that all of the NT writers believed that Jesus is divine’ but in their minds, they are equating Divine to Yahweh (I believe this came up in your debate with Justin Bass a while back) and hence build on that to support the trinity. In the post above you have given a variety of ways in which someone can be called ‘God’ or considered divine. Why do you think that, in general, christians interpret any usage or inference to the word God in the NT as a literal claim to being Yahweh, specially when you have the entire Tanakh filled with instances of someone being called God and not being Yahweh?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2020

      I find it puzzling that anyone could think the early Christians imagined God as Yahweh. It is so easily disproven.

      • Avatar
        Greg_Tx  June 29, 2020

        RE “puzzling that anyone could think the early Christians imagined God as Yahweh” … Bart, when you say this do you mean both the Jewish early Christians and the Gentile early Christians?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 29, 2020

          Yes, I don’t know of any early Christian texts that claim Jesus is Yawheh. He may have been seen as *equal* to Yahweh, but that is precisely different.

  10. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 6, 2020

    If I understand you correctly, Jesus preached kingdom ethics – live today as you will live in the Kingdom of God. So he heals people because there will be no illness in the kingdom. Do not even think about sinning, because there will be no sin in the kingdom. But he never (as far as we know) said anything about slavery. Do you think we know what his views on slavery was? In the earthly realm and in the kingdom of God.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2020

      He never says anything about slavery, so no we don’t know. Then again, there is scarcely *anyone* from the ancient world who condemned it as a social injustice on its own terms. (I’m not talking about individual slaves who knew they had been given a raw deal; I’m talking about condemnations of the institution)

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 10, 2020

        It’s impossible to believe Jesus thought there would be slavery in the Kingdom. For whatever reason, pagan slaves were drawn to Christianity in great numbers–as were American slaves, millennia later, even when their masters discouraged it. (And, of course, slaves were the most likely people to be crucified–often for petty offenses–in the Roman order of things.)

        Jesus doesn’t really condemn social injustices, per se. He condemns individual behaviors–which will lead people to not enter the Kingdom–where injustice will no longer exist, and all persecutors will go to Gehenna. I suppose Joe Hill (the Wobbly folk singer) might sneer at that ‘pie in the sky’, but the gospel tradition impacted him much more deeply than most, and the most famous song about him shows him risen from the dead. Patterns, repeating themselves.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 10, 2020

          Impossible? I’d say it’s not strictly speaking impossible to believe, since I believe it (which makes it possible to believe!) 🙂 Jews too practiced slavery and it was completely sanctioned in the Hebrew Bible. We simply can’t put our sense of social injustice on people living in a different context and assume that even the most moral among them would have agreed with *us*.

          • Avatar
            godspell  March 11, 2020

            And Jesus believed everything his fellow Jews did was kosher? Divorce was entirely legal among Jews, but he condemned it all the same. I doubt Jesus knew any Jews in Nazareth who were rich enough to keep slaves. Do we have any data on how common a practice it was among Non-Hellenized Jews in Palestine in the First Century BCE?

            If the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John the Baptist, and no one born of woman is greater than John, how can we believe there would be masters and slaves there? I I must humbly reassert my assertion that it’s quite impossible. All would serve God, of course. But that isn’t slavery, as Jesus sees it.

            But I agree he wasn’t out to abolish it, by either legal or extralegal means. He believed the Son of Man would simply do away with the world where enslavement was an option.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 13, 2020

            These other issues were hotly debated. Not slavery.

          • Avatar
            godspell  March 12, 2020

            First Century CE. ::sigh::

          • Avatar
            godspell  March 13, 2020

            Probably because slavery wasn’t an issue in the ancient world, as you have said many times. Everybody accepted it on some level (with the exception of many slaves)–but Jesus wasn’t everybody.

            Divorce, to name just one thing most Jews took for granted, was a commonplace event. But again, how many of the mainly poor people Jesus was speaking to had slaves? If nobody is debating slavery, nobody’s likely to bring it up with him, to get his reaction. So it’s not really an argument to say there’s no debates about it recorded in the gospels.

            Plato obviously supported the continuation of slavery in the world he lived in. As an educated Athenian, slaves were for him, unlike Jesus, part of his daily existence as a young man, taken for granted.

            And yet, his Republic of the mind doesn’t seem to have any such distinction between people. All children will be raised by the Guardians, and previous rankings of humanity will cease to exist. Nobody will really be free, but nobody will be specifically enslaved. A radical transformation of society, solving all our problems at once. It does sound familiar, doesn’t it?

            So I think it was much the same for Jesus. He wasn’t necessarily angry about the institution, per se–it was mainly an abstract concept for him, since I doubt he encountered a lot of slaves.

            But it was still a part of the old world that had to go, along with all other things that make people cling to foolish ideas of superiority (when the last should be first)–and it would offend him, I think, to make someone else your servant against his/her will, when you are supposed to willingly serve others.

            Even though it had a basis in Jewish tradition, I see that the Torah forbade returning slaves who had escaped from other places to their owners, or re-enslaving them. (That had some influence on 19th century abolitionists, one would think.)

            It’s possible in the sense that anything is with people, but no. I don’t think so. And if Jesus had endorsed slavery in any way, I find it hard to believe slaves would have flocked to his cult in such numbers after his death. Possible he did condemn it, but it was considered impolitic to mention that in the gospels, given its widespread acceptance.

            Have you ever considered writing a comparitive study of Socrates and Jesus? I don’t just mean them personally, but the movements that surrounded them. A lot of interesting parallels.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 15, 2020

            Yeah, sometimes. It has been a subject of thought since early Xty.

        • Avatar
          godspell  March 15, 2020

          Obviously a lot of work, but I’d love to read your take on those two, and the schools of thought and belief they inspired. (Without leaving any writings behind them.)

          • Bart
            Bart  March 16, 2020

            1. The good historian has to believe 10 impossible things before breakfast every morning; 2. I agree: Jesus was far less interested in social reform than in individual behaior.

  11. Avatar
    flshrP  March 6, 2020

    So did the very first followers of Jesus consider him to be like Augustus–a human elevated (by popular acclaim) to a lower rung of this hierarchy of divinity? Or did these early believers bump Jesus up to a higher rung, or even to the top? Is Paul any help here in figuring this out?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2020

      Different early Christians had different views, even those who thought that he was the Father in human form.

  12. Avatar
    fishician  March 6, 2020

    In your debates with Christian apologists, does it it even come up that the God of the Bible does not appear to be omniscient, for example, Genesis 6:6, “The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.” There are other passages where God appears to change His mind, or regret his actions, which does not seem consistent with omniscience.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2020

      It never has. Of course they would have easy (for them) explanations: God was just accomodating himself to human conceptions/abilities to understand — he wasn’t *really* like that. It’s just said that way to help us understand what happened.

      • Avatar
        willito28  April 10, 2020

        Any thoughts on open theist views? To God, all things are possibilities until they are certain…..God’s accomodating will in the Old Testament….how God handles our suffering, etc.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 12, 2020

          You would need to spell these out a bit for me to comment on them (and so others can see what you mean). (E.g., does the view say “all” things, literally, are possible? Including, say, round squares?)

          • Avatar
            willito28  April 12, 2020

            Yeah, good point. Figured that was coming. Round squares….love it. In short, God sees and knows all
            possible decisions one may make in say a day, hour, or minute from now. However, God does not, or even cannot
            know our decisions, until they are made. Basically, God is all knowing when it comes to possible outcomes. But,
            God isn’t sure, until our possible choices become certainties. Hope that’s more than just clear as mud.

          • Avatar
            willito28  April 12, 2020

            In referring to God’s accomodating will, the view that God allowed human sacrifice/pagan worship practices in the Old Testament for a time. God accomodated man’s view of what they thought He wanted for worship. Sort of a slow progression/evolution/revelation leading up to Jesus and Paul’s teaching of Him in the New Testament. As far as the suffering thing goes, where is God in the midst of all of our suffering? How does He feel? Why is it allowed? Can we blame Him? Is He standing by idle? Bad things happen to good people….a lot. Where is God? Those types of questions/comments. Thanks for caring, Bart.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 13, 2020

            OK, so don’t get upset but NOW, people reading this won’t know what your *question* is about these views! In fact, I don’t either. But my view is that the idea that God was accommodating himself to human views, I’m all for that, as long as it means that he is accomodating to their views when they die as well, in case their views don’t coincide with his!
            But are you asking if that’s a plausible way of reading the OT? Only if you think that God really exists and you’re trying to figure out why he changed his mind, or at least seemed to. Otherwise the simplest solution is that ancient authors living at different times had different views of God, so that naturally what they wrote represented their historically and culturally bound views, not some kind of divine ultimate truth.

  13. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  March 6, 2020

    Gods work cos of mystery. Marriage is much harder – we get to know each other way too well! (I platz’d on reading your first wife’s – accurate I’m sure – marriage works that way – comment!!)

  14. Avatar
    anthonygale  March 6, 2020

    Given the varying understandings of God/gods, among religions past and present, do you think it is possible to create a universal definition of God? My opinion is no. If you think so, how would you define it and justify it (given that so many people past and present would disagree)?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2020

      Yeah, that would be a tough one. There are entire undergraduate courses designed to show why it is not possible even to define “religion” in a way that works across the map.

  15. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  March 6, 2020

    Rome banned Christianity for several hundred years. Why did they decide to make it their religion?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2020

      They actually didn’t; it was not “banned” until the second part of the third century, and then that was revoked in 313 CE. In any event, why did they adopt it? That’s the subject of my most recent book The Triumph of Christianity. I try to deal with all the ins and outs of the issue htere. I hope you can read it!

  16. Avatar
    Hon Wai  March 6, 2020

    “True, the major Gods were enormously powerful and knowing and were immortal (you couldn’t kill them, and they couldn’t kill each other. And they never died)”
    Not true. According to “Xena the Warrior Princess (1995-2001)” – the authoritative source on ancient mythology, the Greek gods could be killed by mortals using a number of special weapons (e.g. The Dryad’s Bone, The Rib of Cronos, Helios’s Dagger). According a less authoritative source (but still a goddamn good film), Wonder Woman (2017), as revealed by Ares to Princess Diana of Themyscira prior to their climactic battle, “Only a god can kill another god.”

  17. Avatar
    Stephen  March 6, 2020

    But wasn’t there an impersonal aspect to certain pagan concepts of the divine that maybe wasn’t present in Judaism or Christianity? I’m thinking of Fate or Destiny, “Moira”?

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2020

      Yes, I’d say that Christians at least tried to steal the uncertainties again from Greek/Roman Fate and Fortune by having it all tied into the plan of God (unlike the other mythologies!)

  18. Avatar
    Apocryphile  March 6, 2020

    At least your ex-wife can’t be accused of not having had a sense of humor! 😉

  19. Avatar
    clerrance2005  March 7, 2020

    Thank you Prof Ehrman, this is a very enlightening and great piece. It really explains and throws light on where most of our views of the Divine emanate from. I guess there is nothing new under the sun after all. Appreciate your time to write and respond to every single question on this blog. Great work.
    Please does your book – How Jesus became God expand more on today’s subject regards to the concept of God(s) in the ancient world. And in how many chapters please.

    Thank you.

  20. Avatar
    clerrance2005  March 7, 2020

    Suppose someone adhered to a belief system as outlined in the pyramid – from top to bottom; and worshipped and acknowledged a Single Supreme Being (the 1st on the Pyramid) and also saw the other Gods ( from 2nd to 4th) in their respective sense of being Gods.
    Will such a person be a Monotheist (since he/ she believes in the Almighty) or Henotheist or Polytheist?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2020

      If they worship only the top god on the pyramid they are a henotheist; if they worship some of the others, they are a polytheist.

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