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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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Jesus “Sweating Blood”: Which Text Would *Scribes* Have Preferred?
Paul’s Incredibly High Christology



  1. Lev
    Lev  March 7, 2020

    Fascinating insights. I was thinking about how pagans interacted with their gods yesterday, especially in comparison to Judaism and their sacrificial system as I had been reading N T Wright again – I was wondering if you had insight into what happened?

    I understand that ancient Jews sacrificed animals or farm produce (wheat, wine, oil, etc) for a couple of reasons – as an offering for some sin they personally committed (sacrificing something of value to demonstrate remorse and repentance), or for a ritual at a festival to celebrate something (Passover being the obvious example). Interestingly, the collective sins of the nation were carried away by a goat into the wilderness and was not put to death.

    I understand that Pagans often sacrificed similar items of value, but they did so in order to please the gods so they would answer a prayer or petition to help them in their lives (better luck, helping someone fall in love with them, etc) or to satisfy the wrath of a god they believe was displeased with them (after losing a battle or suffering some natural disaster).

    But here’s the bit I’m stuck on – I think I read in one of your books or this blog that pagans didn’t believe that their gods had a particular ethical code they were expected to follow. For sure, their were ethical codes available, but these were worked out by philosophers, not the gods. So my question is, did ancient pagans ever sacrifice to their gods because they personally (not collectively) broke some ethical or moral code, much in the same way ancient Jews did?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2020

      Not normally, per se. Only when they did something very wrong that got the gods ticked. It would have been to appease the gods, not so much to bring about their personal salvation.

      • Lev
        Lev  March 8, 2020

        Very interesting. So how do you think the average Pauline Christian would have reacted to Paul’s message that Christ’s sacrifice would have saved them from the coming apocalypse? Why would a pagan Roman citizen have willingly suffered the public ignominy of turning against the pagan gods to worship a defeated messiah if they had no concept of a sacrificial system that would save them from their sins?

        Genuine question – I’m not trying to be funny or trick you – it’s something I find difficult to grasp.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 9, 2020

          The sacrifices in pagan circles *were* meant to please and even placate the gods. But the issues were almost always not about personal ethical sins, but about neglecting to reverence the gods properly and seeking their assistance. So pagans could resonate with *that*; Christians did have to provide an altered understanding of personal sin, but it was not BRAND new — it was a recognition widely shared that gods could be displeased with people for the things they did. Most new religions build seriously on the old, but provide some peculiar or even unexpected twists that are picked up and suddenly make sense to people.

          • Lev
            Lev  March 9, 2020

            I think I see. I guess the twist with the Christian message was that God’s son that did the sacrifice so the people didn’t need to? And perhaps it was seen by Paul at least, as a liberating act that set people free from the sacrificial system, from the law and sin itself and into the Kingdom of God, in the same way the Passover sacrifice symbolised the liberation from the Angel of Death and into a new kingdom?

            I’m trying to get my head around the context of the struggles Paul had with his ex-pagan converts. In particular, the way he found that the ‘Men of James’ were able to convince these converts that they should realign with the Jewish legal system.

            Perhaps that there was an overlap between Pagan and Jewish thought that meant it was easy to mentally and emotionally drift back into the idea of an angry God that needed to be placated and pleased by personal sacrifice. It seems Paul spends a great deal of ink trying to undo that in his letters, stressing that the salvific act of Jesus was meant to put an end of that – is that how you read the situation?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 10, 2020

            That’s part of it. The other part is that the sacrifice is for personal sins that have alienated people from God. The men from James agreed with Paul on that bit. But they said that since salvation comes from teh Jewish messiah sent by the Jewish God to the Jewish people in of fulfillment of the Jewish law — to be a follower of Jesus you *had* to be Jewish. So Paul and they *agreed* that Jesus was the sacrifice for sins; but the question was: for everyone or for those who join the covenant people of God?

          • Lev
            Lev  March 10, 2020

            Thanks, Bart – that’s a good point, and certainly fills in the Jewish side of the argument (why pagans should become Jewish). I’m doing a class on the NT in the Roman Empire this semester (with Peter Oakes) and it’s fascinating how pagans lived. I hadn’t appreciated before the width and depth of pagan worship in everyday life.

            We were shown the archaeological evidence of murals, frescos and shrines from Pompeii, and how abundant they were throughout the city. It seems nearly everyone had some evidence of pagan worship in their dwelling and/or place of work.

            It’s stunning really and brings fresh meaning to your central thesis in The Triumph of Christianity. I appreciate how you calculate the numbers and the way that monotheistic Christianity had an erasure effect that polytheistic pagan forms did not. Even so, to almost completely dominate the Roman Empire within 400 years or so from a standing start (without the aid of military conquest) is remarkable given how saturated and central paganism was within Roman life. The ancient world is fascinating!

          • Lev
            Lev  April 30, 2020

            I’ve been on a pretty deep dive over this for the past few weeks and something has struck me. I wonder if you could help?

            It seems to me that the ancient world saw reality significantly differently to how we in the post-enlightenment west do – the boundary between the earthly and cosmic worlds was slight. Prayers, vows, sacrifices and rituals had a tangible effect upon the pagan gods where you could enter into contracts with them to bestow fortune or alleviate wrath. Moreover, certain cults believed in a system of reality behind the observable curtain, where cosmic beings such as angels or δαίμονες were at work in nature or people, pulling levers and pressing buttons.

            I wonder if the mechanisms or system of this intra-earthly-cosmic reality is what Paul described when he talked of the στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου (usually translated ‘elemental spirits of the universe’)? His criticism was accompanied with warnings to avoid religious rituals and getting drawn into angelic worship. If so, do you think a more suitable translation would be ‘metaphysical cosmology’?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 1, 2020

            Yes, they probably are what he have in mind. I don’t know of a good translation, but I don’t think “metaphysical cosmology” quite makes sense, since it’s not something Paul wold have concevied of. It may mean something like the “various superhuman entities that make up the cosmos”

        • Avatar
          godspell  March 10, 2020

          Pagans did change Christianity, but one shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which they did grasp many of its central ideas–and the way those ideas impressed them. There may have been questions they had about the world, about life, about themselves–that the version of paganism they had couldn’t answer. And Christianity at least promised to.

          • Lev
            Lev  March 10, 2020

            Yes, I think you’re right about that, Godspell. There must have been something very attractive about Christianity for so many pagans to risk public disgrace, ignominy and persecution. I hadn’t appreciated until recently how difficult it would have been for everyday people within the Roman empire to keep their faith a private matter.

            I’m led to understand that it would have been very noticeable when pagans converted as most kept some symbol or sign of pagan worship within their dwelling or workspace. If they took down idols or painted over frescos, it would have been immediately obvious to others and probably lead to social isolation and loss of public honour at the very least.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 7, 2020

    It’s a really good book.

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    Randybessinger  March 8, 2020

    Your first wife’s saying made me spit out my coffee😀

  4. Avatar
    clerrance2005  March 8, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    Is it possible that God concepts and religious themes found in organized religions (Judaism, Christianity) are possible borrowings from the very ancient world or civilizations?

  5. Avatar
    dynamis878  March 9, 2020

    I always assumed that most ancient people were much more religious and believed the mythical stories that they were told. Is there any research to assess how credulous ancient people were?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2020

      Lots of it. Simple story: most ancient people practiced religion regularly; but the myths were not actually part of it. They were just good stories told that might have important lessons, but you didn’t have to “believe” them adn they weren’t part of the religious rituals themselves.

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 12, 2020

        This doesn’t sound all that different from how many Christians practice their faith.

        It’s a matter of temperament and training–Origen would tell educated pagans that of course he didn’t believe all the stories about Jesus, but that wasn’t the point of anything. He still had faith in what the stories meant.

        We don’t really know about what most pagans believed, do we? The ones who left writings behind were educated, usually of higher rank, and of course they’d be more skeptical. I understand that the versions of the pagan myths we have are mainly written down for an educated audience, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t an oral tradition of folklore and legend that the poor folks had, and that they didn’t believe them (again, the quality of belief can be quite fluid and hard to pin down).

        Their stories of the gods were probably quite different, and probably not all about the reigning pantheon. I bet they told stories in which their local gods triumphed over the big shots.

        Who knows how many religions flourished in the shade of the official governing version of paganism? As practitioners of Santeria worship their tribal gods in the form of Christian saints, in Catholic cathedrals.

        Paganism never died. It’s all around us, and we just don’t see it most of the time.

  6. Avatar
    JacobSapp01  March 9, 2020

    Professor Ehrman,
    Where on this scale or pyramid of divinity would Jewish thinking at the time have placed Angels? Jews seemed to have had their own hierarchy of divine beings as you reference in the post. Would angels have been roughly equivalent to lesser Greek divinities such as the Daimonia? And would Paul’s idea of Jesus as Angel of The Lord been referencing a being more akin to an Archangel, or perhaps THE Archangel? I’m trying to wrap my mind around the way in which Angels stacked up in terms of power against the lesser Greek divinities.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2020

      I suppose roughly you’d have God at the top. His top angels (archangels, divine counsellors as in Job 1-2) below. Other angels below, and so on. Christ in Paul’s view would have been at the top of the top angels. Of course it depends completely *when* within Judaism we are talking, where, and who!

  7. Avatar
    mtavares  March 9, 2020

    In what sense do you think Paul is using god in 2 Cor 4:4 “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers…”? Seems like a verse a gnostic/dualist may have run with.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2020

      I think he’s referring to the head of the evil cosmic forces, i.e., Satan.

  8. Rick
    Rick  March 14, 2020

    Professor, of your works I have read to date, I most enjoyed How Jesus Became God because it got into the mind of the ancients providing a way to the hardest thing I have found to garner in a lay interest or study of the NT, which is context!

  9. Avatar
    Mike_Burtner  April 15, 2020

    (Alleged) network engineer here. Back-end computer processes in UNIX are called “daemons” – entities that run behind the scenes that cause everything else to happen. They are often unseen but very powerful, especially if the code for that particular service (the actual technical name for a ‘daemon’) was written by someone with administrator or “super-user” authority. A daemon with the right author can literally stop and start the entire system or decide what does or doesn’t happen. Applications written by users can and do run into conflict with ‘daemons’ all the time.

  10. Avatar
    KingJohn  April 22, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman:
    Do you agree with ALL of the late Raymond Brown’s scholarship?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 24, 2020

      No indeed. I don’t agree with all of *anyone’s* scholarship, just as no one agrees with all of mine.

  11. Avatar
    javierdelangel  May 5, 2020

    When you say that ” Jesus became God,” do you think people (Jews? Greeks?) though of him as Yahweh? Was that the name of the deity in their minds for Jesus? Or Just the generic “god” or “kyrios”?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2020

      No, I don’t think that. Yahweh was his father. He was God in a different sense. I lay all this out in my book.

  12. Avatar
    javierdelangel  May 5, 2020

    Dear Bart, Have you read (I assume you have) Larry Hurtado’s “How on earth did Jesus become a God”? If you have, what would you say are the coincidences and divergences between your and his theories?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2020

      It’s a popular presentation of the views he set forth in two of his scholarly books, the largest one, his magnum opus, is called Lord Jesus Christ. We agree on a lot of things, but he places a lot more (almost everything) on the *worship* practices of Christians as the reason Jesus came to become divine in their mind, I think their theology involved a ton of thinking, it was not principally a result of worshiping practices. I also see lots more diversity in the early Christian movement than he does, especially in their theological views.

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    YHWHisthetrueGod  May 17, 2020

    The pre-existing Christ lived in heaven with YHWH before he was sent to the earth. He was the first of YHWH’S creations. After ransoming mankind he went back to heaven and was exalted to a higher position than he previously had but he was still lower and a subject whom submitted himself to YHWH.

    The inherent immortality of the soul doctrine partly is from the teachings of Plato and one of Mystery Babylon’s false doctrines. When we die we go back to the dust and require a resurrection to live again such as was the case with Lazarus, Dorcas, and others in the Bible

  14. Avatar
    Syahreza Ali  July 27, 2020

    Mr ehrman I was really wondering why scholar that agree on bible full of error and Jesus wasn’t god didn’t give up Christianity and search on another religion like Islam, because Islam book doesn’t have contradiction in it, it has been proofed also it’s preserved because it’s easy to memorize, like lately deceased Larry hurtado he also didn’t give up Christianity fully, it’s really weird people ditch Islam just like that

    • Bart
      Bart  July 27, 2020

      I’m not looking for the “true” religion. I do not believe in God.

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