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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.   When 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 immortal.

I should stress at this stage a very important point.  One of the ways…

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The God Julius Caesar
When Men Became Gods: My Lecture in Denmark



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 22, 2016

    Separating myth and belief from practice and ethics does indeed seem like an “odd” religion.

  2. Avatar
    jhague  September 22, 2016

    It seems to be one thing to believe that something unseen is a god that needs to be prayed and sacrificed to. It’s another thing to believe that a human who was known to be born of parents in the normal way, lived a fairly normal life and then be considered a divine god because of a political leadership position. I want to ask if this was due to not be educated and therefore being superstitious? But then I think about how modern day people who are educated still put pastors up on pedestals, “worship” celebrities and athletes and fear politicians.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  September 22, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, back in the day (it being #ThrowBackThursday), my undergrad degree was in cultural studies (a kitchen sink degree that combined sociology, anthropology, geography, politics and economics), and although people would ask why I wouldn’t just focus on one discipline, so as to better assure a job in that field, I simply couldn’t make up my mind, so I studied it all. (When I look back on that decision now, I can say, yeah, it was foolish, because I’m both highly educated and highly unemployable. So…I wouldn’t advise it.) However, when studying those disparate subjects I did come to a realization that I may not have if I were focused on only one discipline. And that realization was this: ALL gods started out as men.

    Now, I don’t mean every single specific god, whether Anubis or Quetzalcoatl, started out as human beings. I mean that the concept of a god began as a way of distinguishing between superior and inferior human beings. That is, there was a hierarchy within the universe as there was a heirarchy within human societies (cf. Aristotle’s Politika Book 1 and the Great Chain of Being). Some human beings were simply stronger, smarter, more powerful than other human beings, and those people were natural leaders. So, to fully fleshout the evolution of human to god without writing a book in the comments section, I’ll offer a simply outline.

    A leader would emerge within a society based on certain exceptional qualities (strength, intelligence, charisma, etc.)
    Other members of the group would then defer to this leader for certain favors, primarily three functions: arbiter over disputes (judge), keeper and leader of weapons and warriors (general), and builder and sustainer of prosperity, goods and the general welfare (patron, grainkeeper, etc.). These leaders are the men (and women) people would go to to appeal for justice, food, water, housing, protection, money…you name it. And the leader (chieftain, king, bigman, et al.) would then bestow his favor (or grace) on those people, displaying his compassion, his mercy, his benevolence (sound familiar?).

    But what if that leader were to die? What then? Well, a new leader might emerge. Or maybe not. Maybe that leader’s surviving son may take over as leader. Or maybe that son may not have what it takes. Thus when the leader dies there’s a crisis of succession. But what if we were to imagine that when the leader dies, he’s not really gone? What if he’s only moved onto a new form of existence? What if his soul or spirit continues to exist in another state? Is there a way to continue the leader-subject relationship they relied on before? Sure! You can simply appeal to the leader the same way by appealing and supplicating to him the way you did when he was alive (prayer). And you can offer the leader a gift in exchange for his favor (sacrificial offering), and you can received his reply to your appeal (divination). In other words, a god is merely an invisible king. We do everything for God that we would do to an earthly, mortal king, only more-so. The gods were merely an attempt to hold onto a terrestrial power of which we did not want to let go. And from there the gods (being purely imaginary beings) could be assigned exaggerated powers, far beyond those of mere mortal men. And, ultimately, we imagined the king of the gods, God himself, who was ALL-powerful, ALL-loving, ALL-knowing…in other words God is the most god of gods, the most king of kings, the most everything any being can conceivably be.

    And that’s how men became gods.

  4. Avatar
    Scott  September 22, 2016

    What about the mystery religions?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 23, 2016

      Right! Uh, what about them?

      • Avatar
        Scott  September 26, 2016

        Were the mystery religions more concerned with specific beliefs rather than ritual actions?

  5. Avatar
    Jana  September 22, 2016

    Very interesting about ethics and even morality not connected to worship in Greek and Roman Societies. (Makes me wonder if the same is true about the ancient Maya culture as well) How did the Jews in the same period view both cultures religiously? Do we know?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 23, 2016

      Most Jews thought that pagans were either worshiping gods who were not really gods or at least gods that they themselves were not interested in worshiping, since, their God was superior.

  6. Avatar
    Cornelius  September 22, 2016

    Unrelated, but I’m sure you’ve heard of the recent digital unraveling of the En Gedi scroll containing segments of Leviticus, which paleographers date to the 1st centure CE… I’d love to hear your comments on it!

  7. Avatar
    toejam  September 22, 2016

    It seems the debate between yourself and Robert Price will be going ahead next month, right? I follow Price on Facebook and he has evidently been re-reading all your books in preparation. How much of his books do you intend on reading prior to the debate? How will you prepare for the debate? I’m really looking forward to it!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 23, 2016

      Ha! I haven’t actually thought about it yet! Too many other things going on. Maybe I’ll say something about it in the mailbag!

  8. Avatar
    Jason  September 22, 2016

    In Pagan cultic religions who took the physical “leftovers” of the sacrifices-generally the priest/esses, the worshipper, or someone else (indigents perhaps?) To what extent then was religious practice an economic activity?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 23, 2016

      Yes, it absolutely had a (highly significant) economic aspect. For one thing, anyone raising livestock: this is what happened to them!

  9. Avatar
    cjeanne  September 22, 2016

    This post is a perfect answer to Michael Brown, describing how people could be ethical and good without a God. If the gods didn’t care how they lived then their goodness was not part of their theology. If their ethics came from philosophy and philosophy was not religion, eureka, God was unnecessary.

  10. Avatar
    HawksJ  September 22, 2016

    ‘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.”

    That statement right there is worthy of a thread by itself. I have no idea if it’s true or not – never really thought about it, but it’s fascinating!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 23, 2016

      Yes, there were all sorts of social pressures for being “ethical.” And philosophical reasons. Zeus didn’t much care, for the most part.

  11. TWood
    TWood  September 23, 2016

    Was it Judaism that really introduced the idea of morality being connected to religion?

    Also, an unrelated questions I asked you once before and I can’t remember being answered, although perhaps I missed it. I couldn’t find it in the search so IDK…

    What’s your sense on how the first century Christians understood the Mark of the Beast? We basically know who the beast was (Nero)… but what was his mark all about? The best answer I have is coinage… what say you?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 23, 2016

      Yes, Judaism was an exception in some ways. Mark of the Beast: I’m not sure *what* thay had in mind. Credit card numbers implanted in the hand as chips? (Just kidding)

      • TWood
        TWood  September 23, 2016

        I know you’re kidding… although I would still never get one of those chips in my skin… it might not be apocalyptic but it’s def Orwellian… a coin of Nero was discovered by someone in your neck of the woods (UNCC)… the link to the coin’s story is below (although I assume you know all about it)… it says right on it “Nero Caesar”… this fits so well with “charagma” (mark) and the gematria numbers (666/616) that I can’t see how it’s not what Rev is referring to… I know history is about probabilities rather than certainties… but don’t you see this as being very probable? It seems to me that it’s hard evidence for the Nero is the Beast theory… wondering if you agree… and if not what are the reasons to doubt this? (other than the aforementioned inability to be 100% certain about history).


        • Bart
          Bart  September 25, 2016

          Are you asking if the mark of the beast was a coin? I doubt it. It’s supposed to be stamped on hands and foreheads. But yes, I think the “beast” does refer to Nero.

          • TWood
            TWood  September 25, 2016

            I’m not asking if the mark was a coin per se… I’m more asking whether the coinage was the inspiration for the imagery of the mark of the beast (the “mark” has the name/number of Nero on it and it’s directly connected to buying and selling (coins fit this better than any other first century idea it seems like)… I’m asking if the mark was probably more symbolic than literal (like the good guys with a “seal of God” on their foreheads in Rev 7 & 9… that doesn’t seem likely to be literal)… I’m asking if Rev’s John is saying something like ‘whoever surrenders their mind (forehead) and actions (right hand) to Rome rather than Jesus is doomed.’ Is it as if he’s saying the coin of Nero will be stamped on your forehead and hands if you bow down to Caesar rather than Jesus? (the imperial cult vs Jesus’ church)…

            I guess what I’m really asking is… do you think the mark was meant symbolically… or do you think it was meant as a literal mark with Nero’s name/number on people’s heads and hands? (the mark seems indistinguishable from the name and number—that’s why I assume (if it was meant literally) it’d have to mean Nero’s name would be marked onto people’s skin as it was stamped onto gold coins). That seems a bit too literal for an apocalypse… but maybe not… IDK.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 26, 2016

            I’m afraid we don’t know what inspired the author. And I’m not sure how to decide if he was speaking metaphorically or literally.

          • TWood
            TWood  September 26, 2016

            That’s all true… one last question from a different angle… is it accurate to say that no matter what the mark was meant to be (literal or figurative), the immediate context of the mark is associated with Caesar Nero’s name/number, some kind of “money” required to buy and sell, and the Roman empire’s persecution of the first century church? (not that it couldn’t *apply* to future centuries).

          • Bart
            Bart  September 28, 2016

            I’m not sure it involved coinage, but yes, I think it is about the emperor and it did involve economic, political, and social issues and it was all about Xn persecution.

      • Avatar
        bbcamerican  September 25, 2016

        Dr. Ehrman, your Mark of the Beast comment brought me instantaneously back to high school youth group at the Southern Baptist Church. The number of times I heard that exact prediction about the implanted chips being the mark of the beast….made me shoot milk out my nose! Thanks for the memories!

    • Avatar
      iameyes137  October 1, 2016

      My first thought on the mark of the beast during Nero’s time would be some sort of tattoo people received showing how devoted they were in the emperor’s worship.

      • TWood
        TWood  October 2, 2016

        iameyes137: Do you mean a theoretical tattoo? Is there any evidence that I’m ignorant of that indicates such tattoos ever happened during the time of Nero? If so, that would solve the mystery. Since Revelation seems to be written about past events (using a style that makes it appear to be predictive)… I assume whatever the mark was, it had already happened when Revelation was written… which is why I lean towards the mark being a metaphor of some kind… maybe like saying if you follow Caesar rather than Jesus it’s as if you’ve engraved your mind (forehead) and actions (right hand) with a coin of Nero. No one knows exactly I guess. But if you know of first century tattooing in this context please let me know… I’d be very interested to see that!

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 23, 2016

    Readers of this blog might find of interest the article on today’s NPR website about a portion of Leviticus unraveled from a very old scroll. The article is entitled “Computer Scientists Solve Mystery of the Ein Gedi Scroll by ‘Virtual Unwrapping.”

  13. Avatar
    Eric  September 23, 2016

    Maybe to make your analogy closer, “you do not practice law observance by reading biographies or historical fiction works about legislators who created the laws you observe.”

  14. Avatar
    csisco  September 23, 2016

    Love the books, love the blog, first time commenting.

    I can’t possibly be the first person to think of this, but could modern sports teams provide a very loose analogy for ancient cultic worship? We mortals dress up in the correct colors, we make a pilgrimage to the game, we participate in particular rituals (towels, flags, chants, songs, etc) based on which team we’re following. The players on the field are larger than life to us, and able to accomplish feats that would put us in the hospital. We project our archetypal values on them, and we beseech them to autograph our stuff and visit our kids’s schools, and sprinkle their magic fairy dust on our lives. Oh, and we create Halls of Fame for them to continue living forever.

    But we don’t care if people in the stands with us follow some team ethos when we’re not all at the game, nor do we attribute their noble deeds to being fans of the right team. As I say, others have probably done this analogy to death, but it was new to me.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 23, 2016

      Yes, as a big sports fan, with season tickets for both UNC football and basketball, I think about this a good bit!

  15. Avatar
    Tempo1936  September 24, 2016

    Jesus gives Christians a “new covenant” , eternal life for all that believe. Is there any other ancient “God” to make such a bold promise to billions of yet unborn humans?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2016

      Not that I know of.

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  September 25, 2016

      Did Jesus make that promise, or did a later tradition merely attribute it to him?

  16. Avatar
    Steefen  September 25, 2016

    Bart: religion for the most part was not directly connected with ethics

    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.

    Stephen: You do not qualify that for Ancient Judaism?

    In that religion God does give 10 Commandments which has ethical commands.

    Not only is there a need to qualify it for Ancient Judaism. Some qualification needs to be made for Ancient Roman Religion, at least during Augustus’ reign if not forward.

    Ethics: moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior.

    Second, The Aeneid is about “Augustus as Aeneas” making choices in line with the gods of Rome to found Rome. So, I’d say Virgil would see a connection between religion and ethical obligation to act a certain way.

    The Roman ideal of pietas (“piety, dutiful respect”), which can be loosely translated from the Latin as a selfless sense of duty toward one’s filial, religious, and societal obligations, was a crux of ancient Roman morality. Aeneas’s pietas extends beyond his devotion to his father;

    we also see several examples of his religious fervour. Aeneas is consistently subservient to the gods, even if it is contradictory to his own desires, as he responds to one such divine command, “I sail to Italy not of my own free will.”

  17. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  September 25, 2016

    Hey Bart ! Just want to say.. I kept my faith and things are going well as ever!!! See what happens when you don’t loose hope! Your prayers come true! Warmest wishes to you and continuing the blog Mr!

  18. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  September 28, 2016

    I glanced through the comments and don’t think anyone brought this up: where do you think the notion of heresy originated? Orthodoxy as uniformity of opinion or interpretation does not seem to have been particularly important in the Judaism of the early Christian period – at least Jews who held differing opinions did not claim they were the only real Jews, to my knowledge. Did Christians invent orthodoxy as the test of true religion?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2016

      It’s a very long story. I deal with it a bit in my book Lost Christianities. Short story: unless you have a religion that emphasizes “true doctrines,” you cannot have heresy. Prior to Christianity, there really weren’t any religions that did that.

  19. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  September 30, 2016

    REV 4:10…. This sounds like ZEUS..

  20. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  November 6, 2016

    dr ehrman
    jewish apologists say that masses of jews heard god speak to moses and they saw no form.

    i don’t know much about the torah, but aren’t there different versions to the same story on how moses received revelations?

    another question is, do formless gods speak to groups of people in the ancient past?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2016

      I’m not sure what you’re asking in your first question. As to the second: yes, sometimes people do hear divine voices without seeing a divine figure.

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