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The Divine Realm in Antiquity

I have started a thread on my current interest, the relationship of the imperial cult (the Roman worship of the emperors) to the rise of Christology (the understandings of Christ).  Both Caesars (especially deceased ones, but in some parts of the empire, also the living one) and Christ (by most of his followers, now that he too was deceased) were thought of and called “Savior,” “Lord,” “Son of God,” and even “God.”

Most people would know that was true of Christ.  But why was it true of the Roman emperor?  Why would you worship your political leader?  Does this mean we’re going to have to call either Hillary or Donald “Lord” or “God”?  It seems unlikely.  So why did ancient people in the Roman Empire do it?

That’s what I want to explore over a few posts.  To get there, I need to provide a refresher course (or, for those who don’t know this, simply a course!) on how ancient people imagined the divine realm in relation to the human realm.   I  have taken this description from my book How Jesus Became God:




When ancient people imagined the emperor – or any other individual – as a god, that did not mean that the emperor was Zeus or one of the other gods of Mount Olympus.  He was a divine being on a much lower level.

Or instead of a continuum, possibly it is helpful to understand the ancient conception of the divine realm as a kind of pyramid of power, grandeur, and deity.


The Divine Pyramid

Some ancient people – for example, some of those more philosophically inclined –thought that at the very pinnacle of the divine realm there was one ultimate deity, a God who was over all things, who was infinitely, or virtually infinitely, powerful and who was sometimes thought to be the source of all things.  This God – whether Zeus, or Jupiter, or an Unknown God – stood at the apex of what we might imagine as the divine pyramid.

Below this God…

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Fear of Dying etc.: Weekly Readers Mailbag, September 18, 2016
The Rise of the Roman Empire



  1. Avatar
    puzzles  September 16, 2016

    I am currently reading your book on this subject. You mentioned the cult of saints in the Catholic Church. I grew up Episcopalian and converted briefly to Eastern Orthodox. The kissing of icons was different, so I read various justifications. For example, we might ask somebody for intercessory prayer, kiss a friend, or bow to show respect, so praying to a saint or bowing and kissing an icon of some saint is the same concept. However, this made me wonder what distinguishes “fellowship” with living humans, “veneration” of dead saints, and “worship” of God besides the object of the actions. It’s impossible to commit idolatry if “worship” requires the object to be God.

    Also, as a person who is slowly and painfully exiting a more ritualistic faith in Christianity, I would be curious about the history of the rituals – particularly the Eucharist. You probably know that Eastern Orthodox and Catholics claim that the early Christians were more like them while of course the Charismatics claim that the early Christians were more charismatic and so forth. Just an idea, and maybe you have covered this in some of your earlier posts.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2016

      I haven’t really dealt with the development of the eucharistic liturgy at any length, I’m sorry to say.

      • Avatar
        FreiDenker  March 6, 2017

        Someday I would like to see an Ehrman book on John’s gospel. I have wondered if parts of John’s gospel are post facto justifications for emerging sacramental theology, rather than sources for the eucharist, ordination,confirmation,
        and other practices of the Catholic beliefs.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 16, 2016

    I find it ironic that Christianity insisted on denying the existence of all these minor deities…and then provided a bunch of its own (“saints” associated with all sorts of functions, even a “guardian angel” for everyone)!

  3. Avatar
    oldscratch88  September 16, 2016

    The ancient Hebrews in the OT vilified and railed against the neighbor’s gods, especially the Baals, Molochs, and so forth. Why the remarkable intolerance and were they (Hebrews) the only people to openly condemn the other gods? Even in today’s polytheistic cultures in Africa or Asia –Hinduism, for example– it is hard to find such vehement rejection of other gods. Well, I guess the Abrahamic religions are the only monotheism we have. Are the Muslims also intolerant haters of other gods? They revere Moses and Jesus, but they also smash Buddhas in Pakistan and destroy ancient temples in Iraq.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2016

      Yes, that seems to be true of all the western monotheisms.

    • Avatar
      fcp  November 1, 2016

      The only other example was when the Pharaoh Akhenaten decreed that the solar Aten alone was worthy of worship, and erased the other Gods. It didn’t stick: the nobles and priests, upon the death of Akhenaten, demanded the return of the traditional system, and many inscriptions of Akhenaten’s name were erased in turn. Some speculate that the theology of Moses derived from him.

  4. Avatar
    Jason  September 16, 2016

    You really think it’s unlikely that Trump would have the world call him “God?”

  5. Avatar
    kostya_petrenko  September 16, 2016

    I remember learning in seminary that the word “Gospel” is borrowed from an imperial announcement of good news, perhaps announcement of the birth of a new ruler. Do you think there is any evidence that early Christian authors actually borrowed the concept of how Romans envisioned the Emperor and applied it to Jesus retrospectively? Perhaps to frame Jesus as a sort of spiritual Emperor in opposition to the earthly/political one in Rome? Obviously they would have to do it very carefully in writing to avoid Roman prosecution for treason.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 17, 2016

    This, of course, provides a whole new perspective on ancient people considering Jesus to be God since they considered other humans, either by incarnation or exaltation, to be divine as well. Thanks for educating us about this.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 17, 2016

    Question: I understand how the Documentary Hypothesis would explain this, but how in the world do conservative Christians understand the Ten Commandments given in the 20th chapter of Exodus being different than those given in the 34th chapter of Exodus and the Bible still being inerrant? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2016

      I suppose they would say that these are just two different sets of commandments, not “THE” ten commandments in both cases.

  8. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  September 17, 2016

    Did divine humans in Roman culture typically have an afterlife? My understanding is that most ancient people, even many Jews, viewed existence after death as, at best, a kind of shadowy existence that was very inferior to normal human life. Was it different for divine humans, eg, did they as a rule get to join the immortal gods, or maybe just some of them did–I’m thinking Hercules joined the gods? What about Roman emperors?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2016

      Yes, that’s very much the idea. The person went to live with the gods forever.

  9. Avatar
    HawksJ  September 18, 2016

    ‘ “The myths about them were entertaining stories, but many people thought these myths were just that, stories – not historical narratives of things that actually happened. “‘

    This quote brings up a very interesting point that I have long wondered about: how did the average Greek or Roman view what we now call their mythology? I’ve always presumed that they viewed it just as religious people view their own religions today: I.e., as ‘the truth’.

    But the the sentence I quoted above makes me wonder if they didn’t take them quite as seriously as we do today. Did they think of those as ‘just stories’ or as literal truth?

    A study looking at how the ancient ‘pagans’ viewed their own religion(s) vs. how people do it today would be quite illuminating, I think.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2016

      Yes, Paul Veyne has a book “Did the Greeks Believe Their Own Myths?” It is generally thought today that the highly educated, at least, knew that the myths were not literal accounts of what happened in the past.

  10. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  October 18, 2016

    This pyramidal view of deities was an aspect of the gentile world, right, not of the Jewish world–especially not of the world of rural Galilean Jews? Hellenized Jews would have been more familiar with this aspect of pagan culture than un- or less-Hellenized ones. If your ideas are right that belief by some of Jesus’ Galilean followers in Jesus’ resurrection lead to belief in his exhalation and “thus” to his divinity of some sort, then it seems that process, that evolution of their beliefs would have had little to do with the pagan Pyramid. Less-Hellenized Jews generally reacted against pagan polytheism. Thus, it seems likely that it was not Jesus’ Galilean Jewish followers at all who first thought of Jesus as divine but, at the very least, some more Hellenized Jew like Paul (if the Gospel came from him) or some other Hellenized Jews before him (if he is telling the truth when he wrote that he received it from those who came before him). When Paul says he received the Gospel from those before him, he isn’t necessarily speaking of the original Apostles or the Jerusalem Council, as much as it has become our tendency to think that’s who he means. What do you think of this line of thought (if it is clear enough to follow)?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2016

      Even Jews had a pyramid: below God were archangels, and angels, and principalities, and powers, and so on — superhumans who were not on the level of the one true God. I discuss all this at some length in my book How Jesus Became God.

  11. Avatar
    Marko071291  April 10, 2020

    Hi Bart! Hope you and your family are doing well, considering everything that is happening around us. I live in near proximity of Italy (Croatia), so things are not so good. But anyways, I have a quick question: If one wants to read more about the imperial cult in Rome, what is (in your opinion) a MUST-REED book? Or books…
    Stay safe!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 12, 2020

      I would suggest for starters James Rives book on Roman Religions; and then the secdtion covering it in Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price Religions of Rome (vol. 1)

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