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The God Augustus

Yesterday I started a thread dealing with things that I learn, discovered, or changed my mind about in the course of doing the research on How Jesus Became God. This then is the second post on the topic. In this instance I was struck with a blinding realization of something that I guess I knew for a long time, but it had never nailed me between the eyes before. Once it did, it completely changed how I decided to write the book. Fundamentally changed it. I realized – duh!!! – that the environment within which Christians were calling Jesus God was *everything*, not just a minor side note (as it is often treated by NT scholars).

This realization assaulted me one day when I was minding my own business, snooping around an archaeological site in Turkey. Here’s the story as I tell it in the book, at the beginning of chapter 2.


When I first started my teaching career in the mid 1980s I was offered an adjunct position at Rutgers University. My teaching load was three courses a semester. The tenured faculty there taught three courses as well, and were, of course, considered full time. But since I was only an adjunct, my three courses were considered part time. As a part time faculty member, I was not entitled to a decent salary or benefits. To make ends meet, I worked other jobs, including one at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

There was a long-term project underway there called the Princeton Epigraphy Project. It involved collecting, cataloguing, and entering into a computer database all of the inscriptions (writings carved on stone) in major urban centers throughout the ancient Mediterranean. These then were eventually published in separate volumes for each location. I was the research grunt for the person in charge, who, unlike me, was a highly trained classicist who could read inscriptions like the newspaper. I had the job of doing all the dirty work of entering and editing the inscriptions. One of the localities that I had responsibility for was the ancient city of Priene, on the west coast of Turkey. I had never even heard of Priene before that, but I collected and catalogued all the inscriptions that had ever been found and previously published from there.

Move the calendar up to 2009 and my life was very different indeed. By then I held an endowed chair in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina and, among other things, had the ability to travel far and wide. And I did. That summer, I decided to tour around Turkey with my good friend Dale Martin, Professor of New Testament at Yale. Our idea was to check out various archaeological sites. We spent two weeks there, with very few advance plans, simply going wherever we wanted to go. It was terrific.

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Women at the Tomb
Jesus as the Adopted Son of God



  1. Avatar
    BrerBear  April 3, 2014

    I think John Dominc Crossan made a similar point about Paul and his conception of Jesus in an earlier book. Crossan seems to like to portray Jesus and early Christianity as a direct response and counter-point to Roman imperialism. Haven’t picked up the book yet, but looking forward to it and hope to get a group from my congregation to read it soon.

  2. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  April 4, 2014

    Bart: what is the actual evidence though that the ‘first followers of Jesus’, those Jewish peasants from Galilee, already believed Jesus to be ‘God’ (which would mean they believed him to be YHWH? Or what is the difference between ‘God’ and ‘YHWH’)? Thank you

  3. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  April 4, 2014

    Addendum to my earlier comment: Gentiles having already been familiar with divine humans, demi-gods, etc surely made the conversion process easier since it wasn’t such a silly thought/claim from their perspective (unlike for a lot of us today). The stumbling block then would rather have been why such a being would have wanted itself to be executed … and why it didn’t have a better plan to achieve its goal.

  4. Avatar
    hwl  April 4, 2014

    If calling Jesus God was viewed as a competitor to calling the emperor God, then surely 1st century Christians would have faced persecution from the Roman authorities? The Roman world was pluralist, with gods and deities of all kinds everywhere. Surely calling Jesus God was okay from perspective of the Romans, provided this Jesus-God was not a living person? A noncorporeal god is no threat to the Roman authorities.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 4, 2014

      That’s more or less why Christians *did* come to be persecuted, not for calling Jesus God but for refusing to worship the state gods.

  5. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  April 4, 2014

    Dear Bart,
    Some posts back you contrasted, if that is the right word, the kind of writing you do in your trade books, with the kind that you and other scholars do for each other in journals, academic books and other papers. After reading today about how you came to your insight about how sons of God(s) were perceived in the ancient world in the early first century CE, and how this bears on Jesus, I am struck by how this sounds like an original insight. I therefore wonder if this insight has gone through a similar process of peer review before appearing in How Jesus Became God, and if so how it (and other original ideas in your book), have been received by your peers. Can you comment on this? Thank you.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 4, 2014

      Yes, I picked the book up from a peer-reviewed book that I found to be very helpful, by Michael Peppard.

  6. Avatar
    theundyingfire  April 4, 2014

    Did the Egyptians not also believe that Pharoah was the son of Ra (or an incarnation of Horus) and that when he died he would join the other gods?

    Given that this trend seemed to start ca. 1400’s BC, why would the Hebrews have waited centuries to institute their own man-god?

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 4, 2014

    Round 1: Your debate with Gathercole is quite good and is very civil and respectful although sometimes I had trouble hearing Gathercole. Maybe, at times. he was too far away from the microphone. The central issue seems to be what exactly did the early Christians know/believe about the divinity of Jesus and when did they know/believe it. This first part of the debate focused primarily on the “evolving” adoption of a progressively higher Christology in the four Gospels and I look forward to hearing the second part of the debate which focused on the high Christology elaborated by the Apostle Paul. I highly recommend the debate to the readers of this blog.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 4, 2014

    I remember your telling us about this here in the blog. I’d been wondering whether you still thought it was important enough to be mentioned in the book!

  9. Avatar
    toejam  April 4, 2014

    This has been one of John Dominic Crossan’s major points throughout his books. Makes sense to me. From what I’ve read, this is a fairly common phenomena in minority out-groups – they typically borrow, tweak and re-define the phrases and slogans used by the in-group as a means of self-definition and subtle protest. So yeah, the idea that Jesus was being called “son of God” and “God” in light of the growing and dominant emperor cult is not just a coincidence IMO. Funny how we have these ‘realisations’.

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    Shubhang  April 6, 2014

    Do you think this approach also helps explain the context and the intent with which the Book of Revelation was written? The author of Revelation seems to be clearly critical about the rise of the Imperial cult and the practice of raising idols to the Emperor. Would you say that the early stages of Jewish Christianity were an expression of anti-imperialist power? Or do you think that would be overthinking it?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 6, 2014

      Yes, Revelation is closely related. The “anti-Christ” (so, his precise opposite) is in fact the Emperor (Nero, as it turns out.)

  11. Avatar
    hwl  April 7, 2014

    I’ve listened to your 2-part discussion Simon Gathercole. Interesting stuff. Do you plan to post something about how the Holy Spirit became God?

  12. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  August 20, 2014

    Funny I just now did my research on
    Julius Caesar
    I was wrong to judge
    I am not a judge
    I give Julius caesar what is his ( respect. ) and give god what belongs to god
    ( Random blog comment )

  13. Avatar
    tom.traxler  December 13, 2017

    When we read the opening passage of Mark (v. 1.1) and consider it perhaps to be in challenge to the Priene Calendar inscription and a challenge to the belief of the Roman emperor being divine, also keep in mind that the author of Mark “bookended” the other end of Jesus’ life with the Roman centurion proclaiming “Truly, this man was the son of God.” Perhaps better read “Truly, THIS man was the son of God.” That is the very first thing the author of Mark writes after the verse when Jesus expired. Therefore, Mark can be read to open with a challenge to the Roman belief that the emperor was the son of a god and ends Jesus’ life with the Roman observing that it was Jesus who was truly the son of God.

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