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The God Julius Caesar

I mentioned in a previous post the scarcely-remembered-these-days Diogenes Poliorcetes (Diogenes, the Conqueror of Cities), who was acclaimed as a divine being by a hymn-writer (and others) in Athens because he liberated them from their Macedonian overlords.   I should point out that this great accomplishment paled with time, and he did some other things that the Athenians did not find so useful or approve of, and the rescinded their adoration of him.

My point was that sometimes military men/political rulers were talked about as divine beings.  More than that, they were sometimes *treated* as divine beings: given temples, with priests, who would perform sacrifices in their honor, in the presence of statues of them.  Does that make the person a god?  In many ways they would be indistinguishable.  If it walks like a god and quacks like a god….

Best known are the divine honors paid to rulers of the Roman Empire, starting with Julius Caesar.   We have an inscription dedicated to him in 49 BCE (five years before he was assassinated) discovered in the city of Ephesus, which says this about him:

Descendant of Ares and Aphrodite

The God who has become manifest (θεὸν ἐπιφανῆ)

And universal savior (σωτῆρα) of human life

Prior to Julius Caesar, rulers in the city of Rome itself were not granted divine honors.  But Caesar himself was – before he died, the senate approved the building of a temple for him, a cult statue, and a priest.  None of these were actually put in place before he was assassinated in 44 BCE.  But soon after his death, his adopted son and heir, Octavian (who later was to become Caesar Augustus) promoted, successfully, the idea that at his death Caesar had been taken up to heaven and been made a god to live with the gods.

Octavian had reasons of his own …

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Debate with a Mythicist! And the Book of Revelation. Readers’ Mailbag September 25, 2016
Rulers as Gods: The Context of Ancient Religion



  1. Avatar
    Michael Fischer  September 24, 2016

    So Octavian said that the comet was the soul of Caesar ascending to the realm of the gods. Why did the Christians put so much effort into proving Jesus ascended into heaven? Empty tomb of Joseph, mentioning multiple eye witnesses, dying in effort to proselytize etc.. The similarities don’t seem to affect the validity of the claim of Jesus resurrection, but seem to frame or contextualize the language applied to the claim of Jesus resurrection.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2016

      They wanted everyone to know that Jesus really had been / became a divine being.

      • Avatar
        Michael Fischer  September 25, 2016

        Octavian wanted the same thing of Julius. If things like this were so normative that persons could be persuaded by a comet why does there need to be an empty tomb or a first appearance to Cephas than 500? It would have been MUCH easier to just say he ascended into heaven and not go out of your way to argue the ridiculous idea that Jesus walked around met a bunch of people who you can go ask yourself. Unless it was true

        • Bart
          Bart  September 26, 2016

          I don’t see why it’s difficult to say the tomb was empty and Jesus appeared to people. They said the latter because some people *did* claim to see Jesus afterward.

        • Avatar
          Eric  September 28, 2016

          Don’t forget that when the emperor says something, you at least have to listen to it, and probably have to pretend to go along with it. and maybe it carries weight because, after all, he’s the emperor. Galilean fishermen, not so much.

  2. Avatar
    ask21771  September 24, 2016

    What’s the most likely explanations for the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2016

      In my book How Jesus Became God I argue that it was because some of Jesus’ followers had visions of him after he died.

      • Avatar
        ask21771  September 25, 2016

        What caused the visions

        • Bart
          Bart  September 26, 2016

          Jesus either appeared to them or they had visions like people regularly have visions (happens all the time)

          • TWood
            TWood  September 30, 2016

            1. When you say “Jesus either appeared to them” are you taking that to be a possibility, or are you being sarcastic?

            2. Isn’t there a strange difference between Roman emperors being called gods and Jesus being called god, in that it would make sense to elevate an emperor… isn’t it right to say the only reason the carpenter’s son was called god was because some of his dejected followers *really believed* they saw him after he died… and in the case of Paul isn’t it even stranger… because he was not a dejected follower but a dedicated enemy… and he also *really believed* he saw him alive after he died… in short, isn’t it right to say that Jesus was called god due to a *claimed* historical event (that Jesus somehow appeared alive to multiple people after his death) rather than for political power, meaning the language of divination is very similar in the competition between Caesar and Jesus, but the details are much different? I know that’s a long garbled question… if it can be called a question at all… sorry… but I hope you get the sense of what I’m asking…

          • Bart
            Bart  September 30, 2016

            1. It’s one of the two logical choices. I don’t know of a third (other than they were lying) 2. Yes, that’s the irony of the Xn claim.

          • TWood
            TWood  September 30, 2016

            So I assume you believe the third option that they were lying as illogical based on the historical record? If so, what are the strongest reasons in your view to assume they were not lying?

          • Bart
            Bart  October 2, 2016

            What would be the grounds for thinking they were lying?

        • TWood
          TWood  October 2, 2016

          I don’t personally think they were lying (I’m a “liberal” Christian)… I’m just wondering if critical scholars claim their lying is a probable explanation to the resurrection claims… I can only guess some might say they lied to gain some kind of fame… or because of the impossibility of what they’re claiming… kind of like what Hume says… miracles cannot happen so any claim that they did is automatically not true… but this wouldn’t discount that they *believed* they saw him (even if they didn’t)…

          My real question is… within the *critical scholarly community* (of which I’m not a part, obviously)… is there a general consensus that they were *not* lying? I guess it might be since you said “Jesus either appeared to them or they had visions like people regularly have visions.” But I run into regular Joes who assume they were lying… but usually they don’t understand how early the claims were made… they think the resurrection was invented decades after Jesus died… they don’t know much… so is the charge that they lied contained to ignorant regular Joes?

      • Avatar
        RandallWade  November 1, 2016

        Great article. But is it really accurate to call these ‘visions’ when Peter claims (as recorded in the sermon summary from Acts 10.41) those who had these experiences ‘ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead’?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 2, 2016

          I”m not saying Acts (or Peter) would call them visions. That’s what I myself would call them. Psychologists do, though, differentiate between “veridical” visions (seeing things that are really there) and non-veridical visions (seeing things that are not really there)

          • Avatar
            RandallWade  November 5, 2016

            Understood. But did the first Christians distinguish between visions, such as Paul’s experience on the Damascus road, and what they (seemingly) report to be real, veridical encounters with the risen Jesus?

            Related, I’ve often wondered if Paul is implying in Galatians 1 that he met with the risen Jesus, perhaps in fulfillment of Ananias’ prediction at his baptism,

            “The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth.” (Acts 22.14)

            I know I speak for many when I say I appreciate the time you devote to responding to our questions.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 6, 2016

            No, ancient people did not have the psychological views held by experts today, and so didn’t think in terms of veridical and non-veridical visions. They thought on a simpler level: you either saw something really there or you were making it up.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 24, 2016

    This certainly makes one think about the claims that Jesus was “God” and the “son of God.”

    • Avatar
      GregLogan  June 6, 2017


      Great point – so the typical traditional claim that Jesus was “my God”/”our God” as an ontological reference begins to feel very flat and not at all in touch with the warp and woof of that scene.

  4. John4
    John4  September 24, 2016

    Wonderful post in a wonderful thread, Bart. Thx!

    In your book, will you transliterate the Greek terms, or stick with (as here) the Greek script?

    Many thanks! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2016

      I’m definitely not going to include Greek terms untranslated!!

  5. Avatar
    stokerslodge  September 24, 2016

    Bart, who is the one referred to in Isaiah 9:6 as “a son…his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2016

      It’s often thought to be a reference to King Hezekiah.

  6. Avatar
    Tempo1936  September 24, 2016

    Maybe Jesus didn’t defeat mighty armies or rule over large countries like other ancient Gods. But the claims by Jesus’ followers that He defeated death and the devil and that he never sinned and that he gives eternal life makes Jesus the greatest God. So the lesson is that if you are going to create a God, just make him a superhero. Also make the claims so that they can’t be disproved.

  7. Avatar
    godspell  September 24, 2016

    And of course, Octavian was only Caesar’s son by adoption.

    Simply by having been chosen by a divine being for this high honor, Octavian was himself elevated to divinity. Caesarion, purportedly Caesar’s natural son with Cleopatra, never had any such honor granted to him. Caesar had never formally acknowledged Caesarion as his son–perhaps because he didn’t want to create a rival for the more distantly related Octavian, whose ability to rule Caesar was more confident about.

    “A man chosen by God.”

  8. Avatar
    Steefen  September 25, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman:

    Jesus was being called things that the emperor before him was called. This was a competition.


    Not really competition but a Julius Caesar-Augustus-Vespasian-Titus-Domitian-Trajan update in Jewish terms.

  9. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  September 26, 2016

    Matthew, Mark, and Luke state that Herod thought that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead or that Herod heard that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead. That sounds like reincarnation, but how could anyone think that Jesus was John since they were both alive, at least partially, at the same time? Or do the gospels mean something else, as in, Jesus had John’s spirit upon him?

    Also, if John was thought to have risen from the grave, why wouldn’t his followers have claimed him to be the son of God like Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2016

      I’m not sure the historical Herod really thought this. That, as you indicate, would make no sense since he surely knew that the two men were alive at the same time. This is simply a thought placed on his lips by later Christians trying to explain that Jesus was known to stand in the same tradition as John.

  10. Avatar
    RAhmed  September 28, 2016

    I read about this The First Paul by Borg and Crossan. According to them the hymn in Philippians 2 is contrasting Jesus to Caesar.

  11. Robert
    Robert  September 29, 2016

    “I mentioned in a previous post the scarcely-remembered-these-days Diogenes Poliorcetes (Diogenes, the Conqueror of Cities) …”

    I think you mean *Demetrius* I, also known as D. Poliocretes (Δημήτριος Πολιορκητής).

  12. TWood
    TWood  September 30, 2016

    In regards to the ascension… isn’t it true that only Acts 1:9-11 actually describes it as being physical? The ascension parts in Mark and Luke are not in the originals (I think)… and I don’t think Matt and John refer to it… and I don’t think Paul (in his seven legit letters) ever mentions it (or does he?)

    I know there are some other allusions to it (John 6:62, John 20:17, Acts 2:30-33, Ephesians 4:8-10, 1 Peter 3:22, 1 Timothy 3:16, Revelation 12:5) but these *could* be understood as ascensions that aren’t necessarily bodily (they don’t sound too different from Julius ascending into heaven via a comet for example). Or is that not true?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2016

      Yes, only Acts 1. And of course one can take a passage literally or not, however one chooses!

      • TWood
        TWood  September 30, 2016

        Right… but Acts 1 is pretty specific naming the Mountain and all of that… I think it’s safe to assume that “Luke” meant it to be understood as literal… but this is very interesting… this means for at the first three decades (like the virgin birth) it doesn’t seem that the bodily ascension was emphasized very much… for example it’s not in the 1 Cor 15 creed nor does Paul ever develop the idea at all… and zero canonical gospels even mention it… it really was all about the resurrection without much thought about where he went after his post death appearances… is that right? I think it is right but I never thought of it exactly like that before… that’s crazy… the fundies heads will explode if you tell them that (i.e. if you tell them the truth).

        • Avatar
          GregLogan  June 6, 2017

          You make an interesting point – like the virgin birth – which I have noted – now the ascension here – and the lack of reference to Jesus as the Son of God in most of the sermons in the book of Acts…. If his being the son of God was such a big deal – WHERE is it in Acts 2,3,4, etc.? I do understand the paidios – but presumably that is likely servant – but definitely not vios.

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