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The Rise of the Roman Empire

I want to suspend for a time – not cancel altogether! – the thread I have been pursuing on how I came to be interested in the textual criticism of the New Testament, which itself is a spin-off (using roughly similar metaphors) of the bigger thread that I started, which at the time of inception I anticipated would be all of two posts long, of why I ended up being equipped to write trade books more than most of my colleagues who were doing research that, on the surface, seemed to be far more amenable to trade books.

But I want to suspend the thread for now, to be resumed soon, because there is something else I’m particularly interested in and I want to strike it while the iron is hot.  I’m flying off to Denmark on Sunday to give a lecture and a couple of academic discussions at the University of Southern Denmark.  The topic:  the relationship between the worship of the Roman emperor (the “imperial cult”) and the rise of Christology (the understanding of Christ).

The Roman emperor was called “Savior,” “Lord,” “Son of God,” and “God.”  So was Jesus.  At the same time.  Was that a historical accident?

I touch on that question in my book How Jesus Became God.   In the book I was focused almost entirely on how the early Christians understood who Christ was, and how this understanding developed over time – that is, how the followers of Jesus who originally thought he might be the Jewish messiah (the human king of Israel) began to think he was a divine being, to thinking he was in some sense, along with the Father, also God, to thinking he was the eternal God who created the universe and was the second member of the Trinity.  I continue to consider this one of the most important questions of the Christian religion, and in some sense an absolutely vital question for anyone interested in the history of our civilization (since it had such an enormous impact).

Over the past few weeks I have shifted my focus of interest onto another question, the question of why and how the emperor of Rome also came to be thought of as the Son of God, and in some sense God, the Lord, the Savior of all people.   There is a ton of scholarship on this question, and it is a very interesting question I think.

My sense is that many people who have some vague sense that the emperor was worshiped don’t quite understand …

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The Divine Realm in Antiquity
Arguments, Evidence, and Changing Your Mind



  1. Avatar
    annehrhardt  September 15, 2016

    Thank you so much for this article. I am currently living in Europe and surrounded by Roman history. I’m really digging this. Emperor Constantine’s basilica and Helena’s church are just a drive away in Trier. My search into Constantine and the council Nicea was pivotal in the deconstruction of my former faith. I totally enjoy this blog and your books. Thank you for all your hard work.

  2. Avatar
    stokerslodge  September 15, 2016

    Very interesting Bart, thank you for that primer.

  3. Avatar
    Scott  September 15, 2016

    As we contemplate the influence that views of the Roman Emperor had on Christian conceptions of Jesus, is it possible to dive a little deeper and discover if other social forces led to Octavian being “deified”? Why did his subjects view him and his successors as “in some sense divine men”? Were these same forces driving the elevated view of the Emperor also acting independently on the first Christians as they re-imagined their slain leader?

    These questions are the ones that fascinate me when I consider beginnings. Does the causal relationship run mainly through the Emperor to Christ? Or is there a change in popular thinking causing both these figures to be elevated in a similar manner?

    As you said, much of this was mentioned in “How Jesus Became God” but a broader survey would be very interesting.

  4. Avatar
    Cornelius  September 15, 2016

    So Rome started out as a small community that grew and became a Republic in 509CE…. In the soup of rising and falling empires in that region, when did Rome come to prominence?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2016

      An obvious key set of moments was the Punic Wars, where they established dominance over the Mediterranean against Carthage.

  5. Avatar
    turbopro  September 15, 2016

    completely off topic, but i love you first sentence/paragraph: 1 double-hyphen, 1 parens, 5 commas, and a lone period bearing the weight of that massive thought sequence!

    i had a good chuckle, thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2016

      Yeah, that’s fun sometimes. I like short sentences too!

  6. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  September 15, 2016

    The lecture sounds very interesting. Any chance it will be posted to your YouTube channel?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2016

      I don’t know! I’m not sure if they’re recording it or not.

  7. Avatar
    barryclick  September 15, 2016

    I look forward to this study on the matrix of Roman culture. I am reading how Jesus became God and am looking forward to this addendum – a blog on the run!

  8. Avatar
    moose  September 16, 2016

    I wish I could be there

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 16, 2016

    As you convincingly show in your book, that emperors and pharaohs were often considered to be divine makes one wonder whether this tendency of ancient people to often see their leaders as being divine resulted in these ancient people attributing divinity to another leader, namely Jesus. Thanks for exploring this subject.

    Have a good trip to Denmark.

  10. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  September 16, 2016

    Your acount of Octovian relinquishing all his power to the Senate, then being declared emperor and god, reminded me of the Philippian hymn (2:6-11). Also, Revelation uses the same title for Christ as was claimed by the Persian monarchs — King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But the Philippian passage interests me particularly because it is thought to date to pre Pauline Christianity. Do you think they were consciously paraphrasing/parodying Roman ideas about the emperor?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2016

      I think it’s hard to know! We don’t really have any evidence of their through-processes.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  October 21, 2016

        Is there too little there for stylistic comparisons?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 23, 2016

          Probably. But an analysis of style won’t tell you what their inner thoughts were.

  11. Avatar
    Kirktrumb59  September 16, 2016

    S.P.Q.R. A History of Ancient Rome
    by Mary Beard.

  12. Avatar
    Hormiga  September 16, 2016

    > Rome started out as a small village/community and as it grew in size it had kings as its leaders.

    > After a couple of hundred years the people of Rome became disenchanted with their kings…

    Told at this level of detail, it kind of reminds me of the proto-Hebrew sequence of Judges -> Saul -> David 500 years earlier. Are there any indications that one foundation story affected the other?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2016

      My sense is that foundation myths generally follow fairly predictable patterns.

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  September 18, 2016

      Except the sequence for the Hebrews went the other direction (from a group of rulers to kings). Right?

      Bart, Hormiga’s question actually segways to the question I had reading your excellent post: usually kings don’t give up their power peacefully (the American and French Revolutions, for examples). How did that happen in Rome as they moved to a Republic?

  13. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  September 16, 2016

    I highly recommend Mary Beard’s recent book SPQR for a tour of mainstream contemporary scholarship of Roman history.

  14. ronaldus67
    ronaldus67  September 17, 2016

    I understand you are travelling to Denmark this week. Great! Do you have plans or did you receive any invitations to visit the Netherlands for similar discussions within the foreseeable future?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2016

      Nothing in the works, I’m afraid! Too bad: I love the Netherlands!

      • ronaldus67
        ronaldus67  September 18, 2016

        Then maybe I have to start some promotion, so I can book you to get you here? 😉
        There are quit a few universities with religious studies which I am sure you have much to tell and teach.
        And, believe it or not, there is a serious Bible Belt (Bijbelgordel in Dutch) in the Netherlands as well.
        All together familiar territory to you 🙂

        If I don’t succeed in booking you, I would be honoured to be your personal tour guide whenever you visit the Netherlands in the future. Just remind me! 🙂

        • Bart
          Bart  September 19, 2016

          I’m always open to invitations! But setting up an international engagement is very complicated, as you might imagine.

          • ronaldus67
            ronaldus67  September 19, 2016

            I understand Bart! We’ll see what the future holds in store. Anyway, thanks for your response and enjoy your stay in Odense!

  15. Avatar
    rburos  September 18, 2016

    I was looking for a place to add this question, and although it doesn’t fit exactly with the thread I assume this will get filed under Greco-Roman Religion so forgive my intrusion.

    Can you recommend a book on the influence of Greek philosophy on early Jewish thought? When Josephus compares the sects of early Judaism he compares them to philosophies–has to be something for us to dig into and understand.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2016

      Most of the work has been done on Philo, and his Platonic views. But I have to admit it is not a topic I have dug into very deeply.

  16. TWood
    TWood  September 18, 2016

    I thought Josephus (or maybe it was Tacitus) said the emperors weren’t considered divine until after they died (making them more son’s of gods than gods)… is that not true?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2016

      I’m not sure either one of them actually said this, but it was a view many highly educated Romans had.

      • TWood
        TWood  September 19, 2016

        I think I found the source… it’s at the very end of Tacitus 15:74 which states “divine honours are not paid to an emperor till he has ceased to live among men.”

        How does this apply to your statement that “The Roman emperor was called “Savior,” “Lord,” “Son of God,” and “God.” So was Jesus.”

        Were the emperors really called “gods” while living or were they called “sons of gods?” (with Nero being the exception, which is the context of Tacitus’ statement).

        Is it possible this is why the original disciples saw Jesus as the Son of God while he was alive, but then saw him as God after he rose? It would fit the basic Imperial Cult mindset it seems.

        I guess that doesn’t fully work from your view… because you see the gospels seeing Jesus as God earlier than his resurrection… or is that an anachronistic assumption?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 21, 2016

          Yes, what Tacitus says is simply not true, since we have indisputable evidence (inscriptions, for example) where the living emperors were indeed called “God” during their lifetime. And Tacitus knew that.

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