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When Men Became Gods: My Lecture in Denmark

As I indicated earlier, I am in Denmark this week giving talks.  I’m staying in Copenhagen, a fabulous city, but two of my talks are in Odense, an hour and a half (very pleasant) train ride from here.  I am being sponsored by the University of Southern Denmark, which invited me almost a year ago now to give a lecture to students and faculty on the relationship between the Roman Imperial cult (the worship of the Roman emperor as a divine being) and the rise of Christology (the understanding of Christ as a divine being).

The lecture was yesterday, and I thought it might be worthwhile here on the blog to explain the topic and the issues it raises.   I called the talk “When Men Became Gods: Caesar and Christ.”  The overarching idea that I tried to develop was that the Christian acclamation of the divinity of Jesus had a clear historical context within the broader Greco-Roman world.  There were other humans in that context who were considered divine.  And none more prominently than the Roman emperors.

The idea that a political leader could be seen as a divine being is alien to most of us.  True, there are people who think that Ronald Reagan had a touch of the divine about him.   But I don’t see too many voters lining up to bestow the title of “God” to either Donald or Hillary.  Did people in the ancient world really think their political leaders were divine in some sense?  Really?

Well, as it turns out…

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Rulers as Gods: The Context of Ancient Religion
Fear of Dying etc.: Weekly Readers Mailbag, September 18, 2016



  1. TWood
    TWood  September 21, 2016

    How does “the logos” fit in? I believe Aristotle and Philo of Alexandria referred to the logos before John was written… was the logos seen almost like the “unknown god” who Acts talks about? Almost like saying in the beginning was the divine intelligent higher power, and that power became a human called Jesus… is something like that fair to use an imperfect but useful modern analogy?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2016

      There were very different views of the Logos (“Word”) in different philosophical schools, and one of the big questions of interpreting John’s Gospel involves understanding whether he has a Stoic view, for example, in mind, or a kind of Christian-Platonic view, etc.

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    stokerslodge  September 21, 2016

    Many thanks Bart, that’s excellent – very enlightening.

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    RonaldTaska  September 21, 2016

    Good questions. I look forward to the next post. So, Jesus being called God was not so extraordinary considering the context of this term also being applied to other leaders such as emperors and pharaohs.

    Do you have a good Danish pastry each morning?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2016

      It turns out (as I learned yesterday) in Denmark they call a “Danish” “Vienna-bread”!

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    Scott  September 21, 2016

    Excellent! Looking forward to this!

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    Jana  September 21, 2016

    Good afternoon Dr. Ehrman. I thought this article might be of interest “How to Open an Ancient Scroll without Unwrapping It.” Discovery Mag. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-brief/2016/09/21/ancient-scroll-read-hebrew-text/#.V-LbGYXGP40 The late Jungian MD Dr. John W. Perry wrote his book “The Lord of Four Quarters” which also delved into how ancient men became Gods. (I studied with Dr. Perry during my graduate years). Your blogs, always enlightening! Thank you.

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    Pattycake1974  September 21, 2016

    “An “oracle” in antiquity was a sacred spot where a divine being would make revelations to those with particular urgent inquiries…We don’t know what Alexander wanted to ask Ammon-Zeus…”
    Are you saying that Alexander asked Zeus questions through an actual person (oracle)? As in, a representative who spoke for Zeus?

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      Pattycake1974  September 21, 2016

      Grrrr….I’ll just say it– I hate that countdown timer. As soon as it starts, I get stressed and feel like I better hurry it up or else….timeout! Which I was just now.

      Anyway, is the oracle a person or a place? I always thought an oracle was a person, but you said it was a sacred spot.

      • Bart
        Bart  September 22, 2016

        It’s a sacred place where the god communicates through a special priest/prophet.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2016

      Yes, there was a special priest or priestess at an oracle through whom the god would speak.

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        madi22  September 27, 2016

        Didnt something similar to this happen in the old testament with the prophets?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 28, 2016

          I’m afraid I’m not sure what you’re asking!

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            madi22  September 29, 2016

            “It’s a sacred place where the god communicates through a special priest/prophet” in the old testament wasnt the prophets the only ones God would communicate with?, and from my memory wasn’t there a sacred tabernacle this would take place?

          • Bart
            Bart  September 29, 2016

            Yes, Jews did not have oracles. God spoke thorugh his prophets. But this did not require a special place.

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    turbopro  September 21, 2016

    Another off-topic, but perhaps interesting: it’s a talk by Elizabeth F. Loftus titled, “The Memory Factory.”
    –> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDJOz_hNVig

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    smackemyackem  September 21, 2016

    VERY good posts lately! I feel like I’m stealing from you…for such a low cost to be a member…I mean.

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    SidDhartha1953  September 22, 2016

    While you’re in Denmark, I’m in the Netherlands and I just read this – How scientists read an ancient and fragile biblical scroll without unrolling it

    Have you had a chance to look at any of the recovered text? When you do, I hope you will share your thoughts on what it reveals about changes from the Qumran to the Masoretic text of the Torah: whether it was fairly gradual or if the Masoretes took it upon themselves to codify a particular interpretation.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 23, 2016

      I haven’t looked into it beyond the news reports. Very exciting!

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    Adam0685  September 23, 2016

    It appears someone in the audience recorded and uploaded your lecture on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIUzGoHc4hY

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    fizikci  September 23, 2016

    Interesting comment about Reagan. I think the same can be said of Turkey’s Erdogan: some of his ardent followers do in fact express feelings that sound like they believe the man has a touch of the divine, that God (Allah) chose him for better days of Islam on the planet. Not on an equal footing with Mohammad, of course, that would be heresy, but yet chosen by God to rule the country and unite the Muslim world.

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    fizikci  September 23, 2016

    Here is a Greek inscription (with English translation next to it) from the ancient city of Pergamon, displayed at the nearby Pergamon museum in the town of Bergama in Western Turkey: the emperor Augustus Caesar is referred to as “god”:


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    Steefen  September 25, 2016

    Thank you for the historical information on Demetrius.

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    Kazibwe Edris  October 3, 2016

    any gods in pagan religions of the past which

    1. did not sleep
    2. did not eat
    3. had power over nature
    4. did not die (in the flesh)

    5. and were able to control everything even when they appeared like humans?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2016

      They did eat, have power, and were immortal. None of them could control everything though.

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    Kazibwe Edris  November 13, 2016

    dr ehrman, you said before that gods became men and begot like normal human beings.

    i done some investigation on the hebrew root “wa la da”

    and on word reference forums , the response was:

    In Biblical Hebrew the Qal form of the verb w/y-l-d means both “give birth to” (of a woman) and “beget” (of a man). This is true regardless of whether the subject is a divine or a mortal being. You can convince yourself of this by looking at any of the genealogical lists, for example Gen. 11:10 sqq.
    end quote

    so what is your thought on this? yhwh says “this day i have begotten you” and psalms uses a word from a root which literally means to beget.

    did the hebrew God beget like other human beings?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2016

      For some ancient Jews, yes. But that doesn’t mean he has genitalia .

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    Lms728  January 2, 2020

    Are you familiar with Ory Amitay’s 2010 book From Alexander to Jesus? If so, what do think of it?

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