Sunday, December 7, 2014

Other Man-Gods of Jesus’ Time

For the past several months, I’ve been working on a big reading/writing project called The Bible: a Book Report, in which I read each book of the Bible, in order, and write a report on what I learn.  My goal is to make the Bible (with all its bigness and complexity) understandable—first for myself, and then for others who care to read my reports.  To help with my understanding of this daunting, ancient book, I’ve been reading some books by contemporary biblical scholars, to get at the most current findings and discoveries about the Bible.  To learn about some of my favorite Biblical scholars, click HERE.  

As I’m currently deep into the New Testament, I’ve begun reading a brand new book by scholar Bart Ehrman called How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.  Ehrman’s goal may be summed up by this quote: “As a historian I am no longer obsessed with the theological question of how God became a man, but with the historical question of how a man became God.”  Ehrman seeks to understand Jesus in his historical context of first century Palestine—an area which contained a fascinating mixture of Greek, Roman, and Jewish culture.

In the first chapter, Ehrman gives several examples of other “divine humans” of Jesus’ day.  Of interest to a historian is not whether these people were actually divine (that’s a matter of faith), but rather how ordinary people understood divine humans in the Greco-Roman world of the first century.  Palestine in Jesus’ day was a part of the Roman Empire, and it was heavily influenced by Greek culture.  The New Testament itself was originally written in Greek, not Hebrew.

As it turns out, Jesus was not entirely unique in the sense that his followers and devotees came to consider him a divine human.  There were a number of “Man-Gods” in the Greco-Roman world, which deepen our understanding of what Jesus’ followers meant when they called Jesus “Son of God”.  Here are some of them.  Click on their names for further reading:

1.) Apollonius of Tyana was a wandering philosopher/preacher of the first century who gathered followers, supposedly did miracles, and who people later claimed was the son of Zeus.  The parallels between Apollonius and Jesus are fascinating.

Apollonius of Tyana, statue from 2nd century C.E. Crete

2.) Philemon and Baucis were mythical characters immortalized by the Roman poet Ovid, who was actually a contemporary of Jesus.  These two peasants were kind to the gods Jupiter and Mercury, and so were deified and immortalized as trees.

Philemon and Baucis

3.) Alexander the Great lived well before Jesus, but his legend was immortalized by Roman writer Plutarch.  Many people actually believed Alexander was a demi-god, a son of Zeus.

Alexander the Great

4.) Hercules, the famous Greek mythical hero, was one of many man-gods of ancient Greek culture and literature.


5.) Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, was widely believed to be of divine origin.  There is also a legend that, upon his death, Romulus “ascended” to the divine realm.

Romulus and his brother Remus were suckled by a She-Wolf!

6.) Julius Caesar, the first emperor of Rome, claimed that his family line descended back to the goddess Venus.  Upon his death, Julius was declared a god by the Roman Senate.

Julius Caesar

7.) Caesar Augustus, the heir of Julius Caesar, was Roman emperor when Jesus was born.  Legends were told that Augustus was the son of Apollo.  Caesar Augustus was called “Son of God” and this title was inscribed on the coins Jesus and his disciples would have used.

Caesar Augustus, for whom the month of August is named.

8.) Peregrinus was a wandering philosopher who ascribed to the Cynic school.  Cynic philosophers were anti-materialistic, usually homeless, and reveled in pointing out the hypocrisies of society (Scholar Burton Mack argues that Jesus himself was influenced by Cynic philosophy).  Though the followers of Peregrinus believed he ascended to heaven after his dramatic death by self-immolation, the Roman satirist Lucian painted a mocking literary portrait of him and his followers in the humorous work The Passing of Peregrinus.

Lucian, who made fun of Peregrinus

So, who cares if there were other “divine humans” in Jesus day?  Why does this matter?  It matters if we are interested in understanding what Jesus’ followers meant when they called Jesus divine.  In today’s world, we tend to think of a great chasm separating God from the human realm.  But people in the ancient world, the world in which Jesus lived and died, did not see things this way.  In the ancient world, people saw all kinds of gods and divine beings in everything.  Most people were, for example, polytheistic, and believed in a kind of hierarchy of gods.  

But who cares what Greeks and Romans thought, one might object, Jesus and his followers were Jews, and they were monotheistic.  This is true, in a way.  But even within the supposedly monotheistic religion of Judaism, there were other divine beings, like angels, the Nephilim, the Watchers, the Son of Man, and others. Plus, Greek and Roman ideas most certainly influenced the writers of the New Testament.  Bart Ehrman, the historian of early Christianity, helps us understand that we cannot impose our contemporary ideas of “God” onto the ancient world, in which people thought much differently.

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