Apotheosis: Becoming a God in the Ancient World
It is a wonder that people today can scoff at Pagan divine birth stories but accept without a blink the details of Jesus’ birth as given in Matthew and Luke (Mark wasn’t interested in where or how Jesus was born and John had a different conception altogether – pardon the pun).
In Matthew (1:18-2:23, Mary gets knocked up and Joseph figures she has been sleeping around and he’s going to dump the tramp until he has a dream that says the Holy Spirit is responsible. They get married; Jesus is born.
In Luke (1:4-2:40), it’s a bit more fantastic: Here an angel tells Elizabeth, a cousin of Mary, and who happens to be barren, that she will give birth to John (the Baptist). Apparently, the Holy Spirit is responsible (at least for making it possible for a barren woman to give birth). An angel also appears to Mary (not Joseph) and tells her that the Holy Spirit is going to knock her up personally and that she will give birth to the Son of God.
It gets more bizarre, rather like a bad Broadway play: Mary visits Elizabeth, who is six-months pregnant at the time, and the little tike leaps in her womb because the “Lord” has come into the room (via Mary’s tummy). Mary suddenly starts singing like Maria in Sound of Music. John comes popping forth, and Liz’s hubby, Zechariah, has a spontaneous fit of prophecy. Finally, Jesus himself is born.
Believable? You tell me. Christians don’t even blink. But if they get a whiff of anything faintly miraculous from the Pagan side of the aisle and eyebrows go up. Suddenly it is absurd (far too absurd to be given any credence) – and a myth.
An example of this attitude comes in an otherwise excellent book, Anthony Everitt’s Augustus (2006) – and this is just one example out of many thousands. The author makes some statements that you are unlikely to find being made about Jesus’ birth by most historians:
Dio preserves an unconvincing tale that echoes one told of Alexander the Great’s mother and was no doubt designed to encourage a divine comparison. When Julius Caesar decided to make Octavian his heir, he was influenced by “Atia’s [his mother’s] emphatic declaration that the youth had been engendered by Apollo, for while sleeping in his temple, she said, she thought she had intercourse with a serpent, and it was this that caused her at the end of her pregnancy to bear a son.”
On the day of Octavian’s birth, Atia dreamed that her intestines were raised up into the sky and spread out all over the earth, and during the same night her husband, Octavius, thought that the sun rose from her womb. The following day the elder Octavius came across a learned expert on divination, Publius Nigidius Figulus, and explained what had happened. Figulus replied, “You have begotten a master over us!” (201-202).
Now, I ask you, the reader, to tell me how one of these stories is any more fantastic than the other? Does it matter if a snake or a spirit makes you pregnant? Is one more believable than another?
The only difference is Christianity. Because there is only one God, only one of the stories can be true, even though it’s as patently ridiculous as those same Christians claim these Pagan birth stories to be.
It is perhaps significant here that there are incredible similarities between the language used of Jesus and that used for Augustus. It is almost as though the early Christians used the cult of Augustus (the Imperial Cult) as a model for their own religion. One little known example is found in Luke 24:13 (and remember, Luke was an educated Greek speaker). Luke’s account of the risen Jesus bears a striking resemblance to the report of the appearance of the deified Romulus in Dion. Hal. II.63.3f, and Livy I.16.5f .
It is downright eerie when you get down to details, which is what I will proceed to do now.
Son of God
Augustus was the Son of God ("divi filius") before Jesus (the only difference – if it can be called that - being that Augustus was son of one of many gods and Jesus was seen as son of the “only” god). Augustus was already the Son of God before Jesus was even conceived.
In Greek, his official title was “Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of god.” An inscription from Pergamum reveals Augustus as “The Emperor Caesar, son of god, Augustus, ruler of all land and sea.” A coin of Tiberius reads “Son of the Divine Caesar, the Divine Augustus.”
Christians have tried to differentiate between Augustus as “son of god” and Jesus as “son of god” but Robert L. Mowery (“Son of God in Roman Imperial Titles and Matthew,” Biblica 83 (2002), 100-110) argues that “this Roman imperial formula exactly parallels the distinctive Christological formula in three Matthean passages (14,33; 27,43.54)” and that “the Matthean formula qeou=ui(o/j would have evoked Roman imperial usage for at least some members of Matthew’s community.”
He was spoken of in messianic terms, as the savior of Rome. Virgil wrote in his fourth eclogue,
The firstborn of the New Ages is already on his way from high heaven down to earth
With him, the Iron Age shall end and Golden Man inherit all the world.
Smile on the Baby’s birth, immaculate Lucina [goddess of childbirth];
your own Apollo is enthroned a last.
Anthony Everitt (2006:115-116) believes the child spoken of was the predicted offspring of Augustus and Scribonia. Augustus had from the beginning identified himself with Apollo. It is a bit of a no-brainer.
We have here a god made man but still god himself, and an immaculate birth as well – and the dawn of a new age (analogous to the waited-for “kingdom of god/heaven”).
All this, needless to say, predates Christianity by a long margin: Virgil wrote that poem almost forty years before Jesus was born.
The Star of…
But there is more. Everyone is familiar with the famous “star of Bethlehem.” But Augustus had a star first. The star (or comet) became a symbol of Augustus early on and can be seen on these coins from 17 B.C.E. This star is an appeal to the comet that appeared during the games Augustus held in honor of Caesar (in July 44 B.C.E.) and was thought to mark the ascent of Caesar to the divine abode (unlike the star of Bethlehem, we know this comet to be real – it is documented by Chinese astronomers).
Just as the “Star of Bethlehem” emphasizes Jesus’ divine origins, so the Star of Augustus emphasized his – but again, Augustus was there first.
The Gospel of...
Augustus was not deified until Tiberius did so, and it is Tiberius who is “largely responsible for propagating the cult of the Divine Augustus.” As Larry Kreitzer writes, “Tiberius was emperor during the public ministry of Jesus.” (“Apotheosis of the Roman Emperor,” The Biblical Archaeologist 53 (1990), 211-217) Significant, don’t you think, that all this imagery should be there for the Gentile Christians to see when they co-opted Jesus the Jewish seditionist cum messiah as their god?
Kreitzer calls this period “one of the most formative in terms of the development of Christianity” and he is absolutely correct. It is also quite clear that the Romans did not get their idea of man as god from Christianity as it has a long history in ancient Near Eastern cultures (as it did in the Far East - see Samping Chen, “Son of Heaven and Son of God: Interactions Among Ancient Asiatic Cultures regarding Sacral Kingship, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 12 (2002), 289-325). As Brian Bosworth writes, (“Augustus, the Res Gestae and the Hellenistic Theories of Apotheosis” JRS 89 (1999), 1-18), “Augustus used motifs which had become familiar during the previous centuries, emphasizing simultaneously the protection of the gods, and his own godlike status” and this is noticeable in his Res Gestae, Augustus’ formal report of his achievements to the people of the empire – the good word, or his “gospel” one might say.
And so it was, as advertised by the Provincial Assembly (koinon) of Asia in 9 B.C.E. (again, Jesus had not even been conceived yet) spoke of the "good tidings" or "evangelion" (that word sound familiar to you?). And so you have it, from before Jesus' birth: The Gospel of Augustus.
It might be argued that they had identical origins. The imperial cult (to which there was a temple in Caesarea – significant to early Gentile Christian history) was very much “in your face” in the first decades of the first century – a period during which original Jewish Christianity was destroyed (when Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E.) and Gentile Christianity replaced it (by the 90s C.E.). It is no surprise - and no mystery - where Paul of Tarsus got his ideas. He could not possibly have missed what amounted to big neon signs about the new messiah, Augustus and his gospel.
Kreitzer claims that “The Roman concept of apotheosis moved a man from earth toward heaven, whereas the Christian concept of incarnation moved God from heaven toward earth” but that is not strictly true when you claim divine descent, as Augustus did. This claim also conflates the various early Christian concepts of Jesus into the later orthodox idea perpetrated by John. The divine status of Jesus is missing altogether from Mark and Matthew and Luke had quite different conceptions of Jesus – in Matthew Jesus was not literally the Son of God and in Luke it is possible that originally it did not read as if Jesus was “born” as the Son of God. In the earliest manuscripts Luke 3.22 reads, “You are my son, today I have begotten you” when John baptizes Jesus (see note below). In other words, Jesus did not become incarnate until that moment (see the discussion in Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted (2009): 39-40).
A Fulfillment of Prophecy
Early Christian apologists (like Matthew where everything about Jesus is a fulfillment of scripture) were keen to show that Jesus’ coming had long been foretold. So, too, as it happens, had that of Augustus, at least according to Vergil, who has Anchises the Dardanian say that “prophecies of Augustus’ coming are already causing panic, over a millennium before his actual birth” (Aen. 6.798-9). Needless to say, this was written before Jesus’ birth and the mad scramble to find prophecy about his coming. According to Anchises, “Augustus will revive the golden age of Saturnus and bring felicity to Latium – and indeed to the human race in so far as it came under his sway” (Bosworth, 6).
The hopes of the early Jewish and Christian apocalypticists come readily to mind – a Golden Age, a Kingdom of God on Earth, the restoration of Israel for the Jews, a restoration of Rome for the Romans.
What comes across is a sense of inferiority complex – the early Christian writers were anxious to compare Jesus – who compared unfavorably – with Augustus, whose own accomplishments were more in line with the messianic aspirations of the time (see for various ideas of what the messiah would be like, Jacob Neusner, William S. Green, Ernest Frerichs, ed. Judaisms and Their Messiahs At the Turn of the Christian Era (1987).
It is perhaps no coincidence that both Vergil and the Gospels are strongly Hellenic in character and both written in Greek. Language is, after all, a reflection of the culture that created it. As Bosworth says, Vergil places emphasis on “conquest, deliverance, and benefaction”(Bosworth, 9) – three elements quite familiar to apocalypticism and indeed, the New Testament.
Bosworth points to 9 B.C.E. and the koinon of Asia (already mentioned above) which proclaimed Augustus god (Bosworth, 12): “Since the providence that has divinely ordered our existence…has brought to life the most perfect good in Augustus, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as a savior – he who put an end to war and will order peace, Caesar, who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who prophesied good tidings (evangelion), not only outdoing benefactors of the past, but also allowing no hope of greater benefactions in the future…”
Sounds pretty Christ-like to me – and two years before the earliest postulated birth date for Jesus.
Is the idea of a God-man improbable, as Kierkegaard asserts (Christian faith being necessarily a belief in the absurd)? (see the discussion in Robert Herbert, "The God-Man," Religious Studies 6 (1970), 157-174). For Christians, yes, given their conception of the divine; for polytheists? Not at all. The apotheosis of Augustus has at least as much to recommend it as that of Jesus as it eventually came (under the auspices of orthodoxy) to be conceived.
What is of paramount importance in all this is that all the ideas of Christianity are more pre-existent than their savior. Every element of Christianity can be found previous to Jesus’ birth – including John’s logos, which is Pagan in origin and dates from the 6th century B.C.E. - a logos which, incidentally, is not found in the other three Gospels.
Augustus is just one example, one small slice of the pie. Everything is already there, in the first century – a century of faith indeed – but Pagan - and no intolerance of other forms of belief are part of the equation. All beliefs can be true, and they can coexist peacefully, without strife, without war, without inquisitions, and without burning books, witches, or heretics.
If the truth is not quite the golden age Augustus and his court poets advertised, it still has something to recommend it on that basis alone. Universal tolerance may be a logical impossibility, but that does not mean we cannot strive for tolerance – as much tolerance as a functioning society can manage. But for the discourse on tolerance to have any meaning, it must appeal to the facts, and not simply to pious history “as it should have been” and it must not privilege one set of miracles over another.
In speaking of god become man and man become god, I have used deliberately provocative language. Such language is fitting for what is a provocative subject. The ancients understood that it was no trivial detail, the degree to which an individual might partake of the divine. It was a powerful message Augustus and his publicists put out, just as it was again a powerful message the Gentile Christian publicists put out in the name of Jesus decades later.
I'm not saying the idea of divine birth or apotheosis is impossible. As Bart Ehrman points out, that is not the domain of the historian but of the theologian. My point is that many historians, Christian themselves, accept without criticism the story of Jesus' birth but still speak of similar (and far older) stories told of Pagans as absurd or mythical or openly propagandistic and self-serving.
What I am saying is that miracles are miracles. You cannot classify one set of miracles as more possible than another. If you are going to accept miracles about Jesus, you have to accept miracles about Apollonius of Tyana - and about Augustus and Alexander and others. And if there is to be a discourse between Pagans and Christians it cannot be on the basis of "my religion is better than yours." We need to agree either that all miracle stories are equally absurd or equally likely - or at least possible. That's a big leap for the folks who claim to have sole possession of the truth, while it's much less a problem for those who understand that there are many truths.
In the end, we Pagans can make the approach, but discourse is possible only with a willing audience and acknowledgment that there is room for more than one iteration of "good tidings."
With regards to Jesus' apotheosis Luke actually offers three methods (I chose one above for the sake of argument):
- Acts 13.32-33: Upon his resurrection (also Acts 2.36)
- Luke 3.22: Upon his baptism by John (noted above)
- Luke 1.35: Via virginal conception by the Holy Spirit (also Luke 2.11)
True Religion is religion that works
Religions that work can coexist; they can cross barriers - cultural, ethnic, and religious