Men Becoming Gods: Alexander, Demetrius, Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ

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    Sep 25, 2016 3:09 PM GMT
    He was in Denmark, week around the day 9/21/2016, 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).

    It did not start with the Roman emperors. The idea is fairly well known from ancient Egypt, where the Pharaoh was understood to be an incarnation of a god. But for the imperial cult, and then for Christianity, the more relevant precedents, probably, were from the Greek world.

    Alexander was not the only one. Other mighty military leaders were acknowledged to be manifestations of a god. The example I started off with in my lecture yesterday was a far lesser known figure named Demetrius Poliorcetes (Demetrius, the Conqueror of Cities). Demetrius was the son of Antigonus, one of the generals who served under Alexander. Demetrius became a military man, like his father, and among other things, in 307 BCE, he liberated the city of Athens, Greece, from its oppressive overlords, the Macedonians.

    In response, an anonymous poet wrote a hymn celebrating the actions and character of Demetrius, associating him with the great goddess of Greece, Demeter. Here is an extract of his hymn:

    The greatest among the gods have drawn close to our city…

    Both Demeter and Demetrius…

    Hail to you, O Son of the mighty god Poseidon and of Aphrodite.

    The other gods dwell so far away,

    or else they have no ears,

    or they do not exist, or do not care at all about us

    We see you in our midst,

    not a wooden or stone presence, but bodily

    And so we pray to you… bring about peace

    for you are the Lord (κύριος)

    Notice what is said of Demetrius. He is one of the “greatest gods,” the son of God” (specifically of the gods Poseidon and Aphrodite), one who is “near” his own people – not remote, off on Mount Olympus, the one who “brings peace,” who can be called “Lord.”

    These ascriptions to Demetrius should sound familiar to anyone who knows about early Christianity, where Jesus too was known as the incarnation of a divine being, the Son of God, the bringer of peace, the Lord, and God in the flesh. My ultimate point: Jesus was not the first to be called such things, or thought to be a kind of incarnation of the divine. He had predecessors.
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    Sep 25, 2016 4:10 PM GMT
    The gods in Greek and Roman thought were considered to be superhuman. Unlike, say, the (animal-shaped) gods of Egypt, the Greek and Roman gods were literally in human form. When they appeared here on earth to humans they were often “bigger than life,” but they could assume regular human form when they wanted to and they were human-shaped even when attending to their heavenly duties. In the Greek and Roman myths, they acted in human ways, they experienced the range of human emotions, they manifested human foibles, and so on.

    Antecedent to God taking on human form in Jesus.
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    Sep 25, 2016 4:51 PM GMT

    there is an inscription that survives from his lifetime found in the city of Halicarnassus (modern Turkey), which calls Augustus:

    …The native Zeus

    and Savior (σωτὴρ) of the human race

    So he is God, the Savior. Sound familiar? He was also the “son of God.” And the “Lord.” These, of course, are all titles widely used by Christians of Jesus. They did not come up with these titles out of the blue. These are things said of another divine-man – the Roman emperor – before they were said of Jesus. For the early Christians the idea was not that Jesus was the only person who was ever called such things (even though that is the case for most modern Christians). 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.