Greco-Roman Gods Who Became Human
Such pagan stories, of course, can be found in ancient Greek and
Roman mythology. One interesting example that serves to illustrate
the point is the account told by the Roman author Ovid of the
temporary “incarnation” of Jupiter and Mercury and their meeting
with the poor elderly couple Philemon and Baucis.
-Ovid was one of the great authors of Roman antiquity, who
narrated stories that had been passed down for centuries,
especially in his book Metamorphoses.
-In the story we are interested in, Jupiter, the chief god, and
Mercury, the messenger of the gods, temporarily took on
human form and visited a region of Asia Minor. Only Philemon
and Baucis, a sweet elderly couple, welcomed the gods into
-As a result, even though everyone who had rejected the gods
was to be destroyed, these two were given any wish they
desired. They asked to be made head of the gods’ shrine and to
die in unison. They become entwined trees at death.
-Here, we have a tale of gods who visit humans, in human form,
for a relatively short time. They are indistinguishable from
other humans; they interact with humans; and their interactions
bring both judgment and blessing.
Editorial note-It is interesting to compare this myth with the Old Testament
story of Lot and Sodom and Gomorrah: Two angels (representing God),
appearing as men, are sent to Lot in Sodom. They are met with a wicked mob
who ask for the newcomers. Lot offers the mob his daughters instead, but this
only further enrages the mob, who are then struck blind by the angelic guests
(19:1–11). Finding only Lot and his family as righteous among the inhabitants,
the angels warn Lot to quickly evacuate the city and not look back. As they flee
the destruction, Lot’s wife looks back upon the city and is turned into a pillar of
Humans as gods in the Greco-Roman world
-About 2,000 years ago, a remarkable man was born in a remote
part of the Roman Empire. His mother was told that he would not
be a mortal but, in fact, would be divine. She gave birth to him in a
miraculous way. As an adult, this man collected disciples around him who came
to believe that he was the Son of God. And he did miracles to prove his divinity-
healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. At the end of his
life, he ascended to heaven. This man was Apollonius of Tyana, a pagan
philosopher active some 50 years after Jesus and widely known in his own day.
We know about the life of Apollonius from the writings of his later
follower Philostratus, who based his account, he tells us, on earlier
-Alexander the Great was rumored to be the son of Zeus
-Romulus, founder of Rome, was taken up to a divine realm at the end of his life
-Julius Ceasar was thought to have been made a god after his death
-Cult of the emperor: Practice of honoring emperors, both living and dead, as
God or son of God
-Was this taken seriously or just propaganda??
In short, Jesus was not the only divine man in the ancient world.
-Some were thought to have been gods who came down to earth
temporarily in human form.
-Others were thought to have been literally the son of a god, the
divine product of the union of a god and a mortal woman.
– Still others were thought to have been taken up into heaven at
the end of their lives to live and rule in the divine realm.
– Jesus, as we will see, was thought to be all three of these things by
different Christians in different times and different places.
Divine Beings in Ancient Judaism
– It is true that Judaism was distinctive among all the religions of
the Greco-Roman world in insisting that only one God was the true
divinity worthy of worship. In fact, by the time of Jesus, most Jews
were monotheists, believing that there was only one God and that
the gods of the pagans did not actually exist.
-But it had not always been that way in Judaism. For centuries,
many Israelites were not monotheists but henotheists; they believed
that other gods existed, but they were not to be worshipped, as
evidenced already in the Ten Commandments.
– Eventually, a strain of monotheism developed within ancient Israel,
as evident in such passages of the Hebrew Bible as Isaiah 45.
-If that was the case in the days of Jesus, is it true, then, that there
could be no other divine beings who interacted with humans? Was
there just God in heaven and we mortals on earth?
– In point of fact, even Jews who were monotheists still believed
in other divine beings, that is, hyper-intelligent beings who were
superhuman; who lived in the divine realm, not here on earth;
and who were far more powerful than mere mortals. Among these
mentioned in the Bible were angels, archangels, cherubim, and seraphim-all
mentioned in the Bible.
-Sometimes, the Bible speaks of one of these other divine beings
coming to earth in the shape of a human, and sometimes, these
other divine beings who appear as humans are actually called God. Sometimes,
God himself appears on earth in human or other form.
– Already in the book of Genesis, the father of Israel, Abraham, is
said to have an encounter with three “men.” Later in the story, two
of these men are revealed to be angels, and the third is God.
The most famous instance of an angel being identified as God occurs in Exodus
3 at the burning bush. Here, Moses is addressed
by the “Angel of the Lord,” who is then later called “the Lord.”
-This Angel of the Lord also sometimes appears to humans as
himself a human. We see an example in Genesis 16, when the Angel
of the Lord speaks with and rescues a woman named Hagar from
near death from exposure.
-In other passages of the Bible, we are told that angels are either
sons of God or God himself and that they become human.
– This is implied in the famous passage in Job 1, when the “sons
of God” appear before God in his divine council.
– Angels are explicitly called gods in Psalm 82.
– In other Jewish traditions, angels are said to become human, as
in the text known as the Prayer of Joseph.
– In addition, and equally striking, we are told in some Jewish texts
that humans can become angels. This is clearly laid out in 2 Baruch
51 and 2 Enoch 22.
– In sum, in the Jewish tradition, there are divine beings other than
God who are called gods; these divine beings can become human;
God himself sometimes appears temporarily in human form; and
humans themselves can sometimes become angelic beings.
Beings Born of Divine Union
-Moreover, we also have stories in the Jewish tradition of beings
who are born to the union of divinities and humans.
-This is the point of the bizarre passage in Genesis 6, where the
“sons of God” take wives among the “daughters of men” and
produce semi-divine offspring. This story is expounded in the book
of 1 Enoch, a later Jewish text that understood the offspring to be
-The idea that other beings besides the one true God could be called
gods is found not only in the pagan but also in the Jewish tradition,
and just as pagans thought gods could temporarily become human
and that some people were born to the union of divine and human
beings, so, too, did many Jews in the days of Jesus.
Ancient Jews who were gods
We have seen that Jews, like pagans, understood that the divine
realm was populated with superhuman beings besides the Lord
God Almighty, that sometimes these divine beings were called gods and
would appear on earth as humans. In this lecture, we will see that the reverse
was true, as well: Even among Jews, it was believed that humans could be
made into divine beings and that sometimes men were actually called God.
The Son of Man
One of the most interesting divine figures is ancient Judaism was known as the
“Son of Man”
We first encounter some version of this figure in the bizarre vision of Daniel 7.
Here, the prophet experiences a night vision, in which
he sees four terrible beasts that emerge out of the sea and wreak
havoc on the earth, destroying peoples and kingdoms. Then, “one
like a Son of Man” arrives from heaven, to whom is given all
authority and power forever. In Daniel’s vision, this “one like a Son of Man” is
probably to be understood as the nation Israel itself. Eventually, it came to be
thought of as an angelic being, an individual sent from heaven as
the judge of earth. We see this understanding in a later Jewish text called 1
Enoch, written probably some years before the New Testament. In a section of
1 Enoch known as the Similitudes, we find an extensive set of reflections on the
Son of Man, who actually sits on God’s throne and is called the judge of the earth.
There were other figures who were thought to have shared the throne of God
in heaven as a kind of second God; the rabbis of later times talk about Jews
who hold such views, in which some kind of angelic being rules the world along
with God. Some texts speak about the “two powers in heaven”; this second
divine being is placed on a level with God himself. This idea is sometimes cited
to explain who God is speaking to in Genesis 1:26, when he creates humans by
saying: “Let us make man in our own image.”
-In addition, some Jews considered divine attributes of God to be
divine beings apart from God. The word scholars use for these divinized
attributes of God is hypostases.
– The basic idea here is that certain characteristics of God
could exist apart from him, but because they are his own
characteristics, they are, like him, divine.
-The fact that God is wise means that he has wisdom. But
because wisdom is something God “has,” then it is something
that also exists apart from him. And because it is God’s
wisdom, it is divine.
– Thus, one of the hypostases that some ancient Jews considered
to be a god was Wisdom, as based, for example, on Proverbs 8.
– Sometimes God’s “Word” was also thought to be divine, as
based on Genesis 1 and as seen in the explanations of the great
Jewish philosopher of the 1st century C.E., Philo, who thought
that the Word existed apart from God but also was God.
Human Beings as God in Judaism
-In addition to all these other divine entities being thought of as God, Jewish texts,
including the Bible-sometimes refer to human beings as God. This is true, for
example, of Moses.
– In the book of Exodus, Moses is said to have functioned as
“God” for his brother Aaron (Exodus 4:16). Just as striking, sometimes the king
of Israel was called God.
-The roots of this view are in the promise to David in 2 Samuel 7:13–16 that his
son would also be a Son of God.
-We have seen that rulers in Egypt were thought of as divine
beings; the same thing was true in some parts of Israel.- This is the intimation of
Psalm 2:7; the king is “begotten” to be the Son of God.
– And more than that, the king is explicitly called “God” in
Isaiah 45 and Isaiah 9.
– In none of these instances is Moses, or the king of Israel, or even
the Son of Man or Wisdom or the Word thought to be the Lord
God Almighty himself. They are always a second being who is
considered to be God along with the Lord God.
– This is the matrix within which Jesus lived and died and within
which Christianity developed.