The Ancient World – “A World Full of Gods”

Notion [of men as Gods] not that strange to the Romans.  Julius Caesar recognized as a god by the Senate and people in 42 BC.  Temples and altars dedicated to him….Not unique to Rome.  Hellenistic kings had done the same.  (Martin Goodman, Professor Oxford University)

“Divinity in the Roman world was not an essence or a nature, but a concept of status and power in a cosmic spectrum that had no absolute dividing lines” (Michael Peppard – Fordham University)

Once upon a time (or so the story goes), the god Zeus fell in love with a beautiful girl named Europa. In order to gain her affections, Zeus turned himself into a magnificent bull, and carried her on his back across the sea to Crete.  According to some accounts, one of their three sons, was a certain Minos, who became king of Crete… The rape of Europa is mentioned in the earliest surviving work of Greek literature (Homer’s Iliad), and is commonly depicted in Greek art, on painted vases and in sculpture.  It is thus a good example of a Panhellenic myth, a story known in different parts of the Greek world, and told for a variety of different reasons.  (Thonemann and Price – Oxford)

The Bible, the New Testament, they are all operating in a pre-enlightenment world.
In a pre-enlightenment world it is taken for granted by everyone (expect maybe
some very erudite philosophers who don’t believe in it, but the general culture
takes it for granted) that, for example, divine babies can be conceived, that
gods can come to earth and have intercourse with mortals and that this
intercourse can produce divine babies. They take it for granted. It’s simply
part of the baggage of their culture. Therefore in their culture, in a pre-enlightenment
culture, to announce that your Jesus is a divine child is not going to
get the general post-enlightenment reaction that this can’t happen, couldn’t
happen, doesn’t happen, we don’t believe that stuff. It might get the reaction
that we don’t believe your claim, but they cannot and would not argue that it could
not happen. What they would like to know is: what has your baby done for
anyone? If your Jesus is divine, what has he done for the world? That is a
pre-enlightenment question. The post-enlightenment argument that it can’t
happen is never used in the first century. The most you’ll ever get is that we
don’t believe your claim. So in a pre-enlightenment world, whether we live in a
post-enlightenment world or not, we have to respect that. For example, if Paul
goes around the Mediterranean saying that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, the
immediate answer from a polite, pious pagan is not that we don’t believe in
that stuff. The proper answer is: good for you, good for Jesus, but so what? We’ve
heard these kinds of stories before, what’s he done for us? That is a
pre-enlightenment question.  (John Dominic Crossan
– Professor Chicago)

“the Mithras Liturgy [Mithraism = an ancient religion] …speaks of the “ecstatic ascent of the soul” and the opportunity to be “born again”, of purification rituals (baptisms) and sacred meals of bread and cup that symbolise body and blood (of a bull, a “divine sacrifice”) of a god who dies and rises and who, as one inscription reads, “saved us after having shed the eternal blood””  (Amy-Jill Levine – Professor Vanderbilt and Cambridge)

[cult of Mithras]  An inscription from one Mithraeum, “you saved
us with the outpouring blood,” is taken to refer to Mithras’s taurocton
[killing of a bull],
which often is supplemented in artistic
representations by symbols of fertility (e.g., a sheaf of wheat springs from
the dying bull’s tail).  (Sarah Iles Johnson)

[Cult of Isis] …promise of new life now and life after death.  Egyptian – foreign cult.  Water baptism. (Judith Herrin – Professor Princeton)

“The cult of Isis…devotion to a personal and caring deity”.  (Beard, North, Price – Professors Cambridge and UCL, Oxford)

“All over the near east could be found examples of the “mystery religions”… Isis..Mithras…Almost always the believer was offered the chance to identify himself with the divine being in a ceremony which involved a simulated death and resurrection and thus overcame mortality”.  (JM Roberts – Oxford)

“Festive meals were a common feature of the life of voluntary associations of all sorts… A dining room was also “a distinctive and ubiquitous feature of cult centres in Antiquity… a familiar part of urban social life.  For Christians to meet at intervals or such a meal with their Lord Jesus would not seem out of the ordinary…. The repeated injunction “Do this in my memorial” (not found in the version of Mark and Matthew), shows that in the Pauline and even pre-Pauline tradition the celebration is understood as a cultic commemoration of Jesus…. It was also typical that a meal by the family, friends or fellow burial-club members of the deceased would be the means of commemoration”.   (Wayne A. Meeks – Professor Yale)

“Rome absorbing the elements of foreign cultures.”  (Judith Herrin – Professor Princeton)

In spiritual matters the Empire was a sponge, absorbing foreign gods as
readily as it had

gobbled up foreign territory.  This was

the temple of Jupiter but the Jupiter worshipped here was also understood to be
Bail-Haddak the local storm deity who had been honoured here for
centuries.  The temple of Venus over there was also the temple of Astarte
the goddess of love and at the temple of Bacchus the wine god

it was also possible to pray to Dionysius an ancient eastern fertility
deity.  (Guy Stroumsa – Professor Oxford)

Byzantium and of Islam
alongside that of the Latin West. The

religious transformations of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world in
the first centuries of the Roman Empire are so radical that one may speak of
mutations, using a term derived from biology in a metaphorical way. I should
right away justify using a metaphor that might seem implicitly to suppress
human actions and intentionality On the contrary it is evident that changes
(even the most dramatic and revolutionary) in human societies do

not occur as if by magic, but rather are due to actions, decisions, and
reflections that are both conscious and voluntary on the part of individuals
and collectivities. But these human decisions, specific and individual, are
never sufficient, even in their sum, to explain the transformation as a whole.
In other words, referring to a concept familiar to us from Thomas Kuhn’s
epistemology of the sciences, we are witnessing a paradigm shift” in the domain
of the religious under the Roman Empire. (Guy Stroumsa – Professor Oxford)

For the historian of Roman religion this tale of [Rome’s] triumph and expansion from humble beginnings creates major problems. First, our knowledge of the early stages of the history is hopelessly inadequate, since our sources of information come from hundreds of years later than the religious situation we are trying to reconstruct.  (John North – Professor University College London)

The gods and goddesses of Rome, like those of many other cities of the ancient world, were closely identified with the life of the city. This local divine role seems not to have been compromised in the eyes of ancient people by the existence of the worship of the same gods and goddesses in other cities near and far, sometimes by allies, sometimes by enemies. So Jupiter, Mars, and Juno were worshiped under those or similar names very widely throughout Italy; but that did not stop the Romans from treating them as their own. They participated, almost like divine citizens, in the life of the city and all its activities. They were consulted before actions; they sent messages and warnings; they received honors and sacrifices in the event of successes; they had spaces in the city devoted to them; and their images attended processions and games. (John North – Professor University College London)

In some respects at least, the religious situation of pagan Rome strikes a modern observer as familiar enough. Holy places had to be consecrated and cared for. Texts for prayers and vows had to be carefully preserved and pronounced. Processions were made through the streets, and divine images were paraded from their temples on special occasions. Prophetic texts were preserved and consulted for advice. The divine beings were conceived of as concerned about human welfare and powerful enough to intervene on behalf of their loyal worshipers. Inherited rituals were respected in the case of birth, marriage, and death within the family. Other aspects, although still practiced in some parts of the world today, would be regarded as deeply “alien” by much modern opinion: the central rite consisted of the killing of animals. This was not a simple ceremony—complex rules determined the nature of the victim for a particular god or goddess, and the sequence of events consisted of procession, sanctification of the victim, prayer, killing, and cooking, leading to a feast for the participants. (John North – Professor University College London)

it is clear that the existence of the empire between 200 bce and 200 ce must have been a factor giving conditions of relative tranquillity and ease of travel throughout the Mediterranean area and also deep into central Europe and the Near and Middle East. Whether it was easy to move around, it is clear that much movement of population did take place and that the cities of the whole empire came to consist not just of locally based communities, but mixtures of different kinds; in many cases, their religious cults and practices traveled together with these mobile groups. We find Greek communities in the west, Egyptian communities and Jewish communities everywhere. The Romans promoted this process themselves, first, by importing and subsequently freeing very large numbers of slaves from all over the eastern world; second, they both exported Roman citizens into the provinces and gave the rights of citizenship to members, especially influential members, of the local elites. Later still, citizenship was conferred on free people throughout the empire. The coexistence of these different ethnic groups certainly led to a religious life of rich variety in many parts of the empire, and the evidence proves not only that a wide range of cults existed, but also that individuals joined them on the basis of religious preferences and a desire for particular kinds of experience. Thus the Egyptian cult of Isis spread far outside Egypt; the cult of Mithras, perhaps from Persia, but heavily adapted to Western tastes, became widespread in frontier areas of the empire; non-Jews attached themselves to Jewish practices although there was little encouragement from the Jewish authorities to do so. (John North – Professor University College London)

Another negative perception is that the religion described above was a public ritual system, which ignored or destroyed the needs of individuals for “real” religious experience. Previous scholars reacted to this state of affairs either by vilifying the whole religion as impoverished or by assuming that private religious needs were satisfied in private or family cults about which we know very little. The strong version of this second position is to say that all religions must cater to individual emotional needs; where there are no records of the means used, we must assume that the records are defective. There can, in fact, be little doubt that our knowledge of the religion of the Romans is partial and concentrates on the affairs of the state and public institutions. But forcing all religions into the same mold ignores the possibility that different societies can operate in profoundly different ways. “They must have been like us” is not a good principle for writing religious history. (John North – Professor University College London)

[third and fourth century developments]  [As] Peter Brown states flatly: “We live in a world where it is imperative that we should learn to understand
revolutions.” It is a religious revolution because we are witnessing the
crumbling of the ancient systems of the Greeks and Romans, but also that of Israel, founded as it was on daily sacrifices at the Temple of Jerusalem. Of all these religious systems, Judaism alone survived and was able to reconstitute itself but at the price of radical transformations. (Guy Stroumsa – Professor Oxford)

Sacrifices, especially blood sacrifices underline this point. In the ancient world, they were in effect at the very heart of religious activity, certainly of any public and official religious activity, both among Jews and pagans. Thus, Emperor Julian called the Apostate, could write in the second half of the fourth century: “The Jews conduct themselves like Gentiles except that they recognize only one God. This is something particular to them that is foreign to us. For the rest, however, we share the same ground—temples, sanctuaries, altars, rituals of purification, and some injunctions where we do not diverge from each other—or else only in an insignificant way”…. … Well before the interdiction [prohibition] of sacrifices around the end of the
fourth century, however, one could follow a great debate within
Hellenic thought about the necessity and value of sacrifices. On
this subject, there was a profound change in sacrificial ritual, the
linchpin of the pagan system, which was transformed from an
alliance between the community and its gods into the preparation of a mystical experience. (Guy Stroumsa – Professor Oxford)

looked at closely, the Roman and Greek forms of worship always included an implicit or explicit discourse that aimed to define divine power asone single entity Roman polytheism,” for example, always oscillated between two conceptions of divinity: as sole source of power and as reference point of a multitude of divinized powers and authorities. In this sense, what has been called by the name “polytheism” is in fact a religion that exposes the mystery of divine power without making a choice between a sole agent and the manifestations of its power. (Schneid – College de France)

THE concept of divinity in non-Christian antiquity near the beginning of our era was complex. It was possible to speak of the two extremes, gods and men, and to mean by the former the eternals like Zeus/Jupiter in contrast to mere mortals.  In this case, divinity was far removed from
humanity. It was also possible, however, to speak of certain men as divine.
There were two separate categories of divinity into which such men might fall that are of special interest to us in this article. On the one hand, certain
men were believed in their historical existence to have displayed the divine
presence in some special way and were hence regarded as theioi andres.

Opinions have differed over exactly what constituted the divine presence.
Whereas some circles looked for it in a man’s physical beauty or in his prophetic utterances and miraculous feats, others saw it manifest in extraordinary virtue and rationality. There were also divergent views about the origin or source of the divine presence. Some looked to a supernatural conception, others to the conscious cultivation of virtue.  At
times these varying views, both of what constituted the divine presence and of the source of such divinity, merged into a synthetic portrayal of the theios angr. If a mortal possessed in an unusual way that which was believed to constitute a sign of divine presence, however conceived, he was regarded as a divine man. On the other hand, a more select group of men were believed at the end of their careers to have been taken up into heaven, to have attained immortality, and to have received a status like that of the eternal gods. Such figures were designated immortals. (Charles
H. Talbert – Professor Baylor)  [italics added]

[empty tomb, appearances,
birth - parallels]  That the absence
of the hero’s physical remains
points properly to an ascent to heaven is
known because of (a) predictions/oracles during the hero’s life that he would be taken up;14 (b) a heavenly announcement at the end of his earthly career stating or implying that he had been taken up; and (c) appearances of the hero to friends or disciples confirming his new status.  In addition, another feature frequently present in the description of the immortals is a reference to the man’s being begotten by a god of a human mother (the usual procedure), or his being the child of a goddess and a human father.  Almost always, both the unusual circumstances
concerning his birth and those relating to his passing are present.
Occasionally, for whatever reason, if the reference to a supernatural begetting is missing, the ascent into heaven is constant. When one spoke of an immortal in the Greco-Roman world, therefore, he
meant a mortal who had become a god, and this was usually expressed in terms of an extraordinary birth (one of his parents was a deity) and an ascension into heaven (witnessed to by such circumstances there being no remains of his body to be found). Originally, the concept belonged to accounts of legendary or mythical figures of the distant past. Egyptian, Greek, and Roman examples are readily available
. (Charles
H. Talbert – Professor Baylor)

Many pious pagans had, by the second century A.D.,
had come to regard the gods of classical Greek
mythology as no more than mediating daemons, satraps of an invisible, supramundane
King. (E. R. Dodds – Professor Oxford)

28 1 At this pass, then, it is said that one of the patricians,
a man of noblest birth, and of the most reputable character, a trusted and
intimate friend also of Romulus himself, and one of the colonists from Alba,
Julius Proculus by name, went into the forum and solemnly swore by the mos sacred emblems before all the people that, as
he was travelling on the road, he had seen Romulus coming to meet him, fair and stately to the eye as never before, and arrayed in bright and shining armour
. 2 He himself, then, affrighted at the sight, had said:
“O King, what possessed thee, or what purpose hadst thou, that thou
hast left us patricians a prey to unjust and wicked accusations, and the whole city sorrowing without end at the loss of its father?” Whereupon Romulus had replied: “It was the pleasure
of the gods, O Proculus, from whom I came
, that
I should be with mankind only a short time, and that after founding a city
destined to be the greatest on earth for empire and glory, I should dwell again in heaven. So farewell, and tell the Romans that if they practise self-restraint, and add to it valour, they will reach the utmost heights of human power. And I will be your propitious deity, Quirinus.” 3 These things
seemed to the Romans worthy of belief, from the character of the man who
related them, and from the oath which he had taken; moreover, some influence from heaven also, akin to inspiration, laid hold upon their emotions, for no man contradicted Proculus, but all put aside suspicion and calumny and prayed to Quirinus, and honoured him as a god.
(Plutarch Life of Romulus)

I refer, in fact, to Dionysus. Although the mother of this truly estimable
demi-god was not only a mortal, but a barbarian
, and his maternal grandfather a tradesman in Phoenicia, one Cadmus, it was thought necessary to confer immortality upon him… … The long and short of it is, that Heaven is simply swarming with these demi-gods of yours; there is no other word for it (Momus speaking to Zeus in Lucian’s “The Council of the Gods”) [italics added]

When they practised their religion, the Romans were concerned with neither the survival nor the safety of their soul. They were celebrating rites intended to guarantee the well-being on this earth of the community to which they belonged. Not that metaphysical questions were of scant interest to the Romans, but they never raised them in the practice of their religion. Instead, they did so in an intellectual context outside of religious practice, like the Moderns who read the philosophers or the physicists of matter to reflect on the mysteries of the universe and creation, while adhering to a particular religion. (John Scheid – Professor College de France) [italics added]

From the beginning of the Republic, towards the 5th century bce, religious functions [in Rome] were shared between the
magistrates, the Senate and the priests. In this way, religious power could
never become the exclusive property of some of the people.
(John Scheid – Professor College de France)

From the 3rd century bce. at least, all
decisions pertaining to religion had been taken by the magistrates and the
Senate, sometimes after consultation with the priests concerned. And the
stringent rigour of public rituals related without any doubt to the
fundamentally republican nature of this practice. The legitimate partner of
Roman gods was not the individual, the Roman citizen, but the Roman people as a whole, in other words the Roman state. Worshipping was done by those who represented it, on its behalf and for its benefit. The authorities thus wielded strict control over cultural acts. What better way to practice surveillance than by codifying worship, like other public procedures? From an institutional point of view, ritualism protected the public act and interest against all subjective influence.
Scheid – Professor College de France)

The seminar itself arose out of our dissatisfaction with what we taketo be a misconception found not only among laymen but even amongscholars: that in the Graeco-Roman world—to speak only of what is ofdirect relevance to this volume—Christianity, in the tradition of Jewish monotheism, succeeded in replacing invariably polytheistic systems of religious belief with a monotheistic creed.1 By contrast it is our view that monotheism, for the most part quite independently of Judaism and Christianity, was increasingly widespread by the time of late antiquity,certainly among the educated and in particular in the Greek east. And we are inclined to attribute much of the success of Christianity in that world to its advocacy of a way of seeing things, of thinking and acting, which it shared with a growing number of pagans. Another even more important cause of our dissatisfaction is a general attitude associated with the above, reflecting the simple unqualified belief that, in being converted to Christianity, pagans were induced to reject their polytheism in favour of a monotheistic religion. This approach, which ultimately derives from the Christian Apologists of late antiquity, emphasizes the differences between Christianity and paganism in a stark and simplistic way which makes one overlook the very substantial similarities between the two, and even the indebtedness of Christian thought and practice to the pagan tradition. (Polymnia Athanassiadi Professor Athens and Michael Frede Professor Oxford)

It appears to be widely held that pagans by definition believe in and worship many gods, and are therefore polytheists, whereas Christians believe in and worship one God, and hence are monotheists. Some people may indeed feel that this is so obvious that they will wonder why anyone would want to question the validity of this simple and straightforward contrast. Yet if it is correct, how can we account for the fact that there were, at least among philosophers, pagans who did not believe in gods, or who did not consider that gods were appropriate objects of worship, like Epicurus, or who believed in one God alone, like Antisthenes? And quite apart from the consideration of these isolated individuals and groups, we find that a less simplistic concept of monotheism is needed in order to avoid having to think of Jews and Christians as polytheists, and also, by using this concept, that there are significant classes of pagans who turn out to be monotheists. (Polymnia Athanassiadi Professor Athens and Michael Frede Professor Oxford)

what the many pagans meant who by

the time of late antiquity would have professed that [they only believed in one god].

To describe such pagans as monotheists needs a serious qualification of the term, since they believed in many divine beings and perhaps even worshipped them, or at least condoned and perhaps encouraged their worship. But they would have found this perfectly compatible with their belief in one God, since they thought that these gods, though called ‘divine’ because they enjoy a life of eternal bliss, owed their being to God and were intended to play a certain role in the divine hierarchy. Hence they might have thought that to worship them was just a matter of acknowledging God’s ordering of the world and hence a way of worshipping God himself. It is difficult to see that calling such a position ‘polytheistic’ does justice to it. (Polymnia Athanassiadi Professor Athens and Michael Frede Professor Oxford)

‘Oriental’ mystery cults, which began to be articulated into full religioussystems around the second century BC, could also be seen as organic parts of the same meaningful and consistent whole. This conciliatory spirit, which allowed many gods and cults to coexist peacefully as complementary rather than alternative paths towards metaphysical illumination,was alien to a religion [Christianity] which had an exclusive and at the same time proselytizing mentality. (Polymnia Athanassiadi Professor Athens and Michael Frede Professor Oxford)

" Many other divinities however have with good 
reason been recognized and named both by the wisest 
men of Greece and by our ancestors from the great the divine 
benefits that they bestow. For it was thought that deified, or 
whatever confers great utility on the human race must 
be due to the operation of divine benevolence towards personified 

men. (Cicero – On the Nature of the Gods)

Jupiter himself — the name means 
' the helping father,' whom with a change of inflexion
we style Jove, from iuvare ' to help ' ; the poets call
him ' father of gods and men,' and our ancestors en-
titled him ' best and greatest,' putting the title ' best,'
that is most beneficent, before that of ' greatest,'
because universal beneficence is greater, or at least

more lovable, than the possession of great wealth (Cicero – On the Nature of the Gods) [italics added]

One of the Roman’s more cunning tricks, when conquering a country, was to synchronise gods with it.  When they invaded Britain, for example, and arrived in what is now Bath, they could easily have demanded that the indigenous population stop worshipping the local goddess Sulis, and worship the Roman goddess Minerva instead.  They could have fought pitched battles over it.  But why bother?  The ever-practical Romans simply declared that Sulis was the British version of Minerva, and stated that the goddess should now be known as Sulis Minerva, as though she had recently married but wished to retain at least some of her own identity.  Merging sets of gods was an extremely effective way of eliminating at least some of the differences between the Romans and those they conquered.  (Natalie Haynes)

Within Jewish and Christian areas of religion there were certainly some strands that excluded other groups.  But this is by no means the whole picture.  The evidence of inscriptions, in particular, shows us individuals happily mixing what from our perspective we might wish to call Jewish, Christian and Mithraic elements – and practices of this sort are far too widespread to be considered “deviant”.  (Emily Kearns – Oxford)

For centuries after Jesus’ death, there were people who believed in Jesus’ divinity as the incarnate Messiah but who also insisted that in order to be saved they must eat only kosher, keep the Sabbath as other Jews do, and circumcise their sons.  Here was an environment where many people, it would seem, thought that there was no problem in being both a Jew and a Christian.  (Daniel Boyarin and Jack Miles – Boyarin Professor Berkley)

A dying and living Messiah, is completely at odds with any conceptuality that would have been understood or known in Palestine at this time. But of course… it has everything to do with how these sorts of god-like figures were seen elsewhere in the Mediterranean World outside of Palestine.   One can see views of the same conceptuality in the tomb paintings of ancient Egyptian Pharaohs and how to enter the environment of the gods in ancient Egyptian mythology and folklore. It runs through the whole Book of the Dead, a good ten or fifteen centuries earlier – instructions for how to become a living and dying God or a dying and living God.  The same is true in the Hellenistic Roman world where figures like Alexander – probably influenced by this kind of earlier Egyptian practice and ideology – start to claim that they are descendants, not of their own fathers, but of much more important supernatural deities. This, then, becomes transferred to the Roman Emperors in succession to him, who seem to feel they have to make the same kinds of claims – particularly someone like Augustus, with whom it seems to really have begun, has to start to claim that he is the son of a Jupiter or whomever, since he wasn’t really the son of Julius Caesar or anyone like that; and then this idea of being the son of God starts to permeate the whole Julio-Claudian line and Emperors up to the time of the fall of the temple and the fall of that line.  Each member, in turn, had to declare himself the son of God or some such phenomena so obviously, if you were going to compete in the Greco-Roman world with these kind of conceptualities, the Messiah-type person you are trying to disseminate had to incorporate many of these kinds of qualities. This kind of material had already been circulating in the Horus/Isis/Osiris theology, also from Egypt, and it was widespread in Mithra and other Greek Mystery Religion materials that someone like Paul, familiar with the part of the world now called Asia Minor (but then just ‘Asia’), would have known.  (Robert Eisenman – Professor California State, Oxford)

The identification of foreign gods from Greek and Roman perspectives had long been practised.  Herodotus, for example, identified the Egyptian goddess Isis with the Greek Demeter.  This was a simple strategy that made the foreign familiar… … Greek mythology was… an essential part of an elite Roman’s education.  (Helen Morales – Professor California, Cambridge)

Take first the kings of Egypt. In three hundred years there was a succession of some ten or more of these… and [they] were acknowledged, written and spoken of by them as gods. (Philo of Alexandria)

In Egypt, [the Macedonian general] Ptolemy and his successors became pharaohs; in Alexandria and the Mediterranean they were Greek kings.  Ptolemy Soter – the “Saviour” as he was known
– adopted the local gods, Isis and Osiris, and Egyptian traditions of kingship, promoting his dynasty as both Egyptian god-kings and semi-divine Greek monarchs.  (Simon Sebag Montefiore – Professor University of Buckingham)

Justin’s argument for the antiquity, and hence superiority, of Christianity was, as AD Nock observed, “an answer to what was at the time a most damaging criticism of Christianity – namely that it was a new thing followed in contravention of good old customs”.  (A.J. Drodge Professor University of Toronto)

“… ancient Roman ways …were no longer enough for an urban civilisation…Men grasped desperately at anything which could give meaning to the world and some degree of control over it.  Old superstitions and new crazes benefitted…. Men were looking about for new saviours long before one was found in the first century AD”.  (JM Roberts – Oxford)

Roman religious landscape … Overwhelmingly polytheist society.  Assumed, as a matter of commonsense, that there were many gods, and that theses gods demanded worship though concrete, publicly visible gestures of reverence and gratitude. (Peter Brown – Professor Princeton)

Augustus instituted the worship of himself.  We tend to call this the imperial cult.”  (Martin Goodman – Professor Oxford)

“Temples dedicated in honour of Augustus.”  (Martin Goodman – Professor Oxford)

The Romans had no problem at all, during the reign of Caligula, with coins that were inscribed to “The Divine Augustus”, for example.  They worshipped an imperial cult that depended on the idea that the emperor had a spark of divinity in him, and full-blown gods among his ancestors.  But the emperor’s divinity was a finely nuanced affair: a living emperor was not yet a deity.  (Natalie Haynes)

Augustus was Caesar’s adopted son and exploited this relationship – he proclaimed himself on coins as being the son of a god.  (Martin Goodman – Professor Oxford)

“…cults of the living Augustus.  For example in one Macedonian town and local citizens volunteered to be priest of Zeus, Rome and Augustus.  Integration of the worship of Augustus within local religious and social structures.” (Simon Price – Oxford)

Emperors after death are seen in sharper focus.  Immediately after his death Augustus was made a divus [a god].  The same as Julius Caesar. (Simon Price – Oxford)

Senator seeing Augustus ascending to heaven… for which he was paid one million sesterces. (Mary Beard, Professor at Cambridge)

“Augustus…Roman religion was becoming tied to a particular person as well as to a particular place”.  (Beard, North, Price – Professors Cambridge and UCL, Oxford)

Emperors and members of their families were given divine honours only after their death. (Simon Price – Oxford)

“Organised worship of rulers had been common in Hellenistic states ever since Alexander the Great demanded that he be treated as divine.”  (Martin Goodman – Professor Oxford)

“Emperors from Augustus onwards wished to be worshipped… Happens again to many emperors after our period…Most become Gods…  Many emperors declared divine after death.  “. (Martin Goodman – Professor Oxford)

[In the context of] the imperial cults it is then not surprising that Jesus was viewed as a god and that worship of him became an alternative to the worship of the emperor.  (Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins – both Professors at Yale)

The sexual conquest of a mortal woman by a god usually resulted in the birth of heroes.  Europa gave birth to three [fathered by Zeus]:  Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Sarpedon. .. Sarpedon’s “bloody death” is one of the most climactic scenes in Homer’s Iliad and reveals much about heroes – and gods – in classical mythology…. The emphasis is on the hero’s relationship with his father, Zeus.  Observing the action from the safety of Mount Olympus, Zeus realises that his son is in trouble.   Lamenting the unkindness of Fate, the god acknowledges that it is Sarpedon’s destiny to be killed by Patroclus.  His dilemma is whether or not to intervene and save his son:  “I am in two minds” he says to his wife, Hera.  “Shall I snatch him up and set him down alive… or shall I let him fall”.  Hera is indignant.  She points out that to intervene would be the thin end of the wedge; if he saves his son then all of the gods will expect their sons to be saved.  Zeus concedes, “but he wept tears of blood that streamed to the ground, honouring his beloved son”.  (Helen Morales – Professor California, Cambridge)

In the Roman empire, Julius Caesar and Augustus exploited a tradition in which the Romans were said to have descended from the gods through the hero Aeneas, son of the goddess Venus.  It is hard to know the extent to which the ancients understood their invented striations to be fictive or historically accurate.  Herodotus was sceptical about the Argive anecdote, and some cities went to extraordinarily convoluted lengths to argue for their relation to a particular hero, but claiming mythical kinship was a practice that persisted right into the early Christian era.  (Helen Morales – Professor California, Cambridge)

Eastern cults multiform.  Some local.  E.g. benefactors.  Some imposed.  E.g. dynasties.  Might combine worship of god and man.  Could be of a city e.g.  temple to Roma at Smyrna 195 bc.  (Glen Bowersock – Oxford, Professor at both Harvard and Princeton)

There was no good or evil in Greek and roman religion, and few mythological characters we0re wholly bad or wholly good.  Nor was there any single religious text, like the Bible or Koran, which laid down for people a moral code to follow.  Faith was not defined against disbelief as it is in most modern religions.  In fact, thinking in terms of “religion” as a separate part of life is misleading; the gods were involved in every sphere of activity… … It was the gods’ interactions with each other, and with mortals, that gave the myths meaning.  It was through their loves, enmities, alliances, and arguments that moral questions were raised and debated.  It was not important that the gods had moral authority; they did not.  They were unfaithful, vengeful, petty, and mean, just as humans are.  But it was important that humans recognised the difference between themselves and the immortals and honoured the gods in cult and through ritual, especially sacrifice.  If there were rewards for honouring the gods, and for leading a good life, they were enjoyed in this life, not the next.  There is no simple and unified picture of the afterlife that emerges from ancient sources, but what is clear is that there is no equivalent of the Christian categories of heaven and hell.  Most thought that the dead went to Hades, an unlovely place but not one that was feared. (Helen Morales – Professor California, Cambridge)

All ancient religious worship involved offerings.  The Athenians would pour libations to their gods, spilling a little wine for Athene, and sharing a drinking cup among themselves.  They would sacrifice animals at their temples.  The internal organs of the sacrifice would be burned, as the god’s portion.  The willingness of the sacrificial victim (bulls were less docile than the average sheep, for example), the darkness of hits blood – these things were seen as omens.  Then the rest of the animal would be cooked and eaten by those attending the sacrifice.  The religious experience was therefore actually a social one.  (Natalie Haynes)

The Romans had a very business-like attitude to their gods, a relationship that can best be described with the Latin phrase “Do ut des”, “I give, so that you may give”.  In other words, a roman would offer a sacrificial gift to the gods in the expectation of getting something in return.  No wonder the idea of sacrifice was so integral to ancient polytheism:  how could you expect some help or favour form a god if you hadn’t killed an animal or poured some wine for them.   You can’t get something for nothing.  (Natalie Haynes)

“Roman religion had always been closely linked with the city of Rome and its boundaries…Importance of the religion of place…and the associated issue of boundaries. ” (Simon Price, Oxford University)

“warfare was also set within a religious context”    (Beard, North, Price – Professors Cambridge and UCL, Oxford)

In the biblical world, however, the most common type of sacrifice was for meals.  The apparent rationale was that if humans wanted to eat meat they had to recognize that they were taking life.  (Richard Elliott Friedman – Professor Georgia, previously visiting Professor Oxford and Cambridge)

“we can trace – over the last century BC – the beginning of a  progression towards the isolation of “religion” as an autonomous area of human activity”.  (Beard, North, Price – Professors Cambridge and UCL, Oxford)

“from the early second century on, there spread through the Greek world cults centred on the deified personification of Rome – …”Goddess Rome”” (Beard, North, Price – Professors Cambridge and UCL, Oxford)

“Like all of Roman culture, Roman mythology was inevitably a complicated amalgam:  it included adaptations or borrowings from Greek myth as well as “native” Italic traditions”.  (Beard, North, Price – Professors Cambridge and UCL, Oxford)

“roughly we may say that… the movement began as a Jewish sect and was transformed soon transformed into a Graeco-Roman cult”.  (Wayne A. Meeks – Professor Yale)

“European culture rooted in antiquity was shaped by two peoples who did not belong to the conquerors:  Greeks and Jews…Both were subdued by the Romans.  But both managed to win the Romans over to their culture.  The Romans became culturally “Greek”; they took over Greek philosophy , education and literature.  They converted to a religion shaped by Judaism, for they took on Christianity.  They were changed from inside by the culture of a people they had conquered”.  (Gerd Theissen – Professor Heidelberg, visiting lectures Oxford and Cambridge)

In a world where religious cults were usually seen as quite compatible with each other, Jews were an oddity.  They stubbornly maintained that their God was the only God and that his cult was incompatible with any others, since all other objects of worship were false gods.  (Richard Bauckham – Professor St Andrews, Cambridge)

Asclepius The Ancient World   A World Full of Gods

Greek god Asclepius “The Saviour”. Interestingly, it is a Roman statue of a Greek god.

The author of the Wisdom of Solomon, sometime perhaps in the second century BCE, claimed that the serpent mentioned in Numbers 21:4-9 was a “symbol of salvation” (16:6), but God was “the Saviour of all” (16:7).  If a person looked at that symbol, he was cured of the snakebite-not by what he saw, but by you, the savior of all mankind”.

How unique is Jesus’ fundamental message?  New Testament scholars… have claimed that the concept of God’s Rule (or the Kingdom of God) was not found within Judaism; hence, the thought was unique to Jesus.  These scholars were not adequately informed of early Jewish thought.  God’s Rule (or the Kingdom of God) appears in numerous Jewish documents that antedate Jesus.  … …  Terms such as God’s Rule (the Kingdom of God) the Son of Man, and the Messiah are found in pre-70 Jewish writings that have been recovered over the past three centuries.  Since Jesus’ closest followers were fishermen or workers, it seems unlike they had access to such documents or were conversant with such concepts and terms.  However, because he was inquisitive, and occupied himself by discussing Torah with Pharisees and others, and was obsessed with knowing God and the traditions of Israel, Jesus probably knew such learned traditions…. Jesus, however,  was also creative and developed some revolutionary concepts.  His concept of suffering was extremely challenging to those Jews who expected a triumphant Messiah.   His inclusion of the outcasts and the marginalised was unprecedented and especially offensive to many priests in Jerusalem.  Jesus was a genius.  While he spoke the language of his generation and was deeply influenced by early Jewish theology he did not merely repeat or redefine earlier teachings or traditions.   (Rev. James Charlesworth – Professor Princeton Theological Seminary)

It was a time of immense and vibrant pluralism and cultural exchange.  Religions came into contact, and deities form one religious system were equated, fused, or otherwise integrated with those from another, complex processes referred to by the imprecise term of “syncretism”.  (Helen Morales – Professor California, Cambridge)

“The scholar must still struggle hard to catch a glimpse… of the outlines of a world profoundly unlike our own.  (Peter Brown – Professor Princeton)

roman winged penis good luck charms 300x217 The Ancient World   A World Full of Gods

Roman winged penis good luck charms. Yes, it was a different world!

Many of the feasts of the Christian calendar began as pagan festivals, and were adopted and adapted by the church as a means of winning converts.  Easter, for example, has its origins in a pagan celebration of nature’s resurrection.  According to St Bede, the word is derived from Scandinavian Ostra or Teutonic Ostern or Eastre, in either case the name of a goddess of northern mythology responsible for fertility and birth – along scholars now disagree with him (and among themselves) about these etymologies.  The symbols of Easter, rabbits and eggs, are as ancient as the festival: rabbits signify reproductive ebullience, eggs symbolise new life.  Like the phallus-worshipping May-day observance which closely follows it (and which contemporary self-styled “Pagans” regards as a more important feast…), Easter is therefore about sex.  The contrast with the purely spiritual and other-worldly significance now attached to it is striking proof that propaganda and brutality (e.g.  burnings at the stake) can make entire populations believe the very opposite of what their ancestors believed.  Christianity’s appropriation of this age-old fertility festival is of a piece with its frequent adaption of other once-pagan things.  The quarter-days, including Christmas, are associated with moments of astronomical importance, namely the solstices of winter and summer and the equinoxes of spring and autumn, all of them major pagan feasts.  Many of the saints of the Christian calendar are pagan deities whose cult was so strong that the new religion could make headway only by incorporating them; two of many examples are St Vitus and St Hippolytus.  Fraser in the Golden Bough famously begins by showing how worship of the Virgin Mary was grafted onto worship of the virgin goddess Diana, whose cult in Italy during the first centuries AD was very powerful.  The Christians’ technique was effective; the old faiths were simply incorporated wholesale into the new; Diana’s worshippers were told that they could at last know her real name, which was Mary.  (A. C. Grayling – Professor Birkbeck, Oxford)

“The oldest story in the world is the epic of Gilgamesh…known to have been written down soon after 2000 BC…To a modern reader the most striking part of the Epic is the coming of a great flood which obliterates mankind except for a favoured family who survive by building an ark…..There is, for example, in the Gilgamesh Epic an ideal creature of nature, the man Enkidu;  his Fall from his innocence is sexual, a seduction by a harlot, and thereafter, though the outcome for him is civilisation, he loses his happy association with the natural world”.  (JM Roberts – Oxford)

The world’s first city [Uruk] is celebrated I the world’s first work of epic literature; “The Legend of Gilgamesh” told the story of Mesopotamia’s King Gilgamesh, two thirds god, one-third man, who was credited with the building of Uruk’s famous city walls.  (Richard Miles – Sydney and Cambridge)  [italics added]

Slowly but surely a new consensus emerged:  the Mediterranean Sea had not been a barrier between disparate cultures after all, but rather a conduit, through which both material goods and ideas were easily transported. No ancient culture was left untouched by its neighbours.  In the mid-1960s, scholarly publications based on this now widely accepted understanding began to appear, and have continued ever since.  Religious beliefs and practices, which permeated all aspects of human life in antiquity, were inevitably transmitted throughout the Mediterranean along with everything else:  itinerant charismatic practitioners journeyed from place to place, selling their skills as healers, purifiers, cursers, and initiators; vessels decorated with illustrations of myths travelled along with the goods they contained; new gods were encountered in foreign lands by merchants and conquerors and, when useful, were taken home to be adapted and adopted.  (Sarah Iles Johnston – Professor Ohio, Princeton)

How can we define “magic” in contrast to “religion,” for example – or should we even try to do so? (Sarah Iles Johnston – Professor Ohio, Princeton)

That modern Western concepts of “religion” are ill fitted to describe the traditions of the “East” – of India, China, and Japan – is something of a commonplace by now.  (Nicholas Lash – Professor Cambridge)

Today the term myth is often used in a negative way to refer to something that is exaggerated or untrue.  In ancient cultures, myth did not have this negative connotation; myths could be regarded as stories that contained poetic rather than literal truths.  (Geraldine Pinch – Oxford)

Questioning the gods’ existence and form was a very philosophical pursuit.  Xenophanes, a sophist from Ionia born in the late sixth century BCE, once wrote, “If oxen and lions and horses had hands like men, and could draw and make works of art, horses would make gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and each would draw picture of the gods as if they had bodies like their own”.  This is an extraordinary statement for its times, suggesting that gods are made in man’s image, rather than the other way around.  The scepticism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens goes back, a great deal further than we might have imagined.  (Natalie Haynes)

Greek religion

[some concepts in Greek religion]  Charis:  the exchange of gifts and favours as the ideal relationship between man and god… seek a favour from the god… Locality:  the importance of place in the Greeks’ relation  with their gods…. Sacred places and sanctuaries.. The gods were, in a sense, literally present in their sanctuaries… (Robert Parker – Professor Oxford)

The closest equivalent to a catalogue of miracles surviving from classical Greece is the late fourth century temple record of Epidaurus.  Here we read, for instance, how Asclepius restored sight to a person so blind that the organ of sight itself, the eye, was missing; we are told that sceptical bystanders had initially shared our assumption that such a cure was not merely likely but impossible.  Like many miracle stories, this story and others similar to it in the same instruction have the specific function of demonstrating the power of the wonder-worker; they are a product of the fervid special atmosphere of a healing cult.  (Robert Parker – Professor Oxford)

continuous attachment of the Greeks to local rituals, which
were many and multifarious. Animal sacrifice was not performed in a single temple, as was the case in Judaism, but
there were many variations in local practice within the framework which is
broadly defined as ‘pagan sacrificial practice’…. ‘Greek
paganism’ is a term for a whole set of practices differing from place to place.
(Marie-Zoe Petropoulou)


[Philip II of Macedonia]  At Eresus on Lesbos a cult of Zeus Philippios was instituted after a similar “liberation” – again extravagant, but in no way tantamount to deifi­ cation, as anyone familiar with elementary Greek will recognize: it is a cult of “Philip’s Zeus” (i.e., of Zeus as Philip’s special protector - a duty that Zeus had assumed  in addition to his numerous other  special duties), not of Philip as Zeus. 12 We do not know whether Philip himself worshipped such a personal Zeus.

This does not amount to deification. But it clearly raised Philip to a status above that of other mortal men, and one unprecedented for a Macedonian king, whose royalty had been of a simple and accessible kind. But worse was to come. It seems that these honours gave Philip the idea of approaching even more closely to the gods. At the celebration of his daughter’s wedding at Aegae, in the autumn of 336, he had  his own statue carried in the procession among those of the 12 Olympians: he was making himself the synthronos of the gods (Diod. 16.92.5).  (Ernst Badian – Professor Harvard)  

The humanizing of the gods, which had taken shape under Alexander, gathered momentum during the next generation, and there was a move to portray even the traditional Olympians as glorified mortals. (Brian Bosworth – Professor Melbourne)

Heroes, individuals who received public cult after their deaths, form a second class of deities in the Greek tradition, and the first cults of named heroes date to the end of the 8th century and are associated with Homeric heroes, the best examples being those of Menelaus and Helen near Sparta… … Hero cults were highly localized, closely bound to the presumed tomb of the hero, and a hero’s cult could be moved only by the transfer of his bones. A few heroes such as Heracles and Asclepius broke local boundaries and became Panhellenic, usually in the process becoming assimilated to gods in cult and ritual.  (Jon Mikalson – Professor University of Virginia)

the mutual exchange of favors or gifts is at the heart of successful human / divine relationships. This is a subtler and more complex relationship—based on aristocratic rather than mercantile values—than the formula do ut des (I give so that you may give), often used to describe this relationship, implies. The model for the relationship of a human to a god is that of a good subject to a beneficent king… … The gifts that humans give include sanctuaries, sacrifices, dedications, hymns, and dances. These gifts are intended to reflect the “honor” (timÁ), not “love” or “fear,” in which the humans hold these deities for the power they have and for the gifts they give. The gods, in turn, “rejoice” (chairein) in these honoring gifts. (Jon Mikalson – Professor University of Virginia)

Religio lived day by day by any Greek was the religion of a particular society within Greece, not an abstract and synthetic “Greek” religion.  The particularism of the religion of the Greek cities applies not just to festivals, but also, if less obviously, to the gods honoured:  the names of the main gods may be largely the same from state to state, but the division of the functions between gods, the balances and combinations and emphases within the pantheon, differ radically from place to place.  (Robert Parker – Professor Oxford)

[Xenophon]  Throughout the march of the 10,000 divine guidance was sought for the actions of the group and of individuals.  Before the army went into action, animals were sacrificed to the gods;  professional diviners (manteis) inspected the entrails of the animals to determine whether the gods favoured the proposed action… Individuals too sought divine guidance.  Uncertain about joining the expedition in the first place, Xenophon decided to consult the oracle of Apollo at Delphi.  (Simon Price – Oxford)

Many aspect of Xenophon’s account are surprisingly to those reared on Jewish or Christian assumptions.  In place of one male god, in the Anabasis there is a multiplicity of gods, even unidentifiable gods.  Gods are both male (Zeus, Apollo) and female (Artemis).  There is no religious sphere separate from that of politics, warfare or private life:  instead religion is embedded in all aspects of life, public and private.  There are no sacred books, religious dogma or orthodoxy, but rather common practices, competing interpretations of events and actions, and the perception of sacrifice as a strategic device open to manipulation.  Generals and common soldiers, not priests, decide on religious policy.  The diviners are the only usual religious professionals, and religion offered not personal salvation in the afterlife, but help here and now… personal success and prosperity.  Religious festivals combined solemnity and jollity.  Practice not belief is the key, and to start from questions of personal faith and piety is to impose alien values on ancient Greece.  (Simon Price – Oxford)

[Greek religion]  Everyone knew who Zeus the Saviour was and what a proper sacrifice was.  (Simon Price – Oxford)

Local myths might concern the Olympians, or they might relate to a further order of beings, heroes, normally conceived as mortals who had died and who received cult at their tomb or at a specific sanctuary.  Heroes were very numerous (in Attica alone over 170 heroes were worshipped).  (Simon Price and Emily Kearns – Oxford)

[The Olympic Games]  Olympia was a sacred place, and the games, held in honour of Zeus, were spiritual as well as athletic.  Two of the five days of the festival were set aside for religious rituals, but the focal point was provided by the competitive games.  (Richard Miles – Sydney and Cambridge)

We must also realise that although the Greeks recognised common strands in the religious practice and thought of the Greek world they had not invented the category of “a religion”, and the question “What is your religion?” would not have been comprehensible to them.  (Emily Kearns – Oxford)

There were huge changes in the religious life of Rome , both during the Republic and during the Empire, gods, myths and festivals all evolved over that period.  Things changed because of changes in the social and political situation of Rome, they also changed because of the changing relationship between Rome and her Empire.  (Emily Kearns – Oxford)

Outside Rome analysis of the religious life of the empire is extremely difficult.  The imperial world includes an enormous variety:  Roman cults borrowed from Rome, traditional Greek civic cults (as at Nysa), newly created cults (Mithraism, Jews and Christians).  It has always been tempting to talk in terms of neat abstract categories:  Judaism; Christianity; Mithraism.  Those categories, especially Judaism and Christianity, used to be seen as exclusive entities.  That is, their theological and practical positions each had a central core, consistent across place and time:  round that core were a number of awkward or heretical deviant groups which could be treated as simply marginal.  They were exclusive of each other and of other religious groups of the time.  However the current trends in the study of Judaism and Christianity are firmly against the normative assumptions of the old picture. So in the context of Judaisms and Christianity it has become conventional to recognise diversity within each system (so “Judaisms”, “Christianities”).  It is then a matter for debate as to whether each of these two bundles were neatly separate religions in a way that other religious practices of the Empire clearly were not. (Emily Kearns – Oxford)

That the Greeks borrowed from their Mediterranean neighbours is obvious: no human society lives in a vacuum, untouched by the customs of other peoples … More important, however, is what the Greeks made of their borrowings. Consider the Greek alphabet, the elements of which were adapted from the Phoenician around the 9th century. The Greek changes … made possible in just a few centuries the language of Homer’s epics and Sappho’s lyrics, a literary speech unrivalled in expressive power … by anything found among the few remnants of Phoenician writing. (Bruce Thornton – Professor California State, Hoover Fellow)

Woolf talks in terms of deliberate moments of hybridisation – such as the creation of the cult of Isis in Egypt after Alexander the Great’s conquest. That was, he argues, an official fusing of Greek, Egyptian and Macedonian elements as a practical and locally contingent act (though the cult later spread widely through the Roman world, even as far as York). “Someone has to think of a chicken tikka pizza,” he says. “It doesn’t just happen.”  (Professor Greg Woolf St Andrews University) (from article by Charlotte Higgins)


The Hermetica mix Greek philosophy with Egyptian myth and give allegorical significance to magical and alchemic practise.  They promise the secret of immortality to initiates who follow the teachings of Hermes.  (Geraldine Pinch – Oxford)

An important book about the world outlook of early Mesopotamians and Egyptians has the suggestive title Before Philosophy; we have to remember that concepts and distinctions which we take for granted in assessing (and even talking about) the mentalities of other ages did not exist for the men whose minds we seek to penetrate.  The boundary between religion and magic, for example, hardly mattered for the ancient Egyptian, though he might be well aware that each had its proper efficacy… The Egyptians lived in symbolism as fishes do in water, taking it for granted, and we have to break through the assumptions of a profoundly unsymbolic age to understand them.  (JG Roberts – Oxford)

[Egypt]  The king was carefully presented to his subjects as the incarnation of sacred power.  His mandate did not merely cover the day-to-day order of the Egyptian state.  He guaranteed and safeguarded the cosmic and earthly order.  (Richard Miles – Sydney and Cambridge)

The Egyptians believed, it appears, that after death a man could expect judgement before Osiris;  if the verdict was favourable, he would live in Osiris’ kingdom, if not, he was abandoned to a monstrous destroyer, part crocodile, part hippopotamus.  (JG Roberts – Oxford)

Isis… This goddess of creation and love was probably the most ancient of all – her origins, like those of other Egyptian deities, go back to the pre-dynastic era, and she is one  development of the ubiquitous mother-goddess of whom evidence survives form all over the Neolithic Near East.  She was long to endure, her image, the infant Horus in her arms, surviving into the Christian iconography of the Virgin Mary.  (JG Roberts – Oxford)

Roman Isis Horus child 20BC1 The Ancient World   A World Full of Gods

Isis and Horus. This is a Roman depiction of an Egyptian goddess.

Attempt of a fourteenth century [BCE] pharaoh to establish the cult of Aton, another manifestation of the sun, in which has been discerned the first monotheistic religion.  (JG Roberts – Oxford)

In an unsettled world the promise of an afterlife for all offered a great comfort.  The end result was a set of tenets and practices that would endure for the rest of ancient Egyptian history, and that would influence other religions, including Christianity.  (Toby Wilkinson – Cambridge)

Perhaps more than any other feature of Egyptian religion, the idea of a final, inevitable reckoning before a divine judge had a profound and lasting impact on the subsequent development of beliefs.  Unlike hippos, hedgehogs and Shabtis, the last judgement was picked up by other religious traditions of the near eastern world, notably Christianity.  (Toby Wilkinson – Cambridge)

Despite the proscription of heathen cults by the emperor Justinian in AD 553 the deep wellspring of ancient Egyptian religion proved a fertile force for the development of early Christianity, for Isis and Horus substitute the virgin and child – the iconography (and much of the underlying theology) remained virtually identical.  (Toby Wilkinson – Cambridge)

The most elevated of celebrities are Hollywood stars. Like the popular conception of god found in Homer and even the Hebrew Bible, Hollywood stars are rarely seen in person and , when beheld on the screen, are gargantuan in size, can do anything, taken on disguises, and are immortalised in their films.  They have qualities so hyped as to be superhuman: not mere bravery but fearlessness, not mere kindliness but saintliness, not mere strength but omnipotence, not mere wisdom but omniscience… the terms used of fans; admiration say it all: stars are “idolised” and “worshipped”.  And the greatest are called “gods”.  As “stars”, they shine brightly in a heaven far above us.  Fans are “star struck”…. Fans continue to “idolise” and “worship” stars, not in ignorance of their flaws but in defiance of them.  they flaws are either denied our discounted.  It is not that fans don’t know.  It is that they don’t’ want to know, or else don’t.  But their devotion is not mindless.  It is done knowingly.  It is… make-believe, not credulity.  It requires the refusal to let contrary evidence get in the way… Cinema-going combines myth with ritual and brings gods, hence myths, back into the world… (Robert Segal – Professor Aberdeen, Stanford)


Judaism has a cosmic story to tell, of a divine plan revealed through historical sequences.  This was in sharp contrast to the prevailing
view that the world is cyclic: the rotation of good times and bad times, the
rise and fall of civilisations, the revolving wheel of fortune.  Even today, the unidirectional linear-time world view of Western civilisation rest uneasily with other cultural motifs, such as the dreaming of the Australian Aborigines or the cyclicity of Hindu and Buddhist cosmologies.  (Paul Davies – Arizona State University)

There are many similarities between the Zoroastrian religion of Zurvanism and Jewish apocalyptic beliefs of the kind recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Jewish apocalyptic thought most likely reflects the influence of Zoroastrianism. It seems to have been Zoroaster —an Iranian prophet also
known as Zarathustra who lived some time between 1500 and 1200 BC — who first conceived of human life as a battle between light and darkness that could end in a victory for light. Zoroastrianism is one of the most peaceful religions in history. Nevertheless, through his formative influence on Judaism, Christianity and ¡siam. Zoroaster may be the ultimate source of the history. Many traditions have seen human life as a war between good and evil, but they have taken for granted that the conflict will go on for ever. An unending alternation of light and dark Is found In Egyptian myth. Some have expected the struggle to end in darkness — the eighth-century BC Greek poet Hesiod pictured human history as a process of decline from a primordial Golden
Age to an age of iron in which humanity would be destroyed. If there is anything resembling a perfect society it is located in the past — it was never envisioned that the cosmic struggle could end in victory for light. Even Zoroaster may not have believed its triumph was preordained. Rather than
announcing the end of the world, Zoroastrian texts call followers of the prophet to a struggle whose outcome remains in doubt. Even so, the belief that good could triumph was a new development in human thought, and as far as we can tell it came from Zoroaster. (John Gray – Professor London School of Economics)

The worship of the sun was widespread throughout the ancient near east.  It is therefore not surprising to find allusions to it in the OT.  (John Day – Professor Oxford)

[Persian King Cyrus who
conquered Babylon in 539 BC and released its Jewish population]  Cyrus himself believed in
Hura Mazda the winged Persian god of life, wisdom and light, in whose name the prophet of the Aryan Persians, Zoroaster, had decreed that life was a battle
between truth and lie, fire versus darkness.
But there was no state religion just this polytheistic vision of light and dark that was compatible with Judaism and later Christianity.  Indeed their Persian word for heaven –
paridaeza – became our own “paradise”.  Their priests – the Magi – gave us the word magic, and the three eastern
priests said to have heralded the birth of Christ.  (Simon Sebag Montefiore – Professor University of Buckingham)

The trend [in the Roman Empire] towards monotheism starts before Christianity – not before Judaism, but before Christianity, to a great extent under Jewish influence. There were either converts to Judaism or what I would call fellow-travellers – people who thought that the Jewish religion was the best on the market but who did not want to undergo what was demanded of a convert to Judaism – for men, circumcision for instance – and who were God-fearers, heaven-fearers
– people who accepted the idea not only of a single true God above all the
other gods who were not really divine which were reflections and in that sense who were devaluated and in that sense not really divine.  And some people also believed in the main
prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible starting from Abraham – who was not really a Jew – and who saw themselves in this long process of prophetic biblical monotheism… or pagan intellectuals who believed that there was only one real god – the Neo-Platonists.  It is
quite broadly recognised that one can speak of pagan monotheists who did not believe in the biblical prophetic monotheism.
So there are two kinds of pagans who are searching for the one God above all gods, or beyond all gods.  My
instinct tells me that the attraction of Jewish monotheism starts before the
empire through Jewish communities, including in Rome, the Jewish God offers something that was not offered or otherwise on the market of religions in a sense.  And to some people this appears very attractive – in particular women in the imperial family and in the upper
classes of society from the fourth century onwards are attracted by Jewish
monotheism.  (Guy Stroumsa – Professor Oxford)

The reason why we have difficulty in (and are sometimes prevented from) distinguishing what Philo borrows from Greek philosophy and what he owes to his own religion is that we have insuffcient knowledge of both Hellenism and Judaism of the time. What is curious however is that the Christians (at least those of the early generations as they expressed themselves through apologists) reproached the pagans unceasingly for their polytheism; while Philo, although he asserted that only the supreme, unique God could be adored, only rarely attacked such polytheism, and he even seems to see in the pagan world that surrounded him a measure of monotheism. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that his attention was focused on the philosophy of his time rather than on the religious practices of the masses. (C. MONDÉSERT  – Professor Institut des Sources Chretiennes)

the expression of collective character in antiquity…owes less to insisting on distinctiveness from the alien than to postulating links with, adaptation to, and even incorporation of the alien (Eric Gruen – Professor Berkley)

Rethinking the Other [by Erich Gruen] highlights the prevalence of an alternative strand in ancient thought that was both affirmative and inclusive, whilst acknowledging that Greeks, Romans and Jews occasionally accentuated the differences between themselves and foreigners. (book review by Joseph Skinner Liverpool)  

A veritable paean to ancient interconnectedness, it stresses the extent to which, amidst a ‘polyglot and tangled universe’ (253), Greeks, Romans and Jews consistently demonstrated a willingness to ‘reach out’ to others, exhibiting a hitherto unrecognized degree of openness towards people of different outlook, culture and physique. The reason for modernity’s tendency to generate reductive and misleading analyses
stressing ‘the stigmatization of “the Other” as a strategy of self-assertion
and superiority SKINNER … … The chapters dealing with Jewish perceptions of outsiders also represent a significant addition to scholarship by tracing the links between Jews, Greeks, Ishmaelites and Arabs at the expense of the traditional rhetoric of exclusivity… an impassioned
challenge to the lazy monologue of self/other which has cast such a long shadow over modern scholarship
. (book review by Joseph Skinner Liverpool)

Other ancient religions

The Mahabharata is an epic poem of the Indian sub-continent, which is one of the most important text of the Hindu faith. It dates back as far as the 8th century BCE, with later portions being added up to the 4th century BCE… …The sons of King Pandu, known as the Pandavas, were each the children of a god as well, and the gods play heavily in the story of the Mahabharata.

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