Documents for the Study of the Gospels

By David R. Cartlidge; David L. Dungan | Go to book overview

SAVIOR GODS IN THE
MEDITERRANEAN WORLD

“For if there are so-called Gods, whether in Heaven or on the earth—indeed
there are many such Gods and many Lords—but to us there is one God, the
Father … and one Lord, Jesus Christ.” (The Apostle Paul, writing from Ephesus
to the Christians in Corinth, around the year 57 C.E.; 1 Cor. 8:5–6.)

When Christianity appeared in the ancient Mediterranean world, there were already many Gods in the Heavens and many on the earth, occupying thrones, temples, shrines, and sanctuaries. The ordinary man or woman of that time had learned to be tolerant of the plethora of divinities, for each one had some special function or niche in the pantheon. It was customary to group the deities according to function, giving the name of the Greek God of healing to the Egyptian deity of the same function, and so on. There were ancient deities of earth and sky and sea whom people had worshiped longer than anyone could remember, and newer, more personal Gods and Goddesses, who possessed the newest and most elaborate temples in the downtown areas.

In addition to these divinities, there were the great emperors, the kings and regional potentates of one kind or another, who were also paid varying degrees of homage as Gods. These are among the “Gods … on the earth” to which Paul referred. For example, the Provincial Assembly of Asia Minor passed this resolution regarding Caesar Augustus (ruled from 27 B.C.E. to 14 C.E.) somewhere near the middle of his reign:

Whereas the Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has
shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection
in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom It (Providence) filled with virtue (aretē)
for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants
as a savior (sōtēr), has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and
whereas, having become visible (phaneis; i.e., now that a God has become
visible), Caesar has fulfilled the hopes of all earlier times … not only in
surpassing all the benefactors (evergetai) who preceded him but also in leaving
to his successors no hope of surpassing him; and whereas, finally, that the
birthday of the God (viz., Caesar Augustus) has been for the whole world the
beginning of the gospel (evangelion) concerning him, (therefore, let all reckon

-5-

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