Becoming a God: An Exercise in Public Relations

Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine is a new book by Anna Della Subin that deals with men — and a few women — being considered gods, unwittingly or not. This excerpt concerns Rome and Jesus:

In ancient Rome, the borders between heaven and earth fell under Senate control, as deification by official decree became a way to legitimize political power. Building upon Greek traditions of apotheosis [or deification], the Romans added a new preoccupation with protocol, the rites and rituals that could effect a divine status change. For his conquests, Julius Caesar was divinized, while still alive, by a series of Senate measures that bestowed upon him rights as a living god, including a state temple and license to wear Jupiter’s purple cloak.

Yet if it seemed like a gift of absolute power, it was also a way of checking it, as Caesar knew. One could constrain a powerful man by turning him into a god: in divinizing Julius, the Senate also laid down what the virtues and characteristics of a god should be. In their speeches, senators downplayed domination and exalted magnanimity and mercy as the divine qualities that defined Caesar’s godhood. As a new deity, Julius would have to live up to his god self, to pardon his political enemies and respect the republican institutions of Rome. On the Capitoline Hill, the Senate installed an idol of Julius with the globe at his feet, but ‘he erased from the inscription the term “demigod”,’ the statesman Cassius Dio related. Caesar sensed that state-sanctioned godhood could be at once a blessing and a curse.

When, not long after his deification, Julius was stabbed to death twenty-three times, Octavian rose to power as Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, yet he and subsequent emperors would demur from being turned into living gods. Divinity had become ominously tinged with death, whether through the threat of provoking human jealousy, or a connection more existential. Augustus blocked the construction of a sacred ‘Augusteum’ [and] Claudius forbade sacrificial rituals to himself… Vespasian resisted claims of his divinity, though even the animal kingdom seemed to acknowledge it – it was said that an ox once broke free from its yoke, charged into the emperor’s dining room, and prostrated itself at his feet.

After an emperor’s demise, his successor would lead the state ritual to turn the deceased into a deity. As his wax effigy burned on a funeral pyre, an eagle was released from the flames, a winged transport to the heavens. The fact of death in no way compromised the politician’s claim to immortality. Death was simply a shedding of the body, like a snake sheds its skin.

As a tool of statecraft, apotheosis consolidated political dynasties, and it was also an expression of love and devastation, often for those who perished in unexpected, tragic ways. The emperor Hadrian deified both his wife and mother-in-law, but the highest heavens were reserved for Antinous, his young lover who drowned in the Nile under clouded circumstances. When Julia Drusilla was stricken by a virus at twenty-two, she was divinized by her maximalist brother Caligula as Panthea, or ‘all the gods.’

In February of 45 BCE, when Cicero’s daughter Tullia died a month after giving birth, the bereaved statesman became determined to turn her into a god, and set his keen intellect to the task of how best to achieve apotheosis. To raise public awareness of the new deity, Cicero decided to build her a shrine, and had an architect draw up plans. Yet the senator became fixated on the question of what location would be optimal, indoors or outside, and worried about how the land in the future could change ownership. He fretted over how best to introduce Tullia to Rome, to win the approval of both the immortal gods and mortal public opinion. ‘Please forgive me, whatever you think of my project . . .’ Cicero wrote in a letter to a friend, and wondered aloud if his strange endeavor would make him feel even worse. But to the statesman, supernatural in his grief, the urge was irrepressible. Deification was a kind of consolation.

The century that reset time began with a man perhaps inadvertently turned divine. It is hard to see him, for the earliest gospels were composed decades after his death at Golgotha, and the light only reaches so far into the dark tombs of the past. The scholars who search for the man-in-history find him embedded in the politics of his day: a Jewish dissident preacher who posed a radical challenge to the gods and governors of Rome. They find him by the banks of the Jordan with John the Baptist. He practices the rite of baptism as liberation, from sin and from the bondage of the empire that occupied Jerusalem. Jesus, like many in his age, warns that the apocalypse is near: the current world order, in its oppressions and injustices, will soon come to an end and the kingdom of the Israelites will be restored, the message for which he will be arrested for high treason.

In what scholars generally agree was the first written testimony, that of Mark, Jesus never claims to be divine, nor speaks of himself as God or God’s Son. In the early scriptures, when asked if he is the messiah, ‘the anointed one’, at every turn he appears to eschew, deflect, or distance himself from the title, or refers to the messiah as someone else, yet to come. He performs miracles under a halo of reluctance, the narrative ever threatening to slip from his grasp. When he cures a deaf man, he instructs bystanders not to tell anyone, but the more He ordered them, the more widely they proclaimed it, Mark relates.

In the decades after the crucifixion, just as the gospels were being composed and circulated, the apotheosis of Roman emperors had become so routine that Vespasian, as he lay on his deathbed in 79 CE, could quip, ‘Oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god.’ Refusing homage to the deified dictators of Rome, early Christians wrested the titles bestowed upon them – ‘God’, ‘Son of God’, ‘the Lord’, ‘Divine Savior’, ‘Redeemer’, ‘Liberator’ – and gave them to the man Rome had executed as a criminal.

In the writings of the apostle Paul, aglow with a vision of the resurrected Christ, Jesus appears as a new species of cosmic being, God’s eternal Son. While pagan politicians ascended to heaven, transported on the steep journey by eagle, Jesus simply lowered himself; he emptied himself, in Paul’s words, into the form of a peasant.

Although Paul was horrified when he found himself mistaken for a pagan god, the apostle preached the mystical possibility that all humankind might join in Christ’s divinity. Transcending earthly politics, the dissident turned into a deity to surpass the godlings of Rome. As the Almighty made flesh, Jesus became a power that could conquer the empire – and eventually, He did.

According to the Gospel of John, among the last to be written, on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus compared himself to a serpent, the one Moses had set upon a pole at God’s command to save his people from the plague. Like the reptile, Christ would point the way toward the divinity ever coiled within each man. In the second century, the sect of the Ophites worshipped Jesus in his form as serpent, invoking the fact that human entrails resemble a snake. It was recorded they celebrated the Eucharist by inviting a snake onto the table to wind itself around the loaf of bread. By the third century, the Greek convert Clement of Alexandria could declare that divinity now ‘pervades all humankind equally’. All who followed the teachings of Christ ‘will be formed perfectly in the likeness of the teacher – made a god going about in flesh.’

Theologians avidly debated the possibility of theosis – ‘becoming god’ – a word coined to distinguish Christian doctrine from the pagan ‘apotheosis’. Among Christians in the second and third centuries, the notion was commonplace that each person had a deified counterpart or divine twin, whom they might one day encounter.

In 325 CE, the emperor Constantine gathered together two thousand bishops at the Council of Nicaea to officially define the nature of Jesus’s divinity for the first time. Against those who maintained he had been created by God as a son, perfect but still to some extent human, the bishops pronounced Jesus as Word Incarnate on earth, equal to and made of the same substance as God the Father, whatever it may be. Other notions of Jesus’s essence were branded as heresies and suppressed, and gospels deemed unorthodox were destroyed. Through the mandates of the Nicene Creed, the idea of divinity itself became severed from its old proximities to ordinary mortal life. In the work of theologians such as Augustine, who shaped Christian orthodoxy for centuries to come, the chasm between humankind and divinity grew ever more impassable.

Though mystics might strive for union with the godhead, veiled in metaphors, the idea that a man could transform into an actual deity became absurd. God is absolutely different from us, the theologians maintained; the line between Creator and His creation clearly drawn. Away from its pagan closeness, away from the dust and turmoil of terrestrial life, Christian doctrine pushed the heavens from the earth. ‘I asked the sea and the chasms of the deep and the living things that creep in them,’ Augustine writes in the Confessions. ‘I spoke to all the things that are about me, all that can be admitted by the door of the senses,’ but they said in their myriad voices, I am not God. ‘And I said, “Since you are not my God, tell me about him.”’