Divine Figures, Heroes, and Gods

I am continuing to post the materials that I have used in my courses for 45 years now–free for anyone to see and use. You are welcome to print out, read, and share the link via social media, but please do not repost or reproduce without permission. 

One can compile a long list of legendary figures who were said to have once been human but have now become immortal gods (Osiris, Dances, Hercules, Aristaeus, Asclepius, Aeneas, Romulus) as well as many from the not-so-distant past (Alexander, various Roman emperors, Empedocles, Jesus, Pythagoras, Apollonius of Tyana). Often tales of such figures report some kind of an extraordinary birth, wondrous deeds, wise teachings, and usually an account of an ascent to heaven at or after death. A few samples:

Plato the son of Ariston and Periktione, was an Athenian . . . [author here names several sources] all say that there was at Athens a story that when Periktione was ready to bear children Ariston was trying desperately but did not succeed in making her pregnant. Then, after he had ceased his efforts, he saw a vision of Apollo. Therefore he abstained from any further marital rela- tions until she brought forth a child [from Apollo] . . . Plato was born . . . on the 7th day of Thargelion, which was the day the Delians say Apollo was born . . . (Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 3. 1-2)

The excellence begotten in Herakles is not only seen in his great acts, but was known before his birth. When Zeus lay with Alkmeme, he tripled the length of the night, and, in the increased length of time spent in begetting the child, he foreshadowed the exceptional power of the child who was to be begotten. All in all, this union was not done because of erotic desire, as with other women, but more for the purpose of creating the child. Because he wished to make the intercourse legitimate, and he did not wish to take Alkmeme by force, nor could he ever hope to seduce her because of her self-control, therefore he chose deceit. By this means he tricked Alkmeme: he became Amphitryon (her husband) in every way. (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 4. 9. 1-10)

The Omnipotent One [Zeus/Jupiter] . . . hid the sky with dark clouds, and he terrified the earth with thunder and lightning. Gliding down through the air, he [Mars] came to rest on top of the wooded Palatine hill. There, Romulus was giving his friendly laws to the citizens, and Mars caught Ilia’s son up. His mortal body became thin, dissolving in the air, as a lead pellet shot by a broad sling will melt away in the sky. Suddenly he had such a beautiful form more worthy of the high couches [gods who dwell in heaven]. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 14. 805-851)

Then, after the feast, the remainder of the company dispersed and retired to rest. . . while Empedocles remained at the table. At daybreak all woke up and he was the only one missing. A search was made, and they questioned the servant, who said that in the middle of the night he had heard a very loud voice calling Empedocles. He got up and beheld a light in the heavens. . .[they concluded] it was their duty to sacrifice to him since he was now a god. [Previously he had said himself, “All hail! I go about among you an immortal god, no more a mortal!” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 7. 66-68)

For more examples see: Achilles to the goddess Thetis and the mortal Peleus (Iliad 20.206-07; 24.59), Aeneas to the goddess Aphrodite and the mortal Anchises (Iliad 2.819-22; 5.247-48), Asclepius to the god Apollo and the mortal Coronis (Didiodorus of Sicily 4.0.1, 3), Pythagoras to Apollo and the mortal Pythias (Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras 2) as well as Charles H. Talbert, “Miraculous Conceptions and Births in Mediterranean Antiquity,” in Amy-Jill Levine et al. (eds.), The Historical Jesus in Context (Princeton Readings in Religion; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 79-86.

One also finds, even within the Hebrew Bible (O.T.) stories of “divinely assisted” pregnancies, see, for example: See Marc Zvi Brettler, “Who Was Samson’s Real Father?” TheTorah (2017); Naphtali Meshel, “Samson the Demigod,” TheTorah (2019) and Samuel Z. Glaser, “Isaac’s Divine Conception,” TheTorah (2018), and Jacob L. Wright, “The Birth of Moses: Between Bible and Midrash,” (TheTorah (2013).


Letter of the Proconsul to the Cities of Asia (9 B.C.E.)

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 for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a Savior (soter), has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and whereas, having become visible, Caesar has fulfilled the hopes of all earlier times . . . not only in surpassing all the benefactors who preceded him but also in leaving to his successors no hope of surpassing him; and whereas, finally, that the birthday of the God (i.e. Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euangelion) concerning him, therefore, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth, and let his birthday mark the beginning of the new year.

This precious text is known as the “Calendar Inscription of Priene,” and much has been written about it because of its remarkable references to Augustus as Savior, the “gospel” regarding his reign of peace, with its very “messianic” connotations, and his birthday marking a new era–the beginning of a new year. For more see Deissmann, A. (1927). Light from the Ancient East. New York: Harper & Row. p. 366.

Decree of the City Council of Ephesus regarding Caligula (38 C.E.)

The Council and the people (of the Ephesians and other Greek) cities which dwell in Asia and the nations acknowledge Gaius Julius, the son of Gaius Caesar as High Priest and Absolute Ruler. . . . the God Visible who is born of Ares and Aphrodite, the shared Savior (soter) of human life.

Letter from Apion, an Egyptian soldier in the Roman navy, to his father, Epimachus (150 C.E.)

Apion to Epimachus his father and lord many greetings. Before all things I pray that you are in health and that you prosper and fare well continually along with my sister and her daughter and brother. I thank the Lord Serapis that, when I was in peril in the sea, he saved me immediately. When I came to Miseni I received as viaticum (military bonus) from the Caesar three pieces of gold. And it is well with me. I beg you therefore, my lord father, write to me a little letter, first of your health, second of my brother and sister, and third that I may do obeisance to you hand because you have taught me well and I therefore hope to advance quickly if the gods will. Salute Capito much and my brother and sister and Serenilla and my friends. I send you by Euctemon a little picture of me. Moreover my name is Antonis Maximus. Fare thee well, I pray. Centuria Athenonica (name of his company). Serenus the son of Agathus Daemon salutes you . . . the son of . . . and Turbo the son of Gallonius and D[. . .]nas the son of [. . .]sen. . .

Continued on the back the following address:

To Philadelphia for Epimachus from Apion his son.

Give this to the first Cohort of the Apamenians to Julianus An. . .the Liblarios, from Apion so that he may convey it to Epimachus his father.

Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa

Hanina ben Dosa was a first century Galilean Rabbi, contemporary with Jesus, who worked miracles and was noted for his piety (Hasid). He was not, of course, considered a god by the Jews, but his social type broadly fits the notion of a “divine man.”

Healings through Prayer

Our rabbis say, once upon a time Rabban Gamliel’s son got sick. He sent two men of learning to Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa to beg him mercy from God concerning him. He saw them coming and went to a room upstairs and asked mercy from God concerning him. When he had come back down he said to them, “Go, the fever has left him.” They said to him, “What? Are you a prophet?” He said, “I am not a prophet nor am I the son of a prophet. But this I have received from tradition: if my prayer of intercession flows unhesitatingly from my mouth, I know it will be answered, and if not, I know it will be rejected.” They sat down and wrote and determined exactly the moment he said this, and when they came back to Rabban Gamliel he said to them, “By the Temple service! You are neither too early nor too late but this is what happened: in that moment the fever left him and he asked for water!”

Once again when Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa was going to study Torah with Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, the son of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai became ill. He said to him, “Hanina, my son, ask mercy from God for him and he will live.” He put his head down between his knees and asked mercy for him, and he lived. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said, “Now if ben Zakkai fastened his head between his knees all day long, there would not be any attention paid to him.” His wife said to him, “What? Is Chanina greater than you?” He replied, “Of course not, but he is like a servant before the king and I am like a prince before the king.” (b. Berakoth 34b)


Comments are closed.