When the unknown author of the Gospel we call Mark sat down to write these words, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1) he was writing in a context readily understood and easily identifiable to the overwhelmingly Pagan population of the Roman Empire – and after all, he was a former Pagan himself in all likelihood. Everyone knew about gospels, after all; all gospel means is “good news” and the new and tiny cult of Christianity wasn’t the first group to have good news to spread. Augustus Caesar, during whose reign Jesus was born, was one of those who beat the baby to the punch, not only with good news but as Savior to boot.
Fundamentalist Christians go on about a supposed war on Christianity but what they really object to (besides inconvenient historical facts) is the possibility that for the first time in nearly 2000 years, we might reject the privileged status of their belief over all other forms of belief (or disbelief). After all, they claim, not all religions are equal, which leads to the obvious outcome that not all beliefs are equal – the basis for and justification of their legislation of their particular brand of social conservatism. That’s why our courthouses are decorated with the Ten Commandments and not some “pagan” law code.
It is a wonder that people like that can scoff at Pagan divine birth stories but accept without a blink the details of Jesus’ birth as given in Matthew and Luke (Mark wasn’t interested in where or how Jesus was born and John had a different conception altogether – pardon the pun). Let’s take a quick tour:
In Matthew (1:18-2:23, Mary gets knocked up and Joseph figures she has been sleeping around and being a good Republican husband he’s going to dump the slut until he has a dream that says the Holy Spirit is responsible. They get married; Jesus is born.
In Luke (1:4-2:40), it’s a bit more fantastic: Here an angel tells Elizabeth, a cousin of Mary, and who happens to be barren, that she will give birth to John (the Baptist). Apparently, the Holy Spirit is responsible (at least for making it possible for a barren woman to give birth). An angel also appears to Mary (not Joseph) and tells her that the Holy Spirit is going to knock her up personally and that she will give birth to the Son of God.
But it gets more bizarre, rather like a bad Broadway play: Mary visits Elizabeth, who is six-months pregnant at the time, and the little tike leaps in her womb because the “Lord” has come into the room (via Mary’s tummy). Mary suddenly starts singing like Maria in Sound of Music. John comes popping forth, and Liz’s hubby, Zechariah, has a spontaneous fit of prophecy. Finally, Jesus himself is born.
Believable though? You tell me. Fundamentalist Christians don’t even blink. But if they get a whiff of anything faintly miraculous from the Pagan side of the aisle and eyebrows go up. Suddenly it is absurd – and a myth. People who laugh at the Iliad and the Odyssey take the Bible quite seriously; the same people who ooh and ahh over the miracles of Jesus scoff at the miracles of Apollonius of Tyana. The difference, as usual, is the privileged (not persecuted) status of Christianity. If things were as fundamentalists say they are, the reverse would be true.
Who today would accept the stories of Alexander’s divine origins? Or those of Augustus, the emperor during whose reign Jesus was born? He had a rather unusual birth as well:
Dio preserves an unconvincing tale that echoes one told of Alexander the Great’s mother and was no doubt designed to encourage a divine comparison. When Julius Caesar decided to make Octavian his heir, he was influenced by “Atia’s [his mother's] emphatic declaration that the youth had been engendered by Apollo, for while sleeping in his temple, she said, she thought she had intercourse with a serpent, and it was this that caused her at the need of her pregnancy to bear a son.”
On the day of Octavian’s birth, Atia dreamed that her intestines were raised up into the sky and spread out all over the earth, and during the same night her husband, Octavius, thought that the sun rose from her womb. The following day the elder Octavius came across a learned expert on divination, Publius Nigidius Figulus, and explained what had happened. Figulus replied, “You have begotten a master over us!”
Now, I ask you, the reader: Does it matter if a snake or an invisible spirit makes you pregnant? Is one more believable than another? The only difference is that one is Christian and one is not. Because Christianity asserts there is only one God, only one of the stories can be true, even though it’s as patently ridiculous as those same Christians claim these Pagan birth stories to be. But from a strictly historical perspective, none of these stories are plausible and all are equally fantastic. One cannot be privileged above the other. I am a Pagan: do I think Augustus was the product of his mother mating with a serpent? Of course not. No more than I think an invisible spirit put a baby in Mary’s womb.
I am not arguing that Jesus did not exist. On the contrary: I am convinced that he did and that all serious scholars accept this as fact. But what Jesus actually was and what his Jewish companions thought he was is a far cry from what later Gentile Christians came to accept. In other words, Jesus was not god to his followers; he became god to these later Christians. Nowhere in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, or Luke, does Jesus call himself God.
It is significant in this regard that there are incredible similarities between the language used of Jesus and that used for Augustus. If it seems as though the early Christians used the cult of Augustus (the Imperial Cult) as a model for their own religion as Jesus attained divine status it is because they did. And if we are surprised it is because we forget that the early Gentile Christians were themselves former Pagans; what other language, what other conceptual context, were they going to use?
Son of God
Augustus was the Son of God (divi filius) before Jesus made being the son of God popular (the only difference – if it can be called that – being that Augustus was son of one of many gods and Jesus was seen as son of the “only” god). Augustus was already the Son of God before Jesus was even conceived. A Fundamentalist Christian would laugh at Augustus’ divine birth but trumpet that of Jesus, attacking our inability to see the difference even while claiming to be the aggrieved party.
In Greek, Augustus’ official title was “Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of god.” An inscription from Pergamum reveals Augustus as “The Emperor Caesar, son of god, Augustus, ruler of all land and sea.” A coin of Tiberius, his successor, reads “Son of the Divine Caesar, the Divine Augustus.”
Christians have tried to differentiate between Augustus as “son of god” and Jesus as “son of god” but Robert L. Mowery argues that “this Roman imperial formula exactly parallels the distinctive Christological formula in three Matthean passages (14,33; 27,43.54)” and that “the Matthean formula qeou=ui(o/j would have evoked Roman imperial usage for at least some members of Matthew’s community.” Mowery concludes,
Whether Matthew created the formula qeou= ui(o/j or was repeating a christological formula already in use within his community, it is likely that this formula would have evoked Roman imperial usage for at least some members of his community78. Whether or not these disciples had learned of the Roman formula qeou= ui(o/j through the imperial cult, some (most?) of them would have known about this imperial formula through inscriptions located in highly-visible locations and through legends on their coins, including coins struck in their own province. For these disciples, the Matthean formula qeou= ui(o/j would have evoked not only an awareness that Jesus had been given the same title as the emperor but also the recognition that the qeou= ui(o//j whose Father is ‘Lord of heaven and earth’ (Matt 11,25) is not the emperor but Jesus.
Augustus, like Jesus, but before Jesus, was spoken of in messianic terms, as the savior of Rome. Virgil wrote in his fourth eclogue,
The firstborn of the New Ages is already on his way from high heaven down to earth
With him, the Iron Age shall end and Golden Man inherit all the world.
Smile on the Baby’s birth, immaculate Lucina [goddess of childbirth];
your own Apollo is enthroned a last.
Anthony Everitt believes the child spoken of was the predicted offspring of Augustus and Scribonia. Augustus had from the beginning identified himself with Apollo. It is a bit of a no-brainer.
We have here a god made man but still god himself, and an immaculate birth as well – and the dawn of a new age (analogous to the waited-for “kingdom of god/heaven”).
All this, needless to say, predates Christianity by a long margin: Virgil wrote that poem almost forty years before Jesus was born.
Augustus was not deified until Tiberius saw to it, and it is Tiberius who is “largely responsible for propagating the cult of the Divine Augustus.” As Larry Kreitzer writes, “Tiberius was emperor during the public ministry of Jesus.” Significant, don’t you think that all this imagery should be available for the Gentile Christians of succeeding generations to see when they co-opted Jesus the Jewish prophet as their god?
Kreitzer calls this period “one of the most formative in terms of the development of Christianity” and he is absolutely correct. It is also quite clear that the Romans did not get their idea of man as god from Christianity as it has a long history in ancient Near Eastern cultures. As Brian Bosworth writes, “Augustus used motifs which had become familiar during the previous centuries, emphasizing simultaneously the protection of the gods, and his own godlike status” and this is noticeable in his Res Gestae Divi Augusti (The Deeds of the Divine Augustus), Augustus’ formal report of his achievements to the people of the empire – the good news, or his “gospel” one might say.
It might be argued that they had identical origins. The imperial cult (to which there was a temple in Caesarea – significant to early Gentile Christian history) was very much “in your face” in the first decades of the first century – a period during which original Jewish Christianity was destroyed (when Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E.) and Gentile Christianity replaced it (by the 90s C.E.).
Kreitzer claims that “The Roman concept of apotheosis moved a man from earth toward heaven, whereas the Christian concept of incarnation moved God from heaven toward earth” but that is not strictly true when you claim divine descent, as Augustus did. This claim also conflates the various early Christian concepts of Jesus into the later orthodox idea perpetrated by John.
As I noted above, the divine status of Jesus is missing altogether from Mark and Matthew, and Luke had quite different conceptions of Jesus – in Matthew Jesus was not literally the Son of God and in Luke it is possible that it originally did not read as if Jesus was “born” as the Son of God. In the earliest manuscripts Luke 3.22 reads, “You are my son, today I have begotten you” when John baptizes Jesus. In other words, Jesus did not become incarnate until that moment. The idea that Jesus had always been God was a later development, one seen in John, the last gospel to be written. But originally, Jesus’ followers believed Jesus only became the Son of God when he was resurrected as we are told by the Christian creed quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans (1:3-4), Paul’s speech in Acts (13:32-33) and Peter’s speech in that same book (2:36).
Fundamentalists seldom think about such things when they start talking about the inerrancy of Scripture.
A Fulfillment of Prophecy
Early Christian apologists (like Matthew where everything about Jesus is a fulfillment of scripture) were keen to show that Jesus’ coming had long been foretold. So, too, as it happens, had that of Augustus, at least according to Virgil, who has Anchises the Dardanian say that “prophecies of Augustus’ coming are already causing panic, over a millennium before his actual birth” (Aen. 6.798-9). Needless to say, this was written before Jesus’ birth and the mad scramble to find prophecy about his coming. According to Anchises, “Augustus will revive the golden age of Saturnus and bring felicity to Latium – and indeed to the human race in so far as it came under his sway.”
The hopes of the early Jewish and Christian apocalypticists come readily to mind – a Golden Age, a Kingdom of God on Earth, the restoration of Israel for the Jews, a restoration of Rome for the Romans.
What comes across is a sense of inferiority complex – the early Christian writers were anxious to compare Jesus – who compared unfavorably – with Augustus, whose own accomplishments were more in line with the messianic aspirations of the time. Augustus, after all, had triumphed and lived to brag about it in his Res Gestae, whereas Jesus had failed, crucified and left abandoned even by his followers, crying out, “Eli Eli lama sabachthani?” in his native Aramaic (“My God, my God, why have you foresaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). The Jewish conception of a messiah ironically enough more closely matched that presented by Augustus.
It is perhaps no coincidence that both Virgil and the Gospels are strongly Hellenic in character and both written in Greek. Language is, after all, a reflection of the culture that created it. As Bosworth says, Virgil places emphasis on “conquest, deliverance, and benefaction” – three elements quite familiar to apocalypticism and indeed, the New Testament.
Finally, we can also point to 9 B.C.E. and an inscription from the Provincial Assembly of Asia which proclaimed Augustus god, which shows that Virgil was not the only one thinking of Augustus in messianic terms. And speaking of Gospels…the language should sound very familiar to Christians for the reasons spoken of above:
The most divine Caesar…we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things…; for when everything was falling [into disorder] and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave to the whole world a new aura; Caesar…the common good Fortune of all… The beginning of life and vitality… All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as their new beginning of the year… Whereas Providence, which has regulated our whole existence…has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us [the emperor] Augustus, whom it [Providence] filled with strength for the welfare of men, and who being sent to us and our descendents as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order, and [whereas] having become [god] manifest (phaneis), Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times…in surpassing all the benefactors who preceded him…, and whereas, finally, the birthday of the god [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of good news (evangelion) concerning him [therefore let a new era begin from his birth]. (OGIS 2.#458)
Sounds pretty Christ-like to me – and two years before the earliest postulated birth date for Jesus. Surely you can see that the Christian good news was not the first good news from a Savior to be spread throughout the Roman world. And if we treated this inscription like we treat the New Testament (in other words, privileged it), we would be counting our era not from Jesus’ supposed date of birth (anno domini) but from the date of Augustus’ birth and the year would now be 2021 rather than 2012 and it would be the Republican Party’s socially conservative agenda that we would be speaking of as mythical.
 Anthony Everitt, Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor (Random House, 2006), 201-202.
 Robert L. Mowery, “Son of God in Roman Imperial Titles and Matthew,” Biblica 83 (2002), 100-110. Available online at http://www.bsw.org/Biblica/Vol-83-2002/Son-Of-God-In-Roman-Imperial-Titles-And-Matthew/229/
 Mowery (2002), 110.
 Anthony Everitt (2006), 115-16.
 Larry Krietzer, “Apotheosis of the Roman Emperor,” The Biblical Archaeologist 53 (1990), 211-217.
 Samping Chen, “Son of Heaven and Son of God: Interactions Among Ancient Asiatic Cultures regarding Sacral Kingship, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 12 (2002), 289-325.
 Brian Bosworth,”Augustus, the Res Gestae and the Hellenistic Theories of Apotheosis” JRS 89 (1999), 1-18.
 See the discussion in Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted (2009): 39-40. For earlier Christian traditions, see Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (HarperOne, 2012), 110-112.
 The idea of a suffering messiah is unique to Christianity, based on a misreading of Isaiah 53, in which the suffering servant (Israel – as revealed at Isaiah 49:3), is said instead to be Jesus. See for various ideas of what the messiah would be like, Jacob Neusner, William S. Green, Ernest Frerichs, ed. Judaisms and Their Messiahs At the Turn of the Christian Era (1987), and John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature (Doubleday, 1995).
 Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Order (Fortress Press, 2003), 23-24. The Greek word Evangelion, needless to say, has the same meaning as the English word “gospel”.