I'm not sure if this kind of question -being about religion- belongs here. But since this is asked from a historical perspective, it may fit here.

How did people understand the concept of 'divinity' throughout history? Has that concept change in some radical way? Is there a possibility that, when old books and texts speak about gods, they're talking about something entirely different to what we understand in our current days?

For instance, when I read stories from the Bible, I see that Yahweh was such a different character from the omnipresent, omnibenevolent, omniscient god from modern Christianity. In the OT, Yahweh was a human-like presence, and a kind of god of war (similar to the greek one).

Or when I compare the Christian god (as presented by Jesus in the gospels) to other religious traditions such as Daoism, I see more in common grounds between the impersonal all-pervasive Dao than with the Jewish god of the Torah; and, again, I see more aspects in common between the kabalistic idea of god and Daoism than between former and Yahweh.

Or when I read about Judaism, I see that the concept of the divine was deeply interconnected to culture and society, which is not necessarily the case with Christianity.

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    Not really an answer, but you will probably find this class that Sapolsky gave on the psychology that underlies religiosity interesting. It raises a few points that you'll likely find insightful. May 14, 2019 at 9:08
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    Not an answer, but a hint of perspective since you are talking about "ancient" people: Most polytheistic religions don't buy into omnipresence or omnipotence, sometimes not even immortality, of their gods -- and sometimes, their gods are not even about mankind (as in "the pride of creation"). This gives such religions a world view that is "by design" rather different from the prevalently monotheistic religions today. I don't know if this is the direction your question was looking at or if you are asking about changes within a given religion, hence a comment only.
    – DevSolar
    May 14, 2019 at 9:24
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    Very broad question. If you want to ask about Mesopotamian divinity during a given period it becomes more reasonable. May 14, 2019 at 11:45
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    As other comments are pointing out, ancient beliefs were far less monolithic than they are now, so it really makes no sense whatsoever to talk about all beliefs of ancient people as if they were a cohesive thing the world round. If you are curious about the Ancient Jewish view of Yahweh and how that may have changed during the period their scriptures were being written, I'd suggest asking specificially about that.
    – T.E.D.
    May 14, 2019 at 15:08
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    You also have a problem with "we do today". Who exactly do you mean by "we"? Are you limiting your "we" to just Judeo-Christian-Islamist monotheists? Because not everyone in the world follows those religions. (And even among those who do, there seems to be some diversity of opinion.)
    – jamesqf
    May 14, 2019 at 17:54

2 Answers 2


"Ancient people" are a very broad group culturally, geographically, and temporally. Their beliefs were extremely varied and rich, and probably included most things people think today, especially since many of our ideas are inherited. Here are some general strains, ordered from least to most personal / individualized:

  • No god. Despite our modern idea that the ancient mind was superstitious, there certainly were atheists. The Bible makes reference to this (Psalm 14:1), but it was a current idea in Greece as well, according to one of Plato's dialogues (Gorgias) in which Socrates repeatedly suggests that his interlocutors will consider Homer's stories about gods to be fairy tales or old wives' tales, but he doesn't.

  • A universal presence or panentheistic god. The belief that the world is suffused by, or included in, some divine or metaphysical nature. The divinity in this case is not personal. Characteristic of Buddhism and Daoism. This is also closely related to the idea of mystery religion or mysticism, becoming aware of deeper reality, and/or moral law attained by the wise.

  • It might be fair to link this to animism, as in some North American Indigenous peoples, where the natural world (earth, plants, animals, phenomena) have souls — or you might fit that in at the bottom of this list, depending on how you see those souls as participating or separate from a divine omnipresence.

  • A deistic creator god. Responsible for the origin of the world but not an active force now. In another Platonic dialogue, Timaeus, the eponymous character talks about the god behind the existence of the universe. This kind of god is associated less with immediate phenomena and more with reasoning about a prime mover and the sorts of characteristics he might have that are reflected in creation. This also introduces the idea of a heavenly (or at least pre-universe) existence.

  • A theistic god. Like deism, but the god is still active in the world. Nevertheless, the god still holds some special place above material law. It makes sense to worship such a god because he sometimes responds. Can also be the head god of a pantheon. Dwells in some sort of heaven, whether that idea grows out of the sky itself or is abstracted away from physical space. An example might be the Egyptian Ra, the sun and creator.

  • An assembly or pantheon of gods. These gods have jurisdictions over certain realms or events. They multiply as a function of their activities... for example, how they turn the tide of war or how they influence natural phenomena. (This doesn't necessarily mean they are solely responsible for how the phenomena behave, but they can supersede the normal operation of the world.) They are active in the world and have personal characteristics and dramatic stories. They are pleased or displeased by human action, e.g. sacrifice or disrespect. They can also be associated with planets or stars, which were also thought to have influence. They can have factions. Examples: the Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Hindu, and Norse pantheons.

  • Territorial or national gods. These are associated with a people or place, or even a token or totem. They are stronger or weaker, and they protect and fight for the tribe that serves them. They can have particular needs that people must serve to appease them or keep them strong. In Mesopotamian literature, for example, humans are created to alleviate the gods' drudgery.

  • Deification. Some humans were considered deities, particularly in function of their kingship, either alive (Egypt) or after death (Rome). Emperor Vespasian when he was dying is said to have remarked, "I think I'm becoming a god."

Interestingly, some cultures had no problem with mixing and matching. Ancient Greek religion is famous for this. Plato talks like a deist when discussing the nature of the universe but also invokes the Olympian pantheon headed by Zeus, themselves subordinate to Fate. Before the Olympians were the Titans, who were the children of the primordial gods that first emerged from Chaos. Meanwhile, demigods and mythical creatures populate the world and interact with humans, often amorously. It's a real potpourri.

Judeo-Christian God

Since your question makes reference to conceptions of the Judeo-Christian God, an aside on him. We also see a huge variety of forms, or at least a development.

  • There's certainly a creator god (deism). Within a couple of chapters he's actively making choices about humanity (theism) and "walking in the garden" with them.

  • He later meets Abraham and Moses in some physical form as well.

  • He institutes moral law and is "the judge of all the earth".

  • He can act as a territorial god that consistently overcomes other territorial gods (as in Exodus against deified Pharaoh or when the Dagon statue falls over before the Ark of the Covenant). This could also be a way of saying that they're not gods at all, as Isaiah writes and as in Elijah's contest on Mount Carmel.

  • There's some polytheism, at least of servants of God; in Kings there's an assembly of spirits of whom one is sent to give Ahab some bad advice, in the psalms there's a reference to the assembly of the gods, and in Daniel an angel is detained "fighting the prince of the Persian kingdom" until Michael, "one of the chief princes", rescues him. There is of course also Satan, said to be a former angel.

  • In the extra-biblical tradition, including Kabbalah, and equally in the New Testament, panentheism and mysticism are evident: "God is love", "God is him in whom we live and move and have our being". (Incidentally, Kabbalah also has animistic elements such as rock golems.)

  • Meanwhile, mainstream Christianity has certainly deified Jesus. Of course, this is the source of long, bitter, and ongoing schisms: Is God one, as in the Shma' Yisra'el confession, or three persons, as in the Trinity?

It would be fair, then, to say that this God includes all the categories above, with the twist that unlike Greek polytheism, all of the categories are said to be same eternal entity or subservient to him. (Iain Provan of Regent College points out one difference between Genesis and the Babylonian creation myths it responds to, namely that God never has to contend with other divine beings.)

There are paradoxes wrapped up in that — some people consider it scandalous to say that the omnipresence "in whom we live" was also a particular human being — and whether you judge this to be the result of a patchwork tradition by many editors or simply the manifold revelation of something ineffable is a matter of doctrine not suited to this forum.

  • "Socrates remarks that most people consider stories about gods to be fairy tales, but he doesn't" -- my memory is failing me.. isn't it the other way around? Like, he was put to a death sentence precisely because he was saying it was all mere fairy tales? May 14, 2019 at 18:09
  • @DenisdeBernardy I'm sure the accounts vary from story to story. But in Gorgias or possibly Phaedrus, he concludes his argument with a lengthy description of Zeus judging every man at the end of time and says it's the seriousness with which he takes this account that convinces him of his case. May 14, 2019 at 18:11
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    The second part of your answer would benefit from (I realize this is a lot of work) mentioning the countless debates that raged and divided the Christians in the run up to the middle ages. (On a more positive note, and to your credit, your answer makes it absolutely obvious that the question is way too broad.) May 14, 2019 at 18:12
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    @DenisdeBernardy Hi! Yes, it's my fault. I didn't realize it was too broad of a question until people started to point it out. And, in spite of that, the answer given by Luke delivered and covered in a fair way the broadness of the question. But now I know that in the future, I'll be more specific. Kind regards! May 14, 2019 at 19:43
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    About your last section, Duteronomy 32:8-9 also references the head God (El in early Semitic pantheons, Elyon in most versions of the text) separating peoples by their gods, with Yahweh getting Israel. Many English translations kind of iron this wrinkle flat, but two different god names were used there, presumably on purpose.
    – T.E.D.
    May 15, 2019 at 16:11

Divinity is an ever evolving concept.

Every region, every people, every culture, every tradition..understands it different during different periods of history.

It never stops changing.

And every interpretation has their fans who spend a lot of time per week (some times it is fridays, some times it is sundays)... to discuss how their version is right, and how everyone else understands it wrong.

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