Chapter 1, “Divine Humans in Ancient Greece and Rome” in Bart D. Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of the Jewish Preacher from Galilee examines how people in the Graeco-Roman Mediterranean understood the divide between deity and humanity. He proposes three models: (1) gods who temporarily become human; (2) divine beings born of a god and a mortal; (3) a human who becomes divine.
Ehrman uses several example: Apollonius, believed to be the Son of Zeus in the third century CE (pp. 11-15); the myth of Jupiter and Mercury visiting Phrygia in the image of humans thought actually gods (pp. 18-21); Hercules; Alexander the Great (pp. 21-24); Romulus; Julius Caesar; Caesar Augustus and many who would be honored in the Emperor Cult; the philosopher Peregrinus (pp. 24-39). All of these figures are examples that fit into the above categories. Some were truly gods who were perceived to be human. There is an early Christology to match that —Docetism. Some were humans who became gods. There is an early Christology to match that — Adoptionism. Some were born of god and mortal, which is how some interpret the virgin birth narratives, though as Ehrman notes:
In none of the stories of the divine humans born from the union of a god and a mortal is the mortal a virgin. This is one of the ways that the Christian stories of Jesus differ from those of other divine humans in the ancient world. It is true that (the Jewish) God is the one who makes Jesus’s mother Mary pregnant through the Holy Spirit (see Luke 1: 35). But the monotheistic Christians had far too an exalted view of God to think that he could have temporarily become human to play out his sexual fantasies (p. 24).
What we can see is that as the early Church wrestled with how to speak of Jesus as divine there were models available. There were those who spoke of Jesus as merely appearing human. There are those who spoke of him as truly human, but becoming a deity. There are those who found him to be a human born of a divine father. Ehrman interprets the ancients to have understood the human-god divide as “two continuums” which “sometimes meet at the high end of the one and the low end of the other (p. 39).”
Ehrman calls this “the Divine Pyramid” where there one can be a lower human, higher human, part human and deity, lower deity, higher deity. For Ehrman the question becomes, “How did Jesus move from being a human to being God— in any sense (p. 43)?” In his view the fourth century understanding of Jesus as “God” doesn’t quite match the earliest meaning of this language. He writes,
It will become clear in the following chapters that Jesus was not originally considered to be God in any sense at all, and that he eventually became divine for his followers in some sense before he came to be thought of as equal with God Almighty in an absolute sense. But the point I stress is that this was, in fact, a development (p. 44).
Quickly he anticipates the first rebuttal: so what if this is what people with a Hellenized worldview thought of gods and humans, Jesus and his earliest followers were Jews. To this he responds while ending this chapter:
…even though Jews were distinct from the pagan world around them in thinking that only one God was to be worshiped and served, they were not distinct in their conception of the relationship of that realm to the human world we inhabit. Jews also believed that divinities could become human and humans could become divine (p. 46).
In my next post I will look at Chapter 2, “Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism” from Ehrman’s book before transitioning over to a couple of posts on Michael Bird’s chapters in the response book.