Chapter 2, “Divine Human in Ancient Judaism” in Bart D. Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of the Jewish Preacher from Galilee continues the discussion started in Chapter 1, “Divine Humans in Ancient Greece and Rome”. In that chapter he presented three models for divine-humans found in Graeco-Roman mythology: (1) gods who temporarily become human; (2) divine beings born of a god and a mortal; (3) a human who becomes divine. While the Jews were not able to completely resist being Hellenized there did remain many beliefs and practices peculiar to this people. The most obvious would be their dedication to a singular supreme deity. Yet, as Ehrman cautions, we’d be mistaken to think that this meant the same thing to each and every Jew. 

While we often speak of first century Jews as being “monotheistic”—i.e., believing in the existence of and worshipping a single deity—it may be more accurate to speak of many ancient Israelites and their Jewish descendants as henotheist, i.e., “the view that there are other gods, but there is only one God who is to be worshiped (p. 53).” That said, many Jews would have gone a step further denying that the other gods are gods at all. But what did this mean pragmatically? While many Jews may have thought there is only one true deity, one supreme deity, and may even have considered other deities’ claims to be “gods” to be false claims, this doesn’t mean that they thought of humanity and deity as the only two options. All talk of “angels, cherubim, and seraphim” is essentially that of “lower-level divinities” (p. 53). Ehrman writes, “we find Jewish authors referring to such entities as principalities, dominions, powers, and authorities— unnamed divine beings in the heavenly realm who are active as well here on earth (e.g., Eph. 6: 12; Col. 1: 16) (p. 54).”

For Ehrman:

The point is this: even within Judaism there was understood to be a continuum of divine beings and divine power, comparable in many ways to that which could be found in paganism. This was true even among authors who were strict monotheists. They may have believed that there was only one supreme being who could be called God Almighty, just as some pagan philosophers thought there was only one ultimate true god above all the others at the top of the “pyramid.” And some, possibly most, Jews insisted that this one God alone was to be worshiped. But there were other Jews whom we know about who thought it was altogether acceptable and right to worship other divine beings, such as the great angels. Just as it is right to bow down before a great king in obeisance to him, they believed it is right to bow down before an even greater being, an angel, to do obeisance (p. 54).

In order to discuss the human-divine continuum Ehrman presents Jewish thought along the lines of three categories roughly paralleling those he used of Graeco-Roman mythology: “…divine beings who temporarily become human, semidivine beings who are born of the union of a divine being and a mortal, and humans who are, or who become, divine (p. 55).”

This is a summary of some of the texts, and figures presented within those texts, that Ehrman presents to make his case:

Divine Beings Who Temporarily Become Human:

In this section he discusses “the Angel of the Lord” from Genesis 16, 18 and the similar depiction (though as a burning bush) in Exodus 3. There is a thine line between the Angel itself as the representative of YHWH and YHWH’s own being (pp. 55-56). In Psalm 82 and Job 1 we find angels described as humans entering into the divine council. Ehrman observes the punishment for unjust angels in Psalm 82:7 is that they are cursed with mortality. In the Prayer of Joseph the patriarch Jacob speaks of himself as “the archangel of the power of the Lord” who “appears as a human being on earth” (p. 58). The Apocalypse of Abraham we meet Jaoel, an angel who appears “in the likeness of a man” (pp. 56-59). Daniel 7’s “Son of Man” may fit here. This figure is developed further in 1 Enoch 37-71 (pp. 64-67).


Semidivine Beings Who are Born of the Union of a Divine Being and a Moral:

Ehrman notes that the God of Israel is never presented as being lusty, like Zeus, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t the idea of divine beings have sex with humans. Genesis 6 is the primary example where the “sons of God” create children with the “daughters of men” producing the Nephilim (cf. “the Watchers” of 1 Enoch 1-36) (pp. 60-63).

Humans Who Are, or Who Become, Divine:

Some texts where humans become angels include 2 Baruch where the righteous will one day become like angels. Enoch may be qualify (Gen. 5:24; cf. 2 En.). Ehrman hints that Deuteronomy 34:5-6 may suggest something similar of Moses (cf. Sirarch 45.1-5; Life of Moses 2.228, pp. 59-61, 81-82). In Exodus 4:16 God makes Moses a god unto Pharaoh and this was interpreted by some to mean Moses was divine (pp. 79-82: Philo’s Sacrifices of Abel and Cain 9-10; Life of Moses  1.27; 1.156-157). Israel’s King as “Son of God” can be considered semi-divine as well (pp. 76-79: 2 Sam. 7:12-14; Pss. 2:7; 45:6-7 89.27; 110:1; Is. 9:6-7). Like the rulers of Egypt and Rome the “Son of God” was thought to be in some sense divine, though “not on par with the great gods, any more than the Roman emperor was thought to be on a par with Jupiter or Mars (p. 78).”

Alongside these examples we have more ambiguous ideas. Ehrman mentions Alan Segal’s study of the “two-powers in heaven” heresy combated by rabbis that suggested that there was God and another figure in heaven: “…the “heretical” notion of two powers maintained that the second power was either some kind of angel or a mystical manifestation of a divine characteristic thought to be in some sense equal with God (p. 68)”. Texts like the “us” and “our” of Genesis 1:26 or the seeming contradiction between seeing God in Exodus 24:9-10 and the claim that he can’t be seen without dying in Exodus 33:20, as well as the aforementioned “Son of Man” figure from Daniel 7, seem to have been the root cause of this speculation (pp. 67-69). Also, we have the personification of God’s attributes where the attribute is of God yet distinct from God like “Wisdom” (Prov. 8; Wisdom, esp. 7-9) and “Word” (1 Sam. 3:1, 6?; Philo, esp. Agriculture 51; Dreams 1.230; Questions on Genesis 2.62; etc.)

Ehrman concludes this chapter saying:

It is absolutely the case that by the time of Jesus and his followers most Jews were almost certainly monotheists. But even as they believed that there was only one God Almighty, it was widely held that there were other divine beings— angels, cherubim, seraphim, principalities, powers, hypostases. Moreover, there was some sense of continuity— not only discontinuity— between the divine and human realms….Thus, even within a strict monotheism, there could be other divine beings and the possibility of a gradation of divinity. And even among Jews at the time of Jesus there was not a sense of an absolute break, a complete divide, an unbridgeable chasm between the divine and the human (p. 83).

What does this mean for our understanding of Jesus’ divinity? Is Jesus more like an angel or an exalted human? In the next post I will shift my attention to the response given by Michael Bird in How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature —A Response to Bart D. Ehrman. This will allow us to consider both sides of the debate.