Even ancient Israelites saw Divinity along a continuum
Part 4 in a series exploring Bart Ehrman's, "How Jesus Became God," in which we discover how Jewish sacred texts reveal surprising insight into the fluidity of divinity.
This is an ongoing series exploring Bart Ehrman’s bestselling book, How Jesus Became God.
Chapter 2: Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism
Last week I gave a brief overview of the opening chapter in which Ehrman paints a picture of a very differing understanding of the cosmos for ancient Romans and Greeks than we have today.
Namely, that the gap between the heavenly realm (where divine beings reside) and the earthy realm (for us mere mortals) was seen as a spectrum. Where one might not only ascend and descend (meaning: divine beings becoming more mortal, and vice versa), but also how it is that a being/person could be thought of as “divine” in different senses, to the point where a particular person or being might be believed to be worthy of admiration and worship, yet still not seen as being equal to a Most High God.
However, one reader over on Instagram remarked:
The problem I see is that the "spectrum" idea is very Roman --- and very counter to Judaism. And early followers of the Way were very Jewish!
To be fair, this person admitted they didn’t read last week’s article but were just responding to my Instagram post promoting the article. Had they read it, they might’ve seen how I ended last week using the closing lines from Chapter 1:
“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.” (pg 45)
That sentence, “Jews also believed that divinities could become human and humans could become divine” startled me when I first read it. My understanding was similar to the commenter above on IG, which is to say, I assumed ancient Jews had a similar concept of divinity as we do today in our modern world.
But Chapter 2 shows why that kind of thinking doesn’t hold up to a historical analysis of ancient Jewish literature (both the Bible as well as non-canonical texts).
THE SURPRISING MONOTHEISM OF ANCIENT JUDAISM
While it’s extremely difficult to state with any certainty or clarity “What ancient Jews believed,” (just imagine, 1000 years from now, trying to sum up “What Christians believed” in the year 2000! Lol, impossible), Ehrman does attempt to establish some kind of baseline for general beliefs in and around the time of Jesus.
He makes two basic observations at the outset.
It would appear that, rather than ancient Israelites being monotheists (or at least, always having been monotheists), it’s most likely that they were what scholars have called henotheists. If monotheism is the view that there is, in fact, only one God, and polytheism maintains that there are many gods, henotheism is the view that yes, sure, there are other gods, but there is only one God who is to be worshiped. This is seen most clearly in the Ten Commandments, the central guiding force of the Israelites: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” -Exodus 20:2-3. Such a command only makes sense in a context where there were, conceivably, “other gods” whom might compete for primacy.
The Hebrew Bible also provides ample evidence that ancient Jews believed there existed other superhuman divine beings who lived/existed in the heavenly realm and who had godlike powers and qualities—even though they were clearly understood to be distinct from the ultimate God. Angels, cherubim, seraphim were all fantastically powerful beings far above humans, yet also seen as lower-level divinities.
The point here is that it isn’t quite accurate to say that a continuum of divinity was solely an artifact of Ancient Greek or Roman thought. Such a continuum existed in ancient Israelites as well, and we can see it for ourselves throughout the Old Testament.
A DIVINE CONTINUUM IN JEWISH LITERATURE
The majority of Chapter 2 is devoted to the multiple instances in the Hebrew Scriptures where we find some iteration of the following:
Divine beings that who temporarily became human (such as the stories about the Angel of the Lord who appears as either a being separate from God Almighty, or, possibly a kind of human manifestation of God Almighty)
Other Divine Beings as God and Humans (such as the “divine council” among “other gods” in Psalm 82; the “sons of God” that God consults at the beginning of Job; and other Jewish books (apart from the OT) that tell stories of divine beings becoming human to interact with mortals).
Humans who become angels (2 Baruch tells of righteous believers who will be transformed into the splendor of angels; other Jewish texts that imagine Enoch—the old Genesis guy who never died, but “walked with God and was no more (Gen 5:24)—eventually being transformed by God, through Michael, into a glorious, angelic divine being; other texts that describe a similar future transformation for Moses, whom God made “equal in glory to the holy ones,” speaking of the angels).
Ehrman’s goal so far in Chapter 2, as I understand it, is to wake up the reader to data that we might have previously heard or read, but not processed fully.
In other words, sure we all know the stories of the “Angel of the Lord,” and we’ve read the accounts of the cherubim and seraphim and all that, but I’m not convinced many of us understand what such stories and descriptions mean for how the mind of an ancient Jew processed things such as the relationship between the divine realm and the human realm.
I’ll cover the rest of Chapter 2 next week, but let’s sum up what we’ve covered thus far. From page 61:
“The Angel of the Lord is sometimes portrayed in the Bible as being the Lord God himself, and he sometimes appears on earth in human guise. Still other angels—the members of God’s divine council—are called gods and are made mortals. And yet other angels make their appearances on earth in human form... Some Jewish texts talk about humans becoming angels at death—or even superior to angels and worthy of worship.”
The goal of this book (if you recall) is to postulate how it is that the early church evolved from seeing Jesus as a preacher from Galilee to viewing him as equal to God the Father.
One important step is to consider how Jews, during Jesus time, might’ve developed an accommodation for the idea that Jesus was resurrected, which had to mean that he was divine in some sense, all the while still holding to their monotheistic tradition.
And that, I think, is worth pondering on.
How did an everyday Jewish individual, firmly committed to the One True God, how did they make space in that belief structure for the possibility of Jesus also being God?
Such a leap strikes me as massive.
It had to take time, and thought, and intention, and baby-steps.
Perhaps we can conceive how those baby-steps transpired by understanding how it is that ancient Jews (similar to ancient Greeks/Romans) saw the relationship of divinity-to-humanity as a kind of spectrum.
With this in mind, we might begin to imagine how the exaltation (“He must be God!”) of a flesh-and-blood Rabbi from Nazareth might’ve occurred.
READ THE REST OF THE SERIES
Part 1: Did you hear the one about Jesus “becoming” God?
Part 2: We Can't Just Simply Read the Bible (Alone) and Declare It Sufficient for Comprehension
Part 3: The gods, us humans, and all the stops in between