Humans becoming God(like), plus other worship-worthy-Beings
Part 5 in a series exploring Bart Ehrman's, "How Jesus Became God." Establishing the ancient Jewish belief in humans becoming divine, and other god-like Beings.
This is an ongoing series exploring Bart Ehrman’s bestselling book, How Jesus Became God.
Chapter 2: Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism, cont’d
Travel back in time a couple millennia and your typical Greek or Roman individual conceptualized the separation between the divine realm (aka, where Divine Beings existed) and the human realm as a kind of continuum. Not only could beings in one realm transfer to the other (ie, gods become human, and humans become divine), but it wasn’t seen as an all-or-nothing binary of modes.
Meaning, to speak of “being divine” in these cultures didn’t mean what it would mean today. Today, if I said that so and so was divine, you’d assume I meant that they were God.
But back in ancient times you might follow up such a claim with, “divine in what sense?”
The Most High God Almighty?
A lesser kind of god?
Children of god and/or demi-gods?
Super powerful angelic beings that are cooler than humans but not-quite-gods?
You get the point.
Speaking of point, the one from last week’s article was all about how ancient Israelites were not altogether different from their Greek and Roman counterparts in this regard. Even within Judaism there was a sense that Beings could travel up and down the divine continuum, and that there was a kind of hierarchy or tiered-ness to divinity.
For today, here’s a brief overview of some instances from ancient Jewish religious texts that Ehrman suggests demonstrate this divine continuum within Judaism.
Divine Beings Who Beget Semidivine Beings
We’re all familiar with the Greek mythologies of Zeus (and other gods) making half-god babies by fornicating with humans, but I wonder how many Christians know that in their own Bible there is a very similar kind of tale?
In Genesis 6 we read,
1 Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, 2 that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose.
The “sons of God” (other translations say, “divine beings”) saw that human women were beautiful and so they “took wives for themselves.” I’m gonna go ahead and guess that such encounters were not envisioned to be entirely consensual, either.
The story goes on,
3 Then the LORD said, "My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years." 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward *, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
The Most High God was not pleased with this situation. However, instead of coming down hard on his sons and telling them to knock it off, God restricts how old humans could live: 120 years, that’s it. Then the narrator calls the semi-divine offspring of the “sons of God” and human women, the Nephilim, the mighty men of old, great warrior beings that weren’t quite gods, but definitely greater than humans.
Now, obviously I don’t read this story literally. I don’t think these things happened. The point to make here, though, is that even in the oldest minds of Israelite thinking existed an overlapping, transferrable nature between divine realm and human realm, with various modes or kinds of “divine beings.”
Other Nonhuman Divine Figures
In Daniel 7 we read about a vision Daniel had in which “one like a son of man” comes from the heavenly realm to deal with four beasts arising out of the chaos of the sea (the human realm). As the centuries unfolded after this piece of literature was written, subsequent Jewish thought came to understand Daniel’s vision as anticipating a future divine figure known as “the Son of Man.” In non-approved (meaning, not canonized by the Church) Jewish scripture/literature such as 1 Enoch, the “Son of Man” is said to be an especially anointed figure (“anointed” being the origin for the word, “Messiah”) who has always co-existed with God. This figure is exalted and worthy of worship—which is one of things we ought keep in mind as we continue to try and wrap our heads around how a strictly monotheistic religion such as Judaism came to a place of believing and proclaiming that “Jesus is God.”
Divine Manifestations of God that are also NOT God
Ehrman spends several pages showing how the Hebrew Scriptures speak often of ways in which attributes or charactersists of God were somehow seen as separate and distinct from God, and yet also divine in a way, too. He uses the term “Divine Hypostases” to name these manifestations.
One such Divine manifestation is Wisdom. In Proverbs 8 we read these words, spoken by Wisdom:
22 “The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old.
23 "From everlasting I was established, From the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth.
24 "When there were no depths I was brought forth, When there were no springs abounding with water.
25 "Before the mountains were settled, Before the hills I was brought forth;”
The passage goes on and Wisdom explains how they essentially partnered with God in the creation of the world. Not only that, but Wisdom makes this claim about themselves,
35 “For he who finds me finds life And obtains favor from the LORD.
36 "But he who sins against me injures himself; All those who hate me love death."
Again, whether or not this reflects a belief that there was/is an actual secondary divine figure (named Wisdom) who sits alongside God, as an equal, but is also separate, is not the point. The point is continuing to establish a kind of “belief in a divine continuum” even within Judaism itself.
The other word/term/idea that the Bible treats as a Divine Being like God (but not God) is the Word. There is waaaay more that can (and ought) be said about Word (the Greek word, Logos) than I’ll say here. In short, the Logos of God was seen by many in the ancient world as that which allows the divine to interact with the non divine. It connects spirit with matter. It is “logic” and reason, it is what we possess (as opposed to animals) that can connect us with God.
While this idea originated in Greek philosophy, it was easily adopted and connective with Jewish thought as well. Sometimes, even, the OT speaks of “the word of the Lord” as being one and the same as the Lord himself. A prominent Jewish philosopher during the time of Jesus, Philo of Alexandria, maintained that “the Logos was the highest of all beings, the image of God according to which and by which the universe is ordered” (pg 74). The Logos was seen as a divine being distinct from God in one sense, yet also very much God in another.
Humans Who Become Divine
Finally, the chapter ends with several examples of Old Testament stories/passages where men become divine.
Kings such as David were seen not just as great humans, but as men about whom God said, “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7). A human (David) described as being born of God!
And later, in Psalm 110:1, “The LORD says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hadn’t until I make your enemies your footstool.” The first LORD is God, speaking to the second Lord, an earthly King. God is sharing God’s glory, status, and honor for a (human) one that has been exalted.
Finally, in Psalm 45:6-7, the (human) king is being shockingly addressed as a God: “Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity; you love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”
Did you catch that? “God, your God,” has anointed you... the one first addressed as, “your throne, O God.” 😱
(Since this article is getting long enough, I won’t go in to it, but Ehrman also outlines how Moses was seen as a figure who was exalted by God to a kind of divine status. More glorious than humans, but less so than God Almighty.)
I’ll end this post with an extended quote from the end of chapter 2, because it summarizes well what we’ve covered so far.
“It may not have come as a huge surprise to learn that pagans who held to a range of polytheistic religious sometimes imagined that humans could be divine in some sense. It is more surprising, for most people, to learn that the same is true within Judaism. [By the time of Jesus,] it was widely held that there were other divine beings—angels, cherubim, seraphim, principalities, powers, hypostases. There was a kind of spectrum of divinity: the Angel of the Lord, already in scripture, could be both an angel and God. Angels were divine, and could be worshiped, but they could also come in human guise. Humans could become angels. Humans could be called the Son of God or even God. This did not mean that they were the One God who created heaven and earth; but it did mean that they could share some of the authority, status, and power of that One God. (page 83)
All this is necessary backdrop to better try and understand how it is that followers of Jesus, after his death, began to say he was God.
Now we know to ask, “God in what sense?”
Or, even, in what senses? Because it was a developing idea (according to Ehrman).
We’ve covered a lot, and it’s only two chapters so far.
I’d love to know what you think (if you’re following along)!
Is it new information for you to think about ancient Judaism having a worldview that holds space for divine beings, worthy of worship, who were not the same as their One True God?
How might this impact our consideration that the earliest followers of Jesus eventually came to see him “as God?”
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
Part 4: Even ancient Israelites saw Divinity along a continuum