The gods, us humans, and all the stops in between
Part 3 in a series exploring Bart Ehrman's, "How Jesus Became God," in which we cover the continuum of the divine realm in the minds of ancient Greeks and Romans.
This is an ongoing series exploring Bart Ehrman’s bestselling book, How Jesus Became God.
CHAPTER 1: DIVINE HUMANS IN ANCIENT GREECE AND ROME
The goal of Chapter 1 is to introduce the reader to the idea that the ancient view of the divine realm looked very different than it does today.
Up until the third or fourth century AD (when the Christian religion flattened out its various theological ideas into a singular, unified vision for what orthodox belief ought be), people more or less saw the human and the divine realm as existing on a sort of spectrum. Not only were there various degrees of divinity (some gods were up at the top of the hierarchy, other lesser gods under that, still other kinds of divine or semi-divine figures further down, and so on), but it was commonly believed that a being or person might move up and down the ladder of divinity.
In other words, a human being might move up in the divine spectrum and be seen as divine, and/or a divine being might travel downwards toward the human realm and be understood as now being (more) human.
Today, when you and I think about something like a divine realm (a place where God or gods might exist) we typically imagine a vast chasm between that realm and our human realm. Humans exist here, in this space, and God (or the gods) exist out/up there in an entirely different space. Not only do the two not really overlap, but it’s a very distinct difference between the realms.
As mentioned in Part 1 in this series, the question at the heart of the book, “How did Jesus become God,” sounds strange to many people’s ears because not only do many people start with the assumption that Jesus has always been “God,” but we also impart our view of the human/divine realm on to such a question. Meaning, we hear that question and we think it must mean that people believed that Jesus started as a human (here in our realm) and then made a significant leap into an entirely different and vastly separate realm (the heavenly, divine one). But, as Chapter 1 points out, this kind of thinking was not the dominant view in Ancient Greece or Rome (or even Israel, as the next chapter will show).
In the ancient worldview, the differences between human and divine were a matter of degrees, not the binary we think of today. Rather than ask, “Did these ancient people think of so-and-so as divine,” we will more closely get to the heart of ancient sensibilities by asking, “In what sense did they think of them as divine?”
That clause, “in what sense,” is key to understanding Ehrman’s thesis in this book. The original disciples of Jesus came to believe that Jesus was divine in a different sense than what later (in the fourth century) became codified as orthodox Christology.
This “continuum of the divine realm,” as Ehrman calls it, points to the way in which people in Ancient Greece and Roman believed that one might be understood as “divine” even if they weren’t simultaneously thought of as God in the highest, strictest sense. A being/person might ascend up the continuum, toward the highest point, aka, the Biggest Most Powerful Creator God, and yet still be thought of as, and even worshiped as, “divine” along the way.
Understanding the existence of this “continuum of the divine realm” matters not only because, as I mentioned in Part 2 of this series we must understand the historical and cultural context of ancient literature such as the Bible if we are to have any hope of understanding what was originally intended or understood, but also because Ehrman posits that the earliest Christians—when thinking about the divinity of Jesus—did so within the “continuum of the divine realm” mindset. This will come up in later chapters, but to illustrate what I mean Ehrman suggests that some of the first followers of Jesus, upon reflecting on the resurrection story, concluded that Jesus was an Angel of the Lord.
Worthy of worship? You bet.
But one and the same as God the Father and Creator? Not so much.
In our modern minds, this doesn’t make sense. One is either divine or not.
But in Ancient Greco-Roman minds, divinity is a spectrum.
Now, you might want to push back and say, “Well sure, I can appreciate that ancient Greeks and Romans believed in many gods, and demi-gods, and gods having sex with humans and making half-gods, and humans believing that other humans became like gods and so on... but Jesus was Jewish, and Christianity emerged out of Judaism, so why does any of that matter?”
Fair question. And that was also my thought while reading this chapter, too.
So I’ll end with the Ehrman’s final words 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)
Oh. Alrighty then.
That’s where we’ll pick it up next week.
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
THANKS FOR ALL THE LOVE
Last week I retired my live-streaming show, The Alter. In response, you all poured out so much love and encouragement and kindness. Thank you for understanding that it was time for me to move on to other endeavors.
Speaking of other endeavors, I’ve been in the lab cooking up something I AM SO EXCITED ABOUT.
But it’s not ready to discuss publicly just yet 😁
Trust me. You’ll know when it’s time.
This gives perspective on how the doctrine that Jesus was fully man and fully God formed. Also, gives background on the concept of a trinity. Thanks, Colby.
Out of curiousity, have you ever explored some of the forms of unitarianism? I'm biased, but it feels like unitarianism is a better fit to how Jesus is shown in the bible compared to the trinitarianism of the councils and worthy of being explored.