BMCR 2024.04.04

Jesus among the gods: early Christology in the Greco-Roman world

, Jesus among the gods: early Christology in the Greco-Roman world. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2022. Pp. xi, 480. ISBN 9781481316750.

In the last decades much attention has been paid to divine mediators and divinized humans in the Hellenistic world in comparison with the divine identity that Christians attributed to Jesus Christ. The interest in such divine beings is prompted by the striking correspondences between the titles and functions assigned to them and quite similar designations given to Christ. Every reader is inevitably fascinated to discover that a Roman emperor could be called “divine son”, “son of God”, and “Lord and God”, that the book of Enoch often mentions the heavenly “Son of man”, that an ancient Hebrew manuscript extols the god Melchizedek for liberating God’s people from its iniquities, and that Philo of Alexandria and other Jewish authors introduce the Logos who mediates between God and his creatures, to mention but a few examples. All those who study the New Testament must feel that such contemporaneous representations of divinized humans and other heavenly beings are likely to have influenced the early veneration of Jesus after his earthly life. However, if so, the questions are, in what way and to what extent?

Michael F. Bird expertly discusses this topic and these questions in his latest book. Although he is not the first to investigate the relevant ancient literature on divine beings in comparison with early Christology, he does want to fill a gap that, at least in his perception, has been left open so far. In his first chapter, “Problematizing Jesus’ Divinity” (39 pp.), he discusses the various meanings of the term “god”, a term which is not as self-evident as it may seem. To the Greeks and Romans there was a sliding scale of humans and gods, so that—as he admits—one might be inclined to associate the deification of emperors with the worship of Jesus. But how did this fit within Jewish monotheism? Although in the past quite possibly numerous Israelites worshiped other gods beside YHWH, by the beginning of the Common Era the Jewish conception of the one and Most High God had prevailed, so that only worship of this God was permitted, despite other divine or semi-divine beings that existed beside him (angels called elim or elohim [gods], the Logos, etc.). In order to clarify the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ who was believed to be his divine son, Christians soon started to use the distinctions of Hellenistic philosophy to attain “clarity, coherence, and consensus on the doctrine of God.” Bird does not deplore this development, maintaining that in this way Christianity could “participate in the main discourses of ancient religion and philosophy.” The only debatable element in this quotation is the optimistic view that “consensus” on the doctrine of God might be achieved with the help of Hellenistic philosophy, since conflicting theologies and christologies continued to exist for centuries; this is in fact admitted by Bird later on as well.

In the second chapter, “The Search for Divine Ontology” (44 pp.), Birds puts his cards on the table. He argues that in the ancient Greek and Roman world there were two classes of divinity that should not be confused, viz. eternal divinity by nature and relative divinity by merit. He quotes several examples of this distinction in Herodotus, Plato, Chrysippus, Diodorus Siculus, Cicero, and more. Therefore it is important to realize that although emperors were assimilated to gods, they were not incarnations of the supreme deity (Jupiter, Zeus), but rather there was “a public association of the emperor with a supreme deity.” When in worship they were elevated to the highest degree of divinity, this confirms that there was a basic distinction between the two levels of divinity. Thus Bird demonstrates that being called “god” does not necessarily imply an absolute divine ontology, since such divinity may have a relative and honorific status. In his view, even the supreme elevation of deceased emperors proves an awareness of divine ontology, entailing that a god is not always a god in the same sense. This also holds for the Jewish tradition, in which people like Moses could be called “god” because of their special relationship with the Jewish god. Terms used for absolute gods were, for example, uncreated, everlasting, imperishable, and immortal. Bird then quotes more non-Jewish philosophers, the New Testament, and the Jewish and Christian authors Philo of Alexandria, Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, the Epistle to Diognetus and some Gnostic works from which the two classifications of absolute and relative divinity may be deduced or in which they were used explicitly. He argues that the concepts of Christ’s pre-existence and extremely close association with the eternal god of the New Testament and in later Christian writings, including Gnostic works, testify to an absolutely divine ontological christology. In his conclusion of the second chapter, however, Bird acknowledges that this identification of Jesus’ absolute divinity was not necessarily immediate or universal, and that views of his absolute divinity were not all the same. Yet he opposes a dichotomy between the New Testament’s supposedly “functional christology” and the “Platonic/ontological christology” of the patristic period. In his view, the conception of Jesus as “true God” was not a product of Platonism adopted by later Christian authors, but went back to early Christians.

With this firm conclusion the book has reached p. 84 and might have ended here, but there is more after its first part. The second part, starting with chapter three, “Putting Jesus in His Place” (pp. 87-114), surveys a sample of similar works on early Christology in relation to other intermediary figures by nine other scholars, including James Dunn, Richard Bauckham, Martin Hengel, Larry Hurtado, and Adela Collins, whose conclusions deviate from Bird’s to a larger or far lesser extent. Next, in order to found his views on a broader research than the one presented in his first two chapters, he undertakes an extensive comparison between the identity and role of Christ and other intermediary figures.

This fourth chapter, “Jesus and the ‘In-Betweeners’” takes up more than half of the whole book and nearly two thirds of its actual text, excluding bibliography and indices. It contains an elaborate analysis of the various views of the demiurge, Logos, Wisdom, angels, exalted patriarchs, kings, and ruler cults in Greco-Roman philosophy, the Old Testament, Jewish authors, among whom Philo takes pride of place, the New Testament, and proto-orthodox and heterodox authors. This rich survey might serve as an encyclopedia of these intermediate figures in ancient Judaism and Christianity and the Greco-Roman world, although one would need some time to leaf through the pages to find or retrieve a particular theme. The table of contents of these 265 pages numbers merely two lines, and there is no index of subjects. Some of Bird’s observations are that Arius’ association of Christ with the Old Testament Wisdom came down to an angel christology as reflected in Col. 1:15-16 and was an attempt to restore the Judeo-Christian monotheism of an earlier generation. According to the Valentinians too, in his analysis, Christ came from the angelic realm, which he summarizes as, “Without Christ the angel there is no salvation.” Thus alluding to Cyprian of Carthage, he makes an effort to formulate this in Latin as well, “Extra Christo Angelus non est salus,” but since the grammar here crunches terribly, he would have done better to leave this out. Despite correspondences between worship of Christ and the divine exaltation of the patriarchs Adam, Enoch, Moses, and Elijah, Bird concludes that Christ was supposed to have received a higher scale of divinity. The same holds, in his perception, for the ancient cults of rulers, including Old Testament testimonies. He concedes that Christians did source their Christ devotion from ancient ruler worship, but also points to the differences; for instance, “early Jesus devotion was not expressed by the establishment of a new temple with its own cult to Jesus.” Bird highlights that Jesus was worshiped alongside and in unity with Israel’s god, finding this in the New Testament and in many other early Christian works.

The concluding chapter 5, “Setting Jesus apart from Demiurges, Deities, Daemons, and Divi” (31 pp.), draws the conclusions of this work. To Bird, the similarities between portrayals of Jesus and various intermediary figures are undeniable, as well as the differences. He notes that no single figure can be regarded as a progenitor of early christology or can be considered the hermeneutic key that explains its development. He sees early christology as innovative since it puts Jesus on the level of the god of Israel. Provocatively he calls Jesus “a Jewish deity of the Greco-Roman world,” or more precisely, “an embodiment and expression of the God of Israel’s person and power.” He rightly observes that in spite of parallels from Greco-Roman literature, the New Testament and other early Christian citations from and allusions to Greek versions of the scriptures surpass these parallels overwhelmingly. Early confessions of Christ can only be understood “in light of the Jewish scriptural narrative,” and likewise, only the Jewish religion could transform into a beginning trinitarianism. Bird contests that highlighting the Jewish background is an apologetic strategy, apparently as charged by “J.Z. Smith’s famous monograph,” the title of which he unfortunately fails to mention.

All in all this work has been written both with great erudition and with a clear passion. It is a fundamental study in the continuing search for the origins and developments of christology. It may well cause uneasiness and arouse criticism among those who shrink from the conclusions, but the strength of Bird’s passionate plea is that he lets the ancient texts speak for themselves. For all this praise the present reviewer also has some minor critical observations. I will pass over the few questions that I have about some sentences, and focus instead on formal matters. I found only a few printing errors and one twisted, grammatically incorrect sentence in the running text, but relatively many errors in the Latin and transcribed Greek quotations. Perhaps Word’s (not the Logos’s!) correction function skewed the words (e.g. imitatur > imitator; phainomenoi > phenomenoi) and a proof reader’s knowledge of these languages was insufficient to correct them. Other examples that cannot be blamed on Word are Christ Imperatorus for Christus Imperator, theou ex theou for theos ex theou, synavestraphē for synanestraphē, christologie for christologica. These are regrettable—though minor—flaws in this excellent work. To conclude, as noted above, two desiderata in a second edition are a detailed table of contents and an index of subjects. However, the book does include comprehensive indices of modern authors and ancient sources.