Jesus among the Gods
Early Christology in the Greco-Roman World
- ISBN: 9781481316750
- Published By: Baylor University Press
- Published: October 2022
In Jesus Among the Gods: Early Christology in the Greco-Roman World, Michael F. Bird sets out to situate the early Christology of Jesus of Nazareth in the context of Judaism and Greco-Roman religion and philosophy. He then compares Jesus with other divine figures present during the same period. One aim is to develop a taxonomy of divinity present in the early Christian context. He poses this as a question of “divine ontology,” what is the nature of God, and Jesus’ own relation to the divine. This is compared to other divinity figures whether Jewish or Greco-Roman (ix, 2). He refers to this project, pursued with other scholars, as a contemporary History of Religion School (Religiongeschtliche Schule) (1-2).
In developing a taxonomy of divinities, he sees two major types “absolute” and “honorific”. Here gods were eternal/uncreated (absolute), or created and deified (2). In Jesus’ case, he was born of an earthly mother, yet also viewed as the pre-existent creator. The author seeks to discover analogues of Jesus in Jewish and Greco-Roman religion to ascertain how Jesus is related. Bird thinks that intermediary figures such as angels, exalted fathers, deified emperors, and such are genuinely illuminating, but don’t explain the origins of Christian belief in Jesus’ divinity (3). For Bird, “Jesus is, then, a bit like a Jewish Hercules, an apotheosized Augustus, or an archangel, but he is a lot like the Jewish deity Yahweh” (3). Therefore, Jesus is more Jewish yet divine. A question also raised is whether early understandings of Jesus are like that presented in the Nicene Creed (325 CE) which declared Jesus “true God from true God,” “begotten not made,” and “of one substance with the Father” (37-39).
An initial move by Bird is to examine how Jesus’ deity was viewed within the early church (1st-2nd century). The identification of Jesus with absolute divinity was not necessarily immediate or universal. Some Christian groups may have seen his humanity and suffering as an obstacle to belief in Jesus’ divinity. He writes that there are tangible differences in the context and content of early images of Jesus such as with the Synoptic gospels, John’s Gospel, the Apostle Paul, Justin Martyr, the Gnostic Valentinus, and Origen (83). Nevertheless, Bird thinks that New Testament writers do identify Jesus as God, and with God’s being. Therefore, the more metaphysical depictions of Jesus’ divinity are already present in New Testament gospels and epistles which largely correspond to the Nicene Creed which is a more Greek translation of New Testament teaching.
However, the substance of the book is devoted to comparing early Christology with other deities and intermediary figures of the period (115-380). The author proceeds with an extended examination of demiurges, divine wisdom, angels, and ruler cults in Greece, Rome, and Judaism. Among his conclusions are that Jesus can be considered a divine being in the strongest sense of Greco-Roman religion (382-383). In other words, Jesus was an “absolute divinity”. Ruler cults were “a significant sociopolitical and religious factor of the ancient middle east” also affecting Judaism and early Christianity. However, for early Christian devotion of Jesus, they were not the determinative factor for early Christology which placed Jesus “in distinct proximity to God’s being, sovereignty, identity, and worship” (379). Jesus’ kingship and royalty quickly became connected with belief in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and exaltation (379). He concludes that though intermediaries whether Jewish or Greco-Roman are relevant to how Christians conceived of Jesus as a divine agent they are insufficient to explain why divinity was attributed to Jesus, why he was made the object of divine worship and shared the divine nature with God the Father (380). Therefore, no single other intermediary figure can be considered a progenitor or interpretive key for explaining the rise and development of early Christology. Early Christology though having some relationship with Greco-Roman religion and philosophy is not derived from it and shows a greater affinity with Judaism.
The book is a record of the author’s comparative assessments and is appropriate for scholars or students. It contains thirty pages of bibliography and substantial indexes from both ancient and modern authors (though no general index). Bird’s approach avoids the traditional examination of specific names and titles of Christ found in the New Testament such as “son of God,” “son of man,” “Lord,” even “Jesus Christ”. While early Christian comparison with other Greco-Roman deities and Jewish intermediary figures is its strength, it does not delve deeply into analysis of early Christian writings. His assessment differs from some contemporary scholarship such as Bart Ehrman’s on who Jesus thought he was. Also, the author’s conclusions are in significant contrast to a previous Religiongeschtliche Schule of German academia. In that former Schule, early Christian religion was thought more largely derived from the Greco-Roman environment.
Instead, Bird finds in early Christology a more fundamental relationship with Judaism. However, there are difficulties with any such comparison whether to Judaism or Greco-Roman religion. Within early Christianity, Christology was not uniform. Jesus appears not universally viewed as divine in the same way. And comparing early Christology with Greco-Roman counterparts can be like comparing apples to oranges, making it difficult to determine a relationship. That can help make the author’s general argument and his conclusions. Depicted in the New Testament as pre-existent creator and one born human, living, dying, and rising again for humanity and cosmic plight, Jesus stands out as unique. Bird is not claiming his understanding is final. He is calling for participation in the quest to understand who Jesus was and where he came from, his “divine ontology”. As Jesus was reported asking, “Who do you say I am”?
John Mauger is a doctoral candidate in religion at Claremont Graduate University.John MaugerDate Of Review:October 30, 2023