Desiring Divinity

Self-Deification in Early Jewish and Christian Mythmaking

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M. David Litwa
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A doctrine central to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and one that is gaining attention in other Christian faith traditions is theosis—or deification. The significance of this doctrine for humanity in relation to God can hardly be overemphasized. M. David Litwa is clearly aware of this and has devoted a great deal of research and writing to this subject. In his recent work, Desiring Divinity: Self-Deification in Early Jewish and Christian Mythmaking Litwa provides six noteworthy examples from ancient myths of people who self-proclaimed their deity to others, and elucidates the impact of such claims for personal transformation and social revolution. It is obvious that Litwa has thoroughly researched the available resources on this subject given the extensive footnotes and a bibliography comprising a third of the book’s contents. His work is to be lauded for its scholastic contributions to this field of study and for its accessibility to a potentially wider audience.

The six examples Litwa provides are neatly divided into two types—the rebel and the hero—so this book is comprised of two halves, each with three examples. Simply stated, the rebel is one who asserts their exclusive claim to deity and, in so doing, displaces any other being’s claim to ultimate authority. The hero, on the other hand, is one who, although claiming to be a deity, acknowledges that their participation is often in subordination to an ultimate deity.

The rebel, in displacing another’s claim to deity, introduces upheaval into existing societal structures and ideologies, resulting in conflict by which to achieve ultimate supremacy. In ancient Jewish and Christian myths such figures are met with violent resistance ending in subjugation and alienation, and all in demonstration and affirmation of the ultimate power of the prevailing deity.

In contrast to the rebel, the hero is united with the ultimate deity in such a way as to appear divine as well—often in such a way as to obfuscate significant distinctive characteristics of deity over and against those of humans—and is often an emissary and/or exemplar to those around them. If they meet with resistance, it is from those who reject their claim to deity—not God; and for those who embrace them, evidences of deity in the form of miracles and/or moral rectitude affirm such claims.

After reading and assimilating the material covered in this book, I offer a few reflections. In the section dealing with the rebel, it appears that Litwa is claiming Jewish myth as being guilty of portraying Yahweh in much the same way as those deemed rebels. They both make self-deifying claims, seek to illicit worship, exercise their power over others often using violence, and claim to be the highest authority. In fact, Litwa cites the Gnostics as rejecting Yahweh of the Jewish scriptures for these very reasons. A reasonable conclusion appears to be that the rebel, and their fate, serves as the foil to the God of the Jews whose supremacy over all is thereby extolled to instill submission and obedience to him.

In the section dealing with the heroes, it is clear that no matter what the example, tensions exist in each one. Most notable are Jesus’s claims that rise to a level which obscures distinctions to the One conferring deity. For the Jew, Jesus displaces Yahweh—no room for another God in monotheism—and for the Christian, Jesus’s deity is emphasized to the point of obscuring the rightful focus on the Father. It could be asserted that misunderstandings and misrepresentations are the cause of the tensions, not the actual deity of Jesus. Is this not typically the case in conflicting narratives?

In concluding this fascinating study into self-deification found in two major religious traditions, Litwa rightly points out the danger posed to society by the self-deifier. He broadens the scope to include all forms of self-deification, rather than those strictly limited to mere mortals. His final sentence reads, “We must accept and cherish our humanness before we fathom becoming gods” (147). This exhortation is both honorable and worthy of acceptance by all. Most of us can readily recall examples of brutal dictators puffed up in their own imaginations and seeing themselves as gods. And, on a more personal level, lesser persons, equally as megalomaniacal—often using scriptures to buttress their arrogant claims—whose resultant behavior has brought chaos into the lives of others. However, overlooked in this book is the possibility of a radiant depiction of loving and mutual communion between deity and humanity that does not inflate the head of the participant, but swells the heart to seek the good in the Other over the self. We see this absence of grasping at deity for self-aggrandizement beautifully portrayed in Philippians chapter 2, and as exemplified by Christ in that same chapter. When we accept our humanness—“jars of clay” in 2 Cor. 4:7—and then comprehend the treasure deposited in us by a loving God who “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6), we will not merely cherish our humanness, we will also cherish the deity who so graciously drew us into communion with Him. The brilliance of this relationship and its potential for moral and societal change for the good of all ought to be the desire for deity held by all.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin Staley is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
February 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

M. David Litwa earned his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia (2013). He has taught in the Classics departments of the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary. His most recent books include Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God (2014) and a new edition of the Refutation of all Heresies: Text, Translation, and Notes (2015).


Mark Caponigro

Just to be clear: 1. The concept of "théôsis" in Eastern Orthodoxy, as an alternative or complement to what in Western Christianity is referred to as "salvation," would seem to have nothing at all to do with what M. David Litwa and Kevin Staley are referring to as "self-deification." Even the saintliest Christian will never pronounce him/herself "divine"; and if after death the Christian enters into full union with God, whether we can speak of "sanctification" or "deification," it is always understood that it is God who is doing the sanctifying or deifying.

2. There is no evidence that the historical Jesus pronounced himself to be either God or a god, though of course it is soon enough that his divinity becomes a central feature of orthodox belief. We should remember that the title "Son of God" is quite ambivalent, and often misleadingly so. In the New Testament we find at least three quite different meanings that the title may bear. First, seeing that the historical Jesus (as discoverable from the best old traditions) seems to have accepted the title "Christ," meaning a royal figure chosen by God for a particular sacred task, we should remember that in Israelite history, the anointing of the king was accompanied by the liturgical proclamation of the king (the "christ") as God's son; cf. Psalm 2. In that case, the essence of the christ remains fully human, and does not become divine. Secondly, in the two brief accounts of the virginal conception of Jesus, in Matthew 1 and Luke 1, Jesus can be said to be "son of God" only because it was God who made his human mother Mary pregnant with him, and not because he was a pre-existent divine being. Thirdly, it is only in those texts particularly supportive of a "high christology," especially the three hymns in Philippians 2, Colossians 1, and the Prologue to the Gospel according to John, is it possible to speak of Jesus as being a pre-existent divine being; and "son of God" is applicable only to the latter two, written toward the end of the first century.


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