How did Jesus become a God? (or How did Christianity begin?)

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by Neil Godfrey

(How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God?) raises some interesting points about how Christians came to worship Christ alongside God. He focuses on the role of personal revelation (hallucination?). My initial response to his book was to think that his explanation was as vacuous as saying “God did it”, and that it was not an explanation at all. Indeed, he finds it necessary to defend his explanation against other scholars who do not give it the time of day. But I have come to think there is probably more to what he is arguing than I first understood, although he would disagree with my slant.

(Hurtado’s problem is greater than mine, however, because he is seeking to explain how a historical human of recent memory was exalted to be worshiped alongside God, and I don’t think Hurtado’s explanation is sufficient to explain that. But it may well go some way towards helping explain the development of the exalted Christ concept alongside God that we find in Paul’s and other New Testament letters. Hurtado also expresses disapproval of interpreting revelatory experiences as psychopathology and downplays related personal and social crises factors.)

Hurtado asks

what might have moved Jews in touch with their religious tradition to feel free to offer to Jesus the kind of unparalleled cultic devotion that characterized early Christian religious practice? (p.198)

How exalted was Jesus Christ in early Christian thought?

Pretty high up.

God made life, the universe and everything else through Jesus, and Jesus keeps everyone alive and everything in existence now:

yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. (1 Cor. 8:6)

has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; (Hebrews 1:2)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. (Colossians 1:15-17)

And God has ordained that everything and everyone should worship him:

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

Is there anything unusual here?

Hurtado (rightly) struggles to understand how a mere mortal should be exalted to this God-status level and worshiped alongside God.

In fact, in my judgment, there is no full contemporary analogy. Putative analogies from the larger Roman-era religious scene, such as deified heroes/humans and the emergence of new deities, fail as genuine analogies, precisely because they require the “logic” of pagan polytheism. It is one thing to make room for a new additional deity, or to imagine some human figure being made a divinity worthy of worship, in a polytheistic scheme in which multiple deities, new deities, and apotheosis are all legitimate and inherent features of the religious outlook. It is quite another thing, however, in a fervently monotheistic stance, in which one God is exclusively the rightful recipient of worship and all else is distinguished as creation of this one God, to accommodate a second figure in cultic devotional practice and to conceive of a second figure as somehow sharing uniquely and genuinely in the attributes and exalted status of the one God. (p. 46)

Larry Hurtado might have added that not even pagan emperors who became deities were ever deemed to have been originally the beings through whom the whole universe was created and through whom its very existence continues to be maintained.

Jewish religious ideas did exalt other entities alongside God as his agent:

  • Wisdom (sharing in the creation of the world and sitting alongside God)
  • the Word (Logos) (a “second god” through whom God reveals himself)
  • Enoch; Jacob; Moses (e.g. the world was created for Moses)
  • Miscellaneous angels (e.g. Yahoel, who bore the divine name; Michael, the ruler of the angels)

But the difference is, as Hurtado points out, that none of these was the object of cultic devotion (and devotional expressions otherwise used of God alone) in the way Jesus was.

How did it happen?

Hurtado’s explanation is that such major religious innovations are sometimes triggered by “powerful revelatory experiences” of significant individuals. The early Christians

must have felt compelled by God to reverence Jesus in ways otherwise reserved for God alone. (p.198)

Hurtado discusses the many revelatory or visionary experiences alluded to throughout the New Testament. A few that I recall off-hand (the list may only partly reflect Hurtado’s discussions):

  • Paul’s conversion by revelation
  • Paul’s claim to have had many visions
  • Paul’s claim that the gospel is revealed by the spirit
  • The transfiguration
  • “Peter’s” reference in an epistle to the transfiguration
  • The visions experienced in the Book of Revelation
  • Other prophets described as having visions

And I am struck by how similar many of these are to claims found in “gnostic” literature. These several times portray a Jesus who either makes his “second coming” appearance to his disciples after his resurrection. And the death and resurrection couplet is itself not depicted as a particularly historical event. Will do a post on this, too, one day.

Social scientists, as Hurtado notes, focus on

such experiences as derivative phenomena, as the (dysfunctional) outcome of stressful social circumstances and the manifestation of psychopathology in the recipient. Thus, sociologists and anthropologists tend to focus on the social and cultural conditions that may be associated with religious experiences, and psychologists tend to look for personal psychological conditions that may be associated with them. .  .  .  .

Characteristically, social-science approaches assume one or another form of “deprivation theory,” whether the deprivation is regarded as deriving from social and cultural conditions or individual conditions (e.g. extreme stress . . . ) (pp.186-7)

Hurtado cites the work of anthropologist Anthony Wallace (noted for his work on revitalization movements) who has described a model based on research with the Iroquois of how new religious movements can emerge through psychologically cathartic experiences of revelations.

He also outlines some views of sociologist of religion Rodney Stark who has studied the significance of “powerful religious experiences”, within certain social and cultural environments, that lead to significant religious innovations.

As does Wallace, Stark sketches a model of the process through which revelatory experiences of individuals might become the basis of religious movements or reformations of religious traditions. He proposes cogently that revelatory experiences are more likely to happen to persons of deep religious concerns who perceive shortcomings in the conventional faith(s),” that persons are more likely to perceive shortcomings in conventional faith(s) during times of increased social crisis, that during such periods there is a greater likelihood of people being willing to accept claims of revelations, and that it is crucial to the success of the revelation that some others accept it. (p.190)

My two bits’ worth

What periods of extreme social crises can one imagine rivaling the events and aftermaths of the Jewish wars of 66-70 ce and 130-135 ce.? The aftermath of the first Jewish war reverberated for decades with further rebellions and mass bloodshed and dislocations throughout Cyrene, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia.

We know one particular response to the first crisis was the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism, possibly as a result of gatherings of Pharisee refugees in Galilee. Of central concern was how to replace their traditional Mosaic cult that depended on the function of the now obliterated Temple. The second rebellion involved persecutions of Christian Jews, too, and even more condign treatment of what was left of their religious culture. Jews were exiled from Jerusalem and a Temple of Zeus erected.

If ever we have conditions ripe for “revelatory experiences” among those so inclined, and for religious innovation (compare Wallace and Stark’s perceptions of shortcomings of conventional faith with loss of Temple and failure of their Mosaic cult to save them and social crisis) it was surely during the decades either side of the turn of the century.

Fuelling my suspicion of such experiences, and of more than just rabbinic religious innovations at this time, is the surviving evidence that it is from this same period that we find the earliest Christian literature making its appearance. (It is also from the early second century that “Paul’s letters” become known, quoted and collated.) This suggestion has the added advantage of dismissing a commonly prevailing, less than Occam-like, view that there is a period in which there is no surviving Christian literature from the time of Paul till the turn of the century.

Of course, my argument does not face the hurdle of promoting a historical mortal to divine status. I think some would find it hard to accept widespread public acceptance of revelations to that effect being really a starter. But if one of those Second Temple entities like Wisdom or the Word/Logos or Margaret Barker’s “Great Angel” were somehow mixed up with a divine Joshua to make an appearance in place of the old Moses, I think we have a more plausible explanation on the table.

The Transfiguration
Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr
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Neil Godfrey

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14 thoughts on “How did Jesus become a God? (or How did Christianity begin?)”

  1. Hurtado’s book sounds interesting. I, too, think that visionary experiences must be at the root of the Christ myth (as they are at the root of much of religion, along with their close relative, mystical experiences). If Hurtado can make a good case for evidence of visionary experiences evidenced in the literature, then the idea that they’re in response to a human Jesus has to drop out of the picture (because of the lack of external evidence for an euhemeristic origin to this myth), and you have myth all the way down, based on visionary experience all the way down.

    But really, it’s as plain as the nose on your face that for St Paul and his congregation, it was all about mysticism and visionary experience – what was going on with him and with his congregation was basically what we would call “occultism” (spirit communication, prophecy, etc.). I say that to put it in a kind of perspective – the right perspective, I think (even though some of the connotations of “occultism” don’t quite fit, of course, since occultism, properly speaking, is a much more recent phenomenon).

  2. Exactly. I agree that if visions are at the heart of it, then what need is there for any historical Jesus as an explanation at all? The visions explain the need for a narrative. This explains much of the character of the narrative itself in which Jesus is entirely a mouthpiece and cipher — there is no interest in personal details as one must expect of a historical person.

    1. Of course Hurtado’s argument falls down within the context of his own historical Jesus model as I at least attempted to point out in my last paragraph.

      My application of his argument does not face the same hurdle. His explanation both obliterates the need for a historical Jesus to explain Christianity, and is plausible within a historical conditions prevailing around the time of the appearance of the first Christian literature.

  3. Please see:

    “Traditional Translation of the Last Supper, a betrayal of the original text. Institute for Higher Critical Studies, Montclair, New Jersey, Journal of Higher Critical Studies. Vol 11, No 2.”

    This was in Robert Price’s now defunct and much missed journal. The article offers a suggestion as to what the historical Jesus was up to, how he got the various contemporary authorities pissed off at him, so that he got whacked off, and how this started the god making process. It touches on how mainstream scholars know that the NT is inaccurately translated, yet most of them are too spineless or too indoctrinated to speak out on this. The so-called New Testament is not a historical text. It is a deliberately mistranslated propaganda piece whose original was composed to disseminate disinformation.

    My take , going beyond what the author had published is that Jesus, the socially non acceptable non political hellenistic, un-real god was created to blot out the memory of Jesus, the embarrassingly zealous violent revolutionary and messianic pretender, who almost triggered a major revolt. The revolt took another 30 years of Roman screw turning on Judea before it actually broke out.

    The relatively short article shoots down most of Paula Fredriksen’s book “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” 1999.

    Most of her arguments and assumptions are incredibly naive and some verge on idiocy. She says Jesus attracted huge crowds, yet his execution was a horrid mistake (p9). Did she not read Josephus, where John the Baptist (Antiquities 18) was deliberately and prospectively eliminated because he had too much influence and attracted crowds who might engage in sedition.

    (Jesus did not hang out with a nice peaceful crowd, seeing that most of his followers had nick names like “the Zealot”, sons of thunder, the Rock and Siccariot (See Jesus and the Zealots, Brandon ).)

    Roman Law ,from Augustus on, limited the size of private associations and assemblies in order to suppress conspiracies.

    Assume there was an historical Jesus, who attacked vendors in the Temple courtyard, and that this event was not a over-writing of an attack on the Roman sponsored High Priest whom the Judean hardliners would have considered a quisling, a usurper and a thief. This alone would have hurt the priestly income stream, since the vendors in desirable Temple locations probably paid rent, or kick backs and the High Priests in turn purchased their position (this is in Josephus and I also think in the Talmud, sorry I do not have the reference at hand). Hurting someone in the wallet is usually excuse enough for them to take extreme action against the perpetrator.

    I know this runs counter to your concept of the non-historical, non-existent Jesus, but I think that he was a minor historical player who was turned into a major myth by Paul and others. They used the myth to become influential and turn a profit and offer a countervailing myth to the agenda promoted by the Zealots. (Paul’s collection has served as a precedent for the majority of stump preachers ever since. They feed on the fears and ignorance of their audience, and support themselves by parasitising their communities and wielding an influence out of proportion to what they actually contribute.)

    1. @Jonathan Neiman

      Could you please provide a link to the cited article in your comment? I tried to google the article but all I got was the Journal of Higher Criticism by Robert Price but no Journal of Higher Critical Studies. My search of the former yielded no trace of your citation.


      1. A Yahoo search brought me this citation:

        Blocker, D.: The traditional translation and interpretation of the Last Supper. The betrayal of the original text. In: Journal of higher criticism 11(2005/1)35-54.

        A have a hard copy of this article saying it is “Revision 14.0 posted on the Internet (Yahoo Geocities) from 2/28/06 to 9/2009.” Unfortunately I can’t locate it online now and have for the moment forgotten how I got hold of my hard copy.

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