Iesus Deus

The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God


Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God

By M. David Litwa
(Minneapolis: fortress Press, 2014), xi + 281 pp., $39 (paperback)
Reviewed by James D.G. Dunn

The principal thesis of this book is that “Christians constructed a divine Jesus with traits specific to deities in Greco-Roman culture.” Litwa also includes a sustained criticism of a scholarly tendency to focus attention primarily (and often solely) on Jewish influence in shaping early christology. Litwa does consider Judaism to be the primary matrix of early Christianity, but contends that “certain ‘Greco-Roman’ conceptions of deity were perceived by early Jews and Christians as proper to their own traditions.”
The thesis proceeds with studies of traditions concerning Jesus’ birth, childhood, miracles, transfiguration, resurrection and exaltation.
The New Testament accounts of Jesus’ birth are not so much influenced by, but understandable and resonant within, Greco-Roman culture. Litwa’s inquiry into Jesus’ childhood is purely in reference to the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas, without asking how typical or widespread its views were.
Chapter 3 of Litwa’s book maintains that in proclaiming Jesus in the wider Greco-Roman world, with its various miracle traditions, it was inevitable that miracles would be a major aspect. His main point is the inevitability of the stories about Jesus being set alongside, and in comparison with, the stories known by Celsus, the second-century Greek philosopher and opponent of early Christianity. The question of influence is not thereby resolved, however.
Least satisfactory is Litwa’s discussion of the transfiguration stories. He naturally draws heavily on the Jewish philosopher Philo, but never asks whether Philo ever compromised his monotheism. For Philo, God is ultimately unknowable—or can be known only through/in the Logos. That Philo had such a fulsome Logos theology, yet consciously reaffirms his monotheism, is a factor that should have been taken into account in any analysis of early christology. If “unambiguously deified” is inappropriate for Philo’s account of Moses, could not the same be said of Mark’s portrayal of Jesus?

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In chapter 5, Litwa certainly gives a clear view of a world of thought where ascension would be understood in terms of deification. But he does not inquire into the earliest period of Christian reflection about Jesus, where it is much less clear that the thought was influenced by wider reflections regarding Asclepius, Heracles and Romulus. Litwa needs to take account of the early hesitation among the first generation of Christians in referring to Jesus as theos. True, such hesitation had already been left behind by John’s Gospel, but the early hesitation makes it likely that parallels with those such as Heracles only became a factor after the thought of Jesus’ ascension had become established.
And in discussing “The Name Above Every Name,” Litwa should have given more attention to the flexibility of kyrios—and to the climax of Philippians 2:6–11 (“… to the glory of God the Father”). In other words, what we see is not so much an embracing of Greco-Roman conceptions of divinity as the use of a language that would appeal to a wider Greco-Roman audience—with all the greater impact in reference to one who had been crucified—but retained within the framework of Jewish monotheism.
The concluding chapter of this book is principally a justified criticism of Martin Hengel, for failure to take more account of Greco-Roman influence in his study of New Testament Christology—somewhat surprising given Hengel’s own work on the Hellenization of Judaea. The trouble is, Litwa never asks when the Hellenization process began to influence earliest christology. He never asks when talk of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension began and whether such thought had already been formulated before influence from the wider parallels in the Greco-Roman world came into play.
There are certainly important questions to be asked here. But when the question is justifiably raised about Greco- Roman influence, the question of whether Jewish monotheism retained a distinctive place within the wider religious thought should not be ignored—nor its influence in shaping earliest christology. And the question of the impact made by Jesus himself should certainly not be ignored.

James D.G. Dunn is the Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University in England.

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4 Responses

  1. Isabel says:

    Please dr howard…stop talking nonsense and look at the archaelogical evidence out there. This s not about a global conspiracy of the devil but an honest effort to understand a group of ancient peoples and the rise of a religion based on a peasant that NO ONE EVER CARED TO MENTION IN THEIR HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS. Why? Maybe because really the divine man we have been taught to believe…who knows…we are just trying to understand Jesus an his times. Just stop quoting verses like a parrot without putting the New Testament into its historical and religious context. It just makes you look silly and un-educated

  2. dr howard davis says:

    Bart D.Erhman has some 30 books that believers as well as non believers and all of them do not “…defend the faith that was once for all [Gk.] delivered [permanently Gk.] to the saints” as Jude wrote. He and other apostates are ‘making merchandise’ of his unbelief and doubts just as Peter predicted they would. l Peter 2:3

    God will judge each of them. Rev.20:11-15 ‘Their destruction does not slumber’ as it says.

  3. dr howard davis says:

    Litwa is just another false writer- teacher -that was predicted would come into the fold of Christians in the ‘last days. ‘They promulgate not answers but doubts and question as they present theories which have more holes than Swiss cheese! I know I have spent years reading their liberal thesis’s. they need to get a job in another field they can believe in and accept.
    Bart Ehrman is a good example. They are ,though, fulfilling prophecy! He’s wasting his time if he believes his own extreme doubts and outright disbeliefs!
    But, it says they ‘consider you’ as ‘money sources’ or “making merchandise” of real believers as well as false ones. Sadly , it says ‘…many will follow their destructive ways and false teachings.’ ll Peter 2:1-3; Jude 4-16;18-19; I John 4; 1-6 (note he writes there will be “many” false teachers in the last days ‘denying’ even the Deity of Christ!!! ( Jn.1:1). l John 2: 18-27;l Timothy 4:1-10; ll Timothy 4:1-4

    It was said by Paul people would draw or stack up(Greek-KJV ” heap up”) as it were these false teachers ‘to themselves.’ They wish to hear these corrupted liberal teachings!
    Paul said in the ‘…last days “some would depart from the faith giving attention to doctrines of demonic influences…’ Greek

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