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 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.
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