In my last post I laid out a popular theory among some scholars for how the early Christians came to think of Jesus as divine. Let me review it briefly. According to this theory, the first followers of Jesus didn’t consider him to be divine, but only an inspired man. The earliest Christians were, after all, monotheistic Jews who didn’t go around divinizing people. But as the Christian movement spread into the Roman Empire, it encountered a very different ethos and was transformed by that ethos. In the Greco-Roman world, unlike in the Jewish world, the line between humanity and divinity was frequently crossed, not only by mythological heroes like Hercules, but also by flesh-and-blood human beings like the Roman Caesars. So it was only natural that formerly pagan Christians, competing for religious allegiance against a slew of Greco-Roman cults, would divinize Jesus. Therefore, the one who was once only an inspired human redeemer and teacher became the One who was regarded as divine. (Those who reject classical Christian faith criticize this move to deify Jesus as an unnecessary and inauthentic add-on. Real Christianity, they claim, affirms the specialness of the human Jesus, but not his deity. See, for example, the prolific writings of Marcus Borg.)

I mentioned before that this theory has merit as one possible explanation of how Jesus came to be seen as God. It isn’t a crazy theory (like the ones that “expose” Jesus as a space alien or a closet homosexual). One of the benefits of the “Jesus was divinized under the influence of Greco-Roman culture” theory is that we can actually look closely at the historical evidence to see if it is true or not.

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