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Humans Have a God Complex | Historical Jesus Series 2

Derek Caldwell

This is part 2 of the Historical Jesus series. You can read part 1 here.

Of course, there may have been more than a few people who claimed they were divine beings. In his book attempting to debunk the “high Christology” of orthodox Christianity, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman mentions that there was apparently a real human being, Peregrinus, who was, like Jesus, a human being that others considered divine. And this divine man, again like Jesus, voluntarily underwent “a violent and painful death, so as to show how he thought people should in fact live.”[1]

There is something a bit concerning about this bit of evidence from The Life of Peregrinus. While Ehrman does mention that the author of this piece—Lucian of Samosata, a critic of the early Christians—was alive in the second century, he doesn’t highlight that this example comes after Christ. Something else left unhighlighted is that the Cynic Peregrinus was also either a Christian apostate or a manipulator of well-meaning Christians who, if anything, may have been copying something of the sacrificial death of Christ or the sacrificial death of Christian martyrs for his own benefit. Lucian says that Peregrinus did not really want to die but had to once his bluff was called. And his death was, unlike Christ’s, not execution but suicide.

Because Lucian was such a vociferous critic of Christianity, we might have reason to doubt some of the historical reliability of this account as well. Assuming the Christians he discussed were connected to the apostolic tradition, they would not have understood Peregrinus as a god, as Lucian accuses. The Christians were already firmly aware that there was only one God, and yet the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all this one God, yet three persons. They did not have the precise terminology yet, but the matter was settled and there was no room in the divine godhead for Peregrinus. As a matter of fact, Peregrinus is mentioned in the writings of the early Christian leader, Tertullian (c. 155 or 160-220 AD), as an example of a philosopher, among other philosophers (and other people) who have willingly faced severe punishment for one reason or another. Tertullian writes,

The philosophers have been outstripped—for instance, Heraclitus, who, smeared with cow dung, burned himself; and Empedocles, who leapt down into the fires of Aetna; and Peregrinus, who not long ago threw himself on the funeral pile.[2]

This is said in the context of Christians who need to persevere in the midst of persecution. As a way of helping them to face the extreme brutality coming their way, Tertullian simply gives a list of people (not Christians) who have died similar deaths, in a sense saying, “I hope you aren’t called upon to do this, but if you are, you can do it, even more so because you are in Christ. Stay strong in the faith.” Notice the clear articulation that Peregrinus “threw himself” onto the funeral pile. There is no illusion that he died a sacrificial death or that he is perceived as God.

Peregrinus is a known Cynic[3] and listed among a list of other non-Christian, non-divine philosophers. It should be noted that Tertullian’s lifetime overlapped with Lucian of Samosata. Lucian may be right that some Christians took up Peregrinus’ cause after he was imprisoned, and it may be that he was a charlatan who played on the gullibility of a particular set of Christians. But did they worship him as a god, as Lucian states? We have evidence from the Syrian Christian apologist Tatian that Peregrinus, his contemporary, and other Cynics like him, were far from accepted as noble heroes in Christianity at large.[4] Now, is it possible that Lucian just despised the way in which Christians might rally around someone they felt was unjustly imprisoned? Or was he ridiculing the way in which Christians, at their core, had supremely divinized a man (Jesus of Nazareth)? Were they lumped into his hatred for Cynics because they too deprived themselves of worldly pleasures? It’s hard to say, but I would not call this great evidence for a divinized human being. However, even if this is an example of a divinized human being, it is only evidence of a false claim that comes after, and is perhaps based on, the story of Christ. And, if true, it was not a widespread belief, as there does not appear to be any supporting documents claiming Peregrinus as a divine figure.

There is also the well-known self-divinization of emperor cults in the Roman world that must be addressed. This is something quite common among kings and rulers, ancient and modern. Take a minute to learn about twentieth-century dictators and you will see the thread of divinized kings—those who, at least for a time, are able to successfully wield the sword and gain power and glory. These claims to divinity are received by the people in their sphere of influence with varying levels of acceptance, and it is quite possible that some of that acceptance may have something to do with the aforementioned wielded sword. Nonetheless, the idea of a divinized human being in Judaism—not someone “heavenly” or “angelic,” but a man that is so clearly not only identified with Yahweh but as Yahweh, and was crucified[5]—would be blasphemy par excellence. Unless, of course, it’s true.

Philo of Alexandra, the highly influential first century Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, openly ridiculed the Roman notion of divinized human beings: “Sooner could God change into a man than a man into God.”[6] Here Philo attempts to show the ridiculousness of a divinized human being (a man who becomes divine) by relating it to something obviously ridiculous to him and his peers: a God who becomes man. These may have been two cultures in conversation, but that is not to say that they were without conflict. And on this topic, there was conflict. Although, there may be some fine nuance we are missing, even in the pagan notion of divinized human beings, for the second-century critic of Christianity, Celsus, mocked Christians for their beliefs, writing “O Jews and Christians, no God or Son of God either came or will come down [to earth]. But if you mean that angels did so, then what do you call them? Are they gods, or some other race of beings? Some other race of beings [doubtlessly], and in all probability daemons.”[7] Whatever you are claiming happened, Celsus is essentially saying, it certainly was not a God or Son of God coming down to earth. But why would this notion be so unfathomable if it was such a common and accepted belief?

All that being said, it will be helpful to consider this notion of the divinized emperor and consider what, if any, bearing this has on the Gospel story. Michael Bird, an incredibly helpful and careful (and funny!) scholar in this field, describes some of the lack of nuance in these claims when he writes, “It’s kind of like saying, ‘Butternut squash and butterscotch pudding, they are all made of butter, aren’t they?’ Alas, no, they are not the same thing!”[8] With this, Bird begins to deconstruct what parallels do and do not mean, starting first with the notion of parallelomania.

Parallelomania is manifested on a popular level like this: if there is any somewhat similar notion between the supernatural claims Christianity and any other belief system, Christianity borrowed the notion, and (since the supernatural does not exist) both are wrong. In the more scholarly realm, Bird defines parallelomania as “when scholars find words and concepts in one document and allege that they mean the same thing in another document. The parallels are then said to show that the same idea is shared by both sources or that there is a literary dependency of one document borrowing from the other.”[9] However, there are many reasons to question the assumptions behind what parallels even mean.

Second, Bird points out that “analogy does not mean genealogy.”[10] He cites the birth narrative of Jesus as a case in point. Often the claim is made that Jesus’s birth is essentially modeled from Alexander the Great’s legendary birth. First, the actual parallel with Alexander’s birth is no parallel at all. His father was a man named Philip, the king of Macedonia. Later legend did state that the night before Philip was to consummate his marriage to Alexander’s mother, Olympias, something strange happened. She dreamed that a lightning bolt struck and entered her, while Philip apparently got a glimpse of his wife who was, rather than being hit by a lightning bolt, engaged in intimate relations with a serpent. Both images—the lightning bolt and the serpent—represented the god, Zeus. Either way, this is not a virgin birth. We should also note here that this comes from Plutarch’s biography of Alexander, written in A.D. 100, which is 400 years after Alexander’s life and about seventy years after Jesus’s death. That is to say, the story of Jesus’s virgin birth was already known before Plutarch’s version of the Alexander birth narrative is written down. As such, so far as I can discern, we can’t tell with any certainty how old Plutarch’s story of Alexander’s birth is, or how widely known it would have been. Second, even if one were to admit that and still press the issue that there is some sort of reliance upon this type of story, Bird rightly points out that there is no need to look for parallels in pagan sources for the birth narrative, as we already know it is meant to make the reader think of certain Old Testament allusions and prophecies, such as the story of Hannah and Samuel (1 Samuel 1-2) and Ahaz and Hezekiah (Isaiah 7-11).[11] This is no secret! The Gospel writers very much wanted people to notice, which is why Matthew explicitly quotes Isaiah 7:14 in his Gospel (see Matthew 1:23).[12] Even these parallels, though, do not mean that the nativity story is a legendary embellishment. Rather, if true, it means that the nativity was designed in such a way to highlight the divine miraculousness of the birth and the answered prophecy of such a birth. In other words, it was designed to be meaningful and say something about who this child is.

Third, Bird emphasizes that in order to fairly represent the beliefs in the ancient world, one must look not only at the similarities but also the very sizable differences between them. There is room to explore the similarities and try to understand why they were so much alike. That one is rather easy—the story of Jesus was told to Jewish, Greek, and Roman audiences, and therefore familiar cultural idioms were commandeered in order to make the most meaningful sense out of the life of Jesus and the church.[13] Paul explicitly does so in Acts 17 when quoting pagan poets and speaking of their “unknown god” (Acts 17:16-34). The differences in the Christian worldview and other worldviews—not just in how we read them but in how they were received by each other—are crucial for understanding why the notion of pagan parallels is unfounded. Bird explains that

The worship of a crucified and risen Messiah was definitely unique and incredibly scandalous to all audiences, whether Jewish or Greek. To Jewish audiences, worshiping a crucified man was blasphemy. … To Greeks, worshiping a man recently raised from the dead was like doing obeisance to the first zombie you met in a zombie apocalypse. If Christian ideas about God were so snug and down within the ancient world, then why was Paul flogged by Jewish communities (2 Cor 11:24) and laughed out of the Athenian Areopagus by Greek philosophers (Acts 17:32)? Could it be that the Christian idea of God was startling, odd, and even offensive to Jews and pagans, who had trouble swallowing its claims about Jesus? Perhaps the reason why New Testament authors like Paul, Luke, and John spent so much time talking about Jesus and God is because they meant something very different by “God” than what their Jewish and pagan neighbors thought, and it took some effort to get the redefinition of God across.[14]

This is part 2 of the Historical Jesus series. You can read part 3 here.

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[1] Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 34-37.

[2] Tertullian, Ad Martyras 4, trans. Rev. S. Thelwall, in Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (eds.), Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3 (Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Company, 1885), 695.    

[3] A school of thought founded by Antisthenes (c. 446 – c. 366 BC) that championed ascetic lifestyles and virtuous living as the goal of the good life, rather than pleasure.

[4] Tatian writes, “They say they want nothing, yet like Proteus [Peregrinus], they need a currier for their wallet, and a weaver for their mantle, and a woodcutter for their staff, and the rich, and a cook also for their gluttony.” Tatian, Address of Tatian to the Greeks 25, trans. J. E. Ryland, in Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (eds.), Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2 (Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Company, 1885), 75.

[5] Compare, for instance, Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10, and Isaiah 45:23; see also the expansion of the Shema in from Deuteronomy 6:4 to 1 Corinthians 8:6; see also Jude 4-5 where Jesus is described as having at one time “delivered his people out of Egypt,” a clear reference to Yahweh’s rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt, which became foundational to understand the relationship between Yahweh and His people. These and many other texts are discussed in Robert M. Bowman, Jr. and J. ed Komoszewski’s Putting Jesus In His Place (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007). They develop the HANDS acronym, which is a helpful way of showing the many explicit and implicit ways in which the New Testament identifies Jesus as God. The acronym seeks to show how Jesus is given the Honors due to God and how He shares the Attributes, Names, Deeds of God, along with sharing the Seat of God’s throne.  

[6] Cited in Michael F. Bird, “Of Gods, Angels, and Men,” in Michael F. Bird (ed.), How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart Ehrman (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 27.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 25.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 25-26.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Does Isaiah 7:14 actually refer to a virgin birth? The Christian tradition has rightly answered yes to this question.The NRSV translates the term in Isaiah 7:14, usually translated as virgin in English translations, as “young woman,” since the Hebrew term used here, almah, literally means “young woman.” Now, does this mean that Matthew was wrong for quoting this verse as saying “virgin”? Absolutely not. It is often argued that there was a different Hebrew term, betulah, that was used for the idea of virgin. However, as J. Alec Motyer points out, the term betulah can sometimes mean virgin, but the word does not demand it. When the word means virgin it is decided by the context, not the word itself. See J. Alec Motyer, “Context and Content in the Interpretation of Isaiah 7:14,” in Tyndale Bulletin 21 (1970), 118-25 (This article can be accessed online at https://legacy.tyndalehouse.com/tynbul/Library/TynBull_1970_21_05_Motyer_Isaiah7_14.pdf).  Something similar happens with the word almah. This term actually refers to a young, unmarried woman of marriageable age. This term needs no explanatory context to make sense of it – that is simply what it means. Some have argued that the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 was fulfilled in its time, but this doesn’t make sense contextually. Ahaz’s good son, Hezekiah, was already born, so it cannot be a reference to him. Furthermore, if it was about Isaiah, that also would not make sense, because his wife already had children, meaning that she was already married and so, clearly, not unmarried. See Gary Smith’s note on Isaiah 7:14 in Ted Cabal (ed.), CSB Apologetics Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman, 2017), 824. That wouldn’t be so miraculous. Isaiah is saying that this will be a miraculous sign. He is saying that a young, unmarried woman would give birth. There would be nothing miraculous about a married woman giving birth unless she was barren. In an era when having a child out of wedlock was not impossible but unthinkable, surely that would not be the sign in and of itself. No, the sign must be that the unmarried woman would become pregnant through miraculous means, which would not involve another man. Therefore, using the meaning of the word and the understanding that this birth would be a miracle, we can conclude that it is assumed by the Hebrew text that the unmarried woman would be a virgin, thus the miracle would be a virgin birth. Christians are not the only ones who thought that almah in Isaiah 7:14 referred to a virgin, by the way: the Greek Septuagint translated the Hebrew word almah into the Greek word parthenos, or virgin,well before Matthew ever quoted Isaiah 7:14 as referring to a virgin. And since the Septuagint well before the birth of Christ, we cannot say that it was written to adhere to Christian thought. Therefore, we can safely deduce that Jewish interpreters before Christ interpreted Isaiah 7:14 to be referring to a virgin, which is why Greek-speaking Jews who translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek used the word for virgin to translate the word Isaiah uses, almah. If Isaiah does intend this as a messianic prophecy, then we may see Isaiah 9:6-7 as another reference to the same thing: the miraculous birth of a child who will be given to us, and yet this given child and son will also be called Mighty God, and He will reign forever on David’s throne.

[13] Bird, 26.

[14] Ibid., 26-27.