Jesus among the gods
Early Christology in the Greco-Roman World
Imprint: Baylor University Press
Sales Date: 2022-10-16
490 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: October 2022
The early church, after several centuries of controversy, came to an uneasy consensus that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. In his divinity, orthodox Christianity claimed, he shared fully in the nature of the uncreated creator God. But was this doctrinal position crafted from whole cloth in the era of the great ecumenical councils? How did earlier Christ-followers understand Jesus in light of their convictions about the one supreme deity, and in the context of a cultural milieu saturated with gods?
In Jesus among the gods Michael Bird gives renewed attention to divine ontology—what a god is—in relation to literary representations of Jesus. Most studies of the origins of early Christology focus on christological titles, various functions, divine identity, and types of worship. The application of ontological categories to Jesus is normally considered something that only began to happen in the second and third centuries as the early church engaged in platonizing interpretations of Jesus. Bird argues, to the contrary, that ontological language and categories were used to describe Jesus as an eternal, true, and unbegotten deity from the earliest decades of the nascent church.
Through comparison with representative authors such as Philo and Plutarch, and a comprehensive analysis of Jesus and various intermediary figures from Greco-Roman religion and ancient Judaism, Bird demonstrates how early accounts of Jesus both overlapped with and diverged from existing forms of religious expression. However Jesus resembled the various divine agents of Greco-Roman religion and Second Temple Judaism, the chorus of early Christian witnesses held Jesus to be simultaneously an agent of and an analogue with the God of Israel. Among the gods, Jesus stood in clear relief, a conviction that may have been refined over time but that belongs to the emerging heart of Christian confession.
Bird's new book marks a fascinating new step within the ‘New History-of-Religions School.’ Using a wide range of sources also beyond the New Testament, it combines Jewish and Gentile perspectives on god and deities. Jesus’ divinity is explained not merely from Jewish traditions in in the context of Jewish monotheism, but also in consideration of categories from the Graeco-Roman world and its various concepts of divinity and deities. Thus, the category of ‘ontology’ is reinterpreted and used in a non-anachronistic, non-philosophical, and more strictly source-oriented manner.~Jörg Frey, Professor of New Testament Studies, University of Zurich
Bird masterfully develops contemporary Jewish monotheism with evidence from Jewish sources such as Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and the Jewish Sibylline Oracles. Arguing that Nicene categories should not be anachronistically placed on Jesus, he looks for ways the earliest Christian movements could have sprung from this hotbed of Jewish monotheism. What Bird finds are angelology and messiology. He adeptly traces these shared aspects of ancient Jewish and Christian groups as they appear in diverse permutations in well-known patristic authors such as Irenaeus and more obscure figures such as Elksai, a baptizer whose followers might have rejected the writings of Paul.~Janelle Peters, Visiting Assistant Professor, Loyola Marymount University
Michael Bird examines the divine ontology of Jesus in earliest Christianity in a bold and expansive new book. Taking into account both Greco-Roman and Second Temple Jewish understandings of divinity, Bird seeks to dismantle entrenched ideas about the lateness of ontological thinking when it comes to Jesus’ divinity and challenges readers to transcend the divide between so-called functional and ontological Christology. As such, this is a thought-provoking and significant contribution to the conversation about Jesus’ divinity.~Robyn Whitaker, Senior Lecturer in New Testament, University of Divinity
A chance encounter with Isis and Osiris in a secondhand bookstore leads the protagonist to embark on an arduous journey through the celestial realms of divine beings (and the terrestrial realms of scholarship) until he arrives at a knowledge of the truth. No, it’s not the latest installment in the Marvel Universe, but rather Michael Bird’s marvelous volume on divine ontologies and intermediaries in the Greco-Roman world. His extensive engagement with the sources and even-handed analysis make him a sure-footed guide for those seeking to understand early Christology.~Edwina Murphy, Deputy Dean and Director of Research, Australian College of Theology
Michael Bird’s Jesus among the gods is a wealth of information about early christologies in early Jewish and Greco-Roman settings. Well-written and organized, Bird examines primary sources and current research with encyclopedic thoroughness, offering a fresh, nuanced view of Christ’s uniqueness in light of correspondences with ancient intermediary figures. A must-read for students of early Christianity.~Lynn H. Cohick, Provost and Dean of Academic Affairs, Northern Seminary
With his characteristic good humor and judicious attention to detail, Michael Bird pushes the conversation regarding early Christologies in new and constructive directions. Having an ear attuned to both Jewish and Greco-Roman voices, Bird offers a straightforward taxonomy of what constituted ‘divinity’ in the ancient world and makes a serious case that elements of early Christologies are inherently ontological.~David Capes, Director, The Lanier Theological Library