The “Divinization of Jesus” In Academic Debate: Myth And Reality

The debate about the “divinization of Jesus” is one that comes up again and again. It is assumed that it relates to the faith of Christians, although it differs from what these believers themselves say on the basis of the New Testament and the Fathers of the Church. This debate points to one question: is the divine dimension of Jesus expressed in the New Testament to be compared to the divinization of the Roman Emperors after Augustus, or possibly to other forms of divinization in one or another ancient civilization?

We will not look at the term of the comparison (i.e., ancient civilizations), but rather at what is presupposed by the comparison —namely, proposition A that the New Testament “divinizes”. And secondarily, we will look at the six propositions that follow from it, from B to G, logically interlocking with each other.

A: The idea of deifying a man is Greco-Roman, or more broadly pagan, and it is the core of the New Testament.

B: From the previous proposition, we deduce that, since it could not have been done by Jews, this alleged “divinization” was done by non-Jews, namely by “Christianized” pagans of the Roman Empire.

C: From the previous proposition, we deduce that it was these pagans who composed the Gospels, late (after the year 70) in the east of the Roman Empire, and therefore in Greek. Before this composition in Greek, the Jewish Christian communities produced almost nothing, and the traces of this almost nothing in the Greek Gospels suggests that they saw Jesus simply as a man.

D: From the previous proposition, we deduce that:

  • D1: It is Paul, whose period of writing we know (between 51 and 64), who first deified Jesus; or
  • D2 : It is the Council of Nicea (325) which, under the impulse of the Emperor Constantine, invented the divinization of Jesus, and also that of the Holy Spirit (to form the “Trinity”).

E: From the previous proposition, we deduce that it is impossible for Aramaic-speaking Christian communities (like the Jews) to have professed the divinity of Jesus. We therefore make them appear towards the end of the 3rd century at the earliest: they thus become an outgrowth of Greek Christianity in the Syriac East of the Roman Empire, or as the result of the deportation of some Greek-Roman populations to the Parthian Empire.

F: From the previous proposition, we deduce that the Aramaic (or Syriac) texts of the New Testament, or Peshitta (Peshitta means “as it is,” “simple,” “without gloss”), were necessarily translated from Greek. Therefore, these texts are necessarily of little interest, and it is unthinkable to compare the versions in these two languages in order to know which one has been translated from the other—one does not do research for which one already knows the answer.

G: From the previous proposition, we deduce that the Semitic-speaking groups, which research knows as those who saw Jesus simply as a man, are the true Christians who retained the Christianity of the apostles—they are called either pre-Pauline or pre-Nicene. Their traces are to be found in the Koran.

This sequence of propositions, A to G, is very logical, except for the contradiction between D1 and D2 which, in reality, does not matter in view of the basic question: since the gospels, presumed to have been written in Greek and late (after the letters of Paul), speak of the divinity of Jesus, they therefore speak of his “divinization.” This is the proposition A on which everything rests. It is presented as an indisputable postulate—but according to Karl Popper, one should be wary of what seems irrefutable.

PROPOSITION “A”

It is in the name of “science” that Christian belief is presented as the “divinization” of a man, Jesus.

The contradiction between this presentation and what the Christian faith says about itself is somewhat like the position of Islamic apologetics when it claims that Christians place Mary mother of Jesus in the Trinity alongside the Father and the Son – which the Qur’anic text, the uncreated literal word of God, seems to say in Sura 5 verse 116. Indeed, in both cases, a narrative outside of Christianity claims to know and understand Christian belief better than the Christians themselves. What is the basis for these claims? It is not useful to dwell on that of Islamic apologetics, which does not circulate in academic institutions. [This is actually a misunderstanding of the term “mother of Jesus,” which in the Aramaic tradition also refers to the Holy Spirit, which the recipients of this and many other seemingly obscure preaching understood correctly. It is the forgetfulness or rejection of the Syro-Aramaic roots of the Qur’an and proto-Islam that has made the reading of this verse 5:116 (as well as other verses) aberrant. See, “Mary in the Trinity”]. On the other hand, the one that claims to be founded on “science” is worth full attention.

Far from being crude, it proposes to interpret: “Christians say that God has made himself present” as meaning: “Christians divinize a man”. If we could find an articulation between these two propositions, we could decide between their similarity or, on the contrary, their radical opposition. We find precisely such an articulation in an ancient work, a passage by the philosopher Philo of Alexandria, where, in the Legatio ad Caium, he attacks Caius Caligula—when Philo came to Rome, he saw the emperor dressed up as Jupiter. Outraged, Philo then notes (written between the year 41, the date of Caius’ death, and 45, the date of his own death): “God would rather change himself into a man than a man into God.

What is enlightening in this sentence is that the two aforementioned statements are stated in mirror image; in fact, one is the opposite of the other. We must recall the opposition that already existed between the Jewish perspective of a God who would come to visit his people, and the pagan thought that imagines “divinizing” a human. Philo, a Jew from Alexandria, was nourished by the Bible; and if he goes so far as to consider that a God “changes into a man” in a manner of speaking comparable, for example, to that found in a letter of Paul, it is certainly because he had met a Christian. [According to the Acts of the Apostles (18:24-25), a former disciple of John the Baptist, Apollos, from Alexandria, was traveling through Asia Minor around 44 to speak about Christ—it was Paul, in Antioch, who spoke to him about the baptism in the Holy Spirit, which he had not heard of (this cannot be invented). So, this Apollos had not yet met any of the apostles or any of their disciples; but, the text says, “He had been instructed in the way of the Lord.” In Alexandria?]

Here is this passage from Paul: “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form….” (Letter to the Philippians 2:5-7). The idea is the same. It should be noted that Philo died at least 16 years before Paul wrote this letter, so Paul did not invent anything. It should also be noted that reversing Christian thought (God became man) to make it a “divinization” (man is made “God”) is a questionable process.

In fact, the whole Bible refutes the idea of “divinization.” The Temple of Jerusalem is the place of the invisible and impalpable presence of a God who took the initiative to “come down” (one must read the texts), contrary to what happens in the pagan temples. There, a statue is brought in and then it is made a “god.” For the Hebrews, this was an abomination. On the other hand, the idea that God would visit His people was dear to them; it was their hope, even if it was not clear from any prophecy how this would come about. At the Annunciation, Mary says, “How will this be done?” (Lk 1:34). The apostles themselves had difficulty in believing that God was really present in the one they have known—it was Thomas who, after a week of wondering and searching, was the first to say so (Jn 20:28).

Why, then, have some scholars insisted on interpreting Christianity as a “divinization?” Apart from any personal question, it was a matter of convenience: on the one hand, to assimilate Christianity to other “religions,” and on the other hand, to take into account the existence of groups of Jewish descent who denied the divinity of Christ very early on—it was easy and tempting to see in this an opposition between Jewish monotheism and a presumed pagan polytheistic Christianity—and in this, rationalism joined Islamic discourse. But then one must deny the masses of data that point in the opposite direction, beginning with what the apostle John himself wrote in his old age about those who “deny the Father and the Son”: “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.” (1Jn 2:19).

It is a question of Jews who at first adhered to the message of the apostles and then turned it around to do something else, creating a new religious phenomenon—a post-Christianity which will be at the origin of many others later on. The opposition is not between mono- and poly-theism, but between Christianity with a Jewish foundation and post-Christianity with a Jewish foundation also (via the former). We will come back to this in the discussion of point “D.”

With due rigor, if proposition “A” does not hold rationally, neither do propositions B to G which follow from it. But let us review them.

PROPOSITION “B”

The apostles were Jews, as were the first Popes as well as the vast majority of Christians for at least a century. As Paul says, the non-Jews were added to the strong Hebrew-Aramaic olive tree—and it had to be a strong olive tree, because from the very beginning the apostles went with their disciples to evangelize all the parts of the world that were easily accessible at that time, even to India and China. The result was a diversity of communities; the common Hebrew-Aramaic “olive tree,” both biblical and cultic, ensured unity (the Indians of Saint Thomas still celebrate in Aramaic today).

PROPOSITION “C”

It is difficult to believe that the Jewish Christians did not compose gospels in Aramaic, which was their language and that of Jesus, while they evangelized in all directions of the world. Among the Jews, all men very much knew how to read and write, but they were nevertheless part of an oral civilization—the sacred writing (Bible, Gospels, etc.) only serves as an aid to memory, the important thing being transmission by word of mouth, and heart to heart.

Our classical exegesis is based on Greek texts and on the preconceptions of 16th century German research. If we take the Aramaic and Syriac texts as a basis, a different story of the composition of the Gospels soon emerges, one in which the witnesses composing the Aramaic recitatives are the origin. It is no longer a question of late compositions but of organized and repeated testimonies from the year 30 for the first ones, transmitted by the witnesses themselves and then by their disciples, and soon put into aide-memoires. And the organization of the Gospels as we know them can be explained very well because of the liturgical use of the recitatives. [Except for the Gospel of John, whose organization pursues another objective. See here, for example, and here.]

PROPOSITION “D”

Proposition “D” raises the question of the contribution of the councils, in particular that of Nicaea (325), which had reasons to convene, as post-Christian phenomena had multiplied, each one having its own affirmation of faith relative to Jesus. It was necessary for Christian leaders to come together to agree, beyond differences of culture and language, on formulas of faith that would allow them to distinguish between those that were right and those that were deceptive.

This was not done without many difficulties, which historians sometimes take pleasure in highlighting without understanding the reasons. The discussions at Nicaea and subsequent councils, which took place in Greek, were marked by the Byzantine way of seeing and reasoning, which wanted to give conceptual definitions of the faith; and this sometimes created more problems than it solved. Take the example of the Aramaic term qnoma, used by Jesus and found several times in the New Testament. This term was at the heart of some disagreements, as it does not correspond to the Greek concept of ουσια (“nature”), nor to that of υποστασιϛ (“hypostasis”). Before excluding the so-called “pre-Chalcedonian” apostolic churches (which do not speak Greek) after the council of Chalcedon, the bishops should have gone back to the original words.

Here, the superficial researcher might think that the excluded churches are comparable to the groups opposing the apostolic faith and labeled as heretics, the first of which date back to the time of the apostle John. It is this kind of confusion that has led some to say that the Christology of Islam is inspired by that of the Aramaic Church of the East (called “Nestorian” by Westerners), which was excluded after Chalcedon (451). Now, what can there be in common between the insistence on the two “natures” of Christ and the denial of his divinity? This error is obvious in that, today, all the apostolic Christian communities of the world fully and mutually recognize each other in their faith, expressed in different languages (often non-transposable). None of them has ever transmitted anything to Islam, except marginally—Ramadan, for example, inspired by the oriental Lent. On the other hand, it is from a very ancient but post-Christian and Jewish phenomenon that Islam and its Christology originate.

If we want to distinguish what is Christian from what is not, the best criterion will always be non-conceptual: that of salvation. This is undoubtedly what the Greek councils did not see sufficiently, believing they could define everything. From the beginning, the Hebrew-Aramaic or other Christian is the one who believes that Jesus Himself has the power to “save” (or “give life,” according to the Aramaic); this makes all the difference to those who, outside the movement of the apostles, see Jesus under the power of an Other (so He does not save by Himself), or simply as a model to follow (a model does not save). It is in the second stage that theological debates focus on how He saves and who He is; but this is secondary, in fact. Denying that Jesus is really a savior is the efficient criterion for discerning non-Christianity (which is always ipso facto anti-Christianity), even if this criterion will never be perfectly definable.

By this criterion, one will avoid the imposture of calling “Christian” writings that present Jesus as a messiah in whom God acts as an external mover or inspirer (according to the Arian-Messianist perspective), or as a guide who, out of compassion, shows how to save oneself (in the Gnostic perspective). Such writings are not Christian; they are post-Christian—and they are never sympathetic to Christians! The groups who authored them, besides not being “Christian,” cannot be called “heterodox Jews,” either: they are indeed also in opposition to rabbinic Judaism (which repays them well with the daily curse against the minim). This is another confusion to be avoided. To this end, the concept of “post-Christianity” is a necessity for academic research, if such research is to be rational.

PROPOSITION “E”

Until the great massacres of Tamerlane, Asia had more Christians than Europe. Of the twelve, only three apostles (James, brother of John, Andrew and Peter) went to the West. The others went elsewhere; James the Just remaining in Jerusalem, considered the center of the world. To think that there were only Christians in the Roman Empire until the end of the third century is simply the result of a false assumption.

PROPOSITION “F”

If Christianity was as original in the Parthian Empire as it was in the Roman Empire, then the Aramaic texts are the most valuable tools for understanding early Christianity, since early Christianity was Aramaic in language. These tools sometimes shed light on the obscurities of the Greek or Latin texts, although the translators did their best in the context in which they worked.

PROPOSITION “G”

We have seen above what the Christology of the Qur’an is rooted in; so are many other features of it.

CONCLUSIONS

The propositions from A to G make up a logical system. Rationally, if any one of these seven propositions were to be found to be contrary to the research data, the whole should be invalidated. However, there is no lack of reasons to question each of the propositions from A to G. Yet, one has the impression that they continue to be taught. But are human beings, even academic ones, as rational and logical as they claim to be? Are they not often moved by other concerns?

Anyway, the proposition “A” on which the whole system rests was worth a priority focus: is the Christian belief the “divinization” of a man? We can now argue that it works in the opposite direction.
And we have also shown the importance of the concept of “post-Christianity” in expressing the reality of new religious phenomena that appeared in the wake of the Christianity of the apostles and in opposition to it.

With these conclusions, the debate on the presumed “divinization of Jesus” is settled. May this article thus contribute to breaking this old deadlock in research on “religions”.


Theologian and Islamologist, Father Edouard-Marie Gallez is the author of the magisterial  Le messie et son prophète (The Messiah and His Prophet), published in Paris in 2005 (and awaiting an English translation), which is an 1100 -page study that reconnects the origins of Islam to factual history by showing that the Koran and Islamic legends developed gradually over time. This study paved the way of current research into early Islam. See Roots of Islam and the Great Secret. Father Gallez also participates in research groups on early Christianity and its influence.


Featured image: “Traditio Legis,” mosaic, Santa Costanza, Rome, 4th century AD.