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Michael Bird: Jesus among the Gods

Michael F. Bird, Jesus among the Gods: Early Christology in the Greco-Roman World (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2022), xi+480 pages, ISBN 9781481316750.

To whom or to what might we compare Jesus, the “son of God” (Mark 1:1)? In the hunt to discern the meaning and range of early Christian identifications of Jesus as divine, scholars have long compared Jesus with other ancient figures or deities. If, as Deuteronomy 6:4 memorably declares, God is “one,” then how, in a Jewish theological framework, can Jesus also be God? In mathematical terms, one plus one cannot also equal one. Certainly, Jesus is divine in the New Testament (see Phil 2:6; Col 2:9; 1 John 5:20), but in the Jewish and Greco-Roman environs does Jesus’ divinity put him on the same, ontological level as the God of Israel? These are a few of the weighty questions Michael F. Bird sets out to answer in Jesus among the Gods: Early Christology in the Greco-Roman World. In its simplest formulation, Bird argues that “Jesus is a Jewish deity of the Greco-Roman world” (p. 407). While there are sundry ancient comparanda to which one might compare Jesus, the Christian formulation of Jesus’ divinity remains “distinctive and characteristic” (p. 411). Quite impressively, Bird has catalogued and commented upon the principal intermediary figures with whom Jesus is often compared—from the Gnostic demiurge, to angel Christology, to Roman imperial cults.

Bird’s project is built on a careful distinction between functional and ontological divinity. If Jesus is God, then what kind or quality of God is he? “In what sense is Jesus divine and how closely is his divinity related to the divinity of God the Father” (p. 407)? Scholars have repeatedly noted that other intermediary figures in Second Temple Judaism display divine characteristics. In Exodus 7:1, Moses is made “like God to Pharoah.” From an array of evidence, it is plausible to argue that Moses is “a figure possessing divine power and exercising divine agency” (p. 35). The reception history of Moses as an exalted figure confirms such a claim (T. Mos. 1:14; 4Q374 II, 2.6; Philo, Mos. 1.27; Ezek. Trag. 68–82). In some comparative readings, Jesus is like God—just as Moses is like God—in a functional or tiered sense. Jesus is “among the gods” to borrow from the book’s title. Bird, instead, wants to recalibrate the claim that Jesus is God in an ontological sense. While early Christian articulations of Jesus’ divinity are quite varied and diverse (Bird is careful to note this on p. 83), “Christian authors in some instances begin to identify Jesus with the characteristics of absolute deity” (p. 82). According to Bird, Jesus and the God of Israel possess “ontic sameness” in important ways, such as the eternal, unbegotten, or immortal descriptions of absolute divinity one finds in early Christian writings (pp. 82–83).

In what sense is Jesus divine and how closely is his divinity related to the divinity of God the Father?

—Michael Bird

The bulk of Bird’s project, which he calls the “mega-chapter,” is housed in his third chapter, “Putting Jesus in His Place: Scholarship on Early Christology and Intermediary Figures” (pp. 115–380). Bird’s treatment of other intermediary figures is comprehensive. To offer one example, his section on exalted patriarchs introduces Adam, Enoch, Moses, and Elijah, which he then compares to the figure of Christ in both nascent and apostolic Christian Christologies. Bird carefully evaluates the data documenting similarities and differences. For instance, the Enochic Son of Man possesses nine similarities and twelve differences to the exalted Jesus in the book of Revelation (pp. 290–91). Bird concludes that while “Jesus was portrayed in apostolic, proto-orthodox, heterodox, and other writings with a likeness to a variety of intermediary figures,” these comparisons remain insufficient in explaining “the totality of Christology discourses and their attribution of divine roles, titles, and nature to Jesus” (p. 380). When compared to the figure of Jesus, these historical analogues contain fascinating similarities and differences.

Jesus among the Gods provides a valuable lesson for how one ought to conduct historical investigations. In biblical studies, two perennial temptations have long enticed readers to swing in one of two directions.

In the end, Bird’s Jesus among the Gods provides a valuable lesson for how one ought to conduct historical investigations. In biblical studies, two perennial temptations have long enticed readers to swing in one of two directions. Some may assert that Jesus is so distinct that early Christian claims to divinity appear nothing like the systems of divination one finds in Roman imperial cults, for instance. This group tends to maximalize differences between Jesus and Roman cultic life. Bird, however, has no problem concluding that “ruler cults had a formative impact upon early Christianity” (p. 365)—so long as one also admits that “Jesus receives more than ruler veneration, but worship appropriate for Israel’s God” (p. 379). The second group is guilty of the opposite impulse. They assert that Jesus possesses no distinctness whatsoever within the broad landscape of Greco-Roman and Jewish ideas about the divine. Early Christian claims to divinity are no different than, say, the veneration of Moses one finds in Ezekiel the Tragedian. Again, Bird sees no problem with identifying such obvious similarities given that one also admits that “no single intermediary figure can be considered the hermeneutic key explaining the development of early Christology” (p. 383). Bird here maintains similarities alongside of important “innovations.” Both polarities have something to learn from Bird’s volume. Jesus can and does resemble “a Mediterranean deity, a Greek hero, or Roman divusand also retains “close analogue[s] to the God of Israel” (p. 5). Early Christian accounts of Jesus’ identity can also exist on a varied spectrum: one need not assume that every biblical author or apostolic writer says the same thing in the same way about Jesus. And yet, neither should it be a taboo anachronism to find similarities between “pro-Nicene Christology” and the Christological formulations one finds in Paul. Whether or not one agrees with Bird’s finer points about how Christ is or is not like specific Jewish and Greco-Roman intermediary figures, his larger point is worth pondering. One ought to avoid (and, perhaps, interrogate [p. 408]) the impulse to minimize key differences between Jesus and other figures like him and the impulse to maximize those differences. To quote Bird once more: “Early Christology should be located—much like the church at Dura-Europos—between a synagogue and a Mithraeum, even if the church is several yards closer to the synagogue” (p. 402).

Reviewed by J. P. O’Connor


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Category: In Depth, Winter 2024

About the Author: J.P. O’Connor, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of New Testament at Northwest University (Kirkland, WA). His first book explores the nature of morality and ethics in the Gospel of Mark: The Moral Life according to Mark, LNTS 667 (T&T Clark/Bloomsbury, 2022). His next book length project will consider the nature and role of judgment in Mark. For more of his publications, see LinkedIn

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