Quick Book Review: Iesus Deus – The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God

jesusgodTitle: Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God

Author: M. David Litwa

Bibliographic info: 208 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy.

This book looks at how early Christians “imagined, constructed, and promoted Jesus as a deity in their literature from the first to the third centuries CE.” Litwa contends that the early Christians applied to Jesus various traits of divinity that were already prevalent in ancient Mediterranean culture. He says that “many other Christian writers–including those of the New Testament–consciously or unconsciously re-inscribed divine traits of Mediterranean gods and deified figures into their discourse concerning Jesus. The result was the discursive deification of Jesus Christ.”

Litwa provides a synchronic approach to this topic, focusing on specific texts as “individual ‘moments’ of Jesus’ deification in early Christian literature.” He surveys six ways in which Christians from the first century through to the third century utilized Mediterranean notions of deity to reveal the importance of Jesus. The moments that he looks at are Jesus’ conception,  childhood, benefactions, transfiguration, resurrection, and ascension.

The chapters of this book are:

  1. “Not through Semen, Surely”: Luke and Plutarch on Divine Birth
  2. “From Where Was this Child Born?”: Divine Children and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas
  3. Deus est iuvare: Miracle, Morals, and Euergetism in Origen’s Contra Celsum
  4. “Light Was That Godhead”: Transfiguration as Epiphany
  5. “We Worship One who Rose from His Tomb”: Resurrection and Deification
  6. The Name Above Every Name: Jesus and Greco-Roman Theonymy

It is important to note that Litwa is not suggesting that the early Christian faith in Jesus’ divinity was the result of a process that evolved over time from more exposure to Greek culture. Instead, Litwa is simply showing how earliest Christianity wasn’t solely influenced by the Second Temple Jewish milieu out of which it was born, but that there was also some Hellenistic influence in there as well. By focusing upon several key events of Jesus’ life as depicted in the Gospels, Litwa wants to show how the authors of the Gospels employed language and forms that derive from the Greco-Roman concept of deification.

This is an engaging comparative study that sheds light on the evolution of early Christianity and shows how certain concepts associated with Jesus (e.g. divine birth) fit into the Hellenistic context of the ancient Mediterranean culture.


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