If early Christians were monotheists, how could they claim that someone other than the One God was also God and yet still say there was in fact only one God? That will be the first issue to figure out if we want to understand how the doctrine of the trinity developed. With respect to Christ, if he was a human, how was he divine? In other words, how could ancient people get their minds around that? Not just whether he was divinely handsome or divinely wise – but actually Divine? In some sense a God? (I will, over this thread, emphasize the terms “in some sense,” as you will see).
A couple of weeks ago I talked on the blog about some special individuals in the Greco-Roman world who were understood to be both human and divine because they had one of each kind as a parent. Typically this involved a mortal woman who was attractive to one of the gods (Zeus / Jupiter wasn’t the only one, but he was the most notorious), who then temporarily assumed human form (or some other animal or inanimate form) in order to have sex with her. These cases were not virgin births. The stories are quite explicit at times that there was very serious sex involved. But these demi-gods were both human and divine. In Homer’s Odyssey, for example, Heracles is down in Hades with other mortals but his “real self” is up above feasting with the gods. Very odd.
The most common way to imagine a human as a god was not by a mixed parentage but something entirely different: the long-standing tradition in Greek and Roman circles that some particularly amazing humans could be taken up to live with the gods in heaven. These people are made immortal. And for ancient people, “immortal” was another way to refer to the gods, often simply called “the immortals.”
Here is how I talk about humans who become gods in my book How Jesus Became God, explaining the with reference to a specific, allegedly historical instance of it happening (there were others!).
One of the most striking involves the legendary founder of Rome, Romulus. We have several accounts of the life of Romulus, including one produced by the great early historian of Rome, Livy (59 CE – 17 CE), who in one place states the opinion that Romulus was a “god born of a god” (History of Rome 1. 16). The event that most interests us involves the end of Romulus’s life.
There were, to be sure, rumors of divine involvement in Romulus’s conception. His mother was…
This is one of the most intriguing views to come down to us from Greek and Roman traditions. Want to see how it works? If you are not a blog member yet, join up so you can keep reading. Who knows how helpful it may be to see how a human can become divine!