It is time – well past time, some of you may think – for a new thread. And one is oh-so-ready-to-hand. My new book, How Jesus Became God, will be released on Tuesday (March 25). I am unusually eager for that to happen. I’ve never had a trade book (i.e., written for a popular audience) that I’ve been as invested in. Many of my other ones have done well, and I’ve been proud of each and every one of them (they’re like your children – you love each of them dearly and deeply ….). But this is that one that I think is the really important one – in its way, more important than Misquoting Jesus, and all the rest.
That’s because the question it’s dealing with is really BIG, in my opinion. It may sound a bit outlandish, crazy, or over the top, but I think a case can be made that the question of how Jesus became God is one of the most important questions for the history of Western Civilization. OK, that does make it sound like I’m just trying to sell books, but it’s not that. Whether I *answer* the question adequately is another matter. But the question itself is BIG, and it’s obviously not one that I came up with. It’s just one I’m addressing.
And here’s why it is so big.
If Jesus’s disciples had never declared that he was divine, they would have remained a sect within Judaism, a small group of apocalyptic Jews who thought that Jesus’ proclamation of the coming Son of Man was right and that they could expect the imminent end of the age and the appearance of the Kingdom of God. If they converted others to their views, they would have remained a small part of first-century Judaism. But since the followers of Jesus came to think he was actually a divine being, the religion transcended its Jewish matrix and began to attract Gentiles to it. It became, eventually, a separate religion from Judaism. That would not have happened if Jesus had remained a Jewish teacher/preacher/prophet.
The best demographics suggest that the Christian religion grew at a rate of about 40% per decade from its beginning until the early fourth century. Virtually all of these conversions were of Gentiles, not Jews. It would not have happened if Jesus had not been declared God. If masses of Gentiles had not converted, then there would not have been somewhere between two and half to three million Christians at the beginning of the Fourth century – something like 5% of the entire Roman empire.
If Christianity had not been a sizeable minority in the Empire at the beginning of the fourth century (or even more, if it had still been a small sect within Judaism), there is no way the emperor Constantine would have converted. If Constantine had not converted, there would not have been the massive conversions of the fourth century. Without the massive conversions of the fourth century, the Roman world would not have become Christian, and Christianity would not have been declared the state religion by the emperor Theodosius in 380 CE.
If the Roman world had not become Christian – both demographically and officially – then everything that happened subsequently in the history of the West would have been incalculably different. We would not have had the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, arguably the Enlightenment, and Modernity as we know it. And most of us would still be pagans.
All of this – ALL of it – hinges on the belief that Jesus was God. If that belief had never come into existence, and if so many people had not bought into it, the entire history of the West would have been so different as to be unrecognizable.
So for me, this is the BIG question of Christianity, and of religion in the West, and of civilization in the West. Pretty big.
My book is about how it happened. I’ve posted on it earlier, but I’ll say a few more things in the days to come.