After reading the introduction to Ehrman's book, we move on to his first chapter, "Divine Humans in the Ancient World." I don't know how this chapter would strike someone hearing it for the first time. I'm trying to react to the book from the perspective of either a) a "none," especially a millennial with no religious identification, and b) a young Christian who has never heard of the sorts of things in this chapter.
So what is in this chapter? I would say there are two main aspects to this chapter. The one is to continue the point that divinity was on more of a sliding scale at the time of Christ and the second is to show the various models of "divine humans." Humans who were also or who might become divine.
Ehrman gives three models of the divine human: 1) gods who temporarily become human, 2) demigods born of a god and a human, and 3) humans who became divine. The rest of the chapter basically consists of examples of these.
There is nothing new here and this is something I hope readers will recognize. The story of Baucis and Philemon, where the gods Zeus and Hermes come down and do some home visits? It's a well known story you only don't know because high school isn't what it used to be. Have you seen Clash of the Titans or Hercules? Then the idea that Zeus gets around and has children living among us... nothing new to see here.
The idea that a human might become a god after death or even before, that might be more of a new one to some. But not everything in the ancient world took these stories seriously. There's a great legend of the emperor Vespasian on his death bed joked about how he felt like he was becoming a god. (I'm planning on that one too on my death bed) Ehrman goes through the well known list: Romulus (legendary founder of Rome), Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, the Roman emperor cult in general, and of course Apollonius. There is a story somewhere or another about all of these becoming or turning out to be a god.
So what are we to think of these parallels? How close are they?
A very important thing to keep in mind is that the books of the Bible were written in and for that world. Christians have a tendency to rip the Bible from its actual world and read its words as if they are timeless--which because most people have no sense of time basically means they think the Bible was a selfie taken with them in it. What they really mean without knowing it, when they say the Bible is timeless, is that they think it was written for them in their time and their place.
So it can be shocking to realize that the words of the Bible were written for the world that Ehrman is talking about. I remember when I went with a group to Greece and a pastor was a little troubled to find that the temple and sanctuary of the Bible was a little similar in structure to all the temples of the ancient world. I had an OT seminary professor who mentioned he had once had the same shock to find that Israel's temple was not completely unlike the Canaanite temples around them.
It shouldn't be shocking. Why? Because God was speaking to their world in the Bible, not directly to ours. We should expect parallels between the biblical world and the ancient world because it was written in and to their world, not directly to ours. The older I get, the more I feel like people in my circles need to be confronted more with the distance of the biblical world rather than (as might be needed in more liberal circles) confronted with the fact that the Bible is God's word for us too.
Is it possible that the imagery of the Bible has features drawn from the traditions of the ancient world? Absolutely. Here's the secret--that doesn't disprove God or Christianity. This is my word for the shallow ones who use things like this chapter to try to undermine faith. They are only undermining shallow versions of faith (and making themselves look stupid because they aren't aware of more profound versions that are more than aware of these sorts of parallels).
Also, as Michael Bird points out in his response book, the influence potentially goes both ways. When the story of Apollonius of Tyana is as much as a century later than the story of Jesus, it is quite possible that the story of Apollonius has been influenced by the story of Jesus, indeed even that it was modified to serve as a competing story to Jesus.
The way I look at it is this. Using sound historical method, even method that does not turn to the supernatural, there are certain likely core events to the Jesus story. It may be strange for a Christian to think in this way (and you don't have to), but if we look at the New Testament purely from a historical perspective and bracket the supernatural for a moment, I believe we will come up with certain core events as likely to the story of Jesus, including eyewitness reports to seeing him after his death and a likely empty tomb. These are concrete events with real people.
There is a big difference between legends that arise for political reasons (e.g., about emperors) or about the legendary past (Romulus) or at a distance (Apollonius) and Jesus. Jesus was crucified as a criminal. He was not an emperor where divinization was expected. Nor was he some remote figure begging for legends. He was a crucified "criminal" like many others, a concrete "revolutionary" like countless other crucified trouble makers. What was different about him, a nobody in that world, if Ehrman is correct? What was it about his situation that gave rise to such stories?
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that some of the features of figures like this chapter accrued to the Jesus story as time went by. If so (and that remains to be seen), they arose as the shock waves of certain concrete events. If some of this imagery accrued to Jesus, it happened as Jesus' followers sought to explain unexpected, concrete events that took place before their very eyes.
This is a different situation from predictable legends about far off, distant heroes.
Next week: Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism