The Exaltation of Jesus and Others - Introduction


1.    Introduction

1.1       General Notes on Exaltation

The word ‘exalt’ derives from  the latin exaltare, that is, ex + altus, or ‘more + high’.  It’s dictionary meanings include: (1) to raise high or elevate; (2) to raise in rank, power, or character; and (3) to elevate by praise or in estimation; or to glorify.   ‘Exaltation’ is the act of exalting; ‘Exalted’ is the state of being exalted.  A person who is exalted religiously but not divine could be called a prophet or a holy person.

The word exalt and its related words (exalted, exaltation, etc.) occur 81 times in the OT, 69 times in the Apocrypha, but only 17 times in the NT, for a total count of 167 [Bconc].  There are many references to God being exalted, or to specific kingdoms being exalted, and quite a few warnings to individuals to not try to exalt themselves.

1.2       Forms of Exaltation

A person may be deemed great (DG) or deemed divine (DD) based on the titles given to them.  These titles are all discussed in more detail in Section 5.1 of our Historical Jesus page.  In particular, the title Messiah in the sense of a kingly messiah does not imply divinity, but Messiah (and the Greek translation, Christ) are often used in the NT as if they did imply divinity for Christ.  Note that Jesus was executed by the Romans for his alleged claim to be ‘King of the Jews.’

Eleven forms of exaltation that can be attributed to a person are listed here as abbreviated codes (VB*, PF, etc.).  Each person was said by someone (but not everyone) to be exalted in these ways, although some of these attributions are questioned by historians and skeptics alike as being unbelievable.  These codes are listed in this order in the paragraphs about these persons, and in the ‘Forms of exaltation’ column in the table below.

Codes marked with an asterisk are indications of divinity; codes without an asterisk are signs of mortal greatness, but not divinity.  For example, healings or exorcisms, that may be performed by holy men calling on the power of God, are not an indication of the divinity of the healer.  Of the eleven codes, six indicate mortal greatness and five indicate divinity.

VB* Virgin Birth, a birth in which the mother is human and the father is a god or a lesser divine being, such as an angel;
PF seen as a Prophet (or just a person) with a Following;
H Healings of physical problems (hearing, sight, lameness, etc ) excluding exorcisms;
X Exorcisms (curing mental problems by driving out demons);
M* Miracles other than healings (H) and exorcisms (X).  These could be natural (ex: walk on water, cell door opens miraculously) or spiritual (ex: transfiguration);
DG Deemed Great or treated as such: applied to a man seen (by someone, but not necessarily everyone) as holy or revered but not divine.  Examples are certain titles (Son of David, Lord, Prophet, Teacher, Rabbi, sometimes Messiah)
DD* Deemed Divine or treated as such: applied to a man seen (by someone, but not necessarily everyone) as divine.  Examples are certain titles (Christ, Son of Man, Son of God, Savior and sometimes Messiah).  Certain Roman Emperors were also declared to be Gods by the Roman Senate.
KM Killed or Martyred by their enemies;
R was said to be Resuscitated or to have performed resuscitations, even from apparent death;
R* was said to be Resurrected;
A* said to be Ascended to Heaven.

Some Christian authors restrict the ‘exaltation of Christ’ to this sequence of later events: the resurrection, ascension, sharing power and glory at the right hand of God, and his second coming. [ZIBD, 445].

1.3       Table of Persons Exalted in Palestine  (65 BCE to 133 CE)

Here is a table of 31 men who were considered exalted in Palestine in the years surrounding the life of Jesus within a century either way (65 BCE to 135 CE).  They are listed in estimated chronological order of the public activities they were exalted for.

The detailed information about each person is given in the sections as listed.

Their ‘dates’ are the dates (often approximate) of their public activities, sometimes up until their death at the hands of their enemies (code KM for killed or martyred).  The codes for the forms of exaltation are from the above list and are presented in the order of that list.

Woodcut of Flavius Josephus, from William Whiston’s translation of his works, 1817. Public Domain.

Flavius Josephus (ca 37 – 95), the Roman historian of the Jews, is the most important non-Christian source of information for many of the persons presented here.  Our Confirming Sources page discusses his publications in detail.  He provides one of the sources for at least one person in each of Sections 2 (1 person), 3 (1), 4 (4), 5 (4) and 6 (1).

Note that six of the many Roman Caesars detailed in Section 6 are included, not because they lived in Palestine, but because they were deemed divine (DD) throughout the Roman Empire.  In Palestine some of the Caesars had statues and/or temples dedicated to them, where rites of sacrifice were performed in honour of them.  In other words, they were part of the milieu that Palestinian Jews lived in, and were influenced by.

Persons Exalted in Palestine 

In chronological order: 65 BCE to 135 CE.

Person(s) Section Dates Forms of Exaltation (codes from sect 1.2) Source(s)
Honi the circle maker 2.3 Ca 65 BCE M* KM Jos Jewish
Julius Caesar 6.2 49-44 BCE DD* Hist
Augustus Caesar 6.3 31 BCE–14 CE DD* A* NT Hist
Theudas I 4.1 Ca 3 CE PF KM NT Hist
Jeudas the Galilean 4.2 6 CE PF NT Jos
John the Baptist 4.3 28-29 PF DG R* NT  Jos
Jesus Christ 3 28-30 VB* PF H X M* DG DD* KM R* R A* NT Jos Hist
Peter 4.4 28-67 PF H M* DD* R KM NT
Twelve disciples of Christ 4.5 28ff H X NT
Sons of the Pharisees 4.6 29 X NT
Stephen 4.7 31-33 H DG KM NT
Paul 4.8 34-67 PF H X DG DD* KM NT
Philip 4.9 Ca 35 PF H X M* NT
Samaritan Prophet 5.1 36 PF Jos
Simon Magus 4.10 Ca 40 PF DG NT
Claudius Caesar 6.4 41-54 DD* NT Hist
Herod Agrippa 4.11 Ca 42 DD* (at Tyre) NT
Theudas II 4.12 44 PF KM Jos
Barnabas 4.13 46+ H DD* NT
Itinerant Jewish exorcists 4.14 51 X NT
Prophets under Governor Felix 5.2 Ca 55 PF DG Jos
A Jew from Egypt 4.15 Ca 56 PF NT Jos
Hanina ben Dosa 5.3 Ca 65 PF H M* DG Jewish
Emperor Vespasian 6.5 69-79 H DG DD* Jos Hist
False prophet at the burning of the Temple 5.4 70 PF Jos
Apollonius of Tyana 5.5 Ca 70-90 PF H DG DD* R A* Hist
Jonathan the Refugee and Weaver 5.6 73 PF Jos
Emperor Titus 6.6 79-81 DD* Hist
Emperor Domitian 6.7 81-96 DD* Hist
King Lukuas-Andreas of Cyrenaia 5.7 Ca 116 DG Hist
Somon Bar Kochba 5.8 Ca 133 PF DG Jewish

Recall that these signs of exaltation were observed or reported by one or more persons, but there were/are other people (either ancient or modern) who doubted almost all of these signs.

ALL the people in the table are men!  Jesus Christ has pride of place as the only man exalted in all eleven ways.  Next in importance are Peter, Paul, and Apollonius of Tyana who were each exalted in six ways.  The reason why Jesus, Peter and Paul are so prominent in this list is that Christianity became the dominant religion, and its story was told in detail in the NT and other writings which are preserved to this day.  As reported in Section 5.5(4), Apollonius of Tyana was seen by many as an equally great man who could have been the founder of just as great a religion – but was not!

Looking at the data another way, of the 31 men listed,

  • Seventeen were persons or prophets with a following (PF);
  • Twelve were deemed divine (DD*) or treated as such;
  • Eleven were deemed great (DG) or treated as such;
  • Ten were known as healers of physical problems (H);
  • Seven were killed or martyred (KM) by their enemies;
  • Six (all in the NT) performed exorcisms (X);
  • Four performed miracles other than healings or exorcisms (M*);
  • Jesus, Augustus Caesar and Apollonius were said to have ascended to heaven (A*);
  • Jesus and John the Baptist were said to have been resurrected (R*) while two others (Peter and Apollonius) were said to have resuscitated apparently-dead people (R);
  • Simon Magus and Apollonius were said to be magicians; and
  • Only Jesus had a virgin birth (VB*).

The sources for these stories were the NT (17 refs), Jos (11), other Hist (10) and Jewish (3).

Apart from Jesus, the NT provides one or more signs of exaltation in many of his associates: John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, Stephen, Philip, Barnabas, and his twelve disciples.   Apart from Jesus and his associates, the NT also provides one or more signs of exaltation in seven other men (Augustus Caesar, Theudas I, Jeudas the Galilean, Simon Magus, Claudius Caesar, Herod Agrippa, and the Jew from Egypt) and two groups of men (the sons of the Pharisees and the itinerant Jewish exorcists

Many of the people who were deemed divine (DD) were not divine by modern standards.

1.4       Understandings Then and Now

Mortals and Gods

The Study Bible article on ‘Greco-Roman Context’ says that “During the Hellenistic period the traditional Greek distinction between mortal and immortal became blurred; this was encouraged by myths of humans who became immortal and the availability of immortality through some ‘mystery religions.’” [Bible, liv]  Similarly, Dr. L.T. Johnson describes Polytheism – Roman or otherwise – as a generous religious system that always has room for new members, that sees the membrane between humans and the divine as permeable, and that relaxes the issues of theodicy that haunt monotheism. [LTJ2, 23]

Stories in the Acts of the Apostles show that, apart from Jesus, there were three other mortals who were also declared by witnesses to be gods:

  • Herod Agrippa with the Jews at Tyre (Acts 12:20-23) .
  • Paul and Barnabus performing healings at Lystra (Acts 14:8-13); and
  • Paul who was unaffected by the viper’s bite at Malta (Acts 28:3-6).

These events show the willingness of people at that time to believe that mortals could be gods; this applied to both Jesus and others.

In How Jesus Became God, Ehrman declares that Jesus did not call himself God or think of himself as God (except in John), and during his pre-resurrection life, this is not what his followers thought of him either. The idea that Jesus was God came about only after Jesus’s death and resurrection [BE3a, 30].  These ideas face significant challenges in the Christian counter publication, How God Became Jesus, by five Christian authors [HGBJ].   This debate is described more fully in Section 7 below.

We do not discuss minor divine beings such as angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim.  None of them were human.  However, the NT Letter of Jude (v.6) refers to angels who left heaven to mate with women, which comes from 1 Enoch 6-19. [Bible, footnote].

Miracles

Miracles are extraordinary events that constitute inexplicable manifestations of God’s power.  In Biblical times virtually everyone believed that there were spiritual or magical powers at work that could cause things to happen or enable people to do what they could not have done on their own.  In the synoptic gospels, miracles are usually descibed with the Greek word dynamis, meaning ‘power’ or ‘deeds of power.’  [Bdict, miracles, 638].

Paula Fredricksen notes that people of Jesus’ times had little difficulty perceiving certain events as miraculous or that some people had supernatural powers.  She thinks that Jesus likely did perform deeds that his contemporaries viewed as miracles.  [PF2, 114]

Perhaps the healing miracles can be explained by assuming the immediacy and extent of the healing have been exaggerated, together with psychological explanations such as the power of suggestion, the power of positive thinking, or (in modern language) the placebo effect.

2.   OT and Intertestamental Exaltations

2.1       The OT Exaltation of God by Men 

Here are a four examples of the exaltation of God by men in the OT.  Although these four all use the words ‘exalt(ed)’, there are also many other OT passages that show the exaltation of God without explicitly using the word ‘exalt(ed)’.

  • King David said “Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.” (1 Ch 29.11).
  • “The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted.” (Ps 47.9).
  • Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth.” (Ps 57.5).
  • “For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.” (Ps 97.9).

2.2       The OT Exaltation of Great Men by God

There is only space here to list seven of the Old Testament men who were exalted by God.  One of our main sources is Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of SIRACH, found in the Apocrypha.  It was finished by ben Sira, the son of Sirach, ca 180 CE.  Its epic poem Hymn in Honor of Our Ancestors (chs. 44-50), often cited here, is in praise of many of the Jewish ancestors.

Two men were exalted by being taken by God directly to heaven: “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him” (Gen 5.24); and the prophet Elijah “ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.” (2 Kg 2.11).

God found Noah perfect and righteous; he kept the race alive; and he was honoured with a covenant. (Sir 44.17-18).

When tested by God, Abraham proved faithful; he was honoured with a covenant promissing he would be the founder of a great nation, with a multitude of offspring who would be exalted (Sir 44.19-21).

Moses’ memorial marker at Mt. Nemo, Jordan. Photo by D.Hill.

God exalted Moses in many ways.  Moses was given the rare priviledge of conversing with God in a burning bush (Ex 3.4).  God also entrusted Moses with delivering his Ten Commandments.  Furthermore, according to Sir 45.1-5, Moses was ‘beloved by God,’ made ‘equal in glory to the holy ones,’ and was said to have ‘performed swift miracles,’ so that ‘the Lord glorified him in the presence of kings.’

David is exalted in Psalm 89, verses 19-21. There, in a vision, God said, “I have set the crown on one who is mighty, I have exalted one chosen from the people, I have found my servant David; with my holy oil I have anointed him; my hand shall always remain with him; my arm also shall strengthen him.”

According to 1Ch 29.25, after Solomon was anointed as king, “The Lord highly exalted Solomon in the sight of all Israel, and bestowed upon him such royal majesty as had not been on any king before him in Israel.”

2.3       One Exalted Jew from the Intertestamental Period

Among Galilean Jews, we see the development of wonderworking traditions associated with certain charismatic sages.  The nature of rabbinic materials renders historical judgments concerning Honi the Circle Maker (covered here) and Hanina ben Dosa (covered in section 5.3) difficult to make.  The stories told about the two Galilean rabbis in the Talmud, however, make clear that belief in wonder-working among the saintly tradition extending back to Moses and Elijah remained alive.  [LTJ2, 36]

Honi the circle maker   ca 65 BCE   M* KM    Jew, Jos

Honi performed his feat around 65 BCE.  When rain was needed, Honi drew a circle and stood inside it.  He told God he was not moving until enough rain was sent for the crops.  He later had to pray for the rains to stop.   The story of the rainmaking, from the Mishna, is mentioned by Josephus, who tells the story of his death by stoning when he refused to help Hyrcanus II win a battle with Aristobulus II (because both groups were Jewish).  The story is told in more detail in the Mishnah, Taanith 3:8 (200 CE).  The story is told yet again in the Tosefta, Taanith 2:13; this is the supplement (ca 275 CE) to the Mishnah.   Over time, the story was changed to have Honi became like a Pharisee and then like a Rabbi. [JDC1, 142-7]  [CE2, 424]

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