8.1 Exalted Men in Ancient Palestine
We identified eleven forms of exaltation that could apply to a person in ancient Palestine.
Six of these forms of exaltation do not imply divinity, but indicate that one is a ‘holy man’ or a man with ‘mortal greatness’: being a prophet with a following; healing physical conditions; performing exorcisms to heal mental conditions; being deemed great (ex: with certain titles); being killed or martyred by your enemies; and performing resuscitations of apparently dead persons.
The other five forms of exaltation do imply a degree of divinity: a virgin birth; miracles other than healings and exorcisms; being deemed divine, or treated as such; being said to have been resurrected; and being said to have ascended to heaven. Some people will believe these stories but skeptics will not.
These eleven signs of exaltation were observed or reported by one or more persons, but there were/are other people (either ancient or modern) who doubted the truth of almost all of these signs.
A table listed 31 men who had one or more signs of exaltation in Palestine in the years surrounding the ministry of Jesus within a century either way (65 BCE to 135 CE). Jesus Christ was the only man exalted in all eleven ways. Next in importance were 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. On the other hand, 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 it did not happen!
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) .
These events show the willingness of people at that time to believe that mortals could be gods; this thinking applied to both Jesus and many others.
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).
There has been a debate about how to best characterise Jesus Christ. Bart Ehrman and a few liberal colleagues think that the earliest Christians saw Jesus as a man who was exalted to divinity, possibly at his baptism or resurrection, as shown in certain gospel passages. Traditional Christian apologists think that the gospels contain some evidence confirming this point of view, but even more evidence that Christ was seen as existing over all time, and only became incarnated as a man to fulfill God’s plan of salvation. Their book, How God Became Jesus [HGBJ], contains detailed counter arguments to those of Ehrman in his book, How Jesus Became God [BE3b].
The arguments got into a number of specific topics. After reviewing both sides of these arguments, we concluded that Ehrman was right in thinking that:
But Ehrman was wrong in thinking that: