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Self-deification in Biblical Texts




Since the Enlightenment, many scholars have tried to extract the “real” history from mythicized characters in Jewish and Christian literature. They have aimed to reconstruct the true (or most historically plausible) Jesus, Simon of Samaria, and so on. I too wish to distinguish history (roughly: an account of what happened) from mythic themes permeating historiographical discourse. But I do not treat these themes as somehow secondary or unimportant. To the contrary, they are all-important, because myth, if truly myth, becomes our reality and shapes our sense of who we are.



See Also: Desiring Divinity: Self-deification in Early Jewish and Christian Mythmaking (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).

Becoming Divine: An Introduction to Deification in Western Culture (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013).



By M. David Litwa
Department of Religion and Culture
Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, VA 24061
mdavidlitwa.wordpress.com
August 2016


Self-deification has been pilloried as the depth of human sin and the pinnacle of insanity. It is the ultimate transgression of boundaries, the greatest of category mistakes. By deed or word, a human claims to be god (or worse, God). The heated emotions and deep dread that accompany such a claim still tinge political (and scholarly) discourse. Among moralists of every age, the self-deifier is the greatest example of pride and human fallenness. For the ancient Christian fathers and modern Fundamentalists, the self-deifier is the firstborn of Satan.

But what really is self-deification? Simply put, it is the rhetorical claim to be god or a divine being. It is “rhetorical” in that the self-deifier is often a consciously constructed character whose claims are geared to provoke a strong emotional reaction. In ancient society (as in our own), a claim to divinity is rarely made in “real life.” Instead, it is attributed to mythical figures. In the myth, someone claims to be divine in direct relation (or opposition) to a superior deity. The claim can be validated or not; it can be considered true or not. What is important is the rhetoric of ascribing divinity to the self in either word or deed. There are many people in history and in mythic history who were deified; few, however, were self-deifiers.

Self-deification was and remains an important and widespread mythic theme for ancient Jews and Christians. It recurs at key moments in their mythic history—appearing in central figures like Helel/Lucifer, Adam, Christ, and Antichrist. In this pattern, the hero or antihero claims, by deed or word, to be a god or divine being. There is a rising action: the exaltation of the self-deifier. The antihero quickly plunges into hell. The hero, however, is justified and rises to the stars. In these dramas, there are standard character types. God plays the role of the supreme king; the people of God are his loyal subjects. The self-deifier dons the mask either of God’s loyal son, or of the ultimate rebel.

Since the Enlightenment, many scholars have tried to extract the “real” history from mythicized characters in Jewish and Christian literature. They have aimed to reconstruct the true (or most historically plausible) Jesus, Simon of Samaria, and so on. I too wish to distinguish history (roughly: an account of what happened) from mythic themes permeating historiographical discourse. But I do not treat these themes as somehow secondary or unimportant. To the contrary, they are all-important, because myth, if truly myth, becomes our reality and shapes our sense of who we are.

Most biblical self-deification myths follow what might be called “the standard pattern.” This pattern involves a self-deifying agent who rebels against God and meets a horrible doom. Key examples here are the Adamic figure in Ezekiel 28 and Helel (also known as Lucifer) in Isaiah 14. The pattern is inverted when Jewish and Christian Gnostics made Yahweh himself (dubbed “Yaldabaoth”) the first self-deifier who rebels against a higher God. (See the Secret Book of John, Nature of the Rulers, and the Origin of the World in the Nag Hammadi library).

But not all self-deifiers are saddled with pride and fated to fall. Some who claimed divinity stated a simple and direct truth. Though reviled on earth, misunderstood—and even murdered—they receive vindication and rose to the stars. Jesus himself makes robust claims to deity in the gospel of John. In response, the Jews are livid. When they publically accuse him of claiming divinity, the charge is not false. Jesus, instead of backing down, ratchets up his claims. Though “exalted” on the cross, the reality of resurrection verifies his claims.

But Jesus is not alone. His mythic life is quickly converted into a model of spiritual realization. Claiming to be divine is a gnostic claim because it is based on secret knowledge, what the New Testament calls “mystery.” The “mystery,” as we learn from Colossians, is not that Christ is a man who lived long ago in a land far, far away, whose sayings are constantly disputed, whose miracles are invented, whose history is constantly pared down to the level of the gruesome and absurd: a man, a Jew, bleeding and gasping on a cross. The mystery—“hidden throughout all ages and generations”—is “Christ in you” (Col 1:26-27). The secret knowledge, in other words, is not that divinity is outside, like a glorious gas pervading the universe, or sitting like some occult lump in a different dimension divorced from our reality; no, divinity is within. This realization refuses pride since it is experienced as revelation, as a pure gift uncovered from within. Remember what Paul says: “God was pleased to reveal his son in me” (Gal 1:16). But if he was inside, he was there all along!

This is the paradox: one must receive the gift in which one’s true Self is the giver. As taught in ancient Hermetic lore, the human is double. There is the empirical self, the one experienced as the conscious ego in the body. But there is also a higher Self experienced in any number of ways in any number of religions. Paul wrote that “I no longer live; Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20), and he spoke about becoming “the same image” as the glorified Christ (2 Cor 3:18). These are not word games and cute metaphors. The apostle identifies with a divine being who functions as his self, his new “I.”

To use another example, when the patriarch Enoch soars to heaven in chariots of wind, his flesh melts away and he beholds the exalted Son of the Human studded with beams of glory. But the vision is a mirror. Enoch is informed that he is that divine Son of the Human, born on earth to bring righteousness while simultaneously enthroned above (1 Enoch 70-71).

Sometimes the divine self is seen as the self of the future sitting in heaven. But in heaven there is no time. One must realize that the heavenly reality is also the fully present reality. Think of the book of Ephesians, where the church (or the collectivity of the redeemed) is depicted as Christ’s cosmic divine body filling the entire universe (Eph 1:23). As a collective, the church is already raised with Christ, and already enthroned with him in the heavenly realms (Eph 2:6; this remains only a promise in Revelation 3:21). Christ’s cosmic body—whatever exactly it is (perhaps analogous to dark energy)—is a divine body. Church members, joined as a divine spirit body, thus enjoy a present divinity. They are deified, just as Enoch of old, even while living an empirical existence below. Just as the human is double, the church too is twofold. The mystical church is the divine, cosmic body of Christ. Yet the empirical church is still—through ethical action—trying to live up to its divine potential, seeding the earth with divine goodness, trying to become its true self.

To sum up the mode of Christian self-deification, we would say it is realized in three “moments.” The first moment is the realization of innate divinity—the Christ within. The second moment includes all the reflexive practices whereby people deepen their knowledge of their divine identity. They might consume the divine body as bread, drink divine blood as wine, engage in fasting (the mitigation of the empirical self), or self-sacrificial service (since the true self is not the empirical self anyway). The third moment is identification with a Savior or Revealer figure (namely, Christ). The Savior awakens the self to its inward divinity and allows it to begin the process of self-knowledge and self-realization. But the Savior is again not some external guide or coach. Identification with the Savior is the final goal of self-deification. Christ already the same substance as the true self, albeit a higher and purer form.

Merely by telling the myth of a man’s deification, the church engages in the practice of self-deification. Self-deification is the ultimate self-preservation, the guarding of one’s own collective identity, the will to be eternal—and without the will, there is no way. The church tells the story of a human who is or became divine (depending on one’s interpretation). But the story is not told as history, as something that happened in the past, but as a myth supremely relevant now—today. The story is not a mere symbol, but functions as reality. Christ—divinely human and humanly divine—sums up the universe (Eph 1:10) and the story of the church. He is the model of the church’s destiny, its forerunner, the vision of what all Christians dearly hope to become—not dust and ashes, but resurrected gods dwelling eternally in heaven. To those who believe it, this story is real because it generates reality, the reality of divinity winking back from the mirror within.





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