Iesus Deus (Jesus the God): The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God


Adela Yarbro Collins: “This book is of interest to a wide readership. It will help historical critics understand what “divinity” meant in the ancient world. It will also help theologians understand the origins of Christology. I recommend it to students, scholars, and any reader curious about Jesus.”

Stanley Stowers: “M. David Litwa’s Iesus Deus marks a major breakthrough in scholarship on early Christianity.  The book manages to overcome the scholarly  apologetic segregation of early Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ from Greek and Roman dominated Mediterranean culture and to demonstrate the fit of these beliefs in that Hellenistic context. A great deal of writing about the ‘purely Jewish’ Christ crumbles with this book.”

David Aune: “In Iesus Deus, M. David Litwa surveys six of the more significant ways in which early Christians from the first through the third centuries CE drew on common reservoir of ancient Mediterranean conceptions of deity as models for expressing the ultimate significance of Jesus, namely his divine origin and deity.  These six themes include divine conception (focusing on Luke 1), punitive protection of honor (Jesus as the enfant terrible of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas), superhuman moral benefaction (Origen’s argumentation in the Contra Celsum), epiphanic or theophanic manifestation (the Gospel transfiguration narratives), corporeal immortalization (the Gospel resurrection accounts), and the reception of a proper divine name (Phil 2:9-11 in the light of Roman imperial practice). This is an extraordinarily well-written, nuanced, convincingly argued and methodologically sophisticated comparative study which breaks new ground in understanding a centrally important aspect of the formation of early Christology. The author rightly criticizes the continued tendency to bifurcate “Judaism” and “Hellenism,” and in his use of comparative method rejects superficial conceptions of “borrowing” by appealing to the shared existence of an “embedded Hellenization” that pervaded ancient Mediterranean cultures.    The author makes use of an impressive array of primary and secondary sources over which he has enviable control.  This book gets four stars and should be required reading for all serious students of early Christian thought.”


Introduction: The “Deification” of Jesus Christ

Chapter 1: “Not through Semen, Surely”: Luke and Plutarch on Divine Birth

Chapter 2: “From Where Was this Child Born?”: Divine Children and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas

Chapter 3: Deus est iuvare”: Miracles, Morals, and Euergetism in Origen’s Contra Celsum

Chapter 4: “And he was Metamorphosed”: Transfiguration as Epiphany

Chapter 5: “We Worship One who Rose from His Tomb”: Resurrection and Deification

Chapter 6: “The Name Above Every Name”: Jesus and Greco-Roman Theonymy

   BECOMING DIVINE: An Introduction to Deification in Western Culture

This book was originally accepted for publication by SUNY Press, but I offered it to Wipf & Stock (Cascade imprint) because I felt that they could distribute it to a wider audience. Written in an accessible style, is designed for the general reader and for classroom use. Chapter 3 (on Paul) provides a summary of my longer (2012) study called We Are Being Transformed. I post a brief description of the whole book below, then a table of contents, and after it the pdf version of the cover, which includes the endorsements.


“Some have called it the essence of sin, others the depth of salvation. Regardless of one’s evaluation of it, however, deification throughout Western history has been a part of human aspiration. From the ancient pharaohs to modern transhumanists, people have envisioned their own divinity. These visionaries include not only history’s greatest megalomaniacs, but also mystics, sages, apostles, prophets, magicians, bishops, philosophers, atheists and monks. Some aimed for independent deity, others realized their eternal union with God. Some anticipated godhood in heaven, others walked as gods on earth. Some accepted divinity by grace, others achieved it by their own will to power. There is no single form of deification (indeed, deification is as manifold as the human conception of God), but the many types are united by a set of interlocking themes: achieving immortality, wielding superhuman power, being filled with supernatural knowledge or love—and through these means transcending normal human (or at least “earthly”) nature.”


Chapter 1: Merging with the Sun: The Deification of Amenhotep III

Chapter 2: The New Dionysus: Divine Assimilation in the Greco-Roman Ruler Cult

Chapter 3: “You Have Been Born a God”: Deification in the Orphic Gold Tablets

Chapter 4: “We are Being Transformed”: Paul and the Gospel of Deification

Chapter 5: “Immortalized in This Very Hour”: Deification in the “Mithras Liturgy”

Chapter 6: “I Have Been Born in Mind!”: Deification in the Hermetic Literature

Chapter 7: “I Have Become Identical With the Divine”: Plotinus on Deification

Chapter 8: “The Flash of One Tremulous Glance”: Augustine and Deification

Chapter 9: “I Am the Truth”: The Deification of Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj

Chapter 10: “God’s Being is My Life”: Meister Eckhart’s Birth in God

Chapter 11: “Uncreated by Grace”: Deification in Gregory Palamas

Chapter 12: “By Faith a Human Becomes God”: Martin Luther on Deification

Chapter 13: “Then They Shall be Gods …”: The Mormon Restoration of Deification

Chapter 14: “Rather be a God Oneself!” Nietzsche and the Joy of Earthly Godhood

Chapter 15:  The Posthuman God

Download the cover here: Cover.BecomingDivine Litwa

The Evil Creator (OUP 2021)

Summary. This book examines the origins of the evil creator idea chiefly in light of early Christian biblical interpretations. It is divided into two parts. In Part I, the focus is on the interpretations of Exodus and John. Firstly, ancient Egyptian assimilation of the Jewish god to the evil deity Seth-Typhon is studied to understand its reapplication by Phibionite and Sethian Christians to the Judeo-catholic creator. Secondly, the Christian reception of John 8:44 (understood to refer to the devil’s father) is shown to implicate the Judeo-catholic creator in murdering Christ. Part II focuses on Marcionite Christian biblical interpretations. It begins with Marcionite interpretations of the creator’s character in the Christian “Old Testament,” analyzes 2 Corinthians 4:4 (in which “the god of this world” blinds people from Christ’s glory), examines Christ’s so-called destruction of the Law (Eph 2:15) and the Lawgiver, and shows how Christ finally succumbs to the “curse of the Law” inflicted by the creator (Gal 3:13). A concluding chapter shows how still today readers of the Christian Bible have concluded that the creator manifests an evil character.  

Table of Contents

Introduction: Why the Evil Creator?

Part I: Egyptian and Johannine Approaches

1. Chapter 1: The Donkey Deity
2. Chapter 2: The Father of the Devil

Part II: Marcionite Approaches

3. Chapter 3: Creator of Evils
4. Chapter 4: The God of this World
5. Chapter 5: Destroyer of the Law I
6. Chapter 6: Destroyer of the Law II



Posthuman Transformation (now in paperback!)

There is not just a desire but a profound human need for enhancement – the irrepressible yearning to become better than ourselves. Today, enhancement is often conceived of in terms of biotechnical intervention: genetic modification, prostheses, implants, drug therapy – even mind uploading. The theme of this book is an ancient form of enhancement: a physical upgrade that involves ethical practices of self-realization. It has been called ‘angelification’ – a transformation by which people become angels. The parallel process is ‘daimonification’, or becoming daimones. Ranging in time from Hesiod and Empedocles through Plato and Origen to Plotinus and Christian gnostics, this book explores not only how these two forms of posthuman transformation are related, but also how they connect and chasten modern visions of transhumanist enhancement which generally lack a robust account of moral improvement.

This book studies posthuman transformation (becoming angels and demons) among poets, philosophers, and theologians of the ancient Mediterranean world. It brings together Hellenic, Jewish, Christian, and gnostic authors, and connects their visions of moral transformation to modern Transhumanist visions of biotechnical enhancement.

How the Gospels Became History (Yale UP 2018)

Litwa Dust Cover How the Gospels Became History


Link to podcast

Yale U Press web page

Page 99 Test

ABC Religion and Ethics article


Did the early Christians believe their myths? Like most ancient—and modern—people, early Christians made efforts to present their myths in the most believable ways.

In this eye-opening work, M. David Litwa explores how and why what later became the four canonical gospels take on a historical cast that remains vitally important for many Christians today. Offering an in-depth comparison with other Greco-Roman stories that have been shaped to seem like history, Litwa shows how the evangelists responded to the pressures of Greco-Roman literary culture by using well-known historiographical tropes such as the mention of famous rulers and kings, geographical notices, the introduction of eyewitnesses, vivid presentation, alternative reports, and so on. In this way, the evangelists deliberately shaped myths about Jesus into historical discourse to maximize their believability for ancient audiences.

Advanced Praise:

“In this book Litwa introduces the category of “mythic historiography” and shows that it is a compelling description of what the Gospels are. He rightly argues that these narratives make truth claims about individual events. At the same time, many of the events cannot be accepted in our culture generally as historical fact. The qualifier “mythic” grasps this cultural situation while indicating the deep existential importance of the Gospels that engages many readers.”—Adela Yarbro Collins, Yale Divinity School

“Litwa offers a philosophically sophisticated yet immanently accessible explanation of the relationship between history and myth in the early Christian gospels. He provides a creative contribution to the question of gospel genre, for which the central takeaway is that collapse of myth and history in the Four Gospels procures a protective benefit: should the interest in myth fade, the narrative’s history will carry these texts until, by whatever force, a mythic desire rekindles.”—Clare K. Rothschild, author of Paul in Athens

“In this remarkably clear and learned work, David Litwa shows himself once more to be one of the best scholars working today in the intertextual terrain that lies between Greco-Roman literature and the New Testament.” —William Hutton, College of William & Mary

Hermetica II (Cambridge UP 2018)

Finally gathered under one cover are the scattered fragments and testimonies regarding Hermes Thrice Great that complete Copenhaver’s 1992 translation of the Hermetica. Contained within are the 29 fragments from Stobaeus (including the famous Kore Kosmou), the Oxford and Vienna fragments, an expanded selection of fragments from various authors (including Zosimus of Panopolis, Augustine, and Albert the Great), and testimonies about Hermes from 38 authors (including Cicero, Pseudo-Manetho, the Emperor Julian, Al-Kindī, Michael Psellus, the Emerald Tablet, and Nicholas of Cusa). All translations are accompanied by introductions and notes which cite sources for further reading. These Hermetic texts will appeal to a broad array of readers interested in western esotericism including scholars of Egyptology, the New Testament, the Classical World, Byzantium, medieval Islam, the Latin Middle Ages, and the Renaissance.

This book is not just for scholars, but for any reader interested in western esoteric lore from antiquity to the Middle Ages. Those interested in ancient Egypt, philosophy, magic, astrology, medicine, theology, talismans, gems, amulets, divination, theosophy, and theurgy will profit from this work. Hermes Thrice Great had a truly global impact, making his home in Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Arabic, and medieval European traditions. How and why Hermes made such a great impression in the Renaissance can only be understood through the history of reception—Hellenic, Christian, and Muslim—traced in this book.

Desiring Divinity (Oxford UP, 2016)


Self-deification in Early Jewish and Christian Mythmaking

  • Sustained, critical (and non-moralizing) attention to a neglected yet contested topic
  • Rigorous analysis between figures not often compared (e.g., Jesus and Simon of Samaria)
  • In-depth comparison of a variety of texts from the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Apocrypha and Gnostic literature
  • See further:

The new Refutatio (Elenchus) (SBL Press, 2016)

A reliable, readable translation for scholars and students

The Refutation of All Heresies (ca. 225 CE) is a treasure-trove of ancient philosophy, astrology, medicine, magic, Gnostic thought, numerology, heresiography, ecclesial politics, and early Christian studies in general. Offered here for the first time in almost a century is a full English translation, along with a newly-edited Greek text, extensive notes, and a thorough introduction.


  • A full English translation with extensive notes
  • Newly edited Greek text that avoids the pitfalls of the most recent edition
  • A thorough-going introduction that addresses the questions of authorship, date, and audience, as well as the purpose of the book, its organization, method, and importance for Gnostic studies

My response to Reviewers at the Society of Biblical Literature Meeting, 2018: 

Refutation Response

We Are Being Transformed

(available on


This monograph argues for a version of deification in the thought of the Apostle Paul. I define Pauline deification as the reception of immortality and power as a consequence of assimilating to a divine being, Christ. The introduction provides a history of research on deification in Paul from Adolf von Harnack to the present. The meaning of deification is rooted in the ancient significance of “god” (θεός). Thus in my first chapter I show how Greeks and Romans thought of godhood in terms of immortality and power. Jews in the Greco-Roman world, including Paul, agreed that these basic characteristics constituted divinity. Although the rhetoric of ancient Jewish apologists has misled scholars into thinking that Jews rejected deification across the board, chapter 3 shows that Jews in the Mediterranean world were open to their own saints and heroes sharing in divine power and immortality. The rest of this chapter (closing Part I of the study) fleshes out the roots of deification in Jewish thought (focusing on the image of God and the king as Yahweh’s viceregent and begotten “son of God”).

In Part II, I make the argument for a Pauline version of deification. Pauline soteriology presents a vision of assimilating to a divine being (Christ). This assimilation to Christ has two post-mortem results: (1) the reception of immortality in a pneumatic body (1 Cor 15:44-52) and (2) the reception of cosmic power manifested in rule over the world and angels (1 Cor 3:21; 6:2-3; Rom 8:32; 16:20). Both of these eschatological benefits incorporate believers into the divine identity of Christ who is pneuma (1 Cor 15:45) and who rules the cosmos (1 Cor 15:25). The reception of the pneumatic body is rigorously compared to Stoic conceptions of deification contemporaneous with Paul. The cosmic rule of the saints is fitted not only into the tradition of ancient Judaism, but is presented as part of a larger Mediterranean type of myth called the “Battle of the Gods.”

Part III deals in-depth with potential objections to Pauline deification—namely, monotheism and the doctrine of creation. I argue that “monotheism” (a term of modern coinage) in Paul’s day amounted to a statement about God’s absolute power. It did not prohibit humans from sharing in God’s divine qualities. Similarly, creation in Paul’s day did not mean creatio ex nihilo and thus imply an absolute separation between God and the world. As the case of Christ shows, a human being could participate in divinity so as to truly enter into the category of god/divine being.

My conclusion presents an argument for why the language of deification is useful for historically conceptualizing Paul’s vision of salvation. The theological language of “participation” (E. Sanders) is too vague, and “mysticism” (A. Schweitzer) too vacuous to understand the logic of Pauline assimilation to Christ. Deification offers a native historical category of perception by which to understand Paul’s vision of believers’ eschatological transformation as well as their present and future union with Christ.