- Desiring Divinity: Self-Deification in Early Jewish and Christian Mythmaking by M. David Litwa
M. David Litwa's Desiring Divinity is an engaging and enlightening read. The book explores self-deification—defined as "the claim to be a god or a divine being," most usually "in direct relation to an incumbent superior deity" (4–5)—in an impressively broad range of ancient literature. Litwa seeks to absolve this definition of self-deification from its contemporary connotations of pathology. To that end, his basic approach is typological. He identifies two basic types of self-deifier in ancient texts: the rebel and the hero. The former functions as a figure of chaos and subversion, the latter as one of restoration. Both need to be understood (following Wendy Doniger, Clifford Geertz, Bruce Lincoln, and Russell McCutcheon, among others) as exercises in mythmaking, "a process in which ideal types function to reproduce and generate social values … models of and models for reality" (8, emphasis original). And myths, the book maintains, are always political, thereby warranting detailed inquiry into how self-deification myths work to achieve various ends and to produce different theological results.
Part One of the book takes up the self-deifier as rebel. Chapter One reads the two oracles against the ruler of Tyre that are embedded in Ezekiel 28 as an Edenic myth in which the primal human hubristically asserts his own divine status and is, accordingly, cast down by Yahweh. Chapter Two analyzes the fall of "Helel" or the "Shining One" in Isaiah 14.12–20. Litwa's account lucidly situates the passage in a plausible historical context—condemnation of Nebuchadnezzar II—arguing that it brings together a much older myth of self-deification with a concrete socio-political situation. The chapter also treats early Christian appropriations of the story that used it to provide an account of the origin of Lucifer/Satan. Here the desire for power, so Litwa argues, reveals "Helel and Yahweh … to be strikingly similar" (46). Chapter Three pushes this insight to its logical conclusion, [End Page 336] unpacking the ways in which the figure of Yahweh in the opening chapters of Genesis could be read as a jealous, power-hungry self-deifier—that is, the figure of Yaldabaoth as depicted in the Secret Book of John, the Reality of the Rulers, and On the Origin of the World. Litwa's welcome emphasis on the structural convergences between a valorized (but still, in some sense, "self-deifying") god who asserts absolute power and a condemned self-deifying figure who claims the same works nicely to set up the second portion of the book.
Part Two turns to the self-deifier as hero. Chapter Four examines Jesus as a self-deifier in the Gospel of John. Here Litwa is to be commended for holding previous biblical scholarship to account with respect to somewhat tortured and illogical explanations that deny the rhetoric of Jesus's self-deification while simultaneously upholding his divine status. Chapter Five treats the figure of Simon of Samaria as encountered in the Acts of the Apostles, patristic heresiology, The Acts of Peter, and the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies. Given that the extant evidence is preserved entirely in hostile sources, Litwa faces an uphill climb in the quest to interpret Simon typologically as a hero. But on the whole, his analysis is cogent and illuminating. Chapter Six explores the abstruse Nag Hammadi treatise Allogenes in conversation with Foucault's Hermeneutics of the Subject. Litwa argues that in the treatise we see self-deification figured in terms of an innate but undeveloped divine core, subsequently formed and expanded through practices of the self and leading ultimately to "identification with a mediate deity" (133). The book closes with a short conclusion that sums up its typological analysis and reflects on self-deification within present-day mythologies.
The principal contribution of Desiring Divinity is to put these particular texts (some excessively studied, others less familiar to non-specialists) in conversation with one another under the rubric of self-deification. Readers should...