The title of this book is deliberately provocative, but I do not wish to offend anyone. It expresses a double entente that captures two key emphases in the following pages. The one connotation in the title is how remarkable it is that Jesus of Nazareth came to be revered in the most exalted terms, and so early, in the religious movement dedicated to him that became what we call “Christianity.” “How on earth” (to use a common English idiom of wonder) did this treatment of Jesus as divine happen? This reverence for Jesus included both grand claims about his significance and also a pattern of devotional practices in which he figured centrally and in ways that amount to him being treated as divine. In the Roman-era religious environment of the early churches, this devotion to Jesus effectively comprised treating him like a god. This is the premise for the following chapters, which reflect an effort to engage this keen devotion to Jesus as a subject for historical investigation.
This brings me to the other part of the double entente. How “on earth” — that is, how in historical terms — did Jesus come to hold such a status among early Christians? Of course, in traditional Christian faith, Jesus of Nazareth is the personal, human embodiment of the second person of the Trinity, and simply was divine from “before all time” (to use an ancient Christian creedal expression). But, whatever the validity of this traditional Christian view, the historical question remains: How did early Christians “on earth” come to see Jesus as divine and revere him as such? That is the key question that shapes the discussion in this book.
I am not primarily concerned here with considering the legitimacy of devotion to Jesus. That is a valid religious question, but more suitable for a