"Gods in human form"? A study of the acclamations of divinity in the Acts of the Apostles.
This study evaluates five divine acclamations in the Book of Acts by situating them within the broader ancient Mediterranean context of deification. It demonstrates that divine acclamations in Acts do not conform to a single pattern of deification but several distinct patterns serving different purposes. This study begins by outlining the various ways humans were thought to be divine in Mediterranean antiquity. Each acclamation is then evaluated on its own terms, giving particular attention to the concept of divinity at work. By discerning what concepts of divinity are used, a clearer picture of the function of each acclamation emerges. With Simon (Acts 8) and Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12), the divine acclamations fit the pattern of self-deification. By portraying them as self-deifiers, Luke discredits these figures. Simon’s self-deification makes him out to be the eternal, uncreated Creator-God. Luke’s rhetorical strategy to discredit Simon phonetically inverts key Simonian claims to portray him as a charlatan. Herod’s self-deification uses the cult of rulers and the related cult of benefactors to secure his divinization. Luke reports on Herod’s death to criticize self-seeking imperial rule and benefaction. The denials of divinity by Peter (Acts 10) and Paul (Acts 14) serve an opposite function by legitimizing these figures as true philosophers. As with Herod, Cornelius’s worship of Peter is understood within the benefactor cult. Peter’s refusal illustrates his commitment to philosophic virtue and makes a point about the nature of true benefaction and the ethnic equality of the people of God. Paul’s divine denial is based on a different concept of divinity, that of the disguised deity or epiphany. In addition to emphasizing his philosophic virtue, Paul’s correction of the Lystrans’ actions involves a critique of the Zeus cult, suggesting an element of religious competition underlying this scene. Finally, Paul’s survival of the snakebite in Acts 28 depicts Paul as a divine man, a characterization in line with his portrayal as a wonderworking philosopher throughout Acts. This study dispels the notion that the divine acclamations address only one thing (“paganism”) by demonstrating how each acclamation serves its own literary, historical, or theological concern.