Paula Fredriksen is Professor of Scripture at Boston University and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In her latest work When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation Fredriksen writes:
‘The Paul of history stands entirely within Judaism. His divinization of Christ might seem contrary to this idea. If we place ourselves back within Paul’s first-century geocentric universe, however, it may seem less so. For Jews as for their pagan contemporaries, divinity was constructed and construed along a long gradient that spanned heaven and earth. The very architecture of the universe – earth at the centre, then moon, then five planets and the sun, then the realm of the fixed stars – articulated these grades. Special humans were divine. David and his line were in some special way God’s sons; Augustus was a god the son of a god (his adopted father, the deified Julius). On account of his excellence, says Jewish philosopher Philo, Moses “was named god and the king of the whole nation.” In the early third century, in his commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, the great Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria pronounced David and Paul “gods”.
Paul, importantly, never claims that Jesus is a god. The closest he comes is to say that Jesus was “in the form of [a] god” before he appeared “in the likeness of men”. Capitalising “God” throughout this passage in Paul’s letter, the Revised Standard Version mistranslates it. Paul’s world contained both God, the chief biblical deity, and gods, such as those represented by the non-human “knees” in this same passage in Philippians 2: they will bend to the victorious returning Christ and to God the Father. Jesus is not “God”. He is, however, a divine mediator; a human being (anthrõpos), though from “heaven.” (What James, Jesus’ brother, would have made of such claims I have no idea). Jesus becomes radically divinized – as much god as God the Father – only during the imperially sponsored episcopal councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, a period when the (now Christian) emperor was also (still) considered divine.
Back in the mid-first century, when Christians were Jews, Jesus was high on the cosmic gradient, but he was nonetheless human. Our current categories of “humanity” and “divinity” do not stretch in these ways. Theirs did.’
Paula Fredriksen, When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, pages 186-187.