Would the incarnation of God be as widely accepted in the ancient world as it is today?
Imagine this, if you will. A being that is so pure, so holy, so majestic and full of glory that humans cannot even so much as see his face and live. This being is so beautiful, so powerful, so far above the countenance of man, that he has no choice but to fall down and worship Him in awe. Now imagine a couple of lowly fisherman come up to you one day and tell you that this being came down to earth, not in the form or appearance of man, but as a man. A flesh and blood human being who hungers and thirsts, who sweats, who relieves Himself and who has to bathe. This powerful and majestic being reduced to a man like the rest of us? No way, you would say. That’s preposterous. And indeed, you would be right to think so.
We have no problem with believing in the incarnation today. We’ve been taught that it’s normal and uncontroversial. His humanity is eternally weaved into the identity and divine nature of God. We see things through a post-resurrection lens where we know the whole story and in a society that is defaultly agnostic, perhaps even atheist, we don’t have any real, consequential reason not to believe it. However, to the ancients, they had every reason not to believe it.
The glory, uniqueness, and transcendence of YHWH is found throughout the Old Testament. But God becoming a real man was unthinkable for the Jews, let alone the Gentiles. The thought of the holy, powerful God coming to earth and sweating, stinking, sleeping, and eventually suffering and dying by crucifixion (see link 1 below) would have been a thought to perish. This is why the heresy of docetism – the belief that Jesus was merely an illusion or mirage and not an actual human being – was something the early Christians had to deal with. It was a reaction to the undesirable idea that the human and the divine could meet and dwell together (see link 2). This, of course, only makes sense if the very idea of God incarnate was an offense. This offers another strong reason to conclude that Christianity would not have survived if there wasn’t something real behind it.