Beginning with tales brought back by explorers and missionaries from newly explored lands in the 15th and 16th centuries, European intellectuals were much taken with the notion of the noble savage whose nature was uncorrupted by the civilized world. Edgar Rice Burroughs worked a clever reversal of that idea with the story of Tarzan, an orphaned English nobleman who was raised from infancy by savage apes on an uninhabited coast of West Africa. Growing up without human contact, Tarzan had no reason to believe he was anything other than an ape, albeit rather puny and slow to develop. Then one day he was exploring an abandoned cabin that, unknown to him, had been built near the shore by his late father, the Earl of Greystoke. Inside Tarzan found an illustrated children's primer and for the first time saw pictures of small hairless apes like himself. He discovered he wasn't an ape at all but a B-O-Y.
"You are gods," Jesus told a crowd who had gathered at the temple in Jerusalem to hear his teaching. The Jews had become outraged when he declared he was the son of God, and they were ready to stone him for blasphemy. But Jesus cannily quoted Scripture to them, a verse from one of the Psalms that reads in full, "I say, you are gods, children of the Most High all of you." Jesus did not immediately seek to defend his own claim to be the son of God but instead shifted the ground of debate. Suddenly, the issue was no longer who Jesus was but who they were.
Like the little ape who discovered himself to be human, the Jews who threatened to stone Jesus for blasphemy were unexpectedly confronted with an image of themselves that was entirely outside their previous frame of reference. Gods? "Is it not written in your law?" Jesus asked them, reminding them that "scripture cannot be broken." Yes, but what kind of gods are these? The original passage in Psalms provides a clue. Children of the Most High we may be; nevertheless, the passage continues, "you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince."
This passage would seem to present us with a contradiction. Are not gods, by definition, immortal? How then can we die if we are gods? How could Jesus die if he was the son of God? It is the fundamental mystery of incarnation: God in the flesh becomes subject to decay and death. And it is not Jesus alone who was incarnated but all of us who are "born from above." Appearances can be deceiving. Like the boy Tarzan, we can take our cue from our surroundings and conclude that we are lesser beings. It is critically important, however, that we know ourselves for who we truly are. Otherwise, we will die before we realize that the essential part of us lives forever.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes