How Jesus became “God,” per Ehrman

May 29, 2014

Having been asked to review Bart Ehrman’s new book, How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2014), for the Christian Century, I take the opportunity here also to comment on it.  This book is another of his now “best-selling” publications directed to a general readership, and, as with these earlier books (e.g., Misquoting Jesus), this one seems intended to startle naïve Christians uninformed about biblical scholarship, agitate and respond to Christian apologists, and reassure fellow sceptics and agnostics (Ehrman’s self-description) that they have some basis for their doubts.

Ehrman is generally a good communicator, and one of the positive things one can say about the book is that it is clearly written, and readily accessible to readers with little or no prior acquaintance with the issues and scholarly methods involved in the topic.  Indeed, at a number of places Ehrman gives an admirably clear description of this or that technical matter, e.g., his explanation of how scholars identify places in Paul’s letters (e.g., Romans 1:3-4; Philippians 2:6-11) where he likely incorporates earlier Christian confessional and liturgical traditions.

But, whereas in some of his previous general-reader books, Ehrman drew upon his recognized expertise (especially in NT textual criticism), in this book he deals with a subject on which he is not particularly known as a contributor.  So, he draws heavily on the work of other scholars (including my own), and with commendable acknowledgement.  Unfortunately, however, on several matters he seems to rely on now discredited views, or over-simplify or misunderstand things.

But before I turn to criticism, I want to note a few more positive things.  With probably the majority of NT scholars, Ehrman emphasizes that the exalted claims about Jesus reflected in the NT (e.g., that Jesus shares divine glory, divine rule, the divine name, and is to be given universal reverence) all appeared soon in the aftermath of Jesus’ execution.  These convictions were based primarily on experiences of the risen/exalted Jesus (“visions” in Ehrman’s terms) by Jesus’ followers, which conveyed the conviction that God had raised Jesus from death and had uniquely exalted him as Christ and Lord.

Ehrman (rightly in my view) also notes that these lofty claims about Jesus reflected in the NT seem to have erupted very early, so early that they are presupposed as widely shared already by the time Paul wrote his letters (from ca. 50 CE and thereafter).  In a commendable example of changing his mind, Ehrman acknowledges that prior to immersing himself in the evidence and scholarly analysis for this book, he had assumed a much slower and more drawn-out process, but was driven to conclude that these remarkable Christological beliefs erupted much earlier and much more fully than he had thought.  It’s always reassuring when a scholar admits to learning something new, and even to changing his/her mind.

Moreover, Ehrman argues (again, rightly in my view), that the early claim that Jesus is Messiah, require us to conclude also that Jesus had excited such hopes about himself during his own ministry.  Indeed, this was likely the reason that the Roman authority moved against him and crucified him.  (“Messiah” = typically a divinely appointed ruler/deliverer, a claim that would have been seen as sedition against Rome.)  As Ehrman observes, resurrection by itself would not have connoted that Jesus is Messiah.  But, if Jesus’ followers had held such a hope during his ministry, then Jesus’ resurrection would quite readily have been taken as God’s validation of Jesus as Messiah.  (This, by the way, is basically the argument made by the great Yale NT scholar, Nils Dahl, decades ago.)

To cite another commendable matter, early in the book, Ehrman helpfully and clearly explains the limits of historical inquiry, particularly noting that historical analysis is not able to judge the validity of theological claims.  So, he notes, historians cannot really judge the question of whether God raised Jesus from death.  All historical analysis can do is to explore when and in what circumstances such claims emerged, what people seem to have meant in making such claims, and what the subsequent effects were.

But, to turn now to critical comments, it’s curious that Ehrman then devotes a section of the ensuing discussion to comparing early experiences of the risen Jesus with apparitions of deceased loved ones to the bereaved, and with other such phenomena.  The point of doing so, quite obviously, seems to be to give reasons for taking early Christian experiences as hallucinations, and so not really valid.  To do this, however, is (in Ehrman’s own terms) to move from historical analysis to something else.  To be specific, this discussion seems more aimed to counter Christian apologists and give justification for doubting Christian claims.  But this makes just a bit coy his profession of not being concerned to judge the question whether experiences of the risen Jesus were valid.

As I’ve mentioned, on several matters Ehrman seems ill-informed and/or not current.  For example, he assumes that the expression “the son of man” (used numerous times by Jesus in the Gospels) was a recognized title of a figure well-known in ancient Jewish eschatological hopes.  So, Ehrman continues (on this assumption), Jesus must have been referring to this future figure, not to himself.  But from at least the 1970s it has been clear that this assumption is baseless.  There is, in fact, no evidence that “the son of man” was a fixed title, or that there was a known figure who bore it, in ancient Jewish tradition.  So (as is clearly the way the Gospel writers took the expression), Jesus’ use of “the son of man” (NB:  with the definite article) seems to have been simply a distinctive self-referential expression/idiom.

To cite another example of the curious misunderstanding of some things, Ehrman repeatedly refers to the early Christian doctrine of Jesus’ incarnation as portraying him as “temporarily human.”  But from the NT onward, and even  in subsequent centuries, Jesus’ assumption of humanity was emphatically portrayed as irrevocable.  Indeed, it is as a resurrected and glorified human that he serves (in classical Christian thought) as the paradigm for the ultimate salvation of believers.  (Of course, in classical Christian belief Jesus is also divine, but not at the expense of a genuine, and irrevocable, humanity.)

At a few other points, Ehrman refers to the Christology of this or that NT text, noting that Jesus is not pictured as God the Father.  I take this as implying that this is significant somehow, as if later Christians did identify Jesus as the Father. But Jesus was never pictured as God the Father, neither in any NT text nor in any classical Christian text thereafter.  Indeed, from Justin Martyr onward, Christian writers typically note that “God the Father” and “the Son” are “numerically distinct,” that is, distinguished, in the expressions of the doctrine of the “Trinity.”

As a final criticism, Ehrman posits that the key to Paul’s Christology is that he thought of Jesus as an (or the) angel (of God/the Lord).  That, says Ehrman, explains how Paul could ascribe “pre-existence” to Jesus, and how, as a devout Jew, he could countenance worshipping Jesus.  As the key basis for this notion, Ehrman invokes a peculiar reading of Galatians 4:14, where Paul says that in his initial visit the Galatians received him “as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.”  Ehrman insists that this is to be read as a flat appositive construction, in which “an angel of God” = “Christ Jesus.”   But this isn’t actually as compelling a claim as he thinks.  Even Gieschen (on whose work Ehrman relies here) presents this reading of the construction as only a distinct “possibility.”  And most scholars (myself included) don’t think it really works.  The grammar certainly doesn’t require it, and it seems more reasonable to take it as a kind of stair-step statement, “angel of God” and “Christ Jesus” as ascending categories.

Moreover, Ehrman fails to consider other evidence that Paul distinguished between Jesus and angels, as for example in Romans 8:38-39, where Paul lyrically asserts that “nothing in all creation,” including angels, can separate believers from God’s love in “Christ Jesus our Lord.”   Or note 1 Cor. 6:3, where Paul asserts that, on the basis of their redemption in Christ, believers will judge angels (in the eschatological consummation).  In short, Paul’s Christology seems to place Jesus in a category of his own, superior and distinct from angels.

Further, contra Ehrman, there is, in fact, no evidence of angels receiving worship in any known Jewish circles of Paul’s day.  So, the worship given to Jesus isn’t really paralleled or made more understandable by positing that Jesus was regarded as an angel.

As to Jesus’ “pre-existence,” Ehrman seems not to know the indications that in ancient Jewish apocalyptic thought one or another kind of pre-existence could be ascribed to eschatological figures (as Nils Dahl noted long ago in another important essay, and as R. G. Hamerton-Kelly documented more fully).

On these and a few other matters, in short, Ehrman’s discussion is misinformed, which is curious given that the jacket promotional blurb describes the book as the product of eight years of research and writing.  But, notwithstanding its defects and sometimes slanted handling of matters, it will perhaps have some positive effect.  The general public today is widely unaware of how remarkable were the beliefs about Jesus and the extraordinary place of Jesus in the devotional practices of earliest Christian circles.  So, if the book sells as well as his previous general-reader books, in addition to enriching Ehrman’s bank balance further, this one might help general readers to appreciate more how astonishing these early beliefs and devotional practices were


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