I think most of my readers know that I’m not religious. However, I am interested in both the history and anthropology of religion. This interest has led me to read a number of books by Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar.
In the last decade or so, Ehrman has exposed the public to a wealth of information that was previously only well known among historians, scholars, and clergy. I’m a fan of his and currently subscribe to his paywalled blog, which if you have the interest and can spare $25 a year (which goes to charity), I highly recommend.
So, it was pretty much a given that I was going to read his latest book, ‘How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee‘. This is a book about the historical development of how Christians came to regard a rural itinerant preacher as the incarnation of God.
Of course, if you’re a believer, you’ll see this as humanity coming to understand Jesus’s divinity. Ehrman is himself an agnostic, but bends over backward to remain neutral on the question of whether Jesus actually was or is divine. This wasn’t enough for some, because this book has already generated a response book from conservative Christians.
Anyway, Ehrman starts off by discussing how ancient societies viewed divinity. We typically regard it as a thing completely separate from humans, with an uncrossable void between us and the divine. This is almost certainly an artifact of centuries of monotheism.
But the ancients didn’t have this background. They were mostly polytheists. So, it was common for them to contemplate lowly divine beings that were just above humans. Indeed, it was common to regard humans who had led exemplary lives to have been rewarded with divinity after they died, and for many to be regarded that way even when they lived. Egyptian pharos and Roman emperors were regarded as gods in their lifetimes. So the ancients conceived of a continuum of divine beings.
Even in ancient Judaism, there was a continuum. Despite many signs of polytheism in the early Old Testament books (including in the first of the ten commandments), Jews were firmly monotheistic by Jesus’s time. But angels were widely regarded as superhuman divine beings, and one particular angel, “the Angel of the Lord” was regarded as the chief angel, often speaking for, and referenced interchangeably with God. Kings could be semi-divine, and were often referred to as the son of God.
Erhman spends some time discussing the historical Jesus. Before reading his books, I had concluded that the historical figure, if he ever existed, was essentially inaccessible, a figure hopelessly obscured by the legend. But Erhman describes the methods that historians have used to build a probable, but never absolute, picture of what the historical figure was like.
These methods include asking whether or not an assertion has multiple independent accounts, if it fits in the known historical context of the times, how close to the events the accounts were written, and how unlikely the assertion originates from the writer’s agenda. The higher the probability of these conditions, the more probable that a particular assertion about the events or person are true.
Using these methods, most ancient historians see Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher with a message of the imminent kingdom of God. This person was baptized by John and Baptist, another apocalyptist, and like that earlier preacher, ran afoul of the authorities, most likely by causing an incident in the Jerusalem temple, and was executed by the Romans in a manner common for people perceived to be insurrectionist.
These methods do not lead to the conclusion that Jesus ever declared himself to be divine, although it does seem to be that he saw himself as someone anointed by God to lead Israel in the new age.
After his crucifixion, Ehrman believes that many of Jesus’s followers had visions of him. Again, Ehrman bends over backward to be neutral on whether these visions were actually Jesus, hallucinations, or delusions of some kind. He does point out the similarities with modern day sightings of Jesus, the virgin Mary, and lost loved ones.
Ehrman describes two major types of Christologies, or beliefs about when Jesus became divine, when he became the son of God. “Low Christologies”, which Erhman prefers to call exaltation Christiologies, see Jesus starting out as a human, but becoming exalted at some point to divine status. “High Christologies”, which Erhman prefers to call incarnation Christologies, see Christ as having been a pre-existing divine being, that was incarnated into the mortal form of Jesus.
Erhman argues that the first Christians held to an exaltation Christology. At this early stage, he was not considered equivalent to God overall, but as an angel or other divine being. These earliest Christians probably saw this exaltation as taking place at the resurrection.
As time went on, the exaltation moved earlier in Jesus’s life, to the start of his ministry, at his baptism by John the Baptist. This is the view developed in the earliest gospel, Mark, which is usually dated to around 65-70 CE. By the time Luke and Matthew are written (c. 85 CE), Jesus is regarded to have been divine since his birth.
But incarnation Christologies also started pretty early. Paul, the earliest Christian author, writing in the late 40s and throughout the 50s, held to an incarnation Christology, although he at times quoted earlier exaltation doctrines. Again, this view regarded Jesus as a divine being, second only to God himself, but not yet equivalent to God.
By the time of the gospel of John, usually dated to around the end of the first century, we see a very high Christology, referring to Jesus as the pre-existent Word, or Logos of God. John lays out what would become the broad outline of Christian orthodox Christology. But that outline still left much that would not be defined until later.
Throughout the second, third, and fourth centuries, there were many theological battles, with views that were regarded as orthodox in earlier times eventually often being labeled heresies in later times. Among the questions debated:
- How many Gods were there?
- If only one, then was Jesus also God the Father?
- If Jesus was a pre-existing divine being, then was he ever truly human? Or did he just appear to be so?
- If Jesus was human, then how could he also be God at the same time?
- Was Jesus actually two beings, the human portion, and the divine portion?
There were many answers to these questions. As time wore on, these issues were debated and resolved, often with those on the losing end of the debates branded as heretics. Eventually, the theology of the trinity was worked out. There was only one God, but who was composed of three separate beings, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus was God, but was also fully human. This doctrine is, of course, paradoxical, a fact not lost to many of the ancient debaters.
Ehrman takes the history of theological disputes up to the Council of Nicaea, and shows how the Nicene Creed was actually an attack on a number of beliefs, most notably related to the Arian controversy, that had been declared heretical. Ehrman also gives some samplings of the theological fights that followed in the sixth and later centuries.
I found this to be a fascinating book. Ehrman is an excellent writer and often manages to take a dry arcane subject matter and make it interesting. While he is respectful of religious belief, he doesn’t compromise on conveying the scholarship. As I stated above, many conservative devout believers will find much of this material disturbing, and many hard core atheists will be annoyed with Ehrman’s careful respect of these beliefs. But if you’re interested in what historians and scholars have to say on the formation and early developments of Christianity, then I highly recommend this book.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post linked to a blog post by Richard Carrier that I mistakenly thought applied to the book discussed here. But it actually applied to one of Ehrman’s earlier works. I’ve removed the sentence and link. Sorry for any confusion. Totally my bad!