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!
27 thoughts on “How Jesus became God”
Thanks for the perspective ‘SAP’ – isn’t it commonly said that if you’re upsetting both sides that you may be on to something? I’m not all that familiar so can’t say, but …
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No, I think you’re absolutely right. Ehrman himself observed that in his response to Carrier, which is unfortunately paywalled (probably to avoid a lengthy, and ultimately fruitless, back and forth).
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You and I have very different beliefs, as I’m sure you know by now, but I’m always impressed by how you present these issues on your blog. As a Christian, I do not find anything about what you’re saying offensive. In fact, I think this kind of frank discussion of these issues is highly enlightening.
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Thanks James. I very much appreciate your kind words, feedback, and engagement.
I still giggle when people talk about militant atheists and cite a blog.
I didn’t mean it in a derogatory way. Many passionate non-believers use that label for themselves. But if you think he would be offended by it, I can change it to “ardent”, “passionate”, or “hard core” atheist.
It’s not that I mind people considering passionate atheists as militant, it’s just that it contrasts with anything else in the world that is militant. Some slightly chubby guy with a beer and an above average typing speed.
I know what you mean. I did a double take when Dawkins referred to himself as a militant atheist in his TED talk, because “militant” historically meant willing to use violence. That’s not to say that there haven’t been actual militant atheists in history (French revolution, communism, etc), but most people using that label today wouldn’t have anything to do with them.
Actually, just realized that the linked post wasn’t even about Ehrman’s latest book. Just removed the link and reference and put an update notice at the bottom of my post. I had gotten the link from Ehrman’s response post, which initially talked about ‘How Jesus Became God’, so I thought Ehrman was responding to a recent criticism from Carrier, but he was actually responding to one Carrier posted two years ago about the book ‘Did Jesus Exist?’
So it shouldn’t have even been in this post. Totally my bad.
Doesn’t stop me from giggling.
Militant atheists, hah!
A thought provoking post. I have read a few books by Marcus Borg, who also provides alternative ways of looking at the Christian faith and it’s beginnings.
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Thanks Andy! I haven’t read Borg, but just looked him up. His take seems more theological and reverent, which is fine if that’s what you’re looking for. Myself, I’m more interested in the history.
Yes, he classes himself as Christian. But his take on things such as the original meaning of words and views that Christians espouse now without thinking sets him at odds with the conservative, literal-thinking wing. ie the Jesus of History v The Christ of Faith.
But yes, history is good 🙂 I share your interest also.
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‘This person was baptized by John and Baptist, another apocalyptist, ….’
There is no evidence John the Baptist was an apocalyptic preacher, except that the Gospels put some of their Jesus’s message into his mouth.
But, of course, Bart would never use circular reasoning – the Bible says JtB was an apocalyptic preacher, and we know this is true because he really was an apocalyptic preacher because the Bible says so..
‘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.’
Why does Paul say in 1 Corinthians that the Lord of glory was crucified if he did not regard Jesus as being the Lord of glory at the time of the crucifixion?
I know this is a subject you’re passionate about. I suspect Ehrman regards JTB as an apocalyptic preacher because he comes across that way in the gospels. Of course, if you’ve decided those sources have zero historical value, then I guess you wouldn’t have any evidence of him being apocalyptic since Josephus’s entry on him doesn’t appear to get into his theology.
On Paul, Ehrman admits that ascertaining Paul’s exact Christology is tricky, since he was somewhat illusive about it. He does quote exaltation doctrines, often when brandishing his credentials, but Ehrman’s judgement is that Paul was himself an incarnationist and he explains his rationale in the book. That said, it’s not a slam dunk by any means and many scholars do disagree.
‘I know this is a subject you’re passionate about. I suspect Ehrman regards JTB as an apocalyptic preacher because he comes across that way in the gospels.’
So Ehrman does engage in circular reasoning, just like every other historian!
The Gospels say the Baptist was an apocalyptic preacher, and we know they must have historical value because the Baptist really was an apocalyptic preacher, and we know this because the Gospels say so,
This is the true historical method at work!
I think Ehrman would argue that regarding the Bible as just one historical source is a mistake. He regards the gospels as multiple sources: Mark, Q (material other than Mark that is common to Matthew and Luke), M (material unique to Matthew), L (material unique to Luke), and John, in addition to Paul and some of the earliest apocryphal gospels.
He sees them as independent sources and regards assertions made by more than one of them to have a higher probability of being accurate (evaluated in combination with the other criteria I briefly listed in the post). Of course, from over 1900 years away, it’s impossible to say for sure to what extent they were really independent. All of this requires judgment, and there are no absolutes. But that applies to most of ancient history overall.
So Ehrman knows Matthew and Luke copied from Mark and he regards them as ‘independent’.
And he regards L and Luke as independent sources, despite being written by the same person.
And he regards M and Matthew as independent sources, despite being written by the same person.
And John and Paul never say a word about John the Baptist…..
This is not how an historian works. Ehrman can’t do history. He doesn’t know how to.
I don’t think you understand. Where these copy from each other, they are not independent. Where they do not, they are independent.
So the independent sources include Mark, Q, L and M. From SAP’s account, none of these copy from each other.
Luke is based on Mark, Q and L.
Matthew is based on Mark, Q and M.
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If A copies from B, A is dependent upon B.
This is elementary.
Ehrman doesn’t know what ‘independent’ means.
The order of composition:
1. Pauline letters (late 40s, 50s)
2. Mark (65-70)
3. Q, independent of Mark.
4. M traditions independent of the above.
5. L traditions independent of the above.
6. Matthew (dependent on Mark, Q, and M) c 85
7. Luke (dependent on Mark, Q, and L) c 85
8. John (independent of all above) c 100
Q, M, and L are obviously reconstructed hypothetical sources, so obviously if you’re skeptical of that approach, you can dismiss them. But that would still leave Paul, Mark, and John as sources virtually all scholars see as independent of each other.
This isn’t Ehrman’s framework. It’s one that most NT historians accept. Of course, it’s probably a simplification of what were probably complex dynamic and evolving traditions.
The idea is that we are all Divine, not just Jesus. It’s just that he realised his potential. His advice to us is to do the same. Ehrman’s ideas seem to sit in the same area as dogmatic Roman theism and so do not get to to heart of the issues. For a sensible interpretation of Jesus and his role it would be necessary to dig deeper.
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That’s definitely one way to look at it. Based on what I remember from the book, I’m not sure how many early (or present) Christians would agree with it though.
I’m pretty sure most early Christians would have agreed for this is why a purge was ordered by the Church. These days I expect most Christians would disagree, although a significant group of Christians now endorse the non-dual message of ‘A Course in Miracles’ and the writings of Paul Ferrini and David Bentley Hart. The problem with studying Christianity and Islam is that many Christians and Muslims do not believe their Church understands the original teachings or has transmitted them correctly, yet like many believers critical scholars often ignore this and assume the Church can be trusted. This makes both religions quite easy to find fault with and even ridicule. The strongest and best-informed criticisms of these religions comes from the inside. Ehrman seems to take Christianity at face value, which is to short-change Jesus. Just thinking out loud. . . ,.
It’s pretty tough to establish what Christians in antiquity would have thought outside of the written records. Erhman discusses how diverse early theological views were in Christian communities. As Christianity became legitimate, the disagreements took on a power struggle aspect, with the losers branded as heretics and exiled.
Ehrman doesn’t approach it as an outsider. He has a religious background. He was a fundamentalist as a teenager, but evolved into more of a theologically liberal Christian as his scholarly studies progressed. The reason he eventually went agnostic was the philosophical problem of evil, and not finding any of the theodicies convincing.
Well, the written records seem sufficient to me to establish the thinking of the early community. We have the Desert Fathers, the Philokalia, the Nag Hammadi Library etc. But to see this would require going beyond Ehrman’s analysis. He is an insider in respect of the later orthoxody, but an outsider in respect of the Classical view. He does not discuss this view and I rather doubt he knows it. Not arguing, I hasten to say, but just suggesting Ehrman is flogging a dead horse.
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