December 21, 2016
A Review of Bart D. Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God
Bart D. Ehrman. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne, 2014. 416 pp. £20.33/$27.99.
Imagine trying to learn Chinese or Arabic or any other foreign language by memorizing that language’s dictionary—perhaps a high school level dictionary—and then a grammar book. At the end of the day you might do well on tests and eventually develop reasonable comprehension skills. However, your ability to communicate could still be at a second grade level at best—and you’d have a horrendous accent that would take years to fix. It would also take years to turn your head knowledge into fluency—more years total than if you had learned the language more naturally. By contrast, a native speaker can communicate fluently even if they don’t know the difference between a noun and a verb or, for that matter, even if they are illiterate and can’t read a dictionary at all. For the much preferred way to achieve fluency is through immersion, in which you develop communication skills first, acquire vocabulary as needed, and only later learn some of the basic grammar rules. In fact, even when it comes to teaching English most U.S. schools pay little attention to grammar anymore, and certainly don’t torture students with the massive sentence diagramming that I had to learn.
Similarly, many math teachers do not teach long division anymore, for the same reason that no one taught my generation how to use a slide rule (for finding logarithms): it simply isn’t needed, especially when Siri or Alexa can tell you the answer so much faster. In fact, if you google “math wars” you will find many blogs and articles about a paradigm shift that has taken place in math pedagogy over the past twenty years. On one side are the traditionalists who want to continue teaching formulas and algorithms, drilling students on step-by-step processes for solving problems. On the other side are the constructivists who want to repeatedly guide students through an arena of real-world situations which will exercise the abilities that students will actually need. Again, the skills come first, followed by an understanding of some basic rules. Although the war is focused on pedagogy, behind it is also a “debate” about whether objective mathematical truth actually exists.
As with language and math, so also could the same processes apply to theology? What if Jesus, before he left his disciples, had said, “Listen, gentlemen, the churches and cults are going to want to fight all the day long about theology. So here is a ten-part doctrinal statement that you can pass around.” Would that have made it any easier for churches to communicate with God or about God?
Probably not. Regardless, as the book of Acts presents the growth of the church, it took the disciples at least five years just to realize that salvation was not only for the Jews—and even then God had to give Peter a miraculous vision about eating unclean foods. (Acts 10:1—11:18) It then took another eight to ten years for them to conclude that Christians did not need to get circumcised. (Acts 15:1—29) And as for the nature of Christ and the Trinity, that would take the church a few hundred years to iron out. Again I ask, would it have helped—or at least not hindered—the church if Jesus had at least dictated a short creed before he left?
It is in light of such questions that I benefited from Bart Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2014), because his entire thesis might be summed up as arguing for what Jesus should have said if he were in fact God—basically, that he should have been more theologically articulate from the beginning. For example, Ehrman makes a great deal of the fact that the synoptic gospels have a much less developed Christology that does the gospel of John, which was written many years later, after the church at matured some. Why did these earlier synoptic writers not quote Jesus as more succinctly declaring himself to be God?
If Jesus went around Galilee proclaiming himself to be a divine being sent from God—one who existed before the creation of the world, who was in fact equal with God—could anything else that he might say be so breathtaking and thunderously important? And yet none of these earlier sources says any such thing about him. Did they (all of them!) just decide not to mention the one thing that was most significant about Jesus? (p. 125)
On the one hand we can certainly take issue with Ehrman’s first “if” clause because that’s not how I would characterize Jesus’ actions in John’s gospel. On the other hand, it’s still an excellent question.
Some Good History Lessons
In the first chapter Ehrman briefly describes the spectrum of beliefs about spirituality in the Greco-Roman world. He emphasizes that there was no clear cut dichotomy between humanity and divinity, but rather a gradual transition between the two. Then in the second chapter he suggests that Judaism also blurred the line between the mundane and the divine. Then in the following chapters Ehrman traces the evolution of Christology in this cultural context.
Along the way he briefly explains how textual criticism operates and then analyzes a couple of the hymns and creeds used by the gospel writers and by Paul—all in attempt to identify the earliest beliefs about Christ. But he only uses these as examples and stresses that he cannot do an exhaustive review of all the relevant passages.
My objective is something else—to explain the two dominant Christological options of the early Christian movement: the older Christology “from below,” which I am calling an exaltation Christology, arguably the very first Christological view of the very first followers of Jesus who came to believe he had been raised from the dead and exalted to heaven; and the somewhat later Christology “from above,” which I am calling an incarnation Christology. We don’t know how soon Christians started thinking of Jesus not merely as a man who had become an angel or an angel-like being, but as an angel— or some other divine being— who preexisted his appearance on earth. But it must have been remarkably early in the Christian tradition. (p. 279)
Although Ehrman is both an atheist (due to the problem of evil and suffering) and an agnostic (in regards to what we can know)[i] he tries hard, and often succeeds, in explaining the development of Christology in historical terms while leaving it to the reader to decide what to believe.
As a result, I do not take a stand on the theological question of Jesus’s divine status. I am instead interested in the historical development that led to the affirmation that he is God. This historical development certainly transpired in one way or another, and what people personally believe about Christ should not, in theory, affect the conclusions they draw historically. (p. 3)
Now it could sound terribly patronizing to tell someone that they can believe in Christ even if they conclude that, historically, he did not in fact rise from the dead. (I think it would be more kind and respectful to say, “Bite the bullet and deal with reality.”) Nevertheless, Ehrman’s point is simply that we want to do our best to be objective. He ultimately shows quite a bias for his own naturalistic view, arguing that, in the eyes of Jesus’ followers, he “went from being a potential (human) messiah to being the Son of God exalted to a divine status at his resurrection; to being [even Paul’s eyes] a preexistent angelic being who came to earth incarnate as a man; to being the incarnation of the Word of God who existed before all time and through whom the world was created; to being God himself, equal with God the Father and always existent with him.” (Epilogue, p. 353) However, he identifies this bias clearly enough that most readers should be able to engage in the debate. As John Milton said, “Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”
So I appreciated the history lessons—both about the cultural context of first century Palestine and about the theological debates that took place as the early church developed its doctrines. What I take issue with is his interpretation of history. A skilled and respected textual critic, Ehrman has written several books assaulting orthodox Christianity’s understanding of the Bible, including Jesus Before the Gospels (2016), Jesus, Interrupted (2010), and Misquoting Jesus (2007). And many skillful evangelicals have responded, including an entire book, How God Became Jesus, in response to this one. So I will not really try to engage him on textual criticism. Instead, I want to look at his rhetoric.
Some Bad Arguments
Back to his question of why, for example, the synoptic Gospels did not quote Jesus explicitly stating that he was God in the way that the Gospel of John does. After Ehrman got a three-year degree at Moody Bible and a bachelor’s degree at Wheaton, he says that he was still in the conservative evangelical camp. But when working on his M.Div. and then PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary he began to have serious doubts:
I had become impressed with the fact that the sayings of Jesus in which he claimed to be God were found only in the Gospel of John, the last and most theologically loaded of the four Gospels. If Jesus really went around calling himself God, wouldn’t the other Gospels at least mention the fact? Did they just decide to skip that part? (pp. 86—87)
Is the Gospel of John more theologically loaded because the church had matured in its understanding of theology as compared to the other Gospel writers and Paul, who had all written some 30-40 years earlier? That would certainly make sense. But it might simply reflect a more scholarly, Old Testament understanding of theological doctrine. We do not need to suppose that the disciples did not embrace the intuitive meaning of such doctrine, or that Jesus did not proclaim it. In short, perhaps Jesus did not, for example, expound upon the doctrine of the Trinity for the same reason that in Genesis 1:3 God said “Let there be light” instead of saying something more sophisticated like, “ // // // ”[ii]
We have good reasons for believing the meaning of Jesus’ proclamation did not change as the New Testament was being written.
1. In the Bible, when believers proclaim theological truth before experiencing it, they never understand it.
Nowhere is this message clearer than in the Gospel of John. Consider that in John 1, which picks up the story at least a couple of weeks before the synoptic gospels do, the disciples embrace many profound theological truths about Jesus. They hear John the Baptist call him “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:30). Andrew told his brother Peter, “We have found the Messiah.” (John 1:41) Philip told Nathanial, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote.” (John 1:45) Nathanial told Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.” (John 1:49) Then, over the next couple of years, they heard Jesus make many profound statements loaded with Old Testament meaning—“I am the bread of life,” etc.—and saw him perform awesome miracles, including raising the dead. Yet when Jesus himself rose from the dead, they still completely freaked out. And when Peter finally grasped the fact that Jesus really had resurrected, the most profound thing he could say was, “…I am going fishing.” (John 21:3) Yes, it was going to take time to understand and articulate sound doctrine. But that doesn’t mean that the disciples were not walking on the mountaintop of Christology: trusting Jesus for salvation and eternal life.
2. Throughout the Bible, history defines theology and not vice-versa.
Again, nowhere is this made clearer than in the gospel of John. When we say that John is more theologically loaded than the synoptic gospels, we are mainly talking about John’s use of typology—his use of Old Testament history to give meaning to New Testament events.
For example, when Nathanial told Jesus, “You are the king of Israel!” that was jam packed with theological meaning. Israel, as a nation, was born in slavery and then—Egypt being like the womb—delivered into new life by God’s power after a series of violent judgments (contractions): God’s firstborn son (Exodus 4:22—23). God was introducing himself to the world as the King and deliverer of the oppressed and afflicted. So Jesus came along and told people they were born in slavery to sin and needed to be reborn. Furthermore, the name Israel means “wrestles with God,” and refers to one who struggled in faith instead of walking away from God in bitterness like Jacob’s brother, Esau, did. In fact, their hymnal and prayer book (the Psalms) taught them nothing if not how to wrestle. After King David committed adultery and murder he wrestled and prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God…” Again, this demonstrated a type of perseverance in rebirth—not a moment of conversion but rather a struggle similar to when Paul tells the Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).
So the title “King of Israel” drew its profound theological meaning from history. And just as John made use of the historical event of the exodus, he in like fashion made use of the Passover lamb (also from the exodus, also regarding the firstborn son), the Temple of Solomon, the manna in the wilderness, the bronze serpent on a pole, the rock in the wilderness, the story of Jonah, etc., etc., etc. These experiences and events came first, followed by an unveiling of their theological significance.
That is to say that history has always mattered more than mysterious ideas or beautiful teaching in the Bible. “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain,” Paul wrote. “…If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor 15:14, 19) Who cares about all the nice ethical teaching and courageous service and theological mystery? “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor 15:32)
Therefore, we can view the churches’ theological debates as debates about history first and concepts later. For example, when the Gnostics came along they offered new revelations about Jesus, defined largely by their ideas of dualism, those ideas lay claim not to historical events but to mystical insight from angels and visions. Regardless of the ideas they were presenting, no Biblical prophet ever operated that way before (revealing something new through a vision). Furthermore, the Bible explicitly prescribed otherwise. According to the Torah, the way to know whether a prophet came from God depended on whether his prophecies come to pass. (Deut 18:21—22) Although the Bible includes many spectacular revelations from angels and visions, those are always only about the future, never the past. When it comes to the past, the Bible asked for faith in events that people had claimed to witness, “…which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands.” (1 John 1:1; see also Luke 1:1—4; 7:22—23; Acts 4:20; 2 Peter 1:16). This also explains why those first Jewish and Christian tribes rejected Muhammed, and why the church later rejected Joseph Smith’s revelations and those of a thousand other cults with new, progressive cool ideas: all of that new teaching required blind faith in mystical revelations rather than historical events.
Even with a doctrine so deep and profound as the Trinity, we can still see it as resulting from asking how to explain testimonies about the past: how could a man be born of a virgin, claim to the Son of God even while he struggled with things like hunger and exhaustion, perform all sorts of miracles, and then die and resurrect? And how could God’s Spirit come down later and unite people (the historical event of Acts 2) in a way that obviously reversed another historical event (the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11)? Etc. etc. All that is to say that although our understanding of history has certainly matured, there is little evidence that our belief about what happened—particularly the cross—changed over the years. Again, the highest Christology culminates in believing that the event of the crucifixion and resurrection accomplished our salvation.
3. In regard to that salvation and in regard to the highest beliefs about who Jesus is, the Gospel of John uses the same words as the synoptic gospels.
When John wrote what the purpose of his gospel was, he did not say, “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is God.” According to Ehrman, that would mean something different from when the Synoptic Gospels said that Jesus was the Son of God or the Christ; therefore, it would provide evidence that the church’s belief about Jesus had changed. However, what does the Gospel of John in fact say? “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) That indicates that John found these two titles to reveal his highest view of Jesus, including his being one with the Father, and including all the typological “I am” sayings.
Now Ehrman is not just concerned with the theological sophistication of the gospels, but also their literary sophistication. He says there is no way lower class fisherman could write such eloquent prose; therefore, we should conclude that the gospels do not reflect what the disciples believed but rather what the church later wanted people to think that the disciples believed.
For one thing, the followers of Jesus, as we learn from the New Testament itself, were uneducated lower-class Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine. These books are not written by people like that. Their authors were highly educated, Greek-speaking Christians of a later generation. They probably wrote after Jesus’s disciples had all, or almost all, died. They were writing in different parts of the world, in a different language, and at a later time. There’s not much mystery about why later Christians would want to claim that the authors were in fact companions of Jesus, or at least connected with apostles: that claim provided much needed authority for these accounts for people wanting to know what Jesus was really like. (p. 90)
How un-politically correct can a New Testament scholar be?! Just because these young men were poor and uneducated does not mean they could not think for themselves and learn and grow. Even if we grant that they may not have first written in Greek, the lingua-franca of the day, that should not have prevented them from refining their messages with years of experience and help and, of course, inspiration. They may not have known doctrine as well as others; but they knew the Spirit of the doctrine. In the Gospel of John, who was the first person that Jesus used as an evangelist for his new kingdom? It wasn’t the educated, sophisticated, righteous Nicodemus. Rather, it was the uneducated, sinful, despised Samaritan woman from Sychar.
Theological education buttresses the church in profound and beautiful ways. But it always follows experience. Jesus opponents knew their Torahs backward and forward, and could have danced theological and philosophical circles around the likes of Mary Magdalene or the old widow who put in a cent or the woman from Sychar, yet the later understood more. To go back to my opening analogy, they could communicate with God even if they could not pass a grammar/theology test.
[ii] James Maxwell’s exposition of the light wave. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Electromagnetic_wave_equation A devout Christian, Maxwell said he went after intellectual pursuits for God’s glory. “I believe, with the Westminster Divines and their predecessors ad Infinitum that ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.’” (Letter to Lewis Campbell (9 November 1851) in Ch. 6 : Undergraduate Life At Cambridge October 1850 to January 1854 — ÆT. 19-22, p. 158.)