How Jesus Became God: Review of Bart Ehrman’s Latest (Part 1)

As I came to the end of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, I had three major take-aways:

  1. Ehrman has just cemented his seat at the table of the Early High Christology Club, claiming that within twenty years of Jesus’ death people were already proclaiming him as preexistent God.
  2. I can’t believe that Christians are so worked up about the Christology of this book, which is basically on target and that argues for Jesus being regarded as God “shockingly early,” as Larry Hurtado would put it.
  3. My biggest disagreements come from my own conviction that “idealized human figures” occupy a good deal of the space that Ehrman assigns to divinity. In other words, I’m not as convinced as Ehrman that Jesus is reflected as “divine” across the diversity of NT literature in which he claims to find it.

In a nutshell, here is Ehrman’s thesis: Jesus was a peasant and apocalyptic preacher from Galilee whose life and identity began to be reinterpreted by his followers after they became convinced that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

In other words, this is not a book about how Jesus “became” divine, but how Christians came to regard Jesus as divine. It is a historical investigation into the development of Christology, not a theological assessment or claim that Jesus “really wasn’t” but then “came to be [considered]” God.

I don’t think that Ehrman’s basic thesis, that the Christology of the early church was a matter of post-resurrection reflection, should be all that controversial. The Synoptic Gospels show us that the disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ ministry, pretty much at all, and that it is only after the resurrection as depicted in Luke that the twelve have their eyes opened to understand not only the scriptures, but the words Jesus spoke while still with them. (NB: Richard Hays has argued something similar.)

Ehrman’s depiction of the historical Jesus as apocalyptic prophet entails two major threads: (1) Jesus preached a coming judgment at the hands of the Son of Man, whom Jesus thought to be someone other than himself; and yet (2) Jesus considered himself Messiah (but not God).

On the latter point, especially, Ehrman’s claim seems to be on target. The Synoptic Gospels do not depict Jesus making claims to his own divinity. That is the later work of John. In particular, Ehrman will go on to argue that the Synoptics, written later than Paul, nonetheless reflect a “lower” Christology than Paul’s. What this means is that the Synoptics were written at a time when some people did believe in the divinity of the earthly Jesus, and that it would have been quite easy to reflect this belief in the teachings and/or Jesus’ self-claims of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But it’s not there.

So, if Jesus did not consider himself God, why did his disciples?

Generally, I agree with Ehrman’s answer: their reassessments of Jesus are generated by their belief in the resurrection is on target. And yet this also brings up two of my greatest qualms about the book.

First, there are two chapters totaling some 82 pages (22% of the book) on the historical question of Jesus’ resurrection. While these chapters are interesting and present some fascinating data and arguments, they are largely irrelevant for the thesis of the book. At a couple of points, Ehrman indicates that it’s not really important to know whether or not the resurrection happened; what matters is that the disciples (or at least, some of them) believed that it did, and this in turn set off the process of reimagining Jesus’ identity. Why, then, provide 82 pages talking about why you think the resurrection probably didn’t happen?

To be clear, I don’t object to the chapters because of the wholesale doubt they articulate about Jesus being buried and raised–I think there’s an important place for this question to be asked in a historical Jesus book or book about the resurrection per se. But it felt to me like the chapters were included more for the purpose of laying out such doubt than for the purpose of furthering the book’s argument about how, in historical terms, the Galilean peasant came to be regarded as divine.

Second, in my view Ehrman jumps too quickly to the idea that the exaltation of Jesus is a divinization.

He does well to point out passages in the Psalms such as the royal “begetting” of the king as God’s son in Ps 2 and the declaration in Ps 45 that the king is “God.” Moreover, Ps 110 does become a heightened song of praise when Jesus is seen as “the Lord” enthroned, literally, at God’s right hand. And, he is surely correct to argue that applying such passages to Jesus was part of the process of reinterpreting Jesus’ identity as a glorified, heavenly messianic figure.

But does all of this mean that the king of Israel was thought to be divine, or that these psalms were so interpreted in Jesus’ case?

I think there is another explanation, an explanation we get hints of in a couple of places where Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation/enthronement is precisely the question at hand.

In Acts 2, when Peter gives a speech that is largely about the resurrection of Jesus fulfilling the promises of a coming messiah, he provides a quite plausible and sufficient Christology: “Jesus was a man attested by God.”

It may be that there is far more capacity for human beings to be exalted, heavenly figures than Ehrman has taken stock of.

Similarly, “the resurrection chapter” in 1 Corinthians 15, which is also an enthronement/exaltation chapter, the entire point is that Jesus is the first of a new kind of humanity. Jesus is not raised as God, which would nullify the whole argument about the “second man” who determines the destiny of the rest of the harvest, but as “consummated, idealized humanity.”

In my estimation, recognizing the place of exalted human beings to play the role of God throughout the Jewish tradition modulates some of Ehrman’s claims that the resurrection causes Jesus to be regarded as a divine figure in, e.g., the Synoptic Gospels. While I agree with him that the Synoptic Tradition contains an “exlatation” Christology that is an extraordinarily high Christology, I see this as an exalted, idealized human Christology, not a divine Christology per se.

In other words, my dissatisfaction has to do with the Christology being too “high”/divine in his reading of the Synoptic Gospels and a couple of other strands of the early Christian tradition. But then, that’s my own hundreds of pages of research in the works, not Ehrman’s.

Here endeth Part 1 of my review: in general, I think Ehrman is right that Jesus’ identity is interpreted by his disciples in light of their conviction about the resurrection; moreover, I agree that an exaltation/adoption Christology helps make sense of the somewhat tentative nods toward divinity we find in the Synoptics while they nonetheless depict Jesus residing at the center of the work of God’s coming Kingdom.

But if we say that these documents, written in the 60s-80s don’t imagine Jesus as a preexistent divine being, what are we supposed to do about Paul, the Christ hymn in Phil 2, and the like? Stay tuned…

25 thoughts on “How Jesus Became God: Review of Bart Ehrman’s Latest (Part 1)”

  1. Hmmm…interesting. Have you looked at the ‘response’ book? And what then do you make of the increased evidence of John as historically reliable…but with its high Christological self-understanding of Jesus?

      1. On John in general, there is an SBL group on ‘John, Jesus and History.’ And Richard Bauckham makes the case of John ticking all the boxes for John as first century historiography.

        There is also a common-sense reflection: unless Jesus was more terse than Calvin Coolidge, the Synoptics must be the briefest of summaries of the highlights of his teaching.

        1. On first-century historiography, that includes making up speeches that fit the characters. The genre of historigraphy doesn’t address the question, necessarily, of whether something is, in fact, historical.

          On the Synoptics being short, that’s fine, but this is a very different thing than their having completely different content. Jesus does not proclaim himself in the Synoptics with the same directness that John’s Jesus does. It’s not that they’re quantitatively different, but qualitatively.

          1. John Meier’s A Marginal Jew makes some interesting points in arguing for the historicity of John. He points to the presentation of Jesus regularly going to Jerusalem, the mention of Chnanukah as well as locating Jesus teaching at a covered part of the Temple since it the festival occurs during the rainy season, and John’s knowledge of the topography of Palestine in general.

            1. That’s interesting. There are many direct and indirect claims to eye-witness reliability–one being that the beloved disciple is in front of Jesus at the last supper, so that Jesus is speaking into his ear!

  2. Thanks for this…

    I haven’t had time to go back to the other book, titled, “How Jesus Became God’- but that aaas a great one, written by a prof. at USC, I believe, a real historical thriller!

  3. By Richard Rubenstein!

    The life of Jesus, and the subsequent persecution of Christians during the Roman Empire, have come to define what many of us know about early Christianity. The fervent debate, civil strife, and bloody riots within the Christian community as it was forming, however, is a story that is rarely told. Richard E. Rubenstein takes readers to the streets of the Roman Empire during the fourth century, where a divisive argument over the divinity of Jesus Christ was underway. Ruled by a Christian emperor, followers of Jesus no longer feared for the survival of their monotheistic faith, but they found themselves in different camps—led by two charismatic men—on the topic of Christian theology. Arius, an Alexandrian priest and poet, preached that Jesus, though holy, is less than God, while Athanasius, a brilliant and violent bishop, saw any diminution of Jesus’ godhead as the work of the devil. Between them stood Alexander, the powerful Bishop of Alexandria, in search of a solution that would keep the empire united and the Christian faith alive.

  4. Daniel:

    First: Good job.

    Second: When you but the response book, keep the receipt. It’s an ad hominem straw man attack so egregious I actually believe they didn’t read the book. They lambast Ehrman for thinking high Christology came very late. But we know that’s the opposite of what he said.

    Third: I also felt Ehrman’s description of the early transmission of the Jesus traditions was too individualistic. He says it passes mainly person to person, but certainly we see communities taking active and organized roles in spreading the Gospel, sending missionaries and building contact networks. Also, I wonder why he does not incorporate into his argument the ongoing idea of theopoiesis abd its Western stepchild of sanctification as a vestigial remain of exaltation theology.

  5. Just a comment. I would think divinization or apotheosis would be a very easy claim in the ancient world, the empirical data notwithstanding. We meet at least two messianic candidates in Acts whose efforts are foiled but whose criteria was that they amassed a large following. When one considers the cult of Simon Magnus among the Gnostics or the cult of Hadrian’s Antinous, the rapidity with which these were formulated, especially in the latter case, may suggest that the days in which saints are canonized for their works or demoniacs are screened for mental stability are often configured in post-enlightenment periods. Maybe those examples are only proximate, but any proposition that suggests Jesus’s being proclaimed God is true because 1) it happens soon after his death and 2) it is justified by the popularity of his amassed following, creates historical and philosophical problems that are not easily answered.

  6. Trey: Ehrman, though he does put his theological opinions on display for no good reason, also does not actually use the research to stake out a theological claim, rightly emphasizing that the methodology of history as a discipline simply cannot address theological truths but only fact claims based on probability – miracles have extremely low probability or they would not be miracles. I am a pastor, and no big fan of Ehrman the man, but I found his self-bracketing (however strained) to be responsible and welcome. Strange to say, perhaps, but my faith may have been strengthened through this book. Don’t tell Geoffrey Wainwright.

  7. Daniel,

    Really looking forward to your little tease on Phil. 2.

    I know you mentioned Hurtado, but what do you make of Hengel’s work on Christology. I’ve begun reading him a bit in relation to a Christology book.


  8. Thomas Blair, we might not want to bring Richard Rubenstein and his WHEN JESUS BECAME GOD into the discussion. Richard, a fine man whom I regard as a friend, has written a pretty dreadful book that concludes that Jesus wasn’t actually divine until the fourth century! Forget “early” and “late” in NT Christology! Here’s an Amazon review I wrote several years ago: “Rubenstein gives us a lively account of the sad and often deplorable theological struggles of the fourth century. It’s when he attempts to present the theology of Athanasius–and the theology of the the two big councils generally–that his whole thesis falls apart. Forget agreement or disagreement: he simply doesn’t understand. The description of Athanasius’s position (presented on pages 115-119) is so off the mark, that I challenge Rubenstein to find even one living patristics scholar (whether liberal or conservative, believing or non-believing) who would find it anything less than a dreadful–almost laughable–distortion. I’m not impugning Rubenstein’s motives here; I’m rather pointing out his ignorance of the central issue. His bibliography leaves out crucial texts by GL Prestige, Aloys Grillmeier, JND Kelley, Georges Florovsky, John Meyendorff, and a host of others who could have put him on the right track.

    What a shame. Rubenstein is obviously a man of great gifts and a flair for popular exposition. Would that his publisher had had his text reviewed by a few experts. I’d even nominate Maurice Wiles [died in 2005 over a year after my review was originally written], a great patristic scholar more than a little sympathetic with Arius and less than enchanted with Athanasius, to do the job.

    My plea to Rubenstein is to revise the text, keep most of the lively historical parts, but totally rework the sections on Athanasius. The good news for him: a gripping story would remain intact. The good news for the rest of us: the basic thesis would have to be significantly reworked. (One other tip: Rubenstein needs to go back into the New Testament documents themselves where the seeds of later Christological development are already starting to sprout, especially in John’s gospel and the letters to the Philippians, the Colossians, and the Hebrews; he also needs to probe the writings of New Testament scholars James Dunn, Paul Anderson, Marianne Meye Thompson, Ben Witherington, Raymond Brown, Murray Harris,Frank Matera, Richard Bauckham, Robert Gundry, and Larry Hurtado, among many others.)

    My plea to other readers: Keep digging; accept or reject classical Christian dogma about Jesus as you see fit. But, in either case, make sure it’s the genuine article you’re accepting or rejecting. Rubenstein simply doesn’t understand traditional Nicene theology. For an elementary entry into that thought world, you could do worse than to start off with the relevant chapters in CS Lewis’s MERE CHRISTIANITY. (I give the book two stars, instead of one or none, because of some gripping historical narrative and because Rubenstein brings crucial matters back into discussion for a general audience.)

  9. Here’s a follow-up Amazon review of Rubenstein’s book I wrote in 2004: “Since writing an earlier review of Rubenstein’s book last December, I’ve had occasion to read several of the other reviews. How sad! Almost all note Rubenstein’s lively style (as do I), nearly all are horrified by the brutality and pettiness of the times (as again am I), but hardly anyone realizes that Rubenstein’s grasp of orthodox theology is pathetically inadequate. Hence, the intellectual and spiritual vacuum that writers like Dan Brown so easily fill. The attitude seems to be this: “We’ve been snookered into believing stuff like the Trinity over the years, but now Rubenstein, Brown, Pagels, and others have pulled back the curtain to expose the ecclesiastical and theological ‘wizards’ to be nothing more than feeble little men aiming at hood-winking gullible people out of their own need for power, etc.”
    Well, I think the challenge is for orthodox Christian thinkers to rise to the occasion and produce works that are even more compelling (to a lay audience, that is) than Rubenstein’s. I continue to commend him for his style and ability to stimulate interest in a complex subject. I also continue to be amazed that he could have told this story with only skimpy and sketchy reference to the most important thinkers; he devotes a lot of space to Athanasius (including brief and radically distorted views of his beliefs)but gives only passing reference to Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nanzianzus. It’s like telling the story of America and reducing the impact of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR to a few lines. And the Council of Constantinople in 381 is barely mentioned at all. That’s like reducing the Constitutional Convention or the Declaration of Independence to a footnote or two.
    The reader should be able to put the book down with a strong sense of who the major players were and what they stood for. Orthodox Christianity needs its own Rubenstein, someone who can write with the kind of verve he does and retell this story (including all the bad stuff he includes), but do so with a real grasp of Nicene theology. Readers might close their books unconvinced by orthodoxy, but at least they’ll actually know what the real choices are. My own conviction, after forty years of intensive study of these matters, is that the Trinity and Chalcedonian Christology are thrilling in their spiritual implications and can run circles intellectually around sub-orthodox positions. (See David Bentley Hart’s THE BEAUTY OF THE INFINITE for a recent and breath-taking example of what I mean.)
    I’m sure it wasn’t Rubenstein’s intention (I willingly assume his sincerity), but he in his own way has done his own snookering. If he stimulates others to read on and dig deeper, I can commend him for at least that much.”

  10. thanks for the corrective, Charles– I’m always ready to learn ( and I did read it some time back, too.)

    Maybe I’ll get my Patristics straightened out some day.

    I believe my Christology is on track. I’m yearning to celebrate the newly Risen Christ, once again, this Sunday!

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