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…

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