How Jesus Became God: Review of Bart Ehrman’s Latest (Part 2)

In part one of this review, I laid out some of Ehrman’s basic commitments and conclusions. In particular, Ehrman recognizes that the earliest and most historically reliable Jesus traditions do not include indications that Jesus spoke of himself as divine. The evidence seems to point toward early Christians reassessing Jesus’ identity based on the conviction that he had been raised from the dead.

But Ehrman does not subscribe to some sort of totalizing evolutionary narrative, in which early Christology is “low” and subsequent Christologies get gradually “higher.”

Ehrman reaches back to the character of the “angel of the Lord” from the OT to provide a framework for understanding how early Christians interpreted Jesus as one who was preexistent and divine. This character would sometimes be differentiated from God, but sometimes spoken of as though it is none other than God.

Ehrman maintains that Paul, the earliest Christian writer to which we have access, held to an “incarnation Christology”: a Christology in which Jesus was a preexistent, heavenly figure.

In this discussion, he offers one of the most intriguing suggestions of the whole book; namely, that when Paul says to the Galatians, “You received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus himself,” he speaks a hendiadys: the “angel of God” is none other than “Christ Jesus.” Such an identification intends to suggest that Paul sees Jesus as God’s chief angel, the angel of the Lord who is so closely joined to Yahweh, that the two figures are often conflated.

In a subsequent section, Ehrman addresses the so-called Christ hymn of Philippians 2. Although he disputes the idea that it was a sung hymn, he agrees that it represents a pre-Pauline tradition.

Moreover, he agrees with the majority reading that sees in the hymn an incarnation Christology: Christ was in the form of God before emptying himself and becoming human. He was not yet considered equal with God the Father (he had to be given that name above every name), but this is still an extraordinarily high Christology.

EhrmanPut those two things together and this is what you get: the so-called Christ hymn bears witnesses to an incarnation Christology as early, possibly, as the 40s, or within less than twenty years of Jesus’ death. As Ehrman goes on to say:

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. This view did not originate with the Gospel of John, as I used to believe… It was in place well before Paul’s letters, as evidenced in the fact that the pre-Pauline Christ poem of Philippians attests it, as does Paul himself in scattered and sometimes frustratingly vague references throughout his writings.

That is why in yesterday’s post I had the audacity to give Ehrman a place in the Early High Christology Club: he strongly suggests that incarnation Christology antedates every extant Christian document we have.

Next time I want to dig a bit more deeply into why Ehrman thinks an early Jewish person could identify someone as divine without entirely reimagining or abandoning Jewish “monotheism.”

6 thoughts on “How Jesus Became God: Review of Bart Ehrman’s Latest (Part 2)”

  1. I must admit, Ehrman’s take on Paul’s christology as an angel christology was the most surprising thing for me in his book. It’s definitely a minority view on a single verse (Gal 4:14)… but he made it the centerpiece of his understanding of Pauline christology… as if that’s the long lost missing key. In comparison, Dunn wrote 700+ pages on Pauline theology and never cited the verse once. I was also surprised that Bird et al didn’t critique this particular item more heavily.

    1. I haven’t had the chance to read HJBG yet, and I wonder whose work Ehrman used in developing the view that Jesus was thought of as an angel by Paul? I think it’s more common to find scholars speaking of “angelomorphic” Christology (i.e. Christ was like an angel functionally, but he wasn’t one ontologically) than of angel Christology.

      Ironically, I happen to agree with Ehrman that Christ was probably thought of as a pre-existent angel by many, but in my case that view follows more from logical deduction than from explicit biblical teachings or rigorous scholarly exposition.

      Sean

      1. Charles Gieschen and Susan Garrett. To quote Ehrman (p. 252) on Gal 4:14, “the verse is not saying that the Galatians received Paul as an angel or as Christ; it is saying that they received him as they would an angel, such as Christ. By clear implication, then, Christ is an angel.” (italics are Ehrman’s)

        Ehrman is arguing that Christ ontologically is an angel from Paul’s perspective. Ehrman bases his take on Gal 4:14 grammatically on a comparison to 1 Cor 3:1 and 2 Cor 2:17. I think the grammar can allow for that, but does not demand that. For example, in 2 Cor 2:17, the two items are “people of sincerity” and “[people sent] from God”… and they’re not necessarily the same thing ontologically… but they can be.

        It seems odd that Ehrman would make this Christ-angel connection in Gal 4:14 when Paul mentions Christ and angels so much elsewhere. Do we have other examples of an angel-Christ connection in Paul, or even a potential one? Ehrman doesn’t cite any others. I haven’t read Gieschen and Garrett yet to see how they support this.

        1. I can’t speak for Garrett, but I read Gieshcen’s book years ago, and, as I recall, he rejected the notion that Christ is an angel ontologically. He is one of the proponents of “angelomorphic” Christology, which description is not meant to imply that Christ was an angel ontologically. See:

          http://books.google.com/books?id=ddLqKDaOQdMC&pg=PA349&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false

          A number of Trinitarian theologians (esp from yesteryear) have supported the notion that Jesus is the Arch-angel Michael, but they still hold that he is God. I’m not a Trinitarian, and I find many of these distinctions forced, and clearly the product of superimposing post-biblical categories on the data.

          ~Sean

  2. I usually dislike Ehrman’s writing: the tone has often been snippy and the content has usually not shown anything new. Your review has been very useful and surprising. Thanks for doing all the work!

    John

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