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.”

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