How Jesus Became God: Review of Ehrman’s Latest (Part 3)

“The idea that Jesus is God is not an invention of modern times, of course. As I will show in my discussion, it was the view of the very earliest Christians soon after Jesus’ death.”
How Jesus Became God, p. 3

Bart Ehrman is asking a historical question: how is it that the earliest Christians started to think of and refer to Jesus as divine, and what, exactly, did they mean by it?

Here we start to put on the table the sorts of historical background data that, by and large, determines the possibilities that folks are willing to entertain about early Christian Christology. Ehrman addresses this question on two fronts.

First, he surveys “Divine Humans in Ancient Greece and Rome.” He begins with one of his favorite “parallel” figures, Apollonius of Tyana, whose legend begins with an announcement of his birth, including an indication of his divinity. He was a preacher, exorcist, and healer, ascended to heaven and appeared to at least one doubting follower.

The point is that there are legends of miraculous births that signal divinity, and those often at the beginning of lives marked by supernatural endowments and final exaltations.

But Ehrman finds particular significance in the fact that Julius Caesar’s divinization left the title “son of God” to fall to Augustus. Augustus was acknowledged as divine both during and after his life–with a sort of divinity that could scale from less divine to more divine.

Two important conclusions follow: (1) ancient Greco-Roman people did not see God and humanity as an either/or proposition, but as a scale of possibility; and (2) “son of God” is a title given to the person who is acknowledged as ruler / lord of the world.

Ok, but that doesn’t sound very Jewish. Touché. Enter the next chapter, Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism. Here, Ehrman argues that there were divine humans even in ancient Judaism. (The point, remember, is to try to figure out what sort of categories were available to people in the first century to make sense of Jesus.)

A first claim is that there are a spectrum of divine beings in early Judaism: even if there is only one almighty God at the top of the pyramid, there are lots of other heavenly figures.

But at least one of these angelic figures is so close to God as to be, at times, interchangeable: the OT’s “angel of the Lord” (e.g., Gen 16), a figure who appears in human form, and is the means by which YHWH appears to people.

Then there are the “gods” of Ps 82 among whom God reigns.

But the list goes on: semi-divine beings in Gen 6,the son of man in Dan 7, Two powers, hypostases of God such as wisdom and the logos.

Then there are the divine humans: the kings of Israel who are “sons of God,” Moses who is made God to Pharaoh and Aaron.

Within Jewish monotheism, which Ehrman concedes to be the stance of early Jewish people, “it was widely believe that there were other divine beings.” And “Humans could be called the Son of God or even God.”

One of the main sticking points between folks of differing understandings of NT Christology has become the question of what a first-century monotheistic Jew could say of some person without transforming what they mean by monotheism. Ehrman has done a good job of reminding us that there are a lot of options on the table.

“Son of God” need not imply preexistence, in fact, it need not imply divinity at all (cf. Israel as son of God, and Christians as sons of God). But it does imply some sort of unique relationship with the Almighty.

The point is that there are a number of options open to early Christians to begin expressing devotion to Jesus without immediately reconfiguring their notions of monotheism. This needs to be taken seriously. The actual practice of rendering various figures in god-like ways is an important balance to the totalizing claims of God who will not share worship, glory, power, or sovereignty with another.

Jews have options about how to speak of exalted figures in closest possible proximity to God, even as divine, within the context of their monotheistic commitment.

As I have put my toe in the waters of these debates over the past few days, I’ve been reminded of how much of ourselves we bring to texts as interpreters. We fill in gaps and assume interpretations, often without realizing it.

One of the great values of Ehrman’s survey of early divine figures is to create the possibility in our minds that when we see language like “God” or “son of God” or “son of man,” that there may be a connotation for a first-century Jew or first-century Roman that is not the connotation of someone who has been shaped by the past 2,000 years of Christological reflection.

I have a few more things to say about this book, so stay tuned for a final installment in the next couple of days.

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