How Jesus Became God: Final Installment in Review of Ehrman’s Latest

In the previous three reviews of How Jesus Became God, I focused on summary and positive assessments of the book. Today I want to lay out some of my quibbles.

First, Ehrman has rightly challenged us to imagine that in the first century the relationship between the divine and the human was more of a sliding scale than the either/or binary we often carry with us as moderns. And, he has done well to point to texts in which he sees “divine humans” in early Judaism.

However, as convinced as I am that the Davidic Kings as “sons of God” are crucial for making sense of the New Testament, I am not convinced that these figures were considered divine, any more than Israel as God’s firstborn son was considered divine. If I’m right that, instead, this is a way of talking about idealized human figures, then this has some significant, under-explored implications for the church’s earliest Christologies.

Second, while I generally agree with Ehrman’s historical Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet (in contrast, say, to a cynic sage), I think Ehrman is wrong to place miracle-working under “later reflections” on Jesus, in light of resurrection-divinity, rather than recognizing it as part of how the historical Jesus was known in his own day and time.

This has some possible implications for Christological development. If, as Ehrman seems to think, working miracles is part of how someone is recognized as divine in some sense, then Jesus’ being known as a miracle worker in his own time might push back speculation about divinity to before the resurrection. But, if there is no inherent link between miracle working and being uniquely divine (cf. Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Peter, Paul), then some other development in our understanding of what sort of human Jesus may have thought himself to be is probably in order.

Third, as I mentioned in my first review I thought that the extended argument against the resurrection of Jesus was gratuitous. But there was one line of argument that I found particularly weak: his argument against a burial by a member of the Sanhedrin.

This argument begins (p. 152) with Ehrman drawing our attention to the fact that Mark 14:55 says that the whole Sanhedrin was looking for evidence against Jesus, and all condemned him as deserving of death. How, then, could one of them suddenly step forward and bury Jesus through some great act of charity?

First, Ehrman over-plays the historical significance of the words “whole” and “all.” While he rightly reads those words as indicating that everyone was entailed, they are the kinds of words that find ready exceptions in historical narratives. In Mark 1:32, we hear that “all” who were sick or demon possessed were brought to Jesus. Are we to take it, then, that the healing of the hemorrhagic woman four chapters later is unhistorical, because we’ve clearly been told already that all the sick people were healed? It is perfectly possible that “all” and “whole” are told for rhetorical effect, even though not every single person was present and/or in agreement.

Second, even if every single member of the Sanhedrin was entailed in the trial, I do not find it implausible that a good natured member, after getting swept up in the moment, felt a twinge of remorse and acted on it by having Jesus buried.

Third, Ehrman underplays the burial tradition by saying that Paul knows nothing of Joseph who supposedly buried Jesus, but Paul’s articulation of the early creed in 1 Cor 15:3-4 does include “was buried.”

Fourth, where Ehrman finds a tension in the burial tradition I see confirmation from another source. In Acts 13:28-29, Paul’s sermon says that the Jewish leaders who condemned and killed Jesus were also the ones who, “when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.” This association of Jesus’ burial with the Sanhedrin seems to my mind to weigh in favor of burial by those or one of those who condemned Jesus, rather than disproof of the whole.

A final word: this book asks a legitimate question, one that has also been asked by those of more traditional Christological convictions than Ehrman. (Larry Hurtado wrote a book a few years ago entitled, How on Earth Did Jesus Become God?) The question is not “Who is Jesus?” the question being asked is, “Who did the earliest Christians think Jesus was, and how did they get these ideas?”

One of the big mistakes we make when we read the Bible is to assume that the writers shared all of our theology. We do this without being aware of it, most of the time.

Why is this a mistake?

It’s a mistake because it deafens our ears to the things that the texts might actually teach us that we don’t already know (or where we might be wrong). For instance, if we recognize that Romans 1:4 has an exaltation Christology (Jesus was appointed to be Son of God with power through his resurrection, according to the Spirit), then we can start to hear the resonance between Jesus’ own resurrection-sonship and our own, when Paul draws together spirit, resurrection, and sonship in Romans 8. If we insist that the first passage is talking about Jesus being God, then we miss the fact that Jesus’ life, and even his exaltation by God, are definitive for our own lives and identities before God.

Ehrman’s book is always provocative, at times disconcerting, and at times (I would judge) wrong. But it asks the kinds of questions that can not only make us better readers of the biblical texts, but ultimately better theologians as we understand the multiple ways that the earliest Christians reflected on the significance of Jesus as Messiah.

13 thoughts on “How Jesus Became God: Final Installment in Review of Ehrman’s Latest”

  1. I would think the idea that Man is to be made in God’s image means that even the “sliding scale” analogy is woefully mistaken, because that implies that Human and Divine are somehow polar opposites.

    If “Son of Man” is best translated as “the human one”, then “Son of God” is best translated as “the divine one”.

    To be fully Human is to be fully Divine .

    Christ Jesus is perfectly divine precisely because he is perfectly human.

  2. Excellent review. In support of the lifetime miracle-working, there were other contemporary miracle workers such as Honiam the Circle-Maker, right there in Palestine.

  3. Having not have read the book, would you and/or Mr. Ehrman say that the Synoptics do not consider Christ as deity (but was exalted to some semi-divine status at his resurrection or something)? (While the Pauline epistles, the Gospel of John do? What about Hebrews?)

    1. That’s more or less on target, Chris, although Ehrman would say that the “exaltation Christology” in which Jesus becomes a divine figure has worked its way back to the baptism (Mark) and birth stories (Matthew and Luke).

      1. Chris has asked a very inclusive question , “would you and/or Mr. Ehrman…?”

        Does your response (“that’s basically correct”) mean that to you (forget about Ehrman for the moment) the synoptics, written after the resurrection and through its lens, in Chris’s words, “do not consider Christ as deity (but was exalted to some semi-divine status at his resurrection or something”.

        Some scholars think the “I have come” and “I am come’ statements in the synoptics, which parallel statements from angelic visitors, indicate that he has come from somewhere and regards himself as or is regarded as pre-existent. What do you think of that?

        1. Thanks for pushing for clarification, Winfield. While I don’t agree with Ehrman that the Synoptics viewed and presented Jesus as some sort of angelic being, I do think it’s correct that they do not view him with any sort of preexistence Christology. I do not think that they disagreed with a preexistence Christology, just that they do not reflect it

          I am aware of one scholar who thinks the “I have come” statements indicate preexistence. I do not find the argument persuasive. The phrase is too general, and too many other characters throughout the Gospels “come” for such a phrase to signal prior existence in heaven.

  4. Thanks for these, Daniel. I’d love to hear your response to Wright’s take on this issue (chapter 9 of Paul and the Faithfulness of God). He seems to think he’s putting forward a new take on the divinity of Jesus question.

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