Category Archives: Book Reviews

Tim Otto: Reorienting the Homosexuality Conversation

My friend Tim Otto wants to talk about orientation.

And he wants to talk about gay people in the church.

But the orientation he wants to address is not sexual orientation. He wants to talk about the need we all have, across the board, to be Oriented to Faith.

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Do we need yet another book about homosexuality and Christianity? Don’t we have enough already?

Well, yes, we do actually need this one.

This book is a rare voice in the conversation, advocating for a genuine “third way” beyond the polarized either/or debate in which the church is reflecting (and influencing) the culture. It is a book that pulls no punches in pointing out the shortcomings of liberals and conservatives alike, and that humbly suggests that each side has a piece of the truth, at very least, that the other side must listen to.

But the greatest contribution of the book is the way that, by the end, it holds up the mirror so that we can see how the very existence of “sides” itself is a demonstration of our failure to live up to the calling we have in Christ.

Otto begins his discussion by mapping the experience of being gay in the church onto the New Testament notion of “family”– a notion that does not line up with the primacy placed on biological family in our context. Tim Otto Pic

What becomes clear as this narrative unfolds is this: we have not created the kinds of communities that make it possible for single people to live the kinds of lives that the traditional church has called both single and gay people to embrace.

The church has ignored the radical redefinition of family as those who follow Jesus, and has baptized instead the two-parents plus children financial unit as the basic unit of familial support. This goes for the mainline and progressive church as much as the conservative and traditional church.

Tim’s story is one of discovering a church that would be family for him. It is a story of committing himself to celibacy for the good of that family’s mission. It is a story of a person who isn’t convinced that scripture demands celibacy of gay Christians. It is a story of a man who is willing to make costly steps of discipleship in the belief that his ultimate identity is not “gay Tim,” but “beloved child of God.”

Foundational to Christian identity is that we are family, bound to one another, called to self-giving love. Foundational to American identity is that each of us is autonomous, an individual, and a consumer. Otto makes the graciously pastoral case that the American church has baptized the latter in the name of Jesus–and that this very misappropriation of Christian identity makes it impossible for us to faithfully love our gay brothers and sisters.

Anyone who attends to this book with a receptive spirit is likely to find cause of repentance. Everyone is likely to find cause for encouragement.

When we are confronted with divisive issues, it is very easy to take and read from that stack of books where we will find a mirror that shows us how beautiful and wonderful we are.

This book offers a different way.

Better than most any other treatment of homosexuality in the church that I have seen, it holds up a mirror to who beautiful and wonderful the way of Jesus is, and invites all of us to live into that with greater fidelity to the costly obedience that he demands.

Take and read!

**
Federal Guidelines stipulate that I have to tell you when I got something for free that I’m reviewing on my blog. I did not get this book for free. I paid my own money for my hard copy. I did, however, get a free pre-publication version that I reviewed and sent back to the author with comments. Also, Tim offers me coffee when I hang out with him and a couple other guys on Wednesday mornings, so you might view that as payment in kind or something.

Vines: God and the Gay Christian

Matthew Vines is out to show that the Christian case in favor of same-sex relationships is not the exclusive purview of the liberals.

As an Evangelical, who seems to me to hold a view of scripture that is something akin to inerrancy, Vines writes God and the Gay Christian in order to establish what he calls, in his subtitle, “The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.”matthew-vines

The way in which Vines is committed to scripture means that the whole thrust of the book is to open up new ways of understanding passages that people have long taken to stand in condemnation of same-sex relationships. The problem, in short, is not what the Bible says, but how we have been interpreting it.

Vines precedes his scriptural argument by making three important appeals: (1) the “fruit” of the traditional position on sexuality has been destructive to people who know themselves to be gay; (2) in the ancient world, the idea of sexual orientation was not the same as our idea–in Rome people assumed most men would be attracted to both men and women; and, sexual rules assumed a patriarchal view of the superiority of men; and (3) the church’s understanding of celibacy has always been that it is a state entered into voluntarily by those who know themselves so gifted and called.

Point 2 is important, and I anticipated awhile ago that it would come to take an increasingly central place in debates about homosexuality.

Point 3 also needs to be weighed: are we “changing the definition of celibacy” by demanding such a way of life for those who are not so gifted, and feel no call to such a life?

Vines’ first two chapters of biblical exegesis examine the Sodom and Gomorrah story and the prohibitions against same-sex intercourse in Leviticus. He rightly distances the Sodom story from specific connotations of homosexual attraction or desire and does a fine job contextualizing Leviticus within a framework of laws and of cultural ideas that we no longer see binding.

Vines’ exegesis of Romans 1 is a mixed bag.

He brings in a number of important points, including some cultural considerations. The “unnaturalness” of same-sex intercourse might well be seen as a problem of “excess desire” rather than “wrongly directed” desire as such.

The problem, however, is in showing that “excess” desire is what Paul himself had in mind. And here’s where we get to a running undercurrent of the book that I did not find persuasive.

Vines regularly distinguishes between Paul’s understanding of homosexuality as expressive of “lustful” desire and our modern ideas of it as something that can be expressed in love, even within relationships of fidelity and commitment.

The implication seems to be throughout that if Paul had only known about the kind of homosexuality we’re talking about he would have been on board. I’m not sure that this argument holds. It might very well be that he would continue to say that there is an inherent problem here, that it is by definition an expression of lust due to the fact that it is wrongly ordered.

Vines says, “We have to remember: what Paul was describing is fundamentally different from what we are discussing” (italics original). I’m not sure that works. Or, if it does, we have to be very careful how we wield such an instrument–we might find that it’s so blunt that it destroys the Bible’s capacity to address us about much of anything. God-Gay-Christian-Book-Cover-Matthew-Vines1

In this chapter, and the following on 1 Cor 6, Vines puts some important pieces in place. We often read “nature” in Rom 1 as referring to an order of creation; however, in 1 Cor 11 that same word is used to talk about appropriate length of hair. One of the best pieces of interpretive advice I received came from a classicist who said, “For ‘nature,’ read ‘culture.’” Vines opens up the importance of recognizing how cultural mores are possibly shaping Paul’s discourse in ways we would fundamentally disagree with.

But Vines’ argument has a number of weaknesses. While it is true that we have an idea of homosexual orientation that the ancients did not share, it is also the case that Romans 1 and 1 Cor 6 largely delineate actions that typify people’s behavior. He complains about translations that capture this, such as “men who have sex with men,” but the complaint seems to arise largely from his wanting to have room to say that same-sex sex itself isn’t the issue.

This seems to be the point at which Vines is never quite able to pin down the biblical writers. There is a gap between the cultural milieu he establishes and what the scriptures say, and his argument is not quite up to the task of demonstrating that this gap is filled by the former being the reason for the latter.

Matthew Vines has put a good deal of important information on the table. And his is one of a number of significant voices in the new chorus of evangelicals who are committed to scripture while advocating for the full inclusion of same-sex relationships. In many ways, I see this volume as indicative of where the argument for same-sex relationships is moving among more conservative Christians.

And, Vines frames the argument with some issues that might, in the long run, be the sorts of questions that help create a culture in which Evangelicals read the Bible differently.

For those who are waiting for a book to come along and tell them what to do with irksome passages that seem opposed to same-sex relations, this will no doubt be received as a God-send. For those demanding a higher degree of argumentation, this book will not likely persuade, but it might outline a way that others (such as James Brownson) have or will yet fill in with greater skill.

**In compliance with Federal guidelines, I hereby disclose to you, the unsuspecting reader, that I was supplied a free copy of this book by the publisher.**

Never Pray Again

I have grown up hearing language of “mobilizing” God’s people through prayer, of prayer being like the gas that fills up our spiritual vehicles so that we can run off in service of God.

But what if…

What if prayer isn’t the great mobilizer of God’s people, but the great immobilizer?

What if worship and contemplation aren’t the centrifuges that throw us out into the world, but the centripetal forces that suck us only and ever deeper into ourselves?

Those are the questions we’re asked to entertain in Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get To Work by Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson.

This post is part of a blog tour for the book (for which I was provided with a free electronic copy).NeverPrayAgain

Though the provocative title suggests that leaving behind prayer provides the book with its energy, in reality the gravitas is its insistence that we move into faithful practice. Rather than sleepwalking through life, numbed by our pious practices, they invite us to wake up and engage.

Interestingly, the chapter titles could often be interpreted as postures of prayer.

“Thank”

The chapter entitled “Thank” caught me most strongly. There I found much of the language of “economy,” and a stern warning against living our lives in accordance with the economy of scarcity rather than in accordance with God’s economy of “enough.” (I prefer calling God’s an economy of “abundance,” but perhaps that’s a quarrel for another day.)

“Scarcity” demands that some win, some lose. “Enough” proclaims “abundant life for all.”

They rightly warn about how easy it is to “lazily import” the economies of scarcity in which we find ourselves into our Christian communal life. Taking the Corinthians as a prime example, we discover that an alternative economy demands that we not privilege those who are privileged in the world’s economy, that we invite and honor the outsiders, the unwashed masses, as we sit at our tables and eat together.

In another profoundly insightful word, they warn that the anxiety created by scarcity causes us to grasp and cling.

Eucharist reorients us, and demands of us that we be a thankful people. Thankfulness is the posture of those who have “enough,” know it to be enough, and therefore express the reality of “enough” by sharing on an even playing field.

“Love”

I struggled more with the “Love” chapter than the “Thank” chapter. It started off with the assumption that God calls us to love ourselves.

I’ve never resonated with this claim.

It seems to me, instead, that the biblical writers simply assumed that most people love themselves, and this is the baseline reality (or even problem) that needs to be corrected through our love of others.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” isn’t a command to love yourself, it assumes that you pour out most of your energies on loving yourself, and that escaping such self-obsession is the way toward a surprising discovery of true humanness. (See also: “No one ever hated his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it,” Eph 5:28-29).

We’ll come back to self love in a bit.

The Three Amigos assert that it is neither self love nor neighbor love that makes Christian love unique. Instead, it is enemy love.

In a surprise move, but one that fits what I’ve already engaged, they speak of “Loving the Enemy Within.” That is, they recognize that for many of us our fiercest enemy is the criticism in our heads. The voice of hatred and vitriol that most often accuses us—it’s our own. There is a powerful recognition here, and perhaps one that, in its psychological and theological insight, chastens my objections above.

They then turn to more traditional enemy love. Here they are at the heart of things.

If there is one datum to point to that demonstrates how our insular practices have cut us off from the life to which God calls us in Christ, it is the fact that no one, ever, when hearing that someone is a Christian, first thinks, “Wow, that person must really love her enemies!”

Love. That kind of love, should be our hallmark.

The exposition of enemy love then begins to take a bold turn.

A section entitled, “Our Enemy Who Art In Heaven” talks about loving God when the world around us is going to crap. It asserts that God is our enemy when we beg for healing and find none, when we are left alone in the darkness, betrayed by God, crying out with Christ on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In the section entitled, “Jesus is the Enemy,” the turn is more subtle and perhaps more palatable for many readers as well: Jesus identifies himself with the world in need of salvation. Jesus is the one made sin for us. Jesus is the one present in the person of the person in need. Jesus died for our enemy, making our love for enemy nothing less than love for the Christ who gave his life for them—an extension of the love that we have been given.

“Experiments”

Throughout the book, each chapter ends with suggested experiments: ways to begin moving toward the practices commended. These help put feet on the ideas so that we can begin to catch a glimpse of what they might look like in practice.

The need for practice is reiterated at the end, as the final admonition of the book is summed up as “Go and Do!”

Here, the leaving off of prayer is given one final commendation:

We noticed as we looked at the ancient liturgical structure of worship, and examined each type of prayer usually found there, that if we simply removed the word “prayer” we unleashed something vital and compelling… Prayer itself serves too easily as that thing we do instead of acting more directly and more powerfully.

Of course, this will be seen by many, perhaps most, traditional Christians as precisely the point. We pray to signal that God is in charge and we are not. We pray to confirm that we are incapable of bringing about the movement of the Spirit requisite for the tasks to which we have been called.

But, if we’re honest, do we not often pray in order to commend into the hands of God the very things for which God has placed on us on earth, and for which God has placed God’s own name on us and sent us out into the world?

That’s the question we are rightly haunted by when we leave the pages of this book… even if we choose to keep on praying.

How God Became Jesus: Part 3 in Review of the Evangelical Response to Bart Ehrman

This third installment of my review of How God Became Jesus moves to Simon Gathercole’s argument for preexistence Christology, and divine Christology more specifically, throughout the NT.

Gathercole begins with a summary of the argument he made at length in The Preexistent Son, that the “I have come” sayings signal that Jesus came from somewhere; to wit, from heaven to earth. He does not weigh the possibility that Jesus is speaking to his role (“I am here as son of man”) rather than his ultimate origins (“I am here from heaven”). Nor does he address the fact that Jesus puts John the Baptist in parallel with the son of man when he says, “John came neither eating nor drinking… the son of man came eating and drinking…”

Gathercole says that those who follow his lead in “carefully” so reading the Gospels will find preexistence throughout the Synoptic Gospels. Four pages later Gathercole concedes that most NT scholars “underestimate” the significance of preexistence in the texts (p. 102).

He next turns to Jesus’ baptism, and claims that Ehrman merely asserts, doesn’t argue, that Jesus is adopted son of God at his baptism in Mark. In response, Gathercole says that since the divine voice calls Jesus son once again at the Transfiguration, that it is “hard to see” how the first declaration is causative of Jesus’ sonship in any sense.

Of course, scholars have argued extensively about the baptism. In particular, many, if not most, scholars see an allusion there to Ps 2 which is an enthronement Psalm. The idea that Jesus is somehow anointed (he does receive the Spirit at the baptism!) as Son-King is in keeping with both the OT precedent and Mark’s narrative. Moreover, if one reads Mark as a story and not a static set of Christological statements, it is not difficult at all to imagine that the second time God speaks the same title is used to different effect (this time, telling the disciples that Jesus understands what his kingship entails).

In a series of other indications of Jesus’ divine identity, Gathercole mentions the episode where Jesus forgives sins (Mark 2 and parallels). This is, to be sure, a divine prerogative. But the whole point of being God’s agent on the earth is to exercise divine prerogatives. In interpreting Mark 2, we should look not to the scribes’ interpretation of Jesus’ action (“Who can forgive sins but God alone?”), but to his own: “the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”

Gathercole then goes into a puzzling series of interpretations of early Christian material contained in the NT, all of which indicates an exaltation Christology.

Romans 1:3-4 says that Jesus was appointed son of God at the resurrection. Ehrman rightly sees this as an “adoption” type text. We know that is correct, in part, because Paul uses the same notion of appointment, Spirit, and Jesus’s sonship, to talk about how people are adopted as God’s “sons” in Romans 8.

This is one reason I’m so worried about putting everything in the “divinity” box: it eviscerates the internal connections between the human Jesus and the salvation of humanity.

In delving into a similar exaltation formula in Acts 13:32-33, Gathercole says that we are simply to assume that the words, “You are my son, today I have become your father” do not actually say what the early church, or the writer of Acts, means. They are instead part of an OT passage that is suggestive on other grounds.

Similarly, in looking at Acts 2:36, Gathercole’s move is to say that when Peter says, “God has made him Lord and Christ,” something that happens at the resurrection, he does not mean that God made him Lord and Christ. Yes, Gathercole is right to point out that for Luke Jesus was both Lord and Christ prior to his crucifixion.

What, then, does it mean to say here that the resurrection effects these things? Gathercole says that Jesus occupies a new position vis-à-vis the world. Surely this is true. It is the position of messiah exalted to God’s right hand—otherwise known as being appointed son of God.

I do worry that Gathercole’s overall argument leaves no room for a transformation in the life of the human Jesus and thereby denies not only the basis of our hope as humans, but also the orthodox faith he seems keen to preserve. Here is an example of what I mean.

When talking about Jesus’ glorified body, Gathercole claims, “in being freed from physical weakness, suffering, and death, he is really returning to his preexistent condition rather than being elevated to a brand new physical state” (p. 114).

So not only was Jesus divine before his incarnation, he was incarnate before his incarnation? This resurrection “body” he has, with all its physicality (yes, this is what Gathercole is talking about, a state “material and physical” (p. 112), is nothing other than the condition Christ had before becoming human?

This is incompatible with every NT description of Jesus’ resurrection, with every Jewish depiction of the non-physicality of God, and dare I say, it is virtually Gnostic in its denial of the ongoing significance of the human, embodied life of Jesus.

Did Jesus escape human physicality in order to “return to his preexistent condition”? This is heresy.

Did Jesus not enter a brand new physical state? Then all the hope Paul hinges on just such a transformation in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8 is lost to us. Our faith is worthless. We are still in our sins. There is no new creation.

I don’t think Gathercole things any of these things, actually. But I do think that the chapter unwittingly bears witness to the problem of having our eyes so screwed to the goal of defending every facet of the early Christian witness as bearing testimony to Jesus’ divinity. It pushes our Christology off the one side of the horse, landing it on the ground on the God side, with nothing of any significance left on the human side.

In all, I simply disagree with Gathercole about any number of exegetical moves. In these disagreements, I find that the notion of a Christ, a human being empowered to act for God in the world, is muted in Gathercole’s rendering, in a way that fails to do justice to the stories that contain it.

How God Became Jesus: Review of the Evangelical Response to Ehrman (part 2)

In the first part of my review of How God Became Jesus, I engaged the contributions of the book’s editor, Michael Bird. Today I turn to the piece by Craig Evans, “Getting the Burial Traditions and Evidences Right.”

Craig Evans’ chapter responds to Bart Ehrman’s claim that the body of Jesus was mostly likely not buried but left for scavengers to devour. Ehrman’s argument, earlier popularized by John Dominic Crossan, draws on a number of indications from Roman writers that the lack of burial was one of the horrors of crucifixion.

Evans chapter is strong in that it puts a great deal of data from a variety of types of sources on the table for further consideration. In particular, Evans looks at literary evidence for burial of executed criminals, and looks at archaeological evidence including buried bodies.

Evans finds some evidence that Roman law encouraged the handing over of bodies to be buried, except in cases of high treason (Digesta 48.24).

Perhaps more to the point, Josephus provides some indications that Romans honored the Jewish sensibilities regarding the purity of the land, including not leaving corpses unburied. That the Romans did not bury crucified rebels during the War of the late 60s and early 70s, this was “the exception that proves the rule”: an egregious offense against Jewish sensibilities was intended and perpetrated due to Israel’s revolt.

Turning to Jewish law, Evans cites Mishnaic indications that executed criminals would be buried and receive as well the customary secondary burial.

I find this evidence of mixed usefulness. The Digesta was compiled in the sixth century. It indicates that some much later Roman jurists thought that burial of executed criminals was the norm. It is possible that some first century jurists thought the same. That such a law was not standard across the empire, for both citizens and non-citizens, seems to be reflected in the indications that many times crucified bodies were, in fact, left for the animals to consume.

Similarly, the evidence from the Mishnah is compiled late, and is difficult to date with any certainty. It demonstrates possibilities, but cannot tell us what was normal.

The passages from Josephus are perhaps the most helpful. But there we have to be careful that his apologetic tendencies might be shading his presentation of this evidence.

The literary evidence is not a slam dunk, but it does problematize well what Ehrman presents as clear evidence on the other side.

The archaeological evidence includes an ossuary (bone box) from the year 20 CE that includes a heel bone that still contains an iron spike in it, likely from having been crucified. In addition to another cave that may hold the bones of a crucified man, numerous nails have been discovered in and around ossuaries that contain human calcium deposits. Perhaps these are further indications that burial was administered to victims of crucifixion.

Perhaps the best rhetorical coup of the piece comes toward the end. Evans cites Jodi Magness, a Jewish archaeologist who is a colleague of Ehrman’s at UNC Chapel Hill, saying,

Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are largely consistent with the archaeological evidence. Although archaeology does not prove there was a follower of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea or that Pontius Pilate granted his request for Jesus’ body, the Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial are consistent with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law.

How God Became Jesus: Part 1 In Review of the Evangelical Response to Ehrman

In the spring of my senior year in high school I showed up to take the dreaded “AP Exam” for English. As I walked in the door, the person checking IDs asked me whose class I was in. Learning that I was in Dr. Hudgins’ class, the person rifled through a stack of 3×5 cards and found the one with my name on it:

Daniel, You have a good mind and a good sense of humor. Today, use your mind.

The lesson of that 3×5 card is one that I continue to learn, often faltering.

Reflecting on Michael Bird’s contribution to the volume, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman, I find myself wishing that he had had a Dr. Hudgins, someone to set him on a trajectory of learning the appropriate time for entertainment versus the appropriate time for serious mental exertion. Failure on this point leaves Bird’s chapters a sorry mix of condescension, foolishness, and fear.

The current post is an interim report on my read-through of the volume Bird edited. By “interim report” I mean that I’ve read just about half the book, and am responding not to the book as a whole, but to the Preface and Chapters 1 and 2.

The book is the collective work of five scholars, but all of what I’m responding to in this post is by Michael Bird.

As the title suggests, the book is a response to Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, which I reviewed here last week (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). In a blog post, Bird referred to this book as a pre-emptive pastoral apologetics. That description is apt. Bird’s pieces are for rallying the insiders and defending their faith, not for serious engagement of academic issues. How God Became Jesus-Cover

It is difficult to describe Bird’s work as anything other than clownish. Being no stranger to rhetorical flourish myself, I nonetheless encountered in these chapters argumentation through impressionistic assertion rather than scholarly response of any academic credibility.

The great “apologetic” depends on rallying the troops with conclusions such as:

…we think that his overall case is about as convincing as reports of the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, sitting in a Chick-Fil-A restaurant, wearing a Texan-style cowboy hat, while reading Donald Trump’s memoire [sic.] (p. 8)

How helpful.

When Bird turns to assess Ehrman’s Christology, he once again “aids” the reader in framing the issue: “Ehrman’s view of Jesus is low, so low in fact that it could probably win a limbo contest against a leprechaun.” Where was Bird when the Nicene Fathers needed him?

[Mis]Representation

Bird then goes on to misrepresent Ehrman’s view as “essentially evolutionary” (p. 11).

Ehrman himself, however, contends that the Christology of the New Testament did not “evolve” in a straight line. In Ehrman’s introduction he says, “The idea that Jesus is God… was the view of the very earliest Christians soon after Jesus’ death” (p. 3).

More to the point, and in direct contradiction to Bird’s characterization, Ehrman writes: “The problem with this chronological sequencing of the Gospels is that it dos not reflect the actual chronological development of early Christian views of Jesus… some Christians were saying that Jesus was a preexistent being (the “later” view) even before Paul began to write in the 50s—well before our earliest Gospel was written. The reality is… views of Jesus did not develop along a straight line in every part of early Christianity and at the same rate. Different Christians in different churches in different regions had different views of Jesus, almost from the get-go” (p. 237, bold type added).

Ehrman’s view of Christological development is not “essentially evolutionary.”

At several points in the book there are such missteps from Bird. The explanation, it seems, is to be found in a blog post in which Bird describes his inspiration for the book. He saw a poster advertising Ehrman’s forthcoming work, and decided a response was needed, “knowing where it was probably going.” It looks to this reader as though Bird was mistaken about the book’s “probable” content, and was not sufficiently chastened in the direction of his work by Ehrman’s actual argument.

For instance, at several points along the way we find Bird claiming that notions of Jesus’ divinity were thoroughly at home in Jewish contexts, and not dependent on Greek ideas. One might think that Ehrman makes such an argument–the old evolutionary argument about Christology that developed after leaving the safe confines of Judaism. Except, of course, that this is not what Ehrman argues.

Bird is responding not to Ehrman, but to Charlie Moule’s depiction of evolutionary Christology published in 1977 (p. 11).

For his part, Ehrman makes a case for how Paul and those from whom Paul inherited traditions such as the Philippians 2 Christ hymn, might have imagined Jesus to be a preexistent being, identified with YHWH, from Old Testament (!) precedent (e.g., p. 61).

Question Begging
In addition to misrepresentation, perhaps the gravest sin of these chapters is the question begging.

We repeatedly find Bird reiterating the language of Jesus as “Son of God” or “Christ” or “one enthroned at God’s right hand” as though such language answers the debate in favor of his understanding of early high Christology. I note the shift from Mark 8:29, Jesus’ query that elicits the confession that Jesus is “Christ,” to a claim that the answer to Jesus’ question is the Nicene Creed (p. 46).

Bird moves from describing Jesus as “agent” to identifying him with YHWH on p. 57, and from one who can “forgive on God’s behalf” to “unmediated divine authority” on p. 58. How is agency “unmediated”?

Or again, Jesus is “exalted above” all powers, but this is supposedly an indication of “inherent” superiority (p. 38). Why not an achieved superiority? “Son of God” and “Lord to Son of David” are thought to be further indications of God’s very own incarnate presence (p. 59). Or, “manifestation of Israel’s God”—what does this mean, what would it look like?

The whole point of the debate is to answer the question of what such appellations of Jesus actually meant for the first writers and hearers. To move from the existence of such titles to the conclusion that they support a particular view is to beg the question—the alternative readings and interpretations have to be carefully investigated; the conclusion preferred has to be confirmed by evidence.

Bird does develop arguments at some important points in his work, for instance, in his discussion of the son of man. Those arguments are to be welcomed, even if they jump from “human being” to one who is much more than a “miniature throne buddy” (p. 66) without accounting well for the shift. But any argument is better than assertion, and there is some argumentation in these pages as well.

On Early High Christology
In the early pages in which he lays out the terms of the debate, Bird wants to demonstrate the great work of the Early High Christology proponents whose studies allegedly contravene Ehrman. In doing so, he cites Martin Hengel: “more happened [in Christological development] in this period of less than two decades than in the whole next seven centuries.”

I had seen this quote before. Quite recently in fact! It is cited approvingly by Bart Ehrman who is affirming the tremendous amount of Christological development that happened before the Christ hymn was penned that appears Phil 2. This is an early clue that Bird has failed to grasp the nature of Ehrman’s argument.

Also, Bird here cites an evangelical, Hengel, who agrees that development happened. Throughout his study, Bird cites such scholars. But in his own articulations of early Christology, Bird is not willing to concede any particular point at which such development has taken place. He instead clings tightly to Richard Bauckham’s claim that “the earliest Christology was already the highest Christology” (cited approvingly on p. 16).

From “In” to “As”
In developing his own Christological picture, Bird engages in some sleight of hand that allow him to present arguments as though they make his point, when in fact they do not quite make the final leap his position requires.

One such move he makes is the insertion of the word “as” into statements of the relationship between God and Jesus (pp. 16, 28).

It is one thing to say that God is made known “in” Jesus, and that God is identified “with” Jesus. Any number of studies will confirm this. However, Bird makes the additional step of then saying, the God of Israel is known “as” Jesus, something that his predecessors have tended to be more careful to avoid.

God is known “in” many things in the Jewish tradition: in the Torah given to God’s people; in the behavior of the people in obedience to that Torah; in moments of deliverance; in moments of destruction. God is so identified with such things that God’s identity is shaped by them: God becomes the God of Abraham, or the God who calls into being the things which do not exist, or the God who brought us up out of the land of Egypt. This does not make Abraham God, or the Exodus divine. Bird assumes an implication of “divine identity” that cannot be sustained.

Leaning on the Richard Bauckham Arms
Bird leans heavily on Richard Bauckham’s standards for assessing divinity, especially whether a being shares in God’s sovereignty and worship. However, this does not become a lens for assessing the early Jewish or Christian tradition, it becomes a lens for asserting that Jesus is uniquely considered divine while (a) describing the cases of others who share God’s sovereignty and worship as though they actually don’t (e.g., Enoch’s son of man, Israel’s Kings, Moses in the work of Ezekiel the Tragedian); (b) remaining silent about the instances where others share in these prerogatives (e.g., 1 Chronicles 29:20 where both God and the king are worshipped), 1 Chronicles 29:23 where Solomon sits on YHWH’s throne); and (c) assuming (not demonstrating) that Jesus shares this sovereignty and worship in some qualitatively different way (this third point is another instance of question-begging, as Bird does not demonstrate that Jesus shares sovereignty and worship in some qualitatively distinct way—he assumes and asserts it).

Bird comes close to capturing what we see so often in the Gospels when he says, “… it is probable that Jesus understood himself as a divine agent who uniquely shared in divine prerogatives, embodied God’s sovereignty, and identified his work with God’s action in the world.” He seems incapable of recognizing that to be an “agent” might very well indicate that one is operating on delegated authority (see also his discussion of the Son of Man on p. 66). Indeed, throughout the chapters, especially chapter 2, Bird asserts (does not argue) that Jesus acts with unmediated divine authority–a claim that cannot be sustained even in the Gospel of John.

How much more shall I say?

  • In disputing Ehrman’s method, Bird complains that his interlocutor relies too heavily on parallels with ancient sources. But this is the exact same historical method taken up by both Bauckham and Hurtado, whom Bird depends on, to stake their claims to an early high Christology: parallels demonstrate ranges of possibility and impossibility, showing what is likely old hat and what may be novel.
  • The question-begging continues in Bird’s assertion that the Christ event made Christians rethink their ideas about God. Yes. Fine. But to say we’ve “rethought God” means, first and foremost, rethinking what God has done and what this means for God’s identity (the God who gives life to the dead), not reimagining the divine ontology. That did, in fact, take longer.
  • Bird complains of Ehrman’s use of the “criterion of dissimilarity” only to deploy it himself when convenient to his cause.

On Peanut Butter and Jelly
As I was reading one particular section, it seemed to me that the book evinced two particular deficiencies: too strong a Nicene hermeneutic being brought to the biblical text, and lack of awareness about the significance of the words that Bird himself had put on the page. Bird argues that Paul’s letters evince a “clear binitarian devotion” (28). The evidence? These verses: “To the church of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you” (1 Thess 1:1); Gal 1:3-5, where Paul wishes “grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself… according to the will of God our Father.”

How, exactly is this binitarian? In every instance, God is “the Father.” Jesus is not. Jesus is Lord. As Paul will say in 1 Corinthians: “There is but one God, the Father… and one Lord, Jesus Christ.” When Paul says God, he does not mean the binitarian Father-Son complex. He means the Father.

When Bird goes on to illustrate how this conjunction of God and Jesus is allegedly binitarian, he says the two go together “like peanut butter and jelly, like Australia and kangaroos, like cheese and wine, or like baseball and beer!” (I’m not making this up.)

I think that, in fact, for all its silliness, this string of analogies is probably right on target: Bird is suggesting in each case two distinct things that are nonetheless taken together as somehow inseparable. This provides a possible way forward to understanding Paul’s Christology.

However, instead of recognizing that here is a conjoining of God with Jesus, the exalted second Adam, the man through whom came the resurrection of the dead, the man who will in the end turn over the Kingdom to the God and Father so that God may be all in all (1 Cor 15), Bird instead pulls the “Jesus is God” rabbit out of the peanut butter and jelly hat: “The God of Israel is revealed in, through, and even as the Lord Jesus Christ.” Is peanut butter actually Jelly? Is Australia actually a kangaroo?

Etc.
It goes on. One wonders why Bird simply asserts that no Jewish person ever depicted someone as sharing divine worship or sitting on God’s throne rather than engaging (and admitting the existence of!) Jewish literature, including the OT, that depicts both.

Bird warms up N.T. Wright’s idea that Jesus saw in himself the return of Yahweh to Zion. And in the question-begging manner that plagues the chapters, never stops to ask what a Jewish person might have expected that return to look like “from below.”

For instance, might the Ezekiel text that speaks of God shepherding and gathering God’s people, for God to be king over them, and then goes on to speak of David being shepherd and prince tell us what Yahweh’s return would look like from below? Bird cites this passage only to say, “Now obviously this does not mean that David is YHWH, but neither is David just a kind of subcontractor” (56).

In other words, the passage demonstrates that Jewish people might conceive of God reigning over Israel, and God returning to Israel, precisely through a human agent who is not YHWH Himself. “Not a subcontractor” is one instance where the buffoonery that plagues the chapters displaces what needs to be a critical argument.

We Can Do Better
Throughout, Bird’s “pastoral apologetic” uses and depends on better traditionalist scholarship (Hurtado, Bauckham, Hengel) without the nuance or understanding that generated it, leaving the informed reader more dubious about the claims for Jesus’ divinity in the texts considered than when the reading began. The force of the essays depends too much on an impressionistic conclusion that Ehrman is laughable, as indeed Bird has attempted to make us laugh—only, ultimately, to leave himself looking the fool.

We must do better.

I am not willing to surrender the label of evangelical, but if we’re going to make it, we have to get over the defensiveness and assertion of our own ideas that keeps us from being able to do good scholarship and even to learn from those who do not share our label.

Fear drives Bird’s project. And fear will always cloud our judgment. The fear becomes clear in the final paragraphs, where he asserts that if Jesus didn’t think of himself as divine then the Christian canon and creeds are meaningless.

I refuse this syllogism.

On this logic, must we then go on to say that if Jesus did not know himself to be part of the eternal Trinity then the canon and creeds are meaningless? Must we scour the Gospels for historical evidence of the homoousion?

Please.

Perhaps most importantly, the defensiveness of this posture makes it impossible to listen to the Gospels, to the Bible we actually have. While “Jesus is God” makes a good reading of John, it blurs our eyes to Jesus the “son of David” in Matthew, to Luke’s “man attested by God,” and even to Mark’s “son of God” who is “son of man.”

In short, my assessment is that an evangelicalism that has Ehrman as its chief foe is in better shape than an evangelicalism that has Bird as its great champion.

A part of me wants to apologize to Bird for this, perhaps the most negative review I have ever written, but in truth I feel that he owes an apology to the rest of us–to us who consider ourselves evangelicals and are about the difficult business of engaging critical and historical scholarship for the sake of the church, and perhaps most especially to the other contributors to this volume.

As a final note, I should say that this book is not a complete loss. I have read the chapter by Craig Evans on the burial of Jesus, which offers a better model of responding to historical claims with historical scholarship. So stay tuned.

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.

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.

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.”

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…