My Fuller Seminary Colleague Glen Stassen has died.
Here is a Tribute to Glen by David Gushee.
Glen was a tireless champion of the idea that the way of Jesus is the way of peace. He will be sorely missed.
My Fuller Seminary Colleague Glen Stassen has died.
Here is a Tribute to Glen by David Gushee.
Glen was a tireless champion of the idea that the way of Jesus is the way of peace. He will be sorely missed.
The disciples didn’t get it. Jesus’ ministry, that is.
Pretty much ever.
We see hints at their incomprehension early on, when Jesus speaks in parables and the disciples don’t understand (Mark 4). Immediately after, they are terrified by a storm at sea, and Jesus rebukes them for their lack of faith.
We learn that they are hard of heart in a second episode at sea (Mark 6:52)–a point that’s reiterated in another boat when the thousands-feeding twelve perseverate about forgetting bread (Mark 8:16-21).
But surely they got it, at least a little bit, when Peter confesses, “You are the Christ!” A little bit.
Not enough to keep Peter from rebuking Jesus when Jesus predicts his own rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection.
In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples never actually come around. They are, in the end, like the seed that falls on rocky soil (Peter–the rock!), that falls away when danger and persecution arises on account of the word.
Of course, the crucifixion isn’t the end of the story. Failure isn’t the end of Christianity. In Mark the disciples never actually get it at all.
That’s because there are no resurrection accounts.
One of the most important functions of resurrection is revelation.
It’s not a panacea, of course. We read in Matthew that the eleven do obeisance to Jesus, “but some doubted.” In fact, doubt or dullness continues to plague those who meet the resurrected Jesus.
But doubt does not win.
Jesus enlightens the minds, opens the eyes, convinces the doubting.
What does all this mean?
First, resurrection is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the “Christian” faith of the disciples.
Without the resurrection, the disciples are not only devoid of hope, they are devoid of understanding. In Luke 24, the people on the road to Emmaus are dismayed at Jesus’ death, because they had hoped that he was going to be the one to redeem Israel (v. 21).
It is only the revelation of the resurrected Jesus that transforms their understanding.
Second, and growing from the first point: this is why there is something deeply right about looking to the resurrection to help us understand the earliest Christology of the church.
The Christologies of the NT are reflections on the identity of Jesus through the lens of the shared conviction that Jesus has been raised from the dead.
This is why John 2:22 says that the disciples remembered and believed what Jesus had spoken “when he was risen from the dead.”
It is only after the resurrection, in Luke 24, that Jesus “opens their minds to understand the scriptures” that speak of the messiah as suffering and raised.
That Jesus is the Christ was a constant conviction of his companions. But what that actually meant for Jesus–not only his identity but his peculiar vocation, is only known in retrospect (at least, that’s how the Gospels and Paul depict it).
Resurrection entails revelation.
Revelation that Jesus’ ministry was not a failure.
Revelation that the Crucified is King.
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.
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)
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?
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).
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?
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?
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?
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.
On Monday I shared some thoughts about resurrection: it signals Jesus’ enthronement.
That would mean, within the narrative in which Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God, that Jesus had been enthroned as king over this kingdom.
Jesus’ message of the coming kingdom was an eschatological message that found its resonance within a first-century Jewish apocalyptic worldview. God was going to act decisively in history to vindicate God’s people, punish the bad guys, and fulfill all the promises God had made to Israel.
With the great assize comes new creation. Heaven and earth remade as an eternal home for God’s people.
Judgment resolves with an affirmation of the created world and humanity’s place upon it. People remade. Given new bodies. Restored to what Adam and Eve should have been: God’s faithful caretakers.
The resurrection of Jesus was viewed as categorically different from the resuscitation of Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter. They would die again.
Jesus’ resurrection was entrance into the dawning reality of new creation.
The way Paul works it out, Jesus is the man through whom resurrection comes. He is the second and last Adam (1 Corinthians 15).
Jesus, in other words, is the first resurrected human who determines the fate of the other humans who are joined to him.
A couple of times, Paul echoes the Gen 1 language of “image bearing” in order to describe our relationship to the resurrected Jesus: God predestined us to become conformed to the image of his son (Rom 8:28). As we have borne the image of the earthly (Adam), so too will we bear the image of the heavenly (Adam; i.e., Jesus) (1 Cor 15:49).
New creation dawns with the creation of a new humanity. Resurrection means that the first of our own humankind has become what the rest of us are destined to be.
This is the source of my gravest concerns about Bart Ehrman’s proposal for “how Jesus became God.” He looks at the resurrection, and the things New Testament writers say about it, and develops his argument that the resurrection leads to reflections on Jesus as divine.
But I, for one, am loathe to concede the connotations of resurrection to Jesus’ divinity. Historically, this is problematic. What it means to be raised from the dead is precisely to be a human who is given back a body (cf. 2 Macc 7). It also means, often, that the new creation has begun by God remaking humanity.
Theologically, pairing resurrection and divinity is problematic as well. In short, the problem is this: if Jesus was raised from the dead as an indication of his divinity, then those of us who are not divine have not hope.
Resurrection is simultaneously the judgment on and affirmation of our humanity. It is judgment, because it demonstrates that we must be changed. It is affirmation because it is a restoration of our bodily existence as the reconciled ones on God’s new earth.
For Christians, it’s always Easter, of course, even when we play the Lent game and embrace the cross for forty days per year.
This matters. I’m not just being a curmudgeon. If there’s one thing that matters for Christianity, it’s that it’s Easter. Jesus has been raised from the dead.
As the annual celebration is still coursing through my veins, so too are the debates about early Christology that I dove into last week. Those debates often swirl around how the disciples’ understanding of Jesus was transformed with their conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead.
And in the conjunction of church calendar and internet wrangling, I wonder if we’ve yet managed to dial in to the significance of this singular, Christianity-defining event?
Resurrection changes everything.
(Except, of course, when it doesn’t. More on that tomorrow.)
Let me start with how it changes everything for Jesus, and then I’ll come back next time with how it changes things for the people who want to follow him.
Here, the resurrected Jesus stakes claim to something that was not fully his before. By a gift of God, at the resurrection, Jesus has become Lord over all things.
This same idea is couched the language of “Messiah” and “Lord” in Peter’s sermon on Pentecost: “God has made him Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” In that speech, Jesus’ resurrection is the moment when he takes his seat at God’s right hand, in fulfillment of God’s promise to David.
Paul says the same thing, using the royal “son of God” language in Rom 1:4: Jesus was appointed son of God, with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.
The most important thing for us to keep our heads around as we talk about the resurrection of Jesus is that the resurrection is only significant if it is a true transformation of the human Jesus from once-dead to now-raised.
With this resurrection of the man from the clutches of death, the new creation begins to dawn.
And with the dawn of new creation comes a new image-bearing Son of God, recreated to rule the world on God’s behalf.
Resurrection means that a body has been given new life. But the connotations it bears stretch beyond the nature of the body to a particular role.
That role is the recreation of the first humans’ role, the fulfillment of the promise to David.
Now, the Human One is enthroned at God’s right hand.
This is why the most basic, and important, thing that Christians say together, the singular thing that we say in response to the resurrection, is “Jesus is Lord.”
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.
“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
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.
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.
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.
Put 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.”
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:
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…
You have left your grave
You appear to me
Not the joy of resurrection
The anguish of haunting