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.

Resurrection and Transformation

Resurrection is the consummate display of the power of God. In the resurrection of Jesus, God’s power, through the Spirit, reaches down and undoes the greatest power in all creation–the power of death.

God’s own identity is shaped by this moment. Not only is God the God who created all things, calling the things that are not so that they come to be, God is now the God who gives life to the dead (Rom 4:17; 2 Cor 1:9).

The power of God, the power of the Spirit, the power of new creation, the power of the arrival of new humanity–this is all the resurrecting power of God. And it is all the power in which God envelops God’s people when the gospel comes with “the power of God for salvation.”

The power of God for salvation is power for eschatological salvation, and new, resurrected bodies. But that eschatological future impinges on our present: God gives us the Spirit, God calls us beloved daughters and sons.

God, in other words, opens up to us the resurrection life of Christ, so that we might now start becoming conformed to the new image of God. God extends to us the power to put to death the deeds of the flesh and to walk in newness of life.

In Romans 6, Paul digs deep into his union-with-Christ theology: we are baptized into Jesus’ death. His death becomes our death–the death of our old humanity that is enslaved to sin and death.

But this does not leave us on neutral ground. He summons us to make real in the present the identity that is coming to us in the resurrected Christ: “Present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead and your bodily members as weapons of righteousness to God.”

We are those who are, at root, “dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

The resurrection life of Jesus becomes our resurrection life. And it is the life in which we have the power to walk in a manner worthy of the God who embraces us into God’s family.

When Ephesians 4 or Colossians 3 talks about laying aside the “old self,” and putting on the “new self,” the Greek is actually saying, “the old humanity” and “the new humanity.” The reality that those texts invite us into is a full participation in the new creation of which we are a part as we are joined to Christ, the firstborn of the new creation.

What does all this mean?

In short, we should never undersell the notion that sanctification is really possible. We should never allow the realities of our day-by-day failings to overwhelm our deep conviction that God is making all things new, beginning with the humanity that has been united to the Human One in his conquest of sin and death.

Resurrection means transformation–both the transformation of our bodies that we look forward to, and the transformation of our lives day by day.

Resurrection means we always have hope: hope that God is greater and stronger than our looming death, hope that God is greater and stronger than our besetting sins, hope that God is greater and stronger than our besetting sorrows.

Every tear wiped away.

No more sin.

No more death.

Resurrection means transformation.

Resurrection and Sending

I’ve been reflecting on the resurrection of Jesus over the past week or so.

It tells us about God’s cosmic action, to renew the whole world and humanity upon it. And so it tells us about our destiny as humans.

And the resurrection narratives show us how much it takes to begin to understand who Jesus is and what he was up to. No one, it seems, got it before Jesus was raised. Except, maybe, the woman who anointed him in Mark 14.

But then the most ridiculous thing of all happens.

The resurrected Jesus seems darn-near incapable of appearing to someone without commissioning that person, immediately, to go bear witness to what she or he has seen.

In Matthew, the women are sent to proclaim the promise of Jesus’ appearance to Jesus’ brothers. The eleven do go to Galilee. Jesus appears, and despite some doubting, he sends them to all the ethne of the world.

The two people on the Road to Emmaus took it on themselves to make known what they had seen, and then Jesus appears to them and the rest of the disciples and commissions them all as “witnesses of these things.” They will bear witness after they receive the Spirit.

In John, Mary receives the commission to make Jesus’ glorification known to the boys. And when Jesus appears to them, as they are in hiding, he sends: “As the father sent me, so do I send you.”

Finally, there is the case of Saul, perhaps the most dramatic appearance-become-sending story of them all. With the appearance of the resurrected Jesus, Paul is sent to not only proclaim but embody the message of the crucified Christ.

When the church in Acts “witnessed,” it did not simply say some things that were true about God, or recount the story of Jesus. It bore witness to the fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead–because they had seen it.

Resurrection is the hinge on which the Christian story turns.

Not only is it the hinge of the ages, as the new creation dawns. Not only is it the hinge in the life of Jesus, as he takes on an eternal, heavenly version of the authority he exercised on earth. Not only is it the hinge in the disciple’s understanding, as they have their minds opened to finally comprehend what kind of Messiah Jesus was to be.

It is all these things. And it is also the turning point in the story of the church, because now the doubters are sent to bear witness to the Messiah whom God has raised from the dead.

Resurrection and Revelation

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.

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?


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?

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.

Resurrection and New Creation

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.

Resurrection and Enthronement

It’s Easter.

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.

The most important words of the so-called great commission are these: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”Resurrection icon2

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.”

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.

Telling the story of the story-bound God