Did Jesus consider himself divine? When did his disciples and other followers conclude that he was divine? According to the earliest Christians, at what stage in Jesus’ existence did he become divine? This year two controversial books were published with opposing views on these questions, which I review here. How Jesus Became God, the latest book by Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, came out in March 2014. Like most of his other popular books, it was commercially successful and attracted attention. Also, like many of his other books, it has triggered vehement opposition in some circles.
Ehrman is something of a lightning rod. When in 2012 he published Did Jesus Exist?, stating the case in favor of the existence of Jesus, a number of commentators quickly wrote books endeavoring to rebut him, arguing that Jesus is a purely mythical figure (e.g., Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth¸ Frank Zindle and Robert Price, eds.). This time around, several New Testament scholars who think Ehrman did not portray Jesus in sufficiently divine terms have teamed up against him in a single book. Thus, in one sense it seems that Ehrman “can’t win” no matter what he writes along this spectrum of thought; but then his books are the most popular and selling best, in no small part due to the controversies that they generate.
The rebuttal volume to How Jesus Became God, creatively titled How God Became Jesus, was the brainchild of Michael Bird, Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. When he heard that Ehrman’s book was coming out, he quickly gathered a group of like-minded (in relation to opposing Ehrman) scholars to cobble together a book that would come out almost simultaneously with Ehrman’s. Ehrman and his publisher, anticipating and undoubtedly looking forward to upcoming lively public debate, kindly provided advance copies to Bird’s group, so that they could publish their response under this timetable. Both books have indeed generated a public debate that also has attracted interest among biblical scholars, even though the books are popular in nature and contain nothing that is not already in the vast scholarly literature on this subject.
As a result, at the recent (November 2014) Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego, what was essentially a debate on the subject was held between Ehrman on the one hand and Bird, one of his co-authors (Craig Evans), and others sympathetic to their position on the other. As an attendee and speaker at that Meeting, I had the pleasure of attending that lively showdown session, which filled the hall of nearly 300 seats to standing room only. In my view, Ehrman got somewhat the better of that exchange, but of course none of the principal issues at stake were settled there. How Jesus Became God first covers how people in the 1st century CE Greco-Roman world viewed divinity and divine figures, whether Jesus thought he was divine, what we can and cannot know about Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, and then Ehrman presents his view of how the early Christians’ ideas of Jesus’ divinity evolved, up through the gospel of John and onward to the Nicene Creed.
How God Became Jesus consists of 10 chapters each authored by one of the contributors, though some of them wrote more than one chapter. The book covers who Jesus thought he was, who the first Christians thought he was, whether Jesus was actually buried in a tomb as reported in the gospels (which Ehrman considers unlikely), and then proceeds to somewhat technical discussions of relevant biblical passages and criticisms of Ehrman’s exegesis. Both books cite to the biblical passages needed to make the technical arguments, and also refer (to an extent appropriate for popular books) to the relevant scholarly works. (For simplicity I avoid doing so in this review post, and also do not get into the technical details of the exegetical issues here. Readers can turn to the books for that.) This makes the points in debate clear, and enables the reader to follow up on points of interest.
Ehrman argues that Jesus himself probably did not consider himself the son of God or as divine, but instead was an apocalyptic preacher who looked forward to God intervening in history through a future “Son of Man” to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. He considers the gospel passages (principally in Mark) where Jesus appears to refer to the Son of Man as someone other than himself to be the most authentic, with the other Son of Man passages (at least in Mark) that appear to be self-referential being later emendations or additions by redactors. The scholarly debate on this point is long-standing, and essentially nothing new has been brought to light either by Ehrman or Bird and his co-authors, either in their books or in their in-person debate.
As to when Jesus became divine, the alternatives run, at one extreme, from Jesus becoming divine only upon his resurrection, to various earlier stages including his baptism by John the Baptist, at his birth, at his conception (as in the Annunciation in Luke), all the way to the other extreme set out in the gospel of John, where Jesus as the Word existed from time immemorial and then took human form in the flesh (known as “incarnation Christology”). As we know, in history essentially the latter position in John eventually won out. The harder question is when this position first arose and which of the other alternatives might have come first and competed with it. This is an extremely difficult determination to make, because there is literally no evidence from what scholars call the “tunnel period” of at least 20 years between Jesus’ life and death on the one hand and the appearance of Paul’s writings and the lost written gospel of Jesus’ sayings known as Q (reflected in Matthew and Luke) which many or most scholars believe predated Mark (the first of the canonical gospels to have been written). Ehrman argues that Jesus was not viewed by himself or any others as divine during his lifetime and that the first idea that he was divine came about in connection with his resurrection. The natural reaction was to consider that he was exalted into divinity then, but over time ideas of Jesus becoming divine at earlier stages took root until the date was pushed back to the incarnation Christology reflected in John.
Ehrman pushes his theory of a fairly linear evolution fairly far, probably beyond what the evidence can bear, leaving himself exposed to rather easy attack by Bird et al, who in their turn argue that an incarnation Christology was present and possibly dominant from the very start following Jesus’ resurrection. But they too go beyond the evidence, leaving the reader to suspect that they believe the earliest Christians considered that Jesus was always divine (as in John) simply because this is what they themselves believe. Indeed, one senses from their book a discomfort in principle with any historical approach to such questions that could undermine doctrine and faith. Once an incarnation Christology appears, the question becomes what kind of divine being Jesus was. Ehrman argues that many of the earliest Christians including St. Paul viewed Jesus as something like an angel (meaning an intermediary figure never fully human), based mainly on descriptive language by Paul. Bird et al, who do not regard Jesus as a mere angel (which would contravene Christian doctrine), are quick to pounce on this, pointing to contrary evidence and differing in their interpretation of Paul. They score some of their best points against Ehrman here. Indeed, Ehrman, in seeking greater precision, does seem to have dug an unnecessary hole for himself here. While his idea of what early Christians thought is not unreasonable in principle and he may be right, he appears to go beyond what the meager evidence can reliably support. It would have been sufficient to conclude simply that the earliest Christians probably had varying ideas about what divinity meant (including the angel idea) and leave it at that. But pushing the envelope in this manner lies in the dynamic of scholarship.
Significant portions of both books cover what happened surrounding Christ’s burial. Here Ehrman agrees with a number of other scholars in concluding that there is little evidence to suggest that Jesus was buried in the newly hewed private stone tomb of Joseph of Arimathea as reported in the gospels, or even that he received a decent burial. Craig Evans handled the rebuttal on these points, both in the book and in person at the San Diego debate. It is here where Bird et al are at their weakest. While acknowledging that usually the Romans did not bury crucified criminals (so that their remaining on the cross for scavengers would set a public example of their humiliation), Evans argues that the Romans sometimes (as on Roman holidays) allowed the bodies of crucified criminals to be given over to relatives. He neglects to mention, however, that Jesus was not handed over to relatives and, more importantly, that according to the texts that Evans himself relies upon, the Romans did not make such exceptions when the criminal had been convicted of treason/sedition, which was precisely the crime for which Jesus was crucified! Evans also argues that some criminals (though presumably not those crucified for treason) were temporarily put in “criminals’ tombs” for a year before the remains were given to relatives, but this gets us nowhere near to the gospel versions of Christ’s burial. When during the discussion in San Diego I asked him how his above arguments are relevant to and could prove the gospel accounts, Evans relied instead on those accounts themselves, arguing that since similar accounts are given in 3 of the canonical gospels, they should be considered reliable. In other words, to reach his end conclusion he is not relying (and cannot rely) on most of the extended argumentation that he offers.
The live debate in San Diego was civil, gentlemanly, and even humorous at times, and in their book Bird et al were as well for the most part. But at some points in their book I found their rhetoric overly personal and mean-spirited. Most notorious was the beginning of Charles Hill’s chapter in which he compared Ehrman’s writings to political “tell-all” books written by politicians and other public officials soon after leaving office, for personal gain or other personal reasons. He likens Ehrman’s case to theirs because, he says, Ehrman was originally a Christian but (already many years ago) became an agnostic. Debates among scholars of religion ought to and do occur among scholars of various religious and non-religious persuasions. Their personal beliefs should not be injected into it, and in practice they rarely are. Hill’s personalized attack on Ehrman reminds me of the recent Fox News attack on the religious scholar Reza Aslan in connection with his own recent book about Christ (Zealot) arising from the mere fact that he is a Muslim.
Overall, both books are accessible and lively reads that will be understandable to any educated reader with a reasonable background in the Bible and the history of Christianity. The debate is interesting because both sides somewhat overstate their cases, yet neither side goes beyond reasonable mainstream scholarship. Together they offer readers a convenient way to gain some fluency in the important and long-standing debate about the early Christians’ views on Christ’s divinity and how Christian doctrine on the question arose.
Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne. 2014. Hardcover, $27.99.
Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, and Chris Tilling. How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan. 2014. Paperback, $16.99.
© Arthur George 2014