How Jesus Became God: A Review

Article by   May 2014
Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God--The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne, 2014. 404 pp., $27.99/£17.99

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to review a number of Bart Ehrman's books, including, most recently, his volume Forged: Writing in the Name of God--Why the Bible's Authors are Not Who We Think They Are (HarperOne, 2011).  At the end of that review, I concluded with these words: 
[Ehrman] regularly goes beyond what the evidence can sustain. For this reason the book, like many of his others, comes across as more autobiographical than academic; more polemical than historical.  Ehrman still seems to be chasing the ghosts of his evangelical past. One wonders how many more books he will need to write before they go away.
As to how many more books Ehrman feels the need to write, apparently the answer is (at least) one more. This new book, How Jesus Became God, has very much the same feel as all of Ehrman's other books. It is a heavy dose of his de-conversion story coupled with arguments about how mainstream scholarship has disproven some major tenet of the Christian faith--in this instance, the belief that Jesus is God. And, just like in his book Forged, Ehrman regularly goes beyond what the evidence can sustain, giving the reader the impression that there is more in play here than just neutral, objective, historical investigation. 

Overview of Ehrman's Argument

Ehrman's core argument is that Jesus was a mere man who gradually, over time, came to be regarded as more and more divine, until he was ultimately (in the fourth century) regarded as the God of the universe. He states, 
It will become clear in the following chapters that Jesus was not originally considered to be God in any sense at all, and that he eventually became divine for his followers in some sense before he came to be thought of as equal with God Almighty in an absolute sense. But the point I stress is that this was, in fact, a development (p.44).
Thus, Ehrman's Christological model is really an evolutionary one (what he calls a "development"), moving from low Christology (in fact very low) to the highest Christology imaginable, with many gradations in between. Of course, Ehrman is quick to qualify his evolutionary model by acknowledging that "views of Jesus did not develop in a straight line in every part of early Christianity and at the same rate" (p.237).  However, when it comes to the testimony of the Gospels--which Ehrman leans on heavily for his view--he argues that the evolution of Jesus' divinity is chronological.  Our earliest Gospel, Mark, is adoptionistic as Jesus is "divine" at his baptism; later Gospels, Matthew and Luke, present Jesus as "divine" at his birth; and John goes even further, portraying Jesus as pre-existent and "divine" prior to coming to earth. 

While the volume is divided into nine chapters, Ehrman's case for an evolutionary Christology can be divided into the following tenets: (1) First-century Judaism had many intermediate/semi-divine figures that provided the necessary categories for a gradual move towards full divinity; (2) The historical Jesus never claimed to be God; (3) The earliest Christians came to believe Jesus was, in some sense, God because they experienced visions of him after he died (though he never really rose from the dead); (4) the Gospels and other NT writings have divergent and contradictory views of Jesus' divinity; and (5) early Christians in the second and third centuries had conflicting views of Jesus' divinity. 

A brief book review could not possibly address each of these tenets, so we will spend the remaining time on numbers (1), (2), and (4). 

Semi-Divine Figures in First-Century Judaism

It is no surprise that Ehrman begins his volume with a discussion of "gods" and semi-divine beings in the Greco-Roman world because this was a world which clearly did view divinity as something that could have degrees. The problem with such a starting place, however, is that the earliest Christology was not born in a Greco-Roman context, but in a decidedly Jewish one.  Indeed, it was born into a Jewish world which was concretely monotheistic. And in a monotheistic Jewish world, there are no "half-way" gods. 

How, then, does Ehrman avoid this obvious problem for his thesis? Richard Bauckham in his book Jesus and the God of Israel (Eerdmans, 2008), though not responding directly to Ehrman, describes Ehrman's kind of approach precisely: 
Much of the clear evidence for the ways in which Second Temple Judaism understood the uniqueness of God has been neglected in favour of a small amount of highly debatable evidence. Intermediary figures who may or may not participate in divinity are by no means characteristic of the literature of Second Temple Judaism (p.5)... Methodologically, it is imperative to proceed from the clear consensus of Second Temple monotheism to the more ambiguous evidence about so-called intermediary figures. (p.13).
Ehrman commits the very fallacy that Bauckham describes--he highlights the limited number of ambiguous or debatable passages about supposed semi-divine figures and uses those instances to override the larger and more established monotheistic trends in first-century Judaism. The problem, of course, is that even if his interpretation of these passages is correct (and that is questionable), these passages at best represent only the minority report. And why should we think the earliest Christians held this fringe/minority view of divinity when they formulated their ideas about the identity of Jesus? Or for that matter, why should we think Jesus himself held these minority views when he expressed his own identity?

Each of Ehrman's examples of supposed semi-divine figures cannot be addressed here, but he bases his argument primarily on angels, particularly the mysterious "angel of the Lord" phenomenon in the OT. However, the idea that early Christians saw Jesus in the category of an angel runs contrary to numerous other lines of evidence. For one, Jesus is clearly distinguished from the angels (Mark 1:13; Matt 4:11), given Lordship over the angels (Matt 4:6, 26:53; Luke 4:10; Mark 13:27), and exalted in a place above the angels (Heb 1:5, 13). In addition, Jesus is accorded both worship (Matt 28:17; Luke 24:52) and the role of Creator (1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:16; Phil 2:10-11)--two key marks of God's unique divine identity within Judaism--whereas angels are never portrayed as creating the world, nor as worthy of worship (Col 2:18; Rev 19:10, 22:9).   

Ehrman attempts to overcome these clear restrictions on angel worship by flipping them around to his advantage: "We know that some Jews thought that it was right to worship angels in no small part because a number of our surviving texts insist that it not be done. You don't get laws prohibiting activities that are never performed" (pp.54-55, emphasis his). Yes, you don't get laws prohibiting activities that are never performed; but at the same time you can't use laws prohibiting activities as evidence that those activities actually represent a religion's views! It would be like using the Ten Commandments (which are filled with prohibitions) to argue that ancient Judaism was a religion that embraced idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, adultery, murder, coveting, and so on. Again, Ehrman is using what is, at best, a condemned and fringe activity (angel worship) as characteristic of first-century Judaism. That simply doesn't work as a model for how early (Jewish) Christians would have viewed Jesus. 

The Self-Understanding of Jesus

In order to argue that Jesus never thought of himself as God, Ehrman summarizes his arguments from his book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Oxford, 2001), and says that Jesus just viewed himself as an apocalyptic prophet who was ushering in the Kingdom of God (basically Albert Schweitzer redivivus). Here Ehrman adopts what he regards as the standard methodologies of modern critical scholarship, including the criteria of authenticity (and even the controversial and oft-debated criteria of dissimilarity). Of course, the upshot of Ehrman's reconstruction of the historical Jesus is that any statements that might sound like a claim to divinity are conveniently dismissed as unhistorical. So, not surprisingly, the claims of Jesus in the Gospel of John are considered "not part of the historical record of what Jesus actually said" (p.125). In addition, Ehrman refuses to allow any statement where Jesus identifies himself as the "Son of Man."

Needless to say, this all works out a little too neatly. Ehrman portrays his critical methods not only as something that all scholars agree upon, but as something that leads to clear cut, unambiguous results. Left unsaid is the fact that the criteria of authenticity themselves have come under tremendous fire from scholars of all stripes (e.g., see Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity [T&T Clark, 2012]). Even more, the specific criterion of dissimilarity (which fuels much of Ehrman's reconstruction) has been vigorously debated and, in the minds of many, is fundamentally flawed. On top of all of this, even scholars who agree on the criteria reach radically different conclusions about how those criteria should be applied. Given that Ehrman has spent much of his academic career lamenting reconstructions of early Christianity which portray it as neat and tidy, and given that he is quick to point out that early Christianity was, in reality, full of debate and disagreement, it is ironic that he seems so unwilling to point out those same challenges within his own discipline. The truth of the matter is that reconstructions of the historical Jesus do not give us some clear and simple division of sayings where the human Jesus is on one side and the divine Jesus is on the other. It is much more complex than this, and Ehrman owes it to the reader to make that plain. 

Take as an example Ehrman's dismissal of the sayings where Jesus identifies himself as the Son of Man. This move is not at all consistent with much of modern scholarship, as can be seen by the collection of essays in the recent volume, Who Is This Son of Man? (eds. Larry Hurtado and Paul Owen; T&T Clark, 2011). If Jesus did see himself as the Son of Man, and the evidence suggests that he did, then there are numerous places in the Synoptics where Jesus sees himself in a divine role. For instance, in Matt 26:63-65 (cf. Mark 14:62/Luke 22:67-71) Jesus not only identifies himself as the Son of God, but then also identifies himself as the Son of Man coming to judge the world on the clouds of heaven--an identity that the chief priests regard as worthy of the charge of blasphemy. So, even if one were to discount the Gospel of John, there is ample evidence elsewhere for Jesus' divine self-understanding. 
But, there is another problematic aspect to Ehrman's methodology. Slipped into the discussion (rather subtly) is the expectation that if Jesus really thought he was God he would go around talking about it all the time. Indeed, this is the very point of Ehrman's argument when comparing John and the Synoptics: "If Jesus really went around calling himself God [in John], wouldn't the other Gospels at least mention the fact?" (p.87,  emphasis mine). There are several problems with the way Ehrman frames the question. For one, Jesus doesn't always go around calling himself God even in John's Gospel. There are only a handful of times where Jesus explicitly claims to be God in John--not nearly as out of sync with the Synoptics as Ehrman would claim. Beyond this, Ehrman's statement presents an expectation that if Jesus were God he would always say it directly, something like, "Good to meet you, I am God."  But could Jesus not present himself as the God of Israel in other ways? For instance, is it not relevant that Jesus presents himself as the judge of the world, who will sit on God's glorious throne, who reigns over the angels, and is the key to people's eternal destinies in heaven or hell (Matt 25:31-46)? Is it not relevant that Jesus forgives sins, a prerogative that the scribes regard as solely belonging to God and thus worthy of the charge of blasphemy (Mark 2:5-6)? Is it not relevant that Jesus claims to have such a special relationship with the Father that "all things have been handed over to me" and that a person cannot know the Father unless "the Son chooses to reveal Him" (Matt 11:27)? And more examples could be given.  

We can agree that John's Gospel makes such claims to divinity even more direct--as the last Gospel it is not surprising that it offers a more sustained theological reflection on the person of Jesus. But, we should not confuse the directness of a claim with the existence of a claim. The historical evidence suggests the Synoptic Jesus and the Johannine Jesus both claimed to be the God of Israel. 

The Christology of the New Testament Authors

The final tenet of Ehrman's case that we will consider here is the notion that the New Testament authors present a disparate cacophony of Christological viewpoints. In general, Ehrman argues there were two main categories of Christology, what he calls "exaltation" Christology where Jesus was an ordinary man who was later raised to a divine status, and an "incarnation" Christology where Jesus is a pre-existent divine being who later becomes a man. And within each of these broader categories, there are various sub-categories. For instance, under the "exaltation" heading, some Christians thought Jesus was made God at his resurrection (Rom 1:3-4; Acts 2:36), others thought it was at his baptism (Mark 1:11), and still others thought it was at his birth (Matt 1:18; Luke 1:35). Regardless, Ehrman claims to be able to spot the subtleties of all these distinct views within the pages of the New Testament. 

Needless to say, there is not space here to go through these passages one by one and address Ehrman's interpretation of them. Instead, we shall spend our time addressing a substantial methodological problem that crops up time and time again in his reasoning. Here is the key issue: When Ehrman examines the Christological view of any given author, how does he know it actually contradicts another Christological view rather than just being a limited perspective on the whole? For instance, Ehrman claims that Mark has a different Christology than Luke--the former only thinks Jesus was God at his baptism and the latter believes Jesus was God at his birth.  How does Ehrman know this? It is simple: because Mark doesn't mention the virgin birth.  Ehrman states, 
[Jesus] was already adopted to be God's Son at the very outset of his ministry, when John the Baptist baptized him. This appears to be the view of the Gospel of Mark, in which there is no word of Jesus's pre-existence or of his birth to a virgin. Surely if this author believed in either view, he would have mentioned it (p.238).
Here is where we see a fundamental fallacy in Ehrman's line of reasoning, namely the repeated use of the argument from silence. He assumes that if a New Testament author doesn't mention something then they must not believe it. But, there is a reason why arguments from silence are regarded as fallacious. We simply do not know why an author included some things and not others; and it is very dangerous to suppose that we do. Think, for example, of Paul's discussion of Jesus instituting the Lord's Supper in 1 Cor 11:23-26--a topic he never discusses anywhere else. Now imagine for a moment that (for some reason) we didn't have 1 Corinthians. We might conclude that Paul didn't know about Jesus instituting the Lord's Supper; indeed we might even conclude that Paul didn't believe in the institution of the Lord's Supper. And we would be flat out wrong. 

Likewise, to suppose that Mark's omission of the virgin birth means he doesn't believe in the virgin birth (and thus must not share Matthew and Luke's Christology) is an unsustainable line of reasoning. After all, Mark doesn't even include a birth account! Should we conclude from that fact that he didn't believe Jesus was born at all? Indeed, Mark omits many other stories that the other Gospels include; shall we conclude that he did not know of any of them? Historical records are inevitably limited in scope; an author cannot say everything. Thus, we cannot draw hard and fast conclusions about things an author did not include. 

Unfortunately, Ehrman does not use the argument from silence only once.  He uses it many times.  Let me give some examples:

1. Ehrman says, "You will notice that in the preliterary traditions I have discussed there is no talk about Jesus being born of a virgin. He is a human figure, possibly a messiah" (p.230).  Again, he makes the same mistake here as when discussing Mark. He assumes the absence of the virgin birth means these traditions must have rejected it and regarded Jesus as only human. 
2. Ehrman says, "I should stress that these virginal conception narratives of Matthew and Luke are by no stretch of the imagination embracing the view that later became the orthodox teaching of Christianity. According to this later view, Christ was a pre-existent divine being who 'became incarnate through the Virgin Mary.' But not according to Matthew and Luke. If you read their accounts closely, you will see that they have nothing to do with the idea that Christ existed before he was conceived. In these two Gospels, Jesus comes into existence at the moment of his conception. He did not exist before" (p.243). Notice that Ehrman again relies on the argument from silence. He concludes Matthew and Luke do not believe in the pre-existence of Jesus ("He did not exist before") merely because they do not mention it. But, this is not a viable argument.  There is nothing in Matthew and Luke that remotely suggests they reject Jesus' pre-existence.  Indeed, a virgin birth is quite consistent with it. 

3. Ehrman says, "And in this Gospel [John] Jesus talks about existing in a glorious state with God the Father before he became human (17:5). That's what many of my students believe. But as they study the New Testament more, they come to see that such self-claims are not made by Jesus in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. So who is right?" (p.248). Incredibly, Ehrman makes the same type of argument again. He uses the silence of the Synoptics as grounds for declaring we must choose which one is right, John or the Synoptics (implying they both cannot be right). But, just because the Synoptics don't mention Jesus' pre-existent glorious state doesn't mean they reject it. 

4. Ehrman says, "If Jesus really were equal with God from 'the beginning,' before he came to earth, and he knew it, then surely the Synoptic Gospels would have mentioned this at some point... But, no, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke he does not talk about himself in this way" (p.270).  Here, Ehrman presumes to know something that no one else seems to know, namely, that if the Synoptic authors believed in pre-existence, then they "would have mentioned it at some point."  Thus, their lack of mentioning it constitutes evidence that they did not believe it. But, how does Ehrman know what ancient authors "surely" would or would not do? How does he know why they include some things and not others?

All these examples demonstrate that there is concerted effort by Ehrman to find (and sometimes even create) contradictions in the Christology of the New Testament, even if the evidence does not necessitate a contradiction. This is particularly evident in Ehrman's analysis of the ancient "hymn" in Philippians 2. There he notices that Paul (or those who originally formed this hymn) "combined an incarnation view with an exaltation view" (p.266). At first glance, one might think this is tremendous evidence that the exaltation and incarnation categories are not mutually exclusive after all, but that each of them simply offer a perspective on the whole--some Christians prefer to emphasize the former, and others the latter. This seems particularly plausible given that both views appear in the same passage by the same author (whether Paul or the author of the earlier tradition). But, incredibly, Ehrman will have none of this. Instead, he understands the combination of both views as evidence of a "transitional Christology" (p.266). In other words, he views it as just an "in between" stage in his developmental Christology where two (supposedly mutually exclusive) Christological views just happened to be found in the same passage. 

Also missing from Ehrman's analysis of the Christology of the Synoptic gospels is any discussion of the fact that Jesus is worshipped by the disciples in both Matt 28:17 and Luke 24:52. Indeed, neither of these passages is even mentioned by Ehrman (at least according to the index). Of course, he might suggest that this worship only shows that Matthew and Luke believed Jesus was exalted to (semi-) divinity, not that he was pre-existent. But, what evidence is there that monotheistic, first-century Jews would worship any being that was not the one God of Israel? In other words, does not their worship of Jesus, as Jews, reasonably imply that they believed he was the one true God who, of course, had always existed? Ehrman might reply that these disciples were willing to embrace other figures as semi-divine, like angels. But, this takes us back to the issue we discussed above, namely whether it is reasonable to think Jews would so quickly offer worship to angelic beings, especially when (a) such practices are widely condemned; (b) the Synoptic Gospels themselves clearly distinguish Jesus from the angels (indeed the angels announce his birth!); and (c) the Synoptic Gospels declare Jesus' authority over the angels.  

In the end, it is difficult to know what to think of Ehrman's new volume. While it certainly provides a helpful introduction to some of the key issues in early Christology, it is hampered by a problematic methodology, a lopsided treatment of some of the historical evidences, and a disposition bent on finding contradictions and problems (that may not actually be there). 

It would have been much more refreshing if Ehrman could have simply argued that, yes, the earliest Christians believed, from a very early time, Jesus was the God of Israel (who, by definition, is pre-existent), and they believed this because Jesus presented himself as the God of Israel, but the earliest Christians (and Jesus) were simply wrong. But, instead, Ehrman has taken a different path. Rather than arguing they were simply wrong, he has tried to argue that neither Jesus nor the early Christians really believed this in the first place (at least at the beginning). Of course, historically speaking, the latter argument is much more difficult to sustain than the former. But, at the same time it is also more attractive. It is easier to reject the claims of institutional Christianity than it is to reject the claims of Jesus himself.   

Michael J. Kruger is President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC.

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