|Bart D. Ehrman. How God Became Jesus.|
HarperOne, 2014. 416 pages. Hardcover. Kindle.
In his latest book, How Jesus Became God, Ehrman turns to the topic of Jesus’s divinity. He seeks to expose the “real” story of how a crucified peasant from Galilee came to be thought of as the one true God. According to Ehrman and scholars like him, Jesus did not claim to be God nor did his followers believe him to be such during his lifetime. So how, from a historical perspective, did the Jesus’ followers come to see him as divine?
One of Ehrman’s driving questions in this study is what Christians meant by saying “Jesus is God.” When we ask whether the early Christians thought of Jesus as God, the real question we need to ask is in what sense Christians thought of Jesus as God (44). Accordingly, his first two chapters address how the ancient world conceived of divinity, positing that both the pagans and the Jews had a scale or pyramid of divinity in which gods temporarily became human, humans were exalted to gods, and human-god unions produced demigods. He also asserted without much supporting argument that Judaism was henotheistic (believed in the existence of more than one god, but only one should be worshipped). The point Ehrman is endeavoring to make in the first two chapters is that the early Christian claim of Jesus being God is not what we think of the claim–they could have just meant that Jesus is a lesser divinity such as an exalted angel.
Chapter 3 introduces problems and methods in historical Jesus studies, exploring the question of how Jesus understood and described himself. Ehrman’s conclusion, unsurprisingly, is that Jesus did not talk about himself as a divine being. The short answer to how Jesus came to be considered God is that it had everything to do with the belief among his followers that he had been raised from the dead. In chapters 4 and 5, Ehrman deals with what we can and cannot know about the resurrection of Jesus. According to Ehrman, both the burial and empty tomb accounts are historically unlikely; in other words, that Jesus was not actually buried. No burial means no empty tomb, and no empty tomb means no argument for the resurrection. In terms of what we can know about the resurrection, Ehrman says that there can be no doubt that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he was raised from the dead. Here he notes that there was not universal agreement among the first Christians as to what exactly “raised from the dead meant.” Ehrman summarizes three views evidenced from early church writings–the raising of a spiritual body, the raising of the spirit, and the raising of the mortal body. Then he provides naturalistic explanations for the disciples’ visionary experiences of seeing the resurrected Christ.
The remainder of the book deals with christological developments following the resurrection. Chapter 6 addresses the earliest views of Christ, arguing that it was an exaltation/adoptionist Christology. This christological view sees Jesus as mere human being (not divine in any sense) who did not preexist, but at some point was “adopted” by God to a divine status, exalted to a position of honor, power, and authority at God’s right hand. Chapter 7 addresses incarnation Christology–the view that Jesus was a heavenly being who condescended to temporarilyb take on human form. Ehrman’s assertion is that the earliest Christology was exaltational, but that it quickly morphed into incarnational. He argues that in Galatians 4:14 Paul calls Christ angel, and that an angelomorphic Christology causes virtually everything else about Christ in the Pauline epistles to make sense. The last two chapters trace the development of Christology on its way to Nicene orthodoxy, addressing some of the Christological heresies along the way. An epilogue on the impact of Nicene Christology on the pagan world, the Jewish world, and the Christian world.
Even though I disagree with the central theses of this book, I did find it at times to be an enjoyable read. Ehrman gets much right, but unfortunately he is devastatingly wrong at many significant points. It’s not possible to address specific disagreements in this limited space, nor is it necessary since a team of five international scholars have written a response that I will be review tomorrow in this same space. In terms of the big picture, my big qualm with this book is that Ehrman paints himself as an objective historian but he is clearly biased by his presuppositions. He often makes assertions without backing them up. He also paints a monolithic picture of credible scholarship, as if all credible scholars agree with him; but he cites himself and his friends often, and doesn’t engage the reputable scholars and relevant historical/archaeological evidence that disagrees with him.
I would not recommend this book to most lay Christians; as will be shown tomorrow, the response book How God Became Jesus adequately summarizes Ehrman’s main arguments and provides historically responsible rejoinders. For most, Ehrman’s book would be confusing and it would be difficult to sift the wheat from the chaff, the truths from the inaccuracies. For those with background, knowledge, and interest in studying early Christology, there is value in reading Ehrman’s latest book. But if you read Ehrman’s book, definitely read Bird et al.’s response and read some Larry Hurtado/Richard Bauckham/Martin Hengel. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s review of the response book.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Jennifer Guo is a bean counter by day and a book eater by night. She is passionate about the gospel and loves biblical and theological studies. She also loves the arts and is part of a performing arts ministry that uses a variety of mediums to communicate the gospel, God’s heart, and His design for sexuality, relationships, and marriage. Jennifer also loves running and cooking (and not because running allows her to eat more). You can follow her @JenniferGuo or read more reviews at her blog Jennifer Guo.