In this book Bart Ehrman attempts to provide the theological road-map whereby Jesus started out as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet and ended up having the high Christology of the historic Nicaea Creed (solidified by the Council of Constantinople in 381). As a historian he does not believe Jesus was God in any sense, or that he arose from the dead. He's merely being a historian telling us what he thinks is more probable than not.
In Ehrman's previous works he has argued that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who predicted the end of the known world and the coming of the Son of Man in his generation who would subsequently rule over the re-created world. Most scholars seem to agree with Ehrman, but others disagree with this view of Jesus, most notably Geza Vermes, Burton Mack, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Stephen Patterson, Bruce Chilton, John P. Meier, Gerd Thiessen, Elisabeth Fiorenza, S. G. F. Brandon, Morton Smith, Reza Aslan, along with mythicist scholars Richard Carrier and Robert M. Price. Some of these different views of Jesus would require a different road-map to get to the high Christology of the fourth century, especially the mythicist view. So from the very beginning as we travel this map there are these obstacles.
Passing over those disagreements though, Ehrman's map seems to me to be a fairly standard mainline one which I've read in other works. Michael Coogan, John Collins and Paula Fredriksen probably agree with Ehrman since they wrote blurbs for it. Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar, in the last chapter of his book "Honest to Jesus," says some of the same things.
Regardless, I'm very glad Ehrman wrote it. It's written so that the general populace can understand it. He has a way of communicating these ideas very well. Included are personal stories that may help readers know more about him as he considered this road-map in the first place. Several times he tells the reader he didn't at first agree with this or that idea, only to embrace it later. He describes himself as an "agnostic" now (p. 354).
In this brief review I've decided to tell readers a bit about how he argues so people can decide for themselves whether to buy it or not. My 5 star recommendation is based on his knowledge, communication skills and the fact that his views should be dealt with. In other words, this book shouldn't be ignored. It will be discussed in the years to come. Already there is one book length response by conservative Christians.
In the first chapter Ehrman tells us there were several divine humans believed to exist in ancient Greece and Rome. There was Apollonius, whom he goes in some depth about since his life parallels the life of Jesus. Then he tells us of gods who became human, like Philemon and Baucis (cf. Acts 14:11). There are divine beings believed to be born of both a god and a mortal, like Alexander the Great and Hercules. There are even humans believed to be divine, like Romulus, Quirinus, Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus.
Ehrman shows us there were lots of gods, and that according to the beliefs in those early first century days "they were graded levels of divinity" (p. 39). This was a new thought to him, as it is to me. One can construct this as a divine pyramid with one great god at the top tier (according to some beliefs) and several tiers below, all of which were inhabited by divine beings. Just below the top tier were the great gods within each pantheon, then below that tier many other local gods and goddesses. At a still lower level were the demonic beings. On the lowest level were believed to be divine humans (perhaps demigods if you will).
In the second chapter Ehrman shows there were possibly divine humans in ancient Judaism. The first commandment, after all, doesn't deny other gods existed, only that the Israelites were to worship Yahweh. There were the Nephilim of Genesis 6, offspring of the sons of god who had sex with the daughters of men. The "Angel of the Lord" was believed to be a divine human being, as were kings, (Psalm 82) and angels ("the Watchers"). There was Daniel's "son of Man," and divine hypostases (an attribute of God that takes on its own essence) like Wisdom itself. Ehrman argues that given these traditions it wouldn't be that much of a stretch to think of Jesus in the same terms as divine. We see it especially in the Gospel of John who described the pre-incarnate Jesus as the "Word" that became flesh (i.e., Logos).
In chapter three Ehrman argues that Jesus thought of himself to be the Messiah, but he did not claim to be God. Ehrman thinks when Judas betrayed Jesus he also told the authorities Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah. After all, that was what he was accused of, claiming to be the king of the Jews, and what he had to deny at his trials if he wanted to escape death on the cross. After Jesus died we find his Jewish disciples proclaiming he was the Messiah, even though "no Jew before Christianity" thought of a dying Messiah. Says Ehrman, "The only plausible explanation is that they called Jesus this after his death because they were calling him this before his death."
In chapter four Ehrman provides good strong reasons why Jesus did not rise from the dead using the tools of the historian, which are the only reliable tools we have at our disposal. If those tools cannot do the job then it cannot be done at all (faith has no method, correct?). In chapter five Ehrman tells us what historians can know. They can know that some of Jesus' followers believed he arose from the dead due to visions of him after his crucifixion, and that "this belief led them to reevaluate who Jesus was, so that the Jewish apocalyptic preacher from rural Galilee came to be considered, in some sense, God." (p. 174). His disciples concluded that Jesus was exalted to heaven. God had taken him into the heavenly realm "to a position of virtually unheard-of status and authority." (p. 205). "Jesus now had been exalted to heaven and is the heavenly messiah to come to earth. In an even more real sense, he was God. Not God almighty, of course, but he was a heavenly being, a superhuman, a divine king, who would rule the nations" (p. 208).
Ehrman calls this "exaltation Christology" and it took hold early on in the minds of his disciples. "It was because of his exalted status that Jesus was deemed worthy of worship" (p. 235). When Mark, the first Gospel was written, we read that Jesus was God's Son at his baptism. Later gospels kept placing his divinity further back in time. Jesus was believed to be divine at birth in Luke. The gospel of John, written last, says the Logos that became flesh was always divine. The Logos became incarnate in Jesus. Paul's conception of Jesus shares that of the gospel of John whereby we see an "incarnational Christology." It surely developed from exaltation Christology quicker in the mind of Paul than others, but that's how it developed for them all, Ehrman seems to say.
By the time of the fourth century "many of the great thinkers of the Roman world had come to believe that a huge chasm separated the divine and human realms. God was 'up there' and was the Almighty. He alone was God." (p. 43) Gone was the pyramid of gods. So Ehrman argues, "One of the mistakes that people make when thinking about the question of Jesus as God involves taking the view that eventually was widely held by the fourth Christian century and assuming that this was in place during the early days of the Christian movement." "Jesus became God in that major fourth-century sense. But he had been seen as God before that, by people who did not have this fourth-century understanding of the relationship of the human and divine realms" (pp. 43-44).
While there were plenty of controversies in the first few centuries over the precise nature of this Christology and how Jesus could be God that were not settled quickly, even at Nicaea, and continue today, Ehrman goes on to show the important role of Constantine in this debate by favoring Christianity over all other religions, especially Judaism, and even the council of Nicaea against other Christianities.
on April 2, 2014
This work is beyond fantastic!
Not only does Bart deliver a tight and well-reasoned argument for when, how, and why Jesus came to be thought of as divine by his earliest followers, he does so in a way that is deeply sympathetic to Christianity and believers alike. While Bart candidly discloses his own disbelief in the divinity of Jesus and the general Christian position, he constantly engages the reader/listener (Audible) with his own ongoing development since his early days as a fundamentalist believer, often with honest and incisive self-reflections as to how he continues to refine his position with different approaches to the evidence.
And yet—even given this apparently unbridgeable chasm between Bart and the Christian faithful—his love for the subject, period, and texts shines through without a doubt. I often read comments directed at Bart by Christian believers to the effect of, "Why do you spend so much time studying Christianity and teaching about it if you *hate* it so much?" Or, "If you're an agnostic, then why do you waste your time debating about Jesus?"
While these kind of questions and comments betray a total lack of intellectual rigor, they all rest on a fundamental misconception: that you're unable to love a subject and yet disagree with central tenets of that subject as it is commonly understood. It's clear that Bart unabashedly loves the intricacies of how and why Christianity came to dominate the West, and his labor in the area has helped to illuminate much of this material for us, his popular audience.
And here's the real genius of this book: this book presents the culmination and epitome of Bart's scholarly career in the context of THE CENTRAL QUESTION of the Western world. The fact that Jesus came to be thought of as God (albeit in a variety of ways) is the linchpin for the entire development of the Western world, especially since the 4th century CE. Bart's previous works may focus on one or another topic within Christian history—even tackling the actual existence of the Historical Jesus—but How Jesus Became God delivers a full, contextual, scholarly understanding of how this historical personality came to dominate the Western imagination as the God of the universe, leading to the Western world as we know it.
I give this book 5 stars, 2 thumbs up, and a full endorsement. As someone who holds degrees is History, Philosophy, and Biblical Studies, I can honestly say that Bart's approach is tightly reasoned, carefully argued, and most of all it is FUN READING, a real page-turner. Everyone interested in Christianity and Christian history should plan to read this book. It's certain to spur commotion, disagreements, and debates, but—most importantly!—it'll get people thinking about modern scholarship and its implications for historical positions of faith.
Finally, BELIEVERS SHOULD NOT BE AFRAID OF THIS BOOK!
While Bart personally disagrees with the theological claims of Christianity, he's adamant that he's not arguing his thesis as a theologian but as a historian. And one thing is clear: Jesus *becoming* God in the minds of his followers was a historical development, just as history can show us groups of early Christians who never came to affirm this position.
AND modern believers can still retain their theological beliefs about the nature of Jesus (whatever those beliefs may be)! But understanding how those beliefs came to be and change through the early centuries of Christianity is important for illuminating those theological beliefs. Anyone who believes that Jesus is God—ancient or modern—*came* to believe that at some point through some kind of historical development. Bart's analysis argues how the first believers came to believe this, why they did so, and in what (multiple) senses they considered it to be true.
Well done! :o)
on April 22, 2014
I'm thankful we have Ehrman. I don't know of any bible scholar who is more humble, polite and patient in putting forth his views, who takes more time and patience than Ehrman to offer a perspective on a question. This book is a joy to read. I'm finding one brilliant insight after another. ------ Ehrman does a marvelous job of bridging the gap between the popular reader (people like me who study on their own) and the latest thinking of the finest biblical scholars (skeptics and believers) in the academic world --- as he offers his own informed and documented findings and opinions. Just a wonderful book. ----- Years ago I read a great deal of skeptical biblical scholarship that disappointed and offended me. Some of it came across as pompous, some of it snide, much of it unsound, and a lot of it came across as fanciful and utterly uncontrolled, filled with alternative "theories" about Jesus, the gospels, the origins of Christianity, etc. It really was some of the poorest scholarship I'd ever read in any field. ----- But Ehrman's scholarship simply doesn't fall into that category. He does not run rampant with wild speculation. He talks about the text, the text, always the text and what the text is telling us, and what kind of problems and questions we face when -- say-- the text of Paul offers one point of view on the nature of Jesus and the text of the Fourth Gospel offers another. But I'm just scratching the surface here with this example. I'm trying to describe why I trust Ehrman on this topic, and why I look forward to his books, and why my personal experience as a reader with this book is so pleasurable. Ehrman is an honest scholar, an ethical and careful scholar, and I recommend this book highly to everyone. It has much to offer the believer and the skeptic, much to offer anyone who is obsessed with the mysteries surrounding Jesus Christ as I am. It's a terrific book!
“I remember when this whole thing began. No talk of God then, we called you a man.”
--Judas, in “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1970)
According to Professor Ehrman, none of the disciples, nor Jesus himself, believed during His lifetime that He was God.
“King of the Jews,” yes. As an apocalyptic rabbi, He preached that the coming of the Son of Man was imminent, that evil and corruption
would be abolished, and a new Kingdom of Israel established. The twelve disciples would be rulers over the twelve tribes. He, as their lord and master, would be their king on earth, the human successor of David.
It was this claim that Judas betrayed to the authorities, and for this insurrectionist incitement that Pilate crucified him.
His followers made him God only upon his death and resurrection. Crucifixion nullified his ambition to be the earthly messiah foretold by the Hebrew Bible, so God raised him up and made him a different kind of messiah—ruler over the Kingdom of Heaven. That, at least, was the view of his earliest followers.
But wait. The central Christian doctrine is found in the Nicene Creed of 325 AD, which holds that Jesus was “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, … of one Being with the Father” who was “made incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”
Reconciling the early with the later positions is Professor’s Ehrman’s objective in this book. He asks, not the theological question, “How did God become a man?” but the historical question, “How did a man become God?” Otherwise stated, What happened between Jesus’s death in 30 AD and the advent of the last Gospel (John) in about 95 AD?
If He was a mere human until resurrection, as His disciples believed, what about the virgin birth, the water into wine, the healing of the sick, the loaves and the fishes, the raising of the dead, all of which occurred before or during His lifetime, as reported in the Gospels?
Well, the Gospels were not actually written by identifiable men named Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. They were written by anonymous scribes between 35 and 65 years after Jesus’s death, and comprised oral traditions passed from mouth to mouth for decades before being written down.
Those oral traditions originated with the eleven surviving disciples, who were lower-class, uneducated, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking peasants. The New Testament was written by refined, educated Greek-speakers.
The earlier traditions can be extracted from the New Testament writings, particularly from Paul and Acts, as what Ehrman calls “pre-literary hymns and creeds” embedded within them, and identified by their distinctive style and vocabulary. In none of these does Jesus or any disciple claim that he was God. They seem uniformly to assert that Jesus became God on his resurrection. So the Nicene view consists of elaborations on the earliest traditions.
The ancient Middle East was awash with God-men myths, from Romlulus to Hercules to Alexander the Great to Ceasar to Appolonius. It was natural for Jesus’s later followers to embellish his story with the tale of a maiden impregnated by God and delivering a divine human. It was a short step from that to the belief that he was ALWAYS God. The virgin birth was simply the mechanism by which he became, temporarily, God incarnate.
This evolution can be traced in the gospels themselves. Mark seems to assume that Jesus became divine at his baptism; Matthew and Luke indicate that he was the divine at birth; John—the latest of the Gospels, dating from about 95 AD—presents him as God eternal. That is the Nicene position.
Ehrman emphasizes that this evolution was not smooth and linear. There were widely varying views of Jesus bouncing around throughout those 50 years. For example, some Christians explained the miracles by treating Him as a human agent of God, a sort of angel who had supernatural powers. And so on.
What is the relevance of this book today? It depends on whether you evaluate it from a historical or theological point of view.
A historian can only say that it is an admirable work of historical research and deduction, making the best that can be made of a scanty record, whether one agrees with his historical conclusions or not.
The liberal Christian will say that nothing in it detracts from the essential truth of Jesus’s divinity or the value of his teachings. The fundamentalist Christian, maintaining that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, will be mightily flummoxed. The atheist/agnostic will embrace it as showing what frail history the New Testament is.
on March 28, 2014
Bart Ehrman’s book _How Jesus Became God_ is the most recent example of a scholarly tradition of books offering to explain how Christianity turned a simple itinerant Jewish teacher into the Second Person of the Trinity. Already the skeptics are giving the book obviously partisan five-star reviews. Rather than engage in book review “star wars” by giving the book only one star I am giving it three stars, even though as a biblical scholar of an evangelical Christian point of view I strongly disagree with the thesis of the book.
Ehrman’s thesis is that Jesus was not viewed, by himself or his disciples, as in any sense divine during his lifetime, but that belief in his divinity arose almost immediately after his disciples had visions of Jesus that they interpreted as meaning that God had raised him bodily from the dead. According to Ehrman, the earliest Christians thought Jesus had been exalted by God to a divine status at his resurrection, but this belief quickly morphed, resulting in the idea that Jesus was God incarnate. The premise of his argument is that the category of divinity was an elastic one in the ancient world, even to some extent in Jewish thought, and so first-century Christians were able to entertain quite different conceptions of what it meant to regard Jesus as divine or even as “God” (a point Ehrman elaborates in two chapters, 11-84).
Having laid the foundation, Ehrman builds the house of his theory of Christian origins. Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who mistakenly thought the end of the age was imminent and who hoped he would become the Messiah (a merely earthly king) in the impending age to come (86-127). Instead, he was executed by crucifixion and his body was probably not even given a decent burial, contrary to the Gospels (133-65). However, a few of Jesus’ disciples who had fled to Galilee had some visions of Jesus, perhaps of the type people sometimes have when they are bereaved (174-206). The disciples interpreted these visions almost immediately as meaning that Jesus had risen from the dead to an exalted, divine status in heaven as God’s adopted “son” next to God himself. Ehrman finds this earliest “exaltation Christology,” dating from the early 30s, in preliterary creedal statements imbedded in Paul (Rom. 1:3-4) and Acts (2:36; 5:31; 13:32-33), even though he recognizes that neither Paul nor Luke held to this view (216-35).
Ehrman thinks this exaltation Christology developed with extreme rapidity into what is the more recognizable view of Christ. By the 40s or at the latest the 50s, some Christians thought Jesus had become God’s Son at his baptism or at his birth, while others, such as Paul, thought Jesus was God’s Son even before his human life, serving as God’s chief angel (240-69). This angelic incarnation Christology was developed before the end of the century into the idea of Jesus as God incarnate, seen especially in John and Colossians, which Ehrman denies Paul wrote (269-80). Christian leaders of the second and third centuries hardened this incarnation Christology into a standard of orthodoxy, rejecting Christologies of their day akin to those of the earliest Christians attested in various parts of the New Testament. This process of defining orthodoxy and condemning heresy eventually led to the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity and its codification in the creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries (284-352).
As I see it, Ehrman gets a surprising number of things right. Jesus was a real historical person. The New Testament Gospels are our best source of information about that person. Jesus was crucified at the order of Pontius Pilate and died on the cross. Some of Jesus’ original followers sincerely believed not long afterward that they saw Jesus alive from the dead. Already, we’ve eliminated about 90 percent of the nonsense we so often hear from skeptics about Jesus, and we’re not done yet. Ehrman agrees that the earliest Christians regarded Jesus as in some sense divine and that within about twenty years, even before Paul, at least some Jewish Christians believed that Jesus was a preexistent divine being. (Skeptics usually try to blame this idea on Paul.) The belief that Jesus existed before creation as God (and yet not God the Father) arose even before the Gospel of John. One could hardly wish for more agreements and even concessions from the world’s most influential agnostic biblical scholar.
Having given credit where credit is due, I must move on to identify what I think are some of the weakest links in Ehrman’s argument. For sake of brevity I limit the list to five.
1. Ehrman’s foundational premise of the fluidity of ancient concepts of the divine is certainly a major problem. Ehrman rightly finds such fluidity in Greco-Roman thought, but what he never addresses even once is the consistent, pervasive opposition to Greco-Roman notions of the divine throughout the New Testament—even when he touches on obviously relevant passages. For example, Ehrman discusses the tale of Jupiter and Mercury (or Zeus and Hermes) visiting Phrygia (19-22), commenting on the incident reported in Acts when Barnabas and Paul preached in Phrygia and were mistaken for Zeus and Hermes (Acts 14:8-18). But Ehrman glosses over Paul’s response to the Phrygians, in which he summoned them to turn from their idolatrous beliefs to accept the God of Jewish monotheism (Acts 14:15-17). Generalizations about “divine humans” in antiquity are simply irrelevant to understanding the origins of a monotheistic Jewish movement that regarded its crucified human founder as God.
Ehrman presents three models of the divine human in Greco-Roman culture: “gods who temporarily become human” (19-22), “divine beings born of a god and a mortal” (22-24), and “a human who becomes divine” (25-38). He admits that the case of Jesus does not fit any of these: “I don’t know of any other cases in ancient Greek or Roman thought of this kind of ‘god-man,’ where an already existing divine being is said to be born of a mortal woman” (18). He could have added to that sentence, “or Jewish thought.” This is the Achilles’ heel of Ehrman’s whole account of Christian origins. By his own admission, the Christian view of Jesus—a view he admits emerged within twenty years of Jesus’ crucifixion—was literally unprecedented.
2. Ehrman’s main thesis on its face appears completely lacking in credibility. According to Ehrman, whereas Jesus did not view himself as anything more than a man and did not expect to become anything more than a glorious earthly king, within a few weeks or months of Jesus’ death his original followers were sincerely proclaiming that Jesus was a divine figure ruling over all creation at God’s right hand in heaven. Apparently Jesus’ original disciples, who had walked all over Galilee and Judea with him and listened to him teach for hours on end, simply discounted Jesus’ own self-image as nothing more than the future human Messiah.
3. To make his theory work, Ehrman has abandoned his earlier view that the burial of Jesus in a tomb just outside Jerusalem was historically likely. He now accepts something like John Dominic Crossan’s view that Jesus received no decent burial at all. In a way, denying the tomb is a smart move on Ehrman’s part. As long as he acknowledged both the tomb and the appearances, he remained vulnerable to the vise grip of the historical argument for the Resurrection. So Ehrman, who knows he cannot deny that at least some of the disciples had experiences in which they thought they saw Jesus alive from the dead, has gone the more sensible skeptical route and questioned the burial in the tomb. But this move, while sensible enough from his agnostic perspective, lands him in evidential hot water, because the evidence that the Gospels are telling the truth about the empty tomb is very good. Craig Evans, in his chapter in the book _How God Became Jesus_ that responds to Ehrman’s book, does an excellent job of critiquing Ehrman on this point.
4. Ehrman’s attempts to explain the appearances of Jesus naturalistically ignore entirely the testimony of the apostle Paul that Jesus had appeared to him when Paul was still a persecutor of Christians. Ehrman quietly omits any mention of Paul’s experience throughout his treatment of the resurrection appearances in the fifth chapter of his book. Then, having finished with the subject of Jesus’ resurrection, at the beginning of chapter 6 Ehrman says only that Paul, after converting to faith in Jesus, “later claimed that this was because he had had a vision of Jesus alive, long after his death” (214, emphasis added). That is all he says—and it is difficult even to take his statement seriously. That Paul sincerely thought he had a vision of the risen Christ is really beyond debate. That fact is a stubborn datum that Ehrman failed to incorporate into his account of the origins of the Christian movement.
5. Ehrman labors to defend the premise that the apostle Paul thought Jesus was the chief angel come in the flesh. He has one proof text for this claim—Galatians 4:14, where Paul reminds the Galatians that when he visited them they welcomed him “as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” Ehrman takes this statement to mean that Jesus is an (or the) angel of God. However, it is far more likely that Paul’s language is progressive or ascending: the Galatians treated him as if he were an angel of God, and even as if he were Christ Jesus himself (for similar constructions in Greek, see Psalm 34:14 LXX; 84:14 LXX; Song of Sol. 1:5; Isa. 53:2; Ezek. 19:10). Earlier in the same passage, Galatians 4:4-6 shows that Paul thought of the Son and the Spirit as two divine persons sent by God the Father—one of numerous proto-Trinitarian passages in Paul.
Ehrman has done the church a service by reminding us that the issues of the resurrection of Christ and the deity of Christ are inextricably linked. He has also thrown down a challenge to Christian scholars to make the case for both of these truths in a fresh way that engages the evidence within a broader range of religious studies. His own theory, however, suffers from some various serious—one might say grave—flaws. I have offered a more detailed review of his book on the Parchment and Pen blog.
on March 12, 2015
I would like to express my thanks to HarperOne for supplying me with a review copy of this book.
As a fan of Bart D. Ehrman’s work, by the title alone, I knew I was going to find this interesting. In How Jesus Became God, Ehrman attempts to make sense of the theological and Christological trajectory in which Jesus of Nazareth was originally understood to be a Jewish apocalyptic prophet but by the dawn of the 4th century was understood to be “the Son of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten -not made- being of one substance with God the Father.” Scholars have debated this development time and time again, some viewing that Jesus only became understood to be a divine being much later in Christian tradition. However, Ehrman argues that belief about Jesus having in some sort of divine relationship with God began very early, extremely early in fact, even before the time of the Apostle Paul. According to Ehrman, even the earliest Christians regarded Jesus as some sort of divine being after the experience of his resurrection.
In the first chapter, “Divine Humans in Ancient Greece and Rome,” (pgs. 11-46) Ehrman begins by establishing some of the core ideas about divinity within the ancient Greco-Roman world. He explains that while our modern ideas about the divine and human realms are usually held separate from one another, within the ancient world, the relationship between the divine and human was understood to be far more related and fluid, and this can be seen in the belief about divine-human beings. For example, there were humans who were born of a union between a god and a mortal (eg. Hercules and Alexander the Great), there were humans who became divine due to their significant and meaningful lives (eg. Romulus and Julius Caesar), but there are also examples of gods becoming human and entering the human realm for a time (eg. Baucis and Philemon). In attempting to explain the diversity of ancient belief surrounding the divine realm and divine beings within the ancient mindset, Ehrman explains that there was sort-of a divine pyramid in which the supreme god ranked highest (eg. Zeus/Jupiter) but featured several levels of godhood, such as the great gods (eg. Hera, Apollo, Mercury), state gods, local gods, family gods, daimones, and eventually divine humans. In moving onto ancient Judaism in chapter two, “Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism,” (pgs. 47-84) Ehrman demonstrates that even within Judaism there was the possibility of humans becoming divine.
Focusing on Jesus, in chapter three, “Did Jesus Think He Was God?,” (pgs. 85-128), Ehrman argues that while the historical Jesus probably did believe himself to be Israel’s messiah, he did not claim to be God or divine. According to Ehrman this is clearly expressed by his execution via crucifixion and the mock title of “King of the Jews.” Chapter four, “The Resurrection of Jesus: What We Cannot Know,” (pgs. 129-170) Ehrman establishes what secular historians cannot say about the resurrection of Jesus and just how much of it remains a complete mystery. There are simply too many questions that remain unanswered that provide historians with data to know what happened to the body of Jesus. However it should be noted that Ehrman does not attempt to influence or cloud anyone’s beliefs, but rather just establish how much historians do not know and cannot prove. After all, faith in Jesus’s resurrection according to Christian tradition is just that, “faith.” Moving on, in chapter four, “The Resurrection of Jesus: What We Can Know,” (pgs. 171-210) Ehrman begins to reconstruct what historians do know about Jesus’s resurrection and that is that his disciples believed they had visions of him and those visions led them to believe that he had been exalted to heaven and in some-sense made to be divine. Because of this belief, the stage was set for Jesus’s gradual transformation from a Jewish preacher into God.
Chapter six, “The Beginning of Christology: Christ as Exalted to Heaven,” (pgs. 211-246) beings Ehrman’s study of the earliest beliefs about Jesus’s divinity within the New Testament, which he calls “adoption/exaltation Christologies” in which it is believed that Jesus was a normal human being who was made divine sometime during his lifetime. The early Christians who wrote the Gospels get pushing the moment where Jesus was made divine further and further back – from his resurrection, to his baptism by John the Baptist, all the way back to his conception. Next to this belief is what Ehrman calls “incarnation Christologies” which is the understanding that Jesus preexisted as a divine being with God (or even God himself) in heaven and became a human being through incarnation and this is the subject of chapter seven, “Jesus as God on Earth: Early Incarnation Christologies.” (pgs. 247-282) Perhaps most interesting (and perhaps shocking) of all is Ehrman’s claim: “Jesus, for Paul, was the Angel of the Lord. And so he too was God’s wisdom, before coming into this world.” Ehrman explores this development right through the New Testament, from the letters of Paul to the Gospel of John and beyond.
Looking beyond the New Testament in chapter eight, “After the New Testament: Christological Dead Ends of the Second and Third Centuries,” (pgs. 283-321) Ehrman briefly examines the beliefs about Jesus’s divinity that came to viewed as heresies, such as Marcionism, Gnosticism, and Docetism. Erhman briefly explains each of these rivaling views about Jesus’s divinity and offers a few explanations to why they ultimately did not succeed in gaining complete influence and dominance over later Christian beliefs and how early proto-orthodox Christians combated these views with their own emerging beliefs. Finally, chapter nine, “Ortho-Paradoxes on the Road to Nicea,” (pgs. 323-352) explains the long and rocky road to the Council of Nicea, in which Jesus was finally declared by the creed to be “God the Son” in a formal theological sense by the orthodox Christian faith.
First it must be stated that How Jesus Became God, as always, is extremely accessible, and of course, well researched and well argued. The bulk of the book traces the evolution of Christology throughout the second, third, and fourth centuries, mapping how one belief naturally lead to another problem about the nature of Christ being required to be debated and from there more and more so-called heresies were formed. Most compelling of all is historical road map Ehrman provides in which people can follow the history of the Christian faith and in some sense, the creation of the Christian god. Ehrman makes an extremely engaging case about the presence of both incarnational and exaltation Christologies being present within the bulk of early Christian literature, one that any one interested in the New Testament should read.
With a title as compelling as, How Jesus Became God, Ehrman does not disappoint.
In many ways this is the most personal of Bart Ehrman's books. His own religious journey from fundamentalist Christian to religious liberalism to agnosticism mirrors the story, as he sees it, of Jesus' move from apocalyptic prophet to Deity. It is not necessary to agree with Ehrman to enjoy and learn from his incisive analyses and conclusions. Such studies will only threaten your faith if you wish it to.
How Jesus Became God deals succinctly but vibrantly with a great deal of complex history. Ehrman does us all a great service by putting the belief that Jesus was the Son of God in the context of the first century, when Roman Emperors had begun to proclaim themselves sons of gods or actual gods. Perhaps less well known is the fact that the belief that humans had at times gained divine status was also part of Judaism, as in the cases of Enoch and Elijah as well as with the Book of Daniel's references to the Son of Man. After setting the stage in this manner Ehrman next carries us through the career of Jesus, whom he himself sees as a man who preached apocalyptic visions of a coming Earthly Kingdom of Israel(with he himself as King). When he began to annoy the Roman authorities he was quickly put to death. Ehrman devotes a couple of chapters to Jesus' death and resurrection, discussing what we can and cannot know based on rigorous analysis of the extant texts and traditions. Part of what Ehrman says here will surprise some readers, though those who have read his other books and similar ones by other authors will find it familiar but still intriguing.
I found the next few chapters the most interesting because this is where Ehrman dissects, as he sees it, the path by which Jesus came to be the Son of God. It was intriguing to read of the developments in early Christology, where some argued that Jesus had been God's Son from birth, others that he became so when he was baptized, and still others when he died and was resurrected. I've studied the New Testament for many years, but it had never registered with me that there might be clues to some of these early controversies in the Acts and the Epistles. Likewise, I had long understood that the Gospel of John has a very different focus from the three Synoptic Gospels, but Ehrman's interpretations and analyses cast some interesting new light.
The final chapters carry the controversy over the nature of Jesus and his relationship to God through the early centuries of Christianity and finishing with the Council of Nicea. Again, if you've read some of Ehrman's other books or have studied early Christianity much of this will be familiar to you, but Ehrman's own interpretations will still intrigue. In all I found How Jesus Became God to be a fascinating book which challenged some of my own long held assumptions and required me to reexamine them. And as always when reading Ehrman, I enjoyed the originality of his ideas and the humility with which he presents them.
on May 22, 2015
This book begins where another recent book about the historical Jesus, Zealot, by Reza Aslan, ends. Aslan’s main thesis in Zealot was that Jesus was one of a group of people in ancient Israel claiming to be the Messiah, and that the message of Jesus was essentially usurped by Paul, and the others who wrote the Gospels, by selling the Jesus story to a Roman readership by injecting a dose of Neo-Platonism, thereby making Jesus the Christ.
Bart Erhman has made an academic career exposing the vulnerabilities of Christian doctrines, practices and beliefs. And while I agree with much of what he says, this particular book left me wondering if it adds anything new to our understanding of Jesus.
Erhman further expands Aslan’s thesis, perhaps with too much detail. Erhman asserts perhaps rightly that Jesus never considered himself a “God,” although he did consider himself the messiah. Nothing really new or different from what Aslan wrote in Zealot,
Erhman fully describes the Greek, Roman, and Jewish traditions of concerning human divinity. This portion was interesting. The book falters however when Erhman employs his exhaustive, excruciatingly painstaking and meticulous scriptural analysis of each Gospel, showing the inconsistencies in the Jesus narrative. If Erhman wants to show that the various accounts of the Jesus narrative are inconsistent from Gospel to Gospel, we get it. Erhman is preaching to the choir (no pun intended) and there is no use in belaboring the point. This was a significant portion of the book and Erhman spent a great deal of time analyzing the various passages in the Gospels, based on the various methods of theological interpretation. But does all of this answer the question, How did Jesus become God?
The real answer to this question is found centuries later in the numerous Synods, Councils, controversies, and debates, concerning the precise nature of the Christ (determined not by God, but by mere mortals in committee!). Curiously, Erhman gives this part of the story remarkably short shrift. The significant disputes regarding Arianism are explained in his book but not nearly as much as it deserves. Erhman mentions that Arianism was not the only interpretation of Jesus’s divinity, that other schools of thought existed, but hardly describes them. Also, the Gnostic traditions are not mentioned at all, an egregious omission, and he spends too much time on the political motivations of these Synods and councils, which, if anyone really thought about the subject, was the only reason Christianity was recognized by Constantine.
Erhman’s new book does not add a lot to our understanding of Jesus or his times. It may offer more as an introduction. But even here not a good introduction, because it is not a complete treatment.
Bart Ehrman digests biblical scholarship into an easy to read text for believers and non-believers alike. While 270pp is more than sufficient for his thesis, along the way he presents interesting concepts and the reader learns a lot about the process of biblical research.
Ehrman develops the concept that it was resurrection and its aftermath that confirmed Jesus as equal to god. In learning how "exaltation Christologies gave way to incarnation Christologies" (p. 263), I also learned a host of other new vocabulary words and terms (synoptic, hyperstasis, heresiology and docstism to name a few).
The book begins with the context of Jesus's time. Many early religions had human-deity combinations, the emperor was considered a god and it was not uncommon for gods to mate with (or rape) female mortals. While all this was present in his world, Ehrman concludes that in his lifetime Jesus did not claim divinity nor was divinity ascribed to him. Ehrman feels a case can be built that Jesus might have said he was a king, but the case for Jesus claiming divinity for himself is flimsy.
The reader learns how unique the gospel of John is. It is the most theological of the gospels and is the only one where Jesus is quoted as alluding to god-like status for himself. Written long after Jesus's death and resurrection, Ehrman sees these as words ascribed to Jesus, not words he had said. The other gospels are silent on this. Ehrman concludes that Paul considers Jesus like an angel but not the equal of a god.
In the two centuries following the death of Jesus, followers had disparate views of how to understand his life and death. Ebionites kept their Jewish customs and saw Christ as a human adopted by God. Theodotians also felt Jesus was a human adopted by god, with some members believing he was divine and others that others that he was a man "empowered" by baptism. Docetists believed him completely divine by nature. Marcionites, Gnostics, Separationists and Modalists all had different interpretations, some believing in the existence of two or more gods. Ideas were first unified by theologians Hippolytus and Tertullian into the concept of the trinity which over the centuries has endured. A description of these schools of thought is followed by a discussion on the early attempts to resolve the (human/divine) "ortho-paradoxes".
Ehrman concludes with his personal journey. He is up front (from Chapter 1), that while a biblical scholar, he is not a believer. This does not at all color this work which has plenty of information and food for thought for both believers and non-believers. To describe his personal journey he goes back to his understanding of Jesus and the apocalyptic nature of the times.
While this will anger fundamentalists, others, believers and non-believers interested in this topic will appreciate the scholarship this book presents.
on October 18, 2014
I have often been interested in the story of early Christianity and how it came to be, not necessarily in the exact question of how Jesus became God, but how beliefs and practices changed over time from the earliest Christians to those who lived during the Later Roman Empire. This book then was a good choice for me because in exploring the questions posed by his title, Ehrman would have to also explore the same types of questions I was interested in.
Although the book was well written and does a good job of detailing the story of how Christians came to regard Jesus and equivalent with God the Father, I was slightly disappointed in the answer. Actually, the author seems to give various answers to the question. The obvious answer, as stated in the last chapter before the epilogue, is that Jesus came to be defined as such by the Council of Nicea in the early 300’s AD, which established the orthodox position which would be followed by Christianity after that. But the previous eight chapters purport of tell us the story of how Christianity arrived at that point in history in the first place. First, Ehrman has to establish what Jesus actually preached while he was alive. Next, he has to define as best as possible what the earliest churches believed about Jesus. Then, he has to show that this changed over time. This he does fairly well.
But, he somewhat undermines his own thesis by indicating that the belief that Jesus was divine can be found even in the earliest teachings of the church. If Ehrman was a Christian, I would have to dismiss this outright, but as an “unbiased” historian, he is not out to prove anything, only to reveal that historical truth. The two pieces of evidence that he brings forth to support this are the letters of Paul, and the pre Pauline hymns that Paul inserted into some of his writings, specifically the 2nd Philippians. He gives much evidence to support his view that for Paul, Jesus was not just a man who was later exalted to a divine status by God, but was actually already a divine being who chose to incarnate himself in order to act as a messenger of God. Jesus must have been then, in the eyes of Paul, some sort of angel or other heavenly being, who was later after, his mission on Earth was completed, exalted to a place on the right hand of God. This is the same view of Jesus that can be construed upon close examination of the Philippians poem, according to Ehrman.
However, although he is seen as divine and pre-existing even in these earlier views, he is not yet equated with God the Father neither in Paul nor in the teachings of the earliest Christians. On page 263 Ehrman states, “I want to stress that Christ appears to be portrayed here, in his preexistent state, as a divine being, and angel – but not as God Almighty. He is not the Father himself, since it is the Father who exalts him. And he is not – most definitely not – ‘equal’ with God before he becomes human.” (pg 263)
So what we have is that despite being considered divine by some of the earliest followers, he was not yet equated with God, but by the early 4th century at the Council of Nicea, that is proclaimed as the Orthodox view in Christianity. So, when exactly did the change in thinking take place? This is the part that Ehrman, in my opinion, does not satisfactorily answer. He speaks of controversies in the 2nd and 3rd centuries about the exact nature of Christ, and how certain early Christian thinkers such as Tertullian and Hippolytus pushed what became the later Orthodox position, but he fails to pinpoint the exact time or place where the change took place. Instead, it is seen as a development over time, one that happened slowly and little by little.
Otherwise, this is a brilliant title, and Ehrman as usual does an excellent job in his style and language or reaching as many readers as possible.