Easter is no longer just a time for Christians to celebrate the Resurrection and non-Christians to celebrate Easter bunnies. It’s also a time for anti-Christians to come out with highly publicized books attacking biblical accounts. Annually they debunk all the way to the bank. Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee is one of this year’s efforts.
Happily, New Testament scholar Michael Bird and some of his colleagues have risen to the challenge by rapidly producing a response, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman.
First we have Bird’s overall critique of Ehrman’s work, followed by, courtesy of Zondervan, excerpts from two chapters of this counter-Ehrman book, the first written by Bird and the second penned by another New Testament scholar, Simon Gathercole.
And be sure to listen to Warren Cole Smith’s interview with Bart Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, on this weekend’s edition of Listening In, a production of WORLD Radio. —Marvin Olasky
Bart Ehrman, Jesus, and the message of Easter
By Michael F. Bird
Bart Ehrman is a former professed Christian who now writes one book after another trying to expose the alleged inaccuracies of the Christian Bible, or else tries to prove that what really happened was very different from traditionalist claims. His latest book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, attempts to map how a Galilean peasant executed by the Romans eventually came to be worshipped as God by billions.
In his latest book, Ehrman argues that Jesus did not think He was God. He didn’t rise from the dead, but His disciples thought He did, and on that basis they thought He was a human being who was made divine. (Ehrman distorts what the apostles believe: He claims Paul thought Jesus was an angel who became human, and John regarded Him as some pre-existent being incarnated as a man.) Eventually, Ehrman writes, the incrementally increasing veneration of Jesus by the early church led them to worship Him as God and they claimed that Jesus was equal in power and being to God the Father. So whereas Jesus proclaimed God, much later Jesus was proclaimed as God.
Thankfully, Ehrman is quite right on a good many things. For a start, he acknowledges that Jesus existed as an historical figure, which is a welcome change from some of the sensationalist claims the media often latches onto when someone with a conspiracy theory that Jesus was a mythical character finds a publisher willing to print his ideas. Ehrman also does a good job of charting some of the stories about gods who became human and humans who became gods in the ancient world. Likewise, he is able to identify many of the crucial factors and texts that require explaining, so that we may plot exactly how, when, and why Jesus came to be revered as a God. That said, I do not always find Ehrman’s argument compelling or persuasive. I think things happened very differently than how he sees them transpiring. I don’t think that Jesus became God, rather, I think God became Jesus!
In November last year, I was in Baltimore, Md., attending a biblical studies conference. Walking around the bookstalls, I noticed a huge poster advertising Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God. I sighed, knowing that Ehrman was probably going to be rehearsing—albeit in his own unique way—a well-worn story that I have heard a dozen times before: Jesus was not God; He did not think He was God; the whole thing about Jesus being divine got made up later and only crystallized at the behest of the Roman Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. As popular as that story about how Jesus became God has been in both scholarship and the popular press, it is has one fatal flaw: Namely, it is demonstrably false.
After seeing Ehrman’s book advertised, I knew that my email inbox would be filling up with questions from people from all over the world asking about Ehrman’s book and how to respond to it. This has happened to me before. In the past I’ve received emails from Christians in the Middle East who have been confronted by Muslim apologists who were using arguments from Ehrman’s books to try to persuade them to leave Christianity and to convert to Islam. Given the topic and the conclusions that Ehrman reaches in his book about Jesus’ divinity, I cannot help but think that—with a hint of irony—Muslim and Jehovah’s Witnesses are going think that all their Christmases have come at once. Here is a former Christian debunking the idea that Jesus is God. You can’t get better than that.
Knowing this was ahead of me, I continued walking around the book exhibits wondering if I should write a preemptive response. During my saunter I chanced upon several friends who I thought might be interested in joining me in such a project, and it turned out that they were. So I teamed up with four colleagues, including Craig Evans (Acadia Divinity College, Canada), Simon Gathercole (Cambridge University, UK), Chris Tilling (St. Mellitus College, UK), and Charles Hill (Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Fla.), all leading authorities in their own field, to come up with an immediate response to Ehrman. Thanks to the generosity of HarperOne, we read a pre-publication copy of Ehrman’s manuscript over the Christmas break and then set to work to write up our own accounts about the when, where, how, and who of the origins of belief in Jesus as God.
Our book, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origin of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman, attempts to give a more authentic and historically accurate explanation of how belief about Jesus as a divine figure emerged in the early church. In brief, we contest Ehrman’s description of ancient monotheism and its significance for emerging beliefs about Jesus, we object to his depiction of Jesus’ self-understanding, we challenge his reconstruction of what happened to Jesus’ body after his crucifixion, we strenuously contest his interpretation of what the apostle Paul and the Evangelists thought about Jesus, and we offer a competing narrative about the trajectory that belief in Jesus’ divine nature took in the early church.
Sadly, Bart Ehrman has a huge following: He teaches packed courses at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he’s a New York Times best-selling author, and he’s always doing the rounds of the talk show circuits as the resident celebrity skeptic, delightfully reassuring secularists that the whole Christian thing is just a big mistake. In a recent interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, Ehrman was asked what he regards as the meaning of Easter. His response was that, as an agnostic, he believes Easter shows that there is still horrible injustice and oppression in the world and that we should wrestle against it. He added that the Easter story, while not historical, on some allegorical level is about God’s “no” to political evil by raising Jesus from the dead.
I push back against Ehrman here, too. Easter isn’t an allegory about good versus evil. Instead, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is about the God’s victory over sin, death, evil, and wickedness. In the cross of Jesus we see God crucified, Jesus our substitute taking our sins upon Himself, absorbing them like a cosmic sponge, cleansing us, and purchasing forgiveness for all men and women. In the Resurrection, we see the beginnings of a world born anew, testifying to the goodness of God’s power and the power of God’s goodness, hope rising from the ashes of grief and death. Still, that story only has power to shape our lives, to stimulate our imaginations for beauty, and to inspire us to courage against evil, if Jesus really is God incarnate. Only if Jesus is truly the Son of God can we believe Him at his word, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 ESV).
Ehrman’s method: Erroneous manuscripts, historical criteria, and the historical Jesus
By Michael F. Bird
[Bart Ehrman] thinks that we cannot take the Gospels at face value as historically reliable accounts of the things Jesus said and did. Ehrman makes some broad and sweeping comments about the sources behind the Gospels and the nature of the Gospels as faith-documents that should render us historically suspicious of their accounts of Jesus. He does not think that the Gospels are useless as historical sources, but because they are more interested in proclaiming Jesus than with giving a true history of Jesus, we have to sift through the Gospels with the aid of various criteria to separate the fictions from the facts. A couple of comments are required here.
First, if the Gospels are not, in their basic outlines at least, somehow reliable, then we might as well stop wasting our time and go fishing. I like how Dale Allison puts it:
Either they [the Gospels] tend to preserve pre-Easter memories or they do not. In the former case, we have some possibility of getting somewhere. But in the latter case, our questing for Jesus is probably pointless and we should consider surrendering to ignorance. If the tradition is seriously misleading in its broad features, then we can hardly make much of its details.
Similar is Sean Freyne: “Either we accept that the early followers of Jesus had some interest in and memory of the historical figure of Jesus as they began to proclaim the good news about him, or we must abandon the process entirely.” Approaches like Ehrman’s, which begin by casting doubt on the historical value of the Gospels for reconstructing the life of Jesus, but then proceed to formulate a hypothesis about the historical Jesus anyway, are essentially creating a vacuum and then filling it with scholarly fiction.
Alternatively, I would advocate that the Gospels are generally reliable and coherent sources for studying the historical Jesus. As long as the early church knew the “Lord Jesus” to be the same as “the crucified one,” the historical Jesus was always going to be properly basic for the church’s faith. The things Jesus said and did pre-Easter mattered for what the church believed and said about him post-Easter.
That is not to deny that the Gospels are documents designed for proclamation, theologically loaded, and written to create faith. The Gospels are, then, the interpretation and application of the memory of Jesus for readers in the Greco-Roman world. A memory was carried by eyewitnesses and was put into the custody of corporate interest in the Jew from Nazareth. Thus, what the Gospels produce is not the transcript for CNN-style video footage of Jesus’ career. A better analogy is that they offer a dramatic representation, much like a documentary drama, of Jesus’ actions in the past and his voice for the present available through the corporate memory of Jesus. Consequently, the memory of Jesus deposited in the Gospels bequeaths to us both authenticity and artistry, fact and faith, history and hermeneutic. The objective of the Evangelists was not to write a life of Jesus to satisfy modernist demands for detail, nor was it to offer an image of Jesus that they pretty much made up to satisfy their own ideological bent. The Evangelists intended to narrate a story and evoke the significance of one called “Jesus,” Israel’s Messiah and the world’s rightful Lord.
Second, Ehrman is dependent on the use of several “criteria” to establish the authenticity of stories about Jesus in the Gospels. Generally speaking, criteria of authenticity are useful as a way of trying to figure out which traditions in the Gospels go back to Jesus. I’ve used them myself at times, but like others I’ve become increasingly aware of their limitations and become convinced that they do not offer a path to an objective history of Jesus. For a start, trying to sort out the authentic traditions from the inauthentic traditions is not really that easy, for the simple fact that the history of Jesus has been thoroughly welded together with the early church’s proclamation of Jesus at every point. Trying to separate the history from theology in the Gospels is a bit like trying to separate blue from red in the color purple. What is more, many of the criteria have been critically examined and found to be inadequate as a way of establishing the historical or unhistorical nature of any given unit in the Gospels. Dale Allison speaks with candor on this: “The older I become, the less I trust anyone’s ability to answer this sort of question, to trace the history and origin of a particular saying. … It is not so easy to establish that any particular saying goes back to Jesus, and it is not so easy to establish that any particular saying does not go back to him.”
For case in point, let’s consider Ehrman’s use of the “criterion of dissimilarity,” which on his account dictates that a given unit in the Gospels is historically authentic if “it is dissimilar to what the early Christians would have wanted to say about him.” This criterion is well-known and has received a devastating barrage of criticism to the point that I am, to be frank, at a loss as to why Ehrman continues to use it. It jumped the shark about the same time that the TV show Dawson’s Creek did. In extreme cases some scholars looked for a double dissimilarity, whereby a tradition is authentic when it is dissimilar to both Judaism and to the early church. Ehrman wisely uses it in its less extreme form and only applies it to dissimilarity from the early church.
But even then it verges on the ludicrous. Think about it. A story about Jesus or as a saying attributed to Jesus is only historical if it does not sound anything like what the church was saying about Jesus. What historian would say that the historical Plato is different from what the platonic school said about Plato? Who would say that reliable information about the Teacher of Righteousness who founded a community by shores of the Dead Sea can only to be found when material attributed to him in the Dead Sea Scrolls sound nothing like the Dead Sea Scrolls? Who thinks that the real John Wesley can only be retrieved by searching for un-Wesleyan things that Wesleyans said about John Wesley? The criterion of dissimilarity posits a huge rupture between a movement founder and his or her subsequent movement that is simply absurd. You end up with a Jesus who said, thought, and did nothing that his earliest followers believed that he said, thought, and did. Jesus becomes a free-floating iconoclast artificially insulated from the movement that took its name from him, claimed to follow his teachings, and memorialized his deeds and actions.
No wonder, then, that the criterion of dissimilarity has been near universally abandoned and replaced with something far more credible, like a criterion of historical plausibility. We can regard a unit in the Gospels as claiming a high degree of historical authenticity when a saying or event attributed to Jesus makes sense within Judaism (i.e., plausible context) and also represents a starting point for the early church (i.e., a plausible consequence).
Rather than try to drain the theological dross from the historical silver in the Gospels through several fallible criteria, more recently scholars have been interested in the application of social memory research to the study of the historical Jesus. In other words, how did the things Jesus said and did create a memory in his followers, a memory that was faithfully transmitted, yet also refracted according to the theological framework that the early church was developing. In which case, we cannot hope to penetrate the impregnable bedrock of the church’s interpretation and proclamation of Jesus found in the Gospels and discover a deeper layer of historically accurate data laid beneath. At the end of the day the best way to read the Gospels responsibly and historically is to narrate the story of Jesus in a way that has realism and explanatory power—a story that makes Jesus fit plausibly into his Jewish context, that brings all of the sources together, that explains the shape and direction of the early church, and that accounts for why and how the Gospels are what they are. Allison again puts it well:
As historians of the Jesus tradition we are storytellers. We can do no more than aspire to fashion a narrative that is more persuasive than competing narratives, one that satisfies our aesthetic and historical sensibilities because of its apparent ability to clarify more data in a more satisfactory fashion than its rivals.
Ehrman’s entire approach to historical Jesus studies does not commend itself as a good way of doing history.
Dr. Michael F. Bird is lecturer in theology at Ridley Melbourne College of Mission and Ministry in Melbourne, Australia. His is a co-blogger of the New Testament blog Euangelion, the author or editor of numerous New Testament studies works, and one of the contributors to How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman.
Jesus as divine in Matthew, Mark, and Luke?
By Simon Gathercole
Perhaps surprisingly, Ehrman would answer [the question, is Jesus divine in Matthew, Mark, and Luke?]: Yes! At the same time, however, it is important to recognize what he means: in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus occupies a certain position in the divine hierarchy or pyramid, but he is certainly not at the top. He is divine, but not in the sense that he shares in the identity of the one God of Israel. Briefly in this section I aim, first, to set out some of the ways in which Jesus in these three Gospels demonstrates or implies his divine identity. Then, second, I will discuss briefly (more detail can be found in the chapters in this volume by Mike Bird and Chris Tilling) why this divine identity cannot be seen as a lower-grade divine identity, because of the absolute distinction between God and creation presupposed in the religious environment of the earliest disciples.
There are a number of points at which Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke does look like he has the privileges of YHWH, God himself. I have described this evidence in more detail elsewhere, and so I will only give a brief sketch here. Strikingly, Jesus says and does things that not only overlap with what God in the Old Testament says and does. Jesus says and does things that are privileges uniquely of the God of Israel. When Jesus speaks and acts this way, responses—unsurprisingly—include worship on the one hand and accusations of blasphemy on the other.
One of the most remarkable statements is Jesus’ authority to forgive sins, seen once in Matthew and Mark and twice in Luke (Mark 2:1–10 and parallels; also Luke 7:49). It is difficult to see this as merely something Jesus can do as a god low down in the divine pecking order because it is something—as the scribes in Mark 2 recognize—that is a prerogative uniquely of the one true God. This was something that no angel, prophet, or even nondivine Messiah, or any other figure, had the authority to do.
One of the best known facts about Jesus is that he chose twelve disciples, and scholars usually take this as Jesus forming the nucleus of a renewed people of God, with the twelve disciples representing the twelve tribes of Israel (Mark 3:13; Luke 6:13). This looks, therefore, as if Jesus is occupying the position of God in the Old Testament, and this is echoed in the fact that Jesus has the power of electing people to be saved elsewhere in the Gospels. This appears in the famous saying in Matthew and Luke, where Jesus states: “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27/Luke 10:22): Jesus chooses who can know the Father. The people of God in Mark can even be called “his [i.e., Jesus’] elect” (Mark 13:27/Matt 24:31): the people of God belong to Jesus. In the same verse, one of my coauthors in this book, Craig Evans, has drawn attention to what an extraordinary thing it is that Jesus refers to angels belonging to him as well (see also Matt 13:41; 25:31).
Other features of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, such as the sea miracles, Jesus’ sending of prophets, his exercise of supernatural knowledge, his belonging in the divine triad Father-Son-Spirit (Matt 28:19), all imply that Jesus shares in the identity of the one true God of Israel.
This identity is reflected in the responses to Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We have already mentioned the accusations of the scribes: “Why is he speaking in this way? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). This accusation resurfaces at the end of Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus claims to share the authority of God in heaven. The high priest states: “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard the blasphemy!” ([Mark] 14:63–64).
On the more positive side, there are various kinds of reverence offered to Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Some of these exceed the bounds of esteem for a mere human being, and as we will soon see, such reverence cannot be regarded simply as worship of a second-tier god. This is especially apparent in Luke, because he considers it inappropriate to give reverential prostration to mere human beings. (Other authors may well use the term more liberally than Luke.) The Greek word for this reverential prostration is proskynēsis, a kind of technical term. This was the reverence that in 327 BCE, Alexander the Great imposed on his fellow Greeks as an obligation; some of them refused, denying him what amounted to formal worship as a god. Luke narrates a scene in Acts that is almost a mirror image of that, in which Cornelius bowed down to (proskynēsen) Peter, after which Peter said: “Stand up, for I too am a man” (Acts 10:25–26). So when the disciples offer proskynēsis to Jesus at the end of Luke’s gospel, it is clearly worship due uniquely to God that is in view (Luke 24:52).
We can explore further this question of what kind of divine identity the events in Matthew, Mark, and Luke imply about Jesus. Ehrman repeatedly emphasizes the need to ask not just whether Jesus is seen as divine or not, but also in what sense he is divine. Chapter 1 of his book rightly emphasizes that deity in the wider Roman Empire was a rather flexible affair, and that in a few cases (although I think chapter 2 of How Jesus Became God exaggerates), some Jewish texts can have a degree of flexibility too. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, however, imply that the Jewish milieu, which Jesus inhabited, was one in which there was a strict God/creation divide. The scribes in Mark 2, for example, do not think that Jesus’ forgiveness of sins was an interesting experiment in the degree to which a human being might participate in the divine realm, but accused Jesus of blasphemy, as one crossing the Creator/creature boundary and encroaching upon divine privileges; the same is true, as we have seen, in Mark 14.
New Testament authors frequently appeal to this boundary as important. Revelation emphasizes it, as is seen in the places where John, dazzled by the glory of the angels he encounters, bows down to them. They promptly rebuke him, because they are merely fellow servants of the true God, who alone is worthy of worship (Rev 19:10; 22:8–9). Hebrews 1 also draws a clear line between angels on the one hand, and God and Jesus on the other. A further point of importance is that in four separate places in the New Testament, we find almost formulaic statements that through Jesus all things were created (John 1:3; 1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2). There is a clear line between Creator and creature, and Jesus stands on the Creator’s side of that line.
But there is a prime witness who needs to be called at this point—Paul. Not so much Paul the apostle, but Saul the Pharisee. It is notable that in Paul’s writings there is an absolutely rigid and inflexible boundary between God the Creator and the created cosmos, a divide that is fundamental to his theology. At various points Paul contrasts God and creation and emphasizes that “from him and through him and for him are all things” (Rom 11:36). But the key statement comes in his condemnation of idolatry in Romans 1. What is fundamentally wrong with idolatry? The answer is that it is worship of the creation rather than its Creator: “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised” (Rom 1:25).
Why is Paul such a key witness? The answer is that he was active as a Pharisee just around the time of Jesus’ ministry and its immediate aftermath, at the beginning of the “tunnel period” when Ehrman sees so much crucial development. Scholars generally agree, I think rightly, that the basic Creator/creation distinction was not a radically new thought for Paul at his conversion. His ideas about idolatry and its basis expressed in Rom 1:25 are almost certainly views he held earlier. Such a view reflects the milieu in which Jesus and the earliest disciples after the first Easter were active. We see this expressed in the response of the scribes and the high priest to Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, as well as in the view of Saul of Tarsus.
The implications of this are significant for how we regard the divine identity of Jesus. It implies that when Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke says and does things that in the Old Testament are divine prerogatives, it can only be because he shares in the identity of the God of Israel.
Dr. Simon Gathercole is senior lecturer in New Testament Studies and fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. He is the author of Where Is Boasting? and The Pre-existent Son (both Eerdmans), as well as The Gospel of Judas (Oxford University Press) and The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas (Cambridge University Press). He previously edited the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, as is currently co-editor of Early Christianity.