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Raining on Bart Ehrman’s Easter parade

"Raining on Bart Ehrman’s Easter parade" Continued...

Simon Gathercole
Handout photo
Simon Gathercole
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.

Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s interview with Bart Ehrman on this weekend’s edition of Listening In, a production of WORLD Radio.

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