How Jesus Became God (2014)
Bart D. Ehrman (1955)
One of the delights --- and challenges --- of reading a book that explores human history, whether it looks back a few decades or several centuries, is the frequent discovery that assumptions and understandings now widely taken for granted about particular events can be discovered to be oversimplifications, if not grossly incorrect interpretations of what occurred. A second similar benefit is the realization that views now considered established and unquestionable about an historical event may have once have seemed beyond the pale, perhaps even unacceptable to consider.
In his book How Jesus Became God, Bible scholar Bart Ehrman examines one such case of evolving understanding, which he summarizes in the book’s subtitle as: “The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.” Modern day Christians view Jesus as a part of the Trinity, along with God and the Holy Spirit, and believe that Jesus is of the same stuff as God and has existed as long as God has existed. Ehrman argues, however, that these were not the beliefs of the very earliest Christians. Analyzing the words of the New Testament, Ehrman traces how early Christian understanding of Jesus’ divinity evolved during the years and decades immediately after his crucifixion. He then goes on to demonstrate how, within a couple of centuries, the concept of Jesus as part of the Trinity developed.
According to Ehrman, early Christian views of Jesus as something more than human, as in fact divine, began with the belief in the resurrection. In the book he does not attempt to prove or disprove that the resurrection occurred, noting that such discussions lie outside the realm of historical analysis, being ultimately a matter of faith and belief. Instead, his starting point is that early Christians believed that the resurrection occurred, and that subsequent understanding of Jesus’ divinity then grew from that core belief.
In the opening chapters, Ehrman recounts the ways that humans were understood by people in ancient societies to be able to become divine. Anyone familiar with the myths of ancient Greece and Rome will not be surprised by the three models he describes from these early societies, captured in sections descriptively entitled: “Gods who temporarily become Human,” “Divine Beings born of a God and a Mortal,” and “A Human who becomes Divine.” After reviewing these models, he goes on to provide examples of them, both to demonstrate their widespread conceptual acceptance in pre-Christian times, as well as to serve as a basis of comparison to statements made in Paul and the Gospels.
More surprisingly, Ehrman describes how versions of these same three models appear also in ancient Judaism, despite its monotheistic tradition; thus these concepts were present in the Jewish society in which Jesus was born, raised and preached. After a general overview of Judaism up to the time of the crucifixion, he gives examples from the Old Testament of each of the three models of human divinity. He also points out that there existed in Judaism an understanding that there could be gradations of divinity, for example the angels in heaven relative to God.
Having established the existing societal modes of thinking about divine beings around Jesus’ time, Ehrman then turns to the central question of his title: “how Jesus became God.” The key concept for Ehrman here, and throughout the book, is “in what sense”, within the gradations of divinity thought possible (from angels, say, to God himself), was Jesus thought of as divine?
He begins with a summary of the sources available to an historian examining this question: the Old and New Testaments, focusing in particular on the letters of Paul, and the Gospels: Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. He describes how theological historians study these texts, and the analytical tools used to discern what historical facts can be establish from them. He includes a summary of the current scholarly consensus on such topics as when each of these sources was written, how they appear to be, or to not be, reporting similar events, how they appear to have had one or the other earlier, yet unknown, source material. Thus, he demonstrates how historians analyze these texts to tease out both an historical understanding of Jesus life, as well as the development of early Christian beliefs in the years after the crucifixion.
Based on these approaches to analyzing the texts, Ehrman first examines how Jesus most likely thought of himself; that is, whether he thought of himself as God. Analyzing what Jesus is reported to have said about himself in the earliest works of the New Testament, Ehrman claims that while Jesus called himself (and so thought of himself) as the messiah, from an historical perspective of the sources he cannot be shown to have called himself (or considered himself) God. Ehrman argues that though Jesus claims in John, the latest of the Gospels, that he is God, such claims do not appear in any of the earlier Gospels, and so “are part of John’s distinctive theology; they are not part of the historical record of what Jesus actually said.” (125)
Turning then to the resurrection, Ehrman uses the historical record available to us (that is, the Gospels) to point out key events associated with the resurrection that cannot be known. He focuses in particular on two: whether Jesus received a decent burial; and whether his tomb was later found to be empty. In both cases he demonstrates that based on an historical analysis of the Gospels, as wells as our current understanding of Roman crucifixion and burial practices of that period, these events “are subject to historical doubt” (151).
He then describes events surrounding the resurrection that he feels can be considered known, based on the historical evidence in the Gospels, of which three key points are:
(1) some of Jesus’s followers believed that he had been raised from the dead; (2) they believed this because some of them had visions of him after his crucifixion; and (3) 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. (174)To substantiate each of these events he presents evidence from the Gospels, including evidence that aligns with what historians and scientists of other fields understand of the belief systems and behaviors of those times.
Having laid the foundation, in the opening half of the book, of the history up to the point just after Jesus’s crucifixion, Ehrman then goes on to address his primary question: how, and in what sense, Jesus came to be understood to be God. Over the final four chapters of the book, he presents evidence from the Gospels demonstrating that in the decades after the resurrection a rapid shift occurred in Christian understanding of when Jesus became divine, as well as the extent of his divinity (i.e., how similar to God he was believed to be).
Based on evidence from the Gospels, Ehrman argues that in the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion, Jesus' disciples and others came to believe that he had been resurrected and exalted to heaven by God. Thus the very earliest Christians believed that Jesus was a human who became divine after having died on the cross.
This understanding quickly evolved, according to Ehrman, in the years after the crucifixion. Though he acknowledges that the process was not smooth, and that it happened in different ways and at different rates across the various groups and congregations, Ehrman argues that there began a "backward movement of Christology." (236) Thus, belief in the moment of Jesus’ exaltation moved to ever earlier points in his life: in Mark to the moment of his baptism by John the Baptist, and later in Luke and Matthew to the moment of his birth (or more precisely his conception). The common thread in these views, however, was that Jesus was a human who became divine.
Subsequent Christians took a significant, further step, developing "incarnation Christologies, ... maintain[ing] that Christ was a preexistent divine being who became human before returning to God in heaven." (249). Ehrman reviews evidence from the letters of Paul that describes Christ as an angel come to Earth in human form, while the writings of John describe Jesus as God come down to Earth. This was a part of the transition in Christian belief sometime around the end of the first century C.E. to the view that Jesus was a part of the same stuff as God, an understanding that would culminate, in the early fourth century C.E., with the Nicene Creed, which effectively established the idea of the Trinity.
The path from John to Nicea was not smooth, however, and Ehrman dedicates a chapter to examining various "Christological Dead Ends." He notes that "within Christianity ... there is a right view and lots of wrong views" (285), and he provides a sampling of some of the "wrong views" that demonstrate the variety of ways in which Christian theologians of the second and third century C.E. attempted to explain the relationship between Christ and God, and how the vast majority of these views were eventually deemed heretical.
A substantial step forward in settling the matter came under pressure from the Roman Emperor Constantine. Ehrman notes that in the early fourth century Constantine converted to Christianity, and made it a "favored religion" (345) of the empire. Aside from his personal religious beliefs, Constantine did this at least in part to accrue the benefits of Christianity as a unifying social, cultural and political force. When he learned, however, that Christian views of the relationship between Christ and God were creating contentious rifts among Christian theologians and their followers, he called upon them to come together and settle their differences, leading to the declaration of the Nicene Creed by the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E., and the formalization of the idea of the Trinity.
In an Epilogue, Ehrman looks beyond what was settled at Nicaea, presenting a sampling of the on-going controversies inside the Church in the years that followed concerning the finer points of orthodox doctrine. He points out repeated instances in which what was considered orthodox at one point in time becomes redefined just a few years later as heresy, in the face of a new, more developed orthodoxy.
Ehrman, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Caroline, Chapel Hill, has written a number of books on Christian history and traditions, and so is far from a newcomer to this field of inquiry. He mentions in the book that he was born-again in high school, converting into a conservative, evangelical Christianity, and that later, after having studied at a bible institute and while pursuing an advanced degree at a Theological Seminary, began to have doubts, doubts that grew to the point that he now considers himself an agnostic.
So, in a sense, he has the scholarly background as a theologian, and the skeptical aspect as an agnostic, to be able to examine the evidence, and report out his interpretation, while acknowledging that there is a critical and clear distinction between what is taken as faith and what can be analyzed from an historical perspective. He in fact points out near the beginning of the book:
I have tried to approach this question in a way that will be useful not only for secular historians of religion like me, but also for believers like my friend who continue to think that Jesus is, in fact, God. As a result, I do not take a stand on the theological question of Jesus’s divine status. I am instead interested in the historical development that led to the affirmation that he is God. This historical development certainly transpired in one way or another, and what people personally believe about Christ should not, in theory, affect the conclusions they draw historically. (3)Later in the book he does acknowledge that fundamentalists (such as he himself was in the past) who interpret the Bible literally and as the infallible word of God will likely not countenance this historical approach as being appropriate.
Anyone interested in a more thorough understanding of how early Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus developed in the decades after his crucifixion will find Ehrman’s book a clearly explained and fascinating examination of the historical record that comes to us through the Gospels and the letters of Paul. Ehrman deftly combines these New Testament writings with descriptions of beliefs and practices in the Greek, Roman and Jewish societies of that time, achieving just the right balance between convincing detail and engaging overview.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf