Last Thoughts – Bart vs. Bird – Was Jesus the Real Deal? (Gupta)

Last Thoughts – Bart vs. Bird – Was Jesus the Real Deal? (Gupta) June 10, 2014

Bart EhrmanBirdPicWell, I have to face the reality that I am moving (by car!) 2500+ miles from New York to Oregon in about three weeks. So, I am trying to wrap up a number of review-series posts I have started. I apologize if I am just kind of skipping to the end on these, but c’est la vie, right?

Today, then, it is my final thoughts on Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God and Mike Bird (et al) on How God Became Jesus. I did not get a chance to comment on Chris Tilling’s essays, but just wanted to say that I agree with Tilling that Ehrman should have interacted with Bauckham. Either this was an oversight, an underestimation, or just an inexplicable omission.

OK, first Bart. Did he accomplish something here? Probably some yes but mostly no. On the bright side, Bart is a fresh thinker. You can’t put his thoughts into a camp or box and that is a good thing because he is doing some original thinking. I appreciate his historical spadework – he “gets” the Greco-Roman world of religion, but I am not so sure you can flatten out Jewish religion in the way that he has done. He so waters down Jewish monotheism that it looks almost like a pagan Zeus-at-the-top pyramid of deities wrapped in Semitic garb. Hardly. Still, the best “lasting” idea from his book is for Christians to always think – it is not enough that we say “Jesus is God” – we need to actually think through what “divinity” means and what exactly it is that makes him God.

Now, the downside. His is not an academic book that encourages serious engagement. It is more like an invited lecture series where someone “tests” out their ideas. Except, this is a book and yet so many of his ideas are either lacking evidence or he is very selective in his “proofs.” Secondly, Bart claims to be a neutral historian, but he likes to start almost every chapter with a kind of “I used to be a stupid fundamentalist, but — ha, ha — I am now an enlightened agnostic, a person who knows that Christian apologetic overconfidence is pompous, but somehow my agnostic overconfidence is cool!” This gets very irritating, because we are seeing two Barts whispering in the readers’ ears. One says, “I don’t care what you believe, Christian or not, just get the data right and believe with open eyes.” The other Bart whispers, “But just know I, your teacher, can’t find any good reason to think these Christian writers knew what they were talking about. Silly Christians.” I wish he would have picked one agenda and stuck with it. I did not find his anti-evangelical taunts offensive, they just seemed superfluous, ineffective for whatever rhetorical purpose they were meant to serve.

Confession: I am using Bart’s book as a textbook for my NT Christology course, and I genuinely hope students will take his arguments seriously and engage his evidence as rigorously (and openly) as his logic and evidence merits. But after reading the book, I am not optimistic regarding what will come of it. But here is where Bart shines – he always leaves you asking more questions about the complexity of Scripture and Christian origins. That is worth the thought, but is it worth paying him money? I’ll let you decide (sorry students).

Sidenote: I know the proceeds from his blog-money go to charity. I couldn’t find any kind of statement in his books that the royalties go to charity. But if they did, I would be much more likely to require his books as food for thought and thoughts for food!

OK, now Mike Bird’s edited volume, How God Became Jesus. Let’s start with the weaknesses. Anytime you rush over the holidays to write a book and get it to print, its not going to be War and Peace. There is a bit of repetition, and there is some unevenness in how contributors approach the response book – some were trying to refute Bart directly, but others were summarizing Bart and trying to supply a kind of balancing evidence. Some were more gracious to Bart and “neutral,” others were more attacking. Some took a mood of academic seriousness, and others treated this opportunity as a kind of guild-permitted roasting of Bart. So, I didn’t know when to underline a key historical point, and when to laugh out loud. I guess that could be simply a feature of different personalities coming together.

But is it all worth it? I know there has been some grumbling and grousing about the response book. Anyone that knows Mike Bird (and Simon and Craig et al) knows that they don’t yearn for fame and/or cash. So, I am happy to extend the courtesy of assuming good intentions.

What about the information – do they refute Bart well? Some contributions more than others, but I found especially strong work from Mike’s monotheism reflections as well as Craig Evans’ archaeological evidence about the burial of the crucified. They do not make a kind of slam-dunk case against all of the things Bart raises, but the dialogue between these books is very helpful and rewarding in my opinion. This was a fun and illuminating exercise!

[Postscript: I did not review the post-New Testament discussions on either side as I am not as up to speed on these debates]

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