Ehrman’s Response to the Bird Response Book

Ehrman’s Response to the Bird Response Book May 5, 2014

Bart Ehrman has written a response to HGBJ over at his blog CIA (thankfully available for public viewing). It is quite a cordial piece, critical but not adversarial, it sets out his side of the story, and what he thinks is lacking in our response book.

Ehrman is fully aware of why his book is controversial and he notes the effective history of Jesus’ divine status within the ancient world.

I have to say that I wasn’t disappointed with the lack of outlandish claims made by Ehrman – it certainly was not the Da Vinci Code with footnotes and a bibliography – though I was disappointed by several omissions like no reference to the work of Richard Bauckham, no mention of the archaeological evidence for the burial of a victim of crucifixion named Yehohanan, and perplexed by the strange interpretation of Gal 4.14 which Ehrman hangs so much of Paul’s christology on.

Ehrman goes on to state:

Still, the scholars who have produced How God Became Jesus are not fundamentalists, even if they are conservative Christian scholars who toe the theological line.   Yet even they would agree that during his lifetime Jesus did not go around declaring that he was the second member of the Trinity.  On the other hand, by the fourth century, virtually all Christians of record believed he was the second member of the Trinity.  So how does one get from Point A (Jesus’life and teachings) to Point B (the Trinitarian theology of the later church)?  There needs to be a narrative of how it happens, and my conservative evangelical detractors need a narrative as much as anyone else.

I think this is a fair point. As a response book, HGBJ was primarily reactive rather than narrative and it was deconstructive rather than constructive in some ways. Part of the problem with developing a single narrative is that the five contributors had different views on things like the historical Jesus, Paul’s christology, and how historical is John’s Gospel. But generally the contributors were all in favor of an early high christology and by “high” I don’t mean divinesque, but Jesus was identified with the God of creation and covenant within twenty years of  his death. Yes, development took place, the scriptures were searched to find the best language and grammar to describe Jesus, and eventually the honorific language gave way to ontological questions about Jesus and the Father and Jesus with his divine and human natures.

Generally speaking if one wants to refer to an alternative narrative about the origins of christology then I can only recommend Larry Hurtado’s The Lord Jesus Christ, published by the good people at Eerdmans, and available for the bargain price of $45 hard back. That is a widely known narrative in scholarship which Ehrman did not substantially interact with apart from a few scant mentions. Plus one could hardly read Hurtado without Bauckham beside him in want of a more comprehensive treatment of the subject.

Ehrman also claims that the reason why we did not present a coherent counter-narrative is because our claims are confessional not historical. He writes:

On one hand, they want to attack my views on historical grounds.   But on the other hand, their own view – that Jesus actually was God in the flesh – is not based on historical evidence but on religious beliefs and theological assumptions.  It cannot be established by historical methods of inquiry.  And so they have resorted to something other than proposing a historical reconstruction.  They have decided to deconstruct rather than construct.  I think in the long run that’s a pity, because if they had provided a sustained statement about what they really think, readers would have a very easy time indeed recognizing which of the two books is a historical treatment of what happened in the rise of early Christianity and which is simply a restatement of traditional Christian dogma.

Well, as I just said, a competing narrative has been written (i.e., Hurtado). On the matter of “theological assumptions,” well, yes. I wrote in the introduction that believing that Jesus is God is ultimately a confessional claim. You either believe the church’s testimony to Jesus or you don’t! We just happen to do so, but with some historical credence to the claim as our study demonstrates. But let me push back and say that the constraint of presuppositions flows both ways. Ehrman does not believe in God, so strictly speaking, no one can really “be” or “become” a God that does not actually exist. So the entire question of whether Jesus is divine is moot for Ehrman. Now in my experience poking holes in each other’s presuppositions ultimately gets us nowhere. So the task of good scholarship is not to peddle one’s assumptions or to merely to poke sticks at the assumptions of others, rather, the task is to engage in an open and detailed inquiry into the evidence so that one’s assumptions might be either undermined or validated by the evidence. The issue in the “christology war of 2014” is who has provided the best argument to account for Jesus’ self-understanding, the emergence of belief in Jesus’ resurrection, and the christological claims of the early church as found in the Synoptics, John, and Paul. On those topics I still claim that HGBJ carries the day over HJBG.


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