Answering Bart Ehrman on How Jesus Got Adopted

Answering Bart Ehrman on How Jesus Got Adopted March 1, 2016

Bart, Bird, and Blogs

Over on his blog, Bart Ehrman responds to my arguments that the earliest Christology was not adoptionist (sorry, it is behind a pay wall, but Bart is trying to raise money for charity).

During the Greer-Heard debate a couple of weeks ago, Bart and I were part of a forum where we discussed divergent view points on how Jesus came to be regarded as divine. Bart gave a clear and engaging summary of his book How Jesus Became God, focusing on the resurrection as the event which triggered belief in Jesus’ divinity, though divine in a particular sense of one elevated to divine status, not necessarily equal to God the Father. It was a great event and Bart was quite gracious in his response even though we disagreed with much.

On his blog, Bart writes: “Michael never laid out an alternative hypothesis for how the early Christian views of Christ came into existence or developed. Moreover, since he never said how he thought it happened, he obviously didn’t mount a case for his view or indicate what he thought was the evidence for it. So it’s a little hard to know how to assess his view.” That’s a fair comment since I did not deal with a global issue like this. I did toy with the idea of giving a presentation on something like, “Christology: From Nazareth to Nicea,” however I thought it would be more manageable to focus on simply one aspect, namely, the issue of whether the earliest christology was adoptionist christology. I argued, against those like Jimmy Dunn and Bart, that the earliest christology was most definitely not adoptionist christology.

For an explanation as to how belief in Jesus’ divinity emerged I would aver that, at a bare minimum, the memory of Jesus’ claim to be the messianic agent of the eschatological redemption who would share God’s throne, the Easter experiences of the disciples, their on-going religious experience including visions of the risen Jesus, and reflection on scripture in light of those experiences, provided the primary catalyst for most of the christological development that took place in the months and years following Jesus’ death. While I would need to tease this out further, I believe there was widespread and near-immediate belief on two key christological fixtures: (1) The identification of Jesus with the God of Israel (though in what precise sense remained to be worked out); and (2) The identification of Jesus of Nazareth as the risen and exalted Lord Jesus Christ (fostering a unity between Jesus’ earthly career and his exalted status). These, I submit, were twin goal posts marking out the field of early proto-orthodox christology.

I agree with Bart that Michael Peppard’s book The Son of God in the Roman World is a great book that shows that one could read the Gospel of Mark in an adoptionist fashion and that this would be a high evaluation of Jesus rather than a low one for Roman readers – that said I do have some other issues with Peppard’s book like Mark’s use of the OT and Mark’s christology as a whole. Largely following Peppard, Bart says on his blog:

My view is that this is the earliest Christology, the earliest view of Christ from right after his death. During his life, no one thought that he was more than a Jewish preacher, teacher, prophet, and/or messiah. After his death they thought that God had made him his very son, exalted him to a position of unimaginable power and authority, seated on a throne in heaven at his own right hand, where he rules with God over the world and is coming back soon in glory to destroy the enemies of God (including those who had crucified him) and set up God’s kingdom on earth.

This is what I’m contesting.  Let me explain.

Romans 1:3-4

This text is taken by Bart and others to suggest that the earliest christology was adoptionist. Bart says Jesus goes from being a “human Messiah” to the “Son of God in power” by “his resurrection.”

First, I have to confess that I found Bart frustrating at this point (see 1:59:10 in the debate). My frustration is that I’m sure Bart is fully aware that the Messiah, the eschatological Son of David, is regarded as the Son of God. In texts like 2 Sam 7:12-16, Luke 1:32, and 4Q246, the Davidic Messiah is the Son of God! In Rom 1:3-4, “descendent of David” is a messianic claim and the Messiah is the Son of God! So in Rom 1:3-4 Jesus does NOT go from being a human Messiah to a divine Son, rather, he changes from being the Davidic Son of God on earth to the Son of God-in-power in heaven. So the change is in mode of divine sonship, not the beginning of divine sonship. This is not a controversial point if you read several commentaries (esp. Dunn, Moo, and even Bird).

Second, when Bart talks on his blog about cultural adoption, all of the examples are Roman. There is a reason for that. Adoption as a way of extending one’s dynasty was not generally practiced in Palestine. What is more, I stand by my point that the Jews were generally allergic to notions of deified humans (though Ehrman contests this, see 2:03:45 in the debate). Yes, Jewish authors could be believe that some figures ascended to heaven and were described as “equal to the angels” and like, but no one – not even Enoch in 1 Enoch if you ask me – is given a position that rivals God. As Jimmy Dunn points out, if we bring Josephus and Philo together in their critiques of deification, then “Jewish writings tend to be more scrupulous and less free in their attribution of divine sonship and divinity to men.” For case in point, see Jewish responses to Caligula’s claim to be divine, esp. Philo, Gai. 200-3; Josephus, Ant. 18.257-58.

A view of Jesus as adopted as God’s Son was likely to emerge, then, in a Roman context rather than a Jewish one. This is why it makes more sense for Jesus to be viewed as adopted as God’s Son by the Theodotians in Rome than by Jewish groups in Palestine or in the Trans-Jordan.

Acts 2:36, 5:33; 13:32-33

Bart also pointed out during the debate (1:58:36) that I didn’t mention several fragments from the book of Acts. True, I didn’t have time and I don’t find them very compelling. As a whole, these fragments (Acts 2:36, 5:30-32, 13:32-33) focus on exaltation and enthronement not adoption. Sonship language is entirely absent from Acts 2:36 and 5:30-32 – so no sonship, no adoption. There is a citation of Ps 2:7 in Acts 13:32-33, however that is simply pushing the same thing, exaltation and enthronement. A citation of Ps 2 is no more adoptionistic for Luke than it is for Justin Martyr. While it would take some explaining, I think it worth noting that Luke’s emphasis on exaltation/enthronement remains congruent with his overall christology which includes pre-existences and identifying Jesus as kyrios (see Kavin Rowe and Nina Henrichs-Tarasenkova).

Mark 1:9-11

I stand by the arguments I made during the debate here (though I wish I had time to both praise and demur from Michael Peppard’s book). Bart takes the baptism story as an adoption (Mark 1:9-11) and the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-13) and the words of the centurion at the cross (Mk 15:39) as a confirmation of Jesus’ divine sonship. The problem is that I don’t think Mark makes such a distinction. Mark sees these as three moments of revelation about Jesus’ identity, not an adoption followed up with two exclamation marks!

I think Eugene Boring nails it when he says: “It is …unMarkan to claim that Mark presents us with a human being Jesus who in the course of time is promoted to a higher ontological level, whether this be conceived as having happened at his baptism or at the resurrection/exaltation.”


In Bart’s response to my presentation, he was perplexed as to how I could say that the Ebionites did not hold to an adoptionist christology. In the debate (2:02:50 to be precise) he says that Irenaeus claimed that the Ebionites were adoptionist. The problem is Irenaeus DOESN’T say anything of the sort! This is what Irenaeus says: “Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates”  (Adv Haer 1.26.1-2). What links the Cerinthians, Carprocratians, and Ebionites together is a separation christology (i.e., the heavenly Christ comes on the man Jesus) NOT an adoptionist christology. Nothing else Irenaeus says about the Ebionites changes that (see Adv Haer 3.11.7; 3.21.1; 4.33.4; 5.1.3). It is only with Epiphanius that we find suggestions that the Ebionites were adoptionistic. The problem is that Epiphanius is our most unreliable source here, he thinks there really was a dude called Ebion, who even went to Rome, and a lot of what he attributes to the Ebionites seems drawn from the Pseudo-Clementines. If you read patristic sources the common thing associated with the Ebionites is possession christology not adoptionism (see Tertullian, Carn. Chr. 14; Ps-Tertullian, Haer. 3; Hippolytus, Ref. 7.22; 10.18; Epiphanius, Pan. 30.1.3; 30.3.4-6; 30.14.4; 30.34.6). So with several scholars, like Michael Peppard and Alan Segal, I don’t call the Ebionites adoptionists.


I cannot prove that no one never in the early decades had an adoptionist christology; I’ve never said that I could demonstrate that. But what I think I can say, is that the texts and groups associated with adoptionism do not express a real adoptionist christology. The first real adoptionists were a chapter of the Theodotians in Rome around 200 AD who think Jesus was deified/adopted at his resurrection.

I have a short book on this which I’m sending out to some friends for comments and currently shopping it around with publishers. Hopefully, for those interested, you’ll be able to read a full length treatment soon enough!

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