So far in this review, I have been quite critical of Dr. Ehrman’s book, How Jesus Became God. I agree with him that Jesus did not think he was God and never claimed to be God. But there isn’t much else in those first five chapters with which I do agree. His main point is that the early Christians began believing Jesus was God because of their belief in his resurrection, and with that I disagree most vehemently.
Ehrman’s Chapter 6 is titled, “The Beginning of Christologies: Christ as Exalted to Heaven.” What is Christology? The narrow definition is that it is the study of Jesus as the Christ, the promised Messiah of Israel. The definition that most scholars use is that it is everything about Jesus, especially his identity.
Ehrman begins by revealing more about his early religious experience. He says (p. 211), “I was an altar boy every Sunday at the Episcopal church” in Lawrence, Kansas. He says as a sophomore in high school (p. 212), “I was born again.” On p. 213, Ehrman well defines a Christian as a person who believes Jesus “was the Christ of God and was determined both to accept the salvation he brought and to follow him.” Too bad he didn’t continue that way. That is why the NT has many warnings to professing Christians about continuing to persevere in the faith.
A point about Bart Ehrman that readers need to remind themselves about is that he writes as a historian about what Christians have believed and what he thinks the Bible says, and this needs to be distinguished from what Ehrman himself believes. A prominent example is that he refers to Jesus as “Christ” way more than “Jesus,” just as many Christians do who are steeped in Paul’s NT letters. This practice appears to me to be a residual holdover from his previous Christian profession. I object to this in a trade book for general readers, yet I’m sort of glad he does it. (See my post about this subject on 6/20/2014—“Talk About Jesus, Not Christ, to Unbelievers.”)
Ehrman is both an agnostic and a Christian apostate. The latter is a person who was a professing Christian but later departed from this belief and remains an unbeliever. So, was Ehrman a real Christian in the first place? For many Christians, this question arouses a topic that is almost as important to them as whether or not Jesus is God. Ehrman says (p. 171), “it simply is not true that I never had a personal relationship with Jesus. Quite the contrary: Jesus and I were very close, and for many years, He was my daily companion, comforter, guide, and teacher, as well as my Lord and Savior.” Wow! Deciding whether or not this is possible affects our theology big time. That is, did Ehrman lose his salvation, or did he never have it in the first place?
Back to Ehrman’s book, he soon examines the various ways in which NT authors identify Jesus as “the Son of God.” He does so by presupposing this identification of Jesus indicates he is divine or God in some sense. Not so! Identifying Jesus in the NT as “(the) Son of God” should be understood as this expression is used in the OT. Therein, men, angels, and the king of Israel are sometimes designated as “son of God” (e.g., Genesis 6.2-4; 2 Samuel 7.14; Job 1.6; 2.1; Psalm 2.7). Ehrman repeatedly cautions, and rightfully so, that it is important to ask in what sense Jesus is identified as divine or God. During the second through the fourth centuries, the Catholic Church increasingly developed its belief that Jesus was God. In the second and third centuries, church fathers called “apologists” gave a defense of their faith in their pagan world and claimed Jesus was “God,” but to a lesser degree than the Father.
Ehrman first cites the Apostle Paul’s statement that Jesus “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1.4 NRSV). But Ehrman makes a practice of unjustly presuming things, such as asserting that this statement means at Jesus’ resurrection he “was made, then and there, into a divine being” (p. 218). And Ehrman says (p. 221), “Son of God in power” here means “exalted divine Son.” He says again (p. 224), “The resurrection was Jesus’ exaltation into divinity.” And he twice says Jesus was “exalted to a divine status” (pp. 243-44).
Of course, Jesus is “the Son (of God)” in many NT texts. The article means he is a greater Son of God than all other sons of God. (And that is why English Bible versions capitalize “Son” when applied to Jesus even though all of the original NT documents were uncials, meaning they were written in Greek capital letters since Greek at that time did not have lower case.) Yet it should be noted that the nrsv is right in Romans 1.4, in contrast to most English versions, by omitting the article “the” prior to “Son” since huios (son) is anarthrous (no article) in the Greek text.
Ehrman echoes many historical critics by saying that this adoptionist Christology was the earliest of all. He says of the earliest Christians (p. 231), “They believed that Jesus had been exalted to the highest status.” Disregarding adoptionist Christology, I believe this Exaltation Christology is correct and that the NT does not claim any more about Jesus’ status than this. But such exaltation—Jesus sitting beside God on God’s heavenly throne—does not logically make Jesus God as Ehrman presupposes.
Ehrman also says of Jesus’ heavenly exaltation (p. 234), “He was the heavenly messiah who was ruling—now—over the kingdom of his Father,” making him “the master and sovereign over all the earth.” Many Christians would agree, but the last clause is unbiblical. Rather, Satan is “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4.4). He therefore had authority to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4.9). Only at the end of this age does the statement by the twenty-four angelic elders in heaven apply, “We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants” (Revelation 11.17-18; cf. Psalm 2). Only then will God’s angels in heaven exclaim “Hallelujah” three times and say, “For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns” (19.6). These two apocalyptic texts imply that God has not been reigning on earth until then. And “Almighty” in the NT always refers to God.
Ehrman claims a development of Jesus’ Sonship in the NT in its later books. Since scholars believe Paul’s letters were written before the four NT gospels, Ehrman cites the synoptic accounts of Jesus’ baptism as evidence of this further development. It is because at Jesus’ baptism a voice from above said, “This is my Son the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3.17 etc.). Bart claims that these gospel writers meant by this that Jesus became the Son of God at his baptism. This again reflects Ehrman’s unwarranted presumptions. These texts provide no such evidence; rather, it is just as possible to think they indicate the voice from above merely recognizes what has previously been true, that Jesus has been and still is the Son of God.
Ehrman next accuses Luke of holding two conflicting views of Jesus’ Sonship by citing Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism as well as Luke’s earlier birth narrative of Jesus (Luke 1.26-80; 3.22). Concerning the latter, the angel Gabriel appeared to the virgin Mary and said of Jesus, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High,… The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1.32, 35). (Again, both occurrences of huios in the Greek text are anarthrous.) But Luke does not contradict himself if the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism merely recognized Jesus’ Sonship that began at his conception.
I think Jesus’ Sonship probably should be viewed as his messiahship and kingdom are. And Jesus as Son of God and Messiah can be viewed synonymously. Scholars argued for two centuries as to whether or not Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher of his kingdom. They finally agreed that Jesus’ God-given kingdom is both realized (current) and eschatological (future). In other words, his kingdom is both “now” and “not yet.” That is, it now exists spiritually in the hearts of people, but in the future it will come instantly in all of its manifested glory. Likewise, Jesus may attain increasing levels of Sonship and messiahship. In his first coming, he was a suffering Messiah; but in his second coming, he will be a militaristic messiah like David. The latter is the only form of messiahship Jews envisioned, and they can rightly cite many texts in their Scriptures that attest to this. Accordingly, Jesus has attained three levels as the Son of God: (1) he was born the Son of God, (2) his obedience to God by being baptized and thereby undertaking his God-given mission transitioned him to a second level, and (3) his death, resurrection and ascension raised him to a third level by sitting beside God on God’s throne. And I would suggest that Jesus will attain yet a fourth level as Messiah-King-Son of God when he comes in glory to militarily defeat his enemies and establish his kingdom of eternal peace on earth.
Ehrman titles chapter 7, “Jesus as God on Earth: Early Incarnational Christologies.” He begins by rightly saying Christians who believe Jesus is God find their biblical support for it mostly in the Gospel of John. Like all nearly all Christians and most scholars, Ehrman asserts that this gospel declares repeatedly that Jesus is God whereas the synoptics do not. On pp. 124, 248, and 272, he makes his case briefly by quoting John 8.58, 10.30, and 14.9. And on p. 272, he adds Thomas’ confession in John 20.28. I devote many pages in my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ, to refuting that these texts say Jesus is God or that he preexisted. In my opinion, it is shoddy scholarship for Ehrman to argue this case in these brief pages in a book of this nature. Plus, he does not address those Johannine texts that oppose belief that Jesus is God, and most of them are sayings of Jesus himself. For instance, Jesus prayed to the “Father,” saying, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17.1, 3). And in John 5.19-47 and 10.34-38, Jesus clearly denied the Jews’ accusations that he was “making himself equal to God” and “making yourself God” (5.18; 10.33). Plus, Jesus said, “The Father is greater than I” (14.28). As for Jesus saying, “I and the Father are one” (John 10.30; cf. 17.11, 21-23), he means they are unified in purpose and work as the previous context reveals.
Thus, I think the Gospel of John, as do the synoptics, clearly distinguishes between Jesus and God, whom Jesus called “Father.” In other words, I believe the Bible says there is only one true God, as Jesus says in John 17.3, and this one God is the Father. So, only the Father is God. I was a Trinitarian for twenty-two years. But for over thirty years now I have believed that the doctrine of the Trinity appears to teach three Gods even though Trinitarians deny this. However, I want to make it perfectly clear that I believe a person can be a Trinitarian and also be a genuine Christian. When I was a Trinitarian, I was a true Christian. Belief or disbelief in the doctrine of the Trinity has nothing to do with whether or not a person is a Christian. Thus, I support the Apostles’ Creed but reject the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
Ehrman is surely right in saying that if Jesus had claimed to be God, surely it would be “in the Synoptic Gospels” (p. 249). Then on pp. 250-51 he claims that belief in Jesus’ resurrection caused many early Christians to believe he had preexisted as an angel, probably “the angel of the LORD” mentioned repeatedly in the OT. In about AD 165, church father Justin Martyr wrote a book arguing for this interpretation to further support he belief that Jesus preexisted. But there is no evidence that devout Christians in the first century believed Jesus was an angel.
The Apostle Paul says in Galatians 4.14 that those Christians “welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” Ehrman claims in this text (p. 252), “Paul holds to an incarnation Christology.” This traditional view means Jesus preexisted as God and became the man Jesus, which is a part of the doctrine of the Trinity. But hardly any Trinitarian scholars think that of this text. Moreover, Ehrman asserts (p. 252), “In this verse Paul calls Christ an angel.On the contrary, Paul only means that those Galatian Christians welcomed him as they would an angel or Jesus. For Paul later writes, “Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels” (Col 2.18). Paul would not have written this if he believed Jesus had been an angel and deserving of worship.
Ehrman also says (p. 253), “As the Angel of the Lord, Christ is a preexistent being who is divine; he can be called God.” I maintain that angels are not divine, which means deity. The Hebrew Bible sometimes identifies angels as elohim (Psalm 95.3; 96.4; 138.1), the primary Hebrew word for “God;” but it occasionally calls men elohim as well (e.g., Psalm 82.6; cf. John 10.34-35). We must accept that throughout the Hebrew Bible, the word elohim has a wide range of use. Yet Isaiah the prophet declares that God says repeatedly, “besides me there is no god” (elohim: Isaiah 44.6; 45.5-6, 18, 21-22).
Ehrman, like many historians, speaks of “Christian Gnostics.” I think that is an oxymoron. Gnosticism was not Christian at all. In fact, NT writers sometimes opposed incipient Gnosticism, and when they did they could be harsh about it.
Gnosticism was dualistic. It said the God of the Jewish Bible was evil, he created the universe, physical is evil or the source of evil, and only spirit is pure and good. Thus, Docetists were a type of Gnostics who denied that Jesus had an actual physical body. They alleged that he was only a spirit or an angel. In the NT, this view is opposed the most in 1 John. But readers cannot understand it properly unless they know about Docetism. That is why 1 John begins, “We declare to you … what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life”—referring to Jesus’ physical body (1 John 1.1). And the author says further, “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess [this of] Jesus is not from God” (4.2-3).
Likewise, we read in 2 John, “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 1.7). Spirits and/or angels do not possess a physical body, and that is what most differentiates them from humans.
The author of Hebrews negates that Jesus was ever an angel. The first half of his book is devoted to arguing that the resurrected, heavenly-exalted Jesus is superior to angels, Moses, and others. He says when Jesus “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” he had “become as much superior to angels” (Hebrews 1.4). And the author says of God, “To which of the angels has he ever said, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’?” (1.13). This is a quotation from Psalm 110.1, the most quoted OT text in the NT. Also, this Jewish author further nullifies that Jesus was either an angel or God by saying of him, “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (2.17), referring to the Jewish people. If Jesus was ever an angel or God, he was never fully human.
Ehrman, in arguing his points in this book, never treats any biblical text at length except one. On p. 253, he claims Paul says Jesus is both an angel and God more in Philippians 2.6-11 than anywhere else in his NT letters. Ehrman then devotes fourteen pages to arguing his case, calling this a “Christ poem” rather than a hymn.
Ehrman adopts the common “preexistence interpretation” of Philippian 2.6-11. In my RJC book, I devote much more space to this text and follow James D.G. Dunn—who believes Jesus was God but he never said so. Thus, I embrace the “human interpretation” of this text, which does not say Jesus preexisted. Ehrman says he’d like to believe it but has three reasons against it, which I think are not compelling. Then he says of this human interpretation (p. 262), “It does not solve the problem of an incarnational Christology—because Paul clearly says in other passages that Jesus was indeed a preexistent divine being who came into the world.”
I beg to differ. Paul never says Jesus is God. Three main texts traditionalists cite to prove otherwise are Romans 9.5; 2 Thessalonians 1.12 (cf. 2 Peter 1.1); Titus 2.13. But all three are notorious for having grammatical difficulty. That is why English Bibles are about evenly divided on translating them to say that Jesus is God (One-Person View) or that he is not God (Two-Person View). But Ehrman is right in saying if the first half of the poem in Philippians 2.6-11 says Jesus is God, therein “he is not—most definitely not—‘equal’ with God before he becomes human.
Paul introduces this poem/hymn as an example of humility for us to follow. On p. 256, Ehrman accuses Paul of a contradiction in Philippians 2.6-11. He alleges of this two-part poem, “part of the poem does not seem to fit its context … The problem is that the second half of the Christ poem (vv. 9-11) does not at all convey this lesson, and if taken seriously, it may seem to run counter to it” since it says God rewarded Jesus for his humility. Ehrman argues that this is a contradiction. He explains (p. 257), “Christ’s eventual exaltation does not fit the purpose behind Paul’s quotation of the poem, since if someone is humbly obedient because of what he or she will eventually get out of it, that is simply another way of doing things out of self-interest.” But the poem does not speak to this issue, that is, whether or not Jesus purposely humbled himself in order to be rewarded for it.
The Bible, however, is full of teaching about people living godly lives and God rewarding them for it (e.g., Matthew 6.1, 4, 6, 18). There is no greater example of this in the Bible than Jesus himself, as Paul says in Phil 2.9-11, and this is also stated in the book of Hebrews. The author sets forth a most fundamental principle about faith and godliness by declaring, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11.6). Then he provides narratives about great people of faith mentioned in the OT. He concludes by saying, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [regarding faith], let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” as his God-given reward (12.2).
Many other biblical texts could be cited to disprove Ehrman’s contention. One is, why does Jesus teach, “The last shall be first”? It is because God exalts those who humble themselves. Jesus once said, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18.4). People make themselves humble, yet Christians rightly believe it is done in the power and Spirit of God. Yet Jesus also taught his disciples, “when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’” (Luke 17.10 NIV).
Ehrman supposes a contradiction between Isaiah and Paul in Philippians 2.10-11 and its quotation from Isaiah 45.23 about people confessing and bowing the knee. He alleges (p. 265), “according to Isaiah, ‘there is no other.’” Yet for Paul, God plus Jesus are in focus. Although Isaiah says, “There is no other god besides me” (Isaiah 45.21), that does not preclude God sharing his glory with someone else who is not God, which he will do with his righteous, suffering Servant. For Isaiah previously says on behalf of God, “I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other” (Isaiah 42.8), that is, than the one he was just talking about by saying, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (v. 6; cf. Isaiah 9.1-2). He is Jesus, “a light to the nations” and “the Redeemer of Israel” (Isaiah 49.6-7). Yet Ehrman is right in saying here of Jesus, “how could he be God, if God was God.”
Ehrman again takes up his assertion that the Bible teaches that Jesus was “the angel of the LORD” in the OT. He says (p. 269), “He was an angelic divine being before coming into the world; he was the Angel of the Lord; he was eventually exalted to be equal with God.” Now remember, Ehrman merely is saying this is what he thinks the Bible says, not what Ehrman believes.
Ehrman now relates that when he was a Christian (supposedly), he believed Jesus was God because (p. 270), “For John, Jesus was equal with God,” referring to the Gospel of John. Ehrman is right in saying that John’s prologue, John 1.1-18, teaches a Logos Christology (Logos is God) rather than Classical Christology (Jesus is God).
Ehrman does well in closing chapter 7 by asking (p. 282), “If Christ really was God, and God the Father was God, how could Christians claim that there was just one God? Aren’t there two Gods? And if the Holy s also God, aren’t there three Gods? If so, aren’t Christians polytheists instead of monotheists.” That’s what lots of Jews and Christians think.
As stated earlier, Ehrman is first of all a historian. In the book’s remaining chapters, 8 and 9, the professor does a good job of presenting the history of Christology. It is therefore unnecessary for me to review this material since my purpose in this review is mostly to reply to the professor’s remarks about Jesus. One caveat I have, however, is that in Ehrman’s mention of the early Jewish Christians called Ebionites (pp. 290-91), he should also have mentioned those called Nazarenes. Both date way back in history, probably to the first century. Both believed Jesus was the Messiah, but not God. But the Ebionites did not believe in the Virgin Birth, and being Judaizers, they rejected Paul’s teaching. But the Nazarenes believed exactly like I do about Jesus, that he was virgin-born, sinless, and they embraced Paul’s teaching.
Ehrman well explains (p. 308), “as theology moved forward to become increasingly nuanced and sophisticated, these early majority opinions [of Christians] came to be condemned as heresies” by the church. He relates (pp. 305-09) that for Marcion there were two gods—the Father and Jesus. Again, Ehrman well asks (p. 309), “But if God the Father is God, and Christ is God, how is it that there are not two Gods?” Then he relates concerning the lawyer turned apologist who sort of coined the term “Trinity” (L. trinitas), “Tertullian admits that the ‘majority of believer’ have trouble accepting his own view but prefer the view of the modalists.” They wrongly believed that the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit were merely three different “modes,” that is, manifestations not persons, of the one being who is God. That is the belief of the current United Pentecostal Church. Ehrman ends chapter eight by asking again (p. 320), “If Jesus is to be worshiped and God the Father is to be worshiped, how does one avoid the conclusion that the Christians worship two Gods?” Notice how many times I have quoted Ehrman asking such questions. Any review of this book is totally insufficient if it does not address these questions.
Ehrman begins his closing chapter 9 by saying (p. 323), “After I stopped being an evangelical Christian, I worshiped for years in liberal Christian churches. Most people in these congregations were not literalists” regarding the Bible. Yet he says many of these churches liturgically recite the Nicene Creed that begins, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty.” Then he adds (p. 324), “many Christians who say these words have no idea why they are there…. It was originally formulated precisely against Christians who claimed there were two Gods.” And on p. 326, Ehrman again asks his questions about the Father and Jesus being two Gods.
In an Epilogue, Ehrman admits (p. 354), “I especially resonate with the ethical teachings of Jesus…. I agree wholeheartedly with these views and try my best to live according to them.” Ehrman does believe that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who expected the end to come soon with its resurrection, judgment, and glorious kingdom on earth. But Ehrman says Jesus was a victim of his environment in this. So Ehrman explains, “To make sense of Jesus, I have recontextualized him … for the day in which I live.” How many people have done that and will be sorry about it someday?