2014 SBL Panel Discussion of Bart Ehrman’s book, “How Jesus Became God”

2014 SBL Panel Discussion of Bart Ehrman’s book, “How Jesus Became God” March 22, 2015

During the past few weeks, I posted a three-part review that I wrote of Dr. Bart Ehrman’s book, How Jesus Became God. Before I read this book, I attended a 2.5 hour session at the Society of Biblical Literature’s Annual Meeting, in late November, 2014, at San Diego that involved a panel of six scholars who discussed this new book. The panel participants were James McGrath, Michael Bird, Dale Martin, Craig Evans, Larry Hurtado, and Bart Ehrman. Bird, Hurtado, and Evans are traditionalists (=believe Jesus is God); McGrath believes Jesus is not the God of Israel; like Ehrman, Martin is skeptical and thus difficult to categorize. Ehrman is professedly agnostic and a former evangelical Christian. Each of the first five scholars presented papers critiquing this book. Ehrman was alloted 25 minutes to respond to these papers. Readers who have some knowledge of Christology will recognize that Dr. Ehrman, who is a historian who happens to be a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at a secular university, holds many viewpoints that are common to historical critics of the NT. For about the past fifteen years, I’ve been friends with McGrath, Evans, and Hurado. (Hurtado was the speaker one year at Kermit Zarley Lectures). And I’ve known Ehrman since 2010. I took notes of this session, and these notes are as follows:

First reviewer: James McGrath (author of The Only True God and John’s Apologetic Christology)

  • Ehrman says in the NT, only the Gospel of John presents an Incarnational Christology.
  • Ehrman says Paul’s NT letters do not say Jesus preexisted.
  • Yet Ehrman also says Romans 9.5 probably identifies Jesus as God.
  • McGrath disagrees, yet he thinks 1 Cor 10.4 teaches that Jesus preexisted.
  • Ehrman says Jesus was not given a decent, honorable burial, thus no empty tomb.

Second reviewer: Michael Bird (relatively new Australian scholar)

  • Positively, this best-selling book causes people to discuss this subject.
  • Negatively, the book does not discuss other viewpoints, ignoring Hurtado and Bauckham.
  • There is no topic in Christology more complex than Jesus’ Son of Man sayings in NT.
  • Ehrman says that in these sayings, Jesus never identifies himself as that Son of Man.
  • Ehrman is right in saying if Jesus did arise from the dead, that does not affirm he was God

Third reviewer: Dale Martin (agrees with Ehrman on many things about Jesus)

  • Ehrman says that according to the NT gospels, Jesus never said he was “divine.”
  • Ehrman says that prior to Jesus’ death, none of his disciples considered if he was divine.
  • Ehrman says Jesus’ saying in Matt 10.19 is a denial that he is God.
  • Ehrman says Paul often distinguishes Jesus and God, though he may have believed Jesus had a lesser divinity.
  • Ehrman says after Jesus’ death, the early disciples’ belief in his resurrection caused them to first have an Adoptionist and Exaltation Christology.
  • Martin accepts only an Adoptionist Christology.
  • Martin says Jesus of the ministry didn’t claim to be the Messiah, but he may have at the end.
  • Ehrman accepts the NT gospel accounts of Pilate’s trial of Jesus as historical, but Martin doesn’t.
  • Martin doesn’t accept as historical the gospels saying Jesus predicted his death and resurrection.
  • Martin does not accept the gospels accounts of Jesus’ empty tomb as being historical.
  • Martin claims Jesus’ disciples did not know where he was buried, if at all.
  • Martin alleges that the gospel accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances suggest that they are not historical due to the diversity, if not contradiction, in their details.

Fourth reviewer: Craig Evans (author of many books and an authority on Jesus’ resurrection)

  • Ehrman does not believe in Jesus’ empty tomb, but Evans does.
  • Ehrman sides with John Dominic Crossan, who says Jews did not get Jesus crucified.
  • Evans says the Romans usually left bodies on crosses to be eaten by animals, but not always.
  • Evans cites sources to support that Romans sometimes allowed crucified victims a decent burial.
  • Evans says Roman officials had authority to grant the right of crucified victims to a decent burial.
  • Evans says Romans had laws against transporting human corpses to another tomb.
  • Evans says Josephus says (Jewish Wars, book 4, p. 317) in Palestine Romans usually allowed Jews to bury (entomb) crucified victims.
  • Evans says Philo and Josephus say Romans allowed customs to keep Pax Romano (peace).

Fifth reviewer: Larry Hurtado (author of many books)

  • Ehrman’s book is a trade book. Thus, it is addressed to the public, not scholars.
  • Ehrman says Jews during Jesus’ time were monotheistic. Hurtado disagrees, saying Jews then, and even their Bible, including Isaiah, say there are other gods besides YHWH.

Ehrman’s Response to McGrath:

  • Paul and other NT writers believed in Adoptionist Christology after Jesus’ supposed resurrection.
  • Exaltation Christology is a “low Christology” that starts with Jesus being a man. In contrast, Incarnational Christology begins with Jesus being God.
  • Paul says in the Philippians hymn-poem of Phil 2.6-11 that Jesus was a preexistent, divine being and that it was at his exaltation that he was granted a divine status that was less than God’s.
  • Romans 9.5 probably calls Jesus “God over all.”

Ehrmans’ Response to Bird:

  • The key to writing a book is have in mind the audience to which you are writing.
  • This book is intended for a “popular audience.”
  • Ehrman differs with Bird by Ehrman saying Jesus never claimed to be God.
  • Only a few of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospel of John are historical.
  • Christians believed Jesus was God due to their belief in his resurrection and heavenly exaltation.

Ehrman’s Response to Martin:

  • Ehrman says  (1) Pilate tried Jesus, (2) Jesus admitted to Pilate that he, Jesus, was a king, (3) Pilate condemned Jesus, (4) Pilate had Jesus crucified because Jesus claimed to be the king of the Jews, yet Jesus had only meant it apocalyptically.

Ehrman’s Response to Evans:

  • Jesus was tried by Pilate for “high treason.”
  • The Romans would not have released Jesus’ body for burial, even to his relatives.
  • Josephus was wrong in saying Jews buried malfactors. For many decades during this time period, throughout the Roman Empire its officials crucified up to 500 people per day.
  • Jesus’ body was left on the cross for several days in accordance with Roman custom.
  • Philo only says crucified victims in Alexandria, Egypt, on the emperor’s birthday were permitted a decent burial.

Ehrman’s Response to Hurtado:

  • Larry is credible in discussion.
  • Some Jews did worship angels. (Ehrman says in his book that Paul believed Jesus was an angel.)
  • Modalists  believed Jesus was God the Father, and they were the majority in the Christian movement by the end of the second century.
  • Larry is wrong to think that as soon as Christins thought Jesus went to heaven and was exalted there that they necessarily thought he had preexisted his life on earth.
  • Paul calls Jesus an “angel” in Galatians 4.4. But Ehrman denies he believes this due to Charles Geichen’s book Angelmorphic Christology.

Questions from the Audience to Specific Scholars:

Evans’ Reply:

  • The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was Jesus’ actual tomb partly due to an archaelogical expedition conducted there under the direction Helena, Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother.
  • Excavation of tombs in the State of Israel is now illegal.
  • Evans discussed at length about nails due to Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.

Bird’s Reply:

  • He generally accepts the Son of Man traditions in the NT gospel sayings of Jesus’ as historically authentic. He cited one: Mark 10.5-6 (“go only to the house of Israel”).
  • Separating S of M sayings of Jesus, as historical critics do, is difficult.
  • Bird seems uncertain whether or not the Aramaic bar enash is a personal, self-reference.

Ehrman’s Reply:

  • The S of M gospel sayings of Jesus that are apocalyptic are historically authentic.
  • Jesus thought another S of M would come on the clouds of heaven to judge the earth.
  • The S of M in Daniel 7.13-14 refers to an actual person other than Jesus.
  • Docetism began sixty years after the Christ event, and it originated outside of Palestine. [Almost all scholars refer to “the land of Israel” during the time of Jesus as “Palestine.” I maintain this is anachronistic and therefore confusing, especially since the early twentieth century.]

Hurtado’s Reply:

  • He countered Ehrman by saying some Jews in Israel originated Docetism due to angel worship.

McGrath’s Reply:

  • Jesus did not claim to be the God of Israel.
  • The Gospel of John, only God the Father is the God of Israel.
  • [Hurtado was then asked this. He agreed with McGrath–Jesus is not the God of Israel.]
  • In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Logos (Word) who is God.
  • Jesus should be worshipped along with God the Father.
  • There is “a different range of meanings” for preexistence and worship of Jesus in the NT, and these need to be discussed.

Martin’s Response:

  • In Mark 10.18, Jesus denies both that he is God and that he is “good.”
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