How Did Jesus Become God-Become-Jesus?

How Did Jesus Become God-Become-Jesus? February 26, 2014

David Capes mentioned a panel at the next SBL annual meeting, which I will have the privilege of being on, which will discuss Bart Ehrman’s forthcoming book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Publishers know how to promote their books, and so Mike Bird and others have already come up with a response to Ehrman’s book even before advance copies are available, calling their book How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature.

I called my post what I did because this reflects a showdown between two viewpoints – one which views Jesus as initially viewed as a fully human and not a divine figure, who is subsequently given an exalted status, and the other which views Jesus as considered the incarnation of God from the outset. There have been scholarly debates about this for a very long time, and so the big question at this stage is whether either book or both will actually advance our understanding of New Testament Christology, or will simply reiterate entrenched viewpoints that have been around for a long time.

And on a subject which Bart Ehrman wrote previously, namely mythicism, see the picture in Jim Linville’s recent post.

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  • Just Sayin’

    One book will be promoted by a major secular publisher, boosted by author appearances on major secular news media, will be read in both print and e-book by thousands of people, borrowed from libraries by many more, and read by still more when piles of copies end up (as even the best books do) on bookstore remainder tables priced at a few dollars apiece.

    The other will be read by a few hundred Christians who already know what they think, and who will think exactly the same thing after they read the book (if they ever do get around to reading it).

    • Sean Garrigan

      I think you’ve probably anticipated what will happen quite well. I suspect that Ehrman’s book will also be released as an audiobook from audible, which will allow folks like me who lately seem to only have time for “reading” with my ears to enjoy his latest contribution:-)

    • Yeah, promotion is almost everything and “working the media” is indeed a bit “unfair”. But if this didn’t happen, I wonder how many traditional Christians would even know that Ehrman and many others like him have written dozens of well-researched, well-written books in recent years? And on vital topics? (And let alone given his data a hearing?)

  • Even if these books simply reiterate entrenched and long-standing viewpoints, the lay public will have the benefit of being exposed to issues that were previously only heard in academic communities.

    I, for one, am very pleased by this trend!

  • Whether Jesus was a fictional character or a real counter-culture street preacher doesn’t matter if one follows him only for his ethical teachings and does not need him for a Pauline fire insurance talisman.

    So my attitude to the debate is like Tommy Lee Jones’ in The Fugitive when he said: “I don’t care!” 😉

    • Brad in KY

      Paul didn’t mention hell.

  • $41348855

    This has a bearing on the mythicism debate. One of Richard Carrier’s motives for endorsing mythicism is that, in his opinion, the deification of Jesus can’t be explained on historicism. He said this on his blog recently in response to someone who suggested that Jesus may have been a rather low-key figure during his life.

    “That’s self-contradictory. If people thought he was the most plain and ordinary man, they would never have come to believe he was a preexistent superbeing who created and now rules the entire universe. You can’t have it both ways. Either Jesus was so incredibly charismatic and impressive that he could actually convince people he was a superbeing, or he wasn’t. If he wasn’t, then Christianity would never have happened–unless Jesus didn’t exist and he was a celestial superbeing
    from the start.”

    • And of course, that is pretty nonsensical. Plato was apparently viewed as the offspring of divinity even during his own lifetime.

      • $41348855

        Indeed, and the passage in Philippians that suggests his preexistence also says that he humbled himself and became obedient.

  • Jeremiah J. Preisser

    I am familiar with Ehrman`s view(I am about 75% through his “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium” right now) on this topic but not the view that Jesus` early followers venerated him as God incarnate, therefore I have a question: how blasphemous would it have been for Jews to believe that or to even present that idea to other Jews?

    • If the view is that a human being embodied the divine presence, perhaps possessed by God’s Spirit as none other had been, then I do not think that it was by definition blasphemy (as you probably know from my books). Claiming that a man rejected by the Jewish leaders and crucified by the Romans was such a figure, or even just the awaited Davidic anointed one, might on the other hand have seemed offensive.

      • Jeremiah J. Preisser

        Thank you for the clarification and forgive me, I am an amateur on these matters.

        • Not at all! And do be aware that my view is not universally held among scholars.

      • Andrew Dowling

        “if the view is that a human being embodied the divine presence, perhaps possessed by God’s Spirit as none other had been”

        I think this is a nice summation of a common view of Jesus among the earliest Christ-followers.

        When scholars try to posit such a radical departure from Judaism arising just weeks/years after Jesus’s death (like very early Christian belief mirrored what you’d fine in 1 Clement), I think the results look like special pleading.

        • Agreed… I can’t see the “radical departure…”, even in the book of Acts, which makes the coming of the Holy Spirit a key pivot point (at Pentecost). And can you elaborate on “… what you’d fin(d) in 1 Clement”?

          • Andrew Dowling

            Well, 1 Clement probably wasn’t the best example to juxtapose (since it’s Christology is not as advanced as what you find later in the 2nd century) but I was just thinking of an early “orthodox” Church screed which espouses developments of Pauline theology, which when mixed with Gentile Greek philosophy (which occurred more with the later Fathers) became the “creedal” Christianity we know today, with its corresponding (very) high Christology.

  • Deane

    “one which views Jesus as initially viewed as a fully human and not a divine figure”

    Or, perhaps more accurately, which does view Jesus as a divine figure but not as God.

    • Andrew Dowling

      That’s certainly a better way to view Pauline theology.

    • As Andrew says, below, are you thinking Paul and the Jerusalem leaders might have been in agreement on this… NEITHER seeing Jesus as God? (I’m pretty solid that was the Jerusalem view, or at least Jesus as uniquely vindicated as Messiah via his “resurrection”, but not clear re. Paul, who brings in a complex spiritual cosmology.)

  • Jim

    I pre-ordered Bart Ehrman’s book in 2013, and don’t know how he will approach this subject. Re the related apologetic rebuttal by Michael Bird, I am proverbially pre-judging the book by its cover. The Trinity debate occupied good portions of the 4th century, with the theo-political consensus that homoousios was “the word”. The theologians of the day couldn’t present a clear description of this, so the rule for Orthodox confession was that Trinity was a mystery that could only be perceived by faith. And if that wasn’t working for you, Emperor Theodosius was more than willing to provide the required counselling.

    So I don’t know what additional evidence Bird et al can provide on how God became Jesus other than resorting to the standard apologetic lines using the standard scriptural addresses. Maybe I’m jumping the gun a bit on their rebuttal, and possibly they’ll be presenting new high res WMAP satellite images of the cosmic microwave background just nanoseconds before the big bang that reveal a Rev 4.2 throne room image with three occupants.

  • Michael Bird

    James, aren’t we in a cynical mood today? I’m hoping you’ll be in our SBL session!

    • Me, cynical? Nah. Probably more a combination of impressed and jealous, that you have been so quick off the mark, to respond to the book without even seeing it. 🙂

      Back before Y2K, I was contemplating writing a book under a fake name about how the world was going to end, and a book under my real name debunking the first book…

      • Michael Bird

        James, ahem, I was quick off the mark, but I have read Ehrman’s book, quite thoroughly, that’s what we’re responding too. Saw pre-pub version in December. Hoping you’ll join the show in SBL!

        • Well, I hoped that that would have been the case! But since people nowadays sometimes “respond” to things even before they have become available, it wouldn’t hurt for you to say it explicitly once in a while. 😉

          I’m looking forward to being part of the panel next November!