How Jesus Became God: Initial Ripples

How Jesus Became God: Initial Ripples March 27, 2014

Bart Ehrman’s latest book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee is now available. I’ve received my copy and will be reading it and blogging about it soon.

Jeremy Bouma has already pointed out something important, which is typical of Ehrman’s books for a popular audience. He is simply popularizing and communicating what most scholars think. His view of the evolution of Christology is not something new and innovative. It is what scholars like Charles Moule, James D. G. Dunn, and myself have written about over the past half a century or so. And so for Evangelical scholars like Mike Bird to suggest that Ehrman is way off base is to suggest that much of mainstream scholarship is way off base – and that is something that conservative Evangelicals have always said, and so there is probably nothing new there either. But I’ll comment for sure when I’ve read both books.

Ehrman shared his first radio interview about the book on his blog.

Craig Evans also has a YouTube video in which he talks about the book:

See also Bouma’s round-up of some reactions thus far, and the review by Rob Bowman, for more conservative perspectives on these dueling books.

Of related interest, Fortress Press sent an e-mail which mentioned a new book by M. David Litwa, Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God. Dave Barron and Chris Tilling discussed monotheism and Christology at TheopologeticsCliff Kvidahl shared a quote about Bultmann. Michael Halcomb blogged about Chris Keith in drag and the criteria of authenticity, building on the doctoral work of Michael J. Thate. Chris Attaway asked whether Jesus is worth saving. Wesley Hill discussed the interaction between Larry Hurtado and Tom Wright. Gregory Jenks discussed what ought to be on Jesus’ birth certificate. And from a while back, see also Matt Hartke on the failure of futurism, and a post on whether Jesus was the Harold Camping of his time.

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  • Dan McClellan

    I don’t see Ehrman as just recycling standard christological arguments. I’ve only read the intro and a few pages of the first chapter, but he explains that Peppard’s book has greatly influenced his thinking (a far from standard approach), and he begins with some comments about divinity and humanity as a continuum rather than a dichotomy, which is an important point that, as far as I can tell, is only just beginning to crack the thick candy shell of christological scholarship.

    • Mankind is created on the 6th day, in God’s (divine) image. On the 6th day, Mankind starts out imperfect, because he imperfectly reflects God’s image. But as the 6th day comes to an end, and we enter into the 7th day (rest), creation is finally completed, i.e. Mankind is perfected, and at long last becomes a perfect representation of God’s divine image.

      God planned right from the start for this creation of Mankind (in the 6th day) to be achieved through Jesus Christ. Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God who was to be the first human to be perfected at the resurrection, by which he inaugurated the Way for us, that we may see the Truth, and have Life everlasting (ourselves becoming adopted as sons of God) …

      For some reason, people don’t realise that humans being created in God’s image actually means that humans are created to be divine. “All have sinned, and fall short of divine glory.” Christ came to cleanse us from sin, i.e. to remove our imperfections/flaws. so that we no longer fall short, and have the fullness of God (divinity) within us.

  • James Walker

    I find it fascinating how fundamentalism requires, at the core, an absolute certainty where everything can be known and everything can be measured (which seems to me the opposite of “faith”) while progressive Christianity embraces uncertainty, the immeasurable, the mysterious.

    • I agree, but let’s try seeing it from their perspective.

      Fundamentalism has faith in the mysteriously inerrant, infallible, authoritative, magical bible that any Tom, Dick or Harry is able to read and understand well enough to act like self-righteous pricks.

      Because life is easier when you are always right …

      What I mean is, that fundamentalists, in their crazed fanaticism, do not realise that they are actually placing their faith in themselves. But because they do it so indirectly, it’s really hard for them to realise this.

      Fundamentalist epistemology rests on this one unshakable pillar of security, whilst “Progressive Christians”, hopefully, adopt some form of Rationalism that allows them to develop a realistic view of the world which we live in.

      • James Walker

        as a former fundie, I’ve LIVED from that perspective before. well, if one can call “living” the constant fear that I might not have “really” been saved and that I might die at any moment and find myself burning in Hell…

      • MattB


  • Gary

    “He is simply popularizing and communicating what most scholars think”…and I find all of his books in my local library. I don’t have to pay $100 for a heavy academic book that I couldn’t understand. So he is doing a great service to the average person.

    • MattB

      Most scholars dispute the divinity of Jesus. There isn’t a consensus. There are at least 3 different view by scholars on who Jesus was. Ehrman holds that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher.

  • Evan Hershman

    I started reading it on Tuesday. So far, nothing revolutionary, but then, I’m an NT scholar so this kind of thing is not news to me. Still, I can see it being a great book for general audiences.

    • Chuck Jones

      I was a bit surprised in the intro to find out he no longer believes that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus, nor the visit of the women followers on the third day. That is getting away from the mainstream for sure.

  • C. Bauserman

    … Here’s a link to a site analyzing Ehrman’s approach to the burial of Christ (in two parts, this is part 1):

  • Andrew Dowling

    Erhman usually makes fairly decent books for a popular audience that reflect mainstream scholarship, although I do disagree with his Schweitzer redux opinion of Jesus and I find his contention that Jesus’s disciples proclaimed him the Messiah during his lifetime, which from an excerpt I’ve read seems to be a big part of his thesis here, extremely lacking.

    • Neko

      Oh that is all interesting; I wish you would elaborate. I’m sold on apocalyptic Jesus but am open to being persuaded otherwise.

      • Andrew Dowling

        Well, it’s a fairly complex debate in historical Jesus circles. I don’t fully align with the Jesus Seminar that Jesus never said anything at all apocalyptic, but I don’t that was the “crux” of his ministry or that all of the “kingdom” sayings were in a “apocalyptic milieu” so to speak.

        Trying to summarize in a nutshell, I think when you look at how Jesus is portrayed John, Thomas, Q, his differentiation from John the Baptist (a clear apocalyptic preacher) in the Synoptics, and especially the parables when the evangelists’ allegorization is removed (Thomas is a good source for this, and I concur with scholars who attest that they by and large include the more primitive versions of sayings, rather than redactions) and I think Jesus’s philosophy was more a mixture of anti-Temple, social justice Jewish prophet along the lines of Micah and Amos (which has of course some strains of “justice/judgment will come”) combined with a more mystical Wisdom sage who used nature metaphor to describe the intimacy of God in the present. The parables and sayings I think make much more sense in that context than in a largely apocalyptic context.

        I also think Mark, which Matthew and Luke copied, is a largely apocalyptic Gospel as it was written during the midst of the Jewish-Roman war, which the author saw as forecasting the end days. This in turn painted a Jesus forecasting such events. Did Jesus make statements against the Temple and proclaim its demise in some fashion? It’s likely, but I don’t think he ever said anything like the Olivet Discourse, which to me is a clear interpolation of a non-Mark authored apocalyptic text into the Gospel that the evangelist felt was appropriate for his audience at that time.

        I could go on, but as I said, it’s a complex debate with many good points and counter-points.

        • redpill99

          I think there is some historical memory preserved along with pre-Pauline confessions.

          From the book “But this is not what the original disciples believed during Jesus’s lifetime—and it is not what Jesus claimed about himself.”

          Philippians 2:5-11 “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

          6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
          did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
          7 rather, he made himself nothing
          by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
          being made in human likeness.
          8 And being found in appearance as a man,
          he humbled himself
          by becoming obedient to death—
          even death on a cross!”

          If this is indeed pre-Pauline confession, then I think some of the early disciples did see Jesus as God, borrowing from the Jewish Wisdom tradition.

          Jesus in both GJohn and GThomas claims to be one with God, which isn’t necessarily unhistorical given what we know about mystics. Mystics of all ages claim a special oneness with God.

          Mystics and Gurus in India routinely claim to be “god”.

          One source for GJohn is the signs gospel, which may be from a much earlier time period, which was credited to the Beloved Disciple, and hence an alleged eye witness. If so then Jesus and his disciples did see Jesus as “God” There is that reference to pool of siloam still standing so it’s fairly early.

        • Neko

          Thank you very much. It seems everything in NT studies is complicated “with many good points and counter-points,” and I appreciate your pithy description here.

          I gravitate to Mark and Paul where heady apocalyptic expectations are strong. I get that the gospels reflect contemporary concerns and that Mark was written sometime around the siege of Jerusalem when it must have seemed that the world was coming to an end, but Paul? Though presumably Caligula was taken to be a portent of impending catastrophe.

          That’s very interesting about Thomas. I don’t follow the scholarship, and it’s my understanding that the dating of the gospel and pedigree of the sayings are hotly contested. The notion is attractive that Jesus was a Gnostic in regard to the kingdom but not sure why that’s any more likely than that he was an apocalypticist. It’s probably just ignorance on my part.

          Anyway, thank you, you’ve given me quite a few points of reference to consider.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Just to clarify, I’m not saying Jesus was Gnostic . .I think there’s much in Thomas which doesn’t go back to the historical Jesus (although Thomas really isn’t “Gnostic” in the developed sense); but that the Synoptic parallels in Thomas are likely in their more original form-Thomas likely went through several versions and became more “proto-Gnostic” with time.

            In fact the KIngdom parables, which see God in nature metaphors, would be opposite the anti-material matter/natural world philosophy of most Gnostic theologies. But early Christianity always had some proto-Gnostic elements of people being able to “shed their old selves” and somehow enlighten a part of their inner beings which had greater union with the divine (both the Gospel of John and Paul allude to this) and I wouldn’t be shocked if at least small seeds of that can be traced back to Jesus.

            As for Paul . . what ignited his apocalyptic fervor? He never cites carrying in the tradition of Jesus or anything about the Kingdom, but cites the Resurrection experiences as proof that the parousia is imminent. Which tells me Paul’s theology of the end times, and likely those of other early Christians doesn’t necessarily hold root with Jesus’s earthly ministry. It wasn’t “the end is near, He said so!” it was “He has risen! Soon he will come back.”

          • Neko

            Thank you for the reply. I didn’t think you were saying Jesus was gnostic, although perhaps the gnostic views of the kingdom described, for example, in Thomas 3, 22, 49 you’d consider late developments.

            It wasn’t “the end is near, He said so!” it was “He has risen! Soon he will come back.”

            Could be both!

          • Andrew Dowling

            Could be, but that would fail to explain the lack of Resurrection theology in what appears to be the more Jewish-Christian documents of the 1st century (and I’d argue, closer to the beliefs of the actual apostles than Paul’s views, who never knew Jesus and attested that he received special revelation apart from Peter/James/John): Q, Didache, the Epistle of James, and even the Epistle to the Hebrews . . no mention of the Resurrection in either of those, which suggests to me that the Resurrection did not hold the central role in the theology of many Jewish-Christians as it did for Paul (and thus, contributes to the likelihood that claims of the Resurrection/imminent return don’t go back to Jesus)

            Nice conversing with you too, I find this whole topic fascinating.

  • Tim

    I’ve actually suspected something like this for years now, even though I’m not in mainstream biblical scholarship circles. It all started for me back in about 2007 when I started becoming suspicious of the “traditional” doctrine of hell, and trinitarianism.
    The stuff even Jesus says about himself (and God) in the scripture just doesn’t line up with what seems to be the popular view in evangelical and fundamentalist circles.

  • Hello James.

    In Was Jesus just your average Joe? , I argued it is pretty unlikely
    that Jesus was just an ordinary man on the grounds of the extreme
    dissimilarity between the conviction of His first disciples and the very
    high Christology one can find only one or two generations later.

    There needs to be something special about him.

    Ehrmann now thinks that extremely powerful and wonderful hallucinations do the job.
    Well I doubt it.
    Why did not the disciples of all other failed Messiah
    developed similar hallucinations and draw similar conclusions?
    Ehrmann has to postulate that this occurred by sheer chance
    to the early disciples but not to the other Messianic sects.

    I think that if you really want a naturalistic explanation, this should look like this:

    1) the body of Jesus disappeared in some way from a known tomb
    2) A group of female followers found the empty grave and were stunned
    3) as a consequence of this discovery the disciples
    got so excited that they began to have all sorts of visionary experiences
    4) this in turn led them to view Christ as a divine being

    I am currently trying to develop a (frequentist) probabilistic way to explore historical issues which avoids the pitfalls of the Bayesianism of folks such as Richard Carrier and allows the existence of unknown probabilities.

    Cheers from Europe.

    • Jerome

      The disciples returned to Galilee, crushed, but there at least one of them had an ‘epiphany’ and reinterpreted their defeat as a win.

  • Jerome

    I usually like Ehrman’s books and views but I don’t get why he ignores the statement made in the Gospel of John that indicates that Jesus’ corpse was first put in an empty, temporary(!) tomb that happened to be NEARBY (since they were in a hurry because of Passover). JoA, and/or his people, then came back first thing the Sabbath was over (Saturday night) and moved the corpse to the actual tomb (JoA’s). The women, who had seen Jesus’ corpse being put into that first (temporary) tomb come back (on Sunday morning) after the corpse has been moved and wonder: where has it disappeared to!? Being peasants from Galilee they didn’t know, or have access to, JoA.

    • Deborah

      That doesn’t explain how their mistake wound up never being corrected. If you started making a huge public fuss that your best friend’s dead body was not where it was supposed to be, eventually you would find out the real location. The Sanhendrin would have loved to produce a corpse of Jesus by fair means or foul. They couldn’t.

      • Jerome

        Did Jesus’ followers actually do such a fuss about this though? Where is the evidence for this? Except the much later Gospels claiming this? Paul does not even refer to an empty tomb, does he? So it doesn’t seem to have been that important.

        • The Gospel of John seems to reflect a late attempt to give Jesus a more honorable burial than anyone considers historically feasible. The depiction in Mark, that Jesus was placed in a nearby tomb used to bury criminals, seems more historically plausible.

          Paul’s statement that Jesus was buried is noteworthy. He doesn’t explicitly indicate whether his view of the resurrection involved the body leaving the tomb. The tomb, if it was used for burying executed criminals, would not have been “empty.”

          The idea that the Sanhedrin would have paraded Jesus’ now-unrecognizable corpse, or another, seems unlikely, as it is hard to imagine their doing so would have persuaded anyone of anything.

          • Jerome

            What exactly is more honorable in John’s account? The thing with the spices? Because Mark mentions JoA too, no? Neither of the two claim though that the tomb belonged to JoA (unlike Matthew ). And Mark doesn’t indicate it’s a tomb for criminals?

          • “The thing with the spices” involves an honorable burial fit for a king. Calculate the quantity. It is notably lacking in Mark, even on a smaller scale, hence the stories about anointing beforehand for burial and an attempt to do so after the fact. In Mark, Jesus is simply placed in “a tomb” by Joseph of Arimathea, who is not said to be a disciple but merely a righteous member of the ruling council who was making sure that the law regarding burial was being followed.

            I discuss this topic in more detail in The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have To Do With Faith?


          • Jerome

            I’ve actually read your book but it’s been a while ago … and I’m sorry for the somewhat brash ‘the thing with the spices’ 😉 But so it’s not the claim that Jesus was buried by JoA that’s such a (historical) problem but that JoA allegedly buried him like a king? And that depended on the quantity of spices? Because in Mark’s version the women were said to have brought spices as well.

            So what speaks against the theory then that JoA temporarily put Jesus’ corpse in an (empty) tomb that happened to be nearby because the Sabbath was approaching fast and returned there late on Saturday to move him to a different (JoA’s?) tomb? That would be the reason why the (first) tomb was empty when the women came back on Sunday morning. And since the women didn’t know where ‘they’ put the corpse (as Mary told the others) they were at a loss and returned back to the disciples. As a consequence the disciples returned to Galilee, crushed, where then suddenly at least one of them ‘meets’ the ‘risen Christ’. He convinced the others in believing that although it SEEMED like their leader (Jesus) had lost he had actually won after all! And would come back soon with a vengeance!!

          • The quantity is important. But in Mark, the women go to the tomb after Jesus’ burial, presumably to offer honor that he did not receive when he was actually buried.

            There would have needed to be a convenient place to bury criminals on a site used for executions. The network of tombs that existed where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands matches that, and there is no reason to think that they had to seek further afield for a tomb to borrow for the purpose.

            What, if anything, happened on the Sunday after the crucifixion, is hard to say. Mark’s story, which seems to serve as the basis for the story in subsequent Gospels, is puzzling, and some have suggested that it was invented to answer questions about the tomb and Jesus’ body which the core group of disciples did not have answers to. It might well have a historical core – it is just impossible to be certain.