As I have been contemplating how to interact with these books, a host of reviews, debates, videos, etc. have already surfaced. For those who haven’t seen the links, I collate some highlights below:
- Emily Varner’s interview with Michael Bird
- Interview with Craig Evans at 100 Huntley
- Craig Evans talks about Ehrman’s book
- Michael Bird’s video promo
- Ehrman/Gathercole debate – Part 1
- Ehrman/Gathercole debate – Part 2
- Deeper Waters interview with Tilling, Hill, & Bird
Several conventional reviews have already been posted, and bloggers are also beginning to write detailed series covering these books (e.g Lindsay Kennedy and Brian Leport are both taking a chapter-by-chapter approach through parallel chunks of the two books). Because there is so much interaction already, I had thought that maybe I would just write one review of each book instead of doing a series. After going back and forth, I have decided to still do my own little series, partially because it would benefit me personally, and partially because I have readers that don’t follow the biblioblogging world. Furthermore, I think I might find a niche by being more detailed than a conventional review but less detailed/lengthy than what some other bloggers are doing.
I envision doing one post for each major topic, highlighting arguments from both books as well as providing my own thoughts. Below is what I anticipate the series will be. As each post goes live, the points below will become links to the respective posts. Today I provide an introduction.
- Diviny in the Ancient World
- Did Jesus Think He Was God?
- The Burial Accounts
- Christology of the First Believers
- Problems with Ehrman’s Interpretive Categories and Exegesis
- To Nicea and Beyond
- Concluding Thoughts
Bart Ehrman is probably one of the most well-known biblical scholars in the world. His deconversion story is famous, having gone from a fundamentalist background with schooling at Moody and Wheaton, to becoming an agnostic skeptic scholar intent on debunking central beliefs of the Christian faith regarding the Bible, Jesus, etc. Skeptics love him, conservatives fear him. While it’s difficult for most academics to achieve popular appeal, Ehrman’s trade books have become New York Times bestsellers. In his latest book, How Jesus Became God, Ehrman seeks to expose the “real” story of how a crucified peasant from Galilee came to be thought of as the one true God. “As a historian, I am no longer obsessed with the theological question of how God became a man, but with the historical question of how a man became God” (Ehrman 2). According to Ehrman and scholars like him, Jesus did not claim to be God nor did his followers believe him to be such during his lifetime.
One of Ehrman’s driving questions in this study is what Christians meant by saying “Jesus is God.” Accordingly, his first two chapters address how the ancient world conceived of divinity, positing that both the pagans and the Jews had a scale or pyramid of divinity in which gods temporarily became human, humans were exalted to gods, and human-god unions produced demigods. The third chapter introduces problems and methods in historical Jesus studies, exploring the question of how Jesus understood and described himself. Ehrman’s conclusion, unsurprisingly, is that Jesus did not talk about himself as a divine being.
The short answer to how Jesus came to be considered God is that it had everything to do with the belief among his followers that he had been raised from the dead. In chapters 4 and 5, Ehrman deals with what we can and cannot know about the resurrection of Jesus. He believes that both the burial and empty tomb accounts are historically unlikely; in other words, that Jesus was not actually buried. No burial means no empty tomb, and no empty tomb means no argument for the resurrection. The remainder of the book deals with christological developments following the resurrection – from the exaltation views of the earliest surviving sources (chapter 6) to the later incarnational view (chapter 7), to the views of the second and third centuries that were later denounced as heresies (chapter 8) to the Arian controversy and the council of Nicaea (chapter 9).
Throughout the book, Ehrman presents himself as an unbiased historian. It’s the Christians who have presuppositions that need to be laid aside; Ehrman is objective, and the majority of scholars agree with him. In fact, Ehrman often explicitly uses the language of “the majority of scholars agree” before presenting his view with a citation of a scholar that does indeed agree with him. He ignores credible scholarship and historical/archaeological evidence that disagrees with him. Ehrman is indeed biased by his naturalistic presuppositions while presenting a picture of objectivity.
On the other hand, the responding evangelical scholars rightly admit that the question of Jesus’s divinity is ultimately a confessional one; however, the details of when, why, and how the followers of Jesus came to regard him as divine is a historical one that can indeed be answered by an examination of the evidence. “Such an enquiry can be responsibly pursued by mapping out the christological claims and religious devotion of early Christian writings in the first four centuries of the Common Era. This is the area in which we wish to critically engage the work of Ehrman directly” (Bird 12-13). Bird introduces this engagement in chapter 1 of How God Became Jesus by acquainting the reader with the “Early High Christology Club,” which argues for a “big bang” approach rather than an evolutionary one to the origins of a fully divine Christology.
Not everything Ehrman says is wrong. Much we accept, and other scholars may side with him on issues here and there. However, our overall verdict is that Ehrman has not extended or enhanced our knowledge of Christian origins. Therefore, we hope to put up a rival perspective to Ehrman by critiquing his arguments and by offering a better model for understanding the origins of belief in Jesus’ divine nature. In doing so, we aim to give a historically informed account as to why the Galilean preacher from Nazareth was hailed as “the Lord Jesus Christ” and how he became the object of worship in the early church. We believe, in short, that God became Jesus!
Having read Ehrman’s book in its entirely and the beginning of the response book, I’d say that for most lay evangelicals, it’s unnecessary to read Ehrman’s book. The response book, How God Became Jesus, summarizes Ehrman’s arguments well and is indeed a book that I highly recommend to every Christian. Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God will likely become a bestseller like his other trade books, and the ideas within, though not new, will probably become popularized by this book. Will we be shaken by attacks on the divinity of Christ, or will we be able to provide a historically responsible reason for what we believe? Every Christian needs to be able to defend the central tenets of the faith; is there anything more central to Christianity than the divinity of Christ?
For Christians with some background knowledge and discernment who are interested in the debates surrounding early Christology, Ehrman’s book is worth a read. I was initially only going to read the response book, but ended up reading Ehrman’s first because I felt this was the intellectually honest and “right” way to go. I took notes while reading Ehrman of claims that I wanted to research if not addressed by the response book, so I’m excited about learning a lot both through these two books as well as my own research in the aftermath.
*Free copies of both books were provided by the publishers in exchange for unbiased reviews.