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How Jesus Became God/How God Became Jesus – Part 1 (Divinity in the Ancient World)

Introduction here.

How Jesus Became God (Ehrman)
One of Ehrman’s driving questions in How Jesus Became God is what Christians meant when they said that Jesus is God. In this study, recognizing how people could have been understood as divine is the first step towards understanding how Jesus came to be seen as divine. Accordingly, the first two chapters treat the topic of divinity in the ancient world, with chapter 1 covering the Greco-Roman world and chapter 2 covering Judaism.

In chapter 1 Ehrman summarizes and provides examples of three models of the divine human in the ancient Greco-Roman world: 1) gods who temporarily become human, 2) divine beings born of a god and a mortal, and 3) humans who become divine. We tend to conceive of divinity in black-or-white, all-or-nothing terms. But it was not so in the ancient world, where there were gradations of divinity and where many were perceived as in some sense divine. Both humanity and divinity were seen as being “on a vertical continuum, and these two continuums sometimes meet at the high end of the one and the low end of the other” (39). Alternatively, the ancient conception of divinity can be illustrated by “a pyramid of power, grandeur, and deity” (40). Therefore, when we ask whether the early Christians thought of Jesus as God, the real question we need to ask is in what sense Christians thought of Jesus as God (44).

Anticipating the objection to chapter 1 of “That was the Romans; Jews were monotheistic,” Ehrman devotes chapter 2 to showing that the Jewish conception of divinity was influenced by and paralleled that of the pagans. He makes two preliminary points: first, that the Ten Commandments and the majority of the Hebrew Bible express a henotheistic view (there are other gods, but only one is to be worshipped); and second, that even though most Jews had become monotheistic by the time of Jesus, this didn’t preclude the possibility of other divine beings (i.e. Jews believed in other divine beings such as angels, even though they didn’t call them gods). Then Ehrman moves on to the main point of chapter 2, which is that like the pagans, Jews also believed that divine beings temporarily became human, semi-divine beings were born of unions between divine beings and mortals, and human beings became divine.

Examples given for divine beings temporarily taking human form include angels, and specifically, the Angel of the Lord. In advancing the argument for humans becoming divine, Ehrman cites several noncanonical texts in which comparison is made between a human being and angels – e.g. the righteous will be transformed “into the splendor of angels…they will be like the angels and be equal to the stars” (2 Bar. 51:3-10. These texts are obviously employing similes, and to give descriptively comparative texts an absolute equative force is fallacious. Ehrman also asserts that the kings of Israel were considered both Son of God and even God. Here he takes some of the most well-known texts that Christians interpret to be ultimately foreshadowing Jesus (e.g. 2 Sam. 7:14, Ps. 2) and applies them exclusively to the human kings. Finally, as an example of the model of divine beings begetting semidivine beings, Ehrman uses the example of the “sons of God” from Genesis 6, who are explicitly called angels in 1 Enoch. This chapter also presents a brief treatment of several other “nonhuman divine figures:” the “son of God” from Daniel 7, the “two-powers” doctrine which takes passages that Christians interpret as germinal Trinitarianism (e.g. Genesis 1:26) to indicate another separate divine being, and the divine hypostases of Wisdom and Logos.

How God Became Jesus (Bird et al)
In Chapter 2 of How God Became Jesus, Michael Bird summarizes and tackles the central assertions of Ehrman’s first two chapters. He begins with methodology, pointing out some of the errors in Ehrman’s use of Greco-Roman conceptions of divinity to explain Jesus’s divinity: parallelomania, equating analogy with genealogy (similarities do not prove Christians borrowed from pagan sources; often it was the other way around), and overemphasizing similarities while ignoring differences. In terms of distinctiveness, Bird notes that early Christian beliefs about Jesus were a revised form of Jewish monotheism – a “christological monotheism.”

Bird then spends some time addressing monotheism in the ancient world, both pagan and Jewish. While Ehrman claimed that apart from Jews everyone was polytheistic and that even Judaism was henotheistic for much of its pre-Christ history, Bird demonstrates both that there had actually been a long tradition of pagan monotheism and that Jewish monotheism was generally strict. In regards to strict Jewish monotheism, Bird notes the sacred name YHWH, the Shema, a passage from 2 Maccabees, and even Philo.

Given this Jewish monotheistic context – giving honorific status to Jesus’ name, identifying Christ as creator, and making him a recipient of worship – was theologically adventurous, sociologically scandalous, and historically unprecedented as far as I can tell.

(Bird 30)

In relation to intermediary figures, Bird discusses the archangel Metatron (whose name means “The lesser YHWH”) of the pseudepigraphal Sefer Zerubbabel and the Enochic Son of Man.

[T]here was in Jewish thought accommodated beliefs and honorific titles given to various agents like chief angels such as Metatron and exalted humans such as Enoch. However, a sharp line was drawn between the veneration of intermediary figures and the worship of the one God (so Hurtado), and this was based on the fact that such beings were not part of God’s divine identity (Bauckham). In this case, and contra Ehrman, the continuity between Jewish monotheism and New Testament Christology does not flow from intermediary figures, but from christological monotheism.

(Bird 35)

Chapter 2 concludes with a discussion on angelomorphism and angelomorphic Christology. Because there are sources indicating Jewish and early Christian belief of certain people becoming angels after they die, Ehrman asserts that “to make Jesus divine, one simply needs to think of him as an angel in human form” (Ehrman 61). Bird shows that the presentation of Jesus’ earthly life in the Synoptic Gospels show Jesus to be distinct from the angels and to have complete authority over them, and that the New Testament authors emphasize that he has been exalted above all powers and authorities, presumably including all tiers of angels” (38). Chapter 2 is followed by an excursis on intermediary figures, since Ehrman spends much time on intermediary figures in his second chapter. Here Bird helpfully addresses Psalm 45 and the identification of Israelite kings as “God,” Augustus and the imperial cult, Moses on God’s throne, and tiers of angels.

A Few Thoughts
As a preliminary point in Chapter 2, Ehrman makes the claim that ancient Judaism was henotheistic; his sole argument is that the wording of the first commandment presupposes the existence of other gods. Not only is this argument bad, but he doesn’t devote any more attention to defending this claim. Bird’s defense of a strict Jewish monotheism is much lengthier than Ehrman’s claim for Jewish henotheism and made a good case. In addition, a big issue with Ehrman’s book from beginning to end is that he doesn’t engage with scholarship that disagrees with him. Towards the end of chapter 2 he does cite Hurtado, making it seem like they’re in agreement. However, he took the quote out of context and manipulated it; Bird addresses this and shows that for Hurtado, the principal angel analogy breaks down and does nothing to prove that Christ was perceived as an angel in early Christianity. Finally, Bird’s excursis on divine intermediary beings is also helpful, as he addresses and debunks several examples and ideas that Ehrman used (e.g the king of Israel being seen as God, the imperial cult, and Moses’s elevation to divinity).

Despite these positives, unfortunately I don’t think this chapter adequately did damage to Ehrman’s ultimate claim that Jesus, though divine in some sense, was not equal to the Most High God. Bird’s arguments in this chapter sufficiently show that Jesus was elevated above all other created beings, but does not adequately demonstrate that Jesus was seen as at the far end of the divinity spectrum, at the top of the divinity pyramid, equal to the Creator God.

How Jesus Became God (Ehrman): Amazon
How God Became Jesus (Bird et al.): Amazon | Westminster

*Free copies of both books were provided by the publishers in exchange for unbiased reviews.


Leave a comment


  1. Clara

     /  April 17, 2014

    You have know idea how excited I am to read your comments on these books. I really really wanted to read these but I just don’t have the time for them. 😦 So I will be paying close attention to your posts 🙂
    if I may contribute to the discussion… I think, unfortunately, if studying the ancient context, Jesus will never seem to have been equal with God on the divinity spectrum. As Bird said, for the early Christians (who were Jews) to claim that Jesus was God was to go against everything that makes them Jewish; God is one and the only one. So they had to work through how Jesus is equal to God but that there isn’t 2 gods. That’s why there’s centuries of Christological arguments, right? (Arianism, Monism, etc.). And the fact that we believe Jesus, God, and Holy Spirit are distinct but are One, is a product of centuries of debate and adaptation. So to me I feel like it’s somewhat obvious that Christ “became” God, in a sense. But does the fact that what we believe is a product of time make it any less true? No. Christ has always been God, but the early Christians had to struggle to figure that out, to make it make sense. It’s a luxury that modern Christians can enjoy because some of the difficult statements of Christology have been worked out. We are closer to the true sense of Christ today, than earlier times, and we need to continue to strive to be closer. Our next challenge is to keep Christology alive – so thanks to Ehrman for challenging and shaking up modern Christians from their Christological slumber.


    • Thanks for your comment, Clara! Your enthusiasm encourages me so much 🙂 I would say that you should add Bird et al’s response book to your to-read list. They adequately summarize Ehrman’s arguments. There’s great value in reading it not just for the full content, but also as a bibilography. I’m noting so many of their references for further reading when I eventually take some time to focus more on studying early Christology/historical Jesus.

      And your comments are in many ways spot on – I love how you ended it: “thanks to Ehrman for challenging and shaking up modern Christians from their Christological slumber.” There are many things that lay Christians tend to take for granted and not think through; in relation to Christology and Trinitarianism Bird (who has a great sense of humor) illustrates the silliness well with a caricature of how we tend to think Jesus communicated about himself during his earthly life: “Hi, I’m God. I’m going to die on the cross for your sins soon. But first of all I’m going to teach you how to be a good Christian and how to get to heaven. And after that I thought it would be fitting if you all worshiped me as the second member of the Trinity” (Bird 52).

      Your comment – “But does the fact that what we believe is a product of time make it any less true? No. Christ has always been God, but the early Christians had to struggle to figure that out, to make it make sense.” So true. I love what you stated.

      Ehrman and the like would have us believe that the development of a fully divine Christology took hundreds of years and really wasn’t solidified until Nicaea; the contention of the authors of the response book (as well as the “Early High Christology Club” in general) is that it actually happened really fast – within a few decades of Jesus’s death.

      Stay tuned for more fleshing out of the arguments, Clara! I’m so glad you’re following along. And please continue to comment!


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