How Jesus Became God/How God Became Jesus – Part 2 (Did Jesus Think He Was God?)

Access Introduction and Part 1 (Divinity in the Ancient World) here.

How Jesus Became God (Ehrman)
Ehrman begins Chapter 3 by introducing problems and methods in historical Jesus studies. He notes that the Pauline epistles are problematic because Paul wrote twenty to thirty years after Jesus’s death, didn’t actually know Jesus personally, and doesn’t tell us much about Jesus’s teachings, activities, or experiences (89). The canonical gospels are problematic because they’re not written by eyewitnesses and because stories about Jesus were circulated by word of mouth without control for decades, full of embellishment and even fabrication, before finally being written down. Ehrman asserts that over three hundred years of scholarship has shown the Gospels to have numerous discrepancies, contradictions, and historical problems (92). The point: the Gospels can’t be taken at face value.

Therefore, we need rigorous historical methods in order to determine what Jesus really said and did. Accordingly, Ehrman summarizes Gospels source criticism and criteria in historical Jesus studies. Launching from the criterion of contextual credibility, Ehrman moves on to address Jesus’s historical context and what we can know about his message and proclamation from within that context, employing the criterion of independent attestation and the criterion of dissimilarity. He provides examples from Mark, Q, M, and L, demonstrating that there is independent attestation amongst the earliest sources of Jesus’s apocalyptic declarations. Ehrman subsequently demonstrates how these sayings pass the criterion of dissimilarity, arguing that they do not identify Jesus as the Son of Man. He provides a few other examples and one other argument in this section for Jesus as an apocalypticist.

The rest of  Chapter 3 is dedicated to the question of who Jesus thought he was. Ehrman notes that there are good reasons for believing that Jesus proclaimed himself as the messiah, and that his followers thought of him as messiah during his lifetime. He goes on to briefly examine the variety of ways in which the term was understood by first-century Palestinian Jews (e.g. Son of Man, human king, priest). Ehrman concludes that Jesus did not understand himself to be God, but as messiah in the broader context of his apocalyptic proclamation. Ehrman acknowledges that Jesus claims to be divine in the Gospel of John, but asserts that these claims can’t be ascribed to the historical Jesus because do not pass any of our criteria. Ehrman raises the good point here that if Jesus had proclaimed himself to be a divine being sent from God, why would the other sources not mention this most significant fact about him?

In regards to Jesus doing miracles, imparting forgiveness of sins, and receiving worship, Ehrman asserts that all of these are compatible with human, not just divine, beings; furthermore, these activities may not even go back to the historical Jesus. Ehrman’s arguments in this chapter are summed up at the end:

What we can know with relative certainty about Jesus is that his public ministry and proclamation were not focused on his divinity; in fact, they were not about his divinity at all. They were about God. And about the kingdom that God was going to bring. And about the Son of Man who was soon to bring judgment upon the earth…Jesus did not declare himself to be God. He believed and taught that he was the future king of the coming kingdom of God, the messiah of God yet to be revealed. It was only afterward, once the disciples believed that their crucified master had been raised from the dead , that they began to think that he must, in some sense, be God.

(Ehrman 127-128).

How God Became Jesus (Bird et al.)
In Chapter 3 of the response book, Michael Bird’s objective is “to show that Jesus identified himself as a divine agent with a unique authority and a unique relationship with Israel’s God. In addition, he spoke as one who spoke for God in an immediate sense and believed himself to embodying the very person of God in his mission to renew and restore Israel” (46).

Before tackling the issue of Jesus’s self-understanding, Bird first exposes the flaws in Ehrman’s methodology. The first is a methodological inconsistency: on the one hand, Ehrman argues that the New Testament manuscripts were so distorted and corrupted that we have little prospect of recovering the original text; however, Ehrman still uses these texts as his primary source to reconstruct stories about the historical Jesus, and even Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. Alternatively, while not denying that the Gospels are theologically loaded documents written to create faith, Bird advocates that “the Gospels are generally reliable and coherent sources for studying the historical Jesus (49).

Secondly, Bird notes the limitations of the criteria of authenticity that Ehrman employs, showing that they have been critically examined by many scholars and found inadequate for establishing the historicity of a given unit of the Gospels (50). He specifically devotes some time to showing the limitations of the criterion of dissimilarity (something attributed to Jesus is likely to be historical if it is dissimilar to what the early church would have wanted to say about him). Bird notes that the criterion has received “a devastating barrage of criticism” (50) and has been “near universally abandoned” (51). He goes on to introduce two new trends in scholarship that are beginning to replace it, namely, a criterion of historical plausibility and social memory research. In the final analysis, “Ehrman’s entire approach to historical Jesus studies does not commend itself as a good way of doing history” (51).

The remainder of the chapter focuses on the question of Jesus’s self-identification, demonstrating that Jesus “was conscious that in him the God of Israel was finally returning to Zion (i.e., Jerusalem) to renew the covenant and to fulfill the promises God had made to the nation about a new exodus” (52). Here Bird illuminates the background of Matthew 19:28 (cf. Luke 22:28-30) by expounding upon the Jewish restoration hopes found amply throughout the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. These hopes formed “not only the backdrop but the script for Jesus’ own words and actions…Jesus believed that in his ministry and even in his person, YHWH was finally returning to Zion” (57). Next Bird takes a look at several episodes in Jesus’s life that “point toward Jesus’ unique role as a divine agent with an unprecedented authority and who undertakes divine action” (57, emphases original). I will just mention one, Mark 2:1-12, where Jesus declares that a man’s sins are forgiven. Bird deals a crushing blow to Ehrman’s argument that Jesus was not claiming a divine prerogative here, but merely a priestly one.

Bird subsequently devotes a hefty chunk of space to the Son of Man sayings, arguing contra Ehrman that Jesus did indeed think that he was the Son of Man. He summarizes the Hebrew and Aramaic background of the phrase “Son of Man” and also comments on the designation in Daniel 7 and its messianic interpretation in apocalyptic literature. Then Bird gives three stellar arguments against Ehrman’s case. He also refutes Ehrman’s contention that it was Jesus’s resurrection alone that caused his followers to believe that he was in some sense divine. This chapter concludes with a look at the Johannine testimony, engaging with Ehrman’s dismissal of the Gospel of John as a source about Jesus. Ehrman claims that the Fourth Gospel does not pass any of the criteria of authenticity, and that its records of Jesus’s exalted claims about himself are not paralleled in the Synoptics. In regards to this latter issue, Bird notes the presence of “Johannine thunderbolts” in the Synoptics, arguing that the Fourth Gospel “comprises a magnification rather than a mutilation of the claims of Jesus found in the Synoptic Gospels” (68).

A Few Thoughts
Whereas I had hoped for more from chapter 2 of the response book, chapter 3 hit it out of the park. K.O.  Not only does Bird expose significant flaws in Ehrman’s overall historical methodology, but every major argument was addressed and the counterarguments were very strong. Every thoughtful Christian should get How God Became Jesus. It’s accessible to the uninitiated, but still offers plenty to those familiar with the topic.

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.

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4 Comments

  1. Appreciate that you are blogging this; I won’t be getting around to both books for some time given other priorities…sigh.

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  2. Great review Jennifer!

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  3. Jim, I’m glad you’re finding this review helpful! I hope it whets your appetite for the response book. Ehrman’s can be skipped, but I think the response book is a must-read.

    Thanks, Lindsay!

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  1. How Jesus Became God/How God Became Jesus – Introduction |

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