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How Jesus Became God/How God Became Jesus – Part 4 (Christology of the First Believers)

See the rest of the series here.

How Jesus Became God (Ehrman)
In chapters 6 and 7, Ehrman turns to early Christologies. As opposed to the typical terms of low/adoptionist versus high Christology, Ehrman prefers exaltation Christology for the former and incarnation Christology for the latter. This is because he feels that “low Christology” is rather condescending, whereas even in that view Jesus was exalted to an impossibly high state; in the Roman world, adopted sons often had higher status than natural sons.

In chapter 6 Ehrman seeks to demonstrate that the earliest Christology was exaltational – Jesus started off as human being in every way like other human beings, but was elevated at a critical point in his existence (whether conception or baptism or resurrection). He was not thought to have been a preexistent divine being, but rather, a human being adopted by God to divine status. Because we have no writings from the first two decades of the Christian movement, Ehrman admits that it is extremely difficult to know what the first followers of Jesus believed (213). The way to determine what the earliest Christians believed is by detecting and examining preliterary traditions. Ehrman gives a few indicators for detecting preliterary traditions while admitting that they are not easy to detect (216-217). He then asserts that the preliterary traditions are consistent in demonstrating an exaltation Christology (218) and goes on to make the case from Romans 1:3-4, Acts 13:32-33, Acts 2:36, and Acts 5:31. All these passages demonstrate, according to Ehrman, the belief that Jesus was made Son of God at the resurrection.

Ehrman goes on to highlight the work of Raymond Brown in tracing christological development in the gospels – the earliest Gospel, Mark, seems to assume that Jesus became the son of God at his baptism; the next two, Matthew and Luke, indicate that Jesus became the Son of God at his birth/conception, and the  latest Gospel, John, proclaims Jesus as Son of God from before creation. While Brown deems that the development throughout the Gospels may mirror how Christians developed their views, Ehrman actually disagrees. “[S]ome Christians were saying that Jesus was a preexistent being (a “later” view) even before Paul began to write in the 50s – well before our earliest Gospel was written…views of Jesus did not develop along a straight line in every part of early Christianity and at the same rate” (237). So, while Ehrman believes that the earliest Christians held to exaltation Christologies, he does nuance his position.

In chapter 7, Ehrman moves on to early incarnation christologies. He asserts that scholars have long held the view that John’s Christology was a later development and that it was not taught by Jesus nor believed by his earliest followers (248). He contends that “the earliest exaltation Christologies very quickly morphed into an incarnational Christology, as early Christians developed their views about Jesus during the earliest years after his death” (249-250). For Ehrman, the Synoptics hold to exaltation Christologies while Paul holds to an incarnational one. Ehrman’s primary reason for believing this is a bombshell – it’s because Paul believes that Jesus was an angel who became human. The explosions continue as Ehrman argues for Paul’s angelomorphic Christology from Galatians 4:14 and asserts that this is the interpretive key that would make sense of virtually everything Paul says about Christ throughout his letters (253).

Ehrman argues from the Christ Hymn of Philippians that Jesus was a preexistent angel whom God eventually elevated to a higher level of divinity, and also gives a few reasons why this text demonstrates that Jesus was not yet God’s equal prior to his exaltation. He then highlights a few other passages from Paul’s epistles and John’s Gospel that contain incarnation Christology. He reiterates an idea previously mentioned in the book – that if Jesus were truly equal with God from the beginning as expressed in John’s Gospel, surely it would have been mentioned in the Synoptics.

How God Became Jesus (Bird et al.)
In chapter 5, Simon Gathercole takes on Ehrman’s chapter on exaltation Christology (chapter 6 of HJBG).  Gathercole moves in reverse chronological order from the Synoptics to the preliterary tradition of the tunnel period, and ends the chapter with an alternative account of what took place at Jesus’s exaltation. Gathercole’s overall contention is that “the  evidence does not enable us to plot a gradual development in the early Christians’ views of Jesus” (96).

Gathercole begins by engaging with Ehrman’s view that neither Matthew nor Luke contain an incarnation Christology. Drawing from arguments in his The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Gathercole argues that Jesus’s “I have come” sayings imply that “Jesus has come from somewhere to accomplish his mission” (97). The closest parallels in the Old Testament and noncanonical Jewish tradition are statements made by angels about their earthly missions; Gathercole is not advocating for an angelomorphic Christology, but demonstrating that a correct reading of the Synoptics demonstrates Jesus’s preexistence. Gathercole goes on to point out that in a number of places in the Synoptics, Jesus does and says things that are privileges uniquely of Yahweh, the God of Israel (such as miracles, forgiving sins, choosing twelve disciples). Gathercole also makes the case for a strict and important God/creation divide in the Jewish milieu and Jesus receiving a kind of reverence/worship deemed only appropriate for God.

Gathercole goes on to address the preliterary traditions used by Ehrman to argue for exaltation Christology (Romans 1:3-4, Acts 13:32-33, and Acts 2:36). The chapter concludes with an alternative view of Jesus’s exaltation that explains why so many New Testament passages sound like they could be interpreted in an adoptionistic way. During Jesus’s earthly life, his mission was limited to his work of salvation; as a result of the resurrection,

(1) the constraints and weaknesses of Jesus’ preresurrection physique have been left behind; (2) he has acceded to the position in which he is giver of the Spirit; (3) he has become Lord of the church, with that church having come into existence; and (4) his exercise of cosmic dominion has come into effect in a new way and will come to a climax in his return as judge.”

(Bird et al. 114)

Gathercole goes on to argue that these results don’t demonstrate a change in Jesus’s nature, but rather, in his status/position. In regards to Ehrman’s argument from Philippians 2:9 that Jesus was exalted to a position above where he had been before, Gathercole contends:

God does not “hyperexalt” Jesus above his original, preexistent condition; the point is that God superexalts him from the depths of the cross above everything below the earth, and on the earth, and even in heaven…this is what it means that Jesus at the resurrection becomes Son of God in power, and Lord and Christ in a new sense. He is “Son of God in power,” in stark contrast to his physical condition in his earthly ministry, which colminated in his death, “even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).

(Bird et al. 115)

Much of Ehrman’s chapter on exaltation Christology is based on examination of preliterary traditions; as Gathercole points out in his response chapter, some of these arguments are based on conjecture upon conjecture upon conjecture.  Furthermore, Ehrman selects a few passages that seem to indicate exaltation Christology while neglecting others that clearly indicate incarnation Christology (e.g. Colossians 1:15-18, 1 Timothy 3:16). Lastly on the preliterary traditions, in Chapter 6 (exaltation Christology) Ehrman several times asserts that Paul and Luke included traditions that communicated things they disagreed with. However, in chapter 7, Ehrman states that “[b]y quoting the poem Paul obviously is indicating that he agrees with its teaching about Christ” (258). There is an inherent degree of speculation when it comes to detecting preliterary traditions, but Ehrman has contradicted himself and seems to employing different methods depending on his fancy.

What I find very interesting in this chapter is the fact that Ehrman no longer believes that incarnation Christology originated in the Gospel of John, but that it was in place well before Paul’s letters and that the shift from exaltation to incarnation Christology happened remarkably early in the Christian tradition (279). Despite all the glaring differences, I think Ehrman’s view of Christological development is perhaps significantly more similar to that of the EHCC now. Though Ehrman believes that it took a long time for the finer details of orthodox Christology to become refined and worked out and for heresies to get squelched, he affirms that an incarnation Christology with Jesus equal to the Father emerged very early in the Christian tradition, possibly within two decades of the death of Jesus.

I have tremendous respect for Simon Gathercole, but I feel that this chapter was rather weak. Firstly, his assertion (echoed by other resp0nders) that the transformation from normal human being to the Nicene affirmation of “God from God, light from light” and of one being with the Father was for Ehrman an evolution that took hundreds of years is not quite a fair representation, given the nuance pointed out in the previous paragraph. Gathercole also pointed out that in the Synoptics Jesus said and did things that are uniquely the privilege of the God of Israel, such as forgiving sins, performing miracles, etc. However, Ehrman in chapter 3 had argued that these are not uniquely divine prerogatives (granted, Michael Bird addressed this in his response to that chapter). I also don’t feel that Gathercole’s rebuttals of the preliterary traditions that Ehrman used were very strong or persuasive. I wish the arguments would have been developed more. However, the last section with an alternate explanation of exaltation language is very strong and the chapter ends on a high note.

Lastly, for someone reading the books for the first time, it seems shocking for Ehrman’s argument of angelomorphic Christology in Galatians 4:14 to not be addressed. Fear not, Chris Tilling tackles it in chapter 6 of the response book. Stay tuned to find out whether he did a satisfactory job!

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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