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How Jesus Became God/How God Became Jesus – Part 5 (Problems with Ehrman’s Interpretive Categories and Exegesis)

See the rest of the series here.

Interpretive Categories
Instead of responding to a particular chapter of How Jesus Became God, in chapter 6 of How God Became Jesus Chris Tilling tackles overall issues with Ehrman’s interpretive categories. He deals with “some of Ehrman’s strategic decisions, focused on certain words, that he pushes through his entire book and that function as powerful tools of selection and evaluation” (119). Tilling begins with Ehrman’s distinction between exaltational and incarnational Christologies, showing how this distinction to which Ehrman gives key interpretive power does not explain the NT data. Next, he addresses Ehrman’s contention of an angelomorphic Christology in Galatians 4:14 being the key to Pauline Christology. He subsequently points out the main problems with the overly flexible way in with Ehrman uses the concept of divinity in Second Temple Judaism and the way that he incorporates God within this category. The chapter ends with a brief look at other interpretive missteps – the methodological problem with the way Ehrman selected his pre-Pauline texts, his misleading rhetoric, and his use of experts in early Christology (e.g. lack of interaction with Bauckham, misrepresentation of Hurtado).

The most helpful part of this chapter was the critique of Ehrman’s monotheism.  Firstly, Tilling notes that Ehrman basically endorses the problematic “inclusive monotheism” construct notably offered by Horbury and refuted by Bauckham, thereby bringing nothing new to the debate. Secondly, he notes that the majority of English and German biblical scholars do not seriously court “inclusive monotheism”, but instead promote versions of “christological monotheism”; it is bewildering why Ehrman did not at all engage this majority position. And thirdly, central to first-century Jewish faith is the Shema, which the majority of scholars see as asserting a strict monotheism; Ehrman does not mention the Shema even once. Tilling goes on to draw out two implications: 1) “the ontological separation between God and everything else is not a later church invention, as Ehrman asserts” (129) and 2) the key question, which Ehrman ignores, comes into sharp relief: in what ways was God’s transcendent uniqueness understood in the first century?

In Chapter 7 Tilling turns to Ehrman’s seventh chapter, which deals with incarnation Christology. Because Ehrman’s chapter focuses mainly on Paul, this is what Tilling spends much of this chapter on. He approaches this first in a constructive way by engaging with the dominant language in Paul’s letters showing what we are to make of Paul’s divine Christology, and then offers a critique of Ehrman’s portrayal. The chapter ends with a few critical thoughts on Ehrman’s readings of the Gospel of John and the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Tilling summarizes three (of many) explanatory conditions that must be met in order to best grasp Paul’s divine Christology. First is an accurate account of first-century Jewish monotheism. Building especially on Bauckham’s insights on the relation in which God stands to all reality and the importance of the Shema to first-century Jewish faith in God, Tilling argues for a unique pattern of language present in the Old Testament and Second Temple literature that describes the unique relationship between Israel and YHWH. Second is Paul’s epistemology, which involved a relationship with God and Jesus. So the question becomes, “Is the pattern of language that describes the relation between Jesus and his followers, Christ and the church, analogous to or different from Israel’s unique relationship to YHWH? This gets to the heart of the matter and accords with Paul’s monotheism and ‘way of knowing’ ” (140). Third is Paul’s “Christ” language, which is obvious enough – any portrayal of Pauline theology needs to explain the data found in Paul’s letters. Tilling goes on to demonstrate how these three explanatory conditions come together in 1 Corinthians 8-10. He also notes that this “correspondence between God and Christ relational language” (142) is found in virtually every chapter of the Pauline corpus, demonstrating specifically from 1 Thessalonians.

In regards to critiquing Ehrman’s portrayal of Pauline Christology, Tilling makes five critical observations: 1) to claim that Paul understood Christ to be an angel who became human requires ignoring masses of Pauline data that would directly contradict such a claim; 2) calling a being “god” doesn’t mean what Ehrman claims it means; 3) Ehrman’s exegesis of Phil 2:6-11 involves several problematic moves; 4) Ehrman’s questionable exegesis of Phil 2:6-11 is the only extensive engagement with Paul’s letters in the book; and 5) Ehrman does not do the work of a historian in other ways. “[H]is limited exegesis does little to support a proposal that, indeed, stands in tension with the vast majority of Paul’s language. Christ, in Paul, is already understood as Jews understood the transcendent uniqueness of the one God” (148).

I didn’t find the majority of chapter 6 very helpful since it breezed through Ehrman’s overall effort and pointed out broad interpretive issues but without really going into detail about any of them. However, Tilling’s response to Ehrman’s portrayal of first-century Jewish monotheism was very helpful; he frequently references points made by Bird and supplements them with further information. It’s rather shocking to me that Tilling did not provide an exegesis of Galatians 4:14, from which Ehrman makes a case for Paul affirming an angelomorphic Christology. Granted, Tilling provides an alternate construction of Paul’s divine Christology in chaper 7, but he brushes off Ehrman’s treatment of Galatians 4:14 as making a disputed reading of one verse the interpretive key to Pauline Christology. I would have liked to see an exegesis of Galatians 4:14, as that was what I found most troubling in that chapter of Ehrman. Chapter 7 was very enjoyable to me because I have not read Paul’s Divine Christology, the published version of Tilling’s doctoral dissertation from which this chapter draws heavily. Tilling’s argument for a fully divine Pauling Christology from the perspective of relational language concerning the risen Christ and his followers corresponding to relational language concerning Israel and YHWH is a fresh and unique contribution to the debate concerning the divinity of Christ.

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

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