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How Jesus Became God/How God Became Jesus – Part 6 (To Nicea and Beyond)

See the rest of the series here.

How Jesus Became God (Ehrman)
In chapters 8 and 9, Ehrman addresses the Christological views that came to be declared as heresy and the views that came to be declared  as orthodoxy, respectively. A recurring assertion in these chapters is that in the debates over orthodoxy and heresy views that were originally considered right were eventually considered wrong – for example, the first Christians held to exaltation Christology but second century “heresy hunters” more or less rewrote history by claiming that such views had never been held by the apostles at the beginning or by the majority of Christians ever.

Chapter 8 addresses adoptionistic views that denied Christ’s deity (Ebionites, Theodotians), docetic views that denied Christ’s humanity (those supposedly opposed by 1 John, those opposed by Ignatius, and the Marcionites), and views that denied Christ’s unity (Christian “Gnostics”). Ehrman also addresses modalism and the opposition by Hippolytus and Tertullian on the way to the orthodox formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.

In chapter 9, Ehrman coins the term ortho-paradox. His reasoning is that it’s best to see orthodox formulations regarding Christ as paradoxes that resulted from the debates over Christ’s being. “[I]f u put together all the orthodox affirmations, the result is the ortho-paradox” (328). Here Ehrman summarizes the Christological and theological ortho-paradoxes leading up to the Council of Nicea and looks at some of the important early theologians who helped to shape them (Justin Martyr, Dionysus of Rome). Chapter 9 ends with a look at the Arian controversy and the Council of Nicea, with some attention devoted to Constantine and the political background. The chapter ends with the following:

The Christ of Nicea is obviously a far cry from the historical Jesus of Nazareth, an itinerant apocalyptic preacher in the backwaters of rural Galilee who offended the authorities and was unceremoniously crucified for crimes against the state. Whatever he many have been in real life, Jesus had now become fully God.

(Ehrman 352)

How God Became Jesus (Bird et al.)
In chapter 8, Hill begins by commenting on Ehrman’s moral judgements on the early heresiologists. He then tackles the examples Ehrman gives to support his argument that views originally deemed orthodox were later deemed heretical. In regards to the Ebionites, who Ehrman argues held to an adoptionistic Christology characteristic of the first followers of Jesus, Hill interacts with the writings of Iranaeus, Tergullian, Hyppolytus, Origen, Eusebius, and even modern-day Ebionites to demonstrate that we have no reason to believe that any group of Ebionites believed that Jesus had been exalted to divine status. Hill then tackles Ehrman’s assertion that a majority of Christians at the beginning of the third century appeared to be modalists. The chapter ends with a refutation of Ehrman’s claim that Tertullian articulated christological view that would later be deemed heresy, where Hill shows that Tertullian was not advocating subordinationism.

Chapter 8 is followed by two excurseses on second-century evidence for Jesus as God. The first looks at evidence from Pliny the Younger (pagan), Ignatius of Antioch (bishop), and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (gnostic). These three examples demonstrate that Jesus was perceived as in some sense divine, but they don’t demonstrate that He was perceived as God Almighty. Therefore this excursus doesn’t really do anything to advance the refutation of Ehrman’s key assertions. The second excursus looks at the nomina sacra, and here a stronger case is presented for Jesus being perceived as equal with Yahweh.

In chapter 9, Hill responds to Ehrman’s ninth chapter concerning ortho-paradoxes on the road to Nicea. Ehrman and others like him sometimes act as if the presence of paradoxes are detrimental to Christianity; but this is, in fact, not the case at all. Hill points out in a footnote of a paradox in natural science – the waive-particle duality of light. Hill also points out the redundancy of Ehrman’s newly-minted term – they’re really just paradoxes!

[B]ecause the paradox of Christ’s humanity and divinity arises first and foremost from the books the early Christians deemed to be Scripture, it was not simply an “ortho-paradox” – one that resulted from the later orthodox struggling to come to grips with two apparently irreconcilable affirmations. It was a paradox from the beginning. It is not so much an “ortho-paradox” as it is a New Testament paradox – certainly a Johannine praradox, or, as we will soon see, a Pauline paradox or even a pre-Pauline paradox.”

(Bird et al. 178)

Furthermore, these passages that seem to affirm contradictory views are found in integrated single books (e.g. John 1:1, 14; 1 John; Colossians 1:19, 2:9, 2:12. 3:1, Hebrews). Hill backs up on Ehrman’s chapters about pre-Pauline traditions to show that Ehrman’s chronological grid rests not on historical study but on presupposition. How do we know that incarnational traditions are later than exaltation traditions, as Ehrman assumes? Hill presents a case for the exaltation traditions being abbreviations of a fuller incarnational tradition.

The only way we can know that the pre-Pauline creeds and other expressions of incarnational Christology embedded in his letters are later and exaltation christological expressions are earlier is by accepting the predetermined chronological grid: Christology must have begun from the “lower and moved to the “higher.” But if this is predetermined, how is it “historical” and “scientific,” open to testing and falsification? Here is where the naturalistic assumption makes a determinative difference in historical research. For this presupposed theory of christological development determines all of Ehrman’s historical/theological judgments throughout the book. And so, the problem of a rigidly applied but unproven chronology of belief about Jesus forms a crack that extends throughout his historical reconstruction of early developments of Christology.

(Bird et al. 183-184)

Chapter 9 ends by addressing Ehrman’s epilogue and the close connection he draws between Christian belief in Christ’s deity and antisemitism. Without denying the seriousness of the horrific historical reality, Hill demonstrates that persecution of Jews is not really traceable to a believe that the had killed God. Following chapter 9 are two excursuses on third-century evidence or Jesus as God, one on the Alexamenos Graffitio and one on the inscription at Meggiddo.

I don’t have much in terms on thoughts on the last two chapters of either of these books. While the information was interesting, I am much more interested in development of the earliest Christology than the christological developments of the second and third centuries. Furthermore, Ehrman’s last two chapters don’t contain nearly as much problematic material as any other two chapters of his book. And thus, I come to my main qualm throughout the entire evangelical response book (How God Became Jesus), which was magnified by the contrast of Hill’s two response chapters:  why are Hill’s chapters around 50 pages (around 1/4 of the whole book), when the other responses are so short? I don’t have a problem with Hill’s chapters being long – it’s just that throughout all of the response book, as I finished each chapter I wished it was longer and more fleshed out (with probably Evans’s chapter as the sole exception). The thinness of most of the other chapters in HGBJ, which respond to chapters in Ehrman with much more problematic arguments that need and deserve more attention, is made much more stark in light of the much lengthier response to Ehrman’s last two chapters.

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. Biblical Studies Carnival – June 2014 | Reading Acts

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