"How God Became Jesus": Engaging Bart Ehrman's "Christology"
Several years ago Bart Ehrman gave a fascinating interview about his faith journey out of fundamentalism—which began at Moody Bible, of all places—and into agnosticism—which resulted in Misquoting Jesus and many more books aimed to address the foundation of the faith from which he fled.
His latest critique, How Jesus Became God, is designed to put to rest the central question of that foundation's Chief Cornerstone: "How did a crucified peasant come to be thought of as the Lord who created all things? How did Jesus become God?" (HJBG, 1)
Yet a new book ably deconstructs and critically engages his primary assertions blow-by-blow to show how his account of Christological development is historically inaccurate and his conclusions are far from sound.
Appropriately titled, How God Became Jesus is as accessible as it is scholarly in its critical engagement. Marshaling the collective accumen of five internationally established scholars, it is your guide to understanding how early Christians came to worship Jesus as divine as much as it is a first response to Ehrman.
In a feat of publishing prowess this book releases today alongside Ehrman's, providing a strong antidote to his version of the story of Jesus' divinity. Which is why I'm going to provide a bit of an introduction to this resource for the next two weeks, beginning with the why, the what, and the how of engaging Ehrman's so-called Christology—or lack thereof.
Why Even Engage Ehrman?
This is an important first question. It's a similar kind of question I asked when Reza Aslan's own book on Jesus dropped last August: Why even engage?
Michael Bird, editor of the volume, provides an important reason: "For secularists, the emerging generation of 'nones,'... Ehrman is a godsend. He provides succor and solace that one need not take Jesus too seriously, confirming that religion is the opiate of the masses and that the whole God thing might be just a big mistake." (7-8)
In other words, he is something like Dan Brown in a tweed jacket and spectacles. He gives a more scholarly-tinged voice to the alternative story to the Church's story about Jesus of Nazareth, one perfect for the postmodern, post-Christian West.
Over a decade ago The Da Vinci Code gave the American Church a front row seat to the rising tide of such a culture that has now swelled beyond the flood wall. Ehrman is just playing his part among several others who would seek to deconstruct and reconstruct the Christian religion.
Yet Ehrman is also unique. As Bird explains, "Ehrman is worth addressing, since his skill as a textual critic is widely acknowledged and his showmanship as a public intellectual can hardly be denied." (8)
Hence the response, which is as much pastoral as it is theological.
What Does Ehrman Say That's Worth Engaging?
Now to the crux of Ehrman's argument. What does he say that's worth engaging? The informed reader will note much of what he says has already been said already. Yet, here is what Ehrman claims:
Jesus was not originally considered to be God in any sense at all, and that he eventually became divine for his followers in some sense before he came to be thought of as equal with God Almighty in an absolute sense. But the point I stress is that this was, in fact, a development. (HJBG, 44)
In short, "The Christians exalted him to the divine realm in their theology." Ehrman confesses that in his opinion Jesus "was, and has always been, a human."
Bird helpfully explains that this view isn't anything new. (11-12) As he reveals, Ehrman's approach follows a view that began years ago with the so-called evolutionary Christology of Charlie Moule, who said belief about Jesus began "with a Palestinian Rabbi and ends with the divine Lord of Hellenistic Saviour cult." (Moule, The Origins of Christology, 2)
Ehrman, then, is the latest proponent to proffer the idea that the Christian belief of "Jesus is God" and his worship as such was a gradual process that developed over time. And this book bears the mantle of responsibility to provide a forceful, well-argued response to this populist postmodern preacher.
How Do These Contributors Engage Ehrman?
So there is a reason to engage with Ehrman and what he says about the person of Jesus Christ. How do Michael Bird, Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole, Charles Hill, and Chris Tilling engage Ehrman? The book is broken into several chapters with helpful excursuses:
- Bird addresses Ehrman's account about intermediary figures (i.e., ancient gods, angels, and kings) whose divination is said to provide a way of understanding what people meant when they began to describe Jesus as "God."
- Bird also contests Ehrman's treatment of Jesus' self-understanding, insisting that it is probable Jesus understood himself as a divine agent who was Himself God.
- Evans contests Ehrman's claims that the story of Jesus' burial and empty tomb were fiction that developed later, playing no role in early Christianity's understanding of Jesus' resurrection.
- Gathercole examines the evidence of Synoptic christological claims, insisting contra Ehrman that they do possess a strong sense of Jesus' divine identity and preexistence.
- Tilling subjects Ehrman's conception of monotheism and Christology to rigorous scrutiny by launching a critical discussion of his interpretive approach, his understanding of incarnational Christology, and his exegesis and textual analysis.
- Hill provides a helpful, thorough historical overview of the early Church's view of Christ's deity. He reviews Ehrman's claims about so-called "hetero-orthodoxies" (i.e., adoptionism, docetism, Gnosticism) and the chronology of christological development.
Excursuses include: relevant texts illustrating ancient intermediaries; second-century evidence for Jesus as God through pagan, early orthodox, and Gnostic testimony; and third-century evidence for Jesus as God through archaeological and architectural inscriptions.
Bart Ehrman and his book remind me a lot of postmodern thinker Jean-François Lyotard, who was known for his "incredulity toward metanarratives." It isn't that he rejected them, per se. He and postmodernism reject the manner in which these stories claim to be legitimate. Ehrman is one such fellow who has rejected the Christian story by rejecting the manner in which that story has legitimated itself, mainly by attacking the central Christian claim "Jesus is God."
Which makes engaging this book crucial, not only as thinkers but as pastors to people who are often drawn to narratives other-than the one the Church tells—like Dan Brown's, like Ehrman's. Thankfully we pastors and teachers have this response book to help us navigate this alternative story and respond to our peoples' questions about how God became Jesus.
Next week we will go deeper in the book. Until then order your own copy today.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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