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The Gospel According to Bart Ehrman — An Excerpt from "How God Became Jesus"

Categories Theology New Testament Book Excerpts

9780310519591Two months ago Bart Ehrman released his book How Jesus Became God. With the help of five internationally established scholars, we released an accessible, scholarly response, How God Became Jesus (HGBJ). It is a guide to understanding how early Christians came to worship Jesus as God as much as it is a response to Ehrman.

If you heard about this book you might have wondered, "What's the big deal?" Why go through the trouble of publishing an entire response book? The excerpt below reveals why this book was necessary.

In it Michael Bird explains Ehrman’s major arguments that seek to dismantle the Church’s belief about Christ’s deity. “According to Ehrman,” Bird writes, “the Christ of Nicea is a far cry from the historical Jesus of Nazareth.”

Read this excerpt and engage this book to understand and respond to Ehrman, while helping your people worship Jesus as God.

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For Ehrman, ancient monotheism was not particularly strict. In his reading of ancient texts, Ehrman posits a pyramid of power, grandeur, and deity that could be shared with creatures to some degree. There was no absolute divide between the divine and human realms; it was more like a continuum, where divine beings could become human, and humans could become divine. The many mythical stories about intermediary figures, like heavenly angels who become human or powerful kings who become divine, provide a way of understanding what the early Christians meant when they regarded Jesus as a “god.” 

In addition, according to Ehrman, Jesus was not regarded as God by anyone during his own lifetime. Jesus did not think of himself as God. Rather, Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who looked for God’s dramatic intervention in the world.1  Jesus had set his hopes on a mysterious and heavenly figure called the “Son of Man,” whom God would use to usher in his kingdom in the immediate future. Explicit claims to Jesus’ divinity in the gospel of John are secondary and inventive accretions to the tradition, which have been projected back into Jesus’ career.

What is more, the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are highly contradictory and are not historically accurate. Although Jesus was definitely crucified, he was not buried by Joseph of Arimathea, nor was his tomb found empty. Instead, reports of his resurrection emerged when his disciples had visionary experiences of him as still alive. These visionary experiences were transformative for his disciples, and they thereafter began to talk of Jesus in elevated categories, as a human exalted to heaven. Then later others began to think of Jesus as a preexistent being who became human.

As such, Ehrman identifies two primary ways in which Jesus was divinized by the early church. First, and the earliest version, was “exaltation Christology,” whereby Jesus was a man who was made divine at his resurrection or baptism. Second was “incarnation Christology,” whereby Jesus was a preexistent being who became human. Applying this paradigm to the New Testament, the gospel of Mark understands Jesus in terms of an exaltation Christology, while the gospel of John reflects an “incarnation Christology. In the case of Paul, Ehrman believes that Paul thought of Jesus as an angel who became human and was then exalted to a position beside God.

Finally, Ehrman describes the various controversies about the nature of Christ that were waged in the churches in the succeeding centuries, climaxing is the Nicene Creed in the fourth century. There he maintains that what was the earliest form of Christology, namely, exaltation Christology, was deemed heretical or unorthodox by the church in the second century. Among the many repercussions of the Nicene Christology was the increase in anti-Semitism. In the mind of Christians, if Jesus was God and if the Jews killed Jesus, then the Jews had killed their own God. According to Ehrman, the Christ of Nicea is a far cry from the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Despite the innovations that took place in the twenty or so years after Jesus’ death, where followers believed him to be a preexistent being who became human only temporarily before he was made Lord of the universe, still, it was only at Nicea that Jesus became fully God.

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Not everything Ehrman says is wrong. Much we accept, and other scholars may side with him on issues here and there. However, our overall verdict is that Ehrman has not extended or enhanced our knowledge of Christian origins. Therefore, we hope to put up a rival perspective to Ehrman by critiquing his arguments and by offering a better model for understanding the origins of belief in Jesus’ divine nature. In doing so, we aim to give a historically informed account as to why the Galilean preacher from Nazareth was hailed as “the Lord Jesus Christ” and how he became the object of worship in the early church. We believe, in short, that God became Jesus! (pgs. 17-21)

How God Became Jesus

By Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, Chris Tilling

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