Lord and God
Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God
Through his words and actions, Jesus of Nazareth excited expectations that he was (or would be) the Messiah. That Jesus inspired this hope likely led the Roman authorities to crucify him. Jesus didn’t actually claim divinity for himself, and he wasn’t worshiped as such during his earthly ministry. The ascription of divine status to Jesus and the accompanying devotional practices that are reflected in the New Testament arose only after—though astonishingly soon after—Jesus’ crucifixion. Key to this development were experiences (“visions”) of the resurrected Jesus, which generated in the earliest circles of Jewish believers the conviction that God had raised Jesus (bodily) from death and exalted him to a unique heavenly status and glory. Further developments in christological belief over the ensuing decades and centuries led to the classic doctrine of the Trinity.
That, in a nutshell, is the thrust of Bart Ehrman’s book. To anyone familiar with a historical approach to the topic, these will not be novel conclusions. Indeed, they have been affirmed by a significant number of New Testament scholars, especially over the past several decades. That an astonishing “high Christology” erupted quite soon after Jesus’ crucifixion, and that the risen Jesus featured remarkably in the corporate devotional practices of earliest believers, has been increasingly recognized. As the great German New Testament scholar Martin Hengel observed about developments in the 20 years between Jesus’ execution and the earliest letters of Paul, “in essentials more happened in Christology within these few years than in the whole subsequent seven hundred years of church history.”
However, Ehrman’s book is intended for readers generally unacquainted with this scholarly work. Among those readers he obviously aims to have a dramatic impact. Many Christians unacquainted with the historical data will assume that beliefs about Jesus’ divine status derive from Jesus’ own claims, and many non-Christians will likewise assume that the validity of traditional Christian beliefs about Jesus depends upon whether Jesus actually made corresponding claims. For both kinds of readers, the “news” that Jesus didn’t actually make the sort of claims for himself that earliest believers made about him may seem somewhat sensational.
As in his other popular books, Ehrman clearly seeks not simply to inform but also to stir controversy among this varied readership. More specifically, he hopes to startle naive traditionalist Christians, nettle anxious apologists of Christian faith, and reassure fellow agnostics (Ehrman’s self-description) and skeptics that there is justification for their doubt. (He is obviously able to stir a response: published almost simultaneously with this book is a multiauthor riposte, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature, released by Zondervan.)
Ehrman’s polemical agenda may well make for a lively discussion and a marketable book, but it also lessens somewhat his ability to give a balanced historical picture. Ehrman, who teaches at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, gained prominence by way of a string of books with a similarly sensational tone aimed at a general readership on a variety of topics—variants in New Testament manuscripts (Misquoting Jesus), the problem of evil (God’s Problem), and pseudonymous writings in the Bible (Forged). These books generated appearances on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and phenomenal sales, at least compared to most books by scholars. In all these works he makes frequent reference to his own journey from naive and fundamentalist Christian to voluble (but generally genial) agnostic. Along with (and as another result of) his popular books, he often engages in public debates with Christian apologists, adding to his public stature.
In those prior books, Ehrman drew more directly on his own scholarly expertise. In this one he focuses on matters on which he himself has not been a noted contributor. He draws heavily (and respectfully) on the work of a number of other scholars (including my own work, such as Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity) who in recent decades have probed the origins of belief in Jesus as divine. Ehrman is often good at making scholarly arguments accessible. Unfortunately, in a few matters he oversimplifies or misconstrues things, and in other cases his claims and arguments appear one-sided.
An example of oversimplifying: in the first chapter Ehrman rightly notes that the Roman world was full of gods and deified humans (especially deified rulers), and he suggests that this phenomenon helps explain the emergence of beliefs about Jesus as divine. But he fails to indicate that for Roman-era Jews the plurality of deities and demigods and the practice of deifying rulers were repellent, even blasphemous. More of an explanation is needed as to how the multiplicity of deities in the Roman environment could have been a relevant and facilitating factor for considering Jesus divine in the circles of devout Jews among whom (as Ehrman readily grants) the divinity of Jesus was first asserted.