“How Jesus Became God” by Bart Ehrman
“How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee” by Bart Ehrman
(4 out of 5 tapirs)
Like “Zealot”, “How Jesus Became God” approaches Jesus of Nazareth from the historical point of view. Ehrman was an evangelical Christian until he started studying the Bible very closely in college, and realized it is filled with mistakes and contradictions. Once he realized that fact, he opened his mind to the possibility that the Bible might not be the infallible story of Jesus Christ that he had been lead to believe in. He tells the story of how he expressed his doubts to a pastor in Chicago. The pastor had always been more liberal, so he was more sympathetic than others had been to Ehrman. The pastor told him to stick to the basics, and quoted John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.”
Then I asked him, “But what if Jesus never said that?” He was taken aback and stunned, and, good pastor that he was, tears started to well up in his eyes. It hurt me to see, but what could I do? You can’t believe something just because someone else desperately wants you to.
I have loved discovering how faith transitions are universal to all religions. This isn’t really the point of this book, but as someone who transitioned out of my faith due to questioning the literalism of my religion, his point of view resonates a lot with me.
In order for Jesus to become God, we would need to first show that he wasn’t God. Ehrman does this by showing how critical New Testament scholars believe Jesus never claimed to be divine. We know the gospels weren’t written by eyewitnesses, because the gospels were written by educated Greek writers decades after Jesus died. None of the disciples would have fit that description. That means we should expect to find nonhistorical information, discrepancies, contradictions, and embellishments and that’s exactly what scholars find in the gospels. Scholars have the difficult task of figuring out what Jesus actually said or did. They can do this by analyzing the parts of the gospels where it appears the text relies on some original source we no longer have. Also, any information that would not be flattering to Jesus or the cause is probably authentic, because something inauthentic would have been written to make Jesus appear in a more positive light.
Ehrman shows that Jesus never thought he was God, but he did think he was the messiah. But, this is not the messiah as taught by Christians, who dies and atones for our sins. The Jews were looking for a messiah to rule as the king of the people of Israel, and to deliver them from Roman rule. Jesus believed the apocalypse was near that would overthrow the Romans and bring freedom to the Jews, and that he and the twelve apostles would rule. This claim of Jesus is what cost him his life, as it was considered treason to claim to be king, as that would mean the overthrow of Roman rule.
Ehrman explains how it’s impossible to know whether Jesus was actually resurrected or not, because it’s a matter of faith, not history. “Faith is not historical knowledge, and historical knowledge is not faith,” he explains.
But what can we know? We can know three very important things: (1) some of Jesus’s followers believed that he had been raised from the dead; (2) they believed this because some of them had visions of him after his crucifixion; and (3) this belief led them to reevaluate who Jesus was, so that the Jewish apocalyptic preacher from rural Galilee came to be considered, in some sense, God.
He believes the followers of Jesus were so touched by his life, that they had dreams and visions of him living again. Some of his other followers would have been skeptical of this story, which is why the gospels contain stories of Jesus having to convince his followers he was actually resurrected, even though in the stories he was standing right in front of them. The idea that his followers had dreams and visions reminded me a lot of the “second sight” that Joseph Smith and the witnesses of the Book of Mormon gold plates believed in.
Christology: When Did Jesus Become God to His Followers?
Christology is the study of when Jesus became the Christ. Today Christians have the entire New Testament and look at it as if it were all written at the same time. Since in John we read that Jesus was with God from the beginning, Christians believe Jesus was always the Christ. But if you look more closely at the writings of the New Testament, you can see that different writers had different ideas of when Jesus became the Christ. The earliest traditions held that Jesus was exalted to be the Son of God when he was resurrected. In Mark it appears Jesus became the Christ at his baptism, since it makes no mention of him being in heaven with God, and no mention of his miraculous birth. He starts doing miracles after God declares him to be his son, as if to show he has become powerful with God’s declaration. In Luke, Jesus becomes the Son of God at his birth. While the synoptic gospels hold to Jesus being a human who was exalted, Paul subscribes to an incarnation Christology, where Jesus was an angel who became human.
Paul clearly thought Jesus was God in a certain sense—but he does not think that he was the Father. He was an angelic, divine being before coming into the world; he was the Angel of the Lord; he was eventually exalted to be equal with God and worthy of all of God’s honor and worship. And so I now have no trouble recognizing that in fact Paul could indeed flat-out call Jesus God, as he appears to do in Romans 9:5.
If someone as early in the Christian tradition as Paul can see Christ as an incarnate divine being, it is no surprise that the same view emerges later in the tradition. Nowhere does it emerge more clearly or forcefully than in the Gospel of John.
Post-New Testament Christology
The last two chapters talk about how the views of Christ evolved through the few hundred years before the Nicene Creed. What was once considered orthodoxy becomes heresy, and this happens multiple times until the Council of Nicea. And even today, there are liberal churches that say it doesn’t matter if you believe Jesus was the literal Son of God or not:
On several occasions over the past few years, when giving lectures in liberal and open churches throughout the country, I have said that of the entire creed, I can say only one part in good faith: “he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” For me, personally, not being able to say the (rest of the) creed—since I don’t believe it—prevents me from joining such congregations. But members of these congregations—and even clergy—often tell me that this should not be an obstacle. A lot of them don’t believe it either! At least not in any literal way.
I wish that kind of thinking was accepted at LDS churches! Unfortunately, there is no liberal wing of the LDS church that accepts non-literal belief. Some people are trying to carve out their own space in their local congregations for that kind of thinking, but it seems like the leadership in Salt Lake City don’t want to allow for it.
I really enjoyed the rich information available in this book. Sometimes the information can be dense and a little dry, which is why I gave it 4 out 5 tapirs. “Zealot” was a much quicker and more enjoyable read, but I’m happy I found this book and learned more about the historical Jesus and how he became the God of the Christian world. Jesus the Christ resonates with me as a symbol, even if I no longer believe he is a literal being. Often symbolism is more powerful than reality, and maybe that’s how spirituality works for our human minds.
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Nice review, Steve. I read the book shortly after it came out. As is so often the case, the Bible presents a variety of views but modern readers often conflate them into one composite view or simply project their preferred view onto every text. Another book that covers some of the same ground, with more emphasis on the post-NT period, is Jesus Wars by Philip Jenkins.