Why did Bart D. Ehrman write a book—How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of the Jewish Preacher from Galilee—on Jesus’ divinity (or lack thereof)? We can speculate all day about this or that motivation, but I chose to focus upon one thing: the question(s) he asks. At the end of the day it is the questions and the answers that matter most here. For Ehrman there is one central, nagging question:
How did a crucified peasant come to be thought of as the Lord who created all things? How did Jesus become God (p. 1)?
Ehrman is not a confessing Christian. He is agnostic. There is no reason for him to start with the Church’s Creeds (most Evangelicals don’t give much attention to the Creeds either) or with a pneumatology that proposes that the Spirit has guided the Church in her theologizing. For Ehrman, the first and final authority is a historical-critical reading of the sources. This is where Bird, Evans, et al., have decided to engage Ehrman (presumably, since I haven’t read it yet, but I doubt they begin with dogmatics) in their response book How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature —A Response to Bart D. Ehrman. This shared methodology will determine whose views are found to be more persuasive. According to Ehrman:
As a historian I am no longer obsessed with the theological question of how God became a man, but with the historical question of how a man became God (p.2).
This is an interesting way of framing it. While it may be theologically true that God became a man it is being proposed that this question isn’t in view at all. For Ehrman that idea is off the table. The present theological truth isn’t in what he wants to discuss. It is the historical question that he seeks to answer. Jesus’ divinity was something that came to be embraced by his followers, so how did they get there, and why did they come to believe this? Ehrman states, “…what people personally believe about Christ should not, in theory, affect the conclusions they draw historically (p. 3).” In other words, he seems to leave the door open for one to continue to confess that Jesus is somehow God, theologically, but he isn’t as interested in that question as whether or not one can explain how his followers came to believe this using the sort of restrictive epistemology and methodology that might be used to explain how someone like Caesar Augustus or Alexander the Great came to be deified.
Of course, we’re assuming a lot here when we speak of Jesus as “God”. What does it even mean to speak of Jesus as a god. Does it mean something similar to what people meant when they spoke of the aforementioned rulers of the ancient world as being deified or something else? According to Ehrman,
…to understand this claim in any sense at all will require us to know what people in the ancient world generally meant when they thought that a particular human was a god— or that a god had become a human (p. 3).
Ehrman’s argument hinges on this important assertion: while moderns may speak of God as “up there”, alone, completely distinct from us humans “down here” this is not something ancients affirmed. Rather, the relationship between gods and humans may go something like this:
There were those whose humanity was closest to the animals and there were those whose humanity was closer to the highest of the high gods, but it wasn’t always either-or, either human or deity. Ehrman writes:
The problem is that most ancient people— whether Christian, Jewish, or pagan— did not have this paradigm. For them, the human realm was not an absolute category separated from the divine realm by an enormous and unbridgeable crevasse. On the contrary, the human and divine were two continuums that could, and did, overlap (p. 4).
There were two main ways a human could be divine: “by adoption of exaltation” or “by nature of incarnation”. Interesting, Ehrman understands early Christians to have understood it both ways stating in passing that the Gospel of Mark presents adoptionistic Christology and the Gospel of John incarnational.
This is Ehrman’s introduction. The questions have been asked. The hypotheses have been presented. As Ehrman summarizes the chapters to come he does note that he understands early Christian worship and deification of Jesus to be connected to their belief in the resurrection; therefore, Jesus’ burial and resurrection will be central to the discussion. Then as he ends his introduction he restates the driving question(s):
…the key Christological question of them all: How is it that the followers of Jesus came to understand him as divine in any sense of the term? What made them think that Jesus, the crucified preacher from Galilee, was God (p. 10)?