On Monday I summarized Bart D. Ehrman’s reasons for writing How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of the Jewish Preacher from Galilee and the questions he seeks to answer in this book. (In gist: “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)?”) This afternoon I received my copy of the response book How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature —A Response to Bart D. Ehrman. So, I thought I would say a few words about the Editor’s Preface by Michael Bird, allude to a couple posts questioning the motivation for writing a response book, and link to some other conversations being had about this topic.
First, Bird’s preface: he says, “The purpose of this volume is to offer a critical response to Bart Ehrman’s book…” noting that Ehrman is “something of a celebrity skeptic” who receives a lot of “media attention”. According to Bird there are two reasons that Ehrman’s books receive so much attention: (1) “For conservative Christians” he is “a bogeyman” who is interesting only for the purpose of knowing what he’s saying now and (2) “For secularists” to whom Ehrman “provides succor and solace that one need not take Jesus too seriously” (pp. 7-8).
Bird acknowledges that the recognition of Jesus’ divinity took place over time, and that there were messy theological controversies, but he rejects the idea that this “was not so much a result of divine revelation as it was human process” (p. 8). Immediately we recognize the dividing point that will influence the trajectories of these two studies (lest anyone think that either Ehrman or his opponents can feign objectivity). For Ehrman, only naturalistic explanations qualify as evidence. For the Evangelicals, divine revelation occurred, so whatever data is available to confirm this will be sought. I don’t want to oversimplify things because I don’t deny the honesty of Ehrman’s inquiry or that of Bird, et al., but neither should we pretend as if either book was written without some very important presuppositions.
Second, questions about the motivation for writing a response book: one coming from Hermant Mehta and the other from Christopher Skinner. Mehta’s post “Would the Bart Ehrman Experiment Happen the Other Way Around?” asks whether a Christian publisher would be willing to put together a response book to something written by someone like Rick Warren. This is a good question, but as Bird has noted, this wasn’t what happened. It was Bird himself who proposed the idea. But I think a related question is worth asking: would an agnostic like Ehrman take the time to intentionally respond if it was the other way around? It’s unlikely, but there is an important caveat that we must note: Ehrman’s books wouldn’t receive as much attention as they do if he didn’t intentionally address matters already precious and important to a large population of English readers. Let me put it another way: his academic works on textual criticism, non-canonical books, and the like do not receive as much attention as his popular works because his popular works are written and marketed to question long-held assumptions about God, Jesus, and the Bible held by many Christians. So, in some sense, Bird, et al., is an Evangelical response to Ehrman’s response to the Evangelical worldview. FWIW: I would like to see more publishers willingly publish books that tell both sides of the story, so to Mehta’s question: I wish it would happen the other way around!
From a different angle Christopher Skinner’s “The ‘Response Book’: A Few Reflections on a Uniquely Evangelical Phenomenon” observes that Evangelicals are too often prone to be reactionary, often responding in fear. He rightly observes the irony of this scenario: this book contributes to Ehrman’s “acclaim”. Skinner ends by observing that Ehrman’s genius has been his creative way of communicating to broader audiences and that maybe Evangelicals will receive this same response if they learn to do the same thing to promote their ideas rather than merely reacting.
This is a very good point and one Evangelicals and other Christians need to consider. On the flip side though I must say something about the appetite of our culture taking my cue from Craig A. Evans who wrote a chapter in the response book: people don’t care much about an article or book that says, “Oh, look, we’ve found more evidence to confirm what we’ve believed all this time.” No, large audiences want what is “new”, scandalous, paradigm shifting. They want what undermines traditional understandings of the world. If someone affirms that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus was divine in a way that is not the same as Nicaea, but neither out of step with the conclusions of the later Church, then few people will care and those who do care will probably write one off as an apologist. So, while I do agree with Skinner that Christian scholars need to spend more time discovering, enlightening, creating, and communicating rather than merely reacting it is important to observe that Bird, Evans, Gathercole, Hill, and Tilling are all very good, very creative scholars with excellent communication skills, and yet there is a good chance that because their work doesn’t “shock” anyone there is little to no chance that the public will ever crave their books like they crave Ehrman’s.
Ok, this already went longer than anticipated, so let me just leave you with a few links that may interest you:
Simon Gathercole Debates Bart Ehrman on the Radio and Bart Ehrman Intervieed by Washington Radion about Jesus’ Divinity via Michael Bird
Deeper Waters Podcast: How God Became Jesus via Nick Peters w. Bird, Hill, and Tilling
Are the Christologies of Paul and Mark Different? via James McGrath
Why I am Excited to Read Bart Ehrman — for the First Time via Nijay Gupta
Paula Fredriksen on Early Jewish Monotheism by Daniel O. McClellan
Didn’t N. T. Wright and Bart Ehrman publish simultaneous books back in 2005? Was that planned or coincidental? The Last Word and Misquoting Jesus. They didn’t interact or respond to each other in print, but they did in a joint session at SBL.
Non-evangelicals have sometimes written responses to evangelicals and some of their views (Intelligent Design, Left Behind, or even Evidence that Demands a Verdict and the Case for Christ). Those books or concepts became quite popular and begged for responses, even though they often were academically lacking.
I have wondered if Richard Bauckham had the Ehrman-knack for pop writing if his Eyewitnesses book would become wildly popular in the public square (or at least the Christian faction of it) and if it would have propagated response books. Sure, it has weak spots, but so does Ehrman with that whole notion that Paul considered Christ an angel. Bauckham’s book is a rare thing, a major academic book that ploughed mostly new ground in a very creative way that had to be dealt with. It was largely embraced by evangelicals and shunned by most everyone else. But it never had the popularity with the Barnes and Noble crowd to necessitate any major responses like books by Ehrman, Dawkins, or Hitchens.
@CJ: I hadn’t thought of those 2005 books. I don’t know that the authors wrote consciously of one another or that one author chose to write their book in response to the other. In this scenario Ehrman had a topic he wanted to tackle, Mike Bird was tired of Ehrman’s methodology and claims, so Bird decided to rally together a response. If Wright-Ehrman had each other in mind at all it doesn’t seem to have been to the same degree.
You’re absolutely correct that non-Evangelicals have often responded to Evangelicals to the same degree, esp. Evangelical ideas that have captured public imagination like “the rapture” or ID as you noted. I think the common denominator is that when something is popularly received that seems dangerous. So, for many, rapture theory seems dangerous. It has odd implications for eschatology, ecology, and various other ways Christians think about their place in the world in the present. Similarly, for Bird, et al., they find that Ehrman’s views are dangerous and can undermine a central tenant of Christianity, both dogmatically and practically (we say Jesus is God; we worship Jesus as God).
Bauckham’s book is a good case study. It does seem like the sort of book that could have received more attention, and maybe it was marketing that prevented this, or writing style, but I think Evans’ insight is the best explanation: it defends what has been commonly accepted: the Gospel are the result of eyewitness testimony. Many Evangelicals assume that the disciples Matthew and John wrote the Gospel attributed to them, so it isn’t news in their ears to hear someone defending this, especially if they are unaware of the sophistication with which Bauckham approaches his study. Unless something is shocking and “new” it is rare that in the area of religious studies that it will gain a broad audience.
I wonder if the belief by the first generation of Christians didn’t already see Jesus as God in some cases pre resurrection? There’s some evidence for it.
Example, the Pharisees accused Jesus of claiming to be God by stating He was “the Son of God”. It’s reasonable to think Peter did as well after his confession isn’t it?
When Jesus answered with the “I AM”, it seems reasonable to think everyone knew what He meant, including His disciples. If they were believers, voila.
You couldn’t say you are the “I AM” and a Jew then not know what you meant. You couldn’t say, “I will come in the clouds” w/o the same.
You couldn’t say, “I am The Son of God” and be misunderstood.
Jesus couldn’t be seen walking on water and the ANE Jew not get that, God parted the water for His people, God walked on water Himself because He controlled creation.The believing and unbelieving Jews knew what Jesus was saying.
Anyone who “rode the clouds” in the ANE was the El Elyon.
So, I think the earliest Jewish saints grasped Jesus’ Divinity earlier than our researchers think.
Just because Jesus didn’t act like an outspoken post enlightenment westerner shouldn’t cause us to be blind to the reality of 30 AD Jewish religious culture and Jesus’ claims within that culture.
I can imagine a retort to be, “they sure didn’t act like it”! Neither do we, so what?
The reason I mentioned Bauckham’s book is because the other day I looked up reviews on it and was surprised to see how many it propagated. It made me wonder if Bauckham’s Eyewitnesses was like Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption. OC was a major academic work, and Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus was basically the pop version of it that became so popular. It made me wonder if Bauckham’s book would have become popular in a pop version somewhat like things by C. S. Lewis. Seems like there’s a big audience for that kind of stuff, especially with all these biblical movies in theaters and on TV now.
Response books usually respond to things that are popular, whether as a corrective or to build off of them. Even Ehrman threw together his own book responding to the Da Vinci code. And Ehrman also published a response book to mythicists. So Ehrman himself publishes response books, or at least uses popular trends as a chance to offer his own books.
@Patrick: I’m sure you’re aware of the responses you’d receive from someone like Ehrman. For one, “I AM” in the Fourth Gospel is problematic not because we don’t know what the Evangelist is having Jesus say, but because it is very difficult to argue for the historicity of such language, especially since it is so foreign to the language of Jesus in the Synoptics. We’d have to imagine that Jesus went around calling himself “I AM” as a claim to deity and yet his earliest biographers find no such tradition or chose not to include it. Most people, even conservatives, find that the Fourth Gospel is interpretive of Jesus. So, historically, Jesus as a prophet and/or messianic candidate may have drawn a line in the sand saying that whoever is with him is with Israel’s God and whoever is against him is against Israel’s God. In some sense this could be interpreted as a claim to be so one with Israel’s God that he was in essence claiming to be Israel’s God, so the Fourth Evangelist “interprets” the “true” meaning of Jesus’ words, even if those aren’t the exact words spoken by Jesus himself. In other words, I doubt Ehrman finds “I AM” statements to be historical considering these realities. Our problem is assuming that because the Evangelists say Jesus said something, and because the Evangelists place that saying in a particular context, that it is now a convincing argument that Jesus himself said these same things in the same context.
Similarly, with “Son of God” we have similar language being used of Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus, and many of the early emperors. If this is our only parallel it isn’t Nicaea, per se, but more like an exalted human and this is the argument Ehrman is going to make.
@CJ: Absolutely, I think that if Bauckham put together something more aimed at a popular audience he’d do well. The only NT scholar of a confessional stance that I know that does this very well time and time again is N.T. Wright. Now, people who have read Surprised by Hope of How God Became King will go out and buy his volumes of Jesus or his new one on Paul, but it is unlikely this would be so if they hadn’t come to trust him through his popular writings first.
Also, that’s a great point abt. Ehrman’s book in response to Da Vinci Code and his book on mythicism. I hadn’t considered that.
I think John is interpretive, too. Personally, I take the I AM statements as historic also though. Eliminate that part for sake of discussion.
You still have “son of God”, “riding the clouds” and Jesus walking on water in the synoptics.
For a Jew to say, “I am the son of God” would not be comparable to Caesar( or any ancient pagan) saying that.
Ehrman knows this. The pagans had for millenia divinized human leaders, the Jews weren’t like that. That was a claim to divinity in 30 AD Israel and it caused some Jews to desire to murder Jesus on the spot for blasphemy.
So was “riding the clouds”.
Everyone in that entire region would immediately have known Jesus was claiming to be the El Elyon. That phrase was common in the region for everyone’s “El Elyon”.
Even if Jesus were a Canaanite and spoke to Canaanites, they would have assumed He was claiming then to be Ba’al.
As it was, when Caiaphas heard Jesus say that, he immediately accused Jesus of blasphemy claiming to be Yahweh.
I think probably everyone but Mary lost their faith after Jesus was executed, so the resurrection is unbelievably significant to the future “divinity” beliefs.
However, I think it is reasonable to believe some of Jesus’ followers believed He was Yahweh in the flesh pre resurrection because they would have believed Him to be Yahweh when He said He would “come in the clouds” in Matthew 24.
@Patrick: That comment had a lot of interesting assertions, but I feel I may be jumping ahead a bit if I tried to address each one. I know Ehrman and Bird, et al., will address these issues so hopefully we’ll have a chance to discuss them in time in relation to the arguments made by these authors. Do you plan on reading either or both of these books?
I have Michael Bird’s book, have not started it yet, probably will in the next 30 days or so. Don’t have Bart’s book on this subject matter.
Sure have read a lot of counter Bart stuff on these issues, sort of like I was reading Origen countering Celsus, I feel like I know Bart’s views from the counters.
Michael Bird and Chris Tilling taking vs. B. Ehrman on christology came as a surprise. My local pub.lib has the Ehrman book already in the system (5 copies) but you will not see the response books, they don’t buy em. I tried twice to read Eyewitness book by Bauckham. Couldn’t get through it. Like someone said, it isn’t news unless you are into biblical studies. I was kind of excited about a Bauckham book on Johannine Christology (forgot the name) over a decade ago and tried to explain it to the clerk-of-session in a local PC-USA church. He had same reaction. I isn’t news. Tried to explain it was big news if you are in the world of biblical studies. Had no success.
@Patrick: But that’s only sufficient because Origen quote Celsus verbatim! Bird, et al., don’t do this, so we’d have to be settling for hearing someone’s views through the filter of their opponent. I’m not willing to dot that. If Celsus’ work was preserved free from Origen’s commentary it would be required reading for students of Origen who want to truly understand not only Celsus, but Origen too!
@C. Stirling: This is true. Many of these subjects don’t matter to the broader public.
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