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:
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