by Daniel O. McClellan


Before I provide my reviews of Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God and the multi-authored response, How God Became Jesus, I’d like to address Richard Bauckham’s christology of divine identity as it’s laid out in his essay “God Crucified” (the version published in Jesus and the God of Israel). Since most of the authors in the response book heavily cite Bauckham (and appear to me to adopt his christological model), it will save me some space to provide some thoughts beforehand. In my final post in this series I will be discussing my own views about christology and divine agency, and there I will address some of the evidence Bauckham adduces in support of his thesis in his essay “Paul’s Christology of Divine Identity.” Bauckham explains that a more full exposition of his case and the evidence will be forthcoming in a book he has preliminarily entitled “Jesus and the Identity of God,” and so some of my concerns may be assuaged or overruled in the future, but for the time being, below are the biggest issues I take with his explication of the nature of first century Judaism. Numbers in parentheses are to page numbers in Jesus and the God of Israel.

The main premise undergirding Bauckham’s christological argument is that the Judaism of the Second Temple period consciously maintained an absolute metaphysical distinction between God and “all other reality” (7, 9, 12, 13, 17, 18, 20, . . .). This was one of two primary aspects of God’s uniqueness recognized within early Judaism (the other being his covenant relationship with Israel). The primary evidence that Bauckham adduces in his publications up to this point is the assertion found throughout biblical and non-biblical Jewish literature that God is the creator of “all things” (7–13). For Bauckham, this indicates that very absolute metaphysical distinction, and with that distinction in place the nature of Jewish monotheism can be extrapolated from the texts. Because all reality is either (1) God or (2) not God, any putative deities must belong to one or the other category. If the former, they must be aspects of God, such as his Wisdom or his Word, and do not thus threaten a strict and formal monotheism. If they belong to the latter category, they are created and contingent beings that merely “participate in divinity” (5; on p. 4 Bauckham asserts that divinity is coterminous with God) and are not appropriate objects of worship. Again, strict monotheism is preserved.

With this framework firmly in place, the two main categories of “intermediary figures” (4–5, 14–17) are examined and found insufficient to threaten first century Jewish monotheism. Angels and exalted humans were created and contingent beings, and personified or hypostatized divine agents are simply aspects of God’s own divine identity. Christ’s divine profile does not fit those of earlier contingent and created “semi-divine figures” (20) like the Son of Man or the Angel of YHWH, and so must be interpreted as inhabiting God’s own unique identity. For Bauckham, this christology of divine identity rightly replaces any “functional” or “ontic” christology, since first century Judaism was not so much concerned with what God was (his nature or function) as with who God was (his unique identity).

Several aspects of Bauckham’s case concern me. To begin, he attempts to establish a uniform description of first century Jewish monotheism and then overlays his christological model to see if that description is violated or not. The goal seems to be to arrive at a christology that neither violates nor mutates (a la Hurtado) first century monotheism, but this strikes me as a reductive and artificial standard. Contemporary scholars acknowledge that early Judaism was variegated and diverse, and within that milieu there was beyond doubt a wide variety of perspectives regarding God’s uniqueness. The early Jewish responses to Christianity demonstrate that the ways Christ was conceptualized absolutely did violate at least some of those perspectives.[1] This shouldn’t be a concern, though; I don’t think we have to (or can) find unilateral continuity between the theologies of early Christianity and pre-Christian Judaism. I certainly don’t think we should use that expectation of continuity as a criterion for testing christological models.

Bauckham also provides no argument for his assertion that divinity is coterminous with God, but rather just appears to presuppose it. This begs the question in a section where his goal is precisely to determine what constituted divinity (and where he criticizes other scholars for applying “unexamined criteria”).[2]

Next, I find no strong evidence for the existence of his conceptual model in the first century. Bauckham appears to draw the crux of his entire argument­—the absolute metaphysical distinction between God and all other reality—from an inference. That the Hebrew Bible and New Testament repeatedly affirm that God created “all things” is not debatable; it is clearly emphasized by multiple different authors. To extrapolate from that observation, however, that Judaism had a self-conscious, uniform, and developed notion of God as absolutely metaphysically distinct from all other reality is taking a significant step beyond what the evidence supports.[3] The conceptual raw data were certainly available for first century Jewish thinkers to draw that conclusion, and perhaps some did, but the raw data alone are not evidence of the presence of that conclusion.[4] This absolute metaphysical distinction is nowhere articulated (in narrative, poetry, or ritual), and a concept that is not articulated cannot be shared within a community, much less be the very foundation of their conceptualization of God.[5]

I would also contend that the rhetoric of a deity having created “all things” operated in the ancient Near East for centuries without producing any explicit articulation of the metaphysical notion Bauckham attributes to Judaism as a whole. The notion in play was indeed sovereignty, but a functional sovereignty, not a metaphysical one. We may go back, for instance, to the Egyptian Book of the Dead Spell 17 for the following comments from Atum: “The word evolved, totality was mine when I existed alone. I am the Sun in his first appearances.”[6] The sixteenth century BCE Great Cairo Hymn to Amun-Re,[7] praises Amun as “Sole One, who made all that exists.” There we find even more explicit rhetoric concerning the deity’s creation of all things:

One, alone, who made that which is / From whose two eyes mankind came forth / On whose mouth the gods came into being . . . / The gods bowing to Your Majesty / Exalting the might of Him who created them / Rejoicing at the approach of Him who begot them / Saying to you: “Come in peace / Father of the fathers of all the gods / Who suspended heaven, who laid down the ground / Who made what exists, who created that which is / Sovereign, — life, prosperity, health! — Chief of the gods. . . . / Hail to you, who made all that exists / Lord of Truth, Father of the gods . . . / Singly Unique One, without his second . . . / Maker of all peoples / Creator and Maker of all that exists . . .

Similar rhetoric can be found in several other places, but the majority of the rest of the related literature flatly precludes a metaphysical distinction separating the deity from the rest of reality. I imagine that Bauckham would not be so quick to attribute to the authors of this Egyptian hymn the strict “creational monotheism” (184) he so forcefully attributes to first century Judaism.[8] This is the rhetoric of incomparability, and like most rhetoric it shouldn’t be confused with systematic theology or philosophy. Nor, for that matter, were there an overabundance of systematic theologians or philosophers in Palestinian Judaism in the first century CE.

This brings me to the final concern I have with this absolute distinction: the reliance on creation ex nihilo. Without that doctrine, God’s absolute creator status cannot necessarily indicate a metaphysical dichotomy. Creation ex nihilo, however, is not explicitly articulated anywhere in any Jewish or Christian literature until the second century CE (just like Bauckham’s metaphysical dichotomy).[9] We cannot retroject a doctrine or its consequences back in time before its articulation just because its conceptual foundations reach further back in time.

To summarize, Bauckham’s case seems to me to be constructed upon a Nicene orthodoxy that has been retrojected into the Bible, likely because it was the lexical foundation for that orthodoxy.[10] The idea of Jesus being included in God’s “divine identity” is another way of stating that two persons are included in one being—the modern notion of the Trinity (minus the Holy Spirit). I don’t think this is the best interpretation of the data provided us by the New Testament and other early Jewish and Christian literature. After my reviews of Ehrman’s book and the response, I will provide my own brief discussion of what I believe the evidence does suggest about Jewish and Greco-Roman antecedents to Jesus and the ways in which he was associated with God in the first century CE.


Daniel O. McClellan
Daniel O. McClellan

Daniel O. McClellan has a BA from Brigham Young University in ancient Near Eastern studies, a master of studies in Jewish Studies from Oxford University, and a MA in Biblical Studies from Trinity Western University. He plans to enter into a doctoral program and he is currently a Scripture translation supervisor for the LDS Church in Salt Lake City, UT. In future posts he will be reviewing Bart D. Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of the Jewish Preacher from Galilee and the response book How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature —A Response to Bart D. Ehrman before offering his own modal for understanding how Jesus came to be understood as “God”.


[1] See, particularly, Alan Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, but also, more recently, Daniel Boyarin, “Beyond Judaisms: Metatron and the Divine Polymorphy of Ancient Judaism.”

[2] I take similar issue with Hurtado’s claim to an “inductive” investigation of first century monotheism where he also retrojects modern monotheism into antiquity. Hurtado insists that “we have no choice but to accept as monotheism the religion of those who profess to be monotheists,” but he uses modern notions of monotheism to determine who is professing to be a monotheist (since no one ever stated in antiquity “I am a monotheist”), overruling any “anomalies” (Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?, 114) or complications that might otherwise compel us to nuance the category. In this sense, Hurtado puts the cart before the horse, using monotheism as the constant and deciding how devotion to Christ can be accommodated to it, rather than figuring out how “one God” language might be understood in light of devotion to Christ. This is particularly significant for interpreting Paul’s comment that “there are indeed many gods and many lords, but to us there is one God” (1 Cor 8:5–6).

[3] Michael Peppard argues in The Son of God in the Roman World that authors like Bacukham, Gathercole, and others retroject Nicene/Platonic conceptual categories into the New Testament (10–12). This metaphysical distinction between God and all other reality is one of the primary Platonic concepts appropriated by Christianity in the third and fourth centuries CE. It should be noted that Ehrman explicitly acknowledges that Peppard’s book has influenced his christology (and he cites him multiple times for further discussion), but I have yet to find a single reference to Peppard in the response book. (Other conspicuous omissions will be highlighted in the reviews.)

[4] In the response book, Gathercole imposes a similar inference where he builds a case for Christ’s preexistence in the Synoptics based on Christ’s “I have come” statements (see The Preexistent Son). These statements indicate Christ must have come from somewhere, and that somewhere must be heaven (since the angels also say “I have come” and appear to be sent from heaven). In my mind this raises the question, does he impose the same interpretive assumptions upon texts like John 9:19, where the disciples ask if a blind man had sinned, and was thus born blind? Does Gathercole insist that the disciples held to a view of the preexistence of souls?

[5] The same concern might be leveled at Bauckham’s terse dismissal of “naively anthropomorphic” biblical passages (6), particularly if it rests on the once popular notion that human form and characteristics were consciously attributed to God with the understanding that his transcendence could not be accommodated by imperfect human language. It should go without saying that what cannot be couched in human language (or ritual or performative acts) cannot be communicated and thus cannot be shared within a community. On the normativity of anthropomorphism through to the Common Era, see Shamma Friedman, “Anthropomorphism and Its Eradication,” in Iconoclasm and Iconoclash: Struggle for Religious Identity, 157­–78. On the fallacy of treating anthropomorphism as a knowingly inadequate description of a transcendent deity, see David Aaron, Biblical Ambiguities: Metaphor, Semantics and Divine Imagery, 34–35; Benjamin Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, 4–10. On humanity’s cognitive predisposition to anthropomorphize unknown and unnatural entities, even when orthodoxy prohibits it, see Justin Barrett and Frank Keil, “Conceptualizing a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts.”

[6] “Book of the Dead Spell 17,” translated by James P. Allen (COS 1.17).

[7] “Great Cairo Hymn of Praise to Amun-Re,” translated by Robert K. Ritner (COS 1.25.i and iii). See also “Great Hymn to Aten,” translated by Robert K. Ritner (COS 1.28): “How many are your deeds. Though hidden from sight, O sole God beside whom there is none! You made the earth as you wished, you alone.”

[8] One of Bauckham’s criticisms of Nathan MacDonald’s discussion of monotheism (Deuteronomy and the Meaning of Monotheism) in chapter 2 of Jesus and the God of Israel suggests a metaphysical distinction for YHWH even in Deuteronomy’s rhetoric of incomparability. It seems to me little attention is being paid by Bauckham to the role of rhetoric in the biblical and non-biblical literature.

[9] For the most influential contributions to this discussion in the last few decades, see the following: Jonathan A. Goldstein, “The Origins of the Doctrine of Creation Ex Nihilo,” JJS 35.2 (1984): 127; David Winston, “Creation Ex Nihilo Revisited: A Reply to Jonathan Goldstein,” JJS 37.1 (1986): 88–91; Jonathan Goldstein, “Creation Ex Nihilo: Recantations and Restatements,” JJS 38.2 (1987): 187–94; Gerhard May, Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of “Creation Out of Nothing” in Early Christian Thought; James N. Hubler, “Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy through Aquinas” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1995); Maren R. Niehoff, “Creatio ex Nihilo Theology in Genesis Rabbah in Light of Christian Exegesis,” HTR 99.1 (2006): 37-64; Markus Bockmuehl, “Creation ex nihilo in Palestinian Judaism and Early Christianity,” SJT 65.3 (2012): 253–70. Note this last text comes the closest to insisting on the pre-Christian formulation of creation ex nihilo, highlighting texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls and elsewhere that elaborate extensively on the comprehensiveness of God’s creative sovereignty. Bockmuehl’s thesis, however, is that the building blocks for the doctrine were certainly in place within Jewish literature, but its actual articulation was not catalyzed until the philosophical milieu of the second century CE. Observe: “Creatio ex nihilo is a doctrine that cannot be straightforwardly established by a sola scriptura approach, despite Protestant theologians’ persistent claims to the contrary. What scripture and its earliest Jewish and Christian interpretation do confirm, however, is the central concern which that doctrine seeks to safeguard” (268).

[10] Bauckham’s exegesis of 1 Cor 10:20 (quoting Deut 32:17) illustrates this tendentiousness. The text reads ἀλλ᾽ ὅτι ἃ θύει τά ἔθνη, δαιμονίοις θύει καὶ οὐ θεῷ (אלה לא לשדים יזבחו).He remarks that the Hebrew suggests the Greek should be interpreted as “to demons, to what is not divine.” This is not what the Hebrew says, however. אלוה is a reference to YHWH in Deuteronomy 32, and the demons of 32:17a are immediately called elohim, “gods,” in the following appositional phrase: ידעום לא אלהים. It is quite a stretch to insist that the author says the demons are not divine, but then goes on to call them gods. The best rendering is “to demons, not to God” (see Michael Heiser, “Does Deuteronomy 32:17 Assume or Deny the Reality of Other Gods?). The appeal to v. 22’s reference to a “non-god” is not very helpful given the parallel reference to the Assyrians as a “non-people” (the singular is also consistent, which is an issue for Bauckham here). This is not systematic and careful theology, but rhetoric, just as we find in the ideologically related passages in Deutero-Isaiah that rail against idols, their manufacturers, and those that fight against Israel as “nothing” and “less than nothing” (40:17, 23; 41:11; 44:9).