Last week I summarized Chapters 1 and 2 from Bart D. Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of the Jewish Preacher from Galilee. In Chapter 1, “Divine Humans in Ancient Greece and Rome” Ehrman surveys the continuum between humanity and deity as depicted by Graeco-Roman literature. In Chapter 2, “Divine Human in Ancient Judaism” he does the same thing with Jewish literature. In the response book How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature —A Response to Bart D. Ehrman Michael Bird takes issue with Ehrman’s presentation. In this post I will summarize his argument as I did Ehrman’s.
In Chapter 1, “The Story of Jesus as the Story of God” Bird introduces the response book. He acknowledges that the deity of Jesus is a matter of faith, essentially, but “…exactly when, where, and why Christians first began to make such elevated claims about Jesus’ heavenly origins and divine nature is a historical question and one that can only be answered through a concerted investigation of the evidence (p. 12).” Bird’s response is not point-by-point, but instead he summarizes Ehrman’s argument and in this chapter points readers to what he calls “the Early High Christology Club” (EHCC), which includes Martin Hengel, Richard Bauckham, and Larry Hurtado (p. 13). Hengel’s work breaks down the divide between the Hellenized peoples and the Jewish people in order to debunk the idea that high Christology didn’t arise until the Gospel spread into the pagan world (previously many argued that it was impossible for Jews to speak of Jesus as a deity, only the Gentile Christians would do that (p. 14). Hurtado “argued that the devotional practices of the early Christians were foundational for their doctrinal developments (p. 15).” In other words, while the creedal language was still evolving the actual practices of early Christians worshipping Jesus tells us a lot about their doctrine as practiced. Finally, Bauckham’s study has presented Jesus as acting and doing things that were expected of or reminiscent of Israel’s God and therefore the earliest Christians saw Jesus as “embodying” the actions of Israel’s God and therefore Jesus’ identity was merged with the divine identity (pp. 15-16).
Bird concludes that “if the EHCC is correct” than there are two immediate implications: (1) “belief in the divinity of Jesus emerged surprisingly early” and (2) “later creedal claims about Jesus’ divine personhood are not wildly innovative” (p. 16). In essence, Bird accepts the claims of the EHCC and he will build upon them. Of course, there remains much debate over the accuracy of the Christology of the EHCC, which I think may be a topic that I’ll discuss over the course of the year (I plan on reading works by Bauckham, James D.G. Dunn, Hurtado, Hengel, Michael Peppard, and others over an undefined period of time, so I’ll be sure to interact with those scholars here as well).
In my next post I will look at Bird’s own argument in response to Ehrman’s views on the divine-human continuum. In essence, while Bird acknowledges Ehrman’s point that there was a variety of divine-ish figures in both Graeco-Roman and Jewish thought it is a mistake to apply to think that this explains how Jesus was understood as divine. Jesus’ divinity is better explained by how the EHCC presents it: Jesus’ oneness with Israel’s God which is superior to that of any other celestial being.
On a side note, I want to make you aware of a few other discussions related to Ehrman’s first two chapters as well as Bird’s response: (1) Bird, Chris Tilling, and Craig Evans all gave interviews with The God Solutions Show; (2) James McGrath has done a round-up of blog posts related to this discussion; (3) Jennifer Guo has begun a series on the response book; (4) adjacently, Nick Norelli posted a teaser on Daniel Boyrin’s view of the “Jewishness” of High Christology from article “Enoch, Ezra, and the Jewishness of ‘High Christology’,” in Fourth Ezra and Second Baruch: Reconstruction after the Fall.