In my last post I summarized Chapter 1, “The Story of Jesus as the Story of God” by Michael Bird in How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature —A Response to Bart D. Ehrman. For Ehrman there was not as stark a division between deity and humanity in Graeco-Roman and Jewish thought as is often supposed. He hints that Markan Christology may be adoptionistic: Jesus became deity beginning with his baptism while Johannine Christology is incarnational: deity (the Word) became humanity. In other words, Ehrman doesn’t deny that there was one early Christology that became what would later be broadly accepted as orthodoxy. No, Ehrman’s contention is with those who suggest that all the earliest Christians thought this way. Instead, he proposes that there was a diversity of views held by early Christians. Bird doesn’t seem to disagree with this idea in its most basic form, but he does disagree with the suggestion that the earliest divine Christology accepted Jesus as being divine in any sense that is less than being one with Israel’s God in a unique way unknown to other celestial figures.
Since I’ve summarized Ehrman’s arguments in earlier posts I don’t need to do that again, nor will I discuss Bird’s summary of Ehrman’s arguments, but instead I want to use this post to focus on where Bird disagrees with Ehrman according to the argument he sets forth in Chapter 2, “Of Gods, Angels, and Men”. In gist, Bird’s criticisms are the following:
(1) The Graeco-Roman and Jewish theologies set forth by Ehrman weren’t foreign to the early Christians, yet their Christology remains distinct. In other words, they knew of humans born of deity, or deities becoming human, or humans becoming deity. According to Bird, Jesus was understood to be in a class of his own (p. 24).
(2) Bird accuses Ehrman of “Parallelomania”, or, “the error of relying too heavily on parallels with ancient sources to provide an explanation for Christian claims about Christ”. Bird doesn’t deny that parallels can be helpful, but he thinks Ehrman’s argument is obsessed with parallels and restricted by them. In other words, for example, just because there are Jewish authors who speaks of humans becoming somewhat deified (e.g., Enoch, Moses) this doesn’t mean that this is how Jesus’ relationship with God was understood. A parallel may exist, but it isn’t necessarily determinative of how we understand something (pp. 26-28)..
(3) Bird argues that strict monotheism wasn’t foreign to either Graeco-Roman or Jewish thinkers, so if one wants to find parallels, there is plenty of room for a strict christological monotheism to remain a working model. He presents documents like the Epistle to Aristeas 16, writings by Philo (who was also cited by Ehrman for opposite reasons), statements in works like 2 Maccabees, critiques by pagans like Tacitus, and most importantly passages like the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4ff. in the Hebrew Scriptures as prime examples (pp. 29-30). Bird’s point is that while there may have been a diversity of Jewish theologies the central idea of a strict monotheism held sway with most Jews and this should determine our understanding of early Christology.
(4) Jesus is not like other “intermediary figures”, says Bird. For example, he discusses Metatron of Sefer Zerubbabel, an angel who is seen as “the lesser YHWH”, but who is not equal to YHWH, nor lording over the world in his own right, but has been appointed by YHWH, and who eventually can be punished for taking YHWH’s glory. Meanwhile, works like the Book of Revelation present Jesus as receiving the worship due to God and present it as being a good thing of which Christ is worthy, unlike other angelic figures. The one figure that seems to come closest to Ehrman’s view, according to Bird, is the Son of Man from 1 Enoch 70-71 (pp. 31-35).
(5) Finally, Bird goes through various New Testament documents showing how angels are not placed in the same category as Jesus, e.g., Jesus is never equated with angels in the Gospels, angels are inferior to him and serve him, and so forth and so on (pp. 35-39).
Now that we’ve surveyed Ehrman’s argument and Bird’s response we should ask whether the response dealt sufficiently with the claim that there was a diversity of understandings regarding the continuum between humanity and divinity in the ancient world and therefore a diversity of understandings amongst early Christians regarding Jesus’ divinity. We are faced with a problem in our evaluation though: Ehrman’s two chapters cover around seventy pages while Bird’s is almost thirty. This makes a point-by-point response impossible. So we must ask whether Bird’s broad points of attack sufficiently weaken Ehrman’s argument. I don’t think they do (and I say this as a confessing Christian whose Christology is aligned closer to Bird’s than Ehrman’s). I find that Bird does show that Jesus is seen as superior to other beings in the New Testament (other than God the Father) and he provides some very good examples of what we may call “high Christology” in early Christianity.
The problem though is that Ehrman doesn’t deny that some forms of very high Christology existed (and this gets to a point often made by the respondents—there is usually as much agreement as disagreement): e.g., Johannine Christology, the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Apocalypse. But this leaves us with an important question: Were all early Christologies the same? Is Markan Christology the same as Johannine Christology or diverse like Ehrman claims? Well, at this stage Ehrman didn’t go case-by-case and therefore there was no reason for Bird to respond that way, but I think it leaves the door open for one to say, “Sure, Bird is correct, there are examples of very high Christology in the New Testament, and Jesus is presented as unique, but that doesn’t prove that Jesus was seen as divine in a way that makes him “God” in all of the New Testament.”
The New Testament itself leaves us with the problem of whether Jesus in his divinity can be spoken of as equal to God the Father. I imagine Ehrman will be happy to agree with Bird that Jesus was understood as “divine” early, but in the same sense as God the Father? the Creator? or in a lesser sense? Ehrman will say Jesus was understood to be divine, but inferior to the High God, the Creator. I don’t see that Bird debunked that. At best, he showed that Jesus is uniquely divine above other celestial beings according to the Evangelists and most other New Testament authors. We’ve yet to deal with Ehrman’s view of Paul and Chris Tilling’s response, or Gathercole’s evaluation of the Synoptic Gospels, which may cover some of the arguments left alone by Bird.
In my next post I will shift to Ehrman’s discussion as to whether or not Jesus thought of himself as divine. This will be followed by an examination of Bird’s response. Also, FYI, one of my favorite bloggers and scholars has begun reviewing Ehrman’s book. Read Daniel Kirk’s first post here.