Bart D. Ehrman. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne, 2014. 404 pp. ISBN: 978-0-06-177818-6. $17.09.

Ehrman, HOW JESUS BECAME GOD
Ehrman, HOW JESUS BECAME GOD

Introduction

The Jesus of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee will be unfamiliar and even unpalatable to many readers of this book, both lay and scholarly. Many of the arguments are familiar, particularly to those familiar with Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, but Ehrman also describes some newer conclusions that will strike some scholars as peculiar and convince others that Ehrman is more of an apostate and notorious skeptic than they ever could have imagined.

Those looking for a heavily detailed and annotated engagement with competing viewpoints will be disappointed, but Ehrman’s priority with this publication doesn’t seem to be to make a comprehensive case for his christological model. Rather the goal appears to be to conduct a sort of guided tour through his own conceptualization of the development of Jesus’ exaltation and the logic and evidence that led him to it. Stories at the beginning of each chapter about Ehrman’s interactions with the questions he explores lend a personal touch to the book by illustrating how integrated into his development as a scholar the question of christology is, but they also document some of the major steps in his journey from conservative believer to skeptic.

 

Summary

Ehrman’s guided tour can be divided into four main stops: (1) the continuum of deity in Greco-Roman period and Jewish literature, (2) resurrection and the historical Jesus, (3) exaltation and incarnation christologies in the New Testament, and (4) post-biblical christological development and extinction. In the interest of space, and in order to dedicate more attention to some specific aspects of the book, the remained of this review will briefly summarize the four stops and conclude with some thoughts about a few selected points and their strengths and weaknesses.

In the first stop, Ehrman takes two chapters to make a case for understanding ancient conceptualizations of deity not as das ganz Andere (“Wholly Other”)[1] in relation to humanity, but as occupying a continuum that could and did overlap with humanity’s own continuum. The first chapter highlights the more explicit illustrations of this model in Greco-Roman myth and literature, and the second attempts to identify the same divine motifs in Jewish literature. These continua were not so much defined by ontology as by power and authority.[2] Brian LePort has provided a handy illustration:

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This discussion leads to Ehrman’s notion of a pyramid of divinity in which the highest god is also the most exclusive and the lower gods become more numerous with each descending tier. Jesus’ journey through divinity, it will be argued, fits well into this model.

The second main stop on Ehrman’s tour is the question of the historical Jesus. Divided into three chapters, this stop begins with the question of whether or not Jesus is represented in the earliest strata of the gospels as recognizing his own divinity. Ehrman concludes he did not, and even forwards the claim that Jesus did not originally identify himself with the Danielic/Enochic Son of Man. The next two chapters address those aspects of the resurrection Ehrman considers to fall (1) outside the purview of historical reconstruction and then (2) inside that purview. The foci of these two chapters are, respectively, Ehrman’s newfound doubt that Jesus was actually buried and then missing from his tomb, and the psychological processes that could account for likely historical visions of the risen Jesus.

Chapters 6 and 7 divide the earliest strains of christology detectable within the New Testament into two categories: exaltation christology (the view that Christ was a human who became exalted either at his resurrection or his baptism) and incarnation christology (the view that Christ was divine from birth—or before). The earliest of these must be teased from the preliterary traditions Ehrman finds within the Pauline writings, the Gospels, and Acts. Ehrman makes a somewhat surprising case in Chapter 7 for a Pauline angelomorphic christology in Galatians 4:14, which he asserts is an interpretive key that illuminates the remainder of the authentic Pauline texts. Importantly, he also highlights the pluriformity of early christology even within individual texts and the fallacy of linear treatments of its development.

The final stop along Ehrman’s guided tour traces the development of early Christian orthodoxy vis-à-vis Christ’s relationship to God. Chapter 8 describes the heretical christologies of the second and third century, and 9, those that paved the way to the ultimate declaration of christological orthodoxy: the Nicene Creed. An epilogue wraps up the volume with some discussion of the impact of Nicea’s christology on Judaism, Christianity, and the Greco-Roman from the fourth century on.

 

Engaging the Argument

Ehrman’s argument is generally well articulated and reasoned. The discussion is organized in an engaging and logical way, and the anecdotes beginning each chapter help personalize the research and connect the reader with the author. Ehrman has developed an accessible and engaging writing style over the years, which helps him to comfortably bridge the gap between trade and popular publications. No doubt he aims this book just as much at skeptical hobbyists as at believing Christians and critical scholars. The text is accessible to each, and in order to facilitate that, it’s not a thorough technical treatment of the christological question. This has caused concern for some readers, and particularly those in the more conservative camps who view Ehrman as an enemy combatant. Some believing readers may feel Ehrman’s goal in including them secondarily in his target audience is not so much to inform and complement their faith so much as to overturn it. The repeated emphasis on the dichotomy of history and theology, and Ehrman’s refusal to judge the latter, may as a result ring hollow and insincere in the ears of those readers.

In the interest of space, Ehrman omits a lot of competing viewpoints with which he could no doubt interact competently, but he also leaves a lot of arguments to be made by the few sources he cites. A number of responses have neglected to pick up on that, forwarding arguments that have already been addressed in those sources. This is most conspicuous with the arguments regarding a continuum of divinity and adoptionism in Mark, which he takes from a far more thorough argument offered by Peppard (who was influenced by Ittai Gradel—also ignored by respondents).[3] This is not to say, however, that he doesn’t ever gloss over some issues where they complicate his argument. As an example, the discussion of Apollonius does not serve as strong evidence of conceptual cognates to Christ given it occurred over a century after the gospels were published. The circulation of the Christ tradition within the Greco-Roman world likely had some influence of some kind on Apollonius’ development. His discussion of Pauline christology also seems overly simplistic and reductive.

Elsewhere Ehrman’s language and argumentation does not appear well thought out. For instance, the sense in which Ehrman uses the capitalized “God” in reference to Jesus is often unclear. While it’s true one of the main questions Ehrman investigates is the sense in which Jesus was called “God,” he appears to switch back and forth between the generic and the referential sense, which makes it unclear if he is identifying Jesus with the being of God (a la Nicea) rather early in the development of his Christology. Some have accused him of being deceptive in this regard, trying to lull conservative and naïve readers into thinking he is more orthodox than he really is. I think that’s going a bit far, but I found myself wondering on multiple occasions if he meant “God” in the Trinitarian or the generic sense.[4]

Problems are most clear, however, in those places where he has changed his thinking or otherwise adopted a new position. His discussion of the historical Jesus is built on over a decade of research and interaction with the field. The first two chapters, on the other hand, present a case that Ehrman seems to still be working out. His presentation of the divine continuum and the relationship of Greco-Roman views of deity to those of Judaism could have been put together more clearly and forcefully. While the arrangement of three examples of the divine/human continuity in both Greco-Roman and Jewish literature certainly has a clear logic, the connections were rather vaguely made and required some conceptual massaging on Ehrman’s part (for instance, I’m not convinced angels were “incarnate” or “human” in those pericopae. Rather, angels were just usually conceptualized as anthropomorphic). I think the case could have been better made with just a few examples of more clear cases of divinization in Jewish thought (Jesus’ use of Psalm 82 in John 10, for instance[5]), or both cultures borrowing from the same conceptual matrix. Perhaps he could have actually quoted the words of the Priene inscription, rather than just explain that the inscription inspired his new position.[6]

I am also concerned with the cases Ehrman constructs for the lack of a burial (and thus empty tomb), and a Pauline angelomorphic christology. These arguments felt particularly thin. An angelomorphic christology in Paul appears constructed entirely upon one reading of one text, and it doesn’t quite fit well with the rest of the Pauline corpus. The argument for a lack of burial doesn’t fully consider the breadth of the textual evidence. Both these arguments are engaged directly and forcefully in the response volume, though, and I’ll let those authors make their case in that review.

 

Conclusion

I recommend this book to readers interested in the development of early christology and/or the intersection of that field with historical Jesus studies. The initiation to the field is of far more value, in my opinion, than that relinquished by a few methodological improprieties. In this sense, the response book serves as a helpful counterweight, even though I think its methodological shortcomings are more critical. Ehrman does not break entirely new ground, but I don’t see that as his purpose. Despite concerns, his approach is not anti-supernatural or anti-religious; his methodological sensitivity—even if not always applied—is pretty standard and uncontroversial. Having said that, Ehrman repeatedly dichotomizes between faith and reason, theology and history, and apologist and scholar, making it difficult to shake the sense that—despite his refusal to judge the legitimacy of faith claims—his inclusion of the faithful and conservative among his target audience is not altogether benign. That is a dynamic that will ultimately serve to increase interest in, and discussion about, his book, however, and in a book that straddles the boundaries between a trade and popular publication, I can hardly call that out of bounds.

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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 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”. See also his earlier post “A Critical Engagement with Richard Bauckham’s ‘Christology of Divine Identity'”.

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[1] Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 25.

[2] This was the subject of my second master’s thesis, “‘You Will Be Like the Gods’: The Conceptualization of Deity in the Hebrew Bible in Cognitive Perspective.” Ehrman no doubt is drawing here from Michael Peppard (The Son of God in the Roman World), who is highlighted in the acknowledgements as being influential on his position.

[3] See Gradel, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion. As I’ll point out in my next review, I have yet to find a single reference to Peppard’s book in the response.

[4] In one place he asserts, “He is not the Father himself” (263), which has nothing to do with any Nicene conceptualization of Jesus.

[5] Among others, see Jerome Neyrey, “‘I Said: You Are Gods’: Psalm 82:6 and John 10.” JBL 108.4 (1989): 647–63.

[6] See Craig Evans’ discussion for the relevance to Ehrman’s case.