In Chapter 3, “Did Jesus Think He was God?” of Bart D. Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee  readers are given an introduction to historical Jesus studies. Ehrman explains his methodology by discussing sources like Q, Mark, Special M, Special L, John, and how he understands these sources through various “criterion” such as “independent attestation”, “dissimilarity”, and “contextual credibility”. Then he visits Jesus’ historical context arguing that Jesus was primarily influenced by apocalypticism (which he gives four major tenants: dualism, pessimism, judgment, and imminence , pp. 98-102). Ehrman’s arguement is based primarily on how apocalypticism explains both the beginning (alliance with John the Baptist) and ending (crucifixion) of Jesus’ ministry. 

Then Ehrman explains how Jesus’ earliest followers understood him. He concludes that “messiah” is a primary identity for them because of how consistent early Christians were in calling Jesus the messiah and because Jesus was called messiah even after dying in a very non-messianic way:

…how do we account for the fact that Christians immediately started proclaiming —not despite his death, but because of his death— that he was the messiah? The only plausible explanation is that they called Jesus this after his death because they were calling him this before his death (p. 117)

So, Jesus, the apocalyptic preacher/prophet said and did things that convinced many of his followers that he was the messiah, even though he died in a way unbefitting for a messiah, and this idea stuck because of their belief in the resurrection. Throughout the chapter Ehrman makes reference to Jesus’ language about the “Son of Man”, always in the third person, never obviously as a self-identifying label, and he postulates that as an apocalypticist it is quite possible that Jesus though of himself as messiah, but not in a traditional sense. Instead, the Son of Man would come from heaven to establish the Kingdom of God and Jesus himself would be that King. Jesus was misunderstood for making messianic claims that insinuated he would try to usurp Rome, but this was not what Jesus intended.

So, we know who Ehrman thinks Jesus to have been and why, but what does that say about Jesus’ self-understanding and whether that self-understanding including some concept of being divine? Ehrman acknowledges that the Fourth Gospel depicts Jesus as having an awareness of his divinity, but for reasons well-known he doesn’t find this to be all that helpful for historical reconstruction. Then he points out how our earlier sources do not present Jesus as making as exalted of a claim as the Fourth Gospel and this would suggest that the Fourth Gospel has a developed Christology foreign to Jesus’ self-understanding.

Since Ehrman rejects “the Son of Man” as a self-designation used by Jesus (p. 125) this leaves him with only one other way Jesus may have understood himself as divine: as other kings/rulers in the ancient world were “divine”, cf. the Pharaoh’s, some passages about Israel’s king, Alexander the Great, the Caesars. Even here Ehrman rejects this as a plausible explanation for Jesus’ self-understanding because “we have no known instance of a living Jewish king proclaiming himself to be divine (p. 126).”

While Ehrman concedes that Jesus may have been the exception to the rule he suggest we would need a “good deal of persuasive evidence” that we do not possess. To end the chapter Ehrman addresses several objections in gist: what about miracles? Elijah and others did miracles and they weren’t divine. What about forgiving sins? Jesus never says “I forgive you” but that God (an other) forgives people and he may be acting more as a priest than a deity. What about Jesus receiving worship/veneration? Kings received worship/veneration, so at best this suggests Jesus thought of himself as a king. To top all of this off he cast doubts on the idea that some of these stories even go back to Jesus himself and therefore they are unreliable (pp. 126-127).

In gist, Ehrman’s argument against Jesus understanding himself to be divine include: (1) Jesus had a different identity, namely, an apocalyptic prophet who was believed by his followers to be the messiah; (2) other semi-divine figures like the Son of Man were “other” to Jesus, not one with himself; (3) the Fourth Gospel is historically late and unreliable for this discussion; (4) other actions that people often associate with Jesus’ divinity say nothing about divinity at all (miracles, forgiveness, etc.); (5) that said, even the Synoptic Gospels are part history, part theology, and therefore tainted when it comes to using them to describe Jesus’ self-identity. In my next post I’ll take a look at Michael Bird’s response.



Previous Entries: 

Pt. 1: Prelude

Pt. 2: “How did Jesus become God?”

Pt. 3: introducing the response book

Pt. 4: the divinity-humanity continuum

Pt. 5: more on the divinity-humanity continuum

Pt. 6: “the Early High Christology Club”

Pt. 7: Bird’s first response

Pt. 8: around the blogosphere