Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, Chris Tilling. How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2014. 236 pp. ISBN: 978-0-310-51959-1. $16.99.

Introduction

Bird, Evans, et al., HOW GOD BECAME JESUS
Bird, Evans, et al., HOW GOD BECAME JESUS

In the interest of space, my review of Michael F. Bird’s response volume, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman, will be divided into two separate posts. This first post will address the contributions of Bird himself, which include the introductory chapter (“The Story of Jesus as the Story of God”), a chapter on monotheism (“Of Gods, Angels, and Men”), a chapter on Jesus’ view of himself (“Did Jesus Think He was God?”), and the final essay (“Concluding Thoughts”). The second post will treat the remaining essays in the volume by Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, and Chris Tilling (wherever he may be).[1]

First I’d like to address an issue that’s been raised elsewhere, namely the rhetorical tone of Bird’s essays. In what seems to me to be an effort to match the less formal register of Ehrman the storyteller, Bird’s articles make extended use of personal anecdotes, sarcasm, and hyperbole, but I think they miss the mark, bordering in their casualness on juvenile and even insulting in some places. For instance, in the preface Bird suggests that for people who do not identify as religious, Ehrman provides “succor and solace that one need not take Jesus too seriously” (pp. 7–8), as if agnostics and atheists are fraught with doubt and worry, and Ehrman’s scholarship swoops in to comfort them in their tribulation. Even as a believing Christian I find this rhetorical fiction insulting and puerile. Then on the first page of the first essay Bird comments, “Ehrman’s view of Jesus is low, so low in fact that it could probably win a limbo contest against a leprechaun” (p. 11). This kind of awkward humor punctuates most of the contributions, but is most acute in Bird’s essays. I think this detracts from the scholarship somewhat and gives his essays a decidedly apologetic and antagonistic flavor. Making fun of Oprah and the Jehovah’s Witnesses (p. 23), for instance, tells me this volume is not aimed at scholars or undecided third parties, but at Evangelicals who want to be convinced their constituency has a legitimate response to Ehrman. It descends in many places into the kind of sectarian polemic I would expect to find on Facebook, not in print.

I’m not going to respond separately to each of Bird’s four essays, but will instead divide my review into comments about Bird’s characterization of Ehrman’s arguments and methods, and Bird’s own fallacies and methodological improprieties. I have begun this review four different times, and I have made an effort to describe Bird’s presentations of his arguments, and give outlines of his articles, but my comments have balooned well beyond a reasonable length for a blog post. As a result, I will have to limit this post to these methodological concerns and refer readers to reviews posted elsewhere for outlines of the essays.

 

Bird’s Characterizations of Ehrman’s Arguments

From the very first paragraph of the introductory essay, Bird sets out to rhetorically compartmentalize and marginalize Ehrman’s approach, calling his approach “essentially evolutionary,” and insisting there’s nothing in it “particularly innovative or new” (p. 11). The use of the code word “evolutionary,” Bird appears to think, groups Ehrman with the misguided Hegelians of a bygone era (he even aims a criticism from a previous generation of scholarship at Ehrman’s 2014 publication) and signals to the conservative readers that there’s nothing new here with which anyone need be concerned. The trouble, beyond the flagrant hasty generalization fallacy, is that Ehrman himself explicitly rejects a linear view of christological development, instead insisting that different regions and congregations had their own christological views that differed one from another but could be categorized according to two broad typologies: exaltation christology and incarnation christology.[2] While Ehrman’s vernacular certainly sounds evolutionary in places, his actual discussion paints a more nuanced and sophisticated picture—one that seems to have evaded Bird.

These caricaturizations of Ehrman’s case are numerous and disappointing. In assessing Ehrman’s criteria in his chapter on the historical Jesus, Bird attributes quite peculiar claims to Ehrman (p. 50):

For case in point, let’s consider Ehrman’s use of the “criterion of dissimilarity,” which on his account dictates that a given unit in the Gospels is historically authentic if “it is dissimilar to what the early Christians would have wanted to say about him.”

Note the absolutism of the criterion: dissimilarity = “historically authentic.” It is not a question of probability in Bird’s eyes. He continues to describe it in another paragraph:

But even then it verges on the ludicrous. Think about it. A story about Jesus or as a saying attributed to Jesus is only historical if it does not sound anything like what the church was saying about Jesus.

This is a stunningly manipulative and misleading description of Ehrman’s criterion. In reality, Ehrman claims that dissimilarity indicates that the segment can “stake a high claim to being historically accurate” (p. 96, emphasis mine). Note it’s a question of degrees, not of the absolutes that Bird attributes to it. Bird is certainly aware of this difference and its importance, since he describes his own criterion as indicating “a high degree of historical authenticity” (p. 51, emphasis mine).[3] He allows himself the methodological nuance of which he flagrantly robs Ehrman. His claim that Ehrman thinks a saying is “only historical” if it satisfies the criterion of dissimilarity is just asinine. Ehrman describes several criteria suggestive of authenticity, and he nowhere intimates in any sense whatsover that historical authenticity can only be asserted where there is dissimilarity.

Let us also examine his description of Ehrman’s comparative approach (p. 25):

So for Ehrman, Augustus was hailed as a son of God, and Jesus was hailed as a Son of God, to they might be saying the same thing with only minor variations on a theme. Moses became an angel, Enoch became an angel, so maybe Jesus became an angel too. Well, there are obvious relevancies with such comparisons, but it might not be so simple as A = B. It’s kind of like saying, “Butternut squash and butterscotch pudding, they are all made of butter, aren’t they?” Alas, no, they are not the same thing!

To imply Ehrman would be so methodologically juvenile and so ignorant of the literature and the vernacular of Judaism and the Greco-Roman world as to naively assume mere lexical correpondence indicates a genetic relationship (butternut and butterscotch both come from butter!) insults the intelligence of Bird’s readers, not to mention Ehrman.

Continuing, because of Ehrman’s putative naivety when it comes to comparative studies, Bird lists three principles he insists need to be kept in mind: (1) beware of parallelomania, (2) analogy does not mean genealogy, and (3) we must give equal attention both to similarities and to differences. Whether or not Ehrman is guilty of the first two is never stated, the risk is just said to be there. The examples he provides are not from Ehrman, but just stock examples used to generically illustrate the principle. Apparently the power of suggestion is indictment enough.

The third principle is an entirely artificial standard that Bird himself violates by paying brief lip-service to the possibility of similarities between Christian and “pagan” literature (three total sentences) and then going on for over two pages about the ways in which Christianity is completely unique. Observe one of his claims:

If Christian ideas about God were so snug and down within the ancient world, then why was Paul flogged by Jewish communities (2 Cor 11:24) and laughed out of the Athenian Areopagus by Greek philosophers (Acts 17:32)?

The notion that these events preclude the possibility of significant conceptual overlap between Paul’s theology and those of the Jewish and Greco-Roman communities is just laughable. How many volumes would it take to list the cosmological and theological concepts shared between Jewish, Muslim, and evangelical communities? How much violence has taken place between the three over the millennia? Despite the severity of their one fundamental difference, how many similarities were there between the worldviews of Arius and the bishops who opposed him? And yet the sentence passed upon Arius and his constituency was far more severe than simply being laughed at.

In his rhetorical zeal to marginalize and mock Ehrman’s argument, Bird insults the intelligence of his readers and betrays his own dogmatism and myopia.

 

Fallacies and Poor Methodology

Not only does Bird have to flagrantly mischaracterize Ehrman’s arguments for his rhetorical blows to land, but he commits a number of other fallacies and methodological improprieties in crafting his own case. For instance, in his chapter on monotheism, Bird describes Ehrman’s discussion of a divine continuum in the following way (p. 23):

In Ehrman’s reading of ancient sources, there was a continuum of existence from the human to the divine. Not only that, but within the divine realm there were numerous deities, ranked within a graded pyramid of power and grandeur. . . . In other words, to say that Jesus is ‘god’ does not require that he be part of an absolute and singular divine reality, which is infinitely removed from the world and utterly beyond all earthly reality.

Fair enough, but quite quickly Bird’s concept of an “absolute and singular divine reality” is conflated with the broad notion of “monotheism,” which is then leveraged against Ehrman in a bit of rhetorical sleight of hand. Observe (p. 28):

Ehrman seems to think that a strict and absolute monotheism was a later invention that took place in the fourth century as part of the Christianization of the Roman Empire. He goes so far as to say that, apart from Jews, ‘everyone was a polytheist.’ The problem is that this is just plain untrue. There was a long tradition of pagan monotheism well before the Christian era. . . . It was possible in the ancient world to be a pluralistic monotheist by giving the one God different names.

So we have two separate claims here from Ehrman: (1) “strict and absolute monotheism was a later invention” (this is Bird’s paraphrase), and (2) “everyone was a polytheist [in the first century]” (p. 39 in Ehrman). Bird’s discussion of syncretism is certainly a legitimate challenge to the second claim that “everyone was a polytheist,” but in suggesting the second is just an extension of the first (“he goes so far as to say . . .”), Bird seems to want the reader to think that pagan syncretism also undermines the first claim, which it absolutely does not. If anything, it supports it, since Bird can only find syncretistic and “pluralistic monotheists” that in no way whatsoever support the notion of that “absolute distinction” Bird insists characterizes “strict and absolute monotheism.”[4] Bird does not appear willing to directly engage Ehrman’s case, and so he sidesteps it here with this rhetorical diversion.

Bird actually misses an available opportunity to quite forcefully make his point, though. There absolutely were pre-Christian “pagan monotheists” (if you can call Greek philosophers “pagan”) who asserted that absolute distinction between God and the rest of reality, but they were Platonists, and if Bird were to appeal to Platonism, he would be playing right into the hands of Michael Peppard, whom Ehrman mentions as particularly influential on his current viewpoint. Y’see, on p. 30, Bird contends that “This exclusive devotion to one God isn’t based on abstract philosophical speculation or a generalized belief about the world above.” To acknowledge otherwise would open the door to the Greco-Roman philosophical origins of that distinction—exactly the origins for which Peppard and others contend. Bird has to tiptoe around the strict and absolute monotheism of Platonism while highlighting the “pluralistic” monotheism of Varro and Celsus.

Not surprisingly, nowhere in Bird’s response volume does anyone acknowledge, much less engage, Peppard’s christological research. It is not difficult to see why. Peppard’s discussion of the relationship of Greco-Roman religion and philosophy to early Christianity is quite thorough and also quite problematic for the christological picture Bird, et al., try to paint (pp. 10–11):

For many scholars, Nicene christological thinking has become second nature and thus guides their analyses of New Testament texts. William L. Lane, for examples, evokes the language of the Creed when interpreting the divine sonship portrayed by the Gospel of Mark: “Jesus did not become the Son of God, at baptism or at the transfiguration; he is the Son of God,” and it is “an eternal and essential relationship.” Clear echoes of the Creed resound in Lane’s analysis—the relationship is “eterna;” (eternally begotten of the Gather) and “essential” (homoousios, “one-in-being” or “of the same essence”). What is more, this quotation emphasizes the fundamentally Platonic concerns of Nicene-era theologians and their modern recapitulators. For Plato and his philosophical heirs, the chief metaphysical distinction divides the static world of Being from the dynamic world of Becoming. By the time of Nicea, many Christian theologians had embraced this philosophical distinction and, having all agreed that God the Father belonged on the side of Being, were then concerned with where the Son belonged. Lane pronounces in favor of the orthodox: the Son is, he did not become.

More recently, Simon Gathercole has taken up the Platonic debate anew with regard to divine sonship in the Synoptic Gospels. In The Preexistent Son, he argues that “the preexistence of Christ can be found in the Synoptic Gospels,” precisely the place where most biblical scholars would not look for such a doctrine. When commenting on the Gospel of Mark, Gathercole describes Jesus’ divine sonship with the following terms: it is “beyond a merely functional sonship possessed by someone with otherwsie entirely natural origins,” having instead a “supernatural, transcendent origin.” The Son “participates in the same reality as the angels and the Father,” His concern here is thus metaphysical in Platonic terms: is the Son natural or supernatural, mundane or transcendent, earthly or heavenly? (The language of “participation in reality” would find a perfect home in a philosophy course on Plato.) In Gathercole’s own words, on which side of the “God/Creation divide” does Jesus exist? Being or Becoming?

Now the standard response is that Platonic and other philosophical terminology was simply adopted in the third and fourth centuries for the sake of convenience of expression—because it allowed Christians to articulate what they had previously neglected to make explicit. The ideas did not originate with the adoption of Greco-Roman philosophical expression, but just the expression itself. I have already shown the fallacy of this claim in my criticisms of Bauckham’s christological monotheism.

Moving on, in his chapter on the historical Jesus, Bird makes a series of methodological errors that seriously undermine his entire premise. To begin, his goal for the chapter is to “show that Jesus identified himself as a divine agent with a unique authority and a unique relationship with Israel’s God” (p. 46). My concern is that this identification is quite a bit different from saying Jesus believed he was God (note the title of the chapter: “Did Jesus Think He was God?”). Throughout this chapter Bird tries to distinguish Jesus from other intermediary figures asserted to have contributed to the development of Christ’s conceptualization. Bird’s description of Jesus’ self-identification actually supports the conclusion that the angel of YHWH and Metatron—also divine agents with unique authority and a unique relationship with God—were conceptual templates for Jesus’ relationship with God.[5]

He argues against himself even more exlpicitly than that, though. Note that if we go back to his chapter on monotheism, we find Bird rejecting the notion that the Enochic Son of Man is an appropriate template for early Christology because “the fact that kinds and nations worship him, even while on God’s throne, is still merely the acknowledgment that he is God’s appointed agent who will gather the elect and punish the wicked kinds and nations who have not acknowledged the one true God and his people” (p. 34). Bird is identifying the Enochic Son of Man as “a divine agent with a unique authority and a unique relationship with Israel’s God.” He’s even receiving worship. This is exactly what he’s trying to say Jesus’ view of himself was. How does Bird navigate around this contradiction? He simply asserts that these seemingly parallel conceptualizations of the Enochic Son of Man and Jesus are fundamentally different because “such beings were not part of God’s divine identity” (p. 35).

There’s a problem here, though, because in some cases, they are! On p. 37 Bird discusses the angel of YHWH, pointing out that “paradoxically the angel of the Lord both is YHWH and is not YHWH.” How could we possibly find a more direct analogy to the early Christian view of Christ’s relationship to God? Was not the entire christological question how we may understand Jesus to both be YHWH and not be YHWH? According to Bird, that’s misguided, though. Observe (p. 37):

The problem with the angel is whether or even how he is identifiable with YHWH’s own presence and person. However, Christ’s person was understood as being distinct from God the Father, and his mode of divine presence was couched in far more concrete language, like “form” of God, “glory” of God, “image” of God, and even “God enfleshed.”

The distinction of the “presence” and “person” is Nicene, however. It occurs nowhere near the New Testament. Bird is forced to retroject his Nicene frameworks onto the New Testament to distinguish the conceptualization of the angel of YHWH from the conceptualization of Jesus. That “more concrete language” is simply the result of quite a bit more time and attention having been dedicated to pondering and expounding upon Christ’s mission and relationship to God. It in no way undermines the quite solid position held by many that these figures that so frequently found themselves wrapped up in the identity of God provided the conceptual canvas for the composition of Christ’s relationship to God.

In another section, Bird presents a bizarre description of the field of social memory, suggesting (it appears to me) that social memories—in virtue of nothing other than being shared by a community—have a high degree of authenticity (p. 49):

. . . I would advocate that the Gospels are generally reliable and coherent sources for studying the historical Jesus. As long as the early church knew the “Lord Jesus” to be the same as “the crucified one,” the historical Jesus was always going to be properly basic for the church’s faith. The things Jesus said and did pre-Easter mattered for what the church believed and said about him post-Easter.

That is not to deny that the Gospels are documents designed for proclamation, theologically loaded, and written to create faith. The Gospels are, then, the interpretation and application of the memory of Jesus for readers in the Greco-Roman world. A memory was carried by eyewitnesses anf was put into the custory of corporate interest in the Jew from Nazareth.

The assumption seems to be that if the early Christian community considered a specific tradition about Jesus important, it must have some historicity to it—either no one would be so presumptuous as to create or evolve a new tradition, or there would not be time or opportunity to do so. Either way, the assumptions are baseless. One can point to numerous instances of traditions about living and recently dead charismatic figures evolving from different events or being invented out of whole cloth and immediately gaining circulation within the associated communities. Bird entirely misrepresents the relationship of social memory to the historical Jesus.[6]

 

Concluding Remarks

I cannot recommend Bird’s contributions to the response book, although I will have some praise to give for some of the other essays published alongside his. I was disappointed in Bird’s tone, in his misrepresentations of Ehrman, and in his methodological lack of care. His essays strike me as shockingly rhetorical and apologetic, and despite the flaws and shortcomings of some of Ehrman’s arguments, I don’t think Bird has made a significant dent in his overall case. If anything, Bird has shown his scholarship and his grasp of the issues to lag quite a distance behind those of Ehrman.

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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 continue 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 posts “A Critical Engagement with Richard Bauckham’s ‘Christology of Divine Identity’” and Book Review: Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God.

 

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[1] I don’t want to make this a focus of either review, but the editing has numerous problems of various sizes and significance, likely because of time issues. For instance, the tertiary title from the cover, “A Response to Bart D. Ehrman,” is missing Ehrman’s middle initial on the title page. Similarly, Simon J. Gathercole’s middle initial is included on the cover, in the title page, and at the beginning of his essay, but is omitted in the Table of Contents. Jeffrey Thompson’s name is spelled without a “p” on the copyright page, but includes it on the back cover. There’s also a space missing between the words “Ehrman’s” and “Interpretative” in the title of Christ Tilling’s first essay in the Table of Contents. On page 47, the first paragraph of the quoted text is a particular font size and in block text, in agreement with other quotations in the book, but the second and third paragraphs are in a different size and are only left-justified. Additionally, the three paragraphs are from two separate publications, but no additional line breaks separate them from each other. Near the top of page 43, the transliterated word Exagōgē appears to have extra spaces after the ō and the ē, likely because of some space issue with the font’s use of the macron. Many other examples could be highlighted.

[2] See p. 237 in Ehrman’s volume for the clearest rejection of an “essentially evolutionary” christological development.

[3] And note his criterion (p. 51): “We can regard a unit in the Gospels as claiming a high degree of historical authenticity when a saying or event attributed to Jesus makes sense within Judaism (i.e., plausible context) and also represents a starting point for the early church (i.e., a plausible consequence).” I am at a loss for words. If something has two markers of “plausibility,” Bird considers it to have “a high degree of historical authenticity.” And those markers are about as subjective and vague as one could possibly hope for. I would love to see Bird identify some saying or event in the New Testament that doesn’t “make sense within Judaism” and doesn’t represent “a starting point for the early church.” Just about anything could be spun to fit those categories.

[4] Bird cites the volumes Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity and One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire, but few of the essays there actually support his point, and some flatly reject it. The conclusion of Nicole Belayche’s article, “Deus deum . . . summorum maximus (Apuleius): Ritual Expressions of Distinction in the Divine World in the Imperial Period” (p. 166) perfectly reflects Ehrman’s continuum within a “monotheistic” framework: “The term heis theos, ‘alone/unique’, signifies that the divinity was alone of its type, unmatched (praestans in Apuleius’ words), capable of achieving the impossible, but not one god as such. It is the equivalent of a relative superlative form, like hypsistos, designed to affirm the unequalled characteristics of the god celebrated. These acclamations, which are the intensified form of an act of thanksgiving, accompany other ritual forms of exaltation, for example the use of epithets or theonyms of glorification and praise. This redesigning of the architecture of the divine world does not require the heis theos to be exclusive; on the contrary, the exaltation of a divinity takes on greater significance in a pluralistic context. We here encounter an intrinsic quality of polytheism, which was pluralist and capable of organising the pantheon according to hierarchies that varied according to the contexts.”

[5] NB: this is not to say Jesus was an angel (or a butternut squash), but that the specific relationship was patterned after the angel. Bird has difficulty distinguishing these ideas. I will go into much greater detail on this in my final post of this series.

[6] A good example of insightful and methodologically sound applications of the theory to early Christianity is the Semeia volume edited by Kirk Alan and Tom Thatcher, Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity.

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