Thursday, May 21, 2015

Book Write-Up: How Jesus Became God, by Bart Ehrman

Bart D. Ehrman.  How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.  New York: HarperOne, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

How did Jesus, a Jew from a monotheistic culture, come to be seen by his followers as God?  Bart Ehrman, a biblical scholar who was once a conservative Christian and became an agnostic, tackles this question in How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.  

Ehrman argues that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who may have believed that he would soon become the Messianic king of Israel.  Jesus envisioned a heavenly figure known as the “Son of Man” (who appears in I Enoch) coming to earth soon, overthrowing evil and establishing Paradise, and setting up Jesus as the king of Israel.  After Jesus was put to death by the Romans, thereby shattering his disciples’ hopes that he would be the Messiah in any conventional sense of the term, some of Jesus’ disciples saw visions that convinced them was Jesus was still alive.  As that belief gained steam, early followers of Jesus concluded that God had exalted Jesus to a divine status after Jesus’ death, meaning that Jesus was still the Messiah, but that he was enthroned in heaven and would return to earth.  According to Ehrman, there was also an early view that Jesus had pre-existed his time on earth, that he was an angel who became a human being, then was exalted to a divine status.  For Ehrman, these ideas about Jesus are understandable in light of Greco-Roman, and also Jewish, ideas about divinity.  Both Gentile and Jewish culture contained the idea that a man could become divine, and that a god or an angel could assume a human form (which Ehrman acknowledges is different from an incarnation).  Within Hellenistic Jewish literature, there is the notion that an aspect of God could be personal, or that God had a divine intermediary (a logos, or wisdom), and Ehrman contends that these themes could be relevant to how Jesus came to be conceptualized.  Ehrman also explores Christology after the time of the New Testament, as he goes through Justin Martyr, Novatian, Tertullian, and others.  In Ehrman’s picture, views once considered acceptable (i.e., the idea that Jesus was exalted to a divine status after his death, and the view that the pre-existent Jesus had a beginning and was subordinate to God the Father) came to be considered heresy within Christianity.

This book has been critiqued and analyzed numerous times in the blogosphere and in print, and my write-up here will not be a thorough critique, though I will say that I find Ehrman’s scenario to be plausible and sensible.  While I have read a number of reviews of the book, I am glad that I finally read the book itself.  Ehrman is a gifted writer, who is able to make scholarly debates accessible to a popular audience.  I myself have academic training, but, as a reader, I appreciate when someone is able to summarize issues and phrase them in an accessible, friendly, lucid, conversational, and enjoyable (yet not corny) manner, while still providing documentation from primary sources.  Ehrman’s personal stories certainly enhanced the enjoyability of the book for me as a reader, for they showed how Ehrman’s research fit into his journey, particularly his journey in relation to religion.  The book also provided me with useful information about conceptions of divinity in the Greco-Roman world.  I have read about this topic in non-popular scholarly works, but Ehrman summarized the issues very lucidly, while giving examples of what he was discussing.

The book is not just related to Jesus’ divinity and monotheism, for Ehrman also participates in debates about whether Jesus’ resurrection is historically authentic.  In my opinion, Ehrman’s best argument with regard to this issue is his argument that all sorts of people—-even groups—-have seen visions, and that some Christian apologists are overreaching when they claim that early Christian visions of the risen Jesus demonstrate the truth of Christianity.  Regarding Ehrman’s argument that Jesus after his crucifixion probably was not buried, I refer readers to Greg Monette’s post about this subject, which critiques Ehrman’s argument through appeal to primary sources.  When Ehrman addresses the question of whether historians can say that Jesus rose from the dead, his discussion is a mixed bag.  Ehrman does well to make the point that saying that Jesus’ resurrection is not subject to historical investigation is not the same as saying that it did not happen; on the other hand, he seems to believe that historians should prefer naturalistic explanations as more likely than supernatural ones.  Personally, I would say that the farthest even believing scholars can go, from a historical standpoint, is to argue that Jesus’ tomb was empty, that the disciples saw visions that convinced them that Jesus rose from the dead, and that certain naturalistic ways to account for this fall short; I agree with Ehrman that going further and saying that Jesus rose from the dead is faith, not history.  In terms of what historians can say about this issue, I think that they would do well to say that it is a mystery.

Ehrman also makes points that are relevant to the question of whether the Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony.  Ehrman believes that there are some things in the synoptic Gospels that probably go back to the historical Jesus, and he endorses the conventional scholarly criteria of authenticity as ways to discern this.  At the same time, Ehrman also thinks that, after people saw visions of the risen Jesus, they started telling stories, and stories got invented and exaggerated, resulting in the oral tradition that is behind the Gospels, which (according to Ehrman) were written decades after the time of Jesus by anonymous people, not the people to whom they are ascribed.  (As Ehrman asks, would Aramaic-speaking Galileans produce the refined Greek works that the Gospels are?)  On eyewitness testimony, Erhman refers to non-Christian claims to eyewitness testimony: viewings of Romulus ascending to heaven; the claim that Apollonius’ miracles were attested by an eyewitness; and sightings of UFOs.

Moreover, while scholar Richard Bauckham argues in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that the Gospels telling certain people’s names is an act of referring to them as eyewitnesses, Ehrman refers to an article by Bruce Metzger (whom conservative scholars love to quote or appeal to on other issues), “Names for the Nameless,” which was in Kyriakon: Festschrift Johannes Quasten, volume 1, pages 79-99.  Ehrman summarizes the article as follows: “Here he showed all the traditions of people who were unnamed in the New Testament receiving names later; for example, the wise men are named in later traditions, as are priests serving in the Sanhedrin when they condemned Jesus and the two robbers who were crucified with him” (page 155).  (See my post here about how Bauckham addresses this sort of issue.)  Ehrman here is not directly responding to Bauckham, but rather Ehrman is seeking to account for the development of the tradition that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus, especially since an arguably earlier tradition said that the Jewish leaders as a group buried him (Acts 13:28-29); for Ehrman, we may be seeing the literary practice of naming a character.  While Ehrman in this book does not explicitly interact with Bauckham, Ehrman’s points may be relevant to Bauckham’s argument, and I am looking forward to Ehrman’s coming book that more explicitly tackles the question of whether the Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony.

I’ll stop here.

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