Theology

Bart Ehrman’s Latest Book: How Jesus Became God

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Author Melinda Penner Published on 04/21/2014

I realized something about Bart Ehrman’s books reading his latest, How Jesus Became God. Most of his books are the same premise applied to different topics. Ehrman’s fundamental premise is that the New Testament documents, and most critically the Gospels, were written late, long after the eyewitnesses were gone. He thinks that they record oral tradition that changed over time before being committed to writing. So we have no authoritative or reliable record of Jesus. He touches on the reasoning for this briefly in this book, but he’s dealt with this in more depth in earlier books. But it really is the most important thing to know about this book and most of his books in the last several years. So if you want to understand Ehrman’s view about Jesus’ divinity in this book, you need to go back and understand his thinking on the New Testament in Misquoting Jesus.

The power of his case for how the idea of Jesus’ divinity evolved long after Jesus’ life is really an argument that is just touched on in this book. The fundamental idea of this book, and really the most persuasive part of his case that Jesus never claimed to be divine, is how he dates the New Testament documents. Once you don’t think the New Testament is a reliable report of Jesus’ teachings then any theory about how people came to think Jesus was divine is more plausible than that He actually taught that, even if it’s not very plausible in and of itself. And Ehrman’s explanation for how Jesus’ divinity evolved is pretty implausible without his fundamental premise that the New Testament was not written by eyewitnesses. He goes into great detail and tells a good tale for how this idea could have entered Christian teaching. I can see the appeal of the case he builds if—if the New Testament wasn’t written by eyewitnesses.

This isn’t a detailed or point-by-point review of Ehrman’s new book. Rather, I’ll highlight some of the major things to keep in mind when considering Ehrman’s arguments in this book and most of his others.

Ehrman starts by pointing out that the dividing line between human and divine was not so clear in ancient times. He provides ample evidence of ancient Greek and Roman ideas of humans becoming divine, and the divine becoming human, and all along the spectrum. I think it’s fairly well known that the Greeks and Romans believed this. The key is how he was going to show first century Jews believed this, I wondered, so I started that chapter with anticipation—and was disappointed. Not disappointed that he made a good case; disappointed that it was so weak that he and others find it compelling. He cites examples of Jewish sects that believed that humans could and did become divine, and visa versa. But in every case, these were aberrant teachings held by very small groups of Jew and never were held by mainstream Judaism. And he never shows that anyone associated with Jesus or writing the New Testament believed this and how it shaped their beliefs about a man from Nazareth who never claimed to be God. He simply cites some aberrant teaching believed by some Jews at some time, and then in subsequent chapters, tells a tale of how this shaped what was taught by Jesus’ followers about Him. There’s no reason to think (and he doesn’t give any reason to think) that this was taught by the disciples, or Paul, or anyone else associated with early Christianity. So the gap he tries to fill between who Jesus actually was and what got written in the New Testament a long time later has no facts to get from there to here.

This chapter on what some ancient Jews thought about divinity and humanity made me realize that I think Ehrman doesn’t think that there’s any authoritative teaching in religions—at least not Judaism or Christianity. The reason that thought occurred to me is because it’s enough for Ehrman that some Jews somewhere believed the continuum between humanity and divinity as precedent for making his case. It’s irrelevant to him that these views were rejected by Judaism and were very unlikely to affect Jesus’ followers who were all devout Jews. He writes in this book and earlier ones what some who claimed to be Christian wrote about Jesus in gnostic writings, and he clearly thinks these have just as much claim to be “Christian teaching” as anything else other Christians claimed. There is no orthodox or authoritative teaching for Ehrman; there’s simply what Christians (or Jews) believed. And it was simply the usurpation of power by some Christians who claimed orthodoxy for itself. So as Ehrman cites various Jewish and Christian teachings in his book, none has any more authority than another, and much of his case consists simply of citing that some people believed things other than what the so-called orthodox believed.

So with the idea that the New Testament was written long after Jesus, which gave time for legend and error to slip into the stories that were told, and that ancient people and some ancient Jews believed that humans could become divine, he goes on to explain how Jesus became divine in Christian teaching. Jesus was a human like the rest of us who taught controversial things about challenging the political authorities and got killed for it. His followers were disappointed, and over time reinterpreted his teachings as claiming to be the Messiah and divine. As for the resurrection appearances, some of his followers had visions and interpreted these as resurrection appearances. And Paul really is the one responsible for developing the idea that Jesus was God, but he never knew Jesus, so he’s no authority. This is the basic explanation Ehrman gives for how Jesus became divine.

It’s built on late dating the New Testament documents and citing precedents of such teachings. I found it implausible and completely unpersuasive. That doesn’t mean Ehrman’s book isn’t well-written and conceivable if you accept his fundamental premises. If you get tangled in the tale, it sounds rather plausible.

Ehrman dismisses details of the resurrection accounts because they’re reported by only one author or because they stray from what we know to have been standard practice for crucifixions. For example, Pilate granting the Jews’ request that the bodies be taken down by sunset, the beginning of the Sabbath. Ehrman says that this can’t be relied on since it’s unlikely a Roman official would care about the Jews’ sensibilities about the Sabbath. But that’s hardly an argument that Pilate didn’t do it in this instance.

The historical critical method of dating and interpreting the Bible views unique reports and unique events as unreliable. If the texts are not eyewitness reports, and if you think they are traditions that have been handed down for generations before being written down, it seems reasonable that unique events should be treated suspiciously. Events reported in only one Gospel most likely crept in along the oral tradition route. That’s if they’re late dated. But if the Gospels are eyewitness accounts, it’s reasonable that some reports will have unique details that aren’t found in other accounts. That happens all the time when different people report something they all witnessed. It’s also true that the Gospels were written for different audiences and by different authors so they’d choose to include different information. It’s not unusual that even one individual might recount a story with slightly different details depending on who they’re talking to, because different details will interest and be familiar to different listeners. So unique events are not automatically suspect; it all depends on how you date the Gospels in the first place.

Ehrman makes the point more than once that historians can’t do theology. So, for instance, historians can’t conclude whether or not the Trinity is true. Fair enough. But he includes supernatural events in the theological category so that things like the resurrection can’t be determined to be historical events. But historians can consider unique events reported by eyewitnesses, and determine whether or not those eyewitnesses can be considered reliable. So it gets back to the dating of the documents again. The resurrection certainly has theological import, but it is first purportedly a historical event that witnesses claim to have seen evidence of—over 500 people, in fact. So it’s not as though these kinds of events are outside of the historians’ reach and are therefore only matters of faith (i.e. blind faith). But it depends on whether or not we’re dealing with eyewitness accounts.

Much more can be said about the case Ehrman builds, but nothing else is any more persuasive than this. Much more can be said in response to many of Ehrman claims that sound plausible, and much has been written. I’ll link to some resources that go into more depth.

The fundamental thing is that Ehrman is wrong about dating the New Testament, and the tale he spins quite skillfully is not plausible—unless you believe, like him, that there has to be some explanation since we can’t believe the New Testament was written by eyewitnesses.

Two more points.

The strength of some of Ehrman’s points trades on equivocation and the lack of familiarity many Christians have with some technical points.

In building his case for how things we think are clear teachings of Jesus’ divinity but aren’t, he goes into a lengthy demonstration of how the term “Son of Man” can be used in different ways that don’t connote divinity. This is true. The title “Son of Man” can be used in different ways in the Bible. But it seemed to me that Ehrman was trading on equivocation here for making his case. Because the term can be applied in different ways doesn’t mean when Jesus claimed this term (or those that put it in Jesus’ mouth many decades later, according to Ehrman’s view) that He wasn’t self-consciously claiming it as a divine title. It’s a big step between showing that a term can mean various things and showing that it doesn’t mean what we think it means in application to Jesus. Ehrman also points out that Jesus uses the title in the third person so that he’s not referring to Himself. However, the context makes clear Jesus and his listeners understood he was applying the title to himself.

And here is something that I think has a lot of persuasive power in Ehrman’s writing. He often writes about problems and questions that are actually quite well known among scholars, pastors, and serious Bible students, but aren’t necessarily familiar to many Christians or non-Christians. For instance, much of the textual variations Ehrman has written about in previous books are known and have been known for a very long time—they’re often even noted in the margin notes in our Bibles. But he takes these variations that aren’t even problems and builds a case that the New Testament text is unreliable. If you’re not aware of how weak his starting point is, the rest seems quite compelling. He does the same thing with his chapter on the Son of Man.

The other point I want to bring up is the way Ehrman refers to scholars who aren’t part of his school of thought about the dating the New Testament. Throughout this book and others he often makes the point that the majority of scholars agree with his positions. He clearly means this to have persuasive power that authority and majorities often have on shaping our opinions. On occasion he refers to other scholars who believe the New Testament documents are dated early and authoritative. He doesn’t interact with their arguments; he seems only to mention them to dismiss them. The way he mentions them, he seems to imply they’re naive and haven’t caught up to modern scholarship. This isn’t true. There are plenty of well-regarded scholars who disagree with his views—including his professor and mentor Bruce Metzger. When I read these dismissive comments of Ehrman’s, I wonder if he would really say that to Metzger were he still alive.

Along the same line, Ehrman says more than once that his views about the New Testament are widely taught in seminaries and believed by most pastors who don’t want to rock the boat by teaching it to their congregations. He accuses the majority of pastors of dishonesty because they won’t teach what they really think is true about the Bible. I’m sure there are some pastors like that, and there’s a shred of truth to his claim, just like with the textual variations and Son of Man. The historical critical method, which approaches the Bible in a hyper-skeptical way, is taught in most seminaries. But it’s not always taught as the best way of understanding the New Testament. It’s taught because it’s important for pastors to understand how some scholars will approach the Bible. It’s studied, analyzed, and rejected on the merits. Because it’s taught in seminaries doesn’t mean it’s recommended by all those seminaries or accepted by those who are instructed. So once again, there’s a huge gulf between Ehrman’s premise and conclusion.

Ehrman is a scholar with good credentials who writes books that sound plausible, so it’s important to dig into the details of what he thinks about the New Testament and read the case other scholars make who disagree with him. To think that the New Testament was written by eyewitnesses shortly after Jesus’ ministry and that he taught He was God is rational and well founded. Here are a number of important resources to make that case.