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Bart D. Ehrman


The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Gallilee

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Mainstream Christianity today holds that Jesus was God. To the secular mind this idea may seem not so much incredible as incomprehensible. In what sense can the omnipotent omiscient Creator of the universe be identical with a human being? And anyway, there are numerous places in the Gospels where Jesus addresses God the Father as if he were someone else. Why would he do this, if he was himself God? Was he talking to himself? Ehrman provides answers to such questions in his illuminating new book by approaching them historically rather than theologically.

To begin to resolve the difficulties we have to revert to an earlier picture of the world. For most of us today, if we believe in God we think of him as being in some sense separate from the world. God is imagined as existing in a supernatural realm that is quite distinct from our human world. Heaven is "up there" above us. But for Jesus's contemporaries, both Jew and gentile, these two spheres overlapped and interpenetrated a good deal.

As a consequence the distinction between God and man was not absolute; there could be degrees of divinity. A human being could be divine in several ways. One was by "adoption" or "exaltation": a great hero, ruler, or holy person could be elevated by God (or a god) to a level of divinity. Another way was by nature or incarnation: a divine being, such as an angel or a god, could become human, either permanently or (more often) temporarily. So we have bottom-up and top-down versions of divinisation.

We are familiar with such ideas in the pagan world. where there were many myths about various gods descending in human form. The Roman emperors were regularly promoted to the status of gods after their death (or even while alive), although this was not taken to mean that they were the supreme god. What is more surprising is that similar ideas existed within Judaism. Many ancient Jews believed that angels could become human, and some humans (kings, Moses, Isaiah) were actually called God. Ehrman illustrates this by quotation from the Hebrew Bible and other sources. So it would not be totally out of the question for Jesus's followers to conceive of him in this way. But what did Jesus believed about himself?

Like many other scholars, Ehrman thinks that Jesus was an apocalypticist who thought that God was about to bring about a radical transformation of the world imminently (see Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium). So he thought he was a prophet predicting the end of the current evil age and he believed that he would be king of Israel in the new age. But there is no evidence that he thought he was divine, unless we accept what he is reported as saying in John's Gospel. In that book Jesus does indeed make claims of this kind, but Ehrman thinks that these cannot be plausibly ascribed to the historical Jesus.

For Christians, the main evidence for the divinity of Jesus is his resurrection. Ehrman has no doubt that at least some early Christians believed that they had seen Jesus after his death, although it is impossible for historians to know what actually happened—whether there was "something really there" or not. That is not the main issue here. From a historical perspective what matters is that Jesus's followers, or some of them, believed that he had been raised from the dead.

Belief in the divinity of Christ began very early. But what kind of divinity? This is the crucial question. Mark, Matthew, and Luke imply an "exaltation" theory: Jesus was raised to divine status by God. This might have happened at his conception or later, either at his baptism or when he was resurrected. In any case he was originally an ordinary human being who was "adopted" by God. (This doesn't imply a less exalted status. To be adopted in the ancient world made you, if anything, even more special than if you were the biological son of your father.)

The alternative view, which we find in John's Gospel, is that Jesus was already divine, pre-existing from all eternity. Although this is often thought to be a view that developed later, some Christians were inclined to believe it at a very early stage, even before Paul wrote. So we have a diversity of opinions about Jesus from the beginning rather than a linear progression from one kind to the other. But eventually incarnation theories came to dominate in Christianity, although they, took many different forms.

Questions of this kind were of fundamental theological importance to Christians, of course, but after the conversion of Constantine and the establishment of Christianity as the main religion of the Roman empire they acquired political as well as religious significance. In his later chapters Ehrman traces these developments and outlines some of the views that were later declared heretical. In 325 Constantine presided at the Council of Nicea, which was supposed to put an end to all disagreements about the nature of Christ. It produced the Nicene Creed, which is still recited in churches today.

Christ was coeternal with God the Father. He had always existed. And he was "of the same substance" as God the Father, himself truly God, back into eternity.
Constantine thought he had resolved the question, but of course he hadn't. A further six major Councils were held later in attempts to do so, but arguments about the nature of Christ were to persist for centuries and contributed ultimately to a major schism within Christianity. But in spite of the disagreements, the astonishing fact remains: "an itinerant apocalyptic preacher in the backwaters of rural Gallilee who offended the authorities and was unceremoniously crucified for crimes against the state … had now become fully God."

This book has shown me a different way to think about the origins of Christianity. I had assumed that the idea of divinity as applied to a human was so alien to Jewish thought that it could not have been an early belief among Jesus's followers, so how had it arisen? Had Paul introduced it? I now see that this was a mistake; it would have been perfectly possible for the earliest Christians to believe that Jesus was in some sense divine. Nevertheless the relation between the human and divine natures of Christ is inherently paradoxical (the Roman Catholic church defines it as a Mystery), so it isn't surprising that no fully satisfactory intellectual formulation has ever been found.

9 June 2014

%T How Jesus Became God
%S The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Gallilee
%A Ehrman, Bart D.
%I HarperOne
%D 2014
%G ISBN 9780061778186
%P 404pp
%K religion
%O hardback edition

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