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Blog / Did the Early Church Invent Jesus’ Divinity After the Fact? Michael Bird Discusses Bart Ehrman’s New Book (And An Unusual Rebuttal)

Did the Early Church Invent Jesus’ Divinity After the Fact? Michael Bird Discusses Bart Ehrman’s New Book (And An Unusual Rebuttal)

Bart Ehrman’s newest book, ‘How Jesus Became God.’

Did Jesus’ disciples believe that Jesus was God? Was Jesus’ divinity something that was attributed to him after the fact—perhaps even centuries later—by the early church? That’s the argument of Bart Ehrman’s latest book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, released this week.

Ehrman, of course, is no stranger to controversy; his books have challenged many orthodox Christian beliefs about God, Jesus, the early church, and the Bible. So what’s noteworthy about the latest Ehrman book? What’s interesting is that it’s being released alongside a counterargument: a book called How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart Ehrman, by a team of five Bible scholars. (And not only are the two books being released side-by-side, but they’re being published by two arms of the same publishing company: HarperOne and Zondervan, both subsidiaries of HarperCollins.*)

One of the contributers to How God Became Jesus is theology professor Michael Bird (who you may recognize from our blog roundtable last year about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy). When Bird read the manuscript of Ehrman’s book, he was inspired to write a rebuttal of what he considered Ehrman’s unconvincing argument.

It’s a fascinating situation, both because the topic (the divinity of Jesus) is an important one, and because it’s rare to see an argument/counterargument presented so straightfowardly in print. When we at Bible Gateway heard that Michael Bird had sat down with Emily Varner of Academic Publishing Services to talk about the reasons behind this unusual rebuttal, we were intrigued—and we’re thrilled to present to you the entirety of that discussion. Here is that discussion, in which Bird discusses the reasons behind this rebuttal, some of the weak points in Erhman’s arguments, and how we should critically consider claims like those in How Jesus Became God.

A Conversation with Michael Bird

Emily Varner: Tell us about deciding to put this book together.

‘How God Became Jesus,’ a rebuttal of Ehrman’s newest book.

Michael Bird: Well, I was walking around the book stalls at SBL, and saw the poster for Bart Ehrman’s new book, How Jesus Became God. From the blurb, I reckon I had a pretty good idea as to what he was gonna say, and believed that a timely and thoughtful response should be made. And—to be honest—while I have a great respect for some of Ehrman’s works on textual criticism and early Christian history, I’m rather fed-up with the often extravagant and inflated claims that either he or his publicity team makes in his popular level books about Jesus, the Bible, and the early church. I’m weary of getting emails from some distraught undergrad who heard the latest overstated or unguarded remark that Ehrman or one of his acolytes are saying on the TV, web, or in print. So I wanted to put forward an alternative view to take him on and show that he’s not holding all the aces. So I approached a few friends whom I know to be eminent scholars but would share my interest (Simon Gathercole, Chris Tilling, Craig Evans, and Chuck Hill), and suggested we write a short response to Ehrman. My editor at Zondervan, Katya Covrett, who always has a mixture of curiosity and concern when I share new ideas with her, thought this crazy idea could work. HarperOne was gracious enough to give us a pre-pub copy of the book, which we read and reflected on immediately, we then wrote up our responses over Christmas, and the whole thing came together remarkably well.

EV: What bad outcomes of Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God are you hoping to counter with How God Became Jesus?

MB: There are a number of elements we want to contest or qualify. First, early views on Jesus as a “divine” figure were not just cut and pasted onto him from the polytheistic world of Clash of the Titans with Greek gods who become human or Emperors who become a god at death. Second, there is Jesus’ selfunderstanding. While Jesus saw himself as a prophet, he seems to have also thought of himself as more than a prophet. He spoke with a divine authority, identified himself with God’s own activity in the world, believed that in his own person he was embodying the return of the LORD to Jerusalem, and he would be enthroned right beside God in the future. Third, regarding whether Jesus was buried and his body just thrown in some ditch as carrion for scavengers, we show that the burial traditions in the Gospels have a lot more going for them than Ehrman alleges. Fourth, we strive to show that, against Ehrman, Paul did not think of Jesus as an angel who became human, but as a pre-existing being, who was part of the very identity of God. Fifth, and finally, the various challenges the early church faced in developing a grammar and framework for thinking about Jesus as fully God and fully human also need to get the proper nuance and commentary, which is not always given to them.

EV: What strengths do the contributors to this book bring to the table?

MB: Well, I have worked in fields as diverse as historical Jesus, the life and theology of the Apostle Paul, and Jewish messianism. Craig Evans has special expertise in the background of the New Testament and especially in working on the Gospels. Simon Gathercole is well known for his work on Paul’s theology, the pre-existence of Jesus in the Gospels, and studies in non-canonical Gospels. Chris Tilling is an expert in Paul’s christology in its ancient context. Charles Hill has worked largely on the Gospel, Letters, and Revelation of John as it was used and interpreted in the early church. So that’s quite a suite of skills and research experiences that we bring to the task.

EV: One of Ehrman’s claims about How Jesus Became God is that it took him eight years to research and write the book. Yet your book was put together in short order. How are you confident that the contributors have sufficiently dealt with the challenges Ehrman has leveled against the “early Christology club”?

MB: Yes, we did write the book quickly, very quickly, however, all of the contributors have been working in the field of Christian origins for decades. For example, no one would doubt Craig Evans’s ability to discuss archaeological evidence for crucifixion and Jewish burial practices, he’s intimately familiar with the area. Similarly, Chris Tilling, though he was a newly minted PhD, has just written a PhD thesis on Paul’s Christology. He is probably more conversant than anyone around at the moment with the interpretive issues pertaining to Paul’s understanding of Jesus and the vast secondary literature—in English and German—that discusses it.

EV: You applaud Ehrman for raising historical questions about Jesus for the twenty-first century, but reject his conclusions. What historical discoveries make it possible to do new studies now?

MB: Well we have a much better understanding of the nature of monotheism for one thing. The ancient world was not all Clash of the Titans and we can nuance a bit better what we mean by “monotheism” and how we understand monotheism in relation to intermediary figures like Angels, God’s Word, and Wisdom, etc. We also have more archaeological evidence from places like Meggido, where we can see the various ways in which Christians were venerating Jesus as “God.”

EV: One refrain that seems to echo throughout the book is a criticism of Ehrman for not accounting for how deeply rooted Early Christianity was in Judaism. Can you explain this?

MB: One claim that gets repeatedly made in How God Became Jesus is that the New Testament depictions of Jesus, especially in Paul’s letters, appear to be what many scholars call a “Christological monotheism,” which where Jewish monotheism has been redefined in light of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is regarded as part of the divine identity, which is why he is a fitting object of worship, he’s not a second god, not a lesser god, but part of God’s own being and activity, while remaining a distinct person in himself.

EV: Is How God Became Jesus just a catchy play on the Ehrman book, or does it have a deeper theological or historical meaning?

MB: Well partly, “yes,” but on another level the titles reflect the two positions. For Ehrman—and others—plotting the beliefs about Jesus in the early church is really plotting the evolution of belief in Jesus as the one who proclaimed God, to the later point when he was proclaimed as God. We don’t deny that it took time for the earliest churches to sort out in their own minds who Jesus was, to determine what Scriptures best expressed his purpose and identity, to find the best grammar and terminology to talk about him. It was a messy process with many steps forwards and few backwards. That said, we think the evidence points to the fact that early on, certainly within 20 years of his death, Jesus was identified and worshipped in such a way as to make it clear that he was regarded as being intrinsic to the God of Israel’s own identity. It wasn’t that Jesus was a man who became God, rather, it seems, as far as our sources tell us, it was God who became man, the man Jesus of Nazareth.

EV: How would you respond if someone said, “Doesn’t this discussion just boil down to faith (‘just trust the church teaching’) or respect for the Bible (‘the Bible says it, that settles it’)”?

MB: Well, yes, in one sense, you either believe the church’s testimony or you don’t. The important question is, however, what does the church’s testimony about Jesus found in Scripture actually say? Ehrman and friends think that it does not give a clear or consistent presentation of his divine nature, but ebbs and flows over different ways of identifying him as divine in vague or incomplete senses, and the NT language about Jesus has been largely misread or misunderstood. Okay, maybe some good points are scored by Ehrman here and there, but for the most part, we are not convinced by the evidence or the reasons that Ehrman provides for thinking that Jesus was “divine” in the senses that Ehrman maps onto the various books of the New Testament.

* Full disclosure: Bible Gateway is a part of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, although Bible Gateway was not involved with either of the books discussed in this blog post.

Filed under Books, Interviews, Jesus