Bart Ehrman is at it again, popularizing the ideas that agnostics and atheists want so desperately to believe about Jesus and Christianity—namely, traditional teaching about Jesus doesn't match up with the historical reality of Jesus. The Bible can't really be trusted, but the public can trust scholarship to uncover the evolution of belief its writers represent. When I learned that this book would be coming out, I teamed up with Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole, Charles Hill, and Chris Tilling to write How God Became Jesus (Zondervan). We were granted access to an advance copy of Ehrman's book and mobilized in our fields of expertise to write a response, released the same day as Ehrman's book.
Lest we forget, let me note that Ehrman gets some things very right, things even Christians can be thankful he is bringing to the fore in this latest study. For example, he believes Jesus did exist and his life can be studied. (Let's not take that for granted.) Also, he points out that in the Gospel records we have, Jesus does not go around saying, "I am the second person of the Trinity and you must call me God and worship me." Ehrman is right that there was a progression of understanding and belief about who Jesus was and what he did and was doing. The Bible certainly does represent Jesus' followers' written reports that try to make sense of this for their audiences. In short, Ehrman is asking good questions.
But even granting these things (and giving him the benefit of the doubt that he really is attempting to do religiously neutral historical scholarship) Erhman's research, according to many scholars including those who wrote the book with me, leaves much to be desired in places. How God Became Jesus urges the consideration of (among others) the following lines of evidence.
- What would count as "God" to first-century Jews. Contrary to Ehrman's casual attitude that polytheism deeply informed the development of the idea that Jesus was God, the evidence for early Jewish belief in God is significantly less "slippery" than that. The idea of formerly devout Jews sliding into the veneration of Jesus as some kind of intermediary figure and then as God are simply not consistent with what we know about Jewish or early Christian beliefs and practices. (Bird, pp. 31-34)
- Archaeological evidence for the burial of crucified people in Palestine. Craig Evans treats this topic in detail in How God Became Jesus. Not only have archaeologists discovered an ossuary from the time of Pilate with intact nails embedded in the heel bone of the buried person, numerous nails have been recovered from tombs and ossuaries in Palestine that have calcium deposits encircling the nails, indicating the nails were for crucifixion. (Evans, pp. 83-86)
- The Jewish context of the synoptic gospels. Ehrman believes that the gospel of John is the first to claim full and absolute divinity for Jesus, but Simon Gathercole's essay shows that reading Matthew and Luke with an eye to what first-century Jews would be tuned into, the authors clearly put claims to divine prerogatives on the lips of Jesus. (Gathercole, pp. 96-102)
- Reading Paul on Paul's terms. Chris Tilling points out that Ehrman's use of Pauline passages to make his case ignore what we know about Jewish monotheism, the deeply relational "knowing" that Paul espouses (and applies to Jesus and the church in analogous ways to God's dealings with Israel), and the vast majority of "Christ" language used in Paul. The best explanation is probably that Ehrman has a preexisting grid through which he is trying to understand Paul, so he fits what he is able to find in his grid and throws out the rest. (Tilling, pp. 134-144)
- The early Christians' comfort with "paradox" in their writings. A quote from Charles Hill may best summarize this: "As far as we can tell, none of [the New Testament] writers was discomfited by the 'seeming contradictions' or the supposed brutality of these two facts, that Jesus was God and that he had come in the flesh. . . . The 'paradox' was accepted as such and did not prevent these authors advocating and commending a full faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Savior to outsiders." (Hill, p. 184)
Editor's Note: The full title of Bart Ehrman's book is How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (HarperOne). The full title of Michael Bird and company's book is How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus' Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman (Zondervan).