How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature

Written by Michael F. Bird, ed. Reviewed By Jonathan Huggins

How God Became Jesus responds to Bart Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2014). The two books were published concurrently earlier this year. Five New Testament scholars contribute to How God Became Jesus: Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, and Chris Tilling. They critique Ehrman’s argument in chapters that correspond to his work. The result is clear deconstruction of Ehrman’s work and an effective argument in favor of historic orthodox Christology.

For readers unfamiliar with early Christology, this book is an informative introduction to the subject. With chapters on ancient notions of divinity, Jesus’s own self-understanding, ancient burial traditions, early church Christology, problems with Ehrman’s interpretive categories and exegesis, and ancient orthodoxy and heresy, this relatively short work covers a lot of important subjects.

Ehrman argues for an “evolutionary” approach to early Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus. He claims that the process began with a human Jesus who eventually became “divine.” Jesus was adopted as the Son of God either at his resurrection (what Ehrman calls “exaltation Christology”) or at his baptism (according to Ehrman’s interpretation of the Gospel of Mark) Later on, Ehrman argues, Christians began to see Jesus as a pre-existent being (perhaps an angel) who became human (what he calls “incarnation Christology”). This supposedly late view can be seen in the Gospel of John. Throughout, Ehrman conceives of divinity in Greco-Roman terms (with a sliding scale between human and divine beings). Bird argues that this is better conceived in relation to Jewish ideas of divinity. In other words, the early Christians did not think that Jesus was like a Roman Emperor or hero who joined the divine pantheon after his death. They appropriated their beliefs about Jesus within the framework of Jewish monotheism. He appeals to the “Early High Christology Club” (which includes scholars such as Hengel, Bauckham, and Hurtado) for support. He also appeals to the Bible itself as well as other ancient sources, such as Celsus, Philo, Sefer Zerubbabel, 2 Maccabees, and 3 Enoch, to demonstrate that Jesus’s story (especially as a crucified and risen Messiah) was unique, and that “Jewish beliefs about intermediary figures were not necessarily interchangeable with Greco-Roman beliefs about semidivine figures” (p. 27).

Ehrman also suggests that evidence from the “tunnel period” (ca. 30–50 CE), found as quotations or allusions in the New Testament documents, supports his development theory. But Gathercole argues that this is not the case and concludes, “the evidence does not enable us to plot a gradual development in the early Christians’ view of Jesus” (p. 96). Gathercole discusses the “christologies” of the Synoptic Gospels wherein is found instances of Jesus acting and speaking in ways that are only appropriate for God himself. Gathercole also discusses New Testament passages which might contain pre-literary formulae associated with the tunnel period, providing helpful interpretations contrary to Ehrman’s. Gathercole’s case is further strengthened by his alternative account of Jesus’s post-resurrection exaltation. Jesus’s identity and nature are not changed. Rather, it is a new moment in salvation history. Jesus takes up a new activity (giving the Spirit), and has a new relationship (as Lord over the church). In addition to these, Jesus is established as the Lord over the cosmos. Gathercole states that this final “change” is “the result of new conditions of salvation history that have meant a change in the cosmos more than in Jesus” (p. 115).

Of the ten chapters in this book, the chapters by Gathercole and Hill are the most compelling. They are scholarly and informative. More than that, they effectively demonstrate the weakness of Ehrman’s arguments through the application of their own expertise. Hill makes a very strong case against Ehrman’s use and understanding of the ancient evidence. His chapters alone are worth the price of the book, and by themselves demonstrate the vulnerability of Ehrman’s project. Hill argues that Ehrman’s certainty about his developmental Christology “rests not on historical study but on a predetermined chronological grid that is not historically provable. . . . He presents it as a conclusion, but it is actually a presupposition” (p. 181).

One of the strange, if unsurprising, points Ehrman makes in the epilogue of his book is that the Christians who believed Jesus was both God and man not only won the historical battle, they excluded dissenting views. Their abuse of power even led to anti-Semitism. Hill, who undermines this claim, responds by noting, “Apparently the lesson we are supposed to draw from these examples of exclusivist-tending behavior is that it should cast doubt on the legitimacy of their beliefs” (p. 154). Since this does seem to be one of the intended effects of Ehrman’s argument, it is good that Hill speaks to it, and draws into question the idea that Jewish persecution was connected to orthodox Christology.

The chapters by Evans and Tilling also prove to be helpful responses to Ehrman. Evans decidedly undermines Ehrman’s ideas about Roman and Jewish burial traditions, and makes a strong case in favor of Jesus being buried (by a member of the Jewish council) after his crucifixion. Tilling makes the important point that the Apostle Paul understood the church’s relation to Jesus in the same way that Israel understood her relationship to YHWH. This relational “way of knowing” contributes to our sense of the early Christians reverencing Jesus as God. Tilling also brings Ehrman’s interpretive categories into question by highlighting his “disputed reading” of Galatians 4:14 (in which Ehrman suggests that Paul thought Jesus was an angel) and makes this his “interpretive key for Paul’s entire Christology!” (p. 122). Bird’s contributions to the book both set up and conclude the work nicely. His content is very helpful to the uninitiated reader. However, he moves in and out of an informal style in a way that can be jolting to serious readers.

The idea for this project is superb and certainly serves the church well. Bart Ehrman has become well-known for his popular-level books. He is probably the most famous American agnostic/atheist Bible scholar. He writes very well, and his arguments are clear. It is possible that his work will have broad influence. Bird states, “Ehrman is worth addressing, since his skill as a textual critic is widely acknowledged and his showmanship as a public intellectual can hardly be denied. Such a pity then that he is almost always wrong!” (p. 8). So How God Became Jesus is just the sort of response we need. These scholars have not only shown Ehrman’s argument to be rather weak and misguided, they have also provided evangelicals a strong and reliable affirmation of the historic Christian faith.

Jonathan Huggins

Jonathan Huggins
Stellenbosch University
Stellenbosch, South Africa

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