Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Bart Ehrman's How Jesus Became God: Introduction

I do not know how widely Bart Ehrman's new book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, will be read. There is a good evangelical response in a fine collection of chapters edited by Michael Bird, a book appropriately called, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus' Divine Nature--A Response to Bart Ehrman. There has also been some fine blog engagement with these books.

I've decided to walk through Ehrman's book as well. I'm also working through Bird's response book, but I don't want to compare the two books. I want to read through Ehrman's book as if I were a "none" who is not particularly interested in religion or as if I were a Christian who has never encountered ideas like Ehrman's before. My goal is thus not to write an apologetics piece like Bird but more to play the role of a consultant of sorts, thinking through it with the person for whom these are pretty much new ideas.

"I do not take a stand on the theological question of Jesus' divine status," Ehrman says (3). In that sense, Ehrman at least suggests that his study might allow for faith in Jesus' divinity. At the same time, he is quite clear that he is "no longer a believer" (2). His professed point of view is rather that of a "historian."

On the one hand, there is a significant thing to consider here. Ehrman fully accepts that Christians came to believe that Jesus was God and that Christians have believed it from the earliest centuries of Christianity. You can thus, at least in theory, be a believer whether you prefer Ehrman's or Bird's sense of how that belief unfolded. You can take the path of Bird and conclude that Christians had this understanding from Christianity's earliest days. Or you can take perhaps a slightly modified version of Ehrman and believe that God turned on the lights of understanding about Jesus over the course of several decades.

On the other hand, the idea that Ehrman is just a "historian" is probably slightly misleading. While I reject as naive and ideologically promiscuous the idea that worldviews are large, total packages, I do accept that there are key presuppositions and operating rules that any so called historian inevitably assumes. When Ehrman does history, he inevitably would reject any supernatural explanation for an event. In that sense, if there is a God who is involved in the world, Ehrman's reconstruction of events can never be correct, because he specifically forbids any interpretation of events in which God is a factor.

By contrast, a historical approach that does not eliminate the possibility of the supernatural out of hand might try to interpret events in terms of normal cause and effect explanations as a default but be open to supernatural explanations if cause-effect seems lacking in some regard and especially if supernatural explanations are already in play.

Next week: Chapter 1: Divine Humans in Ancient Greece and Rome

1 comment:

Patrick Goggins said...

I read "How Jesus Became God" and the refutation, "How God Became Jesus." Both books explained progressive Christology, how almost all Christologies - high and low - were around very early on, and how these Christologies were chronologically *eliminated,* from low to high, as the nascent church built its orthodoxy.

My comments, and these goes to both books, are: 1) they assume that Jesus’s ministry was apocalyptic, when Crossan and others make a good case that Jesus’s ministry was sapiential – that is, present here now and attainable through adhering to the law, and 2) that the Pauline epistles are the earliest source writings – when the Epistle of James the Just arguably pre-dates them.

For further discussion of these comments, and a thorough review of both books, please check out my Reader’s Guide to Bart Ehrman's How Jesus Became God.

This is the latest in a series which includes my best-selling Reader’s Guide to Reza Aslan’s Zealot , and my Reader’s Guide to Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus .