Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Ehrman Chapter 7: Jesus as God on Earth

Just three more posts after this for Bart Ehrman's, How Jesus Became God. So far:

1. Divine Humans in Ancient Greece and Rome
2. Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism
3. Did Jesus Think He Was God?
4. The Resurrection of Jesus: What We Cannot Know
5. The Resurrection - What We Can Know
6. The Beginning of Christology

Now chapter 7: "Jesus as God on Earth: Early Incarnation Christologies"

This chapter, in my opinion, is a bit of a muddle. In the previous chapter, he presented the evolution of Christology as 1) Jesus is adopted at resurrection, 2) Jesus is adopted at baptism, 3) Jesus is God's biological son from his birth, and lastly 4) Jesus was divine before he was born.

The key for me is to stop thinking of this particular Sonship language in terms of "ontology" but rather as royal language. So the early strata did speak of Jesus becoming king/being enthroned at the point of his resurrection/exaltation. Sonship language before this point can speak of destiny, because he is the one always appointed by God to be enthroned as king, whether at his birth or baptism. In any case, it need not contradict the language of enthronement at his resurrection.

In this chapter, however, Ehrman's scheme seems to shift a little:
  • early exaltation Christology (which would fit the first two above)
  • intermediate/transitional Christology (elements of both exaltation and incarnation Christology)
  • angelic Christology (which he sees in Paul, number 4 above)
  • equal to God from the beginning (John)
1. The biggest thing you should know about this chapter is that few scholars think Paul saw Jesus as an angel. It is an old idea that is a bit of an outlier and one I have always considered a fringe idea.

What makes it most iffy is the fact that it is largely based off of a highly questionable interpretation of one verse. It reminds me of my favorite interpretation of a verse in Hebrews (I won't say which one ;-) on which I base some thoughts that probably make me an outlier. I know the feeling I get when I am in that interpretive territory. It's a feeling of being out on a limb.

So Ehrman is out on a limb with his interpretation of Galatians 4:14: "as an angel of God you received me, as Christ Jesus." Ehrman says that Paul "is not contrasting two things; he is stating that the two things are the same thing" (253). Well of course Paul is not contrasting two things. But he is not necessarily making an exact equation between two things either. That just doesn't follow. The implication is only that angels and Christ are similar in some respect, not the same.

For example, what if I say. "He laughs like a seal, like one of those pumps you sometimes hear on a plane right before it leaves the gate."  You wouldn't say, "Ken, are you saying they keep seals in the belly of airplanes?!!"  I would give you a rather strange look if you drew that conclusion. In the same way, it's quite flimsy to conclude that Paul is here saying that Christ is an angel.

It would be different if Paul regularly considered Jesus to be an angel elsewhere, but this verse is really it. Since a significant portion of this book is connected to this idea, it calls much of the book into question, in my opinion.

2. In his blog review, Hurtado applauded Ehrman for this reason: "Ehrman acknowledges that prior to immersing himself in the evidence and scholarly analysis for this book, he had assumed a much slower and more drawn-out process, but was driven to conclude that these remarkable Christological beliefs erupted much earlier and much more fully than he had thought."

Here is another quote from Hurtado: "With probably the majority of NT scholars, Ehrman emphasizes that the exalted claims about Jesus reflected in the NT (e.g., that Jesus shares divine glory, divine rule, the divine name, and is to be given universal reverence) all appeared soon in the aftermath of Jesus’ execution."

The problem is that Ehrman has changed his mind on this subject because he now thinks that Paul equated Jesus with the angel of the Lord.

Did Paul have an incarnation Christology? This is a slightly different question from how early the first Christians worshiped Jesus. Ehrman says "yes" because he thinks Paul saw Jesus as the incarnation of the angel of the Lord. Perhaps the majority of NT scholars would agree that Paul saw Jesus as pre-existing his time on earth, although disagreeing with him on the latter bit. Ehrman mentions one of the most notable remaining exceptions from the older generation, James Dunn.

I have no desire to be known for bucking the consensus on this one. I agree that the earliest Christians worshiped Jesus very early on as Hurtado says. But as a scholar I feel like I should point out how thin the evidence is that Paul's writings have much to say about Jesus' pre-existence. Without drawing a conclusion on the Philippian poem, let me do my scholarly job of pointing out some things.

3. First, the argument that Paul affirmed the pre-existence of Jesus really boils down to the Philippian hymn (if it be a hymn--Ehrman and Cosgrove may be right to think of it more as a poem). All the other references to pre-existence in Paul are quite iffy. It is only because pre-existence seems so clear in Philippians that the other passages are read to imply pre-existence.

a. For example, are we really to take 1 Corinthians 10:4 as literally saying that Jesus was the rock that followed Israel in the wilderness to give them water??? Picture it, Christ rolling around the desert. (This may be his fundamentalist, anti-allegorical past coming home to roost). No, this is just an allegory. The rock that gave water to Israel allegorically represents Christ.

b. Similarly, when 1 Corinthians 15:47 says that the "second man is from heaven," it is talking about Christ's resurrection body. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom, Paul says (1 Cor. 15:50). So when we bear the image of the heavenly man (15:49), we are being transformed into a resurrection body like Jesus has. Paul is making no comment about Christ's pre-existent body here but about the transformed body of his resurrection.

c. The point of Romans 8:3 is not about God sending Christ in the likeness of human flesh (which sounds Gnostic) but in the likeness of sinful flesh. Christ came in the flesh, yes. But he did not come in sinful flesh. I hate to say it, but the whole idea that if someone is sent, they must have existed before they were sent has my "iffy" tinglers going off (sorry Simon). Language of sending only implies pre-ordination, not pre-existence.

d. In the end, there are only three passages in Paul that have any weight when it comes to the question of whether we find statements about Christ's pre-existence in Paul's writings. The first is 1 Corinthians 8:6: "For us there is one God, the Father, from whom all things and we for him, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things and we through him."

This is a very allusive statement. I think the statement about Christ probably does evoke images of God's word and wisdom, through which God made all things. However, as I mentioned in my review of an earlier chapter, the vast majority of references to God's wisdom and word in Jewish literature are personifications, not references to hypostases. Only a few of Philo's references to the logos count as exceptions, in my opinion.

In itself, this possibly pre-Pauline credal tradition is insufficient to clarify Paul's sense of pre-existence. Is Paul and the tradition he quotes speaking literally or comparing Jesus to the wisdom of God and the purpose of creation? We have insufficient evidence from this verse alone.

e. The same could be said of the Colossian poem/hymn in 1:15-20. Leaving aside debates over Pauline authorship, the parallel with Jewish wisdom and word traditions is compelling. So we again have the question. Is Colossians making a profound comparison between Christ and God's wisdom/logos, or is the hymn being more or less literal? The conclusion you draw, I believe, will ultimately be based on your sense of Paul and early Christianity elsewhere, rather than on the basis of this passage alone.

4. So we return to Philippians. As the interpretation of Philippians 2:6 goes, so goes our conclusion on Paul's sense of Jesus' pre-existence. This is the crux interpretum for this element of Paul's thought, and it all rests on verse 6.

The interpretation of this poem is so contested it makes your head spin.  Over the years I have developed my favorite interpretations, but woe is me to think I have it figured out or that I could convince anyone for them to be their favorite interpretations too.

So, first, I don't like the way Ehrman breaks down the poem.  I prefer three stanzas, the first two of which are:

In the form of God existing,
     not plunder he considered equality with God,
     but he emptied himself,
Having taken the form of a servant.

In likeness of mortals having become
     and in shape having been found as a man,
     he humbled himself,
Having become obedient to the point of death...

Certainly the first stanza could be read in reference to pre-existence. That is the majority, consensus position. I remember at Durham when Bruce Longenecker told me he just didn't see any reason to deny pre-existence in it any more. By the way, I agree with Ehrman and most of the rest of current scholarship against Dunn that this is not an Adam Christology here.

But, if we are to bracket where we know the interpretation of this passage will go in history, I don't think it's nearly as clear as everyone seems to think. Again, I'm not at all saying that the predominant reading is wrong on pre-existence. I'm just doing a glasses check.

"Form of God" here contrasts with "form of a servant. It seems to be talking of a status or position Jesus has more than an ontology in the traditional sense. In fact, there is an instance of this use of the word form in Tobit 1:13. Given that divine language is sometimes royal language, it is at least possible to read the first stanza to say that, although Jesus had the status of a king, he did not exploit that status but emptied himself of it, assuming the status of a servant.

I'll see Ehrman's Vollenweider on the second line and raise him a Hoover. Call. The idea is one of taking advantage of a status one has (res retienda). As Son of God, king, Jesus had a divine status. But he did not consider this status one to be exploited. Rather, he emptied himself of it and took the form of a servant.

I won't suggest that this is the right interpretation of 2:6. Good grief, I don't know how we could know for sure what Paul exactly had in mind. I only wish to point out that a whole lot of scholarship thinks something is obvious that, if we take off the glasses of later interpretation, doesn't at all seem obvious to me. Still, I have no problem with the normal theological interpretation of this passage at least as a Christian reader-response.

A full study would of course have to engage Bauckham. Ah, the good old days...

5. So we finally arrive at John. I smile when I see Ehrman "doing therapy," as I call it. He's reliving the pain of coming out of fundamentalism and feeling stupid. He takes some pot shots. For example, he just has to make a side paragraph insinuating that John is anti-Jewish (277). He's sticking the knife in and turning it. Here, a key to understanding what John says about the Jews may be translating the word instead as "Judean" and taking it as a synecdoche for the Jerusalem leadership.

John clearly points to a conscious, pre-existent, personal Jesus. I want to reiterate something I said in my review of an earlier chapter. A Christian can believe that Jesus was the pre-existent Son of God and still conclude that it took some time for this understanding to unfold in the early church.

John does, in my opinion, have a somewhat unique flavor in the New Testament. That doesn't mean that it's Christology is incompatible with the rest of the New Testament. I do think that John is more symbolic and theological in its presentation of Jesus. The inspiration of John, for me, is a matter of its theology and what it teaches about Jesus. I would not be bothered if Ehrman is right that, in some places, John's words are "placed on Jesus' lips" (271). This may be a problem for a fundamentalist, but it shouldn't be a problem for a more mature faith.

6. As an epilogue, C. K. Barrett was a NT professor at Durham who also served as a Methodist preacher. Congregations occasionally commented on what they saw as a disconnect between his scholarly writings and his preaching. I've heard Graham Twelftree say the same. It's why he chose to study with Dunn, our common Doktorvater. Dunn is warmhearted but is a pretty straight shooter in whatever context he may be (including as a Methodist lay preacher).

For good or ill, I've always appreciated Dunn's quest for objectivity and try to model it in my own thinking. But I much more have the personality of Kingsley. Why cause people unnecessary crises on the details, especially if their ultimate conclusions are right?


Rick said...

"This may be his fundamentalist, anti-allegorical past coming home to roost"

You are not the 1st to mention this tendency of his. He is an atheist/agnostic literalist. His theories often are based on that approach to Scripture. He just comes to different conclusion than do the Christian fundamentalists, wooden literalists.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I am ordering a book to read("The American Empire Should Be Destroyed": Alexander Dugin and the Perils of Immanentized Eschatology) during the later part of the summer...this is the synopsis on Amazon..."Over two decades have passed since the “Cold War” between the Soviet Union and the West ended. Many citizens of the former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact nations have embraced the opportunities which come with expanded civil liberties and economic growth, but extremists exploit nostalgia for the days of empire. In the words of Vladimir Putin, “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” A new ideology—Eurasianism—is being advanced by those who dream of a new empire and revenge on the Western powers which brought about the collapse of the Soviet empire. Aleksandr Dugin, the father of Eurasianism, was recently described by “Foreign Affairs” as “Putin’s Brain.” For Dugin, the battle between Russia and the West is an epic struggle to fulfill ancient myths: a battle between the mystical forces of the mythical land of ‘Arctogaia’ and a decadent, materialistic America. “The American Empire should be destroyed,” Dugin declares, “And at one point, it will be.” America needs to understand the nature of the Eurasianist ideology, and the fanaticism which wages war against the people of Ukraine today, and against the West tomorrow. “All too often, history is driven by the mad passions and ambitions of tyrants—and by warped visions of “progress” crafted in the shadows behind their thrones. James Heiser’s brilliant new book drags one of today’s most dangerous “gray eminences” into the light. His careful, intricate analysis reveals Aleksandr Dugin, whose twisted ideology shapes Vladimir Putin’s brutal and aggressive effort to build a Eurasian empire centered on Russia. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the perilous and irrational motivations of those who now rule in Moscow.” —Patrick Larkin, co-author of “Red Phoenix,” “The Enemy Within,” and other best-selling thrillers, and author of “The Tribune” “James Heiser has written a profoundly fascinating book on an important and troubling man. Anyone concerned about the future of Russia—indeed international affairs in general—should read this book.” —Peter Schweizer, President, Government Accountability Institute, William J. Casey Fellow at the Hoover Institution, author, “Extortion,” “Victory,” and “Reagan’s War” “A penetrating analysis of the dangerous totalitarian dogma of the man who has become Putin’s Rasputin. If you want to understand the new threat to Western civilization, you need to read this book.” —Dr. Robert Zubrin, President, Mars Society, President, Pioneer Astronautics and Pioneer Energy, author, “Merchants of Despair—Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the
Fatal Cult of Antihumanism

While this may be the "voice" to America concerning Putin, it is no less important for America not to fall for idealized and politicized eschatology, as understood by Islamists, or Restorationists.....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Though I disagree with politicizing eschatology, theologizing isn't any better. One sets us a "vision" or "purpose" as to "end",and agressive, focused "end", while the other gives a "rationale" or explaination of "God's purposes", "providence" in passive/submissive acceptance. What matters is what a particular person chooses, as choice is about personhood and personal goal setting. Those that "set vision" should not usurp "particular goals" of particular people. Therefore, one questions the value of both spiritualizing political action and theologizing life in passive agreement, acceptance or submission.....

Either certainly don't agree with the individual right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken: First, I really enjoyed this post. I couldn't help but smile at the phrase, "I'll see Ehrman's Vollenweider on the second line and raise him a Hoover. Call." Clever:-)

About Phil 2, I too find Hoover's thesis to be pretty compelling, but I think that Denny Burk has made a good case, on grammatical grounds, for what I take to be the most plausible alternative rendering (like Jimmy Dunn, I see Adam in the background). Are you familiar with Burk's work in relation to the articular infinitive? For his fully developed thesis, see:

For an article that deals with Philippians 2 in light of his thesis, see:

~Sean Garrigan

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks Sean... I'll follow up on Burk's work.