Monday, June 02, 2014

Ehrman Chapter 3: Did Jesus Think He Was God?

I continue through Bart Ehrman's, How Jesus Became God.  Here are the posts so far:

1. Divine Humans in Ancient Greece and Rome
2. Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism

Today is chapter 3, "Did Jesus Think He Was God?"

Before I begin, I should say that Larry Hurtado, whom I mentioned last week, did actually come out with a blog review of the book. I thought this comment was particularly striking: "Whereas in some of his previous general-reader books, Ehrman drew upon his recognized expertise (especially in NT textual criticism), in this book he deals with a subject on which he is not particularly known as a contributor...  Unfortunately, however, on several matters he seems to rely on now discredited views, or over-simplify or misunderstand things."

Now on to my review of chapter 3. I am, again, wanting to try to read this chapter as if I were someone without much knowledge of these things, someone without a lot of preconceptions, like a "none" or a Christian without a lot of preconceptions of things about the Bible.

1. Jesus' humanity
There is a quote in the conclusion of Michael Bird's response to Ehrman's chapter that is very interesting to me: "The Church cannot indefinitely continue to believe about Jesus what he did not know to be true about himself" (69, taken from J. W. Bowman, The Intention of Jesus, 1945).

While this may have been obvious to Bowman, it actually isn't entirely obvious to me. The seed of my question comes from this comment in Mark 13:32: "about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son." Clearly the New Testament did not teach that Jesus was omniscient while on earth.

How does this work for Christian theology?  The implication is that on earth Christ in some way tucked his omniscience into some divine subconscious. He did not come out of Mary's womb speaking fluent Aramaic. He probably did not know Latin while he was on earth, let alone English or German.

When did he realize he was the Messiah? Is it possible he did not realize this fact until around the time of his baptism? When did he fully realize he was God incarnate? Was it while he was still on earth?

I raise these questions to put the topic of this chapter into perspective because I disagree with Bowman. There may be truths about Jesus that he did not broadcast for good reason, and it is at least possible that there were some aspects of his messianic identity that he did not fully understand until even after his death. I think for someone hearing ideas like Ehrman's for the first time, it's significant to know that these sorts of issues have been floating around for a very long time and are well known.

2. What is essential to Christian faith?
Christian faith rises or falls on a few key truths. The central one for the New Testament is the resurrection of Jesus. Christian faith also includes the incarnation, the fact that Jesus is very God become flesh. All that is to say that we do not have to disprove everything Ehrman says in this chapter for Christianity to be true. He may actually be right about some things, as he was in the previous chapter. We are trying to sort the likely from the questionable.

3. The quest for the historical Jesus
There is a certain tendency in Ehrman's work, it seems to me and others, that is quite striking. He tends to make a big show about what we don't know or can't know... and then he goes on to act like we can and do know. His book, Misquoting Jesus, for example, made it seem like we can't know much of anything about what the New Testament originally said. But he really didn't mean it. When pushed he has admitted that we do basically know what the NT said.

So Bird points out that Ehrman does it here as well. He makes it seem like we can't know much about what Jesus really did... and then goes on to tell us fairly confidently about things Jesus said or did not say, did or did not do.

I personally find the whole "the oral tradition would have got totally messed up" shtick overplayed. Don't get me wrong. I am not denying that there are differing versions of things in the Gospels. But it's not like there weren't any checks on the early, oral Jesus traditions either. Paul wasn't nearly as isolated from Jerusalem as Ehrman suggests (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 9:5-6). Peter was around until the mid-60s at least to correct and redirect oral traditions. And if you look at the way Ehrman looks for common stories between layers of Gospel tradition, his practice shows that he really doesn't think things are as bleak as he starts out the chapter.

I frankly found Ehrman's sense of Gospel sources and criteria of authenticity somewhat amateurish, which is basically what Hurtado's review implies. I kept thinking of Bill O'Reilly's book, Killing Jesus although, to be fair, Ehrman knows more about what he's talking about than O'Reilly.

For example, I felt like I was reading B. H. Streeter in the 1924 when Ehrman was talking about distinct sources for Luke and Matthew, "L" and "M"? Good grief, the big question these days is whether there even was a Q (I still go with one, but sometimes it feels lonely--see anything by Mark Goodacre). And, as Bird and others point out, the idea of using criteria of authenticity in any kind of straightforward way hasn't exactly been the trendy thing in recent times (see anything by Anthony Le Donne or Chris Keith). Although with Bird I believe John is "a mixture of memory, metaphor, and midrash" (68), I don't think we can rule it out of hand as completely unhistorical the way David Strauss did 150 years ago (which is the feel I get from Ehrman).

4. Jesus the apocalypticist
One very solid principle in the chapter, I believe, is the idea that Jesus should generally fit historically in between Judaism/John the Baptist on the one hand and earliest Christianity on the other. I believe Ehrman is getting this from E. P. Sanders (1985), and the work that Ehrman couldn't remember on page 110, I think, is A. E. Harvey's Jesus and the Constraints of History. N. T. Wright calls this the criterion of "double similarity," I believe.

So I agree with Ehrman that the apocalyptic Jesus is more accurate than another option N. T. Wright calls the "Wredebahn," the completely de-eschatologized Jesus of the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, etc. Ehrman's description of an apocalyptic worldview isn't bad, IMO (dualism, pessimism, judgment, imminence), but no individual thinker should be limited by an abstracted list like this one.

Ehrman believes Jesus thought he was the Messiah. That's more than we could say about a lot of Jesus research. I think there are good reasons for why Jesus would not have publicized this sense of his identity widely, not least the kinds of expectations of a Messiah that Ehrman mentions. Messiah's didn't turn the other cheek. Messiahs were supposed to kick the Romans out of Dodge. Messiahs certainly didn't die.

So what do I find questionable in Ehrman's conclusions about Jesus? His idea that the Son of Man was someone different from Jesus is an old one that I think goes back to Bultmann (1921). It's clever to be sure (at least for whoever first suggested it). The problem is that one of the few things that almost all historical Jesus scholars seem to agree on these days is that Jesus referred to himself as "the son of man."

Ehrman's practice of the "criteria for authenticity" is interesting but an excellent example of how you can use them to prove and disprove the same saying. For example, I LOLed in amazement to hear his analysis of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. I could hear some really bad teaching about Paul's theology in his past, as he assumed all Christians believed in Lutheran justification by faith after Jesus.

His sense of what Judas was betraying (namely, that Jesus really did think he was king of the Jews) was clever but pretty ridiculous, I thought. Ehrman somehow seems to assume that the Sanhedrin/Romans wouldn't kill someone for causing trouble whether they had a personal confession or not.

Ehrman's reconstruction here fails the most at his distinction between Jesus and the son of man. This would be a VERY unusual position for a historical Jesus scholar to take these days.

5. Jesus claim to be God?
Here is where the chapter gets most sensitive because, as Bird also mentions, there actually are significant differences in tone and presentation between John and the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus actually keeps his messianic identity a secret in Mark, but in John it feels more like Jesus went around with a megaphone saying who he was.

I have generally put it this way. John is The Message version of Jesus. It is the "hindsight is 20/20" presentation of Jesus. As Clement of Alexandria put it in the late 100s, John is the "spiritual gospel." John is a more symbolic presentation of Jesus than a video documentary. See my book on the unique portraits of the Gospels.

If you had followed Jesus around the countryside, would you have had more of a Mark impression or more of a John impression? I think pretty much everybody goes with "Mark impression" here. I think we can safely assume that, in his public persona, Jesus did not go around telling everyone he was the Messiah, let alone God. (By the way, Ehrman's reconstruction of Judas' betrayal implicitly acknowledges that Jesus did not go around announcing that he was the king to everyone.)

In the end, when I wrestled with these sorts of things 25 years ago, I concluded that the solution was to take a long view of revelation. We have a tendency, both as Westerners and especially as Protestants, to think that we need to "get back," that truth is all about the original. We can perhaps learn something from the Catholics here.

What if God unfolded the sense of who Jesus was in baby steps? The idea that Jesus was Messiah was controversial enough, given that death wasn't part of the usual expectation. Jesus does speak of his unique connection to God in the Synoptics (e.g., Matt. 11:27), but wasn't this enough until his resurrection?

I think we see in Ehrman's anti-Christianity the bas relief of his earlier fundamentalism. He grew up with a simplistic, "evidence that demands a verdict" approach, which fell apart on him. Now he uses "lack of obviousness demands a verdict" approach to attack. But what if "obvious" was never God's normal operating mode in the first place? What if belief in him is "reasonable" rather than "obvious"? What if his normal mode of revelation is one of invitation rather than absolute proof?

Next week: The Resurrection of Jesus


Angie Van De Merwe said...

What if it is "reasonable" to believe, and what if it is an "invitation" to believe....

"Faith" is commitment to "lack of evidence"? And "faith" is deciding on speculation, not proof. Resurrection is not about proving a physical body arose, as it is improbable, but the belief that makes it "true"???!!! Does that sound "reasonable"?

While it is true one cannot prove God exists, or that God does not exist, the question is whether one thinks it rational to believe or not. How the world works, is how the world works, regardless of one's "belief system" or lack of a "belief system".

Ken Schenck said...

Angie, I consider you an example you grew up with this "evidence that demands a verdict" approach, as I do several students of prominent Wesleyans I had 15 years ago who today have either lost their faith or have nominal faith. There is a middle ground between "obvious" and "irrational."

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Humans need to explain "all that is", is our attempt to "make sense of things". Religion is one way to understand, but not the only way.

Children need representations of "God" which are parental influences. When these representations of "God" are missing and they find those missing pieces in religion, then, there is much that can be damaging, if they do not come to a mature understanding of "faith".

Adults grow up to realize that religion is a way to "symbolize meaning making", and, at best, is a creative way to use one's imagination in believing that one is the center of the universe (just as children believe...).

The human need to be loved, accepted and encouraged is first met within one's family of origin and when that family has been religious, then those needs continue within those contexts. When that has not been the case, humans have an "experience" (through the ritual of preaching, teaching, etc.) which meets those needs within the "communion" of religious communities. This "experience" has been interpreted in religious communities as the "holy spirit", or being "born again", while the response is an normal human based emotionally driven one.

It is true that certain people tend to have certain tendencies in interpreting "the world". One wonders how much is innate and how much is socially conditioned. And does the social conditioning permanantly change the brain?

Are there people raised in various kinds of religious and non-religious environments that have come to conclude that belief apart from evidence is unreasonable? If belief without evidence is unreasonable, then isn't it foolish to make decisions based on such unreasonableness? I think so, unless for a particular person there are emotional needs that are met within a "communal context" that are too attractive to deny.

I would rather not help further ungrounded "faith" about personal pursuits, to me, it is asking people to put their lives in the hands of those in Power that will pursue their interests at the costs of these.

Every time someone in Power comes to particular "convictions" then, is everyone else to "jump" into order, when it concerns such convictions, or are we free to choose how we live and what our convictions should be, personally?

I think our Constitution grants personal liberty in these matters.

Anonymous said...

I doubt if Bart Ehrman is unaware of passages where Jesus refers to the son of man in the first person. I also doubt if Ken Shenck is unaware of passages where Jesus refers to the son of man in the third person.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I must say that no one can be educated out of "faith", if they choose to believe out of "fear" of reprisal of one kind or another.

One chooses to believe and begin and end with tradition/scripture, apart from reason and reason is "conditioned" by scripture/tradition and experience is interpreted theologically, not rationally. That is when sacrifice and suffering become something "positive" in theologically constructed ways. And it can be damaging, if not deadly, to oneself and others!