I have begun blogging on Bart Ehrman’s new How Jesus Became God. I am also now weaving in the response book How God Became Jesus, edited by Michael F. Bird (Zondervan, 2014). The response book does a pretty good job responding chapter-by-chapter to Ehrman. In this post, I look at Mike Bird’s essay where he responds to Ehrman’s discussion of Greco-Roman and Jewish religion. Bird’s chapter is called “Of Gods, Angels, and Men.”
Here are a series of helpful rejoinders and key points that Bird makes.
#1: On Apollonius of Tyana. Ehrman makes the case that the tale of Apollonius of Tyana in the Greco-Roman world looks an awful lot like the story of the divinity and unique God-man status of Jesus. What Bird points out is that the story of Apollonius was written “at least a hundred years after the Gospels” and Bird is convinced that this biography “has been written as a polemic parody of the Gospels” (26). This is very helpful information for readers to know!
#2: Bird agrees with Ehrman that Jews believed in a variety of supernatural powers. But Bird believes that Jesus was historically unique on a number of accounts, not least of which is that he was crucified and, thus, it would be hard for any Jew to imagine such a man exalted to a special divine status at all. Nobody says these things quite like Bird: “To Jewish audiences, worshiping a crucified man was blasphemy; it was about as kosher as pork sausages wrapped in bacon served to Jews for a jihad fundraiser” (26).
#3: To show that some Jews could use “god” language quite loosely, Ehrman points to Philo’s relating Logos imagery to a god and even Moses. But Bird is quick to counter by Philo’s own words: “Sooner could God change into a man than a man into God” (p. 27). This serves Bird’s wider point that it does no good for a historian to argue that Jewish theo-cosmology could be compared at all to Greco-Roman cosmology where Greeks and Romans easily believed that a man could become a god.
#4: Ehrman tries to argue that first-century Jews sometimes worshiped angels. But Bird quotes this conclusion from Loren Stuckenbruck: “Angel veneration is not conceived as a substitute for worship of God. Indeed, most often the venerative language is followed by an explanation which emphasizes the supremacy of God” (see Bird, 33). This serves Bird’s point that there was a clear dividing line between angels and the one Most High God.
Only one “critical” comment here about something in Bird’s chapter I found less helpful.
#1: Trying to explain Christological monotheism, Bird says that “It’s like God was Jesified and Jesus was Godified…The God of Israel is revealed in, and through, and even as the Lord Jesus Christ” (p. 28). This sounds good (esp the latter sentence), but I fear it could be confused with either modalism or not really monotheism. I might prefer to say, “the tune of God was played in the Jesus key.” Is that better? This is tough stuff to get just right.
Conclusion: Is this a helpful response book?
Just after one chapter from Bird, I think it is a resounding “yes.” It is less important to me that Bird et al say that Erhman is biased or that they articulate an orthodox perspective of Christology. What is most helpful is that it seems like Ehrman tends to leave things out, exaggerate, or works with some dubious methods. Or even that he quotes parts of scholarly works that are a bit misleading (such as his appeal to Hurtado). So, the Bird book provides helpful scholarly critique and balance. Basically, you get the full picture of the nature and scope of the debate.