We are back to the ZonderBird response book – How God Became Jesus. In Chapter three, Mike Bird responds to Ehrman’s own chapter on the question did Jesus think he was God?
Mike starts, as Ehrman does, with questions about method. Mike rightly wonders whether one can sift through bits of the gospels looking for “authenticity” the way that Ehrman (and others) seem to do quite glibly. Ehrman believes that if you use the scholarly tools of the trade (various authenticating criteria), then you can scrape away the layers of Christian theology/hagiography and get down to the real stuff. But – and this may be my favorite quote in the response book so far – “Trying to separate the history from theology in the Gospels is a bit like trying to separate blue from red in the color purple” (50). That is exactly right! You just can’t do it. That doesn’t mean the evangelists did not think they were doing history. They certainly did think that, but in an ancient way, not a modern one.
Now – down to business. Is there any evidence that Jesus claimed to be God? Or claimed the kind of identity, status, or power reserved for the one God? Mike thinks the answer is “yes” and he sees it even in Mark! Mike points to Mark 2 where the response to Jesus’ healing and remission of sins is this: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:7; see p. 58). Elsewhere, Mike refers to the implications of the way Jesus taught, as he “reconfigured divine commandments based on his own authority” (as with the Sermon on the Mount; 59). I love that Mike includes the reaction of Jacob Neusner to his reading of this kind of language from Jesus – “Who do you think you are [Jesus] — God?” (We could also talk about what it meant for Jesus to claim to be “greater than the temple”; Matt 12:6.; see p. 59; or for Jesus to claim to “seek and save the lost”; Luke 19:10.)
When it comes to John, I think Mike and I are just about on the same page. Mike thinks that John is certainly working from historical material and real Jesus tradition, but “this tradition has been well and truly interpreted through a pronounced theological lens. Many of its unique sayings about Jesus are probably based on a mixture of memory, metaphor, and midrash” (p. 68). But Mike is quick to argue that, despite the theological creativity of John, his ideas “stand solidly within a Jewish conception of God’s activity in the world” (68).
I only wish Mike had made it clearer that it wasn’t really a part of Jesus’ agenda to announce his membership in the Trinity whilst he was on earth. If recapitulation was his responsibility in his ministry as a faithful Israelite, it makes all the sense in the world for Jesus to focus on his model-making faithfulness and willingness to face rejection and scorn in the eyes of the world.
So, who’s right about Jesus and the gospels? Did Jesus think he was God? I think Ehrman has a point when he says (1) we need to understand the range of what it could mean to claim divinity and (2) that Jesus did not seem to do this explicitly in the Synoptics (very often, I would add). I think Ehrman is too cautious on this, though, and fails to take serious account of Jesus’ interaction and use of Scripture as well as certain definitive moments in his ministry. As for Mike, his highlighting of some of the occasions I mentioned above are helpful, but the fact of the matter is that Jesus is never explicit about his divinity and confessional Christians have no easy answers as to why.
I think no one can academically win this debate for the very reason that Dale Allison once described: the Jesus material in the gospels is so diverse, rich, and ambiguous, what we see is that you can do anything with that tradition. Neither side can trump the other as a matter of fact. The Ehrmans and the Birds (and the Guptas!) are doing educated theoretical work with this tradition. Ehrman is right, then – Christians operate at some level on faith. I hope Ehrman can likewise see that, even if he is not a man of “faith,” he is operating on “guesswork.”