We are now in the fourth part of this review series on Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God. Ehrman’s sixth chapter is on “The Beginning of Christology” where he tries to make a case for the earliest views of Jesus during the first couple of decades after the death of Jesus and before the writings of Paul (~33-50).
Here is Ehrman’s argument for this chapter in a nutshell: Because the disciples thought that Jesus rose from the dead, they immediately believed that God raised Jesus and exalted him to the status of divinity (p. 224). While the language of adoptist Christology can sound negative, Ehrman believes it can be fitting for this earliest Christology if we see the positive aspect – in the Roman world, adopted sons actually tended to be more important than natural sons (see p. 232). While Jesus was thought to be exalted only at the resurrection (as the earliest view of Jesus’ divinity), several strands of early Christianity in those first couple of decades worked backwards in different ways and to varying extents to recognize or attribute divinity to Jesus at his baptism or birth or even preexistence (p. 237).
OK, I am about to be very hard on Ehrman, so I want to start on a positive note. He does get one thing very right in this chapter – on the significance of the resurrection of Jesus. While some Christians think that Jesus raising himself from the dead proves his divinity, that is not really how it worked at all – after all, all believers will rise from the dead and they do not become gods. No, it is about what the resurrection of Jesus means in the context of his ministry, rejection, and crucifixion. So, I quote Ehrman, “God has drastically and dramatically reversed what humans did to Jesus [on the cross], showing thereby that he had a radically different evaluation of who Jesus was” (229) – yes, yes, yes. Readers of the New Testament, remember this.
Now….basically everything else in this chapter is based on too much guesswork without evidence, very suspicious methodology, and a lot of lopsided argumentation.
Let’s Look at the Pre-Literary Traditions
Ehrman begins his chapter by noting that we don’t know what Christianity was like until Paul started writing in the middle of the century. So, we have no actual documents from that earliest period (33-48). But Ehrman believes that we can unearth some early Christian beliefs by discovering and examining “pre-literary traditions” in the New Testament. Using his go-go-gadget tradition finder, he points to texts like 1 Cor 15:3-5, Rom 1:3-4, and Acts 13:32-33. Looking esp at the latter two, he suggests that these earliest hymns/traditions point to an “exaltation” Christology – Jesus was exalted (only, primarily) after his death (see 224).
Here’s my problem – I am just not convinced it is all that easy to “detect” when Paul or Luke are quoting preformed material. Paul could be poetic, couldn’t he? I think Paul (in heaven) would be discouraged if he didn’t get credit for writing a poem in a document where he signed his name!
Could Paul’s letters contain earlier tradition – sure, why not. But good luck in plucking that out and hoping to discern where and when and how and why he modified it (theologically or otherwise).
Here’s another problem. Ehrman is highly selective. He uses two or three examples to show that the earliest tradition-material from Paul and Luke point to a post-death exaltation to divinity. Hmmm, first of all why aren’t we talking about Phil 2:5-11? Let’s leave that aside. Secondly, why not 1 Tim 3:16 – sounds very hymnic to me (I actually don’t want to go there, but just trying to play on Ehrman’s playing field). 1 Tim 3:16 says Jesus “appeared” in the flesh, i.e, incarnation.
So, would I propose that we just don’t know what Christians thought in that early period? Well, if it is not what Paul thought, than yes, we don’t know. Why guess when there is no direct evidence and tradition-hunting work is so subjective (esp when one has to guess how and why Paul adapted it?)?
Paul and Luke Didn’t Mean It, They Were Just Playing Nice
I just about fell out of my chair (twice!) when Ehrman tried to make the case that both Paul and Luke included preliterary traditions in their works with which they disagreed but didn’t state their disagreement (see 222 for Paul, 240 for Luke). In a sense, Ehrman is saying Paul included a Christological tradition in Rom 1:3-4 as a friendly gesture to the Romans, but Paul’s own Christology was somewhat different. Can we really say that Paul and Luke would run the risk of so much confusion – esp when Paul knew his letters were sometimes circulated? Why throw caution to the wind? Again, Ehrman could be right, but anything is possible. Yet, I don’t see Paul seeing a benefit that would out-weigh the risk. Can Ehrman come up with any rhetoric handbook from the ancient world that suggests warming your audience over by saying something affirmatively that you don’t believe yourself as a kind of pathos ice-breaker?
One might argue Luke did it by accident, but doesn’t Luke strike us as the kind of writer who would put thought into such things?
Earliest Christology is Exaltation Christology
Ehrman argues that the earliest Christology was an “exaltation” Christology based on passages like Acts 13:32-33 and Romans 1:3-4. That means that the very first Christians initially thought Jesus was exalted to the status of divinity after his death. I have argued above that Ehrman is being too selective here, and I think he may have missed something huge – if we have to mine the NT for evidence of earliest Christology, I would argue that we find Kyrios Christology. If the earliest Christians said anything, they said “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3; Phil 2:11). Also, they said, Maranatha – “Our Lord, come!” Obviously, for the Aramaic phrase, they were talking about Jesus (1 Cor 16:22), and given that kyrios was the common title for Yahweh in the LXX, it would seem that right away the earliest Christians tethered Jesus to the identity of the one God (hence 1 Cor 8:6). Were this resurrection-exaltation Christology, there is just no way it could be called monotheism – Jesus and Yahweh would either be one God with two names or they would be in competition for the same title. Would God exalt a human after death and give him God’s own title kyrios? I don’t think Ehrman’s exaltation schema works when we work with the kyrios Christology.
Jesus Was Adopted As Son of God – Ain’t It Grand!
Ehrman resists calling his position adoptionistic Christology because of the negative stigma associated with the word “adoption” as if the exaltation of Jesus in adoption was a lesser kind of thing than a natural born son. But, nevertheless, Ehrman does go in this direction with the “correction” that in the Roman world adopted sons were more important than biological sons (see p. 232; appealing to the research of Michael Peppard). Hmmm…. two big problems here. First of all, I think it is special pleading to say that the NT portrays Jesus as adopted by God in any sense. Whenever adoption language is used, it is the church who is adopted, not Jesus. Jesus was sent from God (Gal 4:4) and as a result of his work, believers are adopted (Gal 4:5).
Secondly, Jesus is known as the only-begotten Son of God (John, Hebrews, 1 John). What does it mean for Ehrman’s theory that latter Christian thinking (demoted?) Jesus from adopted-exalted Son to begotten Son (if adoption is more important)?
I think one of my concerns with this book by Ehrman is that it seems more like a popular lecture (with selective examples and lots of pithy anecdotes) than a bone fide academic work. Why does that matter? Ehrman leaves too much of his methodology untested and too many theories undefended by evidence. Now, had he wrote a big academic book for (let’s say) Oxford University Press making his case in the full-scale academic arena (and published this book subsequently), that would be one thing. Then, he would have to face the critical eyes of an academic review board. But here we just have a very citation-lite, interaction-minimal set of hunches. I personally do this kind of thing in lectures, where I throw out conjectures just for fun and as food for thought. But I would never, then, try those ideas out in a monograph without really working it all out with all the key primarily and secondary literature in view and in print.
I know Ehrman didn’t set out to write an academic book, but he talks about “researching” for this book several times in the book itself, and he makes it sound like this book was years, even decades in the making. My response is: really? This book feels like too much opinion-casting, which is a problem if he is taking somewhat new positions on issues (like no burial of Jesus). I wish, either he had written a more end-noted work (where he can put scholarly rebuttals off or to rest), or that he would have first published a serious academic version that could be more thorough and that would anticipate all the likely challenges to his theses.
Is it too cruel for me to say, I might have retitled this work: I Wonder: Hunches and Guesses about Christology…
Stay tuned for discussion of chapter 7: “Jesus as God on Earth: Early Incarnation Christologies”