We are now up to chapter five in the Zonderbird response book How God Became Jesus, edited by Mike Bird. Today, we are going to review Simon Gathercole’s chapter on “What Did the First Christians Think about Jesus?” Gathercole responds to Ehrman’s arguments that, as Ehrman thinks, there is evidence in the NT that pre-literary traditions embedded in Luke and Paul point to the first Christians believing that the man Jesus was adopted/exalted to divinity after his death through the resurrection. Also, Ehrman argues that the Synoptic gospels do not portray a preexistent Jesus, but a Jesus adopted to be Son of God at birth or his baptism.
Gathercole is a good person to take stock of Ehrman’s arguments and respond to him because Gathercole wrote a book arguing that there is evidence in the Synoptics of authorial appeals to the preexistence of Jesus. Gathercole is known for arguing that Jesus’ “I have come” statements in the Synoptics are a key indicator that “Jesus has come from somewhere to accomplish his mission” (p. 97; not unlike how an angel has come to earth from heaven; though Gathercole resists angel-Christology). I actually do not find Gathercole’s “I have come” argument persuasive, but it is worth considering.
Gathercole brings together other counter-arguments and responses to challenge Ehrman’s readings
Was Jesus Adopted at Baptism?
Ehrman argues that the Synoptics take slightly different stances on when Jesus became Son of God. On Mark, Ehrman thinks that Mark sees this happening at the baptism with the words: “You are my Son…” But Gathercole rightly responds, what about the same voice at the transfiguration (Mark 9:1)? – “Presumably God is not adopting Jesus again” (99)
Divine Privileges of Jesus in Synoptics
Ehrman is reluctant to see Jesus as directly associated with the one God in the Synoptics. Gathercole begs to differ. Gathercole argues that, in the Synoptics, (1) “Jesus has the power of electing people to be saved”; (2) the elect and the angels belong to Jesus (Mark 13:27; Matt 13:41), (3) Jesus has supernatural power and knowledge, and (4) Jesus is the receipt of divine worship (Luke 24:52). I think Gathercole scores some points here, but I was not confident that attributing to Jesus miraculous works and knowledge gets Jesus a high divinity when all kinds of people in the ancient world claimed to have such abilities. As for Jesus receiving worship, even though Gathercole aims for a properly nuanced discussion, I still think that proskuneo is too flexible of a verb to treat it as a “technical term” (see 100-101).
The Tunnel Period and Jesus Appointed Son of God and Lord
Ehrman argues that pre-literary traditions in the NT point to adoption of Jesus at the resurrection. Gathercole tries to rebut this point by point in relation to Rom 1:3-4 and Acts 13:32-33, but I don’t think his counter-arguments are all that strong. What is much better is his final point in the chapter about why it might look like we have a serious change in Jesus from before resurrection to after. In Gathercole’s perspective, “His activity in the course of his earthly ministry is different from his activity when seated at the right hand of God in glory” (111). Why? Because “Jesus came not to overwhelm the world with his heavenly glory, but as a suffering rescuer” (111). What might look like a major “change” at his resurrection (Rom 1:3-4) is not an ontological change (from non-divinity to divinity), but especially a narrative and relational change – salvation history is moving forward and Jesus demonstrates obedience in his incarnation, mission, and death on a cross, and, thus, he becomes Lord of the church and world as God’s plan proceeds. I appreciate Gathercole’s apt final lines of his chapter: “These [texts that see Jesus as appointed/declared Son of God/Lord] need to be understood as new roles that Jesus takes on, and an extension or intensification of his authority (in parallel with the extension or intensification of God’s reign) in relation to a change and still-changing cosmos, but not as indicating a change in his nature or his identity in relation to God” (116).
I have a huge amount of respect for Gathercole (he was my external doctoral examiner), but I have to admit this was not as strong of a chapter as some of the others in this book that I read. Perhaps it is because he felt the need to respond to Ehrman point-by-point which made his chapter feel like a series of very-short (even rushed) rebuttals. Unlike some of the other chapters in the response book, Gathercole was not able to contradict Ehrman’s arguments as cogently. Rather, the strength of his chapter was his alternative reading (his constructive argumentation, rather than his disassembly of Ehrman’s arguments).
Let me end with this: while I did not find the majority of Gathercole’s chapter all that helpful in response to Ehrman, his last few pages (where he sets out his own basic reading of the earthly and exalted Jesus) are a goldmine for how (orthodox?) Christians should approach a healthy Christology. This helped clarify in my own thought that, while Ehrman focuses so much on disproving that Jesus claims to be God in the Synoptics, he is kind of missing the point – Jesus (in the incarnation) becomes like a lowly slave (Phil 2), a man of sorrows, a frail mortal – subject to death. His glory (as John shows us later) is in this humble choice. In Ehrman’s obsession over showing the non-Godness of Jesus (in the earliest thought of Christians), he misses the glory precisely in his humble flesh in his short time on earth.