Christian agnosticism 0

Today in our Pages section (see the top of our margin), we post a review by Jillian Becker of How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman.

Here is part of it.


Bart D. Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God is a formidable challenge to Christian belief. It stands to his credit that he pursued his researches to the point where he changed from a believing Christian into an “agnostic”. (I put the word in quotation marks because I think the word as applied to religious belief is a cop-out, an intellectual bromide. If you do not believe there is a god, whether your unbelief is weak or strong, you are an atheist.)

An enormous amount of what he says fits with what is known and makes good sense. But in one vital area he goes wrong. He goes wrong because his perspective is Christian – even though he no longer thought of himself as a Christian when he came to write the book. He was not able to free himself sufficiently from the Christian viewpoint because he could not totally shrug off his Christian indoctrination.

Where is it that he goes wrong? ? He traces the vital beginning of the process of Jesus becoming God to the first, Jewish, followers of Jesus. That is the core of his thesis. And, interesting as his book is, generally well-researched as it is, it fails to make its case; because the author has not understood who the earliest followers of Jesus were and what they believed about him.

There is convincing evidence that the man whose Greek biographers called by the name Jesus (and we must call him that for want of knowing what his birth name was) did exist in the province of Judea between the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, and that he was a rabbi with a burning (fanatical, even insanely fanatical) desire to bring about a new Kingdom of God, like the one he and his nation believed had been the free and glorious kingdom of David and Solomon. He prophesied that the “Son of Man” – or the Messiah, the Annointed One – would come and effect this wonder, and he even came to believe that he was that “Son of Man”, that Messiah, himself.

Now let’s look at more of the probable story from a non-Christian (and unbelieving) standpoint.

Jesus’s gesture of attacking some Roman soldiers, along with a couple of his followers armed with two swords – one of them used to slice off a Roman’s ear – did not bring the result he expected. He had convinced himself such a move on his part would be the signal to God to start the series of earth-transforming miracles that would destroy the Roman Empire and bring back the freedom and glory of the Jewish people. The Romans arrested him, brought him to a cursory trial, and condemned him to death by crucifixion – the punishment prescribed for insurrection by Roman law. The punishment was duly carried out. (As Ehrman says, the body was probably flung on the ground somewhere to be devoured by birds and worms and scavenging beasts.)

His little circle of close followers, shocked, terrified, and grieving, fled from Jerusalem to save their own lives, but returned after a while and were to be found among the numerous sects and factions of perfectly orthodox Jews who lived there and carried out their obligations under the law in and to the Temple. They could not bear to give up their idea that Jesus was the Messiah. And as he had not succeeded in doing what a Messiah had to do, they trusted that he would soon return and complete his task. They even sent out missionaries to preach to dispersed communities of Jews and their hangers-on of “God fearers” that Jesus was the risen Messiah and he would return in glory to save the Jewish nation.

Now we come to the tricky bit. Did they then believe that Jesus had come back to life after his execution? Yes. So to them he was still alive? Yes. Did they believe that he had suspired not just in spirit, but in his body? Seems very likely that they did. And this would not have been strange among the Jews of the time. Every sect and party, every faction and movement, religious and political,  except one – the Sadducees, the party of the royal priests – believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead. The general resurrection (the dogma ran) would occur at the end of days. But Jesus’s resurrection, his disciples believed, would be sooner than that – very soon. And they might well have pictured him returning in clouds of glory, descending from the sky and instantly causing the political liberation and resultant spiritual renewal of Israel.

Did they then believe that he was, or became after his death, or perhaps had always been God, or a god, or “the [unique] Son of God” – no. If they had believed any of that they would no longer have been Jews. But doesn’t the idea of his return in clouds of glory and descending from the sky imply divinity? Yes. And Ehrman argues well that there was precedent in the Jewish religious annals for an orthodox belief that (a) there were beings other than God himself in the divine sphere who were thus themselves divine – angels, seraphim, cherubim; and (b) that men had been raised to the sphere of divinity and – it could be argued – shared in the aura of the divine. It is even true that the Hebrew word for God – Elohim – is a plural. And that Psalm 82 speaks of creatures on earth being “gods”. He cites the (apocryphal) books of Enoch and The Wisdom of Solomon for the strongest evidence to support his contention that, while Jehovah was believed by the Jews to be the chief God, there were many lesser gods in Jewish scriptures.

Fine. But now we come back to what the followers of Jesus believed. First of all, who were they? At one point Ehrman calls them “illiterate peasants”. Well there he is probably wrong. For one thing, Jewish boys (most if not absolutely all) were taught to read so that they could read aloud a portion of the law when they turned thirteen. Secondly, there is nothing to say that either Jesus or his followers were uneducated men or even poor men. (The Christian tradition that Jesus was a carpenter and the apparent son of a carpenter has no basis in any discoverable historical fact. The family could have been well-to-do. There were means to support him as a rabbi – a voluntary teacher of the law – in his last year or two.) The disciple Matthew (not to be confused with the name attached to one of the gospels) was certainly literate, being a tax collector.

If Ehrman is right that they were mostly illiterate peasants, then the chance that they would have known anything of the apocryphal books of Enoch are remote, and virtually nil that they could have known of The Wisdom of Solomon – written in Greek – or the works of their contemporary Philo of Alexandria in Egypt.

And even if they were literate, as they almost certainly were, they were not scholars or theologians. There is no way they would have been able to argue for the existence of lesser gods, even if they knew Psalm 82 off by heart. They would have been taught that “God is One” – the central tenet of Judaism. So Ehrman’s sophisticated arguments from esoteric and academic sources for the possibility that they could believe Jesus was or became a god, are inapplicable to them. …

Posted under Articles, Atheism, Christianity, History, Judaism by Jillian Becker on Sunday, January 17, 2016

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