Review: How Jesus Became God 14

How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman, HarperCollins, New York, 2014, 404 pages

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.

What else can we know about them? Volumes have been written to “prove” that most of them were Jesus’s own family; that almost all the people he is said to have about him in the Galilee were related to him – Martha and Mary, Lazarus, the fishermen. The presence among them of one Thomas Didymus is suspicious, since both Thomas and Didymus mean “twin’. (Twin Twin?) There may have been twins in Jesus’s family; Jesus and one of his brothers perhaps, or another pair – Simeon and Jude (Judas) perhaps.

I have said it was a “little circle” of followers, and so it almost certainly was – even if occasionally he preached to quite a large congregation. If the Jesus movement had been of the importance ascribed to it by Christians, both Josephus and Philo would have had something to say about it. Philo says nothing. And Josephus, who relates stories of several other so-called Messiahs, does not mention the activities or existence of the Jesus band. He only mentions him and what the sect believed of him when he briefly describes the death of Jesus’s brother James, which happened decades after Jesus’s death, when the civil war was raging and the Temple was under attack.

So these few very pious but ordinary countrymen, or some of them, lived on in Jerusalem after Jesus’s death and dreamt of their Messiah’s return. They sent out their missionaries. They told tales of him. They repeated what they remembered him saying. Nothing he had done or said was against the law. The Jewish authorities had no reason to accuse him – or them – of anything. The story that the Sanhedrin met to condemn Jesus of something-or-other (allegedly at night, and during the Passover festival!) was obviously made up to exonerate the Romans.

So everything Ehrman says about “the first followers of Jesus” believing that the bodily resurrected Jesus was God or a god is not true. He blurs the story by referring to these Jewish followers as “Christians”. Well, strictly speaking their Messiah could be called their “Christ” in the Greek language, but “Christian” has a different meaning. They were not Christians. They were Jews. Orthodox Jews as Jesus himself must have been. And as Ehrman is trying to base his whole thesis on his assertion that the deification of Jesus began with “the early followers of Jesus”, his thesis, to that extent, is wrong. On later developments in the process of Jesus becoming the Christians’ God, he is believable and interesting.

Paul, the ex-convict, the convert, the fantasist and liar – with him it begins. The fictions of the Gospels and Acts derive in the first place from him, however they are elaborated. My series of essays on “The Birth and Early History of Christianity” outline the story. I could say much to justify my description of Paul as a criminal, a convert, and a liar, but this is not the place for it. Whatever else he was, he was the author of the Christian religion. With him and him alone the development of the rabbi of Nazareth into the God of half the world begins. To him the dubious glory and the enormous blame belong.

Because Ehrman approached the investigation from a Christian starting place, he has omitted sources of information that he really needs to consult if he is to understand how little the Pauline Christian mythology applies to Judaism and how much or little Judaism contributed to Christian dogma. He never mentions Neoplatonism, though it is indispensably relevant to any discussion of the Logos. Furthermore, he gives no hint that he is aware of the early Jewish mysticism of the Merkabah (pre-dating by many centuries the writings of the Kabala). Knowledge of it would show him that Jewish mysticism was developing at the time in an entirely different direction. It should also be noticed by Christians – but never is – that when a rabbi really contributed something of importance to the culture, it was well known and not only recorded but handed down through the ages. (The best example is that of Hillel, who famously told an inquirer who said he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could tell him the essence of the religion while he stood on one leg: “Do not do unto others as you would not that they do unto you. That is the whole of the law. The rest is commentary. Go study.”) If Jesus had said anything new and important, or had re-worded some familiar idea more impressively, it would have been known, noted, and handed down by learned Jews.

Finally there is the enormous fact that the Jewish nation/religion as a whole accepted neither the theology nor the ethics of what Paul claimed was the teaching of Jesus. To them, the theology was blasphemous and the morality unjust.

None of this would necessarily persuade Ehrman that those brothers and relations and devotees of Jesus on the shore of the lake did not conceive an idea that Jesus was God, but such thoughts might help him to throw off the last threads of the intellectual fabric that still bind him, however lightly, to certain unwarranted Christian assumptions.


Jillian Becker   January 17, 2016

Posted under by Jillian Becker on Sunday, January 17, 2016

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This post has 14 comments.

  • jim becks

    Maybe you can answer or point me to answer to a question.

    I subscribe to the theory that roughly says Jesus saw himself as Messiah and that he would draw first blood against the Romans and God would take over and restore the Israelites, free them from occupation. Also that he and his followers were practicing Jews.

    My understanding was that Paul invented the Christ as redeemer concept.

    But I’m stuck on the resurrection bit and how did that get started? After reading Tabor I figured that there was a body switch between tombs and this escalated into the bodily resurrection concept through memory alteration (Ehrman’s latest book) and oral retelling.

    I understand Paul’s letters came first, and I can’t reconcile the fact that Jesus talks about dying for the cause and coming back in the synoptic gospels. Did those writers read Paul? Was that added later? If Jesus saw himself as a revolutionary, messianic figure where did this text come from where he talks about his own resurrection? I can see how he became divine and the progression in that direction through retelling in the 4 gospels. I can even rationalize how the idea that he will return would evolve.
    But how did the resurrection angle come about? It’s the crux of Christianity.

    • Thanks for you interest in the review, jim becks.

      I’ll try to answer your questions.

      All the Jewish sects of the time believed in BODILY resurrection except the Sadducees, the priestly caste. As “Jesus” did not accomplish the task he and his immediate followers were convinced he was chosen by God to do – the political salvation of the Jews as you’ve described it – but was executed for sedition, his followers shifted their hopes of his doing so to the near future. He would do it yet, IN THEIR LIFETIMES – since they were sure he would rise bodily from the dead. He would not wait for the end of time, like everybody else.

      Then apparently they believed he DID rise from the dead. (Forget the tomb stories. They are manifest fictions. There was no tomb. The Romans flung the bodies of the crucified to the vultures.) They began to say that he had been seen. Then to say that they themselves had seen him (though they didn’t recognize him at first as – they say – he looked different!). And then to assert that he had certainly risen. In their grief and disappointment they wanted to believe it, and so they managed to believe it. (Like the devotees of Elvis Presley.)

      I haven’t read Ehrman’s latest book. “Oral retelling” sounds right.

      The authors of the gospels were converts to the Paul movement, whether they read his letters or not – and they probably did, or heard them read in their churches. They put words into Jesus’s mouth, of course. And got into a muddle trying to make Jesus say things that contradicted other things that living witnesses still remembered he had actually said so they couldn’t leave them out. The confusion started early. eg. The law will never pass away “said Jesus” versus the law is superseded by “grace” said Paul. (See my review of The New Testament, also under Pages.)

      That Paul was so struck by his hearing that Jesus had risen from the dead is one of many indications (see my series “The Birth and Early History of Christianity” also under Pages) that he was not a Jew as he claimed to be. (He was a Hillary Clinton of a liar!) It was he who built the Christian religion on the putative resurrection. He had no interest at all in the life of the man. (A dying and resurrecting god would not have seemed strange to an immigrant from Tarsus where Attis died and rose again every year.)

      Paul saw the resurrection quite differently from the way James and co saw it. He saw it much more as the Gnostics did – a return of Jesus’s divine part to become again One with the Godhead. (I have a theory that he attended Simon Magus’s rallies.) He never makes it quite clear in his letters that he does believe in the body rising. He speaks of a new kind of body. It’s hopeless to look for consistency in Paul. He did not have a clear mind. Many of his converts however believed that Jesus had risen bodily to heaven. And later that “Mary” did too, He rose under his own steam, so to speak, She was heaved up by angels. (Wonderful depictions of it in Italian galleries of Renaissance paintings.) This must mean that Christians believe in a physical heaven. Just where it is, they cannot say. It’s “up there, somewhere”.

      The point is, the “historical” stories Christians base their stories on are not historical. And it doesn’t matter to them really. At least, not to Catholics. Protestants (particularly Germans) have tried to dig up an historical Jesus, and the more they’ve groped after him the more the biblical Jesus has faded away. Thing is, it’s the religion that matters – for all the good and/or the harm it has done (according to individual judgment).

      So it doesn’t matter that no man ever rose from the dead. That no child was ever born of a virgin. That no man can walk on water, nor ever has. Etcetera. These are the fictions of faith. Only literal-minded people with a pedantic respect for reason like me need to go probing into them and pulling them to pieces.

      • jim becks

        Thanks for reply. If you’re open for follow-up question, it follows, else I would love to see a book with your name on it. You’re like the 5th horseperson of the new atheism. Except they are all liberals so that might not work but I do mean as compliment anyway. I like those guys as atheists but then they open up their yappers about Hillary and global warming and it’s like oh yea, forgot, you geniuses are libtards. Lawrence Krauss is another.

        Re: the disposition of crucified enemies of Rome. Isn’t it established that Jesus time on the cross was relatively low,
        like 6 hours? Doesn’t that support the theory that he was
        removed early for the Passover or whatever? Does the
        story of Joseph of Arimethea getting the body and also the that they didn’t want the body to become a source of attention not also support the possibility that it was put into a tomb? I guess I’m hung up on tombs but it is a big part of the story.

        Speaking of tombs, I take it you don’t buy into the theory that Jesus and his family ended up buried under a condo in Talpiot (The Jesus Discovery, Tabor)?
        I love that theory! Jesus is actually under this condo and there is an exhaust vent from his tomb to someones back porch.

        • I’m delighted to be “the 5th horseman”! And the only one who is not on the Left.

          NOTHING is established about the story of “Jesus Christ”.

          The tomb tales are specially suspect. Not only do they contradict each other, but the “miracle” bits automatically invalidate them.

          On the other hand, I feel strongly that your tomb under the condo is totally convincing.

  • liz

    On re-reading this I find your argument (that an actual person was the basis for the myth) more and more convincing. It rings very true that he was probably a fanatic who imagined that attacking some Roman soldiers “would be the signal to God to start the series of earth transforming miracles that would destroy the the Roman empire…”
    That scenario has been repeated often down through history, and is happening even now in the minds of fanatical Muslims. It’s a very real feature of religious (and even secular, in the case of Marxists) believers that they never face the fact that the failure of their cause was inevitable because of its lack of connection to reality. They simply make up excuses for the failure and take the fantasy to even greater heights of absurdity!

    • I like your Marxism analogy, liz. Very much. The disciples of “Jesus” expected his return within their life-times. THEN he would bring off the great trick. Now Bernie thinks he can bring off the great trick that Stalin and Mao failed to accomplish. Yes, Marxism is a mysticism just as any other religion is.

      • liz

        Yes, I just hope we don’t have to go through another “Great Purge” before the trick is again exposed as a power grab and the attempt fails one more time.

  • disqus_J4w1rmcvFS

    A great book about the creation of the myth of Jesus is “The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity” by Hyam MacCoby.

    • Yes, it is a very good book. (It is by Hyam Maccoby . He’s not a Scotsman [ie. not Mac + Coby], but shares a last name with the great Maccabees of history – with a different transliteration.) I’m glad you mention it. I too would recommend it to our readers. It was one of the many books which contributed to my own understanding of what actually happened to bring Christianity into existence. See my essays titled “The Birth and Early History of Christianity” under Pages in our margin.

  • liz

    I’m unfamiliar with any convincing evidence that Jesus actually existed.
    It still seems likely to me that he could have been a completely made up version of Mithras and/or some combination of the other ressurected-on-Easter gods. Paul had to have been familiar with those and saw a way to cash in on it by combining it with the Jewish “Messiah” concept.
    It’s fascinating to speculate, anyway!

    • I think if he had been wholly made up and not based on any living man, he would have been born in Bethlehem without there having to be a crazy story about a journey there for an absurd census, and he would have been called “Emanuel”, in accordance with prophecy. Also “his brother James” – brother of a sect leader called Jesus who had been crucified by the Romans – is mentioned by Josephus. But you are not alone in thinking the Jesus figure could be entirely mythical. There is a book called “Jesus: a Myth” by Georg Brandes who argues cogently for that idea.

      • liz

        Those are interesting clues that there could have been an actual person as the basis for the myth. There were other messianic type rabbis in Jewish history, too, so it’s quite possible. Unfortunately for Christians, that still doesn’t provide any proof for the myth that was built on that obscure mortal.

  • Cogito

    Jillian, your erudition is astonishing. If Ehrman answers your critique, please do share it with us.

    • Oh, I would, Cogito. But I doubt he will answer.

      Thank you for your appreciation.