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