I’m starting to work through Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God and Bird’s (& co) How God Became Jesus. I’ve decided to review them side-by-side in bigger chunks. You can follow the entire series here. I’ll start by summarizing Ehrman, my thoughts, then the response by Bird. I’ve tried to keep this post short, and really appreciate comments!
Divine Humans in Antiquity: How Jesus Became God (Ehrman)
Ehrman begins his book with two chapters on ancient Greco-Roman (ch 1) and Jewish (ch 2) beliefs of varieties of G/gods. Since “[i]t was only after his death that the man Jesus came to be thought of as God on earth…the place to start is with an understanding of how other humans came to be considered divine in the ancient world.” (p18). Ehrman is jumping the gun a little here by asserting that Jesus wasn’t considered divine until after His death, but we will get to his logic in the next chapter. So why start here? Ehrman points out that while the idea of a divine human is unusual today, in the ancient world it was common, and this provides a framework for understanding the categories of thought in Jesus’ early followers.
The ancients believed in “levels” of deity, like a pyramid. These ideas provide a foundation for how Jesus’ early followers came to understand Him as divine. Ehrman’s first chapter consists of presenting three “models of the divine human”:
- Gods who temporarily became human (Jupiter/Zeus, Mercury/Hermes, cf. Acts 14)
- Divine beings born of a union of god and human (Alexander and Hercules)
- Humans who became divine (Romulus and the Roman emperors)
But of course Jesus was a Jew, and the Jews didn’t have these ideas about divine humans, right? Ehrman challenges this and suggests that Jews in fact had much in common with their Greco-Roman neighbors. First of all, “[t]he Ten Commandments express a henotheistic view, as does the majority of the Hebrew Bible” (p53). Books like Isaiah that insist on monotheism are actually in the minority in the OT (Henotheism is the belief in many gods, but only worshiping one).
Ehrman then goes on to show that Judaism in fact believed in many divine beings, much like the surrounding Greco-Roman culture. He presents the following categories:
- Divine beings who become human (Angel of the Lord, angels, and those in Psalm 82)
- Other divine figures (Son of Man in Dan 7, Wisdom in Prov 8, Word of the Lord)
- Semidivine beings begotten from divine beings (Nephilim)
- Humans who become divine (Israel’s king in Ps 2:7, Ps 110, & Ps 45:6-7, and Moses in later Jewish texts)
So just as pagans believed in a pyramid of divine beings, surprisingly “the same is true within Judaism“ (p83). This then sets us up to realize that even if Jesus’ early followers believed Him to be God (as Ehrman agrees they did), the real question is “in what sense? Or rather, in [what] senses“ (p84, emphasis in original). There is plenty of ‘space’ for a divine human in the ancient Jewish mindset. Since there are in fact categories that give precedent for blurring the divine/human lines, should we not start there with trying to make sense of how Jesus was considered “God” by His followers? This is exactly what Ehrman argues in the following chapters; in fact the NT documents give a diverse witness, matching Christ with the different options above: some see Jesus as a man who became God (at His baptism or “resurrection”), while others see Him differently, as a preexistent and divine being (an angel or lesser ‘god’) who took on flesh. And these concepts are all far from what Christians believe about Jesus today.
Ehrman is a great communicator. I highly enjoyed reading these chapters and benefited a lot from his clarity, though I was also frustrated at a number of points with his arguments and conclusions! I won’t even try to give a definitive response to Ehrman (there’s already a book that does this!), but here are a few of my own thoughts:
- The Greco-Roman views of deity are virtually immaterial to this discussion, so it seemed rhetorically sneaky for Ehrman to start with Greco-Roman ideas and then move to the Jewish concepts. This approach causes the reader to bring these ideas over and in effect read the Jewish concepts through pagan glasses and find more similarities than are truly there.
- Ehrman never really clarifies what he means by “god” or “divine”, leaving the reader to fill those words with their own ideas. Ehrman calls angels “divine”, and implies that they are comparable with the gods of paganism. To me, this muddies the waters between pagan and Jewish concepts of heavenly beings, considering that the latter has an unbridgeable and critical distinction between the Creator and creation not found in the former.
- It seems that the argument consists mostly of fitting Jewish ideas into a pagan framework. At first the similarities seem quite striking, but on closer inspection the individual texts do not support his conclusion. For one example, the idea that God cursed “gods” with humanity in Psalm 82 is a very strained reading of an admittedly complicated passage. The text just doesn’t say what he says it does, but his reading of it does make the OT sound similar to paganism.
I’ll try to keep my summary here brief. In How God Became Jesus, Bird first challenges Ehrman’s approach for 1) relying too heavily on apparent parallels, 2) presenting analogy as genealogy, or similarities as source, and 3) not giving attention to stark differences. Monotheism was stricter than Ehrman suggests and Christology emerged from within a robust Jewish monotheism, not an apparently similar pagan source.
The Jews had no problem with other heavenly beings, but consistently presented them as created with delegated authority (3 En. 4.3; 6.3; 10.1-2) and as unworthy of worship (Tob 12:16-22, Rev 19:10; 22:9). Jesus, however, receives worship that angels are not allowed (Rev 5:1-14)! In ancient Judaism heavenly ‘beings’ are either created (angel) or a personified attribute of God Himself (Wisdom, Logos). Lastly, Bird helpfully clarifies the issue by examining, by way of excursus, some test cases of divine humans such as Psalm 45 and Ex 7:1, showing that Ehrman’s interpretation of these texts is not thoroughly nuanced. Ehrman is too much of a fundamentalist with his overly literal reading of Scripture!
Irrespective of whether Ehrman is correct to blur the lines in Jewish thought on the deity/human divide, the real question is this: do these categories provide adequate explanation of how early Christians understood Jesus and His relationship with God? I think they don’t. The fact that Ehrman gets Jewish thought wrong at points only weakens the foundation of his later arguments.
I hope that my review so far is being fair to Ehrman. I must say that I learned quite a lot from his chapters, despite my disagreement. I very much welcome any/all comments!
Check back soon for Jesus’ own self-understanding. Did Jesus consider and present Himself as God?