Jesus’ followers believed Him to be divine “in some sense” (Ehrman’s favourite modifier), but when and how did this begin? Did they get this idea from Jesus Himself?
How Jesus Became God (Ehrman)
Here’s a hint of Ehrman’s conclusion:“If Jesus really went around calling himself God, wouldn’t the other Gospels at least mention the fact?” (p87) and “Jesus did not spend his ministry declaring himself to be divine” (p88).
Ehrman traces this in two sections. The first assesses whether the Gospels give us reliable information as to Jesus’ teaching (they do not), and the second tries to piece together what Jesus probably said and thought about Himself: He would be the king in God’s kingdom, which He (incorrectly) expected to come to pass within His lifetime, which was itself unfortunately cut short.
As to the Gospels, they “cannot simply be taken at face value as giving us historically reliable accounts of the things Jesus said and did” (p88). While Paul’s writings predate the Gospels, he didn’t know Jesus nor does he “tell us very much about Jesus’s teachings, activities, or experiences” (p89). So back to the Gospels, then.
To complicate matters, the Gospels “are not written by eyewitnesses” (p90), were “[written] after Jesus’s disciples had all, or almost all, died” and were “writing in different parts of the world, in a different language, and at a later time” (p90). Therefore the Gospels contain accounts that have been passed on verbally throughout the decades and, much like Chinese whispers, this results in “discrepancies, embellishments, made up stories, and historical problems” (p93). In light of this seemingly impossible situation, we need help in sifting the wheat from the chaff. Ehrman gives a few criteria that critical scholars have established to determine the historicity of an event:
- Independent attestation (stories that appear in multiple accounts)
- Dissimilarity (stories that don’t nicely fit with Christianity)
- Contextual credibility (stories that fit the original context)
Ehrman especially leans heavily on the second criterion in this chapter when it comes to Jesus’s self-understanding. Ehrman argues here that Jesus saw Himself as an apocalyptic prophet, “proclam[ing] the imminent arrival of the Son of Man [who is not Jesus], who would judge the earth and bring in God’s good kingdom” (p112) and that “when the kingdom arrived, he would be made the king“ (p123). Jesus certainly didn’t see Himself as divine in any sense, in fact His own predictions regarding the kingdom of God were very wrong and He was killed for his trouble! Therefore, Jesus never said that He was God, rather “[i]t was only afterward, once the disciples believed that their crucified master had been raised from the dead, that they began to think that he must, in some sense, be God” (p128).
Unlike the previous two chapters, which were quite helpful and informative in places, there is much to take issue with here. Ehrman’s views on the (un)reliability of the Gospels is radically skewed and apparently dismissive of the work of scholars such as Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Not only does Ehrman take a very skeptical view towards the Gospels, he requires “stenographic records of Jesus’s words or picture-perfect accounts of his life” (p88)! Once the foundation is destroyed everything goes wrong from here, and we’re left with little more than Ehrman’s speculations.
Since Ehrman’s sketch of Jesus relies so heavily on the criterion of dissimilarity, I want to focus on that a little. While the criteria of dissimilarity is indeed useful for determining the historical likelihood of an event if we have reason to doubt its truthfulness, Ehrman relies on this criterion to such a degree that his Jesus looks like Christian Bale in The Machinist: unrecognizable and needing more meat on him! Bird has some good criticisms on the criterion of dissimilarity, but here are a few of my own:
- It appears objective and neutral to find ideas that don’t fit with those of Jesus’ disciples and conclude that they are therefore reliable. However, it may just be our interpretation that doesn’t fit. For example, Jesus cursing the fig tree seems like an odd thing to “make up” so, by this criteria, it is probably true. But what if we can explain why Jesus cursed the tree? Does that suddenly mean it probably never happened? If one can explain everything in the Gospels as being consistent with Christianity, then does that suddenly mean that nothing can be trusted? This criteria requires ignorance! For example, Ehrman concludes that the Olivet Discourse embarrasses Christians, but it’s not our problem that he isn’t willing to listen to other explanations of these passages. Again, Ehrman seems to be quite fundamentalist in his skepticism!
- It assumes that we are smarter than Jesus’ followers; that we can catch all these contradictory statements in the Gospels that are embarrassing to Christians, but which somehow the Gospel writers themselves missed! Were Jesus’ followers really so dumb? And are we really so clever that we can reliably read between the lines? This is even more of a problem for Ehrman since he late-dates the Gospels (and would hold that “orthodox” views were more solidified by this point) and asserted that Gospels can’t be trusted because they are biased. But if they are so biased, then why did they keep these dissimilar elements?
It seems that Ehrman’s skepticism creates its own problems, for which he has to then offer his own skeptical solutions! Ehrman already concluded that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah that His followers were expecting, so why can’t He be a different Messiah to what Ehrman expects?
How God Became Jesus (Bird)
In How God Became Jesus, Bird first challenges Ehrman’s method, particularly the criterion of dissimilarity. According to Bird, it has “received a devastating barrage of criticism” (p50) for its inadequacies, to the point where Bird is surprised Ehrman still uses it.
Having reclaimed the Gospels, he argues for Jesus’ divine self-understanding as His “conscious[ness] that in him the God of Israel was finally returning to Zion” (p52). When we realize that Jesus fulfills and embodies in Himself the promises of God’s coming to Israel, then we can see this awareness clearly.
For example, Isaiah 40:3; 40:9-11; 52:7-10; Ezek 34:7-16; and 34:22-24 all predict the return of the LORD to Jerusalem and are fulfilled in the coming of Christ. His actions and teachings explicitly and implicitly reveal His ministry as God’s coming to Zion.