How God Became Jesus (Tilling)
Chris Tilling, author of Paul’s Divine Christology, responds to Ehrman in a one-two punch. His two chapters are Problems with Ehrman’s Interpretative Categories and Misreading Paul’s Christology: Problems with Ehrman’s Exegesis.
Problems with Ehrman’s Interpretative Categories
Tilling is right to acknowledge a number of positives in Ehrman’s chapters, even going so far as calling him the “American ‘Tom Wright’ when it comes to clear prose” (p118)! Though I’ve been mostly critical in my posts so far, I also appreciate a number of points in Ehrman’s chapters and hope to show that in my final review.
In this chapter, Tilling points out how Ehrman’s overall approach and broad conclusions (his interpretative categories) set him off on the wrong track. His criticisms are thus:
- Ehrman’s two Christologies – exaltation and incarnation – “[do] not explain the New Testament data” (p119). Instead of these categories arising from the NT texts, they are artificially imposed on them even when the NT texts themselves don’t naturally fit the molds. Inevitable distortions ensue.
- Galatians 4:14 should not be used as an interpretative key “for Paul’s entire Christology” (p122) as it doesn’t fit a large amount of Paul’s writings.
- The word “divine” is “used as a catch-all term deployed rhetorically” and is a “rather vacuous or nebulous receptacle” (p123). It is not clearly defined, so our own concepts of the term (or Ehrman’s rhetoric) get in the way. Ehrman distinguishes God Almighty from other “divine” beings, but on what basis? How is He different from them? And what if Jesus is described in language used exclusively for Him? None of these things are adequately addressed by Ehrman.
- Ehrman’s understanding of Jewish monotheism (“inclusive monotheism”) is a minority view and has several problems. Rather than God being merely the supreme “divine” being, Jews held “a sharp line between God and everything else” (p129). Surprisingly, Ehrman doesn’t even mention the Shema (Deut 6:4-5)! Nor does he engage with early Christology expert Richard Bauckham (a fact Tilling calls “astonishing” (p127).
These points (and others) lead Tilling to conclude that Ehrman’s categories lead to “profound interpretative confusion” (p133).
Problems with Ehrman’s Exegesis
Tilling begins by presenting a positive approach to Paul’s Christology that takes into account a correct understanding of Jewish monotheism, as well as Paul’s epistemology, and his “Christ” language. These are far better categories to be working with! Due to the number of end-notes referencing his Paul’s Divine Christology (I eagerly await for it at a more affordable price!), I expect much of this is a condensing of that book. In fact, I’m afraid that some readers may struggle at this point because Tilling is clearly trying to pack a lot of information in a short chapter.
A better approach to understanding Paul’s Christology is to recognize that Jews emphasized their utterly unique relationship to their God (Deut 6:4-5). We need to recognize that Paul’s presents Christ’s relationship to His people in the same way. Paul doesn’t just use similar relational language, he uses the same language, often replacing YHWH with Christ! 1 Corinthians 8-10 is a prime example for this idea; “[i]nstead of speaking of the relation between Christians and God over against idolatry, Paul instead speaks of the relation between Christians and the risen Lord over against idolatry” (p141, emphasis italicized in original). Tilling then walks through a few passages (providing an exhaustive number of texts in the end-notes) and concepts that align with this approach. These show that Christ is treated as only YHWH should be.
Next, Ehrman’s own exegesis is critiqued. Tilling focuses primarily on Philippians 2:5-11 since this was the “only extended engagement with Paul’s letters in his entire book!” (p147). Philippians shows no hint of Jesus being an angel, and includes language of relationship and devotion that no angel receives in ancient Jewish texts. Also Ehrman’s rejection of Jesus being equal with the Father is “based on a disputed translation of a single word” (p146) and gives no indication of the scholars who reject this translation in offer of another.
In conclusion, Tilling offers a devastating critique of Ehrman’s methodology and exegesis, showing that they stack the deck in his favour but the NT data itself is tortured in the process. I have to reiterate my very hopeful expectations of Tilling’s Paul’s Divine Christology being republished!
Next we will look at how Christology further developed in church history.