I’m continuing to work through Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God and Bird’s (et al.) How God Became Jesus. You can find each part in the series here. Now we’re turning to the Christology debates in the early centuries.
I will summarize Ehrman’s final chapters in this post as there is less that I want to comment on. To save space, my summary and own thoughts will be mixed together here.
Christology Debates & Heresies: How Jesus Became God (Ehrman)
Ehrman is now moving on from the Christology of the NT writings themselves to the early church, leading up to the council of Nicea and beyond. First, he asserts that “There were numerous views of Christ throughout the second and third Christian centuries” (p286) and the Christology that Christians hold today simply represents the “side that ‘won’ these debates” (p286). These Christians also “decided which books were to be included in the canon of scripture” (p286). So rather than an early Christianity, we had Christianities, and they were all stamped out by the most powerful believers. The Christology of these Christianities was diverse, ranging from a denial of Christ’s divinity, His humanity, or the unity of divine and human natures. Ebionites, Docetists and Gnostics and the debates surrounding them are all profiled.
Secondly, the development of Christology to Nicea is traced out. Ehrman holds that in debating with “heretics” and disagreeing with opposing viewpoints on both sides of the debate (i.e. humanity vs deity), Christians had to then adopt “paradoxical” viewpoints regarding Jesus to walk the mediating line. As Ehrman says, “As time went on, heresies became increasingly detailed, and the orthodox affirmations became increasingly paradoxical” (p328). As Christianity developed, Christology developed also, with more and more viewpoints becoming considered heretical.
Lastly, in the epilogue Ehrman looks at some of the aftereffects (or “aftermath”) of the church’s Christology debates. The church became bedfellows with paganism, antisemitism abounded (as “the Jews killed God”) and church debates only continued to grow. Ehrman then ends the book here on a surprisingly abrupt note!
I had a few difficulties with these chapters. First, Ehrman simplifies the viewpoints a little too much. Second, Ehrman assumes a plurality in the early church that is not proved, rather, he points readers to his other books. Third, he assumes his faulty “adoption Christology” indeed reflected the earliest Christian viewpoint, which “proves” that Christology today is nothing like the views of the early Christians. Since his adoption Christology is incorrect, and much in this chapter builds upon it, much in this chapter is also incorrect. Lastly, in the epilogue Ehrman seemed to drop his “historical objectivity” and did little more than attack Christianity for all its sins and hypocrisy, trying to link Christology to antisemitism.
Christology Debates & Heresies:
How God Became Jesus (Hill)
Chuck Hill is quick to acknowledge that there was an “evolution” of Christological beliefs in the early church, but also hastens to add that this is through a developing of knowledge of the Scriptures, not one group pitting certain texts against another group with their own set of contradicting texts. He also questions Ehrman’s overall presentation of the beliefs of groups such as the Ebionites and individuals like Tertullian and Tertullian’s apparent admission that “modalism was the majority view of Christians” (p164) in the third century.
In his second chapter, Hill responds to the “ortho-paradoxes” (Ehrman’s term for “orthodox” paradoxes, such as full deity and humanity of Christ), saying that these views “are what they celebrated, not what they tried to cover up and hide from view” (p185). Rather than being an Achilles heel of the church – as Ehrman implies – these “paradoxes” in Christology did not embarrass the early believers; they celebrated these doctrines, and saw them as the most harmonious conclusions of Scripture. Hill also questions Christology resulting in antisemitism, showing that Ehrman’s conclusions are at best undeveloped and simplistic.
Ok, I admit this summary was a little short, but this is due to at least two reasons. First, I am far more interested in, and have more knowledge of, the Christology of the NT documents rather than the early church, so I had less to comment on here. Secondly, apart from the rhetoric and negative implications, Hill didn’t have as substantial an amount of disagreement with Ehrman as the other authors.
Well, that (almost) wraps up our tour through How Jesus Became God and How God Became Jesus! The only thing remaining are my concluding thoughts on both books, which will also serve as a “review” of them. If you have read all these posts, then I am impressed! I’m very grateful for the opportunity to review these two books and hope my portrayal has been fair, whilst representing my obvious disagreement with much of Ehrman’s arguments.