How Jesus Became GodI’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.

How Jesus Became God (Ehrman)

Ehrman argued in the last chapter that the earliest Christians saw Jesus as a human that became divine. So when and how did they followers see Him instead as a preexistent being who entered into human flesh before returning to heaven?

To recap the last post, Ehrman holds that the earliest Christians believed an exaltation Christology, where the man Jesus was exalted to divinity during His life. Even within this viewpoint there was diversity as to the timing, with His exaltation being progressively pushed backwards:

  • The preliterary creeds: His resurrection and ascension
  • Mark’s Gospel: His baptism
  • Luke and Matthew’s Gospel: His birth/conception

Following this trajectory then, it is natural that these “earliest exaltation Christologies very quickly morphed into an incarnation Christology” (p250), with Jesus being divine before His human existence. This incarnation Christology also has development, reaching to the highest peaks in the later NT writings:

  • Paul: Jesus is an angel, or the Angel of the LORD
  • John & Hebrews: Jesus is “God”

Ehrman spends most of his time in Paul, developing the idea that for Paul, Jesus was “an angel who became a human” (p252). The basis for this position is found in Ehrman’s translation of Galatians 4:14 as “‘…you received me as an angel of God, as Jesus Christ'” (p252). If we read Paul’s Christology through this lens, “virtually everything Paul says about Christ through his letters makes perfect sense” (p253).

For Ehrman, Philippians 2:5-11, read through this lens, reveals that Christ was a preexistent divine being, who due to His obedience, was exalted “to an even higher level” (p258) than He possessed before. Traditional views of Phil 2:5-11 make two major missteps in the beginning and the end of the passage:

  1. Christ is “most definitely not” (p263) equal with God before He takes on flesh (Phil 2:6). This comes from a misunderstanding of the Greek verb for grasped, which Ehrman argues should be understood as something that one doesn’t have. So Jesus didn’t grasp for something He didn’t possess: equality with God.
  2. Christ being “highly exalted” (Phil 2:9-11) should be understood as “more ‘highly’ than he was before” (p263). God raised Jesus to a new, higher, level.

Ehrman concludes that Philippians 2:5-11 teaches that “Christ started out as divine, but at his exaltation he was made even ‘more divine’. In fact, he was made equal with God” (p264).

When it comes to John and Hebrews, Jesus is not only seen as preexistent and divine, but He was also equal with God right from the start.

With such high statements about Jesus, it is no wonder that Christology continued to develop in the early church councils and creeds. This development to more modern Christian Christology is covered in the remainder of Ehrman’s book.

My thoughts

I appreciated the fact that Ehrman recognized a high Christology present in the NT, even in Paul’s writings. He rejected the Adamic understanding Phil 2:5-11 and also emphasized the allusions to Isaiah 45:22-23 in Phil 2:10-11, showing Jesus as equal with God. As with the other chapters in this book, Ehrman is very clear and rhetorically powerful here, but I felt there were a number of significant weaknesses to his presentation. Chris Tilling does an excellent job responding to Ehrman in How God Became Jesus, which I will summarize in the next post, but here are a few of my own thoughts.

Almost everything in Ehrman’s presentation of Paul just seemed leaky. His honesty about being puzzled by Paul’s Christology “until, frankly, a few months ago” (p252) is admirable, but this just makes the shallowness of his presentation all the more apparent. What’s more, everything hinges on a particular (and disputed) translation of Galatians 4:14 of Jesus being an angel. If it weren’t for Paul including this easily-missed statement, Ehrman would continue to be confused about Paul’s Christology!

Ehrman’s take on Philippians 2:5-11 was also shaky. In his introduction and conclusion to the passage he was bold that Jesus was an angel exalted to the level of God, but his exegesis was hesitant. The translation of grasped “almost always” and “seems to be” (p263) in favour of Ehrman’s conclusion, and that highly exalted means ‘more highly than before’ is the “probable meaning” (p263). These two points are the crux of his argument and lead him to confidently say that Jesus is “definitely not” equal with God before He becomes human, but even in Ehrman’s own words his exegesis is far from certain! Unfortunately, Ehrman showed no awareness of having engaged with alternate views on Gal 4:14 or Phil 2:5-11, which weaken his presentation further. Not to mention that Philippians 2 shows no hint of Jesus being an angel!

Lastly, Ehrman’s idea that Jesus didn’t grasp something He didn’t have (equality with God) doesn’t make sense for two reasons:

  1. Why/how should Jesus be praised for not taking something that wasn’t His? That’s not praiseworthy, it just means He didn’t sin! The contrast between Jesus’ status before/after incarnation works far better if He did have equality with God.
  2. Phil 2:5-11 is not an isolated Christological teaching. It is actually an illustration, that Paul uses in his teaching that the Philippians need to lay down their own rights for others (Phil 2:3-4). But how does Jesus serve as an example if Ehrman is right and He didn’t do this Himself? Again, it is far better to see Him as having the very rights of God, but laying them aside in the incarnation.

Unfortunately, Ehrman’s ‘interpretative key’ of Jesus being an angel (Gal 4:14) doesn’t unlock any Christological doors. Check back soon for Chris Tilling’s two-chapter reply to Ehrman.

Buy How Jesus Became God: Amazon USA / UK

Buy How God Became Jesus: Amazon USA / UK

[Many thanks to HarperOne and Kuperard for providing a copy of How Jesus Became God, and Zondervan for providing a copy of How God Became Jesus in exchange for a balanced review.]