Moving on in my tour of Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God and Bird’s (& co) How God Became Jesus, we’ve arrived at the third major stage to Ehrman’s presentation: Jesus’ burial and resurrection (here’s a chapter summary). As Ehrman has argued so far, “Jesus did not declare himself to be God” (p128), that was for His disciples to do later on once they believed He was raised.
That brings us naturally to the question of the burial and resurrection of Jesus and I’ll confess I’m not entirely sure why Ehrman spent so many pages (from p129-210) on the details of Jesus’ burial and resurrection when it doesn’t change the fact that the disciples believed He was raised – a point Ehrman himself asserts. In fact, Ehrman’s version of early Christology seems mostly unaffected by the content in these chapters (ch4-5), so they seem an unnecessary diversion. Still, I will summarize his presentation, give some thoughts of my own, and then Craig Evan’s response in How God Became Jesus.
Jesus’ Burial & Resurrection: How Jesus Became God (Ehrman)
Much like the last chapter, Ehrman begins by presenting why the Gospels are unhelpful for historians, as they were “written forty to sixty-five years after the facts, by people who were not there to see these things happen, who were living in different parts of the world, at different times, and speaking different languages”, and are “filled with discrepancies, some of which cannot be reconciled” (p133). Ouch! Anyway, Ehrman begins with the earliest tradition we have of the resurrection – 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, which likely pre-dates Paul. He notes that there is no mention of Joseph of Arimathea, nor any women finding the empty tomb, which he to mean that stories of Jesus’ burial and resurrection were “indeed being expanded, embellished, modified, and possibly even invented” (p143). So what can historians know for sure about Jesus’ burial and resurrection? This sets up the two chapters dedicated to this question.
In The Resurrection of Jesus: What We Cannot Know Ehrman presents his own opinion about Jesus’ burial: He (probably) wasn’t buried at all! Ehrman sees a lack of evidence that Romans would have allowed Jesus to be buried, and discrepancies between Paul’s account and those in the Gospels’. He also questions the “empty tomb” accounts as well, since if there was no burial, of course there would be no empty tomb.
In the next chapter – The Resurrection of Jesus: What We Can Know – Ehrman turns to what we can be sure of: 1) Jesus’ followers believed He was risen in some sense, 2) they had visions of Him, and 3) they reevaluated their conceptions of Him, ultimately seeing Him as God in some sense.
As to the third point, Christians reevaluated their view of Jesus in light of points one and two. If Jesus was raised, but no longer with them, he must have been exalted to heaven (p205), and if He has been exalted to heaven then he has been elevated “to a divine position and is God in a variety of senses” (p210). This is the beginning of Christology.
How Jesus Became God is feeling like a ship that starts its travels a few degrees off course; the longer we’re at sea, the more off-track we are becoming. Ehrman has already argued incorrectly that Jewish kings were considered “divine” in some sense, and assumed a highly skeptical approach towards the reliability of Gospels, and when you bring those things together you get a skewed reading of the evidence, leading to a) a radical attitude towards Jesus’ burial and b) an odd Christology that will be revealed more in later chapters.
My copy of How Jesus Became God is covered in notes, many ending with exclamation marks. These chapters contained probably the most scribbles so far, so it’s hard to decide what to focus on! My most substantial complaints in these chapters resolve on one bigger issue: Ehrman seems totally unwilling and/or unable see any unity within the NT, and therefore gives no attempt at harmonization of even small so called “discrepancies”. Evans in How God Became Jesus, and Greg Monette (see links below) already take Ehrman to task for what he unfairly requires from 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, so I’ll choose two other examples.
First, a wedge is driven between Paul’s view of Jesus’ resurrection body and that of the Gospels’. He sees Paul’s insistence of Jesus’ bodily resurrection as evidence of a “different view” (176) in Corinth, but we need not assume that an immature church’s ignorance of correct doctrine is evidence of a diversity of views within early Christianity; one thing need not mean another. Ehrman sees 1 Cor 15 presenting Jesus’ resurrection as bodily, but a body made up of “highly refined spiritual stuff” (p178). He then pits this against the purely physical body of Jesus presented in the Gospels; a body that can eat, for example. I think this is a misunderstanding of both Paul and the Gospels! Paul is not contrasting spiritual vs. physical bodies, but Spiritual vs. natural bodies: a physical body that originates from the work of the Spirit. The Gospels also see Jesus’ resurrected body as more unique than Ehrman does when he contrasts them with Paul. Oddly enough, Ehrman argues that the Gospels line up more closely to Paul elsewhere in the chapter (p206). So I think Ehrman drives a wedge between Paul and the Gospels here, one that is totally unwarranted on a closer reading of the texts that allows for different emphases and language and a united witness.
Second, Ehrman drives a wedge between the visions of Christ and the empty tomb, assuming the latter unnecessary since it requires the former. With the burial/empty tomb dismissed in the previous chapter, he questions the widespread nature of the visions and holds that probably only a few (Peter, Mary Magdalene, and Paul) actually experienced visions. His basis for doing so is the fact that the Gospels record people disbelieving the appearances of Jesus. Ehrman sees a discrepancy, for people rarely doubt their own visions. His (“tentative” [p192]) solution is to narrow down the visions to only a few people and view the Gospel records as embellished “and even made up” (p192), where in fact the “doubting” represents people’s rejection of the report of, say, Peter’s vision. But if Ehrman were more careful in his reading of the Scripture, and more willing to reconcile apparent discrepancies, he wouldn’t have to create these “tentative suggestion[s]” (p192) to replace the clear text! The problem is that Ehrman overplays these “doubting” texts. To save space I’ll have a look at these texts in a separate post.
Getting the Burial Traditions and Evidences Right: How God Became Jesus (Evans)
Craig Evans takes Ehrman to task on his view on Jesus’ (non)burial and, to a lesser degree, his claim that an empty tomb would have made little difference for the early church. Evans holds that Ehrman failed to adequately represent the complexities of Roman policies and their tolerance of sensitive Jewish burial customs, where the Sanhedrin arranged burials. Ehrman also failed to account for archaeological evidence of crucified criminals receiving proper burials. Lastly, Evans responds to Ehrman’s claim that 1 Cor 15:3-4 reveals that the early church had no knowledge of Joseph of Arimithea. 1 Cor 15:3-4 is an early creed, and creeds by nature are selective and include only the most important material. The creed also has no mention of Jerusalem, Passover, or Pilate for that matter.
Considering a) the length of this post already, and b) the fact that Monette below has two great posts on this issue, I will end here.
As always, comments are welcome!