This is my concluding review of Bird (et. al)’s How God Became Jesus, with my overall impressions. For a slower in-depth walk through of Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, its arguments, and this reply book, How God Became Jesus, check out my series Ehrman’s Christology War.
When Ridley professor Michael Bird heard of Ehrman’s then-upcoming book How Jesus Became God, he quickly gathered a fine collection of evangelical scholars to prepare a response book, How God Became Jesus. HarperOne provided an early copy for them to read, and both books were released on the same day in a fairly unique event in publishing history.
How God Became Jesus
Contrary to Ehrman’s thesis, the authors believe that exalted statements and belief about Jesus began very early, were consistently “high”, and thus the later church creeds and councils “are not wildly innovative” (p16). While Bird disagrees with Ehrman’s titular presuppositions (Jesus became God in the minds of His followers), he acknowledges that the question as to when, where and how Christians became to see Jesus as divine is “a historical question and one that can only be answered through a concerted investigation of the evidence” (p12) and it is this area in which “[Bird and others] wish to critically engage the work of Ehrman directly” (p12-13, emphasis italicized in original). In many ways How God Became Jesus is focused on responding to Ehrman’s individual chapters. Rather than summarising each chapter’s responses to Ehrman, which I have done in my series Ehrman’s Christology War, I want to give some big-picture overall thoughts on the book.
Praise and Criticism
Michael Bird has gathered a solid and diverse group of contributors in Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole, Charles Hill and Chris Tiling; each with substantial expertise and contributions in the areas where they respond to Ehrman. In contrast to many popular-level response books, these men are sophisticated scholars in their respective fields. I would like to praise the authors for, on the whole, managing to make scholarly debates accessible to the layperson. These men are all reputable scholars who are most likely used to teaching seminary audiences with plenty of time for numerous lectures and large amounts of supplemental reading to go with it; however, they have come together here to write a popular level book at just over 200 pages. Restraint and care must have been put into making this work accessible. What’s even more striking, these authors had very little time to prepare their responses.
The responses to Ehrman and positive argumentation in the individual chapters vary in strength, but are largely effective. While this is far from a complete rebuttal, several foundational pillars in Ehrman’s case were adequately weakened, and at times completely demolished. To highlight a few, Bird effectively recovered the Gospels from the trash by calling Ehrman out on his over-use of the criteria of dissimilarity; Tilling dug down deep and uprooted some of Ehrman’s faulty presuppositions and categories; and Evans mortified Ehrman’s suggestion that Jesus didn’t receive a proper burial. Other sections were weaker and could have benefited from more development, such as Gathercole’s work in the preliterary confessions and Bird’s on Jesus’ self-identity. More problematic are Charles Hill’s four excurses on second and third century evidence of Jesus as God. While they are very interesting and useful in general Christology discussions, they are completely irrelevant in a response to Ehrman, as he holds that Jesus is believed equal to God as early as in the Gospel of John.
The book suffers from a lack of organization in places. For example, both Bird and Tilling respond to Ehrman’s use of intermediary figures separately. Their responses overlap at times and together give a strong critique, but they are separated by a number of chapters and a more unified response in this area would have been stronger. Simon Gathercole primarily responds to Ehrman’s use of preliterary material, but Charles Hill makes a few statements about them, taking a slightly different approach. So while the majority of the book is a chapter-by-chapter response to Ehrman, at times it feels more like one chapter is “scholar #3 vs Ehrman” and another “and now for scholar #4 vs Ehrman”. Gathercole and Tilling’s chapters drew from their Christological works, but the lack of space restricted the discussions to feel at times like teasers for their respective books The Preexistent Son and Paul’s Divine Christology.
Each of these criticisms traces back to either the nature of the book (a response to Ehrman) or the time the authors were given to write their responses; the criticisms should be tempered when those elements are considered. However, when I first heard of the book and the contributors involved I had high hopes for more for a standalone positive case, and less of a narrow response to Ehrman.
I have mixed feelings about this book. While it functions well as a critique of Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, it could have been so much more if it broadened its horizons a little. With such a stellar lineup tackling a hugely important topic in an accessible way, this had the potential to have a unique and lasting place as a popular introduction to Christology and alternative to Ehrman’s approach. I was looking forward to a book that I could recommend to people who wanted to dig into the issues but weren’t going to be reading someone like Bauckham any time soon! Admittedly, this was a very high expectation, but at the very least I hoped for more of a standalone positive case than simply sniping at Ehrman’s troops on the wall. However, with the time constraints on the authors, I probably expected too much. What we have instead is a fairly narrow-focus book with some great positive contributions – exactly what I should have expected! So as not to leave the review on a negative note, if you are curious about Ehrman’s views and how other scholars would respond, or even if you are interested in all things Christology, then certainly pick up How God Became Jesus! I don’t think that one needs to read How Jesus Became God to benefit from this work, though it would bear more fruit. How God Became Jesus holds up very well for what it is intended to do, and also serves as a good launching pad to other related avenues of research.
[Many thanks to Zondervan for providing a copy of How God Became Jesus in exchange for a balanced review.]