Sunday, April 20, 2014

Book Review: Bart Ehrman How Jesus Became God

Even though I am dubious about Ehrman's claim that Jesus was a real historical person, I was eager to read his latest book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Having read his Lost Christianities, I expected to find a rehash of the various factions of Christianity that lost out in theological disputes, but the book is more about the mainstream church's transition from belief in a man who would be the Messiah to a god-man that had always existed and always will.  These are the basic stages of Christ's transformation:

Jesus the Man:
Jesus called himself "Son of Man," which was a synonym for The Messiah (I never knew this!). The Messiah would be the new king of Israel after the defeat of the evil powers that held it, i.e., Rome or possibly corrupt Jewish leaders. He was one of many messiahs at the time, and he was crucified for the crime of stirring up dissent during Passover, traditionally a time of protests and political trouble-making. Having designs on the title of "King" in the Roman Empire was his crime against the state and the reason for his execution.  Raising a ruckus in the temple was a good way for a would-be Messiah to attract attention.  So according to Ehrman, it's not beyond possibilities that Jesus was an apocalyptic rabbi who was a trouble-making rabble-rouser in the eyes of both the Jewish & Roman authorities.

Jesus the Corpse:
Jesus's body was taken to a tomb, probably not by his sissy followers who fled Jerusalem. Supposedly, Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body to give it a decent Jewish burial, but Ehrman doubts this. Joseph of Arimathea was part of the ruling class of Jews (the Sanhedrin), and would not have dignified Jesus this way. But assuming he took pity on the family and wanted to do "right" by the body, let's assume he really did get buried in a tomb...

The Empty Tomb:
All four gospels differ in their description of the discovery of the tomb. Ehrman places more trust in stories that are repeated in more than one place (the first three gospels count as one because they're related, except where they differ - and those differences can count as a "place") Because no two stories agree, he thinks all four may have been made up by grieving followers whose "Messiah" turned out to be just another crazy Messiah wannabe axed by a Roman ruler.

Jesus the Risen Man
Ehrman thinks the idea of a risen Christ was very early, before the earliest writings (i.e. Paul's letters), because the Messiah was supposed to triumph in the end, not suffer a humiliating execution.  But merely defeating death wasn't enough: he had to be a Messiah in some sense, or else he would be just like Lazarus, the man Jesus brought back to life.

Jesus the Exalted Man
Judaism had a kind of spirit-world hierarchy of magical sky-beings, much as the Greeks did.   This gave Jesus's followers a precedent for Jesus being elevated after death.  Though Jesus was considered a regular person in his lifetime, his followers quickly reached the conclusion that he'd been exalted by god to a higher status after death (ascended).  This view would only work if the virgin birth and holy spirit business was a-historical, which it most likely is because of non-confirmatory versions in the writings (according to Ehrman). 

Jesus the God-Man
Soon after Paul's conversion, or perhaps even earlier, Christians hecame dissatisfied with the idea of Jesus being merely an exalted man.  From then until the Council of Nicea in 325, various factions, led by bishops, priests, or theologians, posited different versions of Jesus's godly essence.  These ranged from him having been elevated from man all the way to god status, to having been a god rather than a human, to the final winning idea of the Trinity.  The Nicene Creed, which resulted from this debate, uses language that delineates the winning position.

Jesus / God / Holy Spirit: The Trinity
It seems inexplicable to me now that this concept could have been a unifying principle of Christianity, unless perhaps being forced to accept a ridiculous idea creates a kind of cognitive dissonance situation: this idea is so ridiculous it must be true!   ...but that's my theory.  In the history of Christianity it is indeed one of the few things that all the factions now agree on.  The final dispute was whether Jesus was part of God's being from God's beginning ("begotten"), or whether he was "made" by God at some later time.  They decided he was "begotten, not made."  Along the way they decided that Jesus & God had to be one, because both couldn't be a god in their monotheistic worldview, but Jesus couldn't be a lesser spirit being. The Nicene Creed originally ended with a condemnation of those who disagreed with the Trinity of God having three parts, but apparently later there was a decision to just pretend heretics didn't exist.

Ehrman started with the parts of the Bible that could have been historical and ended with the Trinity, which was based purely on the conjecture of believers.  It shows just how desperate the Church was to seem logical and reasonable, and I have to hand it to them -- they did create a powerful force by defining themselves as "right" and others as "heretics."  After 313 Christians were no longer persecuted by the Romans.  They were persecuted by each other.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in early Christian theology, believer or non-believer.  Considering how dense the scholarly writing on this kind of thing tends to be, it's very readable and more knowledgeable than the dribble put out by religious presses.

Yes, I've been reading more than writing lately.  My old computer bit the dust and I'm getting used to a new one.


Andrew Hall said...

I heard the author on an NPR interview, but couldn't listen to the whole thing. Thanks for posting this.

Lady Freethinker said...

This book is high on my to-read list...thanks for the breakdown!

Patrick Goggins said...

I read "How Jesus Became God" and the refutation, "How God Became Jesus." Both books explained progressive Christology, how almost all Christologies - high and low - were around very early on, and how these Christologies were chronologically *eliminated,* from low to high, as the nascent church built its orthodoxy.

My comments, and these go to both books, are: 1) they assume that Jesus’s ministry was apocalyptic, when Crossan and others make a good case that Jesus’s ministry was sapiential – that is, present here now and attainable through good deeds and adhering to the law, and 2) that the Pauline epistles are the earliest source writings – when the Epistle of James the Just arguably pre-dates them.

For further discussion of these comments, and a thorough review of both books, please check out my Reader’s Guide to Bart Ehrman's How Jesus Became God.

This is the latest in a series which includes my best-selling Reader’s Guide to Reza Aslan’s Zealot , and my Reader’s Guide to Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus .