Was Jesus God?

I’m in the home-stretch of the book, Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, the first selection for the Dish’s resurrected (!) Book Club. I know many readers are, as well. We’ll start the conversation this week – so hold your emails for a bit. I’m going to try and structure debate on the book into some clear, distinct questions, rather than trying to grapple with it all at once.

But as an appetite-whetter and encouragement to finish reading, here are some early reviews. First up, Fr. Robert Barron attacks the core of Ehrman’s thesis – that “explicit statements of Jesus’ divine identity can be found only in the later fourth Gospel of John, whereas the three Synoptic Gospels, earlier and thus presumably more historically reliable, do not feature such statements.” Barron calls this idea “nonsense”:

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the crippled man who had been lowered through the roof of Peter’s house, saying, “My son, your sins are forgiven,” to which the bystanders respond, “Who does this man think he is?  Only God can forgive sins.” What is implied there is a Christology as high as anything in John’s Gospel.

how-jesus-became-godAnd affirmations of divinity on the lips of Jesus himself positively abound in the Synoptics.  When he says, in Matthew’s Gospel, “He who does not love me more than his mother or father is not worthy of me,” he is implying that he himself is the greatest possible good.  When in Luke’s Gospel, he says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away,” he is identifying himself with the very Word of God.  When he says in Matthew’s Gospel, in reference to himself, “But I tell you, something greater than the Temple is here,” he is affirming unambiguously that he is divine, since for first century Jews, only Yahweh himself would be greater than the Jerusalem Temple.

Perhaps most remarkably, when he says, almost as a tossed-off aside at the commencement of the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it said, but I say…” he is claiming superiority to the Torah, which was the highest possible authority for first century Jews.  But the only one superior to the Torah would be the author of the Torah, namely God himself.  Obviously examples such as these from the Synoptic authors could be multiplied indefinitely.  The point is that the sharp demarcation between the supposedly “high” Christology of John and the “low” Christology of the Synoptics, upon which the Ehrman thesis depends, is simply wrong-headed.

Another critic is Michael Bird, one of the contributors to How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature – A Response to Bart D. Ehrman:

[W]hile Ehrman insists that there was a continuum between gods and humans in the ancient world, I contend that Jews and Christians held to a strict monotheism that delineated God from the rest of the created order. And when they mapped out where Jesus belonged on this ledger, he was clearly on the God-side – not semi-divine or quasi-divine, but identified with the God of creation and covenant.HGBJ-Cover

And whereas Ehrman thinks that Jesus was a prophet who proclaimed God’s judgment of this world, I argue that the historical Jesus saw himself as proclaiming and even embodying God’s kingship. Jesus believed that, in his own person, Israel’s God was becoming King, which is why Jesus spoke and acted with a sense of unmediated divine authority, why he identified himself with God’s activity in the world, why he believed that in his own person Israel’s God was returning to Zion as the prophets had promised, and why he outrageously claimed that he would sit on God’s own throne.

Meanwhile, Greg Carey criticizes the way some Christians have engaged the book, arguing that “it doesn’t help to dismiss Ehrman for being an agnostic, as if agnostics have nothing to teach Christians about the Bible, Jesus, or faith”:

[T]here is a live conversation among biblical scholars about how most Christians came to regard Jesus as divine. In other words, Ehrman’s book raises questions that should interest us all. This is not about liberals and secularists attacking the church. It’s an ongoing debate that crosses the usual party lines. …

Most Christians, however, have no idea that Ehrman’s book represents a genuine conversation among informed scholars. This is unfortunate. Nothing Ehrman is saying would surprise a biblical scholar at even the most conservative theological school. This knowledge gap constitutes a failure of educational ministry in the churches. We Christians should be learning to engage legitimate public conversations about Jesus, about the Bible, and about our faith. And we should attend to spiritual development that equips us to enter those conversations with humility and love.

I might as well state one core reason I picked this book. I strongly believe that Christians need to absorb all we can about the origins and debates over the texts that have come to form our faith. We should have nothing to be afraid of but the truth.

And the theological truth and the historical truth – while constructed in different terms and according to different criteria – must be compatible. No religion founded on untruths can or should survive. Which is why the meaning of the Incarnation and the Resurrection must be addressed squarely within the bounds of history and scripture properly understood – if we are to respect Christianity as a modern faith. This project, of course, is as challenging for a Christian as it is for a non-believer like Ehrman. And it’s worth remembering Ehrman’s reasons for being “obsessed” with Jesus, despite being an agnostic:

Without that declaration [of Jesus’ divinity], Jesus’ Jewish followers would have remained a small sect within Judaism. Probably a very small sect indeed. Converts would not have flocked to their cause — especially Gentile converts, any more than they flocked to the cause of the Pharisees or of John the Baptist.

If Gentiles had not started converting, eventually at an impressive rate, Christianity would not have grown exponentially over the next three hundred years. If Christianity had not been a sizable minority in the empire by the early 4th century, Constantine almost certainly would not have converted. If Constantine had not converted, the massive conversions in his wake would never have occurred. The Empire would not have become predominantly Christian. Theodosius would not have declared Christianity the state religion. Christianity would not have become the most powerful religious, cultural, social, political, and economic force in our form of civilization. We would not have had the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, or Modernity as we know it.

All of that history and culture hinges on the belief that Jesus is God.

So was he? That very question is what we’ll be debating this coming week.  Update from a reader:

Yay! I found myself bitter and cynical about this Easter. I was able to articulate it to my wife after freaking out about the volume of sugar and artificial dyes going into our young children: “Why do we celebrate the birth and death of Jesus, and not his actual accomplishments?”. To me, he represented a transformational shift in thinking about love and power that is at least as important as his divine status. Or maybe not? Both major holidays are all about worshiping Jesus’s divine status, rather than his deeds as a living man. Aren’t his teachings and example central to Christianity? How do our major holidays represent the core values demonstrated through Christ’s living, if at all? He did offer a bit more than his own claim to being the One True God, right? That’s what’s getting me down.

Anyway – I’m gonna load Ehrman’s book on my Kindle. I’m psyched you brought this up.