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Announcing The Dish Book Club

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 2 2014 @ 1:55pm

Well, it’s more like a resuscitation of the Book Club, since we had one more than a decade ago now. But the format will be the same. Each month, we’ll pick a book, and Dish readers are invited to read it alongside us. After three weeks, we’ll start debating it, through posts on the Dish and a reader thread fueled by your thoughts on the book. If the author is still alive, we’ll try and get him or her to do a podcast at the end (on Deep bookclub-beagle-trDish) to answer some of the questions readers have raised and keep the conversation going.

If you’re like me, you find your time for book-reading increasingly constrained by our Googled minds and our overwhelmed lives. So think of this club, as I am, as an incentive to read alongside others the kind of book you might have passed on without the prompt of a Dish discussion. In the future, we will have guests championing a favorite book – sometimes new, sometimes old – and hosting the discussion alongside Dish editors curating the reader threads. Maria Popova, of Brain Pickings, has generously agreed to host the second club.

We had been mulling re-starting this feature and then a new book arrived that clinched it. I know some of you may flinch at such a religious subject to kick off the club, but the book is written for believers and skeptics alike, and focuses on the historical exploration of what the earliest Christians meant when they claimed that a first-century rural Jewish preacher was actually God. The reason I find this such a compelling area of research is because I have honestly always wondered what Incarnation is supposed to mean. I know what it means in the abstract – but what it means in reality eludes me. It is a mystery, and yet such a mystery is the linchpin of Christianity. The key questions are: what exactly did Jesus’ followers mean when they insisted upon this after Jesus’ death; and what can it ever mean to claim that someone is the Son of God?

The book is Bart Ehrman‘s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Buy it through this link to join the club and thereby help support the Dish with a little affiliate revenue. Here’s the publisher’s official description of the book:

New York Times bestselling author and Bible expert Bart Ehrman reveals how Jesus’s divinity became how-jesus-became-goddogma in the first few centuries of the early church. The claim at the heart of the Christian faith is that Jesus of Nazareth was, and is, God. But this is not what the original disciples believed during Jesus’s lifetime—and it is not what Jesus claimed about himself. How Jesus Became God tells the story of an idea that shaped Christianity, and of the evolution of a belief that looked very different in the fourth century than it did in the first.

A master explainer of Christian history, texts, and traditions, Ehrman reveals how an apocalyptic prophet from the backwaters of rural Galilee crucified for crimes against the state came to be thought of as equal with the one God Almighty, Creator of all things. But how did he move from being a Jewish prophet to being God?

In a book that took eight years to research and write, Ehrman sketches Jesus’s transformation from a human prophet to the Son of God exalted to divine status at his resurrection. Only when some of Jesus’s followers had visions of him after his death—alive again—did anyone come to think that he, the prophet from Galilee, had become God. And what they meant by that was not at all what people mean today.

Written for secular historians of religion and believers alike, How Jesus Became God will engage anyone interested in the historical developments that led to the affirmation at the heart of Christianity: Jesus was, and is, God.

Join me in exploring this topic and the roots of Christianity. Atheists and non-believers are particularly invited. This will emphatically not be a debate within the confines of any religious community. It may even, I hope, be a way for religious and non-religious Dish readers to communicate with each other in the threads that will eventually emerge. We’ll start the debate the week after Easter, on April 23. So get the book now and start reading.

Update from a reader:

Fantastic idea to bring this back, and terrific selection for the first book. I look forward to reading the thread. Have to say, though, I have a real hard time reading physical books any more. Got mine for the iPad.

In fact, all of our affiliate links go to the electronic version of the book. We don’t get as much affiliate revenue doing so, but since the Dish has long championed the spread of e-books over the dead-tree version, we want to put our money where our mouth is. Also, following the lead of Popova, we will provide a link to public library access. Meanwhile, another reader shares a heartbreaking story about her Christian mother:

I just 1-clicked my way into the Dish Book Club (enjoy the affiliate revenue!).  This is a book I would never have given a second, if ever a first, glance to normally, as I am a non-believer.

A non-believer who was raised in the United Methodist church and enjoyed many aspects of the denomination (the musicality, the general welcoming of others). I was also a born-again Christian from the time I was about six years old, but as I got into my teen years, I increasingly felt like a fraud among my Christian peers. The older I got, the less I believed. In my logic-driven brain, it just didn’t add up for me. I don’t know if I lost my faith so much as I let it go. Religion just isn’t a factor in my life very much. I understand how many of my friends and family are of strong faith and I don’t fault them for that or try to take it from them. Some of them know I don’t believe and some don’t. It isn’t much of an issue, except with one person: my mother.

As I’ve become a non-believer, she’s moved towards shades of Christianist. A Baptist church. Much more politically active in the GOP. She’s been unemployed for the past several years living on nothing but social security but still thinks the Affordable Care Act is socialism.

Two years ago at Thanksgiving she cornered me in conversation and asked me point blank if I was still a Christian and I answered honestly (one of my core beliefs) and said, “no.” That basically destroyed her emotionally. This past Thanksgiving she admitted to me that she had planned her suicide because she felt she had failed at everything at life, that the only thing she’d ever done that she’d been proud of was raising me, but when I told her I wasn’t a Christian any longer, then she realized she’d failed at raising me too. As I sat opposite my mother completely stunned at that revelation, she then told me the only reason she hadn’t killed herself was that she realized if she did, she’d never see me again, since she’s going to heaven and I’m going to hell, so she has to stay here until she converts me back to being a Christian. And she said it all so matter-of-factly, I think that might have been the most disturbing part of it all.

My mom wants me to explain to her why I don’t believe in God but she doesn’t have to explain why she does. My response is to just not talk about it at all. It seems like a lose-lose conversation.

Now I’m not looking at any book to solve my problems, but I’ve got to face facts that I have to deal with the religious elephant in my family room sometime and this book seems like a sane, logical place to dip my toe in the water and have some conversations with people on both sides of the belief fence. And I really enjoy history, so bonus there.

[Re-posted from earlier today]

In case you missed my announcement this week:

Well, it’s more like a resuscitation of the Book Club, since we had one more than a decade ago now. But the format will be the same. Each month, we’ll pick a book, and Dish readers are invited to read it alongside us. After three weeks, we’ll start debating it, through bookclub-beagle-trposts on the Dish and a reader thread fueled by your thoughts on the book. If the author is still alive, we’ll try and get him or her to do a podcast at the end (on Deep Dish) to answer some of the questions readers have raised and keep the conversation going.

If you’re like me, you find your time for book-reading increasingly constrained by our Googled minds and our overwhelmed lives. So think of this club, as I am, as an incentive to read alongside others the kind of book you might have passed on without the prompt of a Dish discussion.

Thus far, at least 450 readers have joined the book club by buying our first selection – Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God – through the Dish affiliate link. One of them:

Thanks for this. I’m in. And thank God for Kindle! Read your re-opening of the book club, I clicked the link to the Amazon page, clicked once more to purchase Ehrman’s book (you’re welcome for the penny of affiliate reward) and tonight at dinner I’m reading the book. Before Kindle (or ebooks in general) it would have taken at least forty-eight hours to go from intention to read a book to reading it, rather than the four hours it took me.

Truth is, I got the Kindle for travel. But now, I find physical books insufferable and almost unreadable. I mean, just from a practical standpoint. I’ve read during meals as long as I can remember being able to read. Lately, though, I honestly cannot remember how I used to keep physical books open while I read. I recently started a hardcover nonfiction book from the library, and at meals I wind up using a stone coaster to hold it open while I use fork and knife in two hands, and half the time the book flies closed and flings the coaster across the table and into plates of food. Whereas when I read the Kindle at the table, it just sits there, advancing a page neatly every time I touch it.

But we don’t want to leave out any dead-tree lovers, so the link to the hardcover is here. Another:

Long-time reader and recent subscriber. I have a quick question about your Book Club selection: Will you also be recommending Harper Collins’ companion book, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature – A Response to Bart Ehrman?

Of course – we’re biased and balanced with all Dish content. Readers are encouraged to buy and discuss that book as well; the link is here. Another notes of Ehrman (who, by the way, has agreed to do a podcast with us):

Thanks for starting up the book club again, and for the selection. For agnostic/atheist/non-Christian readers who might be put off by the title, you might want to post this about Bart Ehrman:

ehrman_bart_12_020Ehrman became an Evangelical Christian as a teenager. In his books, he recounts his youthful enthusiasm as a born-again, fundamentalist Christian, certain that God had inspired the wording of the Bible and protected its texts from all error. His desire to understand the original words of the Bible led him to the study of ancient languages and to textual criticism. During his graduate studies, however, he became convinced that there are contradictions and discrepancies in the biblical manuscripts that could not be harmonized or reconciled. He remained a liberal Christian for fifteen years but later became an agnostic after struggling with the philosophical problems of evil and suffering.

He’s a fascinating scholar, and his The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture is catnip for Bible geeks.

Another is skeptical of the new club:

Oh brother. I’ve done in-person book clubs before and, frankly, they drove me bananas.  Lots of people with prejudices getting in the way of, you know, the book. Hoping that a mediated online club will keep the dumbass quotient down.

During the week of Easter, after readers have had time to read the book, we will have a week-long discussion mediated and curated with just as much care as all of our reader threads. We will also provide a forum for unfiltered feedback and interaction between readers. Another:

Thank you very much for this feature. I was immediately excited when I read the title of the post, as I’ve been wanting to join a book how-jesus-became-godclub for awhile. My excitement diminished somewhat when I realized the first selection was a religious-themed title, as I am one of your atheist readers, but as usual you were very welcoming of the secular perspective. After reading more about the book‘s premise, I feel it will be very enlightening for non-believers as well, to see how belief movements are born and develop over time. We “nones” could no doubt learn a lot about how to steer our own community toward a brighter future. I regret that I will not be purchasing the book and contributing to the revenue stream (though I hope my above-the-minimum subscription makes up for that). Instead, I have requested the book from the library [others can do so here], and I’ll sadly have to put off starting The Bright Continent by Dayo Olopade, which I checked out after you first highlighted her work last month.

I understand you selecting the launch book, but I would love the opportunity to contribute to future book selections. Will you be soliciting nominations? Perhaps choosing a shortlist and posting a poll for Dishheads to vote on? Will the club be exclusively non-fiction or will you include fiction as well? If so what genres? Maybe there could be two clubs! Anyway, I look forward to participating.

In fact, we have already considered a reader poll of pre-selected titles, which we may do in the future. But for the second club next month, our guest-host Maria Popova will be making the book selection – and it’s a topic near and dear to most Dishheads, so stay tuned. Like every Dish feature, the book club will be an ever-evolving one, so your feedback is always welcome and appreciated.

A Book Clubber writes:

I just want to say how fascinating I’m finding Ehrman’s book. Can hardly wait for the discussion!


Dear Professor: The book is great. I love it. But I haven’t had much time to read, what with work and house hunting and 420 coming up here in Denver. I bet we’d all appreciate one more week to read about the Jesus transformation. It will make a more lively debate and we’d all be so impressed by your leniency.

with 41% of the book read …

Heh. Well I just had to absorb the Becker book in around 24 hours … so I’m a little behind myself. I plan to post my review of How Jesus Became God next week, and start the discussion with readers thereafter, so buy the book here if you still want to join. There’s still time. Another reader:

I don’t have an e-reader, so I bought the hardbound book1/2 finished – a good read. How do I join the book club? I want to play too!

You join simply by reading the book, in any form, and participating in the reader thread next week, if you like. Another:

I suggest you refer your readers to Harper Collins’ companion/response book, How God Became Jesus. bookclub-beagle-tr It sounds like you could benefit from reading it yourself, after your somewhat surprising admission that Ehrman’s book “may not be the most spiritually sustaining text for Holy Week.” Seeing that the only reason Ehrman has been noticed in the popular realm is for his (somewhat tired yet passed off as something new) arguments denying the truth of traditional Christianity, I wonder exactly what you thought the book would offer. That’s not to say that Ehrman’s work shouldn’t be recommended or discussed, only that a more interesting conversation might come from providing your audience with a more comprehensive understanding of the subject and the arguments on both sides.  After all, I imagine that for many of your readers, the assumption is that Ehrman, like Reza Aslan most recently, is offering some fresh insight, when in reality, as Father Robert Barron notes here, it’s a more of the same old same old.

We actually made a quick mention of the response book in a previous post, but many readers may have missed it, so here’s the link to purchase that book as well, if you’re interested. Its counterpoints will certainly come up in the discussion thread, but the primary focus will be Ehrman’s book.

Update from a reader, who gets into the Book Club spirit already:

You quote a reader: “his (somewhat tired yet passed off as something new) arguments denying the truth of traditional Christianity.” I think you should encourage such responders (on both sides, of course) to cite specific instances from the book that support their charges.

I myself did not get the impression that there was much if anything new in the book, but rather that the author learned much of what he presents from others in his undergraduate and graduate studies, twenty and thirty years ago, and well-known in historical circles for much longer, although bolstered in living memory by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other artifacts. What did he pass off as something new?

That is, new to experts in the field. Your readers can speak for themselves as to whether the material is new to them or not. Speaking for myself, in 19 years of Sunday School classes, Sunday morning sermons, evening “Youth Services”, summertime Daily Vacation Bible School, and Thursday Release-Time Religious Education (one class for Protestants and one for Catholics – probably not done anymore since it seems illegal, but done in my high-school years), I had not heard a word of it. However, I had noticed some of the rather glaring biblical inconsistencies for myself, and reached the same general conclusion.

It seems to me that rarely does a year go by without some “new” book of religious apologetics/proselytism/propaganda. I wonder does the quoted reader apply the same criticism to them? I often walk past a church which has a signboard out front. A few days ago it carried this message:


That sums up religion in general to me. Adherence to it demands a rejection of objectivity and ignoring conflicting evidence. After all, such evidence is not new.


Some of your readers seem to assume that Ehrman is making the case against religion. I disagree. The question he is trying to answer is one I have puzzled over for a long time, and one that I assume that the most religious of people might puzzle over. Because the question is NOT how Jesus became God. The question is how his followers, and those who followed them, came to BELIEVE (a believer would say “came to REALIZE”) that he was God.

Of course, some will insist that God simply put the truth into their heads. But many will think that God does not work that way, and that he let the early Christians work it out for themselves – just as he did not create the world in seven earth-days, but enlisted the Big Bang to take care of part of it, and evolution to work out the part most relevant to us. I’m grateful to Ehrman for making the work of scholars on this question accessible to the rest of us.

My one, mild complaint is that it would have been useful to have seen the various steps in the progression tied to things that we’re going on in the world outside the Church. He does some but not much. Of course he can reasonably reply that it wasn’t his intention to write THAT book.


This reminds me of “Is an object holy because God loves it, or does God love it because it’s holy?” from your “Lecture FAIL” post, perhaps my favorite Dish video of all time …

Was Jesus God?

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 21 2014 @ 3:03pm

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.

Oberammergau Passionplay 2010 Final Dress Rehearsal

[Re-posted from earlier today]

That may seem a rather strange way to kick off discussion of a book about the beliefs of Christians in the decades and first few centuries after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. But it’s the question that lingers in my head after reading Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of A Jewish Preacher From Galilee.

What Ehrman does in this book – as he did most memorably in Misquoting Jesus – is explain how the texts that we have about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus came to be written. I am not qualified to judge the details of the scholarship – my knowledge of such matters is a tiny fraction of Ehrman’s. I know no Aramaic or Hebrew and very little Ancient Greek. Readers with more expertise may well, with any luck, deal with some of the specific controversies – such as the notion that Jesus probably wasn’t buried at all – as we go along.

But the book’s main claims about the origins and nature of the texts are not in any scholarly doubt. And bookclub-beagle-trthey challenge the traditional and reflexive mental universe that most Christians, and all fundamentalists, share. For many Christians in the modern world, there is an unchallenged notion of an inerrant text that contains what we have even come to call the “gospel truth.” It is entirely inspired by God. It has complete authority in Protestant circles and shared authority in Catholicism (along with church teaching and the sensus fidelium). It is the sole authorized account of the extraordinary story that changed the world.

And yet it isn’t the only account – we have many other extant Gospels that never made the cut. Those Gospels are not as compelling or as coherent or as influential – but they sure do exist. That very fact – established in the 20th Century – explodes any idea of “orthodoxy” among the first Christians. Like any human beings trying to grapple with grief and empowerment and fear and supernatural experiences, they did not understand them fully at first or ever. They disagreed among themselves about them. They had very different perspectives and interactions with Jesus. In the Gospels themselves, Jesus’ disciples are a mess half the time – misunderstanding him, betraying him, frustrating him, and abandoning him at critical moments throughout. Whatever else the Gospels teach us, they sure teach us not to trust Jesus’ followers for either truth or morality. Peter disowned him three times in his hour of greatest need. And most fled after his crucifixion.

And the Gospels offer radically different accounts of what Jesus did, said and meant. There is no single coherent account, for example, of Jesus’ last words in the cross, or of his first appearances after his death – critical moments that you might think would have been resolved as fact early on, but weren’t. If I were to come up with a phrase to describe what has been handed down to us in these texts, it would be a game of Chinese

Does this rebut Christianity in a decisive way? For many orthodox Christians, wedded to the notion of a single, coherent and inerrant text, it must. But since the scholarship is pretty much indisputable, it seems to me that it is not Christianity that should be abandoned in the wake of these historical revelations, but a false understanding of what the Gospels and Letters actually are. In the end, the sole criterion of a religion is whether it is true. And if you’re misreading its core texts and failing to understand their origins and nuances, you’re not committed to the truth. You’re committed to a theology that has become more important than the truth.

And I’d argue that seeing them in this flawed and human way does not reduce their power. In fact, their very humanness, their messiness, their reflection of competing memories and rival understandings and evolving theologies make the Gospels a riveting tapestry of anecdotage and love and grief. I think that when you treat these texts that way, the figure of Jesus does not become more opaque. He becomes more alive in moving and marvelous detail through the distorted memories of those who loved him and through the stories that the generations that never saw or knew him in the flesh told each other about who he was. Is this human mess guided by the Holy Spirit? That’s obviously a question only Christians can answer.

My own view is that the sheer vibrancy, power, shock, detail and beauty of these stories – and their enduring resonance over the centuries – makes the presence of the Holy Spirit obvious. In fact, if we want to understand how God interacts with human beings, these Gospels show the way. Even through their obvious literal imperfections, a deeper perfection shines. Agnostic and atheist readers will of course disagree. But my point is simply that, for Christians, there is no need to be afraid of the truth about these texts. Because as Christians, there can never any need to fear the truth. In fact, fear of what such scholarship might reveal exposes a defensive crouch and a neurotic denialism that can only lead us away from Jesus rather than toward him.

The truths of this book that only the neurotic or defensive Christian will deny are the following:

Jesus was not the only first-century figure who was deemed to have a virgin birth, martyrdom and resurrection. In fact, these were quite common tropes in the Greek and Roman world at the time. Jesus was far from unique in being seen as part human and part divine in his time. The understanding of his divinity evolved over the years, as his followers argued among themselves and tried to make sense of the incarnational mystery that emerged from his first followers. Jesus himself was clearly an apocalyptic Jewish preacher who believed that the entire world was about to end, to usher in a new kingdom of heaven on earth. The Gospels are a mishmash of competing memories filtered through decades of repetition and translation and manual transcription. The followers of Jesus in his lifetime were primarily illiterate rural Galileans – far removed from the Greek and Roman sophisticates who later tried to make sense of them. All of this comes down to these peasants’ memories and the stories they told each 0ther and then the world.

We see, in other words, through a glass darkly when we look at these texts. But through that darkness, one palpable truth also emerges. It’s a truth that Ehrman once didn’t believe but now does. There is no question that the very first Christians only truly realized the full import of what they had seen and witnessed after it was too late. Their beloved teacher and friend was dead – and executed in a brutal, if conventional, way. But something happened to them after his death. They believed that they had seen him again alive! The revelation of the incarnation of God was a very early Christian conviction – not something that emerged much later, as was once thought. And in that astonishing vision of a Jesus fully alive after death, so much that had mystified his disciples in Jesus’ life and teachings suddenly became clear. This man truly was God. And his teachings and actions in retrospect suddenly took on a deeper and more cosmic and even more urgent meaning.

To kick off the Book Club discussion, I thought it would be helpful to grapple with the core question of these Biblical texts and how they can be integrated (or not) into orthodox Christian belief and practice. Does this book effectively debunk Christianity’s core claims in modernity … or does it point to a new way of understanding and believing them?

Email us your response to this email address: Please keep them to a 500-word maximum, so we can better cope with the curating and editing. We can tackle more specific arguments and themes as the next week goes by.

(Photo: Frederik Mayet as Jesus Christ performs on stage during the Oberammergau passionplay 2010 final dress rehearsal on May 10, 2010 in Oberammergau, Germany. By Johannes Simon/Getty.)

Thousands Meet For  2nd Ecumenical Kirchentag

Readers get the conversation started:

I find Ehrman too reductive in his search for what’s true. The same lens of critique that he applies to the literalist – that a certain passage is contradicted, or impossibly out of context – can also be applied to his own conclusions.

For instance: So Jesus is not quoted as explicitly stating that he is God. Does that mean that he himself didn’t believe it? We know that the gospels can’t be trusted as a source of word-for-word quotation – that’s a central part of the author’s set-up. That means finding a lack of such clear self-proclamation doesn’t mean that in Jesus’s own mind, or in his private conversations, he didn’t expressly believe in his own divinity. Perhaps there are rhetorical reasons for why the authors of the gospels withhold such an explicit declaration? Perhaps it’s more powerful and compelling for how it is revealed?

Similarly, we’re left with a problematic assertion if we see Jesus primarily as how-jesus-became-godan apocalyptic preacher: He was wrong, unless you interpret his “prophesy” as being epochal in time span rather than immediate (in the mind of God a generation could last thousands of years, one supposes). But isn’t it equally possible that this clear assertion of his apocalyptic preaching are also examples of rhetorical flourish on the part of the writers – to convince people through fear to change their fundamental belief system?

In the end, what do we know? I think you should consider staying clear of words like “truth,” and instead position the gospels and religion as sources of “meaning.”

These are two sharp points. I’d summarize them this way: The very limits of what these texts can tell us about what actually happened not only leaves the possibility that Jesus had no idea he was God, but for that very reason also leaves the possibility that he did. Both are in the texts. And when you zoom out a little, the very limits of our understanding of this man – filtered through the game of telephone of repeated oral memories – leave a span of possibilities open. The Gospels themselves offer us a variety of contradictory interpretations and factual accounts of many aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching. Maybe instead of trying to make them all make sense, we should let go a little, and accept that we will never fully know and never fully understand. Jesus, to borrow a phrase, is a known unknown and also an unknown unknown. And the very fallibility of the texts make this an unavoidable conclusion.

The Incarnation itself is, of course, utterly baffling. Ehrman shows this by charting an exhaustive survey of how early Christians tried and kept failing to understand it. A human who was exalted to divine status at his death? At his baptism? At his birth? Before his birth? From the beginning of time? You can watch the Christian imagination expand as the years go by when grappling with the ineffable concept of a person both fully human and fully divine. And at every resting point, the idea eludes any rational understanding.

To wit: If Jesus were divine, he would know everything, including his future resurrection, right?

And yet he is clearly racked with fear and agony and doubt throughout the Gospels – sometimes because, we infer, he knows what is about to happen (as in the Garden of Gethsemane), but sometimes also because he appears not to know what is about to happen (did he let Lazarus die by mistake or by design?). How, for that matter, could an omniscient God cry on the cross at his hour of death: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The narrative of Jesus makes no sense if he is merely a divine omniscience inhabiting a human shell. And it makes even less sense if he is a fallible human being completely bewildered by what is happening to him.

book-club-cartoonSo for me, over the years, as I have thought and prayed and simply wondered about this, I’ve come simply to the conclusion that it makes sense only to God, to a consciousness far greater than a human one, and that if we are to believe, we have to believe in this doctrine as essentially a mystery. I know agnostic and atheist readers will find this a cop-out, and it is, rationally speaking. All I can say is that my own experience of Jesus as a living God in my own life forces me to this unsatisfactory position. I cannot rationally reconcile the divine and the human as single concept. But my faith, my personal experience of Jesus, forces me to accept it.

But if I cannot rationally accept it, what do I mean by accept? I mean an embrace of wonderment at what the force behind all things can be beyond any human understanding. And I mean the sacrament of the Mass which, far from attempting to explain Jesus’ divinity in human form, merely claims to demonstrate it in ritual. I mean the sacrament of nature, where what is absolutely subject to rational understanding, from the viewpoint of science, nonetheless escapes those parameters when one simply regards it with awe. I mean an afternoon in early autumn at the end of Cape Cod, where light and water congregate and commune in something I can only call transcendent. We live in a universe both material and wondrous – and neither denies the other. That is how I have come to accept the incarnation as mystery and as necessity – both in Jesus and in the world.

(Please email any responses to rather than the main account. Unfiltered thoughts from readers on Facebook here.)

(Photo: The monumental main cross, symbolizing the Christian faith, is silhouetted in a puddle at the Theresienwiese during dusk of day 1 of the 2nd Ecumenical Church Day in Munich, Germany on May 12, 2010. By Johannes Simon/Getty Images. The original post contained the rather English term “Chinese whispers”, which confused many readers, so I’ve change that phrase to “game of telephone” which is the American equivalent. )

[Re-posted from earlier today. The whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God is here. Please email any responses to rather than the main account.]

A reader turns the conversation toward something I wrote:

You clearly do not believe in Occam’s Razor. You write that “Jesus was not the only first-century who was deemed to have a virgin birth, martyrdom and resurrection. In fact, these were quite common tropes in the Greek and Roman world at the time.” Next paragraph: “And in that astonishing vision of a Jesus fully alive after death, so much that had mystified his disciples in Jesus’ life and teachings suddenly became clear. This man truly was God.”

So you’re acknowledging that there were a fairly large number of Jesuses bookclub-beagle-trrunning around Judea at the time, all making similar claims.  But in the next breath you declare your certainty that the one you worship really was the Son of God (whatever that means) and the rest were phonies.

So which explanation is simpler, and infinitely more probable: (1) you are right, the universe is ruled by an immortal, all-powerful entity that shares attributes with some creatures living for an ungraspable brief period of time on one tiny planet among a countless number of other planets in an infinitely large universe, and who had a son that was identical to these isolated creatures, and decided to sacrifice his son to pay for the follies of these creatures, or (2) the Christian myths of the resurrected man/god, which had been around for a long time before your cult figure was born, for a variety of historical reasons, became centralized in this one figure?  The question answers itself.

Andrew, I’m sorry, but you have to see why most Christians must put on the blinders and believe in rote dogma. The whole mess otherwise falls apart so, so rapidly.

Another reader:

I’m always confused when I’ve read you write things like “Even through [the Gospels] obvious literal imperfections, a deeper perfection shines.”

I don’t really know if you mean that the Gospels don’t actually need to be literally true AT ALL – that it’s really just their deep metaphorical, spiritual meaning that matters – or if you still believe that in some how-jesus-became-godareas they do have to refer to literal truths.

If it’s the first, then I could agree with that view of the Gospels – spiritual truth can be conveyed by all sorts of texts that are not literally true. But if it’s the second, then I wonder how Ehrman’s book doesn’t create a core doubt in you or in Christianity in general. Because it seems to me that it pushes the answer to the question of whether or not modernity and Christianity can co-exist towards “no”.

For example, Christians believe that Jesus was resurrected in the flesh. But we’ve learned that Jesus and the apostles lived in a world where virgin births were not unique to Jesus, and neither were people who were half-god and half-human. So I imagine that resurrection stories also existed outside of Jesus’ story. (And maybe that’s answered in a later part of the book than I’m currently in!)

A glance at the biblical record:

Nine individuals in scripture are clearly presented in the Bible as being raised from the dead. Of these miraculous resurrections, three occur in the Old Testament. At least three individuals were raised from the dead by Jesus. Both Peter and Paul raised a person from the dead and most importantly of all, Jesus himself was resurrected. In addition, an untold number of saints were resurrected at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:52-53). Also, it is incredibly possible that Paul himself was resurrected after he was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19-20).

The reader continues:

If so, why is Jesus’ resurrection any more special than any other resurrection from a different tradition? If we believe Jesus’ story, shouldn’t we believe the others’ stories? Other people in other religions had equally strong faith. And if we don’t believe the other stories, why believe Jesus’? Couldn’t the apostles have been hallucinating, under some form of mass delusion? What makes Jesus’ story so special that you must believe it is true when others aren’t?

For me, Ehrman’s book bolsters the argument that the answer is that it’s not special. It shows that the Gospels are, as you say, messy, inaccurate, internally conflicted, human. They took from and paralleled other traditions of the time. Like many other religious stories, the story of Jesus is a universal spiritual quest filtered through the particular individual, cultural and historical conditions in which it existed. It’s not really special in the way that I think Christianity requires.  So, without that specialness, how DOES Christianity survive?

Another wants clarification:

“Does this book effectively debunk Christianity’s core claims in modernity … or does it point to a new way of understanding and believing them?” Of course the answer to your question depends on what exactly the “core claims” of Christianity are.

If the core claim is that Christ is the Son, co-equal with the Father for all eternity – or similar “high” Christological claims – I do think this book and books like it erect additional barriers to that belief, by shedding light on how they came to be formulated and exposing the gulf between them and the beliefs of the earliest Christians.  It’s very hard to believe that powerful men with very specific interests, writing hundreds of years after Jesus, would have more accurately grasped his nature then men and women closer to his own station, who had learned of him from his own disciples and others that knew him.

If the core claim of Christianity, on the other hand, is that Christ was in some sense God – for example, that Christ represented the extent to which a fully human life could be infused with the power and purpose of God – and that, furthermore, the manner in which he was God allowed him to conquer death and sin, the book does not impact this belief much one way or the other.

The challenge for every Christian is to understand how Jesus, fully human, was nonetheless God; and thereby to understand how we, fully human, can participate in God’s kingdom.  A critical, historical reading of the gospels is an aid in this effort, not an impediment.  If anything, the high Christologies of later years are the impediment, obscuring as they do the real, full extent of Jesus’ humanity, and thus relieving from us the burden of Christ’s greatest challenge to us – to live like him, and through doing so, to act out God’s kingdom in our own lives.

Update: My response to these arguments here.