Archives For How Jesus Became God

A reader writes:

Something in How Jesus Became God that resonated personally was the discussion in Chapter Five regarding After-Death Communications as an explanation for the visions of the resurrected Christ that some disciples received.  Our son was born with a severe heart defect and had to undergo open-heart surgery at age two.  We were told there was a 90% chance of his survival.  Two days after the surgery, he suffered heart failure in the ICU.  We went through several weeks of alternating between hope and despair as to what could be done for him, bookclub-beagle-trincluding receiving a heart transplant, but eventually we had to decide to remove all life support. He died in our arms, slowly, hour by hour, as we watched his vital signs decline to nothingness.

Neither my wife nor I had ever experienced anything so emotionally tortuous.  We both fell into depressions, and in my case I began to experience dreams that I was being visited by my son.  What was exceedingly real about these dreams was the physical sense of holding him in my arms, his cheek next to mine, listening to him babble.  A tremendous sense of contentment flooded over me, knowing that he was alive.  I would wake up at peace, and it would take five or more minutes for me to understand I was back in a different world of pain and sorrow.  These dreams persisted for a few months and then stopped entirely.

I’m not a believer in an afterlife, but I am a believer that experiences such as these could convince anyone that someone close to them who had died tragically and unexpectedly, was alive in a real sense – not here on earth, but in heaven (if they believed heaven exists).  This could have happened to any number of Christ’s followers, and it was a very short step for them to then exalt Jesus as being at the right hand of the Father, since his disciples had spent three extremely intense years speculating that this unique and remarkable man could very well be the promised Son of Man, or even the Son of God.

My own effort to explain how I view the Resurrection of Jesus is in my last post in the Book Club here. But I also have personal experiences that are similar to my readers, and I wrote about them at length in my book about Pietro_lorenzetti,_compianto_(dettaglio)_basilica_inferiore_di_assisi_(1310-1329)surviving the plague of AIDS, Love Undetectable. I was diagnosed with HIV six weeks after one of my closest friends at the time had been diagnosed with AIDS. He had kept it a secret, until one afternoon he asked to meet me at the fountain in Dupont Circle, where he told me his diagnosis as I told him mine. The coincidence had us both smiling. We were already both Catholics and both writers and both gay in a terrifying era very different from today. But from that moment on, we bonded even more deeply, and over the next two years, I and his other close friends took care of him as he slowly slipped away from us. I saw him turn into a walking skeleton; I saw him pound the floor in pain; I saw him wracked by intense and unremitting fevers; I saw his breath literally taken away from him; I saw as cancer lesions speckled his body and advanced relentlessly toward his lungs; I saw the unspeakable shock and pain of his family; I listened to his voice, racked with fear and pain, over the phone at night; and I was entrusted with the details of his funeral. Watching my dear friend die at 31 of an agonizing disease will never leave me. And I will always, somewhere deep down, feel in some ways guilty for having lived, while he died.

But after his death, I felt his presence strongly at times. He appeared to me in symbols – like the sea-gulls that flew over the bay where we had released his ashes, or one gull that kept recurring in my life on the Cape and elsewhere as an almost sacred sign of his presence. He appeared to me in my dreams – and in one unforgettable one, I didn’t at first recognize him.

He was Patrick and yet no longer Patrick. His tormented shell of a body, racked by slow starvation and countless lesions, was now resplendent. His face was clear, his body more luminous than in life, all flaws removed. And he was happy. Weeks would then pass and I would suddenly be arrested by a sense of his presence – on the sidewalk, reading a book, sleeping on the beach. I cannot fully explain this, although a modern mind can always analyze it from the perspective of grief, survivor guilt, wish-fulfillment, and the like. And over time, Patrick’s presence diminished. But I experienced it as very, very real for as long as it lasted.

So, yes, I can indeed see the disciples having similar experiences – and they have been attested to in countless other lives as well, in studies and surveys over the years, as Ehrman notes. I infer from mine that Patrick is alive and well, and that one day, we will be together again. Perhaps at that fountain in Dupont Circle. And we will be laughing. And happy. And free from death and the fear of death. That is my faith. And I believe it was the faith of the disciples as well. It is what I mean by resurrection.

(Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here. Please email any responses to rather than the main account, and try to keep them under 500 words. Painting: Pietro Lorenzetti from the basilica in Assisi.)

I’m sorry for not jumping into the debate more this weekend, but the pollen bukkake in DC right now has reduced my lung capacity a bit, and thinking about the resurrection is even more difficult while hooked up to a nebulizer with albuterol than is usually the case. Mercifully, many of my responses to this batch of criticism were pre-empted, rather eloquently, by this batch of counter-criticism.

A few thoughts on this question: given the many contemporaneous accounts of other religious figures rising from the dead (indeed several in Caravaggio.emmaus.750pixthe Bible itself), and given that all Christians are supposed to rise bodily from the dead as well, why is Jesus so special? Why is he “consubstantial with the Father” in ways other resurrected beings are not?

The obvious answer to this is that the early Christians obviously believed that he was uniquely divine in some form. Ehrman makes a good case that Jesus was viewed as special by his disciples in his lifetime because they deemed him to be the Jewish Messiah who would reign supreme at the end of the world. The specialness of his being the Jewish Messiah was then combined with the staggering revelation that he had risen from the dead. It was that combination – a resurrected Messiah – that upped the ante, setting the seeds for the gradual evolution of the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Trinity. The story of Apollonius, otherwise very close to the story of Jesus, lacked the Messiah prophesy. And it also lacked the retroactive examination of the Hebrew Bible for various prophesies to be fulfilled in Jesus.

Moreover, as Ehrman notes, although there were countless semi-divine characters and resurrected prophets in the early Christian era, even though the human-divine admixture included angels and strange gods and the off-spring of unnatural sex between gods and humans, only lazarustwo people were ever designated the “Son Of God.” One was the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, and the other was Jesus, a rural apocalyptic preacher from Galilee. That is some elevated company to keep and it begs the question: why Jesus and no one else? What was so special about him?

What’s frustratingly lacking in Ehrman’s book – and it’s not its subject so it’s not Ehrman’s fault – are the teachings of Jesus and the way he lived. I don’t think you can understanding the full impact of the resurrection outside the disciples’ experience of the living Jesus, with his teachings and his healings and his miracles. For me, these remarkable stories are the missing tissue here. It is one thing for a prophet to be put to a gruesome death; it is another thing when that prophet lived and taught in such a way that he seemed to revolutionize human consciousness and then was put to death.

Jesus inverted so much of the world’s familiar lessons: don’t protect yourself in a dangerous world, make yourself vulnerable; don’t seek revenge on those who have wronged you, give them another chance to wrong you; don’t just love your friends, but love your enemies; don’t live abstemiously, give everything you have away to the poor; don’t worry about tomorrow, today will be taken care of; by all means obey the rules but never if they violate the deeper rule of love. Above all: love one another. These stories and sayings and teachings carry huge impact jesus_2.jpgtoday, even though we have lived with them for centuries. But I try to imagine myself as one of the disciples, busily fishing in the Sea of Galilee, and not only being astounded by these ideas, but dropping my life and abandoning my family altogether and following him because of the power of his ideas and example.

Then, in a sudden development, this radically non-violent individual is seized under false pretenses and brutally tortured to death. And again, even here, it is not so much his death that resonates as the manner of his death. He refused to defend himself; he embraced the ridicule; he forgave the men driving nails into his wrists; he reached out in love to one of the poor souls hanging next to him; and he despaired. This happens after most of his loved ones either denied ever knowing him or fled. Only the women who loved him and the disciple Jesus loved stayed behind.

Now put yourself in the place of those bewildered, terrified, disloyal former followers.

In this miasma of fear, guilt, grief and disorientation, they suddenly see Jesus alive and walking around in various visions and mysterious manifestations. There you have the whiplash of the resurrection, and the obvious desire of the disciples to believe that all of it must mean something more profound than merely that Jesus was  a man of God who was unjustly put to death. He was more than that to them – and the resurrection made that indelible. And I find it perfectly reasonable to see why the disciples began to tell and re-tell the stories of Jesus life as a way to keep him alive in their hearts and minds and to buttress and deepen the meaning of this revelation. I find it perfectly human to re-enact his last supper with them as a way to keep his memory and his presence in their lives.

hatchescross.jpgIn other words, Occam’s razor needs to take into account the life-changing ideas and the soul-changing way of life Jesus of Nazareth gave the world. When I say a deeper perfection lies behind the fallible game of telephone that the Gospels are, I mean simply this. The words that Jefferson excavated, the stories that Tolstoy marveled at, the way of life that Francis of Assisi embraced, all of this and so much more come from this man’s words and life. There is always something astounding when the victims of violence refuse to fight back and seek to love instead. It defuses all of our evolutionary impulses. It negates what was previously thought of as human. It instantly makes one think of something divine.

There are many ways of understanding this, and Christians, as Ehrman shows, came up with countless permutations on the notion of God-Made-Flesh within the Trinity. None of it makes any worldly sense, the Trinity especially. It makes sense only as paradox and mystery, not as literal truth. And so I do not have a firm belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, because the Gospels don’t either. He is a vision, an angel, a man who walks through doors only to reveal himself in the flesh … and then he withdraws again from view. There is no single, literal account in the Jesus stories of his resurrection, which is one reason I prefer to leave its precise contours a little opaque. Ehrman suggests the conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead might be an instance of a very common form of vision of recently dead loved ones – which was not unique to the disciples but witnessed countless times across the globe then and now. And I sure keep that option open.

But because it is a mystery, I do not discount the possibility of a literal resurrection either. What matters to me is the life-changing message of Jesus, potent and rendered in unforgettable metaphor and parable, lived by him to the astonishment of all who encountered him, and speaking of a form of justice, of life and of love that we rightly associate with some power beyond us – because so much in our evolutionary make-up screams against it and yet somewhere within us we recognize it is the only transcendence we are capable of. In that sense, Jesus was the intersection of timeless truth with time. And nothing could be more miraculous in the long and brutal history of humankind than that.

(The entire discussion for How Jesus Became God is compiled here. Please email any responses to rather than the main account, and please keep them under 500 words.

Photos: the road to Emmaus by Caravaggio; the Epstein statue of Lazarus in New College, Oxford; my own personal Jesus; and a cross at Hatches Harbor at the end of Cape Cod.)

All of these readers seem to answer “yes” to the above question:

I was raised a Christian in a tiny, Midwestern town where everyone went to either the Catholic church or the Protestant church. I was surrounded by unquestioning believers until I left for college. I had lost how-jesus-became-godmy faith in my early teens and it stayed lost for the next 40 years or so. But I now consider myself a Christian, with all the attendant doubts and questions. I credit books like Ehrman’s and groups like the Jesus Seminar for my change of heart.

Why? Because their research and scholarship affirmed the actual existence of Jesus and his horrific death. Up until then, Jesus was just a mythical being, like Zeus or Thor. I felt I finally had something solid to stand on, and so I started my faith journey.

I didn’t mind the messiness and contradictions in the gospel accounts at all. It makes it feel more authentic and vivid to me, like I was witnessing all those men and women trying to make sense of something new and strange. I would have been extremely skeptical if the New Testament had been a smooth and seamless account, because I can’t imagine actual humans responding to such wild events in a smooth and seamless way. I mean, it must have been so weird, y’know?

Another is on the same wavelength:

The problem comes when a screwdriver is used to drive a nail into the wall. Logic as we know it is not at the core of religion. This is not a diss; religion is akin to non-Euclidean geometry, or to quantum physics. It goes by a different creed, ethos, set of “rules” – whatever.

bookclub-beagle-trEhrman’s textual analysis is great, and I’ve loved his books. To see his scholarship as weakening Christianity, however, is to sell religion short. The story of Christ is a portal, a doorway to enter religious life. Its literal truth or untruth is of little to no interest. People who insist on the inerrant truth of this or that need to watch Rashomon a few times, take mushrooms, and chill out. The Gospels are full of Jesus telling parables; get the hint?


I am a practicing Catholic who attends Mass almost every Sunday, prays every day and even prays the Liturgy of the Hours as often as my hectic schedule allows. I love the Catholic Church despite having some great misgivings about some of its priorities and teachings, especially in the areas of sexuality. I concluded long ago from reading Ehrman, Geza Vermes and others, that the New Testament is almost an historical novel, with many (but by no means all) of the words of Christ having been made up by the authors of the Gospels. Since I believe that the fall of man in Genesis cannot be true, I cannot believe that Christ died and was resurrected as a sacrifice to expiate original sin.

So why am I a Catholic?

You wrote: “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.” This sums up why I still consider myself a Catholic. As Ehrman lays out in his book, the beliefs of the early Church evolved as the theologians and philosophers tried to figure out who and what Jesus was. They couldn’t know, because even people who knew, loved and followed Christ apparently didn’t fully understand him. All the Church fathers had were the writings of others and oral traditions. What they achieved was a tour de force of logic and intellect as they refined their understanding of Christ.

Is this refined understanding accurate? Of course not, and neither is Ehrman’s, but it is the best we can do as mere humans. A Church that at least proclaims the hope and love exemplified by Jesus is my home.

Interestingly, Ehrman has written elsewhere that he is agnostic not because of where his scholarship has led him, but because of the issue of theodicy.

In Ehrman’s words:

About nine or ten years ago I came to realize that I simply no longer believed the Christian message. A ehrman_bart_12_020large part of my movement away from the faith was driven by my concern for suffering. … We live in a world in which a child dies every five seconds of starvation. Every five seconds. Every minute there are twenty-five people who die because they do not have clean water to drink. Every hour 700 people die of malaria. Where is God in all this? We live in a world in which earthquakes in the Himalayas kill 50,000 people and leave 3 million without shelter in the face of oncoming winter. We live in a world where a hurricane destroys New Orleans. Where a tsunami kills 300,000 people in one fell swoop. Where millions of children are born with horrible birth defects. And where is God? To say that he eventually will make right all that is wrong seems to me, now, to be pure wishful thinking.

Another reader:

“Does this book effectively debunk Christianity’s core claims in modernity … or does it point to a new way of understanding and believing them?” I have wrestled with this same question after reading Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot. What his book and Ehrman’s book point towards is that Christianity as we know is a Romanized version that is far removed from the actual lives and times of Jesus of Nazareth. But for me, both books gave me a stronger faith in Jesus. This may be because I have always been quite liberal in my interpretation of Christianity. For me, follow the Golden Rule, help the least fortunate amongst us, and trust in the teaching of Jesus have always been the central tenants of my faith.

I am often told that to be Christian you have to believe in the Resurrection. You have to believe that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins and was resurrected to sit by God. Both of these books ultimately arrive at this point as well. Is one a Christian if they do not believe in the Resurrection? If there is no Resurrection, is there Christianity?

This is a question I have grappled with and continue to grapple with at this time. However, I think the answer to both questions is that the Resurrection does not have to be literal, as is true of other parts of the Bible. Why would it diminish the faith if Christianity/the Resurrection were interpreted to be that Jesus taught us how to live a better life, temper our sins, have a relationship with God, and died for these teachings and went to Heaven as the Son of God, as all of us will as the son and daughters of God? This would only diminish the faith in so far as it would not appeal to 3rd and 4th century Roman authorities and fulfill a literal interpretation of the Messiah prophecies.

I don’t know about you, but the former provides me a stronger faith for living in the 21st century and is more accurately backed up by historical research. This is why I say both of these books should give us comfort as Christians living in the 21st century, as we can embrace a historical Jesus that is divorced from the politics of the creation of the religion that is named after him. As Aslan writes, this is a Jesus worth believing in and following towards a relationship with God.


Let me start by saying that I am at least a non-theist and very probably what almost anyone would describe as an atheist.  I also have a Jewish background and very strongly identify with the Jewish community.

So does Ehrman “debunk Christianity’s core claims…”?  Absolutely not.  What he does do is make it clear that these Gospels were written by human beings who had very human motivations, and not all of those motivations were directly related to pure belief in Jesus.  They had political motivations, personal feelings, and all the limitations of humans – not to mention very little or no understanding of the physical world that our science has begun to give us in the past 300 or so years.

It is of course possible that the core claims of Christianity are not true, but just because the gospels were written by flawed human beings doesn’t make them so.  It is certainly possible that the understanding of Jesus evolved along exactly the lines that Ehrman describes and slowly and gradually approached the current “truth” – or maybe even that the understanding of that truth can evolve further.  It is possible that the followers of Jesus simply did not or could not grasp the full truth immediately and that it took them centuries to get there.

On the other hand, it is very difficult to distinguish this process from another process – the development of a false religion over hundreds of years as its doctrine grew.  How can we tell the difference between a true religion in which theology developed and a false religion that added layer after layer of false theology?  I don’t think we can from examining the historical record of how the theology grew.

So Ehrman neither debunks nor proves Christianity, but I think he does make believers face the fact that the Gospels were written by humans (with all that implies) and theology is rarely completely static and fixed.  There I think he does a great service to Christians, if they will allow it.

Another atheist reader:

Your question of whether Christianity can survive modernism grabbed me.  It is a serious question whether any Church can survive, without another schism, the conflict between fundamentalists and “modernists” we see being played out in the world.  Pope Francis may have found the answer – de-emphasize the doctrinal elements of the faith and emphasize the compassion in the rituals and good works inspired by the faith.  A wonderful balancing act, in which I wish him all the best.

(Please email any responses to rather than the main account. Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here.)

[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.

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. )

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.)

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.