How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman

There once was a guy named Jesus.  He sounded like a pretty cool guy if you believed some of the savings he was supposed to have said.  Then his followers made him into God, and people became more interested in what was said about him, rather than what he said.  That’s too bad.  Bart D. Ehrman, has written a book that explains how Jesus became God after he died, and then became God while he was alive, and then became God before he was born, and then became God before any of us were born.  Ehrman’s book could have also been called When Jesus Became God, and to a very minor degree, it could have been called Why Jesus Became God.

I would have entitled it, Too Bad Jesus Became God.

How Jesus Became God

How Jesus Became God is a history book.  It’s not about theology, but many readers will find it undermines their beliefs.  To be fair, Ehrman bends over backwards, constantly explaining how and why he’s writing history, wanting to avoiding any theological implications.  We’ll never know the theological truth in this life, but we can get ever closer to the historical truth.  By summarizing how the followers of Jesus changed their opinions about the man they worshipped in the decades and early centuries after his death, we don’t learn anything new about Jesus, but a whole lot about the history of Christianity.  Because Jesus left no primary sources about what he believed, we can never know anything about the man, all we can know is what other people thought about him long after he died.

I’m afraid when the faithful read this book they will bring their beliefs to the reading and that will distort what Ehrman has to say.  Ehrman  stands outside of Christian faith and ask the question:  How did Jesus become God?  He is a historian, so he makes no assumption whether Jesus is actually God or not, but analyzes what we know about early Christians to decide how they made Jesus into a God.  Ehrman uses textual analysis to date each idea about Jesus that emerged after his death, and to pick through the paltry facts like a CSI detective hoping to find additional clues.  Ehrman tries to answer two main questions.  First, did Jesus think of himself as God or divine?  Second, studying the writings of Paul, the four Gospels, and Acts, Ehrman asks, when did his believers think Jesus became God – at his resurrection, his Baptism, his conception, or from the beginning of all time?

Bart D. Ehrman introduces his book at Huffington Post.  It’s a good summary to read if you’re thinking about buying the book.  He opens with:

Jesus was a lower-class preacher from Galilee, who, in good apocalyptic fashion, proclaimed that the end of history as he knew it was going to come to a crashing end, within his own generation. God was soon to intervene in the course of worldly affairs to overthrow the forces of evil and set up a utopian kingdom on earth. And he would be the king.

It didn’t happen. Instead of being involved with the destruction of God’s enemies, Jesus was unceremoniously crushed by them: arrested, tried, humiliated, tortured, and publicly executed.  And yet, remarkably, soon afterwards his followers began to say that — despite all evidence to the contrary — Jesus really was the messiah sent from God. More than that, he was actually a divine being, not a mere human. And not just any divine being. He was the Creator of the universe. After long debates among themselves they decided that he was not secondary to the one God of Israel, the Lord God Almighty himself. On the contrary, he was fully equal with God; he had always existed for eternity with God; he was of the same essence as God; he was a member of the Trinity.

How did that happen? How did we get from a Jewish apocalyptic preacher — who ended up on the wrong side of the law and was crucified for his efforts — to the Creator of all things and All-powerful Lord? How did Jesus become God?

To Christians, Jesus is God, but to historians, Jesus is no different from any human in history.  Ehrman is studying the theologians and not the theology.  If you are willing to take How Jesus Became God as a purely history book it’s quite fascinating and illuminating about the early development of Western civilization.  If you are a believer, this book could be painful because it treats Christianity no different from pagan mythology that also existed in the first centuries of the common era.

I hope this won’t be insulting to Christians, but most of the ones I know aren’t very intellectual about their theology.  Most, just want to believe in God, an afterlife, heaven, and the promise they will meet their dead kin and friends again.  How that happens is inconsequential to them.  That’s why modern Christianity is based on faith and belief.  Reading How Jesus Became God will show there is a complex history of theology to how belief in believing evolved.  Ehrman makes an excellent case that while Jesus was alive, and even just after he died, Christians believed you had to do good deeds to get into heaven, and that Jesus did not think of himself as divine.  It took decades, centuries even, to evolve the theology that Jesus was Christ who existed since the beginning of time as God and believing in him will earn you eternal life in heaven.

This book is about how the followers of Jesus went from thinking of Jesus as a human being to thinking of him as the Trinity.  Ehrman documents this from what we know from history.  Unfortunately, most of what we know comes from The New Testament, Apocrypha writings, and Gnostic texts.  Ehrman’s history is really close textual readings because we have few outside sources about these events.  Christians might appreciate Ehrman’s careful delineations between the writings of Paul, the four Gospels, and Acts.  What it comes down to is Paul, and the writers of the four gospels had different ideas on when Jesus became God – resurrection, Baptism, conception or the beginning of time.  Then the early church fathers argued over these concepts for centuries.

That might seem like meaningless quibbling to most believers, but it does explain why the four Gospels differ.  The Gospel of Mark doesn’t include the story of the virgin birth, but that’s because it suggests that Jesus became divine at the resurrection.  The writers of Matthew and Luke seem to imply Jesus became divine at Baptism or conception.  To have Jesus become divine at conception you need the virgin birth tale.  The author of John recreates the ontology of Genesis to put Jesus as God back at the beginning of time.

Now I’m an atheist, but I find all of this fascinating.  And I might have a different take on Ehrman’s book, but since I’m not widely read in Christian history, I don’t know how common my questions are.  Jesus and his disciples were lower class folk, who were probably illiterate and spoke Aramaic and Hebrew.  The writers of the Gospels were educated, literate, and spoke and wrote Greek.  I’m wondering if they knew about Greek philosophy and if their theology is a mixture of Hebrew mythology, stories about Jesus, and Greek philosophy.  Is The New Testament a cold front of religion meeting the warm front of philosophy?

By the way, we’re leaving Ehrman and moving into my own ideas.  I’m into science, but science wasn’t invented yet.  At the time of evolution of The New Testament people had very few tools to understand reality.  The first, and oldest tool is religion.  Religion basically says “God did it” to any question about the mystery of reality.  Why is there thunder?  It’s a god.  How did the universe start?  God created it.  In terms of understanding the truth, religion offers no validity or real answers.  It’s all speculation and wild ideas.

Then came philosophy.  Philosophy assumes humans can figure out how things work.  Philosophy starts observing reality for clues, but all too often it comes up with bizarre theories for answers, and eventually these are contrived into elaborate beliefs.  Because philosophy uses logic and rhetoric, it gives the impression that it’s intellectually superior to religion, even though most of its answers about reality are hardly better than religion.  However, logic is sexy, so believers prefer philosophical answers over the dictates of religion, which is basically, “God did it.”  Paul is the Plato of Christianity, and Jesus is his Socrates.  And the guy who wrote The Gospel of John is out there, way out there, both mystical and philosophical, like one of the Pythagoreans.

From my perspective, Paul is the real creator of Christianity, but he lost control of his religion to the later writers of The New Testament.  What Ehrman’s book does is try to chronicle how these later writers change the scope of Christian theology.  Even more fascinating is the Gnostic gospels, which appear to try to take Christianity in even stranger directions.  What became Orthodox Christianity in the first four centuries of the common era is what worked best at selling a belief that took hold of the Western world for the next sixteen centuries.

Modern day believers of Christianity believe because they hear a few ideas in childhood that are so powerful it overwhelms all their thinking.  What Ehrman’s book attempts to do is explain how these memes got created.  Many other writers of Christian history attempt to do this too, but Ehrman seems to be particularly good at it, with clear writing, sensible logic and a humble attitude.  Ehrman has written a series of books that reflect a lifetime of careful research that explain how and why The New Testament was written.  He’s very knowledgeable about The Old Testament, but The New Testament is his specialty, his life’s work.

Most Christians aren’t interested in an intellectual history of their faith.  Their religion gives them a wonderful sense of community, beliefs that comfort them in life, and faith that assures them they won’t die, so they know they will meet their departed loved ones in the next life.  However, there are Christians, especially evangelicals and fundamentalists who are profoundly interested in the intellectually validity of their beliefs and will go to extremes to validate their faith.  Ehrman’s book will cause these people problems.  This gets back to my point about philosophy.  Philosophy appears to reveal the truth, but it doesn’t.  Science is the only system we’ve invented yet that reveals consistencies in reality that we can accept as being true.  What we’re experiencing now is the cold front of philosophy banging into the warm front of science.

What Ehrman brings to the table is history, a discipline that is far more consistent than philosophy, but still not science.  The fundamental faithful are strong adherents of philosophy, which includes rhetoric and logic.  They are confident these tools reveal the truth of reality.  But science is showing them that their philosophy is a very poor tool for understanding the truth of this reality.

What Ehrman has accidently taught me is fundamentalists love philosophy because The New Testament is a product of philosophy, and not religion.  The Old Testament was pure religion.  The New Testament is a hybrid of religion and philosophy, with the later writers of The New Testament being the most philosophical.

And it’s not that philosophy can’t be a useful tool, but it’s only useful if it incorporates the rigors of science.  Science depends on logic, and to a degree rhetoric, but is actually about consistency of observations.   Science, for the most part, can’t be used to verify theology, because most theology involves the metaphysical, which can’t be observed, tested, and is not falsifiable.

Christianity met up with Greek philosophy again when it kicked the Muslims out of Spain.  But that’s not part of Ehrman’s book.  I’ve always thought that was Christianity’s first encounter with Greek philosophy, but now I’m thinking different.  The New Testament writers were the first influence of Greek philosophers on Christianity, they just didn’t mention their educational background.

It would be fantastic to have a time machine and track down the real Jesus and give him a copy of The New Testament and How Jesus Became God.  I get the feeling he’d probably read them and say, “Hey, these stories are about a guy with my name,” and never notice they were about him.

I’m am reminded of stuff I’ve read by Karen Armstrong and Robert Wright, especially in A History of God and The Evolution of God.  The God of The Bible has gone though quite a lot of changes himself.  He’s a combination of several gods that slowly evolved over a very long period of time.  Each time one people would conquer another people, their gods would merge, or one would supplant the other.  To me, Jesus became God because Christianity supplanted older religions and had to incorporate or bury older deities, creeds, traditions, etc.  Jesus essentially becomes the new God that usurps the Jewish God of The Old Testament, in the same way Yahweh supplanted earlier gods like El, Asherah and Baal.

The early Christians had to do this to succeed and thrive, and boy did they thrive.  But it sure is sad that they lost Jesus along the way.  It would be interesting to compare the revisionists techniques in the Quran and The Book of Mormon to see how they try to supplant Christian theology.

I wish Jesus had written down his ideas like Plato.  To me, humans are interesting, gods are not.

JWH – 7/8/14

6 thoughts on “How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman

  1. Good review, Jim, and some interesting thoughts of your own. I’m not a Christian basically because I don’t believe Jesus is or ever was any kind of god. But I really enjoy reading about the history of the church and I think there are a lot of church-goers who question as we do – they just like going to church.

  2. Based on your review, I just bought the book. Also, your contextual placing of religion, philosophy and such read as if I wrote the article myself. (I’m always surprised by our overlap in thought and books). I did read Capital in the 21st century based on your mention. I absolutely loved it. I’ve ran out of science books to buy and now have started reading other books.

    I did read all the Wright books (loved them), but haven’t read the Karen Armstrong book. I figure Ehrman’s book will be a good read instead. I did come across a youtube were the guy deconverted partly because of the Armstrong book, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dwno5iettvU&list=PL77B01B2351B6BC26&index=8
    ‘evid3nc3′ the creator of the video knows how to give a good presentation.

    1. Greg, I’ve noticed that you’ve been reading and reviewing books that weren’t science books. I figured you just were chasing new interests, and didn’t realize you had read all the science books. You read much faster than I do, and I envy you for all the many books you’ve read that I haven’t.

      Did you ever read The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes? Was it just bullshit, or did it have any worthy ideas in it. It’s been decades since I read it.

      Did you review Capital in the 21st Century? I need to go read your review if you have. Eventually I hope to get a bunch of blog posts out of it.

  3. The Saturday WSJ had a review for the book, “The Perfect Theory”. As I was reading the review, I realized I could have written the review without even having read the book because there was nothing new for me in the book. After that, I realized it was time for me to cut back on the science books.

    I got over 300 Great Courses in my library and have started listening to some of them. (I’m currently doing “Joy of Science”, by Hazen, who incidentally I have listened to two of his books, “Science Matters” and “the history of the earth”, both quite good. If you are ever interested in the Great Courses I have, send me a private email and I will send them to you.)

    I started Origins of Consciousness on Kindle. I think it is too easy to refute it’s main thesis today. It could have been plausible in the day it was written but new data has come out.

    I’m really looking forward to Ehrman. The Armstrong book tells me that the very nature of God is not what people think it means. I’m sure Erhman is too complicated for theist, but understanding the truth is complicated. I’m looking forward to it especially after your review.

    I listened to Capital off of my brother’s account and therefore had to write my review not on my audible account but wrote it here, http://www.amazon.com/review/R3VLMXBH116X70/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm The book is a real winner because it provides a narrative while describing economics. I find reading the negative review on that book a real hoot. I think they just knee jerk react and think calling it “marxist” has meaning. There are areas to attack the book especially the last third of the book, but the negative reviewers don’t seem to have actually read the book. Another thing, the author went to pains to describe the problems with survey vs. tax records. That’s not a problem as the reviewers say it is. I like the book for one other reason besides having learned a lot from it, it will clearly set the conversation forever more on the topic of “wealth creation”. The right wing just assumes that’s the correct thing to do. The book has made me super vigilant to that false way of thinking about the economy.

    1. Greg, I went and read your review of Capital in the Twenty-First Century at Amazon. Piketty does over explain things, and often repeats the same data again and again, but overall he provides a wealth of information in an easy to understand book. The book is a great education in economics. I’m still trying to figure out how to review the book. Piketty suggests that Americans no longer care about being egalitarian, and they don’t seem to worry about wealth inequality, so his words might be falling on deaf ears. I, on the other hand read the book and wonder if there is a stage of economics after capitalism. Obviously, we’re a socialistic society despite what the people on the right think, but we’re mainly a society geared to benefit rich people. I assume the poor support this because they hope to be rich one day too. But I can’t help believe that a managed economy couldn’t re-inflate the middle class, and ultimately make the country richer for everyone, including rich people. I think we need to decide what a minimum standard of living should be for the poor, what an optimal percentage of wealth belongs to the middle class that generates the most over all prosperity, and then allow the rich to fight over the rest.

      Greg you should start a blog for your book reviews, and reprint your older reviews there too.

  4. Great take on Ehrman’s book. I too would prefer to read about *why* Jesus became God. I read “How Jesus Became God” and the refutation, “How God Became Jesus.” Both books explained progressive Christology, how almost all Christologies – high and low – were around very early on, and how these Christologies were chronologically *eliminated,* from low to high, as the nascent church built its orthodoxy.

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

    The implications are not just arcane theological history, but go to the very root of the question: Was Jesus a “faith alone” preacher as Paul taught, or was he a devout ascetic Jew who taught that the only way to the kingdom of God was to free yourself of the desire for material possessions? The latter is completely at odds with the Christian faith, and I think we can be quite sure that Jesus would have considered worshiping him as God to be blasphemy.

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

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

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