by Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, and Chris Tilling. (Zondervan, 2014)
"Wash Your Hands Of Bad History", says the attached card. Not every review copy arrives from the publisher with a bottle of hand-soap adorned by a haloed Jesus, but How God Became Jesus, edited by Michael Bird, was rushed to the presses with an antiseptic intent. Bart Ehrman's latest book How Jesus Became God argues to the mass market that the risen Jesus was first worshipped after the Resurrection as an angel, and was not understood to be God himself before the fourth century. For good measure, he adds that Jesus and his disciples would have been heretics to the Nicene fathers, and insists that their new Nicene creed prompted riots against Jews they had come to see as God-killers. Though always gracious in person, Ehrman insists in print that believing scholars cannot be in the forefront of critical scholarship.
At those fighting words, Bird's team wrote a chapter-by-chapter response for release alongside Ehrman's book. They reply that Jesus's followers identified him with God even before his death, that Ehrman's exegeses of the New Testament are strained, and that his grasp of church history misses the big picture. They sharply distinguish the exclusive 'godhood' of Israel's Creator God from Ehrman's loose Hellenistic 'divinity,' and insist that the former was the matrix within which the thought that God was in Jesus first crystalised. Because angels are creatures, Jews did not worship them; because the apostles did worship Jesus, they could only have seen him as the Creator. Thus Bird and his co-authors follow the trail blazed by Martin Hengel, Larry Hurtado, and Richard Bauckham. Along the way, they hint that scholars too attached to research that was on the cutting edge a century ago should give it up for what is being discovered now. They do thank Ehrman for raising a worthwhile question: How - and in what sense - did the apostles first recognise God in Jesus?
To them, that question demands the answer to a simpler and more tractable one: Can Judaic monotheism alone explain the apostles' worship of Jesus as God? If the answer is "Yes", then the scriptures themselves show us the "how" and the "sense" of it. Only if the answer is demonstrably "No" do we have any reason to risk cutting ourselves on Occam's famous razor as Ehrman does by positing more distant or complex causes. From their own research, the scholars on Bird's team argue a brief for "Yes".
Bird and his co-authors ground their case for "Yes" mostly in Bauckham's "line that monotheism must draw between the Creator and creatures". Those who join their voices "with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven" will be interested, possibly entertained, by Bird's discussion of angelology, but his main critique of Ehrman's angelic Jesus is that because angels are creatures, Jews like the apostles did not worship them.
Craig Evans buries Ehrman in legal and archaeological evidence that crucified convicts in Jerusalem were entombed by the Sanhedrin, especially when the city was swollen for Passover with volatile crowds outnumbering edgy soldiers. Although his point is that Jesus was buried, his chapter is also a rare "material culture" glimpse of the occupying army of polytheists coming to terms with the monotheistic civilisation in Jerusalem. Apart from the chapters, Bird's "excurses", annotated selections of quotations or photographs, hint at the richness on the Creator's side of that line.
The later chapters mainly interpret Scripture. Simon Gathercole explains Jesus' "I have come..." sayings in the synoptics as evidence for early belief in Jesus' pre-existence as the Son, and shows how the evangelists and St Paul understood the contrast between the earthly and exalted states of Christ. Chris Tilling applies an ethical theory of monotheism to the letters of St Paul. Charles Hill escorts the reader from the empire of Tiberius and Claudius to that of Constantine. Along the way, he points out apostolic fathers who hear the Father and the Son conversing in scripture, and protests that attacks on synagogues actually declined under Constantine. Since Ehrman has cut himself badly on Occam's Razor, some pages in each chapter clean up the mess. But as each author also advances fresh arguments of more lasting interest, this book is a bargain introduction to their work.
How then - and in what sense - did the apostles first recognise God in Jesus? The co-authors seem to find five openings in scripture.
- In his references to God as his Father and to himself as the "son of man", Jesus recalled a dyad glimpsed within God in Scripture (eg Daniel 7.13-14, Psalm 110), enabling his disciples to recognise its human side in him.
- Jesus lived as the embodiment of the Word, Wisdom, Law, Glory, and Presence through which the Creator God was already immanent in the world.
- In healing the sick, forgiving sins, and assuming the Name, Jesus exercised prerogatives reserved to the Creator in ways blasphemous for a creature, but fitting for him.
- Jesus' journey to Jerusalem enacted the Creator God's promised return to Zion to renew his presence with Israel and to receive the worship of the Gentiles.
- Jesus' followers worshipped the Son in obedience to the Father himself.
Like the eye of a needle, not everyone could pass through these openings, but those who did were on the Creator's side of Bauckham's monotheistic line.
Bowman Walton is a writer and consultant in Cambridge, Massachusetts.