Bauckham’s Line – A Review of “How God Became Jesus”

RNS-EHRMAN-BOOK bHow God Became Jesus: The real origins of belief in Jesus' divine nature: A response to Bart Ehrman.

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.

9 thoughts on “Bauckham’s Line – A Review of “How God Became Jesus””

  1. I read “How Jesus Became God” and the refutation, “How God Became Jesus.” Both books explained 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 good deeds and 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 failure to fully address James the Just is a gaping hole in the current scholarship on the historical Jesus.

    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 .

  2. No the argument about gentiles assuming a divinity in Jesus when the Jews could not is not dead. First of all, we need to be clear whether divinity and deity are one and the same. Jews have blown hot and cooler on the strictness of the deity as one, and when the Godhead spreads out a bit there likely follows a reaffirmation of the one Deity. This is what the Muslims have picked up in their own stress that Muhammad, for all that he might be admired, cannot contain divinity or deity. But for a Jew a messiah may well suggest marks of divinity because of the role given by God. What it does not suggest, as in the Trinity, is some sort of sharing of deity, for which the Trinity is really a nonsense to both Jew and early Christian.

    • I don’t think anyone has said the topic is not dead. However, the book under discussion has quite a thorough discussion of many of its aspects (quite a thorough one on divinity and deity, for instance) , backed up with sources pro and con, etc. Have you had a chance to read the book?

  3. Thanks very much, Mr. Walton! Now to buy the response to Bart Ehrman’s book. I wonder how responses to books like Dr. Ehrman’s can reach the mass media or simply _The Episcopalian_. I haven’t read either that journal or _The Living Church_ for some time, should probably do so. –Trying to think of the name of the journalist who wrote on a similar subject for either the WSJ or the NYT.
    In the meantime, I’m grateful to Fulcrum.

  4. Thanks to Fulcrum and to Bowman Walton for this. I can’t believe that Bart Ehrman would use the same title as a book that was already published but evidently that’s what he did. Richard Rubenstein wrote _How Jesus Became God_ in 1999 and I bought it at the time and read it. It wasn’t making an argument; it was a discussion of scholarly research on the events leading up to and following the Nicene Creed that Rubenstein got interested in by chance. He had rented a scholar’s house in the south of France and paid extra–just on a whim–for the privilege of using the scholar’s library. He got fascinated by the scholar’s fascination, did a lot of traveling to places mentioned in the extensive collection, and wrote a book about it.

    Question: does Erhman give Rubenstein any credit at all? I am very shocked that he didn’t make it obvious to anyone considering looking at the book, but perhaps he says something at some point?

    • Correction on my post above: Rubenstein’s book was called _When Jesus Became God_. I still think the title is too close to Ehrman’s for Ehrman to have been ethical in his title choice.

      • No, Bart Ehrman does not cite Richard Rubenstein. Indeed, Bird’s team and some reviewers are dismayed that he does not engage several other scholars, not least Richard Bauckham. In books for general readers, the rules about who should be cited and about what are not carved in stone, but especially in a scholar respected mainly as a textual critic, this failure to engage other views limits the importance of Ehrman’s book. Personally, I think that Bart, in following the conspiracy theory of Christian origins that has shaped his adult thinking about religion, missed a bigger story in the sources that will be shaping critical views in the years to come.

        On that title, his publisher, HarperOne in San Francisco, most likely had the final say, and publishers, caring mainly about sales, do not mind recycling a catchy title so long as the targeted market is different. They seem to like the “Jesus became God” meme at the point of sale. For example, Larry Hurtado has also written a book that was given the title, How on Earth Did Jesus Become God? But it seems that the nearly as catchy “God became Jesus” meme is closer to what the sources seem to suggest. Bird got it right.

    • Vacationing villagers beware of your whims! Thank you, Celinda, for this charming tale about how the Jewish political scientist Richard Rubenstein in 1999 stepped into another scholar’s library and stumbled out in the Council of Nicaea of 325. Had those shelves been stocked with Charlesworth’s Old Testament pseudepigrapha and some then-recent work of Jewish scholars like Alan Segal on the Second Temple period, he might have found a still greater fascination– the Judaic world had possibilities that modern scholars never glimpsed, and Jews and Christians who see them now are having to adjust our thinking about the past in four basic ways.

      (1) Much that had seemed to be distinctively Christian to later eyes was latent or explicit in Judaism before Jesus. Most startlingly, the idea that God could be in a man did not have to be defined at Nicaea if it was already presupposed in Daniel 7.13-14 well before Jesus was born.

      (2) Much that had seemed to be distinctively Jewish to later eyes can be recognised in the New Testament, once that is seen alongside the rest of the Judaism of its period. For example, the Berkeley talmudist Daniel Boyarin reads Jesus as a brilliant halachist in a more ancient tradition than the Pharisaic one that evolved into rabbinical Judaism after the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem.

      (3) Both Christian and Jewish identities began in differences among Jews before Jesus’s time, and the boundary between them continued to be unclear for some down to at least the fourth century. For example, Conservative Jews in America have found themselves in the ironic position of consulting the Greek responsa of a C1 rabbi from Tarsus named Shual– best known for his vision of the Kavod on the way to Damascus– to ascertain what competent authorities of his time believed about circumcision. And the tensions between bishops and rabbis in the fourth century sources seem to have been driven by pastoral concern on both sides to get those following Sabbath in the shul with Sunday in the cathedral to pick and practise well one religion or the other.

      (4) Even after their boundaries were clearer, each religion carried on themes of the other on its periphery. Through Jewish eyes, St Paul is clearly the first Jew to write about his personal experiences of the merkabah mysticism (so named from Ezekiel 1) that evolved into Kabbalah among Jews of the middle ages. Through those same eyes, we look with greater interest at the way Ethiopian Christians reshaped torah observances such as the mikvah, and the way Syriac Christians exploited the resources of their own Semitic language to maintain a lively connection to the spirituality of the Old Testament.

      Against that backdrop, the stories of discovery and reception are different stories that modern scholars confused, as Bart Ehrman still does. Thus, as Michael Bird says, the question how Hellenistic Gentile Christians made the leap to believing that God was in Jesus because the Jews could not have done it themselves is dead. On the other hand, it is also clear that the story of how that and other beliefs in both new religions were received in the wider worlds of the Mediterranean and Asia is only beginning to be sorted out. Some may wish to identify with apostles meeting God in Jesus, whilst others may wish to empathise with Julian the Apostate enraged that the religion of “the Nazarene” is overrunning the world he knew, but we now know, as moderns with too limited a view of Judaic civilisation could not know, that these characters belong to different stories.

      That open evangelicals are very happily situated with respect to these developments should not escape our notice, but that tale is a passage through another serendipitous library.

Leave a comment