Two years ago I wrote about the progression we can see in the New Testament of the disciples’ belief in Jesus (see How did Jesus become God?), how they seemed to go from incomprehension to belief he was the Messiah, to belief in him as the unique son of God. In particular, I referenced New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman’s then view that this process took 60 years (from Jesus’ death to the writing of John’s Gospel).
Not long ago Ehrman published his book on this topic (How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee), and he has changed at least some of his conclusions on this matter.
What the New Testament tells us
In the gospels Jesus is portrayed as being somewhat reticent to make a clear statement of his authority, and, with a few exceptions, tends to disclaim all titles. He seems to want to provoke people to draw their own conclusions, for example, by his use of parables. But there are many places where christians believe he gives clues for those with eyes to see – in forgiving sins, healing, claiming a close relationship with God and calling him his Father, etc.
It seems clear that his disciples struggled to understand Jesus during his lifetime, and in their first public preaching after his death and resurrection (recorded in Acts 2), Peter presents Jesus as Messiah (a title not necessarily indicating divinity), and makes no clear claim for Jesus as Son of God.
He does say: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah”, and the word “Lord” could be seen as a political claim (Caesar isn’t Lord, Jesus is) or a divine claim (“Kyrios” = “Lord” is used of God in the Old Testament). But the idea that God has made Jesus Lord is some way short of the teaching that Jesus had existed as divine from the beginning of time and was in some ways equal with God, that is made explicit in later writings, notably Paul’s letter to the Colossians, about 20 years later and in the much later John’s Gospel.
Let not your hearts be troubled
Some christians may feel troubled about this development in the disciples’ understanding, but I don’t see any reason to be. They were human, and they took time to understand and work things out. Anyway, whether we are comfortable or not, the evidence seems to point that way, something that has long been clear to me simply from reading the text.
The range of scholarly views
Scholars have debated the details of all this for some time. There are two basic positions.
Early high christology
These scholars believe that the early Jewish christians came to believe that Jesus was divine very early. One of the main proponents, Larry Hurtado argues that the best evidence is in the early christian devotional practices. They worshiped Jesus in the same way they worshiped God, they prayed in his name in the same way they prayed in God’s name, and they believed Jesus shared in the divine glory. He also argues that Philippians 2 clearly indicates Jesus as divine and alive in heaven before his birth on earth – and this in a hymn or creed that was already well known to Paul’s readers in about 52 CE.
Late high christology
Other scholars believe Jesus never claimed to be divine because he wasn’t divine, and a faithful Jew would never make such a blasphemous claim. They say belief in his divinity came about late in the first century when the christian church had become much more gentile. The late Maurice Casey argued this way in Jesus of Nazareth.
The role of belief in this debate
It would be unfair to represent this debate as being between christians holding an early high christology, and non-christians holding the late view, but from the outside it looks a little that way. That is what makes the agnostic Ehrman’s latest view interesting.
Bart Ehrman on how Jesus became God
Early high christology?
Having studied the evidence, Bart now agrees, to some degree at least, with the early high christology view, writing in his book’s Introduction: “The idea that Jesus is God …. was the view of the very earliest Christians soon after Jesus’ death.” He bases this conclusion on reading Paul’s letters with new eyes.
But what does it mean to say Jesus is God?
Ehrman argues that when the first christians proclaimed Jesus as God, it didn’t mean what we would say today. He says they first believed Jesus was a man who was exalted to divine status. The visions they saw of him alive after his crucifixion (which Ehrman accepts actually happened, though he believes they were not ‘real’) convinced them of that.
He says that Paul regarded Jesus as an angelic being (a view shared by very few scholars) and he still believes Jesus was only seen as the pre-existent son of God late in the first century.
Larry Hurtado has criticised Ehrman’s conclusions, saying they are speculative and ignore or misrepresent the consensus of scholarship on several matters, and points out this topic is not one Ehrman has published on previously. And, Hurtado says, there are no examples of angels being worshiped in first century Judaism, so Ehrman’s view is not an adequate explanation of how Jesus was worshiped. Hurtado’s conclusions are briefly discussed in Early Jesus-Devotion: Underscoring Key Points.
In an interesting experiment, Ehrman’s publisher published simultaneously a a book responding to Ehrman, written by five other scholars.
I think it is probably impossible for me to be totally objective on this question. As Bart Ehrman says, belief that Jesus is God has changed the world immensely and is personally important for all of us, especially to christians.
But I suspect Ehrman has had the same difficulty being objective. Once he changed his mind and concluded that Jesus was believed to be divine very soon after his death and resurrection, I would have expected that to be the end of the matter – he is now a supporter of early high christology. His view that Paul regarded Jesus as an angel is apparently not supported by many scholars, and certainly not be the most obvious reading of Paul’s letters (though he apparently regards Colossians as not by Paul, which eases the difficulty a little). I am showing my bias I guess, but I can’t help wondering if he wanted to avoid the more obvious conclusion.
Hurtado’s conclusion seems much more likely. The first christians saw Jesus after he was crucified (call them appearances or visions) and concluded God had raised him. Based on this, and all that Jesus had said and done, they concluded God called them to worship Jesus, something Jews would not have done unless they believed this was how they should honour God. Then began the long process to define and understand these new truths.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia