How Jesus Became God

The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee

Bart Ehrman has made a career out of what might be called counter-apologetics. In books with catchy titles such as The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Misquoting Jesus, and Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), he has vigorously, perhaps even obsessively, sought to exorcise others of the demons of Evangelical faith that once also held him captive. With his disarming style and gift for clear exposition, he is a stalwart of the “scholars have shown” and “now it can be told” style of religious popularization.

Ehrman, who teaches at the University of North Carolina, writes as an agnostic who gets maximum mileage out of the fact that he was once a “true believer”—indeed, a fundamentalist. The tools of historical-critical scholarship now give him a privileged perspective on his youthful credulity. Ehrman’s personal story of creedal captivity and academic liberation is a principal theme of How Jesus Became God. All the arguments he once marshalled as a young apologist at the Moody Bible Institute, he now seeks to demolish as an instructor of undergraduates and a presence in the media.

Ehrman is disingenuous, however, when he writes that he does “not take a stand on the theological question of Jesus’ divine status,” but is only “interested in the historical development that led to the affirmation that he is God.” Reducing the confession of Jesus as Lord to nothing more than a “historical development” among ancient people, however, is effectively to deny the truth of Christianity’s central claim.

The heart of the book—and the place where Ehrman’s devotion to historical criticism makes his analysis weakest—is his argument concerning the post-mortem visions of Jesus by Mary, Peter, and Paul. Before tackling that puzzle, however, Ehrman deals with the easy targets of ill-informed Christian apologetics. For example, was Jesus the only figure in antiquity to whom divinity was ascribed? No. Ehrman rehearses the multiple cases of ascensions and appearances and apotheioses and divine manifestations in Greco-Roman and Jewish literature. Did Jesus think of himself as divine? No. The author deftly shows how isolated Jesus’ self-referential claims are in John’s gospel. Ehrman also devotes nearly a hundred pages to a superficial recital of Christological formulations from the New Testament to the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD). As this sketchy survey is designed to show, calling Jesus “divine” does not yet answer the question “Divine in what sense?” Christians, of course, divided and subdivided over that question for centuries.

But how did the conviction that Jesus is divine arise in the first place? It arose because followers believed Jesus was raised from the dead. Predictably, Ehrman devotes a lot of space to the gospels’ empty-tomb accounts. He rightly notes that even if these stories could be verified—which they cannot—they would not by themselves lead to the conviction that Jesus is God. At most, the empty tomb might indicate that Jesus was resuscitated—that is, resumed his empirical, mortal, earthly life.

Ehrman also rightly insists that the New Testament claims far more than a vestigial post-mortem existence for Jesus. The Resurrection, according to the first disciples, is not a resuscitation (a thoroughly historical event) but the exaltation of Jesus to “the right hand of God.” His becoming “Lord” means that he shares completely in the presence and power of God. It is as “Lord” that Jesus is perceived by the first believers to be “God.”

Jesus's exaltation to God's own life is not, however, as it concerns Jesus himself, a historical event. If one must use temporal terms, Jesus’ exaltation is better called an eschatological event. Thinking about the Resurrection in temporal terms, however, is misleading. The Resurrection is better spoken of as an existential reality; not as one event among others but as an act of God that reveals and changes the structures of existence. Paul speaks of the resurrection-life as a “new creation” (Gal 6:15) in which everything old has passed away and “behold, everything is new” (2 Cor 5:17). It is in trying to come to terms with the Resurrection accounts that Ehrman’s commitment to a single way of knowing—the historical—limits and ultimately distorts his analysis. Like all those whose thinking is essentially positivist—which includes most defenders as well as critics of Christianity—Ehrman seeks a historical cause for what is in fact a reality that transcends historical categories altogether.

The only plausible “historical” cause for the claim of Resurrection are the post-mortem visions of Jesus ascribed to certain followers, especially Mary, Peter, and Paul. Like the empty-tomb stories, such “appearance accounts” are, as Ehrman notes, a cornerstone of the tradition (see, for example, 1 Cor 9:1; 15:3–8). And like the empty-tomb stories, they have been subjected to intense historical-critical scrutiny. Predictably, the conclusions scholars come to about the authenticity of the visions tend to confirm the premises brought to the inquiry by the investigators themselves. Ehrman devotes considerable space to this problem before concluding that historians cannot determine the sincerity or veracity of such visions. Exactly right. Nevertheless, Ehrman goes on to argue that such visions are the basis of the belief that Jesus is the exalted Lord.

Like the empty-tomb accounts, however, even if the visions are true they do not necessarily lead to the claims being made about Jesus’ divinity. As Ehrman faithfully reports, visions of the dead abound in ancient literature. Yet it does not follow that the one appearing among the gods shares fully in the power and presence of the Lord of the universe. Ehrman exposes, but does not close, a gap between effect and cause. Post-mortem visions are neither a necessary nor a sufficient reason for confessing that “Jesus is Lord.”

To close that gap we must turn to a register of language in the New Testament’s earliest writings (the letters of Paul) that Ehrman’s historicist blinders do not allow him to consider. Paul speaks of the “new creation” as a reality that is experienced, not by a few visionaries, but by all the members of his churches. This new creation is at work through the presence of a personal, transcendent, and transforming power called the Holy Spirit.

The Resurrection experience, in Paul’s letters, is not something that happened to Jesus alone. It is happening now to those who have been given this power through the one Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 15:45 as having become “life-giving spirit”—a statement oddly absent from Ehrman’s discussion of that chapter in First Corinthians. Similarly, Ehrman fails to consider 1 Corinthians 12:3, where Paul states emphatically that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” The presence of the transforming power of the Spirit among believers is the basis for Paul’s remarkable language about the Holy Spirit “dwelling” in them (Rom 8:9) and their being “in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:2–3). In the same way, Paul speaks about Christ “dwelling” in his followers, and their being “in Christ ” (Rom 8:9–10).

In short, it was not the reports concerning an empty tomb or claims about post-mortem visions among a few of Jesus’ followers that caused the early Christians to recognize Jesus’ divinity. It was the shared experience of divine power—manifested in a variety of wonders and gifts and new capacities of existence—among those who had all “drunk the same spirit” and had become members of “Christ’s body” (1 Cor 12:12–27).

This experiential claim, moreover, helps explain why, in the very earliest writings, Jesus’ divinity is not simply a matter of God’s “adopting” an ordinary human being, but the vindication of one who in some sense was already at work in creation (1 Cor 8:6) and in the story of Israel (1 Cor 10:4); thus, already in Paul we find a robust “incarnational” Christology (Phil 2:5–11). It is the experience of Christ as “life-giving spirit”—not just back then but always—that enables the perception of Jesus as fully divine, so tenaciously embraced by the orthodox through the centuries of Christological debates. 

The greatest deficiency in Ehrman’s work is that he does not even seem aware of the language of religious experience that pervades Paul’s letters and that paradoxically provides us with the earliest historical evidence for the basis of Christian convictions. The deficiency is not his alone, to be sure. It characterizes all those who seek to secure or discredit the truth of the Gospel by means of merely verifiable facts. But the good news is not and never has been based in verifiable fact; from the beginning and still today, it is based in the experience of God’s power.

Published in the February 6, 2015 issue: 
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Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. Among his many books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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