2014, 371 p & notes
It seemed rather appropriate, if somewhat transgressive, to read this book over Easter. As a Unitarian, I don’t celebrate Easter but there’s a lot of God going around at Easter, particularly this most recent one which coincided with Passover. The author Bart D. Ehren is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, and he has written over thirty books about Christianity. He used to be an evangelical Christian, but is no longer. In fact, it sounds as if his distancing from his faith is very similar to my own, when he describes the way that he found that he could subscribe to less and less of the Nicene Creed. The exact same thing happened with me.
In this book Ehrman traces the historical development of the idea that Jesus was/is God.
He starts his book by noting that the divisions between the divine and human were not clear-cut, either in the Greek or Roman worlds in which Jesus operated, or indeed within Judaism itself. In Greek mythology, there is constant slippage as gods become temporarily human, and humans become permanently gods. In the Old Testament, there is the Angel of the Lord who appeared to Abraham, Hagar and Moses, and humans like Enoch who became angels. There’s the Son of Man figure and Wisdom and the Word, and the King of Israel.
He then turns to the question of what/who Jesus thought he was, and whether he talked about himself as God. He starts by considering the methodological problem of dealing with the source texts. Paul’s letters were written twenty to thirty years after Jesus died, but Paul himself never met Jesus. The gospels themselves were not written by eyewitnesses, and they were written between 35 and 65 years after Jesus’ death, based on oral stories. He notes that Matthew, Mark and Luke have both stories held in common, and some unique stories that do not appear elsewhere. He characterizes Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, who predicted the end of the current evil age, who believed that God would intervene soon to destroy everything and everyone opposed to him. God would then institute a new kingdom on earth, and he (Jesus) would be king in that kingdom. This was not a unique view: it could be found in the teachings of other apocalyptic-oriented Jews of his day.
He then turns to the resurrection. There are many discrepancies between the gospels, so many that it is almost impossible to make a single narrative that combines the ‘facts’ of all four gospels. We don’t really know whether he was buried, or whether there was an empty tomb. But we do know that some of Jesus’ followers believed that he had been raised from the dead, that some of them had visions of him, and that the belief that he had been raised from the dead led them to consider him, in some sense, God.
The earliest Christians thought that Jesus had been ‘exalted’ and lifted up and given divine status after his crucifixion i.e. that he was a human who became God. Others moved the moment of ‘exaltation’ further back in Jesus’ life: the moment of baptism with John the Baptist and the dove, the moment of birth in the stable; the Annunciation.
Others- and this view came to dominate- saw him as already God, who became human i.e. became ‘incarnate’. This was the big change, and it occurred in the first twenty years after Jesus’ death. Jesus came to be seen as a pre-existing divine being, who became human.
He turns to Paul’s letters and John’s gospel at this point. In particular he looks at Paul’s second letter to the Philippians, where the text suddenly breaks into a quite different rhythm and vocabulary. (Who, although he was in the form of God did not regard being equal with God something to be grasped after etc.) This, he suggests, is a poem that Paul is quoting. In the book, the poem is presented broken up into poem-like metre, and it’s amazing how typography can change the way a test is read. Likewise, he looks at John 1 (the ‘in the beginning’ prologue) and its reflection of Old Testament texts. I found this part fascinating: the idea that the gospels are a palimpsest of oral and poetic traditions, that can be traced backwards and identified by concepts and language that do not appear elsewhere.
He then shifts to the different heresies that arose in the second, third and fourth centuries: the divine/human nature of God and Jesus; whether there was ever a time when God existed but Jesus didn’t; whether they are one unitary being or two (or even three) separate entities, and the resultant concept of the trinity. He then turns to the Nicean creed, our mutual stumbling block, which he demonstrates as not so much an affirmation of faith, as a refutation of the various heresies that were circulating the Christian world.
A good summary of his argument throughout the book appears in the epilogue:
To use the older terminology, in early Christianity the views of Christ got “higher and higher’ with the passing of time, as he became increasingly identified as divine. Jesus went from being a potential (human) messiah to being the Son of God exalted to a divine status as his resurrection; to being a pre-existent angelic being who came to earth incarnate as a man; to being the incarnation of the Word of God who existed before all time and through whom the world was created; to being God himself, equal with God the Father and always existent with him. (p.352)
This is almost the mirror opposite of his own beliefs about God (and a trajectory I have also followed), where Jesus became “lower and lower” until he understood him as a human being, no different to any other human being. He now understands Jesus as “a true religious genius with brilliant insights”, but a man of the first-century Palestinian Jewish apocalyptic milieu. He says that he resonates with the ethical teachings of Jesus (as do I) but that these, too, were delivered in a first-century apocalyptic format. He argues that the views of Jesus have changed over time, and continue to change as Jesus is recontextualized, on an ongoing basis by each generation.
I enjoyed this book, which is very clearly set out with discrete sections and subheadings, and clear previews and summaries topping and tailing each chapter. He interweaves his own personal spiritual journey through the telling, which I identified closely with. I don’t know if I’ll read other books of his, though, because from their titles alone, they seem to be further elaborations on the themes in this one. This book was a New York Times Bestseller, and perhaps that’s the level that I’m happy to leave my reading at.
Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: it’s Easter
My rating: 8.5
I appreciate that you discuss this in relation to your own beliefs. I have none, but my church-going upbringing has left me fascinated with religion – and a sympathy for religions (very low C of E!) that don’t seem to involve belief in a supernatural being.
How interesting you’re a Unitarian! I’ve found Ehrman quite evangelistic in his critiques of Christianity – perhaps understandably – but haven’t read much.
Yes- when I checked him out on the internet I found how ubiquitous he is! I guess that’s why I feel I don’t need to read any more of him- he seems to have covered it all in this book and in his online presence.