The lengthy subtitle for How God Became Jesus reveals the purpose of this book: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature – A Response to Bart Ehrman. This book is really a review of and response to Ehrman’s 2014 book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. The authors received an advance copy of Ehrman’s book in order to write a response that could be published at the same time. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, who describes himself as a historian, not a believer, confesses that Jesus “was, and always has been, a human” and that “Christians exalted him to the divine realm in their theology” (11). The authors seek to prove the opposite that Jesus “never became God; he was always God and he became human” (12). They look to answer Ehrman’s claims on the basis of the historical evidence, both Scriptural and otherwise.
After the opening chapter, which sets the background for the discussion, each chapter looks to examine a different claim from Ehrman’s book. Chapter 2 focuses on Ehrman’s claim that Jesus was not the one and only God, he was merely a god, whether a deified human or exalted angel (22-23). Early Christians were polytheists like the cultures around them, with strict and absolute monotheism an invention of the fourth century (28). Bird calls this “parallelomania” (25), which assumes a word or concept in one ancient document means the same in another document — if one culture deified men or kings, then Christians did the same. Also if Christians were simply following pagan patterns, the idea of worshipping a crucified and risen Messiah would be offensive to both Jew and Greek alike (26).
Chapter 3 looks at what Jesus would have thought of himself. Ehrman claims that Jesus never said he was God, he did not know he was God, and neither did his disciples (46). It was an idea created later. When Jesus makes reference to the Son of Man, it is in reference to someone else coming later. Such a view is possible only when searching for the historical Jesus by dismissing sections of the Gospel narrative as later invention. Bird points out this faulty use of Scripture and illustrates how in the Gospels Jesus clearly knows that he is God and, as the Son of Man, is talking about himself.
Chapter 4 turns to burial traditions and evidence. Ehrman’s claim is that Jesus was not buried in a tomb because that was not the traditional Roman practice. So the involvement of Joseph of Arimathea and people seeing an empty tomb on Easter are purely fictional. Evans further investigates archaeological evidence and historical accounts and finds evidence that such burials did happen, especially as Roman rulers tried to keep peace in Israel and not offend Jewish sensibilities.
Chapter 5 focuses on the timeframe between Jesus’ life and the first writings of the New Testament (ca. 30-50 AD). Ehrman would point to an exaltation or adoptionist Christology, trying to pinpoint when Jesus was “exalted” to divine status or “adopted” as God’s Son (95). He would see a progression from the earliest Christians believing it happened at his resurrection, then moving it back to his baptism and then finally to his conception and birth. Gathercole reexamines Ehrman’s claims from the synoptic gospels and passages such as Romans 1:3,4 & Acts 13:32,33 with a correct view of Jesus’ exaltation — his return to a previous state rather than entering something totally new (114).
Chapter 6 looks at problems with Ehrman’s interpretative categories. He presupposes two Christologies, “exaltation” and “incarnational,” that early belief focused on Jesus being exalted to God, which morphed into an incarnational belief — God taking on human flesh. Tilling points out that such categories are a chronology forced onto the text instead of letting the text speak for itself (120). Such categories also lead to a watering down of Ehrman’s discussion of monotheism and the term “divine” to fit his categories.
Chapter 7 focuses on Ehrman’s analysis of Paul’s Christology. He sees Paul as one who went from a low, exaltation Christology to a high, incarnational Christology. “Paul understood Christ to be an angel who became human” (135). Tilling faults Ehrman for focusing an in-depth look at Paul on simply one section of exegesis (Php 2:6-11) while using Galatians 4:14 as his interpretive key for all of Paul. Tilling refutes this supposed position of Paul by examining a wider selection of his writing.
Chapter 8 addresses Ehrman’s portrayal of Christianity as an exclusive religion, that Orthodox Christians were merely heresy hunters who labelled early Christian beliefs as heresy in favor of an incarnational Trinitarian view. Thus the adoptionism of the Ebionites and Theodotians is closer to the original truth and the modalism of the third century was at first widely held even by leaders like Tertullian. Hill answers by examining the church fathers and their orientation, not to a new belief, but back to the original view as contained in Scripture.
Finally, in chapter 9, two more accusations that Ehrman levels against Christianity are examined. One is that the Bible is unreliable because it is full of paradoxes (Trinity, two natures of Christ), which force together two completely different views (177). Hill answers that the inspired authors were comfortable in describing such paradoxes as a matter of faith (184) and demonstrates the same belief on the part of the early church fathers. The other accusation is that deification of Christ led to violent, Christian anti-Judaism because the Jews killed God (190-91). Hill acknowledges that while this did happen at times as Christianity became the favored religion of the Roman Empire, he gives historical evidence that it was not the widespread view.
This book brings a very thorough response to Ehrman’s book and pokes many holes in the theories and claims that he has made. For those who may have had doubts after reading his ideas, this volume would help to alleviate those concerns. In academic circles this would seemingly offer some alternative to Ehrman’s extreme higher criticism and doubt of Scripture. But therein lies a bit of this book’s weakness. It too engages Scripture with higher critical methods of interpretation at varying levels (due to the variety of authors), from a developing idea of the Trinity between Old and New Testaments (28) to the scene of Jesus’ trial as a “morass of textual, historical and theological issues” (65). Apocryphal and pseudepigraphal sources are also referenced at times as supporting proof. When the Bible is God’s Word and believed to be true as written, many of these discussions are no longer needed.
This book serves as a valuable reminder that what is new is really old. The attacks on Christ’s divinity in the early centuries of the church continue the same today. A thorough study of the Scriptures as God’s Word along with a careful study of the early church fathers will help to bolster our knowledge and defense against such attacks. How God became Jesus is not just another academic question, it is crucial to our faith as true God became true man to be our Savior.
Contributors to this volume include: Michael F. Bird (Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia), Craig A. Evans (Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Acadia Divinity College, Nova Scotia), Simon J. Gathercole (Senior Lecturer in New Testament, University of Cambridge), Charles E. Hill (Professor of New Testament, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando), Chris Tilling (tutor in New Testament Studies, St. Mellitus College, London).