Blog

How Jesus Became God—or How God Became Jesus? A Review of Bart Ehrman’s New Book and a Concurrent Response

Bart Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God, released just yesterday, is the most recent example of a scholarly tradition of books with similar titles offering to explain how Christianity turned a simple itinerant Jewish teacher into the Second Person of the Trinity. Two of the earlier, notable such books were Richard Rubenstein’s When Jesus Became God (1999) and Larry Hurtado’s How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (2005). In what may be an unprecedented publishing event, a book by evangelical scholars critiquing Ehrman’s book was released at the same time yesterday, entitled How God Became Jesus. The concurrent publication of the rebuttal book was facilitated by the fact that its publishing house, Zondervan, is owned by HarperCollins, which published Ehrman’s book under the HarperOne imprint.

Ehrman, of course, has more name recognition in the English-speaking world than any other biblical scholar today, due especially to his de-conversion story (enthusiastically disseminated in the mainstream media) of abandoning evangelical Christian belief and becoming an agnostic. Sadly, he is probably a hundred times better known than any of the five scholars who contributed to How God Became Jesus. In particular, it is a shame that Craig A. Evans is not better known. Evans is also the author of what I consider the stand-out chapter responding to Ehrman. More on that later.

An Overview of the Two Books

Ehrman’s thesis is that Jesus was not viewed, by himself or his disciples, as in any sense divine during his lifetime, but that belief in his divinity arose almost immediately after his disciples had visions of Jesus that they interpreted as meaning that God had raised him bodily from the dead. According to Ehrman, the earliest Christians thought Jesus had been exalted by God to a divine status at his resurrection, but this belief quickly morphed, resulting in the idea that Jesus was God incarnate. The premise of his argument is that the category of divinity was an elastic one in the ancient world, even to some extent in Jewish thought, and so first-century Christians were able to entertain quite different conceptions of what it meant to regard Jesus as divine or even as “God” (a point Ehrman elaborates in two chapters, 11-84). Here is a chronological schematic summary of Ehrman’s view (parenthetical page references are to Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God):

  1. Jesus taught an apocalyptic message that the present age was about to come to an end, that the righteous would be raised to immortal life, and that in the age to come he would be an earthly, royal Messiah associated with another figure, the Son of Man. He did not consider himself to be divine in any sense (86-127).
  2. After Jesus was crucified in the year 30, his corpse was left on the cross for an unknown period of time, and was probably not given a decent burial (133-65). Meanwhile, his disciples fled to Galilee, where a week or more later perhaps as few as three of them had visionary experiences akin to bereavement visions, in which they thought Jesus appeared to them (174-206).
  3. The disciples interpreted these visions in the light of the apocalyptic doctrine Jesus had taught them, concluding that Jesus had risen bodily from the dead and that the age to come would overtly commence very soon. To defend the bodily resurrection belief, it eventually became necessary to create the story of the empty tomb, for which Mark, written about the year 70, is the earliest witness (166-69).
  4. On the basis of their belief in Jesus’ singular resurrection combined with the fact that he was obviously no longer physically present on earth, the disciples inferred that Jesus had been taken to heaven and exalted by God. Jesus was now the Messiah, the Son of Man (whom Jesus had regarded as a separate figure), and the adopted divine Son of God (207-209). Ehrman finds this earliest “exaltation Christology,” dating from the early 30s, in preliterary creedal or poetic statements imbedded in Paul (Rom. 1:3-4) and Acts (2:36; 5:31; 13:32-33), even though he recognizes that neither Paul nor Luke held to this view (216-35).
  5. Christians quickly began pushing back the time when Jesus “became” divine or acquired some sort of divine status from his resurrection to an earlier moment. Some held that Jesus became the Son of God at his baptism (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22 [variant]) or at his conception and birth (Luke 1:35). Pushing Jesus’ divine sonship back to his conception in effect abandons the “exaltation” model of Christology insofar as it makes Jesus divine from the beginning of his existence, but it is not yet an “incarnational” model because Jesus is not seen as a preexistent being (240-44).
  6. Sometime prior to Paul’s earliest epistles, perhaps in the 40s, an alternate Christology emerged in which Jesus was viewed as God’s chief angel who became human. This early “incarnation Christology” is not associated with the virgin birth, which is found only in Matthew and Luke. Paul himself viewed Jesus as the angel of the Lord, an idea Ehrman finds in Galatians 4:14 (252-53). Ehrman thinks this view can be detected also in the preliterary poetic confession that Paul quotes in Philippians 2:6-11, though he finds a trace of the older “exaltation” Christology remaining in the passage (253-66). Ehrman also explains how this angel Christology fits with other Christological statements in Paul, especially Romans 8:3; Galatians 4:4; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 Corinthians 8:6, another pre-Pauline creed; and even Romans 9:5, which Ehrman thinks calls Jesus “God” in the same way the chief angel of the Lord was called God (266-69). Later Ehrman characterizes Hebrews 1 as very close to an incarnational Christology but like Philippians 2 retaining “a hint of exaltation Christology” (280-81).
  7. After Paul and the Synoptic Gospels, a more developed form of incarnation Christology emerged, evident in preliterary materials used in the Johannine Prologue (John 1:1-18) and in the so-called Colossians hymn (Col. 1:15-20). The Gospel of John represents the latest form of this Christology attested in the first century Christian writings. It views Jesus as having existed as the divine Wisdom from before creation, in some respect like a divine hypostasis but in others like a separate being, but in any case equal to God (269-80).
  8. In the centuries following the New Testament period, various Christological “dead ends” appeared in the second and third centuries, against which church leaders developed dogmatic distinctions between “orthodox” and “heretical” doctrines. The orthodox model that developed insisted that Christ had to be fully human and fully divine, distinct from God the Father, yet not a different God than the Father—criteria that led to the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity (284-352).

The five international contributors to How God Became Jesus generally tackle distinct parts of Ehrman’s book, though one will occasionally comment on another’s assigned topic. (Page numbers cited in this paragraph refer to How God Became Jesus.) Michael Bird, a contributor and the general editor of the book, teaches theology at Ridley College in Australia and is the author of a recent lengthy textbook on Evangelical Theology. Bird has also written extensively on the Messiah in biblical studies. Bird authored the preface, conclusion, introductory chapter, a chapter responding to Ehrman’s two chapters on “divine humans” in ancient Greco-Roman and Jewish thought (22-44), and a chapter arguing that Jesus did view himself as divine (45-70). Craig A. Evans teaches New Testament at Acadia Divinity School in Canada. He is the author of excellent commentaries on all of the Synoptic Gospels and numerous other publications, and is widely recognized as a historical Jesus scholar of the highest caliber. Evans contributed a chapter defending the historicity of the burial of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (71-93). Simon Gathercole, a lecturer in New Testament at Cambridge, is the author of a well-received book on the preexistence of Christ in the Synoptic Gospels and is an expert on the apocryphal gospels. Gathercole contributed a chapter on the earliest Christian view of Jesus, addressing some of Ehrman’s arguments from the Synoptic Gospels and preliterary materials in Paul and Acts (94-116). Chris Tilling teaches New Testament at St. Mellitus College in London and is the author of a recent published doctoral dissertation on Paul’s Divine Christology, and so he naturally contributed chapters responding to Ehrman’s interpretation of Paul (117-50). Finally, Charles E. Hill, a New Testament scholar at Reformed Theological Seminary in Florida, is the author of a notable recent work on the Gospels. Hill contributed the last two chapters, responding to Ehrman on the development of Christology after the New Testament period (151-200).

Since I am a staunch evangelical Christian and (worse still, in some people’s estimation!) one of those evangelical Christian apologists that Ehrman disparages, one might expect me to offer a thoroughly partisan review that is highly critical of Ehrman and laudatory of Bird and his co-authors. And in terms of the theological conclusions toward which they argue, obviously I agree with Bird and company but disagree vigorously with Ehrman. Nevertheless, what I hope to offer here is a fair-minded assessment of the books.

Ehrman: How Jesus Became God

Let’s start with Ehrman. (Parenthetical page references in this section are to Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God.) I think evangelicals should be quick to acknowledge and even capitalize on a large number of agreements that they can have with Ehrman about Jesus and Christology. These include but are not limited to the following facts:

  • Jesus was a real historical person, a Galilean Jew who preached the kingdom of God. Ehrman has devoted a whole book to defending this fact.
  • The canonical Gospels are the earliest and, for all practical purposes, the only valuable sources of detailed information about the historical Jesus. The “Gnostic” gospels and other apocryphal writings date from much later and are not significant sources of historical information about Jesus.
  • Jesus thought he was, or at least would become, the Messiah.
  • Jesus was crucified at the order of Pontius Pilate.
  • Jesus actually died on the cross.
  • Some of Jesus’ original followers sincerely believed they saw Jesus alive from the dead.

(Already, we’ve eliminated about 90 percent of the nonsense we so often hear from skeptics about Jesus! And we’re not done.)

  • The belief that Jesus rose from the dead convinced Jesus’ disciples, practically immediately, that he was a divine figure, exalted to the right hand of God. The very earliest Christians thus made some astounding claims about Jesus.
  • The belief that Jesus was a divine figure who existed before his human life was accepted by at least some Christians within twenty years of Jesus’ death, even before Paul’s earliest epistles. (Say good-bye to the baloney about Paul radically changing Christianity from Jesus’ Jewish moral code to a Hellenized savior cult.)
  • Philippians 2:6-11 teaches that Jesus Christ was a preexistent divine figure who became a human being; Ehrman rejects the “Adamic” interpretation of the passage that tries to circumvent the preexistence of Christ.
  • Paul calls Jesus “God” in Romans 9:5!
  • John clearly teaches that Jesus existed before creation in some way distinct from God the Father, yet he was “God” and was equal to God. (Jehovah’s Witnesses, take note.) Furthermore, John did not originate this view, because the Johannine Prologue derives from a pre-Johannine source.

One could hardly wish for more agreements and even concessions from the world’s most influential agnostic biblical scholar. Actually, I suspect it is precisely because Ehrman takes such reasonable views of the New Testament in many respects that he has been so successful, both in his scholarship and in his public polemics. Daniel Wallace, probably the leading evangelical scholar in the field of New Testament textual criticism (which is also Ehrman’s forte), has observed that he and Ehrman agree on the basic facts about the New Testament manuscripts. They even usually agree on which variant reading is the best, even in such highly controversial passages as the pericopae adulterae (John 7:53-8:11) and the long ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20). A scholar advocating extreme positions or handling critical questions in a wildly irresponsible way would not be nearly so persuasive.

Having given credit where credit is due, I must move on to identify what I think are some of the weakest links in Ehrman’s argument.

1. Ehrman’s foundational premise of the fluidity of ancient concepts of the divine is certainly a major problem. Ehrman rightly finds such fluidity in Greco-Roman thought, but what he never addresses even once is the consistent, pervasive opposition to Greco-Roman notions of the divine throughout the New Testament—even when he touches on obviously relevant passages. For example, Ehrman discusses the tale of Jupiter and Mercury (or Zeus and Hermes) visiting Phrygia for over three pages (19-22), commenting on the incident reported in Acts when Barnabas and Paul preached in Phrygia and were mistaken for Zeus and Hermes (Acts 14:8-18). But Ehrman glosses over Paul’s response to the Phrygians, commenting only that Paul took the opportunity “to preach his gospel message in order to convert the people” (21). In fact, Paul’s response is a summons to the Phrygians to turn from their idolatrous beliefs to accept the God of Jewish monotheism, the God who made everything and who rules over all nature (Acts 14:15-17). Generalizations about “divine humans” in antiquity are simply irrelevant to understanding the origins of a Jewish movement that regarded its crucified human founder as God.

Ehrman presents three models of the divine human in Greco-Roman culture: “gods who temporarily become human” (19-22), “divine beings born of a god and a mortal” (22-24), and “a human who becomes divine” (25-38). He admits that the case of Jesus does not fit any of these: “I don’t know of any other cases in ancient Greek or Roman thought of this kind of ‘god-man,’ where an already existing divine being is said to be born of a mortal woman” (18). He could have added to that sentence, “or Jewish thought.” I would suggest that this is the Achilles’ heel of Ehrman’s whole account of Christian origins. By his own admission, the Christian view of Jesus—a view he admits emerged within twenty years of Jesus’ crucifixion—was literally unprecedented.

2. A second notable weakness in Ehrman’s theory is his claim that Jesus expected to fill the role of the Messiah but not of the Son of Man. This interpretation gets its initial plausibility from the fact that Jesus routinely referred to the Son of Man in the third person. However, even in most of the Synoptic Son of Man sayings, it is quite clear in the immediate context that Jesus is referring to himself (Matt. 8:20; 9:6; 11:19; 12:8; 16:13; 17:22-23; 20:18-19, 28; 26:2, 24, 45; Mark 2:10; 8:31; 9:31; 10:33; 14:21, 41; Luke 5:24; 7:34; 9:22, 44, 58; 19:10; 22:22, 48). The Messiah and the Son of Man are both understood as eschatological figures that receive an eternal kingdom on behalf of God’s people; it is simply not plausible that Jesus, who used the title Son of Man incessantly and rarely used the title Messiah or Christ, claimed to be the latter but not the former.

3. Ehrman’s main thesis on its face appears completely lacking in credibility. According to Ehrman, whereas Jesus did not view himself as anything more than a man and did not expect to become anything more than a glorious earthly king, within a few weeks or months of Jesus’ death his original followers were sincerely proclaiming that Jesus was a divine figure ruling over all creation at God’s right hand in heaven. Keep in mind that in Ehrman’s mind, Jesus did not rise from the dead and did not actually speak to his disciples after his death. Nor does Ehrman suggest that the disciples thought Jesus had made these stupendous claims about himself during his appearances to them. Rather, Ehrman credits the disciples with inferring these things about Jesus by interpreting their visionary experiences in the light of the apocalyptic worldview he had taught them before his death (205-206). What all this means is that Ehrman’s view requires that Jesus’ original disciples, who had walked all over Galilee and Judea with him and listened to him teach for hours on end, simply discounted Jesus’ own self-image as nothing more than the future human Messiah.

4. To make his theory work, Ehrman has abandoned his earlier view that the burial of Jesus in a tomb just outside Jerusalem was historically likely. He now accepts something like John Dominic Crossan’s view that Jesus received no decent burial at all. In a way, denying the tomb is a smart move on Ehrman’s part. As long as he acknowledged both the tomb and the appearances, he remained vulnerable to the vise grip of the historical argument for the Resurrection. Accept the empty tomb and discount the appearances, and you can postulate that the body was moved or stolen or lost. Accept the appearances and reject the empty tomb, and you can speculate that the disciples had hallucinations or “bereavement visions.” Accept both the empty tomb and the appearances and you have to come up with a blatantly ad hoc explanation like Greg Cavin’s identical-twin theory (what William Lane Craig mischievously labeled “the Dave theory”) or strain credulity by accepting two unrelated explanations for the evidence (e.g., the body was stolen and the disciples had hallucinations). So Ehrman, who knows he cannot deny that at least some of the disciples had experiences in which they thought they saw Jesus alive from the dead, has gone the more sensible skeptical route and questioned the burial in the tomb. But this move, while sensible enough from his agnostic perspective, lands him in evidential hot water, because the evidence that the Gospels are telling the truth about the empty tomb is very good.

5. Ehrman’s attempts to explain the appearances of Jesus naturalistically ignore entirely the testimony of the apostle Paul that Jesus had appeared to him when Paul was still a persecutor of Christians. Ehrman quietly omits any mention of Paul’s experience throughout his treatment of the resurrection appearances in the fifth chapter of his book. Then, having finished with the subject of Jesus’ resurrection, at the beginning of chapter 6 Ehrman says only that Paul, after converting to faith in Jesus, “later claimed that this was because he had had a vision of Jesus alive, long after his death” (214, emphasis added). That is all he says—and it is difficult even to take his statement seriously. That Paul sincerely thought he had a vision of the risen Christ is really beyond debate. That fact is a stubborn datum that Ehrman failed to incorporate into his account of the origins of the Christian movement.

6. Finally (though obviously much more could be said), Ehrman labors to defend the premise that the apostle Paul thought Jesus was the chief angel come in the flesh. He has one proof text for this claim—Galatians 4:14, where Paul reminds the Galatians that when he visited them they welcomed him “as [hōs] an angel of God, as [hōs] Christ Jesus.” It is just barely possible that here angelon theou means “the angel of the Lord” and that Paul is equating Christ Jesus with that mysterious figure, who in the Old Testament is sometimes treated as identical to God. However, it is far more likely that Paul’s language is progressive or ascending: the Galatians treated him as if he were an angel of God, and even as if he were Christ Jesus himself. Ehrman claims that the construction requires an equating of the two referents, but this is incorrect. For example, in Psalm 35:14 (34:14 LXX) the same construction appears in the statement that the psalmist treated others “as a friend, as our brother” (hōs plēsion hōs adelphon hēmeteron; for other examples see Ps. 83:13 [84:14 LXX]; Song of Sol. 1:5; Isa. 53:2; Ezek. 19:10). Earlier in the same passage in Galatians, Paul has just spoken of two divine persons sent from heaven by God:

But when the fullness of time had come,
God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,
to redeem those who were under the law,
so that we might receive adoption as sons.
And because you are sons,
God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts,
crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:4-6 ESV)

The “angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament is never called God’s “son,” and Paul never clearly calls Jesus an angel. It therefore is an uphill climb to make a case for Ehrman’s view that Paul held to a Christology in which Jesus was an angel come in the flesh. But without this piece of the puzzle, Ehrman’s case for an evolution (albeit a very rapid evolution!) of Christology from an exaltation model to an incarnation model has a glaring missing link.

Bird and Friends: How God Became Jesus

Bird, Evans, Gathercole, Tilling, and Hill all make commendable contributions to the collaborative response to Ehrman in How God Became Jesus (to which parenthetical page numbers refer in this section). Since I am interested in the New Testament issues, I will not be commenting further on Hill’s chapters.

Unfortunately, there are significant gaps in How God Became Jesus, given its purpose of critiquing the argument of Ehrman’s book. The most egregious omission is the lack of any response to Ehrman’s fifth chapter, in which he explains why he thinks the resurrection of Jesus cannot be accepted on historical grounds. Apparently, no one was available to address Ehrman’s arguments concerning Jesus’ appearances, the central issue in that chapter.

Michael Bird’s chapter responding to Ehrman’s view of “divine humans” in antiquity, in my estimation, is less than satisfactory. I agree with Bird’s position and usually agree with his arguments; unfortunately, he gives very little in the way of direct response to Ehrman. For example, he spends two pages discussing the angelic figure Metatron (31-33), which is never mentioned in Ehrman’s book, while giving barely seven lines to dismissing the relevance of Philostratus’s account of Apollonius of Tyana on the grounds of its lateness (26), despite the fact that Ehrman makes Apollonius “exhibit A” in his argument. Neither Bird nor any of the other contributors engage Ehrman’s extended discussions of the relevance of the Roman emperor cult for the origins of belief in Jesus as divine. Most of Bird’s response to Ehrman regarding angelic intermediate figures emphasizes Jesus’ authority over angels (36-39), a line of argument that fails to engage Ehrman’s position, which is not that Jesus was viewed as simply one of the angels but that he was regarded as the chief angel, who would of course be over all of the other angels. I must also express some concern about Bird’s excessive attempts at humor, such as this statement: “The Jewish people in the Roman era had an acute case of ‘mono,’ not mononucleosis from playing spin the bottle with dirty Gentile teenagers, but monotheism and monolatry” (30). Some readers may like these unpredictable gag lines, but I find them distracting. A more helpful critique of Ehrman’s views on monotheism, though not engaging enough of the specific texts, comes in the first of Tilling’s two chapters (122-29).

Bird’s chapter on whether Jesus viewed himself as God (45-70) is rather better. Bird does an especially good job in rebutting Ehrman’s claim that Jesus viewed himself as the future Messiah but not as the Son of Man (61-66). Bird also helpfully shows that in the Old Testament the coming of the Messiah was described also as the coming of God, finding this theme notably in Isaiah 40:3 and mentioning John the Baptist’s use of that text (54-57). If only Bird had closed the circuit of the argument and explained why the citation of Isaiah 40:3 in the context of the Synoptics indicates that Jesus is himself the Lord coming to his people! Unfortunately, this chapter also has some glaring omissions and one regrettable miscue. Bird does not address Ehrman’s basic characterization of Jesus’ proclamation as that of an impending apocalypse that proved false when Jesus was executed by the Romans. Obviously, if Jesus’ prophetic message was false, he could not really have been divine. Bird also misrepresents Ehrman as claiming that a saying of Jesus was authentic “only” if it was dissimilar to Christian belief (50). In fact, Ehrman claimed that a saying was “more likely” to be historically authentic if it was out of sync with the conventional Christian belief. I should also mention that some evangelicals will find Bird’s assessment of the historical reliability of the Gospel of John to be too cautious. “Many of its unique sayings about Jesus are probably based on a mixture of memory, metaphor, and midrash” (68).

As I have already mentioned, Craig Evans’s treatment on the burial of Jesus is the stand-out chapter of the book. Evans rightly criticizes Ehrman’s argument from silence regarding the omission of the name of Joseph of Arimathea from the pre-Pauline confession of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 (90-91). Evans shows, against Ehrman, that rabbinical and Qumran texts attest to the Sanhedrin taking responsibility for the burial of executed criminals (80-81, 88-89). This means that the supposed discrepancy between Acts 13:29 and the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial (even Luke’s account!) evaporates. Evans is especially in his element when he documents painstakingly from both literary and archaeological evidence that burial in a tomb was not, as Ehrman had argued at length, inconsistent with Roman policies and practices regarding criminals who were crucified (73-80, 83-86). This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

Gathercole does a satisfactory, competent job of critiquing Ehrman’s arguments for a primitive “exaltation Christology” that regarded Jesus as simply a man whom God exalted at his resurrection. He presents a brief overview of his argument for the preexistence of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels and a brief but good rebuttal to Ehrman’s claim that in Mark Jesus was adopted as God’s son at his baptism (96-99). Gathercole also shows that Ehrman’s method of extracting a non-Pauline Christology from Paul (Rom. 1:3-4) and a non-Lukan Christology from the speeches in Acts (Acts 2:36; 13:32-33) is question-begging (103-110). The one issue that does not receive attention is the virgin birth of Jesus.

Finally, Tilling’s two chapters are frustratingly thin when dealing with the specific texts of the epistles covered in Ehrman’s corresponding two chapters. This is largely due to the fact that he devotes one of his chapters to global issues, critiquing Ehrman’s “interpretive categories” (117-33), and so has little room left apparently for engaging the texts. (As noted above, Tilling does give some of the most helpful critical replies to Ehrman’s views on monotheism.) In that chapter he does give about a page to criticizing Ehrman’s use of Galatians 4:14 (121-22), yet without offering any exegesis of the text! Instead, an endnote refers the reader to other publications (223 n. 15). Tilling faults Ehrman for not providing extended exegesis of New Testament passages other than Philippians 2:6-11, a criticism that ironically would apply more to Tilling’s material than to Ehrman’s (147-48). And I must confess some irritation at Tilling dismissing the relevance of Romans 9:5—even questioning whether it does refer to Jesus as God (144-45)—instead of showing from the context that Paul’s wording reveals Jesus to be the supreme God of all, not his lieutenant angel.

Conclusion

The doctrine that God became man is not a late development in the history of Christianity. It is found, in one way or another, on practically every page of the New Testament. This is why, in the book I co-authored with Ed Komoszewski on the deity of Christ, we cited every book and nearly every chapter of the New Testament. What we did not do, overtly, in that book was to present that material in a chronological, historical manner, in order to address skeptical arguments for the development of divine Christology in the New Testament. There is still good work to be done in this area.

Ehrman has done the church a service by reminding us that the issues of the resurrection of Christ and the deity of Christ are inextricably linked. He has also thrown down a challenge to Christian scholars to make the case for both of these truths in a fresh way that engages the evidence within a broader range of religious studies. Ehrman may be at his most polemically effective when he asks why we should believe in Jesus’ resurrection but not in Marian apparitions or the first vision of Joseph Smith. It is perhaps understandable why professional New Testament scholars skirt or simply miss these questions, which are never addressed in How God Became Jesus. That is too bad, because a critical engagement with those comparative religious studies subjects can only help the cause of Christian scholarship. In a society increasingly aware of the multiplicity of competing religious claims in the intellectual and spiritual marketplace, we cannot afford to ignore those questions.

NOTES

[1] Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2014).

[2] Richard E. Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight Over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1999); Larry W. Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005). A much earlier book with the same main title as Ehrman’s was Conrad Henry Moehlman, How Jesus Became God: An Historical Study of the Life of Jesus to the Age of Constantine (New York: Philosophical Library, 1960), by a liberal Baptist theologian.

[3] Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, and Chris Tilling, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014).

[4] Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013). See also Are You the One Who Is to Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009); Jesus Is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).

[5] General readers will be especially interested in the following books by Craig A. Evans: Jesus and the Ossuaries (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2003); Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006); Holman QuickSource Guide to the Dead Sea Scrolls (Nashville: B&H, 2010); and Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012). Evans is also the editor of numerous academic reference works, perhaps most notably The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (New York: Routledge, 2010).

[6] Simon J. Gathercole, The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). See also The Gospel of Judas: Rewriting Early Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[7] Chris Tilling, Paul’s Divine Christology, WUNT 2/233 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012).

[8] Charles E. Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). See also his earlier work The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[9] Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, 172-73, 199.

[10] Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperOne, 2012).

[11] Daniel B. Wallace, in The Reliability of the New Testament: Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace in Dialogue, ed. Robert B. Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 28-29.

[12] As suggested in Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 252. Wallace’s suggestion that angelon is to be taken as definite (“the angel of the Lord”) is possible but seems less likely when Gal. 4:14 is read in light of Gal. 1:8 (“but even if we or an angel from heaven…”), since the two texts are thematically related.

[13] On this passage, see Robert M. Bowman Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 88-89.

[14] Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, 11-18.

[15] Ibid., 27-34, 48-49, 234-35.

[16] Ibid., 99-112.

[17] Ibid., 97-98.

[18] On Romans 9:5, see Bowman and Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place, 146-48, and the references cited there, and now George Carroway, Christ Is God Over All: Romans 9:5 in the Context of Romans 9-11, Library of NT Studies 489 (London: T&T Clark, 2013).

[19] See the scripture index in Bowman and Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place, 376-92.

53 Responses to “How Jesus Became God—or How God Became Jesus? A Review of Bart Ehrman’s New Book and a Concurrent Response”

  1. This is a very good post, thanks for the summaries and engagement. I’ll be curious to see how Ehrman interacts with high Christology scholars, like Hurtado and others, in arriving at his conclusions. The book will provoke good conversations, like usual, and provide opportunities to share the actual events of history to those interested in hearing.

  2. Rob,

    This is a very good, and thorough, review of both books. It seems to me that How God Became Jesus, though commendable as you say, doesn’t really live up to its purpose. Besides your and Komoszewski’s Putting Jesus in His Place, what else would you recommend in response (though not directly) to Ehrman’s latest book?

  3. The discussion about visions is interesting. I’m curious for your take. There is a lot of emphasis in the NT on “visions,” even appearances of Jesus in visions after the ascension (e.g., Rev 1:10-20). It seems like the ascension should bring closure to resurrection appearances, but they continue happening. Paul on the road to Damascus, and he calls it a vision in Acts 26:19 (and yet Paul includes his vision of Jesus in 1 Cor 15:3-8 as if it’s the same kind of thing everyone else experienced). But also, the Lord appears to Paul in a vision again later in Acts 18:9-10 in Corinth and again in Acts 23:11 in Jerusalem. And other visions occur throughout Acts (Ananias in Acts 9:10-16; Paul in Acts 9:12 having a vision of Ananias coming; Acts 10:3-6 Cornelius; Acts 10:9-17 Peter; Acts 12:9 Peter wasn’t sure if the angel releasing him was “real” or a “vision”; Acts 16:9-10 Paul in Troas had a vision of a Macedonian man). Also 2 Cor 12:1-10. That’s a lot of visionary experiences in the NT. Curious for your take on these and how you understand these compared to resurrection appearances in the gospels and 1 Cor 15:3-8.

  4. T’sinadree, on the Resurrection, I would recommend Michael Licona’s book _The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach_. On the deity of Christ, in addition to the book Ed and I wrote, I do recommend Richard Bauckham’s book _God Crucified_, Gordon Fee’s book _Pauline Christology_ (though I disagree with him about Romans 9:5 and Titus 2:13), and Larry Hurtado’s book _Lord Jesus Christ_, for starters.

  5. S.F., not all visions are the same type. John’s vision in Revelation 1 is an apocalyptic vision involving heavy use of symbolic imagery; he did not literally see Jesus there.

    The vision in Acts 18:9-10 is said to be a night vision in which Paul received a message from Jesus; we don’t know what Paul actually saw, whether he literally saw anyone. I don’t think he did. “Seeing in a vision” is likely something other than a literal bodily presence of the person who is being seen. This would apply to Ananias’s experience in Acts 9 as well. Peter’s vision in Acts 10 is explicitly said to occur while he was in a trance (Acts 10:10), and what he saw was a symbolic vision representing the message to open the gospel to Gentiles. The word used for “vision” in these texts, _horama_, is used only by Luke for these visionary experiences in Acts, and never for anyone seeing the risen Christ.

    Paul’s vision described in 2 Corinthians 12 is clearly not a bodily appearance on earth of the risen Jesus, so I don’t think that’s relevant.

    Acts 23:11 sounds a little more like a literal, bodily appearance; it might be. It is not described as something Paul “saw in a vision.”

    I don’t know of anything in the Bible that would preclude a bodily appearance of Christ following his ascension. He’s God, after all.

    For the most part, the texts you cited are not like any of the resurrection appearances. Those involving figures such as angels do not report the figure touching people, eating food, walking along a road, showing people his hands and feet, and the like. The visions are usually highly symbolic or are night visions, which might just be dreams.

  6. Ok. What’s your take on Acts 26:19 where Paul refers to his Damascus Road experience as a “vision” (optasia), and then in 1 Cor 15:3-8, Paul includes his experience of seeing Jesus along with the others as if it’s the same type?

  7. Hi there again S.F. The Greek word _optasia_ is a general term that can refer to seeing something that is actually there physically or to something like a spiritual visionary experience. For example, the sun appearing at dawn is called _optasia_ in Sirach 43:2. Context is more definitive than the word in the abstract.

    With regard to 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, I would certainly agree that Paul treats his testimony of seeing the risen Christ as of equal relevance to that of the others listed. Was it the same “type” of experience? Not necessarily. But it was similar enough that Paul could use the same verb, _ophthe_ (“appeared”), for his and their encounters. In any case, what all of the apostles and other witnesses came away with was that Jesus had risen from the dead.

  8. Forgetting all the rest of the disciples as those with vested interests in seeing Jesus after his death (bereavement visions – even I have had those on two occasions) Paul stands out as the best independant witness to the resurrection that literally turned his life about on the Damscus Road. He was on his way to persecute more believers not being one himself. But he was abolutely loyal to God as he conceived Him to be. That loyalty was turned to embrace Christ as the Lord. I dont know why this bit is always ignored by critics.

  9. Hi T’sinadree,

    Just for some balance, you might also want to consider James McGrath’s The Only True God, James Dunn’s Christology in the Making and JAT Robinson’s The Human Face of God.

  10. Rob,

    Big fan of Putting Jesus In His Place, btw!

    I think a better answer to BE’s appeal to Galatians 4 would be to argue that Paul, like other NT authors, tends to cite or allude to OT texts featuring YHWH, which includes texts about a personally distinct visible angel claiming to not only represent but actually be YHWH. Sometimes such a visible-YHWH is described as the angel of YHWH, and sometimes an entity called that doesn’t seem to be YHWH but ‘only’ a messenger; but the citations and allusions by Paul (and others) routinely ignore examples of non-YHWH angels-of-YHWH.

    So if Paul is equating Christ Jesus, in that phraseology, “as” the angel of YHWH (where “lord” stands for YHWH as demonstrably often happens referentially in Paul and other NT authors), then it would make sense to infer (in lieu of qualifying evidence otherwise) that Paul is doing his usual thing here, too, of synching Jesus personally with that figure which made very strong claims to be YHWH Most High yet seemed personally distinct.

    Or if typical grammatic usage, as you suggest, indicates an a fortiori progressively increasing comparison, then we have Paul putting Christ Jesus above something called the angel of YHWH — which in comparative context would mean above any non-YHWH angel-of-YHWH, and there’s only one feasible slot above that: the YHWH angel-of-YHWH Whom Paul regularly elsewhere connects referentially with Jesus Christ.

  11. The basic problem is that we need to distinguish between that which is PLAUSIBLE and that for which we have evidence. I could come up with a plausible scenario for why kingdom A attacked kingdom B in 1000 B.C., but do I have evidence? In fact, I could come up with three mutually exclusive scenarios, each of them plausible, with no evidence for any of the three. Bart Ehrman, the Jesus Seminar, et al. continually spin plausible scenarios, without real evidence, because there is so little evidence outside of the New Testament as to what happened in the life of Jesus and the early life of the church. They are mostly guided by anti-supernatural prejudice. Based on their prejudices, the virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, and claims of divinity MUST have been concocted later by the followers of Jesus. So they concoct the most plausible scenarios that fit these assumptions. But, evidence? Forget it.

  12. Another comment: I think that Evangelical apologists are extremely WEAK when they systematically explain away all other supernatural events as illusions or delusions.

    Like Jacques Valleed, I believe we are probably vistited by weird and deceitful beings who can change their appearance at will and take the form of a fairy, UFO or whatever.

  13. Jason, your view is a possible one. What we both recognize is that Ehrman’s use of Galatians 4:14 to attribute to Paul an Arian-type Christology is a non-starter.

  14. lotharson,

    I think you mean Jacques Vallée.

    Evangelicals and Ufologists both have their worldviews. One must look at all of the evidence in broad contexts in order to assess which is the more plausible.

    The theory that multidimensional visitations explain UFOs, Marian apparitions and miracles, Joseph Smith’s visions, etc., etc., is not that far away from the view that some evangelicals have that explain all these things as demonic. In both instances there are actual beings from outside our three spatial dimensions who are responsible. I personally don’t think that demonic activity is the best explanation for all these things, but the idea is out there, and it might have some merit in a few instances.

    This book might be of some interest to you: http://www.amazon.com/Lights-Sky-Little-Green-Extraterrestrials/dp/1576832082

  15. I don’t believe that Paul ever says “that Jesus had appeared to him when Paul was still a persecutor of Christians.” That story is told in Acts. From all that Paul tells us, he could have converted before Jesus appeared to him.

  16. Vince, that’s a creative suggestion. I don’t think it fits a fair reading of 1 Corinthians 15:8-10 and Galatians 1:11-24. One must also ask what turned Paul around from being a persecutor of Christians to becoming a Christian. That it was an appearance of Jesus to him is the obvious explanation, and it seems to be what Paul says in Corinthians and Galatians.

  17. If one is going to talk about “testimony,” one must ask what Paul actually says, and he simply never says that he was a persecutor of Christians at the time that Jesus appeared to him. It is not implausible, but he doesn’t testify to it. Why should we think such an explanation obvious when countless opponents of Christianity have converted without requiring an appearance of the risen Christ. Paul could have been convinced by studying the scriptures or by the manner in which Christians behaved or any other of the usual ways that opponents of Christianity become convinced of its truth.

  18. Mr. Hart: You seem to think it likely that Luke simply lied repeatedly in the book of Acts. Do you have any evidence for this? If you can just assume that there was no road to Damascus conversion for Paul, regardless of what the book of Acts says, then what is the point of having any discussion about what the Bible says? Or do you believe the book of Acts and just have an interest in semantic nitpicking?

  19. Mr. Coleman,

    Do you believe that the difference between an eyewitness account and hearsay is merely semantic nitpicking?

  20. Could someone look into why my posts do not appear, about ten times today?

  21. Clark: I have the very same problem.

  22. VinceHart, I don’t understand your view unless you don’t believe the Bible is the inspired word of God. I have learned that we let Scripture interpret Scripture, and so, while your point may be a valid one when comparing primary sources, your argument strongly suggests you don’t carry a high view of Scripture. Still, even if you dismiss the idea of scriptural authority here and compare them as ordinary primary sources, while it is plausible that Luke was mistaken in his understanding of the exact timing of Saul’s conversion, it is more likely that they are in agreement when there is no apparent contradiction.

    Am I mistaken in your assessment?

  23. I don’t see how Psalms 35:15 refutes Ehrman’s reading of Galatians 4:14. A brother is a friend just as Jesus is an angel. Are you perhaps making an arbitrary distinction between family and friends, which entails a distinctly modern rather than ancient conception of friendship? The contemporary view that friends and family are two discrete groups is quite novel in the history of human relationships.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yn6xm

  24. Sorry that should be Psalms 35:14.

  25. Hello again, Donald.

    I actually made a mistake; the Greek text says “neighbor” (“neighbour” to you), not “friend.” Obviously, a “brother” is normally someone closer than a neighbor. The Hebrew has a word that can be translated “friend,” but also as “fellow” or “fellow-citizen” (other senses are also possible); the Greek “neighbor” appears to be an appropriate rendering of the Hebrew. That some sort of intensification or progression is intended is clear enough, especially in the Hebrew text, where the next line advances to comparing the psalmist’s feeling to that of grieving not just for a fellow or brother but for one’s mother. The Greek goes its own way at this point. The distinction I made, in any case, holds up. Normally a person is closer to his brother than to a friend, though of course there are exceptions (as Prov. 18:24 observes).

    I cited four other examples of the construction, so I think my argument rests securely on good exegetical evidence.

    Finally, your sociological argument seems overly clever by half; ancient people were extremely big on kin, and in fact modern society in the West has seen this emphasis on kinship weaken considerably. So you have the matter practically backwards.

  26. Vince, here is the order of events as Paul gives it in Galatians 1:

    * Paul was persecuting Christians (vv. 13-14)
    * God revealed his Son to Paul (vv. 15-16a)
    * Paul went away to Arabia and returned to Damascus without having consulted other people (vv. 16b-17)
    * Three years later he went to Jerusalem and met Cephas and James for the first time, meeting no other apostles (vv. 18-20)
    * He went to Syria and Cilicia, and was still unknown to the Christians in Judea (vv. 21-22)
    * The Christians in Judea heard that Paul, whom they had known as the one who had persecuted them, was now preaching Jesus (vv. 23-24)

    Where do *you* place Paul’s conversion in the above account? I can only see one place: verses 15-16a.

  27. Rob you remember me? I’m surprised. I am glad you are still going strong. I always enjoy your writing because you can summarise lots of information clearly and concisely, and are generally fair in representing the views of those you disagree with. I don’t often find your counter arguments very persuasive however. I didn’t know about your blog here. I only found it when looking for reviews of Ehrman’s new book.

    Did you get these books at the same time as everyone else, a couple of days ago? If so, then to have read both books, analysed them, and written this response is quite impressive.

    But I honestly don’t follow your argument about Gal 4:14 as the examples you give don’t demonstrate the second referent being a different kind than the first. Charles Gieschen also makes the case for Jesus being described as an angel in Gal 4:14 in his book Angelomorphic Christology.

    At one point in your review you ask JWs to “take note” that Ehrman is not supportive of their view, in relation to the theology of the gospel of John. Well that may be, but neither is he supportive of the Evangelical view, when it comes to the Synoptics, Acts, Paul or the rest. It seems that he argues for an adoptionist Christology in parts of Acts and the gospels and an angel Christology in Paul. Given that JWs believe Jesus became Messiah at his baptism and they believe he was a created angel in his persistence, these positions seem much closer to JW theology than Evangelical. Plus if Ehrman really thinks that the gospel of John paints Jesus as fully God in the later Trinitarian sense then he is simply mistaken. The subordinationist character of John’s gospel has long been noted, and for good reason. Jesus is “god” in the gospel of John, but he also distinguishes himself from the “true God”, his Farher.

  28. Rob,

    As I am sure you know, Galatians 1:16 is usually (if not overwhelmingly) translated “revealed his son in me” rather than “revealed his son to me” (although I understand that either translation is possible). In either case, a revelation is not the same thing as an appearance.

    What your chronology shows is that Paul was a persecutor before he became a Christian. It doesn’t show whether the appearance occurred while he was still a persecutor. It is not a point that Paul addresses or upon which he offers anything that can be characterized as testimony.

    I think that it is important to distinguish first hand accounts from second hand accounts–or third, fourth, fifth, or sixth hand accounts for all we know. I find that Ehrman is usually more careful about making those kind of distinctions than his critics are.

  29. Jay Breeding,

    I am not arguing that Luke is mistaken. I am arguing that it is incorrect to refer to an event that only Luke describes as “Paul’s testimony.” BTW, I don’t view the Bible as the inspired word of God.

  30. Vince, unless you are prepared to argue that Luke was mistaken (or worse), your objection to my understanding of Paul’s direct testimony in his epistles is moot.

    I agree that we should make careful distinctions between firsthand accounts and other types of accounts. I don’t have any reason to accept your bald generalization about Ehrman’s critics not being as careful as he is in that regard.

    What my chronology shows is that Paul was first a persecutor, then he had a revelation of Christ that was also his call to be an apostle, and only some time later did he become personally acquainted with the apostles and other Christians in Judea. There is no place in this chronology for Paul to have been converted through, say, being evangelized by other Christians. Paul specifically excludes any such thing. Also, a comparison of what Paul says in Galatians 1 with 1 Corinthians 15:8-11 makes it clear that the revelation of Galatians 1:15-16a (see also 1:1) was the same experience as Christ’s appearance to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. Hence I think we can say Q.E.D. as to whether Paul meant that his seeing the risen Christ was the precipitating event in his conversion.

  31. Rob,

    If you agree that we should make careful distinctions between first hand accounts and hearsay, why not just acknowledge that it is Luke’s testimony that Jesus appeared to Paul while he was still a persecutor of Christians rather than Paul’s? Your unwillingness to do so would seem to confirm what I have previously observed about Ehrman’s critics.

    Isn’t it much more likely that the revelation of Galatians 1:16 is the revelation of the gospel referenced four verses earlier in Galatians 1:12 rather than the appearance referenced to in 1 Corinthians 15? Isn’t a basic principle of interpretation to look to the immediate context rather than looking to other letters? If Paul had meant “appearance” rather than “revelation,” wouldn’t he have used that word?

  32. Rob: while I don’t believe that UFO are space aliens, I think (like the folks of ReasonToBelieve) that a small minority of cases are extremely reliable.

    It involves for example reliable witnesses having seen otherwordly beings and a spacecraft rapidly starting off.

    Consider this case which took place in France, my country of birth:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valensole_UFO_incident

    If the witness (a perfectly mentally stable person) had experienced extremely strong hallucinations without any reason, then I think that the same could be said about the early Christians.

    So if you believe that ALL UFO cases are delusions or illusions, you should draw the conclusion that the resurrection appearances were as well.

    You are not being consistent here.

    Cheers.

  33. Vince, if I thought Paul did not himself indicate that it was Christ’s appearance to him that turned him from persecutor to apostle, I wouldn’t say so. I just disagree with your parsing of his statements.

    Paul explicitly claims in 1 Corinthians 15:8 that Christ appeared to him. This appearance was foundational to his being an apostle (9:1). The revelation Paul says he received in Galatians 1:16 included both the gospel *and* his call to be an apostle to the Gentiles, as 1:16 explicitly says. Paul calls it a revelation rather than an appearance because he is focusing on the nature of the message he was authorized as an apostle to proclaim. But it’s the same event.

    1 Corinthians 15:8-9 supports the same conclusion. Paul’s use of the word EKTRWMATI (untimely birth) indicates that the appearance of Christ to him came out of the time frame of the other appearances mentioned, that Paul was what we would call a Johnny-come-lately, and that it produced a sudden change of some kind. He then immediately says, “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (v. 9). While it is logically *possible* to make this statement cohere with the idea that Paul persecuted the church, then converted to Christianity, and only later saw the risen Christ, this is not the most natural reading of the text.

    What are you after: the most plausible understanding of what Paul says, or a way around it? I think this is a fair question. Do you accept Paul’s testimony that he saw the risen Christ?

  34. lotharson,

    I fail to see any inconsistency in my position. Let me correct you: I don’t view all, or even most, UFO sightings as delusions or hallucinations. I view most of them for what the evidence clearly shows they are, sightings of either natural phenomena or of man-made objects (such as weather balloons). This does leave a residue of reported sightings that are unexplained, in many instances simply because we do not have enough information, in a few instances perhaps because something was seen that doesn’t fit the two usual categories of natural and man-made.

    Why don’t you put your cards on the table? Are you arguing that I should believe in extraterrestrial beings or paranormal beings on the strength of UFO sightings? Or are you arguing that I should reject the Resurrection because the appearances can be explained away as hallucinations?

  35. Rob,

    “Indicate” is certainly a better word than “testimony” to describe the information that Paul communicates, although it is still hard to see how that indication is anything more than a possibility.

    The problem with reading an appearance into Galatians 1:16 (besides the fact that the word isn’t there) is that it wouldn’t have any bearing on whether Paul was still a persecutor of Christians at the time of the occurrence. A man as intelligent and devout as Paul would have been impressed with the behavior of his victims and he would have searched the scriptures in an effort to understand their beliefs. Surely you wouldn’t contend that such evidence wouldn’t be more than sufficient to convince him of the truth of the Christians’ beliefs. I can never understand how apologists can argue that an appearance is necessary to explain Paul’s conversion (or James’ for that matter). I can’t see any reason to read Paul as saying that he required any more evidence for conversion than any other Christian required. There is nothing implausible in Paul first experiencing revelations and appearances after coming to believe and nothing he writes precludes it. Moreover, it is consistent with how other enemies of the church have come to be believers.

    As I understand it, the word EKTRWMATI refers to a miscarriage or an abortion so if anything Paul may be describing his experience as premature rather than “Johnny-come-lately.” It really doesn’t make much sense to think that Paul is using the word because his appearance took place after all the others. Perhaps a better argument for your position is that Paul is describing his appearance as premature because it occurred before he was a follower of Jesus whereas all the others occurred to people who were already followers of Jesus. Still, it is far from unambiguous and there might be other reasons why Paul would describe his experience as a miscarriage.

  36. Rob,

    Speaking only for myself, my problem with understanding Vince was that I was thinking from a viewpoint that Scriptures are inspired whereas he was not. Yet Vince gives us a window to see how Ehrman thinks. From that starting point he is correct in that from our sources it is Luke’s account, and not Paul’s direct testimony, that Saul was confronted with the risen Christ while he was in route to Damascus to persecute the Christians there. Vince’s original objection was simply to your statement that it was Paul’s testimony that he saw the appearance of the risen Christ while he was still a persecutor of Christians.

    With that said, I do think that from his language in later posts Vince was suggesting that it is more likely that Paul was converted before the appearance by Jesus to him as described in 1 Corinthians 15. I think even if we abandon any idea of divine inspiration in either or both of these sources, we have a greater likelihood that it was Paul’s experience with Christ’s appearance to him on the road to Damascus that sparked his conversion process.

  37. Jay,

    If I only had Paul’s writings, I would guess that Paul had become convinced that Jesus was the Messiah based on studying the scriptures which he cites so frequently in support of his arguments. Having become convinced, it would be natural for him to pray for signs and revelations. He only refers to the appearance once and he doesn’t seem to be offering it as the basis for his beliefs. Rather, the appearance serves to confirm his apostleship.

    In my experience, Christians have a fondness for dramatic conversion stories, so I have to allow for the possibility that the author of Acts or someone else invented the story about Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus.

  38. Vince, the reason why Christians like dramatic conversion stories is because Paul’s story in Acts was so dramatic! You have things backwards.

  39. Let’s do this again:

    1. Paul was engaged in persecuting Christians (Gal. 1:13-14; 1 Cor. 15:9; Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2). He did so zealously, proudly, and confidently (Phil. 3:4-6).
    2. God called Paul by his grace and revealed his Son in or to Paul for the purpose of him preaching the gospel to the Gentiles (Gal. 1:12, 15-16a). This apparently happened in or around Damascus, judging from Galatians 1:17b (“returned once more to Damascus”); according to Luke, it was on Paul’s way to Damascus (Acts 9:2). In 1 Corinthians Paul says that Christ appeared to him (1 Cor. 15:8) even though he was not fit to be called an apostle (1 Cor. 15:9); the connection Paul makes here between the appearance and the calling to be an apostle (see also 1 Cor. 9:1) shows that this is another way of referring to the revelation of Jesus Christ he spoke of in Galatians 1:12, 15-16a. This is confirmed by Paul’s next statement in 1 Corinthians that he became an apostle “by the grace of God” (1 Cor. 15:10), compare Gal. 1:15.
    3. Paul went away to Arabia and returned to Damascus without having consulted other people (Gal. 1:16b-17). As noted above, this statement confirms that Paul’s encounter with Christ came in or around Damascus.
    4. Three years later he went to Jerusalem and met Cephas and James for the first time, meeting no other apostles (Gal. 1:18-20). He went to Syria and Cilicia, and was still unknown to the Christians in Judea (Gal. 1:21-22). The Christians in Judea heard that Paul, whom they had known as the one who had persecuted them, was now preaching Jesus (Gal. 1:23-24). Had Paul been a Christian for some period of time before his becoming an apostle, the Judean Christians would not have been so surprised by his apostolic work.

    The cluster of connections between Galatians 1:15-16 and 1 Corinthians 15:8-10 and the chronological mesh between these passages and Acts 8-9 supports the traditional understanding that Paul was persecuting Christians until Christ appeared to him. The abundant evidence for the historical reliability of Acts further supports this conclusion. On that point, see especially Colin Hemer’s _The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History_ and volume 1 of Craig Keener’s amazing commentary on Acts: http://www.amazon.com/Acts-Exegetical-Commentary-Introduction-1-2/dp/0801048362/.

  40. Rob,

    I understand your chronology perfectly well, but it doesn’t change the fact that nothing Paul says resolves the question of whether there was any gap between #1 and #2. I don’t think that anything in Paul directly contradicts the notion that the appearance occurred while he was still persecuting Christians, but he never says that it did and it is therefore inaccurate to claim that it is his “testimony” that it did.

    Apparently the Judean Christians were still surprised by Paul becoming an apostle three years after it happened since Galatians 1:23-24 refers to the time after Paul’s visit to Jerusalem. If they didn’t know that he had been an apostle during all that time, why should we think they would have known when he became a Christian?

  41. Vince,

    It would seem to me that just as a general matter, not even specific to the Bible, if you have the personal letters of someone that describe the events of their life, and a (more or less) contemporaneous writing puts two of the events described in close proximity to each other, one should probably accept that chronology absent a really good reason to think otherwise.

    As an example assume I had a letter from Mary Lincoln stating that her husband died after being shot in the head, and then assume I also had another letter from a third party stating that President Lincoln passed away early in the morning the day after he was shot in the head. In the absence of anything to the contrary or any good reason to doubt the second letter, wouldn’t the most reasonable conclusion be that the second letter gives the correct chronology of the events described in letter one? It would be rather odd to assert, absent some additional information, that Lincoln lived a month before succumbing to wounds wouldn’t it?

  42. Michael,

    I think that your analogy is a little strained in that people who die of gun shot wounds to the head frequently do so pretty quickly. Even so, we couldn’t claim that Mary Lincolns letter provides testimony that Lincoln died the next morning. That detail comes from another source.

    I think a better analogy might be someone who says “Before I found Christ, I was a drunkard. After I became a Christian, I was called to the ministry and I became a pastor.” I don’t think we would assume that the person meant to communicate that he entered the ministry immediately after his conversion. That might be the case, but it would be quite common for the conversion and calling to be separated by a considerable period of growth and reflection. If someone decades later wrote that the person decided to enter the ministry immediately upon his conversion, that would be less strong evidence than a first person report.

  43. Hey Nichael T,

    Bee na long time,but glad to hear you commenting again. I rarely ever read blogs anymore, but I so agree with your take on this one,

  44. Once again ehrman nails it…god is not the author of confusion…adam noah abraham moses authentic jesus and muhammad all taught pure monotheism….worship god only…’and for those who associate partners with the lord no measure[scale] will be set up for them their deeds in life are for naught’…sorry mother theresa

  45. Jonnathan Molina April 19, 2014 at 1:08 am

    Hello, Rob. Can you please explain a little bit more as to the importance of Evans criticizing Ehrman’s argument from silence about the omission of the name of Joseph of Arimathea from the pre-Pauline confession of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 (90-91)? I think you’re you saying that Ehrman was pointing out that the burial didn’t take place as described in the gospels because Paul never mentioned Joseph of Arimathea so Evans was basically calling him out on this not being an issue. Thanks for taking the time to write this blog for us and responding.

  46. Rob – you’re right about the Evans chapter!

  47. Jay Breeding May 3, 2014 at 9:21 am

    Thanks Dale for this link.

  48. Jonnathan, sorry I have not responded before now.

    I think you’ve got it. Ehrman tried to argue that if Jesus had been buried in Joseph’s tomb, then the pre-Pauline confession should have mentioned Joseph, just as it mentioned Christ’s appearance to Cephas. This argument is logically fallacious (because it is an argument from silence). There are other problems with it exegetically, which Evans does a good job of answering as well.

    Look at it this way. From the omission of an explicit reference to Joseph or his tomb in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, one could propose any of the following as possible explanations: (1) Paul denied Jesus was buried in a tomb, or at least denied it was in Joseph’s tomb, (2) Paul didn’t know about Joseph or the tomb or both, (3) Paul didn’t consider it important to mention Joseph for the purpose he was writing in this particular place, (4) the pre-Pauline confession didn’t mention Joseph because it focused on Christ and the apostolic witnesses, or (5) it didn’t mention Joseph for stylistic reasons. And I might not have thought of all the possible explanations. Ehrman insists only the first two possibilities are valid explanations. To make this case, he needs to refute the other three (at least). He didn’t.

  49. Hmm, I wonder what religion Sam is. :)

    Say, Sam, are you aware that Ehrman rejects the virgin conception and birth of Jesus?

  50. I assume also that Sam, although he says Ehrman “nails it”, nonetheless rejects Ehrman’s conclusion that Jesus actually died on the cross, since Muslims don’t believe that either. But on this issue I would agree with Sam that Ehrman nails it–he too nails Jesus on the cross and has him actually die.

Leave a Reply