The Bart Ehrman interview on ‘How Jesus Became God’

Cover of Bart Ehrman How Jesus Became God

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In Jesus, God became human.

That belief unites more than 2 billion Christians around the world. But it’s repeated so often that the astonishing nature of the affirmation ceases to produce the—”Wow!”—that such a universe-bending idea should evoke.

How did this affirmation of Jesus’s divinity first arise? How did it spread like wildfire among early Christians? Perhaps in answering those questions, readers may rediscover some of that original: “Wow!”

In his new How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, Bart Ehrman asks those provocative questions—the fresh approach that has made him a best-selling author. With each new book, he goes out into the field as “our” investigator, then he writes up his findings in books we can understand as general readers. He did this two years ago in his book, Did Jesus Exist? (Click this link to read our in-depth 2012 interview on that book.)

Let’s clear up a misunderstanding: Bart also is famous, now, as a religious skeptic or agnostic in his personal life. Some of his harshest critics argue that he shouldn’t dare to write about Jesus because he isn’t a true believer. In fact, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit and as a lifelong journalist, I regard Bart’s complete neutrality in his personal faith as his greatest asset. He has no personal interest in tearing down religion. On the contrary, he’s simply and honestly neutral on matters of belief as he unearths and assesses the ancient evidence.

Think of him as your favorite detective—perhaps Sherlock Holmes or the Bones forensic anthropologists or one of those CSI teams—digging into questions that deeply matter to billions of Christians around the world. He’s “our” detective, pursuing the truth wherever it leads through the dusty layers of evidence. Proof of his neutrality is that earlier book using historical evidence to prove Jesus’s existence. These days, critics of Bart’s work take nasty swipes at him as someone who is out to ruin Christianity—and that’s simply a misunderstanding of Bart’s work.

In fact, for Christian men and women who welcome probing questions, Bart’s new book is a fascinating look at early Christian evidence. Think of it as another “case” in the Bones series with all sorts of intriguing new bits and pieces laid out before us. (Except, in this case, you won’t have to cover your eyes at all the Bones gore!)

In this investigation, Bart asks a question that we all should explore: How did Jesus’s early followers (men and women who the Gospels say were often confused and fearful) finally reach their belief that Jesus—”Wow!”—really was God! Their growing awareness of this belief—and disputes about what this belief actually means—is the dramatic storyline that spans the New Testament. It’s a question central to the lives of Christians—and non Christians who care about global culture.

Regular readers of books by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan will find some similarities in the historical evidence described by Ehrman. One example is the way ancient Christians powerfully affirmed their faith in the divinity of Jesus by borrowing sacred phrases that had been reserved for the cult of the Roman Emperor. (John Dominic Crossan talks about this era of Christian history in our 2011 interview.) In the course of his research, Bart Ehrman diverges from Borg-Crossan in many ways. Overall, though, we can say: If you’re already a fan of Borg-Crossan, you’ll enjoy reading Ehrman’s new book.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH BART EHRMAN
ON ‘HOW JESUS BECAME GOD’

Bart Ehrman author of How Jesus Became GodDAVID: Traditionalist critics can get quite passionate in denouncing you—much as these critics do with other historically rigorous Bible scholars. So, let’s clear up a misunderstanding about your recent work: Contrary to what critics may claim, you’re not trying to convince readers to abandon Christianity. In this new book, you’re looking at a specific issue: How did ancient Christians come to believe that Jesus was divine?

BART: Communities of faith have theological beliefs that are at the heart of how they understand Christianity and that’s perfectly legitimate. But in addition to these sets of theological beliefs, Christianity is also a historical religion. It’s open not only to theological reflection but also historical investigation. This book is not a theological look at whether Jesus really was God. I’m interested here in understanding historically how and when Christians became convinced that Jesus was God.

In this book, I’m not taking a stand on whether Jesus is God or not. That’s a theological question that, of course, is deep at the core of Christianity and theologians continue to debate that question. I’m a historian. I’m not doing theology here; I’m doing history.

DAVID: From your critics’ perspectives, one big difference in their way of “doing history” is that they start by believing that the text of the Bible is an accurate account of history, covering exactly what happened thousands of years ago. You also study the biblical record, but you don’t regard everything in the Bible as literally documenting facts like we might expect from modern journalism, right?

BART: That is fair to say. It’s certainly my position that the Gospels need to be treated as historical documents. I also see discrepancies and conflicts between the Gospels. Our Gospels are not 100 percent accurate representations of everything that was said and done at the time.

The usual dating of this period is that Jesus is thought to have died around the year 30 and most scholars date the writing of the Gospel of Mark to around 65 or 70. Matthew and Luke are from about the years 80 and 85 and the Gospel of John is the last Gospel written around 90 or 95. Some scholars may disagree, but those are commonly used dates. What’s important to realize about this is that these Gospels were written many decades after Jesus walked the earth, and they almost certainly were not written by eyewitnesses. The stories in the Gospels had been circulating by word of mouth for all those years, before they were written down, and that affects how the Gospels tell the stories.

JESUS ‘IS NOT AN INVENTION OF MODERN TIMES’

DAVID: Your books actually can be read as a strong defense of some aspects of Christianity. Your last two books, read together, are a rebuke of some neo-atheists who claim that Christianity was a fraud and that Jesus may never have existed at all. Your research shows: Yes, Jesus certainly did walk this earth. And in this newest book, you write: “The idea that Jesus is God is not an invention of modern times. … It was the view of the very earliest Christians soon after Jesus’s death.”

BART: That’s absolutely right. It’s almost certainly not the case that somebody set out to make something up and invented all of this. Some of Jesus’s followers genuinely came to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. What produces their faith is that the disciples see Jesus after the crucifixion. The interesting question, I think, is: What led them to believe this? And I think that historians can agree—whether they are Christian historians or secular historians—that what started this powerful belief in Jesus’s resurrection was experiences of his followers believing that they saw him, or visions of him, after his death.

My own conclusion is that probably what happened is that some of Jesus’s disciples had these visions of Jesus among them and they told others and most of the others came to believe on the basis of these reports. Eventually, as the stories were told and retold, we get these stories of Jesus appearing to all of the disciples at one time and even the story of his appearing to hundreds of people.

JESUS VS. CAESAR

DAVID: Your book covers a lot of territory, so I want to ask you about some of the other really intriguing chapters of early Christian history people will discover here. You take us into the turbulent history of the Roman Empire. In this section of your book, readers of Borg and Crossan will recognize some points that they make, as well. For example: The early Christians dared to take phrases that Romans used to describe the emperor’s divinity—and began using them to describe Jesus Christ to make the point that Christianity was a radically different pathway than Roman ideology.

BART: This is something that I had known about intellectually for a long time, but it really nailed me between the eyes when I was traveling in Turkey, looking at the various archaeological sites and I was reading the ancient inscriptions calling Caesar Augustus a god. The reality was that, when Christians began using these same words about Jesus, this became a competition between Christians and the Roman Empire. The Christian God was being set over against Roman beliefs about the emperor.

CHRISTIAN VS. CHRISTIAN

DAVID: The early Christians weren’t just competing with Rome. The faith spread so rapidly—and took on so many different forms—that Christians were competing among themselves in describing Jesus’s divinity. You write about this dramatic push and pull. Early Christian leaders struggled to decide, among themselves, which Christian teachings would be considered orthodox and which teachings would be considered heresies.

BART: There absolutely were a lot of arguments! The Christian idea caught on very fast. It wasn’t a slow development, as we hear some people describing it. You’ll often hear people saying that Jesus, as the son of God, was something first enacted by a vote of the Council of Nicea in the year 325. That’s absolutely wrong.

Christians were calling Jesus God as early as there were Christians. But the moment people started making this claim, there were all sorts of questions: Was he a human who was elevated to divinity? Or, was he a pre-existent divine being who became human? Or, was he somehow both?

By the second Christian century, almost every Christian agreed that Jesus was a pre-existent divine being who became human. But then the debate became: If you have God and you have Jesus, then why don’t you have two gods? Christians insisted they were monotheists. So the debate went on and people looked for solutions to that question.

One solution was modalism, which insisted that God is one—but we perceive God in different modes just like I, myself, am a son, a brother and a father all at once. So, too, God is the father and the son and the holy spirit all at once. For modalists, God is just one, but God has these three different relationships with us.

DAVID: If readers are looking for more information on this Christian dispute, Wikipedia lists the entry under Sabellianism, which comes from the name of a popular preacher of this idea. This debate gets very tricky. How tricky? Consider this: I’ll bet that readers who think about the description you just gave of modalism may be thinking: Hmmm, that’s not a bad way of describing Christian beliefs, right? God is one—we just have three different relationships with God. But, modalism caused a big problem, right?

BART: Modalism ended up being declared a heresy because it didn’t allow for the distinctiveness of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The opponents of modalism asked: When Jesus is praying, then is he just talking to himself? That’s the kind of common question that arose about modalism.

DAVID: There were lots of other questions, too. Like: So, if God is just one being, then did God leave heaven to become Jesus? Was there no God “up there,” while Jesus was walking around “down here”? The debate got very contentious. And one of the loudest critics of modalism was a giant of early theology: Tertullian, who lived in Africa. We meet him in your book, as well.

He’s sometimes called the founder of Western theology, partly because he tackled “modalism” and developed the idea of “the trinity.” Talk about bitter debates today!? Terullian’s pen dripped acid!

BART: He didn’t just disagree with people—he skewered them! He had an acerbic wit and was rhetorically very powerful in attacking pagans and heretics and whoever was at the wrong end of his pens. No holds barred with Tertullian!

The traditional way of describing Tertullian is that he was trained as a lawyer and became a Christian and he certainly does have a legal kind of mind. Today, historians are less certain that he was a lawyer. He lived in Carthage in Africa and he is known as the father of Latin theology. All Christian theology up through the Middle Ages was done in Latin and he was the first church father who wrote long theological treatises in Latin.

Tertullian is regarded as the first to use the term “Trinity” in his debate with the modalists to insist that God was three distinct persons who are three in number but are completely unified in purpose. This was the first time we know of someone using the term “Trinity” in this particular way. Later theologians would disagree with some of Tertullian’s arguments, but he was very important in developing this idea.

DAVID: The matter wasn’t even settled by the time Tertullian died around the year 225. I would suggest that, if readers enjoy your book, they should continue by reading Philip Jenkins’ fascinating books The Jesus Wars and then Jenkins’ Lost Christianity. In his books, Jenkins takes us into the incredibly turbulent Christian eras that come after your book ends.

BART: You’re right that this went on for a very long time. I end my book by explaining that even the Council of Nicea didn’t resolve everything in the year 325. It just raised new questions—and the whole process continued through the centuries.

DAVID: So, as you move forward in your own work, what’s next? Despite what critics may say, your books are very popular with readers nationwide.

BART: There’s so much more I want to write. Right now, I’m debating which book to write next. One choice is to write about the question: How did Christians get an “Old Testament”? The Christian Old Testament is made up of Jewish scriptures and how did the development of this Christian Old Testament affect relationships with Jews who saw this as their Bible?

Another option is that I’ve become really interested in questions of memory and how people and entire cultures remember their stories. There’s a big question about how people retold stories about Jesus in the oral tradition. How did they do this? How did they preserve the stories? I haven’t seen any historians come up with a good overall theory for how these oral traditions about Jesus were transmitted.

I’m feeling energized about what I’m doing and how readers are responding. I put a lot of energy into my research and then into writing these books. I intersperse popular books, like this new one, with publishing serious scholarship. If I were just doing one kind of writing, I would get tired. But I do several forms of writing: popular books, scholarly works and also textbooks for college students.

So, I’ve got a lot of energy to move on to these next projects.

Care to read more about Bart Ehrman?

Ehrman uses his personal, online columns to raise money for nonprofit work combating hunger and homelessness. So far, he says, he has raised $60,000 for these causes. You can find his blog at www.ehrmanblog.org.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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