The Bart Ehrman interview on ‘How Jesus Became God’

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.


DAVID: 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.


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.


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.


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

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

Video: Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer on the significance of Thanksgiving proclamation

Duncan Newcomer—author, theologian and Lincoln scholar—has written extensively about Abraham Lincoln, including various columns now indexed in our Abraham Lincoln Resource Page.

Duncan produced this 11-minute video explaining the significance of one of Lincoln’s most enduring decisions: the declaration of Thanksgiving. If you are planning to discuss this milestone in your small group—or perhaps you are planning to write about it—you will want to watch Duncan’s short talk.

In the opening of the talk, Duncan explains: “I want to help us look at Abraham Lincoln’s unusual Thanksgiving Day Proclamation—unusual because he instituted a nearly religious national holiday and unusual because of the values and ideas he used to do so. Lincoln’s two greatest speeches are the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. They have become American beacons of light from an extraordinarily dark time—our Civil War. The ideals enshrined in those speeches are enacted in at least two practical proclamations: The Emancipation Proclamation and this lesser-known Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. In these, Lincoln took practical steps toward the two goals of the Civil War: freedom and union.”

Click the video screen below to watch the entire, brief talk …

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Each of the 30 stories in this book includes a link to listen to the original radio broadcasts. The book is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle versions. ALSO, you can order hardcover and paperback from Barnes & Noble. In addition, our own publishing house offers these bookstore links to order hardcovers as well as paperbacks directly from our supplier.




‘Thanksgiving,’ a sample sermon about Abraham Lincoln


(Note from ReadTheSpirit: In this historic year of Lincoln remembrances—the Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer  is writing a series of columns about the legacy of our 16th president. Read more about Duncan at the end of this column. TODAY, Duncan provides a sample sermon about Abraham Lincoln, which we welcome you to share, use, discuss and even republish.)

Suggested Bible readings
Philippians 2:1-7

“This poor word”—that’s how Evelyn Underhill refers to “Thanksgiving” in her classic book Worship.

It’s true, isn’t it? A poor word.

What do we mean by “Thanksgiving”? Is it now just the meaningless name of a holiday for food, football and frenzied shopping? Just another annual trigger for stress and guilt? Who are we supposed to thank, anyway? And, for what?

And, the biggest question: Is the most frequently forgotten guest at our dinner tables—God?

I used to teach Family Medicine residents what they called “Behavioral Science.” One lesson was this: It is better not to tell patients, “Try to relax.” Trying to relax is a contradictory effort. “Just let yourself relax” might work better.

“Try to be thankful” suffers from the same kind of disappearing act: The harder we try, the less thankful we feel.

When Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 we got off on the wrong foot with the word “thanksgiving.” While I praise Lincoln for being a secular-religious prophet, one of the problems in translating religious sentiment into civil society is the language that is used. Thanksgiving in a synagogue, church or mosque means something that is hard to translate into society, even if it’s a great idea.

The word “thanksgiving” is a better verb than noun, but it really isn’t either. The word refers to an act: We give thanks. At my childhood dinners, oddly I thought, people were asked to “return thanks.” I wondered: Who took it? And, where were they hiding it? Was “thanks” the stolen goods needing to be returned before anyone is allowed to eat?

A new custom for our secular-religious time might be to ask people to bring an object to the Thanksgiving dinner table and to symbolically offer it up, to place it before us all, or even to give it away. Not exactly a sacrificial lamb or a first-born son, this would be a giving of thanks that fits the verb form of thanksgiving.

On the other hand, as is our custom, for a person to say words as a blessing may not mean what it could. We don’t often believe that someone has the power to bless us, to give us or a meal a blessing. I remember once being asked at a Thanksgiving table to “say the blessing” while Robert Penn Warren, our nation’s Poet Laureate, was sitting right across from me. I didn’t feel, as a young seminary student, that I could bless him, or anything near him, by giving my words. I feared, also, that I was the sacrificial offering.

Evelyn Underhill describes this poor word “thanksgiving” as an act in a holy place. It is a ritual act acknowledging the glory, the power and goodness, of the Creator. We are off on the wrong foot, it seems, if thanksgiving is about us. Ideally, this is a ritual act performed before the glory of God. It is, at least, about a higher power or a mystery that invites awe. A temple, a church, a mosque—a sacred place bigger than a house and home table—seems required.


At the core of thanksgiving is gratitude. Brother David Steindl-Rast says that gratitude is the heart of prayer. Our own value and worth is revealed in our feelings of being grateful. At a Thanksgiving meal or gathering, consider asking people to go around the circle and share what each is grateful for.

As these different stories of gratitude are voiced, a common feeling of gratitude forms. We are hearing inner stories that we treasure because they also represent our value and our worth—given as offerings as the stories are told. This practice encourages stories that are quite different from the typical heralding of our own powers and successes, for which we pretend to be thankful. Rather, we encourage stories that we humbly and honestly lay out side by side, building a common bond.

The King James translation of Psalm 90 invites such a practice: “Lord, thou has been our dwelling place in all generations. … We spend our years as a tale that is told. … So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

As the Psalmist indicates, our individual tales weave into a story of common destiny—moving from a shared origin to a shared journey for generations. Together, we move from individual thanksgiving toward a far larger story that makes the future, and our humility, possible.

To give thanks then is the opposite of pride in one’s self. It is a form of self-humbling that comes out of a full heart of gratitude. Somehow, filling up with gratitude empties us out of ourselves. Empty of ourselves, we seem held in one large … well, one large Something Else. You can name that mystery what you will.


This leads me to a story about the passage from Philippians and my relationship to Abraham Lincoln. This Thanksgiving I am filling up with gratitude for my life with Lincoln. It is making me thankful for, even to, Lincoln. Lincoln becomes an object of glory, of thanksgiving, for me. I’m not sure what to give—except more and more of my interest, attention, and the creativity of my responses.

I suppose I need to give thanks to God for giving me—for giving all of us—Lincoln. I start with my gratitude, which leads me to express thanks for the glory, the goodness, the greatness, of this one man. It is not that I see him as God or even as a god. But I do see the better angels of our nature so abundant in him that I am overwhelmed. The truth is, most of the people I know who read and write about him have this inner story and feeling, too.

Philippians 2:1-7 is a New Testament letter that is user friendly with Buddhism and with the mystic traditions that I know. It is about being of one mind, participation in the Spirit, and acting from humility, emptying yourself of yourself, as Jesus did. The word often used here is a Greek word, kenosis. Self-emptying.

Among Lincoln’s many values, it is his natural way of emptying himself that is the most astounding. He shows how such a spiritual quality has both personal and political power. You can be president and still be humble! Kenosis is pragmatic, for all its spirituality. As a boy, then later at the height of his power, and even as a soon-to-be-martyred president, Lincoln shed his ego self, that self we all have so much trouble letting go.

I love the story of big, strong, 13-year-old Abe Lincoln catching some of his friends—boys he grew up with—secretly making off with melons from his family’s melon patch. He easily could have beaten the boys and left them to nurse their bruises. Instead, he never stopped seeing these boys as his friends. He did startle them, but then he sat down among them—and helped them eat the stolen fruit!

At a moment when he could have vented his self-righteous power, he chose to share with mutual joy a common meal. The story is true to his nature and probably true to history. It could be seen as his first Thanksgiving meal. We see that same magnanimous nature brought to bear on the South at the end of the mighty war to restore the huge region of the Union that Southerners had tried to make off with. Lincoln never stopped seeing Southerns as fellow Americans and friends. Despite the war, they were not enemies, he insisted.

The biography of Lincoln is full of astonishing stories in which he moved beyond looking out for his own self interest—to look out for the interests of others, as Philippians describes: He emptied himself, seemingly every day in the final years of his life, and took on the form of a servant. His efforts changed the world: freeing slaves and establishing human equality as the theme of our national story. I am thankful that Lincoln remembered what America should be, re-imagined what America could become and then acted decisively to renew America.

Looking for a reason to feel awe at Thanksgiving? Try remembering how much we are all sons and daughters of his greatness to this day. I give thanks for Lincoln by reading and writing about him. Lincoln is my work, these days. I am full of gratitude that I get to feel close to his value and worth, his fulfilling humanity.

And, I am grateful for ReadTheSpirit and its readers who share with me in this expansion of self, this shared inner story, and the common destiny—one new story—made possible. I believe it is opening up a better future for all of us.



In 1999 Duncan earned a Doctor in Ministry in Preaching from the ACTS DMin program through the Chicago Theological Seminary. He has prepared various community resources, discussion starters and historical columns, which you can find in our extensive Abraham Lincoln Resource Page.

You are free to use, discuss, share and even republish this “sample sermon,” as long as you credit Duncan Newcomer and online magazine.

5 Tips about Preaching on Abraham Lincoln


(Note from ReadTheSpirit: In this historic year of Lincoln remembrances, we are inviting author, theologian and Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer to write a series of columns. Earlier, we posted Duncan’s video about Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving 150 years ago. You also will enjoy our extensive Abraham Lincoln Resource Page. TODAY, Duncan gives sage advice to the men and women preparing talks on Lincoln this autumn.)

Lincoln once exclaimed that when he heard a preacher, he wanted him to preach as if he were “fightin’ bees!” Arms a-wavin’! Feet a-jumpin’! Young Abe loved to stand on a tree stump, before his amused friends, and mimic such frontier preachers.

Those antics may have fueled the myth that Lincoln didn’t like preachers. In fact, the opposite was true: Throughout his life, Lincoln loved to question them searchingly; and he loved to attend and listen.

He just never professed and joined.

This is the sesquicentennial era for many of Lincoln’s greatest speeches and proclamations. Millions will be drawn to echo his words in congregations, even though Lincoln would be amused to think of his words as having sacred value. Yet Lincoln, almost like a high priest, created the nearly religious national holiday of Thanksgiving. Lincoln, almost like a prophet, addressed the nation’s grief with mercy and our offense of slavery with judgment.

These “5 Tips” are the first of several columns that I hope ReadTheSpirit readers, and our clergy colleagues nationwide, will find helpful in tackling the vast and complex subject of Lincoln. Please, share these columns with friends. (Print them out; use the blue-“f” Facebook buttons; use the envelope-shaped email buttons.)

From my own years of preaching, I know the daunting challenge clergy face: carrying a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. That’s how Karl Barth advised preachers to equip themselves. These days, I would add that we now need many hands to lift up all that must be held in mind.


1.) LINCOLN IS ALREADY THERE: He’s a popular preaching topic—but here’s a caution. There are many overt and closet Lincoln-lovers: men and women who have fierce and personal views of what is valuable about Lincoln. If you doubt this, just visit the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where there is a beautiful and almost human-sized statue of a shawl-draped Lincoln on a pedestal in one corner. Look closely. His fingertips are as shiny as new pennies from all the worshipers who have reached up and touched his extended hand. Many people love Lincoln.

2.) LINCOLN WAS A THINKER: Remember the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz who sang, “With the thoughts I’d be thinkin’—I could be another Lincoln, if I only had a brain.” Words from Lincoln are a library of nearly holy insights into love and death, war and peace, poetry and life. He was a secular humanist with a Calvinist mind set. His words still speak to the seeker, the spiritual independent. He talked of God without being a fundamentalist and he spoke of America without darkening our light upon the hill.

3.) POINT “YONDER” WITH HIM: Lincoln had what Carl Sandburg called a sense of “yonder.” He had a mystic sense of the value of our union as well as a prophetic sense of judgment about what he called “God’s almost chosen people.” Lincoln’s faith in the possibility of transcendence and transformation shaped his thinking, his vision and his actions—and fueled his great compassion. He continues to point us toward bridging seemingly impossible divisions and healing seemingly fatal wounds.

4.) LINCOLN WAS GROUNDED: He was, indeed, Honest Abe. Lincoln certainly was an ethical man as well as a moral thinker. Virtue defined him personally and politically. Yet he also was a realist. His blend of ethical vision and practical wisdom still can help us to define the doable good verses the ideologically absolute. Americans certainly can use a good dose of that today. Honest, yes, but Lincoln was so honest that he could deflate the arrogant, the idealist, the doctrinaire among us—often with a joke.

5.) FIND YOUR OWN LINCOLN: Everyone does. You may even feel that he is looking to find you. His visage is among the most beloved in American culture. Remember that this is more a matter of revelation than reason. Lincoln was so limited to his time and place that it may be as fruitless to ask “What Would Lincoln Do?” as it may be to pose the same question about Jesus. But the echoes of Lincoln’s ideas of equality, justice and the common future reveal deep truths about America’s potential. It is fitting that 50 years ago Martin Luther King, Jr., literally stood before Lincoln to deliver his great Dream. King was preaching Lincoln.

(Originally published by, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)