Bart D. Ehrman
San Francisco: Harper One, 2014. 416 pp., hardcover, $27.99
It’s hard to write a cliffhanger about Jesus. But in a way the noted New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman did that with his previous book, Did Jesus Exist? (reviewed in Quest, Spring 2013). Discussing the evidence for the historical Jesus, Ehrman stopped short of saying what he thought about the resurrection—the central claim of Christianity.
As he promised, however, he has dealt with this topic in his newest book, How Jesus Became God. Ehrman regards Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet much as many scholars have for the last 125 years. In this, he stresses, Jesus was nothing special; there were plenty of such prophets around. But, Ehrman writes, “what made Jesus different from all the others teaching a similar message was the claim that he had been raised from the dead.”
In saying this, Ehrman steers a middle course between the faithful, who say that Jesus really did rise from the dead, and the skeptics, who say that the resurrection was a legend that grew up after Jesus’s time. About the veracity of the resurrection itself, Ehrman points out, academic scholarship can say nothing. “When it comes to miracles such as the resurrection, historical sciences are of no help in establishing exactly what happened.”
Hence Ehrman argues not that Jesus was actually resurrected—this is a religious issue that he believes the historian cannot settle—but that the disciples had certain experiences that they equated with visions of the risen Jesus. And this, he contends, is all you can say when you are working with the rules of historical analysis. Such rules do not admit the possibility of miracles; at best, they can say that people believed that a given miracle had occurred.
This, in essence, is Ehrman’s argument. Taken this far, it is persuasive. Christianity cannot be understood, even historically, without accepting that the disciples must have had some experiences of this kind. After all, there were plenty of other messiahs running
around, and their followers were never able to create great world religions. Only the “Easter event,” as theologians sometimes call it, could explain this fact.
This issue takes up over half of How Jesus Became God and is by far the most interesting part. But the rest of the book has real value as well. It explores how over the centuries Jesus came to be proclaimed as fully God and fully man.
This question is a bit more difficult than you might think. Usually this process is seen as the gradual creation of a myth: little by little, Jesus grows from being a mere man (albeit a very special man) into the Second Person of the Trinity. But, as Ehrman shows, the picture is not so clear. For example, there is the problematic passage in Philippians 2:6–11, which may be dated as early as AD 56, and which speaks of Christ as a divine or semidivine being before he was incarnated on earth. Most scholars agree that this was a hymn that existed before Paul wrote this letter and that he is quoting it (probably with some side comments here and there). If so, this means that Jesus had been accepted as a semidivine being (an angel, say) very soon after his death—at least by some of his followers.
Ehrman takes his discussion forward to later parts of the New Testament and (briefly) to the theology of the church fathers, culminating in the proclamation of the Council of Nicea in 325 of Jesus as fully equal to and coexistent with the Father. But it is clear
that the Christology of the New Testament period is his chief interest, and it is in many ways of most interest to us.
Ehrman discusses how he personally went from being an evangelical Christian to becoming an agnostic, and his forthrightness about this fact is refreshing. I myself think his view of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet is deeply problematic, but that is a subject for something much longer than a review of this length. All in all, in How Jesus Became God, Ehrman again shows that he is among the most balanced as well as among the most readable of New Testament scholars.