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Adoptionistic Christologies

For some posts now I have been talking about “docetic” Christologies in the early church – views of Christ that said he was so much divine that he was not really a human – and about how these influenced proto-orthodox scribes who changed their texts of scripture in order to show that, by contrast, Christ really was a flesh and blood human being.   I would now like to shift to the other end of the theological spectrum to discuss Christological views that insisted on the contrary that Christ was fully human, so much so that he was not actually, by nature, divine.

Sometimes these Christologies are called “adoptionistic,” because in them Christ is portrayed not as a divine being who pre-existed before being born of a virgin, but as fully and completely and utterly human, a very righteous man who was born like everyone else and who was by nature like everyone else, but because of his special devotion to God was “adopted” by God to be his son and, as the one who had been adopted, was called by God to perform a special task, to die for the sake of others.  Christ did so, and afterward God rewarded him by raising him from the dead.

It can be argued – in fact, I would indeed argue – that some such view was the very earliest understanding of Jesus in evidence in the New Testament writings, and even more than that, that this was the original Christology, held by Jesus’ own followers immediately upon their “realization” that he had been raised from the dead.  For the original disciples of Jesus, it was at the resurrection that Jesus became the Son of God.

Later – but well before the New Testament books were written – some Christians…

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Was Christ God? The View of Jewish-Christian Ebionites
Are Their Any Completely Anti-Heretical Manuscripts?



  1. Avatar
    mikehamm123  October 14, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, what do we know what Jesus’s brother James taught about Christ’s divinity (and when he became divine)?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2015

      I”m afraid we really don’t know for certain. My personal hunch is that he believed that Jesus was made the son of God at the resurrection, but it is almost impossible to prove.

      • Avatar
        mikehamm123  October 16, 2015

        Thank you.

        Now imagine the sibling rivalry issues in that family…

  2. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  October 14, 2015

    The adoptionistic Christologies make so much more sense in regards to Jesus ministry, especially his family and hometown’s apparent bewilderment. If he was really “The son of God” at birth, it seems they would have all been his greatest supporters from the beginning, The later support of his brother James also makes better sense. If he was God’s son from the beginning, his family and neighbors testimony would make up a good portion of the beginning chapters of the existing Gospels and there would be other Gospels written by members of his childhood community, with titles like “The Gospel of the Guy that Sold Jesus Family Wine Skins” or the “Gospel of the Nazarene Fletcher”.

    • Rick
      Rick  October 22, 2015

      Probably would not have had Mark 3:21 where his family thought he was nuts either!

  3. Avatar
    WimV  October 14, 2015

    I just came across such an older adoptionist view in Peter’s speech in Acts (10:38) when he talks about which message spread throughout Judae in the beginning of the movement: “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Not only does this passage say that God adopted Jesus and gave him power, but also that Jesus could only heal people after that moment because now “God was with him”.

  4. Avatar
    RAhmed  October 14, 2015

    In an earlier post, you talked about how Luke viewed Jesus as a “great prophet”. Over here, and in other occasions, you have mentioned that Luke viewed to be the literal son of God. Does this mean that Luke viewed Jesus as a literal half-human/half-god being that was also a prophet? Or does Luke view Jesus as completely human and the title “son of God” is to be understood in a strictly Jewish way?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2015

      Yes, he thought Jesus was both!

      • Avatar
        RAhmed  October 16, 2015

        Is the idea that Luke viewed Jesus as half-god coming solely from the virgin birth narrative? Because in Luke’s genealogy, Jesus still has a human father. Luke also has Mary saying “Your father I have been anxiously searching for you” referring to Joseph. So wouldn’t this imply that Luke viewed Jesus as completely human?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 16, 2015

          Yes, the genealogy is a problem. My view is that it is how Luke originally began the book (baptism-genealogy), and that someone taked chs. 1-2 on later in a second edition.

  5. Avatar
    Joseph  October 14, 2015

    I understand your argument that the speeches in acts represent a different christology. I’m curious of the methods used to show that these speeches are early, as opposed to just an alternative christology around the time Luke/Acts was written. Is it because of Pauls letter to the Romans? (Rom 1:4)?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2015

      Ah, complicated question! But I deal with it in my post of Feb. 7, 2013, if you want to give it a look.

  6. Avatar
    hgb55  October 14, 2015

    I listened to a radio debate about the historicity of Jesus. Richard Carrier argued in the debate that the strongest reason to think that Jesus never existed is because Paul wrote that Jesus had a pre-existence. Carrier said pre-existence indicates that Jesus was initially just a mythical idea that eventually evolved and coalesced into stories about a flesh and blood Jesus.

    But weren’t there philosophical and religious concepts in the ancient Mediterranean world from about 500 BCE to 500 CE about the pre-existence of real humans before they were born? For example, didn’t Plato write that he and other real humans pre-existed their birth on Earth, which might have been an idea going all the way back to the time of Pythagoras? And wouldn’t the study of Platonic writings and concepts have been required activities in order to become an educated person like Paul and the Gospel authors?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2015

      Yes, I’m afraid that’s a silly argument. Paul believed Christ pre-existed. But that means he pre-existed *before he was born.” Because Paul definitely thought Jesus was born, as he himself says (Gal. 4:14). So for him, Jesus existed.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 16, 2015

      With all due respect to Dr. Richard Carrier, I’m afraid Carrier has no idea what he’s talking about. It’s pretty clear from his writings that Carrier has no understanding of the ancient Jewish religion or culture or the Hebrew language specifically. There are several flaws with his argument, but the really major one is if we are to presume that Paul didn’t actually think that Jesus was ever a flesh and blood human being, then Paul’s entire eschatological message would become complete nonsense. An important chunk of Paul’s letters are taken up with Paul defending the coming resurrection of the dead. Christians from the churchs he had founded were concerned about how, exactly, their fellow Christians “who had fallen asleep” (i.e. died) while awaiting Jesus’ return could possibly be resurrected from a dead physical body into a spiritual body. So Paul would then point to Jesus as an example. “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep…But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming” (1 Cor. 15:20, 23) What Paul means by “first fruits” is that was Jesus merely the first of the faithful to physically die, in a flesh and blood body, and to be resurrected, in a spiritual body. Hence, simply look to the example of Jesus, and that’s exactly what’s going to happen to the faithful on the day of mass resurrection. Now, if Paul didn’t actually believe that Jesus was at some point an real flesh and blood human being, then none of Paul’s use of Jesus’ resurrection as a defense of the coming mass resurrection of dead would make one bit of sense. It would be like Paul saying, “I know your human christian friends and families have died, but trust me that they will be raised from the dead, just the way Jesus, who is as a spiritual being only symbolically died and was raised from the dead.” Paul’s readers would have found this argument just as lame as it sounds to us.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 14, 2015

    I don’t believe Jesus was divine. But for those who do believe, I think it makes more *sense* to say either that he was made divine at his Resurrection (as a reward for the life he’d led and the death he’d accepted), or that he was a preexistent divine being. *Why* would he have been made divine at the very beginning of his ministry, or at his birth or conception? He hadn’t yet *done anything* to merit it!

  8. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  October 15, 2015

    hello bart

    in your opibion what made adoptionistic to loose against trinitarians

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2015

      Christians increasingly saw Christ in more exalted terms, as fully divine.

  9. Avatar
    madmargie  October 15, 2015

    I really enjoy your posts, Doctor Ehrman. You make such good sense. I quote you quite often and some of the people of my church probably think I am a heretic. 🙂 However, I have a great congregation and they love me anyhow.

  10. Avatar
    moose  October 15, 2015

    Mr. Ehrman
    What is your view of 1 Corinthians 10: 1-4

    Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; 2 And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 And did all eat the same spiritual meat; 4 And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.

    Here we see that Paul identifies YHWH from Exodus with Christ!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2015

      It is generally thought that he is not identifying Christ *as Yahweh* but as a second divine being along with Yawheh.

      • Avatar
        moose  October 16, 2015

        Mr. Ehrman.

        I think that in the end there is probably no one who will know the correct answer. Maybe you’re right. Let me just point out what makes me think “The Rock” in the Corinthians refers to Yahweh.

        A number of Psalms uses the term “Rock” for the Israelites God. But the most striking is Deuteronomy 32.

        3 I will proclaim the name of the Lord.
        Oh, praise the greatness of our God!
        4 He is the Rock, his works are perfect,
        and all his ways are just.
        A faithful God who does no wrong,
        upright and just is he.
        15 They abandoned the God who made them
        and rejected the Rock their Savior.
        30 How could one man chase a thousand,
        or two put ten thousand to flight,
        unless their Rock had sold them,
        unless the Lord had given them up?
        31 For their rock is not like our Rock,
        as even our enemies concede.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 16, 2015

          Yes, Paul wants to affirm that the pre-incarnate Christ was the rock (a diffferent divine being from Yahweh)

  11. Avatar
    wje  October 16, 2015

    Evening, Bart. Do you have any time or desire to answer some questions about old testament stuff? I am reading Voltaire’s dictionary on project Gutenberg. You and him must share an ancestor somewhere on the family tree. He brought up some verses in Genesis that really make me wonder. Do you want to take a stab at this?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2015

      I try to answer questions, even about the Hebrew Bible! But just one at a time please!

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 18, 2015

    The exaltation of Jesus at His Resurrection is, indeed, a “stunning” claim among other “stunning” claims. It remains “stunning” to me that early Christians would just rewrite scripture and history to fit theology. I guess that is “human.” There is no better example of rewriting history than what Fox News does after every presidential speech and news conference. The Fox News commentators certainly believe they are telling the “truth,” but, night after night, they present quite an instant rewriting of history.

    Your going against the grain of scholarly thought about the corruption of scripture speaks highly of your creativity and spunk.

  13. Avatar
    Dan Webster  October 20, 2015

    Just finished “How Jesus Became God” and I am fascinated about how there were continued derivatives of the orthodoxy. The Cathars have interested me as it seems they are a melding of Marcionites, Gnostics and the adoptionists (Sabellius?). Yet into the 12th Century, the Church of Rome had to physically destroy people and places with a less “pragmatic” doctrine. Any good books on the Cathars? Also reading on the conflict of the Arian Goths/Vandals/Visigoths that brought down the HRE of the Nicene Romans.

  14. Avatar
    Gary  October 27, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,

    You have said in another post that you believed that Paul’s Christology, in contrast to the adoptionistic Christology of the Gospel authors, was that Jesus was an angel sent to earth by God, based on Galatians 4:14. Is this the only passage in Paul’s writings that indicates Paul held this view?

    Below is one Christian’s comment about your position on Galatians 4:14. How would you respond to this criticism:

    “The question to ask of this is why make Galatians 4:14, with an interpretation not readily accepted by even non-Christian scholars, the lynchpin? What was it about this verse that made it the focal point, especially when Paul isn’t really making a Christological argument there? Why not statements like Philippians 2 which is quoted? Note also that Philippians ends with every knee bowing and every tongue confessing that Jesus is Lord. That was reserved for YHWH alone. It also has Jesus being in the form of God, and that’s a pretty clear statement about where Jesus ranks.”

  15. Avatar
    JSTMaria  October 28, 2015

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    Ironically enough, I’m reading some of Origen’s works right now and happened to come across his take on “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” Origen seems to be saying that “today” in God’s language is eternity and not part of a human conception of time. It therefore represents something out of time. He goes on to say, “For it seems to me there is no evening or morning with God; instead, the “time” so to speak which is coextensive with his uncreated and eternal life is this “today” in which the Son is begotten. Thus no beginning or day for his birth can be found.” Moreover, at the time of Jesus’ baptism, these words would have been for “human beings who were incapable of the WORD, the Son of God, that the WORD comes to be.” It reminds me of the pool of Siloam (I think I have that right) where the waters, once disturbed angelically, would heal. Fast forward to Jesus at the Jordan and the waters are now *disturbed* by Jesus, the Word who always was, but now in *human time* it becomes perceptible. Perhaps? What do you think of Origen’s take on this?

  16. Avatar
    Maurices5000  November 1, 2015

    Sorry Dr. Ehrman, I was not expecting to comment as much as I have on your blogs. I was not expecting to find so many gems.

    Are you saying that there are variant readings of the Scripture pertaining to Christology that might suggest a lower Christology similar to that of Ebionites, Arianism or some other heresy? These words may have been tweaked early on and persist in the manuscripts we have today?

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