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Christ as the Adopted Son of God

In this post I can begin to explain what I *think* is the point of contention between Michael Bird and me on the question of how the followers of Jesus came to think he was God.  When I say that I “think” this is the main point, it’s because I’m not completely sure.  As I’ve pointed out, Michael never laid out an alternative hypothesis for how the early Christian views of Christ came into existence or developed.  Moreover, since he never said how he thought it happened, he obviously didn’t mount a case for his view or indicate what he thought was the evidence for it.  So it’s a little hard to know how to assess his view.

What is clear is that he disagrees with a fundamental point in my view, and his main talk at the debate was focused on this point.

My thesis is simple.   During his lifetime Jesus’ followers did not consider him to be God (as the Gospels themselves indicate so well).  After his lifetime they did (as seen, for example, in Paul).  Why did they not think so during his life but did think so after his death?  It was for one and only one reason: they came to think he had bee raised from the dead and exalted to heaven.

In the ancient world there were stories about a person (here and there) being taken up to the divine realm after death.  What did it mean for someone to be exalted to heaven?  It meant that…

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Jesus’ Virgin Birth in Mark (Reader’s Mailbag February 26, 2016)
What the Resurrection of Jesus MEANT



  1. Avatar
    Scott  February 25, 2016

    While an exalted view of adopted adult males existed among elite Romans and may have extending to the Greek-speaking regions of the empire, how sure can we be that this view perpetrated the psyches of those whom you like to describe as poor, uneducated Galilean fisherman and peasants? Are not these the people who had the first reaction the resurrection implied by Jesus’ appearances?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2016

      My sense is that understanding widely practiced social arrangements was not dependent on literacy and education; our real problem, of course, is that we have no writings from uneducated peasants to know *what* they knew. But my sense is that people did know to some extent how the great and might lived (they knew there were emperors, e.g., and that Tiberius was not Augustus’s natural son)

  2. Avatar
    Omar6741  February 25, 2016

    Professor Ehrman, I am curious to find out your views concerning this quote from Matthew’s Gospel, 27:51-53:
    “51And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.…”
    My question is this: would Christian readers also think that these saints had been adopted as sons of God by virtue of being raised from the dead?
    Warm Regards,

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2016

      Probably not. My sense is that they thought these saints would die again later — they weren’t raised immortal.

  3. Avatar
    Omar6741  February 25, 2016

    I feel absolutely dependent on God. If He wanted to wipe me out of existence, or deprive me of any ability I have, I would be helpless to stop him.
    As exalted as Christ might be after his resurrection, *Christ is just as absolutely dependent on God as I am.* What would Christ do if God wanted to take away his power or wipe him out of existence? He could not do anything at all if God chose to throw him and all humanity into punishment for no reason (not saying that would happen).
    Christ and the angel Gabriel are exactly like anyone else in their absolute dependence on God and helplessness before Him. I am explaining this at length because nobody who has this view would think of Jesus as divine after the resurrection.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 25, 2016

    Just a minor point…am I right in thinking Octavius was *related* to Julius Caesar, somehow? (And if he was…were *many* of those favored adoptees related to their adoptive fathers, as nephews or cousins, rather than total strangers the men had met and come to admire?)

    Re Christology, you can distinguish between “exaltation” and “incarnation” without mentioning this “adoption” business at all. So what do you think Bird’s position actually is, concerning what the early Christians thought had happened?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2016

      Yes, Octavius was his nephew. Often the adoptees were related, but not always. I’ll get to what I think Michael’s position is in the next post or so.

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 26, 2016

      They usually tried to keep it in the family, sure. But somehow “Only Begotten Nephew of God” doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it now? Jesus would sound silly praying to his Uncle. 😉

  5. Avatar
    jmmarine1  February 25, 2016

    If, as argued here, adoption represents so high a view of Christ, why then did Matthew and Luke, independently, or so it seems, abandon this notion in favor of Jesus being God’s son because God had impregnated Mary directly? I would seem from your argument that Christ was now going somewhat backwards rather than higher up in stature if he in now the non-adopted son.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2016

      Because they wanted an even HIGHER Christology!

      • Avatar
        jmmarine1  February 26, 2016

        Yes, I see that. But, if Jesus moves from the adopted son in Mark (earlier, Octavius) to the conceived son in Luke (later, Caesarion), how is this move seen to be higher in light of your argument?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 28, 2016

          The difference is that when talking specifically about *God* as the father, the “natural” father is obviously important, since then Christ is partly divine by “nature”

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 25, 2016

    The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that if a scholar *personally* believes Jesus was a preexistent divine being, he or she won’t be able to understand “how the earliest Christians came to regard him as divine” in the same way as a non-believer. Someone who starts from the premise that Jesus *was* divine will *have to* speculate that at least some of his disciples sensed it – and probably mentioned what they sensed to other “followers,” even before his death.

    It’s as if a person living today was *sure*, for some reason, that – I’ll make it ridiculous – Jesus had blue eyes. *Of course*, they’d say, his contemporaries would have noticed those blue eyes! How could they not?

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 25, 2016

    Another way of looking at it:

    You don’t believe in any kind of afterlife. I – while not presuming to claim certainty – incline strongly to belief in reincarnation.

    So there might be some type of situation in which I’d think, “*If* reincarnation is a fact, such-and-such may have happened.” And you, taking for granted that reincarnation *isn’t* a fact, wouldn’t see any possibility of whatever-it-was having happened.

    What I’m arguing is that a believer’s assessment of a situation may – inevitably – differ from a non-believer’s.

  8. Avatar
    ffg  February 25, 2016

    Very good analysis. It makes absolute sense that the earliest Christians would have had an adoptionist view of Jesus, which as you say is amazing in itself. My question is why is it so important for evangelicals to hold on to even more exalted views ie the virgin birth and the co-eternal status of Jesus . It would be great to hear your views.

    • Avatar
      Eric  February 26, 2016

      I would say that for modern evangelicals, it is so important because it is in scripture. Were it not (if the new testament were entirely adoptionist) then it would be “so important” to them to maintain THAT view.

      Given scripture is mixed, I think it is easier to read the “lower” Christology “up into” the higher than it would be to ignore the higher, explicit Christology of say the Gospel of John.

  9. Avatar
    stephena  February 25, 2016

    And of course, they knew Jesus was a natural-born man, and SOME believed (and some verses in the NT bear this out, esp. in Luke/Acts) that Jesus wasn’t elevated/adopted at his resurrection to Christhood, but at his baptism, which you point out was changed to “this is my son, in whom…” from ‘This day I have adopted you.” (Luke 3:22) in “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, p. 49 “Anti-Adoptionistic Corruptions.” I’m not sure why this is seen by you as a “late” view, following the Church “fathers” who clearly also had an agenda to make this view “go away” and portray it as a Second Century viewpoint, when it clearly makes more sense to view “mere” humanity and adoption as a Prophet of God (using some of the same language as in the Prophet books) as the first run of the evolution to godhood.

  10. talmoore
    talmoore  February 25, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, while I do agree with you that the adoptionist belief was the first christological view of the incipient church, the sense I get from reading the synoptics, esp. Mark, is what you have at times called a Separationist view. That is, Jesus the man and Christ the spiritual being were two distinct “persons”. But I don’t think it was like how the Separationists of the later centuries imagined it, with the Christ person being something like the Christ of Christianity. It was more like Jesus the man was “possessed” by the spiritual/angelic being we would associate with the Christ. Indeed, one of the reasons that demon possession and exorcism play such a featured role in Mark (and, thus, Matthew and Luke) is that Jews at that time (esp. rural bumpkin Jews) thoroughly believed in bodily possession by spiritual beings, both malevolent and benevolent. In the case of Jesus, I think the disciples believed that Jesus had come to be possessed by a benevolent spirit (i.e. an angel), and it was this “holy” spirit (Ruach haQodesh) that spoke through Jesus, allowing Jesus to prophecy. The disciples believed that Jesus had literally become a conduit through which God spoke, just like the prophets of old. And it was this divine spirit — the Ruach haQodesh — that entered Jesus upon John’s baptism, and it was this spirit which left his physical body when he died on the cross.

    This notion may seem bizarre to modern Christians, because they are usually unfamiliar with the ancient Jewish beliefs. The ancient Jews saw human beings as made up of three parts: the physical flesh (basar), the animating soul (nephesh), and the divine breath (neshemah). (The basar, nephesh and neshemah were analagous to the Greek sarka, psyche and pneuma, respectively). Jesus the man was made up of a physical, fleshy form (his basar) and an animating soul (his nephesh). He also possessed the divine spark (neshamah) that every human being inherited from Adam at the creation (Gen. 2:7). When ancient Jews believed that a person became possessed by a demon, malevolent or otherwise, they believed that spirit took control over that person via their neshemah so that it competed with their animating spirit (nephesh) over control of the body. In the case of Jesus, the disciples believed that Jesus was, essentially, possessed by a benevolent spirit, sent by God down to earth to proclaim the coming End Times and Kingdom, using Jesus as a conduit. Once we are able to wrap our heads around this concept, the gospels’ christological views, esp. that of Mark’s, make a whole lot more sense.

    For instance, when Jesus talks about God and His Kingdom having arrived on earth, Jesus is merely talking about the Ruach haQodesh making its appearance on stage at the beginning of the End Times drama, just as prophets such as Joel (3:1-2 MT) said would happen. It would also explain why, upon his return to his home town post-baptism, everyone looked at Jesus as if he were a completely different person, because the disciples actually believed Jesus had become possessed by an otherworldly spirit, making him act and talk like a totally different person (Mark 3:21-35, 6:2-4).

    • Avatar
      Eric  February 26, 2016

      Interesting. I would encourage Prof. Ehrman to respond to this line of thinking, at least briefly.

  11. Avatar
    godspell  February 25, 2016

    It’s hard for most of us, with our idea of kingship that derives from the European medieval era, where primogeniture was the ruling principle (and indeed, the reason for the Church of England breaking away from the Church of Rome, and therefore ultimately for the existence of the King James bible you and I assume Mr. Bird as well first read as boys) to realize how non-hereditary the position of Emperor of the Roman Empire truly was.

    If we consider Julius Caesar the first Emperor (it’s debatable), there were fully ten of them before the usurping general Vespasian’s son Titus–and after that, no natural son of an Emperor succeeded him until the unfortunately named Commodus succeeded his father Marcus Aurelius, and it’s not just in the movies that this did not turn out well. As a general rule, the best emperors were never the ones that succeeded their fathers. Wise emperors would choose a potential successor based on merit, and make him an adopted son, to grant him added legitimacy, point the way to the desired succession.

    Not that poor Caesarion was ever given a chance to prove his worth.

    So yes, your point is well-taken. In that era, being the blood son of a ruler meant far less than being chosen by him for some high position. Somebody should have told Jeb Bush. 😉

  12. Avatar
    jhague  February 25, 2016

    Is the reason that Jesus’ early followers were able to come to the conclusion that God had adopted Jesus was because they were apocalyptic, they believed Jesus’ apocalyptic message, they were extremely emotional involved in this message, to the point of causing themselves to believe that they had seen a vision of Jesus alive and pass this message of visions to others who also believe for the same reason and then come to the conclusion that God has raised Jesus from the dead in order to adopt him so that he can be given all of God’s glory, grandeur, and power? Maybe believing this also brings them some comfort after experiencing the tragedy of seeing Jesus executed on the cross.

  13. Avatar
    Jim  February 25, 2016

    Is Mark’s Christology quite similar to Paul’s? (i.e. much closer to Paul’s than John’s). I’m wondering if still by around 70 CE, the ideas about Jesus were “relatively” similar, but soon thereafter (around the time of the writing of the other gospels) began diverging rather quickly for whatever reasons.

    On another note, soon after reading both HJBG and HGBJ (just after they came out), I wrote on Michael Bird’s Patheos blog that I wanted my money back for purchasing HGBJ, primarily for the reason that he and the other co-authors had not provided a clear explanation for their counter position (and that I should have invested in a case of beer instead). I feel that he still hadn’t offered any clear explanation during your recent NOBTS debate (nearly two years after both books were released). This isn’t meant as a slam against Michael, and I suspect that his hands are tied by his theological leanings. But then again, maybe I’m jumping the gun if he and his coauthors are releasing Jesus “Way” Before the Gospels on your next Tuesday’s release date.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2016

      Mark does not have a view of Christ as a pre-existent being who became human, so no, in that way they are not alike. Their views of the significance of Jesus’ death, however, are very similar.

  14. Avatar
    dragonfly  February 25, 2016

    This is ridiculous. Can’t Michael just tell us what he thinks?

  15. Avatar
    Hari Prasad  February 25, 2016

    YIgal Allin concludes in his article (see link below) that not a single source indicates the legal status of adoption in first century Jewish society, unlike in the Greco-Roman world. His subject is, of course, the presumed adoption of Jesus by Joseph in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. But applying the same logic, it’s possible to argue that adoptionistic Christology should be ascribed to Hellenistic cultural and social influence, and so presumably was not a creation of the original 12 apostles but can be attributed to Paul – within a very few years of the Crucifixion.

    • Avatar
      Omar6741  February 27, 2016

      That’s a really nice point, Hari, and a very interesting paper!

  16. Avatar
    Omar6741  February 25, 2016

    Professor Ehrman,
    Just to shift the topic a little bit…has anyone in NT studies raised a problem about how we know that Jesus was an “itinerant preacher”? I have a very hard time understanding how this description of Jesus came to be so unquestioningly accepted.
    After his baptism, he seems to have gone around preaching mainly in the settlements around the sea of Galilee, which is a very small area indeed; and one of the evangelists states that he came to live in Capernaum, which suggests he wasn’t homeless during this time. This limited amount of travelling hardly warrants the description “itinerant preacher”; if a carpenter were to travel this same amount from his home in Capernaum to make money through taking on projects, nobody would say “He’s an itinerant carpenter” — as he would just be a man with a home who travelled for work. To give another analogy: I can see, Professor Ehrman, that you travel a lot to give lectures; yet I doubt anyone calls you an “itinerant professor” on that account. 🙂
    Beyond his local preaching, Jesus went to Jerusalem for the festivals that all religious Jews took seriously, and preached along the way. None of this amounts to a reason to think he was an “itinerant holy man”; Paul, on the other hand, seems to fit the “itinerant” description much better.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2016

      I don’t think it’s been an issue for NT scholars generally. By itinerant preacher they simply mean that Jesus went around from village to town to rural area preaching his message, rather than preaching just in one spot all the time.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 12, 2016

      Bart points out–I think in one of his Great Courses lectures–that the Greek word “tekton” does not mean “carpenter” specifically but only “someone who works with his hands.”

  17. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  February 25, 2016

    I’m more curious than ever to know if there is a plausible, alternative view. Are you debating anyone else about this same subject?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2016

      You might read the book How God Became Jesus; I’m not sure they object to the *overall* thesis of my book so much as the details.

  18. Avatar
    Emmdee41  February 26, 2016

    I want to ask about monasticism. When did it become important part of christain life and did the early christains think that renouncing sexuality is a way of getting close to God?or was it also a later developement?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2016

      The standard view, I think, is that monasticism starts becoming an identifiable “thing” in the fourth Christian century, that in a way it (like other rigorously ascetic forms of Xty) was a way to show complete and absolute commitment to God, in a way that involved suffering, once Christianity was no longer an opposed and persecuted religion (of course ascetic forms of Christianity can themselves be traced way back to the beginning)

      • Avatar
        Emmdee41  February 26, 2016

        I may be wrong but in one of your videos i heard you say that some christains even believed that salvation is attained not by believing the atonement but by renouncing sex.(i think it was in the video about “did jesus marry”)

        • Bart
          Bart  February 28, 2016

          Fortunately, that’s something I’ve never thought.

  19. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 26, 2016

    In “How Jesus Became God,” you capably and clearly describe how both ancient Romans and ancient Jews made some humans into gods. I recently came across a similar phenomenon in Taoism. Evidently Lao-Tzu was thought to be “divine” and evidently there is an ancient book ,”Tao Te Ching,” attributed to Lao-Tzu, but this book was probably written by multiple authors and probably contains much legendary material. Indeed, there is dispute about whether Lao-Tzu may have been a legendary rather than a historical character. Lao-Tzu may have lived 300 to 500 years before Jesus. And so on and so forth … Sounds sort of familiar doesn’t it????

  20. Avatar
    madmargie  February 27, 2016

    I’ve often wondered if Jesus was considered the son of God because so many of the Roman emperors were considered “sons of god” and they wanted to elevate Jesus to that status as well.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 29, 2016

      Yup, that’s a big part of it. I talk about this in my book.

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