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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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Michael Bird’s most popular books are The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians, and Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message.

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



  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 27, 2016

    I don’t think you’ve really dealt with a point made by a couple of posters. You assign great importance to the Romans’, at least, having considered it *better* to be someone’s adopted son than to be his natural son. But if you’ve used that to stress the importance of Jesus’s being called the adopted son of God, you can’t logically go on to say Matthew’s and Luke’s making him God’s *natural* son was a higher Christology!

    You certainly seem to believe that making him God’s natural son was *intended* as a higher Christology. So maybe you shouldn’t put so much emphasis on that exalted Roman concept of adoption?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 29, 2016

      Yes, it’s a little different when you’re talking about GOD as the Father. Then a “birth” son is actually of the same nature/essence as God, adn that’s a different kettle of fish. (With human adoption the adoptive father is no more a human than the birth father)

  2. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  March 12, 2016

    Bart, no doubt you’re familiar with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. He knew there were many stories to be told by or about the common people who rarely made or wrote history, as distinct from established histories that, almost always, have been written by the victors. He found plenty to work with. But in the case of “poor, uneducated [Jewish] Galilean fisherman and peasants” (see Scott), we apparently must surmise or guess or believe because we want or need to believe that adoption had a similar significance to them as it had for more pagans. Thesis: If adoption, for Jewish, Galilean Jews–tektons mostly–did not have beliefs about or practices of adoption that had a similar significance to them as it had for pagan, and if we are without evidence that they did (which is apparently, the state of affairs), then the probability is that those apostles, disciples and other Jews who witnessed the resurrected Jesus or who believed he was resurrected would not have had a belief that Jesus was made divine upon his ascension. Having a “sense” that they would have known about some of the practices of the high and mighty is not enough. The beliefs of those who continued to believe that he was God’s messiah most likely limited to an expectation that he would be returned to do what a messiah was expected to do. If they did not believe he was divine or was made divine and did not believe that his death and resurrection had any salvific power, then by what criteria would we call them “Christians”? They would still be non-Christian Jews, no? It seems it would have to come down to the evidence of Paul’s letter in which he claims to have received the Gospel from those who came before him. I know you apply the criterion of dissimilarity here since receiving the Gospel from others is an unlikely admission from the full-of-himself Paul. But sometimes Paul puffs himself up and distances himself from the Apostles, even placing himself above them and other times, he plays it humble and tries to persuade his readers of his ties to the Apostles, of his being in the lineage of those to whom the risen Christ was revealed. So, I’m not sure we have dissimilarity here.

  3. Avatar
    spiker  March 21, 2016

    I think I am missing something here. Do you think early Christians took the idea from the Romans?
    Did early Christians apply the Roman idea of the son of god to Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2016

      It wasn’t merely a Roman idea. It was an idea widely held in the Roman empire.

  4. Avatar
    Alethinon61  June 5, 2016

    Hi Bart:

    As you no doubt recall, Bird responded to your question about what his historical construction looked like by deferring to the work of Larry Hurtado. If you haven’t already done so, I would suggest that you read Hurtado’s work, especially (a) Lord Jesus Christ, (b) How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God?, and (c) various articles he’s written responding to his critics, especially his attempts to justify dreams and religous experiences as the catalyst for a monotheism that is supposedly ‘binitarian’ or ‘dyadic’ in its shape.

    In conjunction with the perusal of Hurtado’s work, you’ll definitely want to read the work of his critics (see below), especially the work of Crispin Fletcher-Louis, who, in my judgment, has demolished Hurtado’s historical model, creating the need for a different explanation.

    Crispin Fletcher-Louis apparently believes that the more plausible historical answer lies in pre-Christian precedents for “binitarian” monotheism, but I suspect that, once the dust of scholarly vetting has settled, his model will prove to be just as problematic as Hurtado’s has proven to be. I also suspect that, at the end of the day, some variation of James D.G. Dunn’s and Maurice Casey’s model will emerge as the new “emerging consensus”. Right now Hurtado is in the driver’s seat, but critics have flattened a few of his historical tires, and while Dunn is currently trailing him, I’m confident he’ll over take him in the end:-) That is to say, in the end, I think folks will begin to realize that language that has been interpreted as representing ‘binitarian’ monotheism has simply been misconstrued or over-interpreted.

    ~Sean Garrigan


    Crispin Fletcher-Louis’s critique can be found, here (start with this one):


    Adela Yarbro-Collins offers critical analysis Hurtado’s thesis, here:


    She also touches on problems with both Hurtado’s and Bauckham’s theses in the book she co-authored with her husband, John J. Collins: “King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature” (Highly recommended)

    William Horbury offers critical analysis, here:


    Paula Fredricksen offers critical analysis, here:


    Paul Rainbow offers critical analysis, here:


    James D.G. Dunn offers critical analysis, here:


    Maurice Casey offers critical analysis, here:


    And both last and least, I pointed out that there’s a Mûmakil in Hurtado’s room, here:


    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2016

      Yes, I know Hurtado’s work quite intimately. (I’ve known him for years, and have read all of his books — but these two I read very deeply; I have some disagreements, but on the whole I’m actually addressing a slightly different issue.)

      • Avatar
        Alethinon61  June 5, 2016

        “I have some disagreements, but on the whole I’m actually addressing a slightly different issue.)”

        True, you’re interested in Bird’s view about “How Jesus Became God” historically, where as Hurtado’s historical work doesn’t really get one beyond “How Jesus came to be an object of cultic devotion early in the life of the new Christian movement”. My point is that even Hurtado’s historical reconstruction, which doesn’t give Bird what he needs, is itself so problematic that a better understanding is required, in my judgment.

        As you astutely observed during one of your dialogues with Bird (on the radio, I think), if the earliest Christians were hailing Jesus as “God” early on, wouldn’t that have been a central component of their teaching, i.e. “Wouldn’t they have talked about it?” (to paraphrase your question). It’s simply ridiculous to suggest that the apostles believed that Jesus was God Himself early on, but didn’t bother to mention that apprehension;-)

        Your question is important, and it contains the seed from which a better consensus should emerge which must supplant Hurtado’s thesis. Why? Because if one would expect the early Christians to talk about Jesus as God Himself if that’s what they believed, and they surely would have included an apologetic for those who experienced cognitive dissonance over such a seemingly paradoxical proposition, then one would also expect the early Christians to talk about how remarkable it was for Jesus to be an object of cultic veneration, if such cultic veneration suggested what Hurtado believes it suggested (= ‘binitarian monotheism’).

        It seems to me that the evidence in light of historical expectation points in the other direction: Just as the absence of early exclamations that Jesus was thought to be “God Himself” along with the expected supporting apologetic logically suggests that they didn’t believe that proposition early on, so likewise the absence of early exclamations that Jesus was an object of veneration in a manner that required a reshaping of monotheism in ‘binitarian’ terms along with the expected supporting apologetic logically suggests that they didn’t infer what Hurtado infers from those practices.

        ~Sean Garrigan

  5. Avatar
    john76  June 7, 2016

    Although Jesus is usually assumed to be a God, it’s sometimes hard to know, when reading the New Testament, whether the authors thought Jesus was a man or a God. For instance, Mark portrays Jesus as a fallible prophet, not an almighty God, who is unable to perform miracles in his home town (see Mark 6:5). The prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is another example of this. In the prayer, Jesus is a man in agony and terror about his fate, terrified of his place in God’s plan, and petitioning God to change His plan! You would need to go through complicated mental gymnastics to explain the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane from a Trinitarian point of view. In fact, it doesn’t really make sense to see Jesus as any kind of God here, since it seems silly that a God would be terrified of his atoning death, because that is the only reason he would be on earth in the first place. Does it make sense that in a story about a God who came to earth to die to wipe out the sin debt of mankind, that this God would beg to abandon his post? After all, Jesus knows he has nothing to fear because he will just suffer for a few hours and eventually be resurrected: Jesus says “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise (Mark 9:31).” You can picture a human Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, doubting that he will be resurrected (and terrified by that) – doubts that Jesus would not have if he was a God.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2016

      Don’t know if you’ve read my book How Jesus Became God, but this is the issue I deal with there.

      • Avatar
        john76  June 15, 2016

        I have your book. I thought the examples I gave of Jesus being a fallible human prophet who couldn’t perform miracles in his home town, and my thoughts surrounding the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane that I gave above, supported your position. This is a fun blog!

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  June 8, 2016

      And then there’s all the things “he said” that deny or imply that he is not God:
      1. Mr 9:37 (plus Matthew 10:40, Luke 9:48, and John 13:20), “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

      2. Mark 10:18 “And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’ ”

      3. Mark 12:29 Jesus said “Here, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.” The words “our God” indicate that Jesus had a higher God over him, a stronger God than him.

      4. Mr 13:32, “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

      5. Matthew 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

      6. Matthew 19:17, Jesus responded to one who addressed him as “O good master”, saying: “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is God.”

      7. Mt 24:36, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.

      8. Luke 22:42 “…not my will but Thine be done”

      9. Joh 5:19, “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise’.”

      10. John 5:19 “Verily, verily I say unto you, the Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do…”

      11. John 5:30 “I can of myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is righteous, because I do not seek my own will but the will of the Father who sent me.”

      12. John 7:28-29 “…I have not come of myself. I was sent by One who has the right to send, and Him you do not know. I know Him because it is from Him I come; he sent me.”

      13. John 7:16 “Jesus said: ‘My doctrine is not my own; it comes from Him who sent me.'”

      14. John 8:40 “You are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God”

      15. John 8:42 “Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God; I came not of my own accord, but He sent me.’ ”

      16. John 8:50 “And I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks and judges.”

      17. John 10:29 “My Father is greater than all.”

      18. John 14:10, “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.”

      19. In John 14:28, Jesus says, “The Father is greater than I.”

      20. John 15:2 “My Father takes away every branch in me that bears not fruit; he purges it; that it may bring forth more fruit.” Here, we see Jesus’ acknowledgement that he is an impefect sinner just like the rest of us; he too must be purged and purified.

      21. John 20:17, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene to tell his followers: “I ascend unto my Father and your Father; and to my God and your God.”

      22. 1 Timothy, 2:5, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

  6. Avatar
    Marko071291  April 29, 2019

    Dear Bart,
    I’ve watched the debate between Mike Licona and your colleague Dale Martin in which Licona made interesting argument. He was looking for a evidence of the existence of adoptionistic Christology in the 1st century when (as he said it) the only two authors who have some verses that can be interpreted in an adoptionistic way (Paul and Luke) certainly are not adoptionists! Furthermore, only evidence we have (he said) of adoptionistic Christology comes from the 2nd century and if one wants to argue on that basis that adoptionism was around in the 1st century also, then one can argue gnosticism was also around in the 1st century.
    Hope you can see where he is going with that argument. How would you response to that? Thank’s!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2019

      Yes indeed. We frequently have evidence of views only in the writings of those who oppose them. But to argue that such views did not exist on those grounds is a little peculiar. It would be like someone in 1940 saying that Gnosticism didn’t exist because the only evidence we have for it is Irenaeus and Tertullian.

      • Avatar
        Marko071291  April 30, 2019

        As a good student of your work, I went back to your book “How Jesus became God” where you talk about preliterary traditions in Paul’s epistles and Acts. It made everything much more clear for me. But I do have one question. In the book you ask yourself why would Luke put this preliterary tradition (which contained different christology) in his work when it is clear that Luke didn’t believe that Jesus was exalted at his resurrection (he had even higher christology). You provide one explanation: “because they encapsulate so well his emphasis in these addresses to “unbelievers” that God has drastically and dramatically reversed what humans did to Jesus, showing thereby that he had a radically different evaluation of who Jesus was”.
        That’s sounds good for me, but I was wondering is it possible that Luke does that also because this creeds were known to be old (he did after all use different sources that pre-dates him), popular among christian communities and conversely very important?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 2, 2019

          Yup, that may be part of it too, definitely. That’s why Paul does a similar thing in Rom. 1:3-4 apparently.

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