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Christians Who Thought Jesus Was Adopted by God: A Blast From the Past

I have been talking about some of the textual variants in the Gospel of Mark, and I want to discuss the very first one in the Gospel, whether Mark 1:1 calls Jesus the “Son of God” or not.  But to make sense of what I want to say about that matter, I need to provide some background that at first sight may not seem all that relevant.  But it’s highly relevant.  It has to do with how some early Christians understood Jesus not to be innately the Son of God, but the Son of God because God “adopted” him, the man Jesus, to be his son at some point of his life.  I’ve covered that issue before on the blog, and so this is a blast from the past:

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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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The First Textual Variant in the Gospel of Mark
Jesus’ Teaching in Aramaic and the Books of the Canon: Mailbag February 24, 2017

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Comments

  1. clipper9422@yahoo.com  February 26, 2017

    I’ve read one or two of the “Game of Thrones” book. In them the King’s “CEO” is called the “King’s Hand.” It strikes me that that helps make sense of what it might mean for Jesus to be seated at the right hand of God, ie, he’s God’s right hand man. I see this as similar to how you explain in what sense God’s “Word” (John’s Prologue?) could be seen as both separate from God (a separate “being”?) and yet the same as God. That helps make sense of how people came up with the Trinity. God’s “right hand” is in a sense separate from God but also the same as God.

  2. godspell  February 26, 2017

    Paul, as you have written, may have tended towards the notion Jesus was a pre-existent divine being incarnated in human form–perhaps an angel. Not the begotten Son of God, or equal to God, but far more than a mere mortal. ‘Luke’ did more than anyone to create and justify the narrative of Jesus’ divine conception.

    So what is that passage in Chapter 13 of Acts doing in there? Luke hedging his bets?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2017

      Yes indeed, an adoptionistic Christology right on Paul’s lips! But also compare something he did write, Romans 1:3-4! Christology is a very messy business….

      • godspell  February 27, 2017

        I’ve definitely gotten that impression. Of course, none of these people knew we’d be parsing their every scribbling or mistranscribed utterance, two thousand years later. There wasn’t supposed to BE a two thousand years later, as far as the temporal world was concerned.

        It’s not, after all, an uncommon thing for even the most devout of believers to contradict themselves. Human beings are contradictory creatures. Our beliefs are never a steady state, but always an ongoing process. Much as we may try to pretend otherwise.

      • Tony  March 1, 2017

        Romans 1:3 is even more remarkable since Marcion likely placed a role in the collection of Paul’s letters and they became a key part of Marcion’s Cannon.

        Romans 1:3 appears to completely contradict Marcion’s theology.

        That leaves us with at least a couple of possibilities:
        (1) Marcionism had an interpretation of Rom 1:3 that is lost to us, or;
        (2) Rom. 1:3 is an anti-Marcionism, orthodox interpolation.

  3. Todd  February 26, 2017

    Thank you for the good overview.

    My comment will sound silly, but I get confused with the use of the term “son” … it has no deeper theological meaning for me than its common use as a biological sexual offspring of copulation. I realize the term has a history in Hebrew scripture and is carried over to NT writings, but I can’t help of thinking of B-Movies such as “Son of Tarzan” whenever I hear or read the phrase “Son of God.”

    There must be a deeper theological meaning to it, but that meaning escapes me.

    Any thoughts on this or am I just missing something?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2017

      Ha! Good question. But no, in ancient Israel the son of God was one who stood in an especially close relationship with God through whom he mediated his will (e.g. an angel; or the king of Israel; or the nation of Israel itself)

    • talmoore
      talmoore  February 27, 2017

      I think part of your confusion comes from the fact that in Hebrew — and in Semitic cultures in general (the same is true for Arabic, for example) — “son” also carries the meaning of “descedents,” as in how Bnei Israel, which literally means “sons of Israel”, is a reference to the Jewish nation in its entirety, carrying the connotation of “descedents of Israel”.

      Now, what if you want to refer to all of humanity within that linguistic paradigm? Well, you simply refer to the descendents of the first man, Adam. Hence, in Hebrew, one way to refer to human beings in general is to say “ben-Adam,” i.e. Son of Adam. Moreover, in Hebrew, adam (lower case “a”) also means simply “man” or “human being”. Therefore, ben-Adam AND adam BOTH mean “man”. The same is true for the Aramaic, in which both bar-enash and enash mean “man”.

      The analogue in Aramaic, bar-enash — where enash is analogous to the Hebrew word ish, which means “man” — literally means “son of a man,” and therefore does not have that logical connection to Adam, the first man. Hence why I think bar-enash is really an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew ben-Adam, but I can’t prove that.

  4. clipper9422@yahoo.com  February 26, 2017

    My understanding is that one big reason why Christians (at Nicaea?) eventually thought it was critical that Jesus be both fully God (from eternity) and fully human is that otherwise he would not be able to save human beings. It was thought to be absolutely essential that God become fully human-in addition to remaining fully divine-in a single person (ie, Christ), so that that person could, in himself-being God-fully transform the human nature that he also had, so that that human nature had the opportunity to fully participate in his divinity. Or the short version: God became human so humans could become God, meaning, share in his divinity.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2017

      At Nicea they did not discuss is “full humanity.” The issue was in what *sense* can he be said to be God. Was he a subordinate divinity who came into existence at some point, or was he co-eternal with the Father and of the same “substance”?

  5. clipper9422@yahoo.com  February 26, 2017

    It seems like I’ve heard that, in the “pre-existent divine being with God” view, this pre-existent being was not, strictly speaking, actually Jesus even though he is properly called “Christ” (or the “Word” or the “Logos”). Rather this being became “incarnate” in Jesus. It seems like maybe one reason why people like to use the term “Christ” rather than just Jesus alone is to better bring to mind this pre-existent divine being.

    • clipper9422@yahoo.com  March 1, 2017

      I checked the Nicene Creed and it is clearly talking about “Our Lord Jesus Christ” when it talks about him becoming incarnate of the Virgin Mary. So I probably just misremembered this but, just to be sure, are you aware of any (more or less orthodox) thinking that says that, prior to Jesus’s birth, the pre-existent Word or Logos was not actually Jesus, ie, that, strictly speaking, “Jesus” should only be applied to the “incarnate” word of God?

      • Bart
        Bart  March 3, 2017

        That’s the view that seems to be advanced in the Gsopel of John itself.

  6. Jim  February 26, 2017

    If Paul went along with the Philippians 2:6-11 philosophy, would that imply that he likely wasn’t on board with the adoptionist view? If the adoptionist approach was held by some of Jesus’ original disciples, there might have been more to the Paul vs Jerusalem apostles disagreement than just parting with one’s foreskin. The adoptionist approach would seem to be compatible with a works of the law philosophy.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2017

      Yes, I don’t think Paul was an adoptionist. I have a fuller discussion of all that (including the PHilippians poem) in my book How Jesus Became God.

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  February 26, 2017

    I think many Christians are under the false belief that calling a man a “son of God” is somehow blasphemous and anathema in Judaism. But it actually isn’t. There are plenty of instances in which Jews call another Jew a “son of God,” usually in the cases of an exceptionally holy man or a king (such as we find with the Jewish kings, from David up to Jeconiah). Moreover, there is precedent within the Torah itself, viz. of Gen. 6:4, of suggesting that the angels or other divine beings are “sons of God”. The Book of Jubilees, in fact, makes this more explicit, calling these angelic “sons of God” The Watchers, who have half-breed demi-god men (the so-called Nephilim) with “the daughters of men” (possibly a hint at a former mythological heroic age?). We also read about these Watchers in the Book of Enoch. So, clearly, there was a precedent within both the canonical scriptures and extra-canonical scriptures of BOTH the adoptionist notion of a flesh-and-blood man becoming a “son of God” (e.g. holy men and kings) and divine beings who mate with humans to produce “sons of God” (the Nephilim and Jesus).

    The impression I get from the later Gospels, especially Luke, is that the Holy Spirit, itself, is thought of as one of these divine beings (like the Watchers) who mates with Mary to produce a new Son of God (in effect, a new Nephilim). In which case, the high Christology of John can be seen as an attempt to connect all the dots. To put it into the most PG terms possible, we can think of God as “The Father,” The Holy Spirit as God’s phallus, the Logos as God’s seed, which is planted into the womb of the “daughter of men” Mary “the Mother of God,” and the resulting “son of God” is The Christ. In that way, the Christians of Luke’s generation are able to have their cake and eat it, too, with Jesus being both a descendent of David, and therefore a flesh-and-blood “son of God” (i.e. the King of the Jews) and the offspring of a divine being and a human woman, and therefore a Nephilim-esque “son of God” (i.e. the Christ). Essentially, these Christians were trying to tie up both loose ends into a nice bow.

  8. tompicard
    tompicard  February 26, 2017

    Luke refers to Adam also (besides Jesus) as the son of God.
    You have mentioned in this post and also in recent post from Dr Siker, a “low” view of Christ

    Certainly Jesus felt very deeply that God was his Father.
    If we accept the bible story that Jesus had a vision after his baptism, in which God spoke to him saying “you are My beloved son”, then I can only suppose the manner in which this story made it into the Gospels is that Jesus himself shared his vision with his disciples. Yet Jesus also continually taught his disciples that God was their Father, too; I dont believe he claimed to hold any inherently closer relationship with God than was available to them (excluding the Gospel of John).

    Do you believe the low christological view is more in line with Jesus’ authentic preachings?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2017

      My view is that Jesus thought he would be the future messiah — a very low Christology indeed!

  9. HawksJ  February 26, 2017

    Couple of Q’s, Dr. Ehrman:

    1- If the ‘pre-existing being’ Christology developed ‘before the books of the NT were written’, as you write above, then why do we see a progressive Christology from Mark (earliest) to John (latest) – or is that sequencing just a coincidence? I had always assumed that John’s higher Christology was developed after Mark was written.

    2 – Is the ‘virgin birth’ idea mentioned ANYwhere else in the NT besides M and L? I would be surprised if it’s not mentioned in Acts, since it’s author tells the story in Luke, but does Paul or anyone else?

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2017

      1. I don’t think Christology developed in a linear fashion everywhere at the same rate. It just happens that the earliest Gospel has the lowest Christology and the later ones a higher one 2. Nope, just M and L. Nowhere else.

  10. Tempo1936  February 27, 2017

    Why would Luke write two different accounts as to when Jesus became Devine. In the gospel of Luke Jesus is Devine at birth but acts 13 portrays Jesus as Devine at the resurrection. Maybe the birth narrative was added later and the gospel of Luke started at chapter 3.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2017

      More than two! Birth, Baptism, Resurrection — all of the above, all in Luke!

  11. Zboilen  February 27, 2017

    Hi Bart, I’ve been thinking about Christology in Mark lately and was wondering if you think that Mark equates Jesus with Yahweh.

    I get this from Mark 1:3 where a passage of the Old Testament is quoted, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

    But in the Old Testament I think this verse is used of Yahweh. Do you think that Mark wants his readers to recognize John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus in the sense that Jesus is equated with Yahweh?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2017

      No, my sense is that early CHristians thought that Yahweh was the father of Jesus. But both could be called Lord.

  12. paulmiller  February 27, 2017

    I’m hoping you can elaborate sometime in the future on what changed your mind on the Aramaic reading of john 3:3 making sense of the phrase born again. How does the double meaning work? Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2017

      The word “ANOTHEN” in Greek can mean “from above” AND “a second time” (in some contexts it means one, in others the other). When Jesus says you must be born ANOTHEN, Nicodemus *thinks* he means “a second time” and is confused. Jesus clarifies that he means a birth “from above.” The conversation is predicated on the confusion caused by the double entendre. I’ve always heard and thought that the same double meaning cannot be replicated in Aramaic, but a member of the blog who is an expert in semitic languages has told me I’m wrong about that. So maybe/probably I am!!!

      • talmoore
        talmoore  February 27, 2017

        I should clarify that while it’s possible to reproduce the ambiguity in Aramaic (using the semitic root r-sh, which can mean both top and first), so it’s not impossible that Jesus said something to the effect of צרך להילדך דרשן — “you must be born from the top/from the beginning”, it’s not necessarily a slam dunk. As you can see, it carries a close, but not quite exact semantic overlap with being born “from above” or “again”.

        For the record, however, I should say that I do not at all think Jesus literally said that to be saved one must be “born again” OR “born from above”. If anything, he probably said something terribly ambiguous in Hebrew, for example, תיוולדו רישון, i.e. “You will be born first”, implying that his followers are the Elect who will be resurrected first on the Day of Judgment. That may be from whence this expression originated.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 28, 2017

          My view is that he said none of the above! It’s a conversation that the author of the fourth Gospel (or his source) made up. But it really is predicated on a double-entendre, which, if implausible in Aramaic, almost certainly was penned, then, in Greek.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  February 28, 2017

            While I agree that the conversation as outlined in John is almost certainly a total fabrication, I think the sentiment that Jesus is supposedly trying to express — that the bodies of the saved will somehow be remade — that sentiment jives so well with, in particular, Paul’s notion of being “raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44), which itself sounds like something even a Pharisee or Essene could say, I think that sentiment could possibly go back to Jesus. The one and only reason I would even venture to conclude that Jesus could say something to this effect is that the word for “to be born” in both Hebrew and Aramaic (hiyeled) can also mean “to be generated” (one of the words for “generation” in Hebrew/Aramaic comes from this same root). Hence the extreme ambiguity of saying, in Hebrew or Aramaic, “be born from the head”. That could mean any of the following:
            — (quite literally) be physically born from a head (cf. Zeus’ offspring)
            — be born from the top (or above, i.e. heaven)
            — be born first (or born again)
            — be remade (in heavenly stuff)
            My money is on the last one. In fact, this is such a central idea in the Jewish eschatological drama, I’d be surprised if the actual historial Jesus did NOT saying something to this effect.

          • Wilusa  February 28, 2017

            A P.S. to my previous Reply:

            Or, I suppose, if the new faith the person was promoting recognized reincarnation, saying you had to be “born again” might mean that converts wouldn’t enjoy all its supposed benefits, but your conversion would assure that in your next incarnation, you’d be born into a family of believers! The preacher would surely make that clear…so I still can’t see how “born again” could ever be confusing.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 1, 2017

            It’s probably because you’ve heard the phrase since your youth. If you had never heard it, it would indeed probably seem strange.

      • Wilusa  February 28, 2017

        Personally, I’ve never seen the problem here. Thinking of English speakers…if someone told you the new faith he was preaching involved your being “born again” (assuming you’d never heard this usage before), you wouldn’t think it meant that you’d have to crawl back into someone’s womb! Nor would you have to be told it meant “born from above” (huh?). You’d assume it meant that you’d have such an overwhelming spiritual experience that you’d *feel as if* you’d been “reborn” into a whole new life.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 1, 2017

          I’m not saying it *is* a problem. I’m saying that Nicodemus did indeed wonder how he could crawl back into his mother’s womb.

  13. Salvador Perez  February 27, 2017

    Good day Dr Ehrman, in your view, is the forged letter of King Abgar to Jesus a docetic or an adoptionist document and can you provide us with a small explanation?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2017

      No, it does convey a christological view. You can see my discussion of the text in my book The Other Gospels, or if you want a full discussion, in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.

  14. JamesFouassier  February 27, 2017

    I’m sorry if we covered this before, Professor, but I have a hard time getting my head around the apparent fact that all this retrograde “Son of God” theology – first at resurrection, then at baptism, then at birth, then before birth from all eternity past, could have developed so quickly and so thoroughly, and spread around the known world so fast, that by the time Paul composed Philippians 2:6-8 the Eternal Son of God idea took its place among the several prevalent theories of Jesus’ nature. Since it already appears to have been full blown when Paul wrote Philippians, we’re talking at most – what? – twenty years? Sure, a few people traveled around and “Christians” preached to one another, but . . . . really?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2017

      Why do you think it would take more than a few years? Views develop very fast sometimes. My own views have changed radically on numerous things just over the past ten years.

  15. Stephen  February 27, 2017

    Even Paul, with his incarnational Christology, occasionally refers to this adoptionist view, right? (Roman 1:4?)

    What an astonishing irony! The view that most clearly reflected the beliefs of the very disciples of Jesus had been, by the second century, declared a heresy!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2017

      Yes, I talk about the passage to explain what’s going on in my book How Jesus Became God.

  16. Silver  February 28, 2017

    Do you see Acts 13:48 as suggesting that Paul held a predestinarian view?
    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2017

      I don’t think we can rely on Acts to give us the thinking/theology of Paul himself. But in any event, 13:48 is not something Paul is alleged to have said. It is expressing the view of the narrator/author of Acts.

  17. Eskil  March 1, 2017

    Has anyone ever proposed that that all the various Christological views could be valid at the same time according to Theodotus’ explanation of gnosis?

    Q: Who we were?
    A: Divine being
    -> John’s pre-existence Christology

    Q: What we have become?
    A: Mud, entrapped in a dead body, trapped in materiality
    -> Matthew & Luke’s birth Christology

    Q: Where we were?
    A: Heaven, with the divine Father, with God?
    Q: Whither we were thrown?
    A: Into the earth.
    -> Mark’s baptism Christology

    Q: Whither we are hastening?
    A: Back to the divine.
    Q: From what we are redeemed?
    A: You’re redeemed from Jesus.
    -> Acts’ and Paul’s resurrection Christology

    Many things would fall into place when imitation of Christ, on the spiritual level, is the fundamental purpose of Christian life.

  18. PeymanSalar  March 2, 2017

    Hi prof,
    I watched your debate with Dan Wallace about” the original New Testament lost”. Dan talked about the Frist centre manuscript which found, but he didn’t share any clue about it except publisher! What kind of manuscripts he talked about?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      I’m afraid, years later, we are still waiting for the publication (or even for more information!)

  19. mannix  April 5, 2017

    Despite my RC* upbringing, I tend to be quasi-“adoptionistic”, holding that Jesus may have attained a “divine” status at the moment of death. Mankind supposedly fell from grace at the moment of “original sin”, and all men were sinners since. However, humankind could be “redeemed” if one member could lead a “perfect”, i.e. sinless life. Supposedly Jesus was that person…but could only be deemed perfect when his life was over…at the moment of death on the cross. Since man was initially created in God’s “image and likeness”, the “perfect” individual could claim full divine status (whether he could be called “God” itself is unclear).

    This notion of some kind of sparing of mankind from destruction is seen in the stories of Noah and Sodom/Gomorrah. Unfortunately, even though Noah was “righteous” people still sinned even after the slate was wiped (almost) clean. In S&G, Lot could not find a single “righteous” person in either city, so the inhabitants were toast. In modern time, one can recall the ’70s movie “Billy Jack”, a somewhat self-righteous MMA artist who beat up bad guys. When his girlfriend asked why he was so violent at times, BJ (Tom Laughlin) offered “…if you can find a single place on earth where injustice doesn’t exist, I will never hurt another human being again”. Well, needless to say, the injuries continued.

    The above would necessitate Jesus being fully human during his life…after all if he was fully divine as well, that would be kind of “cheating” since a divine nature could be cited as achieving a sinless life relatively effortless. This view would not require a Resurrection or Ascension, since the sole purpose of Jesus’ mission was redemption.

    * Obviously I didn’t learn the above from my RC education, which makes me a “cafeteria Catholic”.

  20. searchingfortruthineverything  May 21, 2017

    Parallel language used in the Bible. “I and the Father are one” many people have the wrong interpretation of this.

    A parallel interpretation of “one” can be found elsewhere in the Bible.

    Jesus prayed for his disciples to be all “one” but that didn’t not mean he was praying for them all to become “one” person or “one” substance. People should keep this interpretation of “one” in mind when they offer an interpretation for I and the Father are “one.”

    If people used this “rule” when providing an interpretation of various Scriptures they may find the Bible has an alternate explanation than most people realize.

    Origen studied the Bible using this “rule” of interpretation. He said the Bible is “interwoven” like an intricate spider’s web. Some people today use the “rule” of Bible interpretation for the entire Bible or various parts of the Bible and have arrived at different conclusions than the majority of people have.

    He is a Bible “rule” that often explains the symbolic language scattered throughout the Bible.

    Since the Bible is “inspired” by the same spirit even though the book may have a different author a good “rule” of interpretation is this.

    An early “Christian” church father named Origen whose writings are accepted by many said over 1, 600 years ago .that the Bible is “interwoven” like a spider’s web so try to look at it similarly to how he viewed the Scriptures.

    A lot of the symbolic language used in the Bible can be understood by using a Bible concordance to search for parallels to parallel wording found elsewhere in the Bible.

    Often, but not always, the Bible often parallel accounts. Like different eyewitnesses to a crime or a news story may often parallel accounts with the same, similar, or additional facts. Some accounts may provide facts that the other omits.

    The Bible is written like this.

    Often there are parallel accounts. Sometimes the symbolic or metaphorical language found in the Bible book of Daniel and Revelation can be properly understood by looking for parallels in other books of the Bible and sometimes in another part of the same book of the Bible.

    Often to understand the symbols and metaphorical language used in Revelation one must understand the historical parallels to the symbolic language found elsewhere in the Bible

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