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Christ’s Self-Ignorance

As chance would have it, I was asked virtually the same question within about fifteen minutes of one another, a couple of days ago.   Here is the question, in both its iterations:


QUESTION ONE:  I have a question with regard to your statement that you are not “trying to argue that Jesus is not God.” If the message of the book is that the concept of the “divinity of Jesus” was not clearly stated by Jesus and, instead, slowly evolved after His death, then doesn’t this imply that this concept of the “divinity of Jesus” is a human invention and, therefore, Jesus is not really God?

ANOTHER QUESTION ONE:  I confess I don’t see how something can be theologically “true” and yet not be historically true. If Jesus did not claim to be God and his immediate disciples did not believe he was God in what sense can he be God now? If they don’t discipline their speculations with recourse to history how can theologians claim to be making truth statements of any kind? What are theologians doing when they claim to be doing theology?


RESPONSE:   Good questions.  So, I’m obviously not a theologian, although I’ve been around a lot of theologians in my life, and have at least some years of training in the field.  If I *were* a Christian and *were* interested in doing theology, I would have a pretty ready answer to this.  Maybe other theologically inclined readers to the blog have other answers.  But this would be mine.

It involves …

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Back to the Forgery of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife
How God Could Become a Human



  1. Avatar
    Epaminondas  September 8, 2015

    I have the answer: Nobody knew about quantum mechanics back in those days. Schrodinger’s quantum cat was both alive and dead, but there was only one cat. It must be possible for one entity to be both God and man if you get the quantum mechanics right.

    • Avatar
      godspell  September 10, 2015

      The cat may be alive or dead, but he’s a cat either way. He’s not cat or dog. 😉

      • Avatar
        Epaminondas  September 11, 2015

        Oh, there goes another one of my theories.

        • Avatar
          RGM-ills  September 23, 2015

          Well, the divine and the human could have just been entangled and not both at the same time. However, with your bringing Quantum into this, I may not be able to use the phrase “same time”, and time may not apply at the quantum level anymore.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 8, 2015

    I agree with your last sentence. If the Gospels aren’t inerrant – if much of what the authors wrote was wrong, and Jesus never actually claimed to be divine – it doesn’t necessarily follow that he *wasn’t* divine. (Assuming, here, a reality in which “divinity” is *possible*.) He might have chosen never to reveal it. And later, some of his followers might have made correct guesses, or even received “revelations.”

    But if you’re claiming something that isn’t historically true can be “theologically true,” I *don’t* agree. A statement about a specific person or thing is either true or not true! A non-truth told about a person or thing may *have symbolic value*, but that doesn’t make it true. (At the cost of possibly offending someone, I’ll say what I’m thinking of: the Catholic claim that bread and wine are *really* transformed into Jesus’s body and blood during every Mass.)

    • Avatar
      Machaon  July 11, 2018

      I don’t think historical truths are the only truths.
      As Pilate said, “What is truth?”
      There are many metaphorical works, poems and novels that contain profound truths, even though their stories are historical fictions.
      That is why literature exists at all.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  July 12, 2018

      I agree with Machaon: “There are many metaphorical works, poems and novels that contain profound truths, even though their stories are historical fictions.”.

      Would you say that “love and mutual respect are the keys for individuals and nations to deal with one another with justice and mercy” is true? I would and so would many others. But can historians find material evidence for it? Remember the film “Contact”? McConaughey asks Jody Foster, “Do you love your father?” She says yes because it is true. Then he says, “Prove it.” Many theologians have described God as being outside history.

  3. talitakum
    talitakum  September 8, 2015

    The mere fact that he didn’t “call” himself divine , still doesn’t tell us if he “thought” of himself as divine or whatever he could think of himself in relation to God and to God’s salvation plan..

    • Avatar
      godspell  September 11, 2015

      The fact that he called out to God, asking why he’d been forsaken, contradicts the notion that he thought of himself as God. The fact that the earliest sources, the Pauline epistles, and the Gospel of Mark, make no reference to the virgin birth, is pretty strong evidence he did not tell his followers he was the divine progeny of Jehovah, and that this tradition came into being after his death.

      Of course he thought he had a special connection to God, but when he tells his followers that they can do things like move mountains and walk on water if they only have enough faith, and that the people he heals have really healed themselves through faith, would tend to indicate that he believed all the real power was coming from God. He remained a traditional Jew, deeply monotheistic, but perhaps believing he would have a special place in the Kingdom of Heaven he believed was coming in his lifetime or shortly after.

  4. LCNielsen
    LCNielsen  September 8, 2015

    As someone who cares a great deal about mathematical proofs and formal logic, I always found it fascinating how much logic, even if not in its modern form, was developed by people like Abelard, Aquinas and Ockham, and later Leibniz, pondering questions such as these. I’ve always found theology very byzantine (and I only really care about it as a means to understand historical cultures) but I certainly respect its contribution to reason.

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  September 10, 2015

      Don’t forget about Blaise Pascal!!!

  5. Avatar
    bobnaumann  September 8, 2015

    However in the the Gospel according to John, the “I AM” sayings would be recognized by any good Jew as a claim that he was God. This was God’s name as revealed to Moses at he burning bush.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2015

      Yes indeed. But those sayings are usually seen as later theological interpretations placed on Jesus’ lips.

  6. Avatar
    bobnaumann  September 8, 2015

    My definition of Theology is: A study of the unknowable using untestable hypotheses, unconstrained by logic and reason, and explained as a divine mystery.

  7. cheito
    cheito  September 8, 2015

    DR Ehrman:

    Only the real God can raise someone from the dead with the body and the spirit.
    If the resurrection of Jesus is historically true then that does it for me.

    I don’t find any other answers to life’s mystery of death.

    Whether Jesus said this or that doesn’t really matter that much.
    Whether he was 100% human and 100% God or 50/50 doesn’t really matter.
    What really matters is did he rise from the dead or not.

    If He didn’t rise from the dead then nothing else really matters, does it?
    If He did rise from the dead by the power of the living God then only that truly matters.

    That’s how I see it.

    It’s futile to argue a point by making confident assertions about things we don’t believe in as though they were true.

    Do you believe that Jesus said, “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?

    The real God revealed Himself Historically in the person of Jesus and demonstrated His power over death by raising Jesus Christ from the dead after he was killed and that’s the bottom line.


    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2015

      No, I don’t think anyone knew what he said on the cross.

  8. Avatar
    Matt7  September 9, 2015

    I’m sticking with Aristotel. Anything can be true if it doesn’t have to make sense.

  9. Avatar
    john76  September 9, 2015

    Bart Ehrman said:

    “And what is especially puzzling is that he was not PART of both, say 50% human and 50% divine. He was FULLY both. 100% man and 100% God. If your response is: THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE!!! Then, well, you’re starting to “get” it. It is a divine mystery, it is not an exercise in Aristotelian logic.”

    To say “Christ was 100% man and 100% God” is mathematically meaningless gibberish. The quantitative “being” of Christ as an individual entity is 100%, by definition. To be 100% man and 100% God, Christ’s quantitative “being” would have to add up to 200%. But it is meaningless to say an individual’s quantitative “being” adds up to 200%. By analogy, would it make sense if I said “my pet dog plays 140% of the time, and sleeps 60% of the time? Of course not. It only seems like we are saying something when we say “Christ is 100% God and 100% man.” In reality, we are not saying anything at all.

    • Avatar
      john76  September 9, 2015

      I should have put closing quotation marks after the question mark in the second paragraph.

  10. Avatar
    jgranade  September 9, 2015

    Even if Jesus was fully human and didn’t initially know he was God, wouldn’t the fact that he was able to perform miracles (raise the dead, heal the sick, walk on water, etc.) give him a clue that he might be divine? Couldn’t his understanding of who he really was become more apparent over time. This doesn’t require God-like omniscience, just human observation and self-reflection.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2015

      No more so than thinking that if Elijah or Oral Roberts could do miracles that would make him divine.

      • Avatar
        jgranade  September 11, 2015

        Good point. I hope no one thinks Oral Roberts was divine.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 11, 2015

          Well, some have thought that he was seriously divinely inspired!!!

        • Avatar
          Mark  September 16, 2015

          It wasn’t Oral it was those magic prayer cloths. Now you can get them online.

        • Avatar
          RGM-ills  September 23, 2015

          I hope no one thinks Oral (what a name) Roberts did miracles.

  11. Avatar
    Stephen  September 9, 2015

    Thanks for your response. Wow! I hope the theologians appreciate your generosity towards their profession.

    I’m afraid “kenotic” Christology strikes me as one of those explanations that sounds awfully profound until you begin to parse it and then it falls apart like Watergate testimony. For one thing it simply begs the question. Shouldn’t the theologians be required to demonstrate some compelling reason to think Jesus was God before they begin to provide an explanation as to how that actually might work?

    It’s hard to respect any system of thought that when trapped by its inner contradictions tries to rescue itself by pulling our the “mystery” card. Over the years I’ve read tons of theology; not just Christian but Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu. At this stage in my life I’ll stick with history and science.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 9, 2015

    Thanks for explaining this. It’s much clearer now. So far, I don’t buy it either. It’s not that this “kenosis” view is wrong, but that it does not seem to be derived from much evidence. These theologians probably are smarter than I, but they sound like they have a need to interpret things in ways that always end up confirming what they want confirmed. (confirmation bias)

    Thanks again, but I find it discouraging that, when ii comes to religion and politics, most people always end up where they started no matter what the evidence. What happened to following the best evidence? In medicine, we call this “evidence-based” practice. It’s not perfect medicine, but it does try to change as the evidence changes.

  13. Avatar
    Lasha Bezhanishvili  September 9, 2015

    As I know, theologians were very strict back then, saying that Jesus always knew he was God and never lost any power or knowledge. But that makes Satan’s questions to Jesus in gospel of Mathew irrelevant. You can’t test God by offering him earth… God can make himself get hungry as that is physiological, but God can not make himself want something he already has, unless he makes himself dumb. And in Hebrews it is written that Jesus was tested, while in James it is written that God can not be tested. This seems contradictory. This led Church affirm that Jesus was never tested.
    I hope you can explain this phrase in later blog-posts: “Of that time no one knows, not even angels, nor the Son, only the Father”. Theologians offered numerous interpretations, starting from “Jesus lied for the sake of disciples” to “Jesus said he knew it, check grammar”. And also the fact that Jesus here puts himself in the hierarchy, between angels and Father.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2015

      I would explain it the same way: the Son has relinquished his knowledge of all things for the sake of the incarnation.

      • Avatar
        Adam Beaven  September 12, 2015

        if a god knows past,present and future then how does it’s mind disconnect from not knowing its ignorance about something?

  14. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 9, 2015

    By the way, I think your book should have been titled “How Jesus Became ‘God.’ ” I originally assumed you (or your publisher) had decided against putting “God” in quotes because you welcomed controversy, and were making it easy for opponents to just turn the title around and come up with “How God Became Jesus.” I was surprised when you said you hadn’t intended that.

  15. Avatar
    godspell  September 9, 2015

    Paradoxically, I think it’s the very ambiguity of Jesus–the question he asks “And who do you say that I am?”–that has made him such a compelling figure, and the various religions (because Christianity is not just one religion) based around his memory so enduring and influential. Who was this man? Will we ever know?

    To me, he was fully human. I don’t believe in the virgin birth. I don’t believe he could work literal miracles–ie, defy the laws of nature. I don’t believe he ever for one minute believed he was God, or God’s begotten son, and I think he’d have been horrified to learn that people would someday claim he was. He thought of himself as a messenger. But his views of himself were clearly themselves somewhat shifting and imperfectly defined. He knew he was important, somehow. But he also knew–and said, repeatedly–that anyone who had the same faith as him could do as he did. That would tend to argue against his believing he thought he was somehow special for any reason other than God having chosen him. And “A man chosen by God” is how he was originally described by his followers, because that’s how he described himself to them.

    But what do we even mean by a man being God? Didn’t early Christians believe, as Ireneaus (no Gnostic radical he) said, that the goal of all Christians is to become God themselves? Not God the Father, maybe–but an embodiment of the divine will. To surpass and overcome our human limitations. And in that sense, Jesus was God–as all of us could be. If we only believed deeply enough, the barrier between the human and the divine could be sundered, and we’d all live in the Kingdom of God together.

    It’s all speculation, but it should be speculation based on what we really know about him and what he said. Not what others, with their own very understandable (and very earthly, very institutional) agendas, said about him long after his death.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2015

      Yes, a key point in my book on How Jesus Became God was precisely this: it depends on what you (or different ones of the early Christians) meant by “God.”

  16. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 9, 2015

    OT: I just finished reading your New Testament textbook – not studying it the way a college student would, of course (doing the exercises, trying to remember a lot of what I was reading, actually reading the New Testament itself). I was just reading it as a book, taking your word for what the books of the NT say. A great reading experence!

    But…I’m *still* convinced that you don’t mention, *anywhere*, that the author of Matthew was wrong in saying there was a prophecy that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. (Mistranslation, etc.) I assume most people know at least the bare fact that there was a mistranslation, but even so, I can’t believe you didn’t mean to explain it. I still think you intended to move the reference from where it had been in the previous edition, but instead, it was dropped altogether.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2015

      Well you may be right! I’ve said it so many thousands of times in so many contexts that I just thought I did. Then again, there are many, many things I wanted to say in the book that I simply didn’t have space to say. The hardest thing about writing a textbook is making choices….

  17. Avatar
    Jrgebert  September 9, 2015

    How do the kenotic Christoloists handle the I AM statements of John? Christ in John knows he is God.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2015

      Some sophisticated ones would say that these are not historical statements of Jesus himself but later theological formulations placed on his lips.

  18. Avatar
    shakespeare66  September 9, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, you wrote, “Or elsewhere he says that no one knows when the end of the age will come, not the angels, “nor even the Son.” He doesn’t know!).” Just a bit of confusion for me—did not Christ say that “those standing here will not taste of death before the end comes?” In other words, didn’t Christ think the end of the age would come in his disciples life times? So which is it: we do not know when it will come ( yet it will like “a thief in the night.”) or the end of the age would come within the lives of the disciples?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 10, 2015

      Yes, he knows that it will be in his generation, but he doesn’t know when.

      • Avatar
        dhinton  October 7, 2015

        I often wonder why this was included in the New Testament. Were people just so sloppy that they didn’t realize anyone would notice or were they not as concerned with literal, objective truth?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 7, 2015

          It’s hard to tell (most people *haven’t* noticed!)

          • Avatar
            dhinton  October 7, 2015

            Thank you for the reply. Are other biographies written around the same time riddled with so many errors (hard to think of a better way to word it)? I have read that Biblical literalism is a rather modern development (citing Reza Aslan and Karen Armstrong here). Do you think there is some truth to the hypothesis that the Enlightenment/advent of science is what got people thinking more about objective truth to explain this? I think the reasoning is that it implies that the errors are there because these things came before and people just weren’t so concerned.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 8, 2015

            Yes, there aren’t any ancient writings that meet the modern standards of accuracy. And yes, these standards came from the Enlightenment.

  19. Avatar
    shakespeare66  September 9, 2015

    In what sense was Christ demonstrating that he was divine? Through his miracles? I can see where he is demonstrating his humanity, via the suffering he does during his crucifixions ( although he doesn’t suffer in every “crucifixion”). How is it that he can perform miracles but not be self-aware? In short, how can he be doing divine things without be aware that he is divine? Did he just say to himself “Wow, I’ve got these cool skills of raising people from the dead and casting out demons, but he didn’t want people to know about them.” The whole thing does not make sense and it is difficult to wrap my head around it—yet, it is mysterious and falls into the category of “God works in mysterious ways when one cannot explain things.”

  20. Avatar
    Jana  September 9, 2015

    Thank you especially for the final sentence. btw: my little pueblo is suffering a dengue and chikungunya epidemic. Many of my young students are very sick.

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