A couple of weeks I gave a two-lecture online course called “Jesus, The Actual Son of Joseph: The New Testament Evidence” (not connected with the blog; you can learn more about it on my website www.bartehrman.com/courses).  It was an interesting experience for me, in part because it made me think of things and look into things I hadn’t thought or looked into before, and in part because it made me look back at some of the work I had done before but not thought about in a long time.

That included a paper that I gave twenty years ago now at the British New Testament Conference organized by Mark Goodacre, back when he was still teaching a the University of Birmingham in England.  For this more recent course I re-read the paper (not remembering it!) and (having read it again) thought that it would be interesting to excerpt here on the blog.

It was delivered for scholars of the New Testament, but I wrote it so that it would not be overly technical or jargony, and its basic ideas (whether I reach the right conclusions or not) seem pretty important for anyone interesting in the NT.   The paper was “Christ as Divine Man in Texts Disputed and Apocryphal.”   I never published it, but, well, here it is.  This will take four posts.

I begin the paper, after some standard throat-clearing, by making a preliminary remark about the topic:


Some scholars have offered what they have termed “historical” studies of this kind of question — of in what sense, and when, Jesus came to be seen as divine — by focusing exclusively on exegesis of NT texts.  I want to make the methodological point, however, that even for scholars interested simply in the early periods of Christianity, any decision to restrict the investigation to canonical texts in their final form is made not on historical but on theological grounds.

If a historical investigation were in view, then other Christian texts written at roughly the same time as those of the New Testament must be brought into view (parts of the Didache, for example, are probably earlier than, say, the Johannine epistles; the letters of Ignatius are earlier than 2 Peter; etc.). This especially includes non-canonical apocryphal texts, especially Gospels and the narratives they relate, should be examined with greater rigor, if nothing else in order to see what kinds of oral traditions lie at their roots, traditions that could feasibly move back into the NT period.

Moreover, if a historical investigation were in view, then the manuscript tradition of the various texts should be taken into account more thoroughly, both to see what the so-called original texts said, but also to to see where the originals came to be changed in the early history of their transmission.  In short, for a historical investigation, data other than just the NT documents in their final form need to be considered.


In this paper I would like to explore how such an investigation might be carried out by focusing principally on one of our early Christian texts, the Gospel according to Luke.  As an opening thesis I would like to contend that the “earliest” version of Luke was particularly open to an adoptionistic reading, where Jesus was not seen as divine “by nature” (so to say) but as a human who was adopted by God to be his son.

First I should say a word about adoptionism as a christological option, not to provide any new information on the subject but to stake out my position on the matter and so to set up the rest of my paper.  My view is the common one that we appear to have had “adoptionistic Christologies” for about as long as we have had Christologies, that in fact these are the oldest Christologies we know.

I think the evidence is compelling, for example, that Rom. 1:3-4 is a pre-Pauline creedal fragment that celebrated the resurrection of Jesus as the moment in which he came to be appointed to be the Son of God.  In its basic affirmation this fragment concurs with the pre-lukan statement taken over in Peter’s speech of Acts 13:32, that the words of Psalm 2 relate to God’s glorification of Jesus at the resurrection: “You are my son Today I have begotten you” — a view that is possibly echoed in Paul’s Areopagus speech (17:31), that Jesus was appointed the future judge of the earth at his resurrection.

Eventually this most primitive notion that the resurrection was the moment of Jesus’ adoption to sonship came to be modified, as Christians of the early decades began to think that Jesus was God’s son during his entire ministry (in which case the voice from heaven spoke the words of Psalm 2 at his baptism); or for his entire life (in which case he was born the Son of God); or for his eternal existence (in which case he was with God from eternity past).

It’s true that, as it turns out, one can trace these stages chronologically through our Gospels, so that Mark our earliest Gospel appears to have Jesus as son of God at his baptism, our later Gospels Matthew and Luke have him as the son of God at his miraculous birth, and our final Gospel John has him as the Word of God in eternity past.  But it would obviously be a mistake to think in terms of a neat linear development of Christological views, since our earliest author, Paul, already muddies the waters.

My own view is that different christologies emerged at different times in different places, that different christologies emerged simultaneously in different places; that different Christologies emerged simultaneously in the same places; and even more that the same christologies emerged at different times or even at the same time in different places. {And that’s about as confusing as this paper gets…}

We know this final option to be true from later times, for example, where such disparate second-century groups as the Jewish Christian Ebionites (or at least one sect of the group that, for the sake of convenience, we can label Ebionites) and the Gentile-Roman-Christian Theodotians held in common the view that Jesus was a PSILOS ANTHROPOS – a mere man (meaning that he was not by nature divine.).

It is striking that according to the so-called Little Labyrinth quoted by Eusebius in Book V of his Ecclesiastical history, the latter group, the Theodotians who were followers of the Roman cobbler Theodotus, who obviously had a lot of time on his hands while making shoes for a living, insisted vociferously that their view was the original understanding of the apostles and of the entire early Chrsitian tradition.  Many scholars readily concede some such claim, at least with respect to the Ebionites, that this really was the oldest form of christological confession.

Maybe some form of adoptionism was the original Christology.

In any event, back to my opening thesis, that the “earliest” version of Luke was particularly open to an adoptionistic reading, where Jesus was not seen as divine “by nature,” but as a human who was adopted by God to be his son.  It has widely been recognized that the infancy narrative of Luke chapters 1-2 were a secondary and later, possibly final, addition to the Gospel, composed, that is, after the rest of the book (and probably Acts) was written and then added on in a final stage of composition.  But is it possible that the Gospel actually circulated for a time without the first two chapters, and that, as probably happened with the Gospel of John and possibly in a different way with the book of Acts, the Gospel was published in multiple editions, only one of which came to serve as the archetype for the surviving textual tradition?

First consider the standard arguments for seeing Luke 1-2 as a secondary addition to the Gospel (with the proviso if the Gospel lacked most of chs. 1-2, it probably began with what is now 1:1-4 – the preface to the work – and then went directly to what is now 3:1)

(1) It is widely conceded that the solemn dating of the appearance of John the Baptist in 3:1-2 reads like the beginning, not the continuation of the narrative: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Casear, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee… the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness….”

(2) Most of the central themes of chs. 1-2 – including the familial ties of John the Baptist and Jesus, Jesus virginal conception, and his birth in Bethlehem – are completely absent from the rest of the narrative, even though there were plenty of opportunities to mention them, had they already been narrated;

(3) The geneaology of Jesus makes little sense in chapter 3, after his baptism, given the fact that he and his birth are already mentioned in chapter 2, and that would be the appropriate place to indicate his lineage.  But if the Gospel began in chapter 3 and the first thing that happened to Jesus was the declaration that he was the “Son” of God (in 3:23), then his lineage back to God through Adam makes sense where it is;

(4) The book of Acts summarizes the preceding narrative as involving what Jesus “began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1), saying nothing of his birth; so too in Peter’s later summary of the Gospel, “beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John preached” (10:37).

These data are well known.  But some of the historical implications have not always been considered, since exegetes have tended to treat Luke’s Gospel as a whole, including the first two chapters.  I don’t want to make any definitive historical claim here, but I do wonder if it’s possible that there was an earlier limited edition of Luke, a publication that did not get copied much but that was nonetheless in circulation, that lacked the first two chapters.



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2023-12-11T21:40:09-05:00December 12th, 2023|Canonical Gospels, Early Christian Doctrine, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

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  1. thelad2 December 12, 2023 at 8:50 am

    Hello Bart. I note that many NT scholars refer to early Christian beliefs as being “primitive.” That’s always felt slightly condescending to me; almost as if 1st and 2nd generation Christians had a child-like understanding of Jesus. Paul believed what he believed. Mark believed what he believed. They may not agree, but they are not primitive. These men formed their opinions on who Jesus was based on the “best” data available. Rather than primitive , I would call their beliefs “original.” Only later christological musings by theologians with too much time on their hands made these foundational beliefs seem primitive by comparison. Thanks for your time.

    • Oudeis December 18, 2023 at 11:46 pm

      It’s not quite what you may think. “Primitive” originally just meant first or original, and only took on a derogatory meaning very late in its history – 1967, according to The Oxford English Dictionary (see meaning 1.2.d). This seems to be the result of attitudes to indigenous people who were described as “primitive”, where it was originally used only to mean that they were the first inhabitants (dating from1779)

      The use of “primitive” for the early Christians in English dates back to 1602, but is much older in the French and Latin it derives from. Jerome (born around 342) uses it to describe the saints in the heavenly Jerusalem, and you will find the term “primitivorum ecclesia” (church of the first ones) in the Latin vulgate translation of Hebrews 12:23 “Assembly of the firstborn” NRSV.

      Also note the group describing itself as the “Primitive Methodists” which formed in 1810 didn’t find the term derogatory.

      So the scholars are not trying to demean the early Christians by using the term “primitive”. They are just using it in a way that has been established for over 1500 years, long before the negative use came into existence in 1967.


  2. edecter December 12, 2023 at 11:18 am

    Fascinating. Are you suggesting that the first two chapters were added later by the same author who composed the rest of Luke or that someone else added them?

    • BDEhrman December 15, 2023 at 6:30 pm

      I’m open to either option.

  3. Stephen December 12, 2023 at 1:10 pm

    Couldn’t we account for Paul’s “early high Christology” by assuming that he probably didn’t come to Jesus belief as a blank slate? As an educated literate Jewish apocalypticist wouldn’t he have probably incorporated his Jesus belief into an already fairly sophisticated divine cosmology (i.e., Daniel, Enoch, etc)?

    • BDEhrman December 15, 2023 at 6:30 pm

      That surely played some role, I’d agree. How his background affected things is a very complicated thing to figure out (as is true of every convert, of course)

  4. Gdittmer December 12, 2023 at 8:58 pm

    Slightly off topic question: you have said that we don’t have manuscripts with titles (i.e. matt, mark, luke. John) until after 180CE. I’m curious if we have any manuscripts before 180CE that explicitly show lack of title where we would expect to see it (like the first page).

    • BDEhrman December 15, 2023 at 6:34 pm

      Nope. We have some fragments that don’t have the page that would have had the title, if there was a title.

      • AndySeattle December 28, 2023 at 3:47 pm

        Interesting! How then can you rule out the possibility that the earliest manuscripts actually were entitled “Matthew,” “Mark,” “Luke,” or “John?” If the earliest surviving manuscript fragments are missing the title pages, and the slightly later manuscripts had them, why not conclude that the slightly later copyists had the title pages of the earliest manuscripts and then the title pages just got detached over time?

        • BDEhrman January 1, 2024 at 3:00 pm

          You can’t rule it out. You can only say that it looks completely implausible given everything else we know (e.g., the fact they are anonymous, give no hints about their authors names, are not called by these names for about a century, but are quoted by early church writers who give no indication that they know their names, and that the “titles” then end up with are not titles but attributions — hard to understand if the authors gave them titles that had their own names attached).

  5. petfield December 12, 2023 at 10:15 pm

    It’s difficult to find something more fascinating in these studies than the earliest Christology. I remember when I first read about the pre-pauline poems and creeds in “How Jesus Became God” and how it really blew my mind away!
    Also, as an archeologist, I would love to discover the earliest copies of Luke (and Mark and John) – how spectacular would that be! I am really pumped up now… 😂

    • BDEhrman December 15, 2023 at 6:34 pm

      Yes, please discover them!

  6. DrJay December 23, 2023 at 10:43 am

    I know you have said that we have a record of a “virgin conception” but not of a “virgin birth>” What is your understanding of Matthew 1:24-25, which says that Joseph took Mary as his wife but did not have sexual relations with her until after her child was born? Whether historical or not, it is a biblical record.

    • BDEhrman December 26, 2023 at 9:30 am

      By “virgin birth” I don’t mean that “she never had sex before the child was born”; I’m referring to the ancient view (still held in some cultures) that a woman cann’t still be a virgin if her hymen has been broken. By the second century, htough not in the NT, it was sometimes thought that Mary’s hymen was still intact after giving birth.

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