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Did the Earliest Christians Believe Jesus *Became* God?

This will be my final post on the debate I had in New Orleans with Michael Bird on “How Did Jesus Become God” a couple of weeks ago.  As I indicated in my previous post, it appears where we disagree in particular is with how the resurrection affected the disciples’ understanding of Jesus.  My view is that when they came to think Jesus was raised from the dead, the disciples thought that this entailed his being exalted up to heaven.  And *that* is why thy started calling Jesus “God,” because in ancient thinking – as documented widely in both pagan and Jewish circles – it was believed that a mortal being who was taken up to heaven was made immortal, and was in fact, considered then to become a God.

That is the belief attested for such figures as Romulus in Roman circles and Enoch in Jewish circles. And it is, I’ve contended, how the earliest Christians understood Jesus.  Only as they thought about it more did they start saying even more exalted things about him – eventually saying not that he was a mortal who had been made immortal or a human who had been made divine, but that he had been a divine being *before* he was a human being, that is, that he had pre-existed his appearance in this world and that he was a God come to earth, not an earthly being taken up to be a God.  In other words, in the terms I use in my book, the early Christians shifted from an “exaltation” Christology (where Christ was exalted to the level of divinity) to an “incarnation” Christology (where Christ was a God who became a fleshly human being, temporarily).

This is where Michael disagrees with me.  I should say again that in our debate he…

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  1. cheito
    cheito  February 29, 2016

    DR Ehrman”


    Only as they thought about it more did they start saying even more exalted things about him – eventually saying not that he was a mortal who had been made immortal or a human who had been made divine, but that he had been a divine being *before* he was a human being, that is, that he had pre-existed his appearance in this world and that he was a God come to earth, not an earthly being taken up to be a God.


    I believe that from the very beginning the disciples were taught by Jesus Himself that He had come down from heaven, that he was not from this world, that he was the Son of God through whom God created all things and that He would be killed and rise from the dead. The disciples never thought that Jesus was a mortal who after His resurrection became immortal. I think they didn’t understand everything Jesus was telling them until after the resurrection, but after the resurrection they did understand everything Jesus had been telling them.

    I believe that the accounts recorded in the Gospel of John were written by John Himself.
    This is clearly taught by the person reporting these narratives. This person testifies that it was the disciple whom Jesus loved who ‘testified and wrote’ the things written in John.

    John 21:24 is unambiguous:

    John 21:24-This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

    • Avatar
      Rogers  March 6, 2016

      Would highly recommend Bart’s college text book (in 6th edition printing as of 2015) as a way to come up to speed on the historian’s approach to the New Testament. There is an excellent chapter specifically on the Gospel of John. I found some of the side bar discussions very interesting indeed.

      The Gospel of John is so extraordinarily different manner of gospel from the Synoptics, having the highest form of Christology and being loaded up with “I am” verses attributed to Jesus, and it has a most interesting (to me) metaphysics (pre-incarnation and democratization of the nature of Jesus in respect to all of us – John 10:30-31). A side bar discussion in Bart’s book considers whether this gospel was in some way a forerunner (prototype) of 2nd century gnostic Christianity, as it seems to have been a gospel well like by gnostic Christians. The sidebar mentions that the very first commentary on a New Teetament gospel was written by a 2nd century Valatinian gnostic Christian on the Gospel of John.

      From a historical critical perspective, the Gospel of John is not viewed as a probable source of teachings going back to the historical Jesus and it authorship is not viewed as have been by the apostle of John (which the text book has discussion on). But it is very definitely a most fascinating gospel.

      • Avatar
        theundyingfire  March 11, 2016

        Is Eusebius’ Church History considered a valid source? If so, he speaks at some length of the origins of John’s gospel. In it, he says that John was still alive at the time the other Gospels were making the rounds in the community and while John was happy with the texts, there were some things he felt needed to be included, things he’d seen in person, a different perspective on things. Eusebius also speaks of the rejection of Gnostic thought of the time.

  2. Avatar
    Jana  February 29, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, Jesus was then not thought to be God or a divine incarnate despite his mother having been impregnated by God? Is there a chronology of which fabrication (they are fabrications aren’t they?) came first? The virgin birth or the resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2016

      Belief in resurrection came first. Only decades later, the virgin birth.

  3. Avatar
    smackemyackem  February 29, 2016

    Some back and forth posts from you two would be….awesome!

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    Wilusa  February 29, 2016

    I don’t doubt that the views of most early Christians evolved from Jesus’s having been made divine at his resurrection…to its having been at his baptism…to its having been at his birth or conception. And finally, to his having been a preexistent divine being.

    But you yourself have indicated that Paul, and at least a few others, believed at a much earlier date that he was a preexistent divine being (albeit a lesser one than he is in John). For Paul, he was an already-divine being who was “promoted” to a higher status after his resurrection. How does that differ from what you think Bird is implying? (If there’s actual evidence that Paul thought it, why is it hard to believe the disciples may have thought it?)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2016

      My sense is that Bird thinks this is what the followers believed as soon as they became convinced of the resurrection, instead of later.

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    Lee Palo  February 29, 2016

    Above you mention that more detail is given in your book. Do you give a lot of detail also in your Great Courses lecture series on the topic? I am a fan of the Great Courses and your courses in particular. I find that method of learning, via audio lectures, to be helpful in my life at the moment.

  6. Avatar
    mfbird  February 29, 2016


    Mate, thanks for your reflections on the debate, I have my own reflections coming up in blog post which I’ll publish in a few hours.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2016

      Fantastic! I’ll send you a note about it.

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  March 7, 2016

      Tried to respond on patheos, but it won’t let me log in for some reason. I read part of your response. I’ll get to the rest when I’ve had more sleep!

      I’m not understanding how 2 Sam 7:12-16 is a reference to the Son of God, namely Jesus. Verse 15 reads “When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men…” Since Jesus was supposed to be perfect, how could he have done wrong?

      I looked up the 4Q246 manuscript. I must say, I’ve never heard of it before. What’s the date of the manuscript? I see that it’s Aramaic and may have been taken from Luke. Is that right? I’d definitely like to know more about it!

      I can see how Paul may not have had an adoptionist view. However, the author of Mark reads differently to me. If people thought Jesus was preexistent then it seems Jesus would have been portrayed as God of the Jews instead of king of the Jews. As for the term “Son of God,” how are we supposed to know that the Son of God is part of a triune God?

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  March 8, 2016

        It’s the next morning now. I’m recharged after much needed rest and a cup of coffee to start the day. Anyway, I can see your point with Luke, and I can’t say I’ve ever heard of possession Christology either. Maybe that could be explained further on here or on your blog. Or both!

        I need to go back and re-read How Jesus Became God, all those sources that have been quoted, and THEN make up my mind about it.

      • Bart
        Bart  March 8, 2016

        I discuss all this in my book How jesus Became God (except for 4Q246; off hand I don’t know the date)

      • Avatar
        mfbird  March 8, 2016

        Patty, 2 Sam 7:14 says, ” I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me” which is taken as a prophecy of a future Davidic king that shaped hopes in places like Ps 89, Micah 4, and intertestamental literature. Not every detail in the prophecy was taken as a direct application to Jesus. On 4Q246, it is not taken from Luke, but is probably datable to 66 BCE to 66 CE, shows that the Messiah was regarded as a Son of God. Finally, I’m not sure pre-existent = God, nor is it necessary that Mark’s divine christology would require rejecting regal qualities. What we find in Mark is that Jesus proclaims and even embodies YHWH’s reign in his words and actions.

        • Pattycake1974
          Pattycake1974  March 10, 2016

          Thanks so much for replying. 4Q246 leads me to some other questions, but I won’t wear you out with them…for now!

          • Bart
            Bart  March 11, 2016

            Hey — wear him out!!! 🙂

          • Pattycake1974
            Pattycake1974  March 11, 2016


      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  March 14, 2016

        4Q246 was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q = Cave 4, Qumran). It therefore dates before 74 CE by when the scrolls, most believe, were hidden in the caves. So they all predate at least Matthew, Luke, and John.

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  March 8, 2016

      I meant to write in my last comment that I’m planning on reading How God Became Jesus as well!

  7. Avatar
    oakspear  February 29, 2016

    If the Jews thought (as did many pagans) that being exalted into heaven made one a god, do you say that the Jewish people thought that Elijah, who is clearly taken up into heaven, and perhaps Enoch as well, were God? If so, could you elaborate? I’m not seeing it

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2016

      Some Jews absolutely thought this! I lay it all out in my book.

      • Avatar
        Elisabeth  March 13, 2016

        In ‘How Jesus Became God’? Did these Jews believe they (Enoch and Elijah) were alternate gods, i.e. polytheism, or they were just manifestations of the one God?

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  March 14, 2016

        So much for monotheism, I guess.

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  February 29, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I notice that a lot of NT scholars will to point to Philippians 2:6-11 as a confessional hymn from the oral period, and that since it begins by stating that Jesus was in the “form” (morphe) of God and came down to earth in the “form” (morphen) of a servant, that this supports a pre-existance/incarnation christology in the early church. But I also notice that within the same passage, it also states that the Christ Jesus 1) was not at first equal (isa) with God, 2) that he came in the “likeness” (homoiomati) and “appearance” (schemati) of a man, and that 3) that he was “highly exalted” (hyperypsosen) and was “granted” (echaristo) a name above every name (i.e. God would make him the most powerful man on earth). Each of these points imply a non-trinitarian, docetic and exaltation christology, respectively. How do apologists such as Michael Bird square that circle?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2016

      I’m not sure. I deal with the passage at some length in my book.

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    JakSiemasz  February 29, 2016

    I apologize for such a simple-minded question, but what made the disciples/early christians think that Jesus arose from the dead? I have recently begun reading your blog and earlier writings so I don’t know if you’ve previously answered this query.
    Also, in your estimation, what happened to the body of Jesus post crucifixion?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2016

      I deal with this at length in my book. Some of the disciples apparently had visions of Jesus after his death. My view is that his body was probably deposited in some kind of mass grave.

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    Ibn.Fawda  March 1, 2016

    Your area of expertise seems so different from other fields. Professors of literature, anthropology, law etc… may disagree but they support their opinions in a rational way. In your field it seems so many “experts” are so emotionally attached to their inherited beliefs that they cannot rationally debate ideas or come to their own conclusions. Generally, scholars follow facts and base opinions on observations and change opinions based on new facts. In you profession, it seems many “scholars” have a belief and all their work is committed to proving that belief. It must be much frustrating for you (and others like you) to deal with this. Physicists and anthropologists debate reasonable ideas based on evidence/observations but a true scholar in your field will always have to debate others who are tired to faith and not only scholarship. How frustrating is this for you, or do you use it as an opportunity to inform as an historian versus as a “believer?”

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2016

      My sense is that very few NT scholars would agree that they are biased and everyone else is not!

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 1, 2016

    Yes, I think it would be a great idea to read a response from Dr. Bird about your recent blogs. Somehow, I think he has to conclude that the disciples thought that Jesus was God Incarnate all along as evidenced by Jesus performing miracles, forgiving sins, and having demons recognize Him. I guess one could also argue that Jesus made statements about being divine.in “The Gospel According to John” and that these statements are historical.

    Before reading “How Jesus Became God” and “How God Became Jesus,” I had not heard about pre-literary creeds in Acts and Paul’s epistles. It was very helpful to learn about these creeds.

    I read this week that “Jesus Before the Gospels” is your 29th published book. Wow! That is a stunning number. Most of us would consider the publication of one book, especially one as extensive as your New Testament text book, to have been a whole career. Congratulations!!!!!!

    I have two things left on my bucket list: Write a book that gets published and make a hole in one. The later seems much more likely than the former. Congratulations again!!!!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2016

      I would like to congratulate you. This is comment 1000 that you have posted on the blog!!!

  12. Avatar
    toejam  March 1, 2016

    My view is that there probably is no consistent “earliest (attainable) Christian” view on such things. I suspect even during his ministry his followers had all sorts of conflicting ideas about Jesus’ relationship to Yahweh and where he fit on the divine spectrum.

    Curious: Have you seen the movie “Risen”? Thoughts?

  13. Hastings
    Hastings  March 1, 2016

    I hope he responds positively. I’d like to see the two of you going back and forth.

  14. Avatar
    francis  March 1, 2016

    Dr Ehrman: I am now reading your latest book. Jesus before the gospels.. This book is great. Do you think that since the gospels were written in Greek. do you think these stories were written as Greek comedy??? After all they were written about an oppressed people, the brunt of jokes????

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2016

      No, I don’t think they are comedy. Although the “tragedy” does get reversed in them to end on a avery good note.

  15. Avatar
    Hari Prasad  March 1, 2016

    That’s very clear, coherent, and convincing. If the only alternative to this argument is for Jesus to have been considered in his lifetime a pre-existent divine being who had descended to a human existence, there is surely no precedent for such a belief regarding any Jewish rabbi or prophet.

    It seems closer to the message of the late gospel of John or the Docetist heresy of the early Christian centuries. Then the onus is on anyone who wants to show that a Galilean preacher and his disciples in the first century were fundamentally interested in theology rather than the imminent arrival of the kingdom of heaven with the raising up of the poor and afflicted and the humbling and punishment of the mighty. That doesn’t fit with the context or content of the message.

    Indeed the pre-literary traditions cited from Romans and Acts are to the point. But by putting all the emphasis on baptism in the Risen Christ and the magical immortality conferred by the Resurrection on others joined to Christ in the Eucharist, Paul seems to have also laid the basis for belief in the pre-existent divinity of the eternal Son of God with unique access to the Father. That may have been his unique and powerful message based only on his personal ecstatic experience of contact with the post-Resurrection Christ, as he claimed.

    In this case, it may be plausible to distinguish between: (i) views of Jesus when he was in life: (ii) the experience of the original disciples of the risen Jesus and their reactions; and (iii) the message of Paul who had never known Jesus in life and didn’t care too much, according to his own comments, for the opinions of Peter, James, or the others, but whose views were of overwhelming influence because the alternative Jewish Christianity of the groupl led by James at Jerusalem left no record.

  16. Avatar
    spiker  March 1, 2016

    Great Idea!

    Michael, in a lot of ways, was a better debating partner than many you’ve had in the past!

  17. Avatar
    Jana  March 1, 2016

    Happy Birthday on your Newest Book .. March 1!

  18. Avatar
    plparker  March 1, 2016

    I actually thought in listening to Michael’s arguments that he did not agree with you that most people (the disciples) believed that Jesus became divine at the point of the resurrection, that it was earlier than that. But he also agreed that most people did not consider him divine during the events retold in the Gospel of Mark. But then he went back and forth between a reference point of “most people believed later” and “the majority believed at the time” so it was not clear when he thought the majority view swung to an “always has been divine” notion.

    Also he quoted a John Knox who apparently argues that “pre-existent divinity” can be inferred at the resurrection, but again, this was a later formulation of events; it did not appear to support the argument that most people at the time believed Jesus had been a pre-existent divinity.

    So he was either arguing that most people later came to believe that Jesus was a pre-existent divine being — in which case he was not disagreeing with you because you were arguing the same thing. Or he was arguing that the point in time when most people believed this was sometime after Jesus’ birth but before the resurrection, but he never identified when this point was or why he believes that.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2016

      Yes, he absolutely does not agree that hte disciples thought Jesus “became” divine at that point. They came to *realize* he was divine at that point.

  19. Avatar
    philprof  March 1, 2016

    This may be a bad time to ask the question, especially since you want to get on to other things, but I was wondering how you see your argument relative to Reginald Fuller’s FOUNDATIONS OF NEW TESTAMENT THEOLOGY? It’s been a long time since I looked at Fuller, but doesn’t he also argue that the earliest NT texts indicate that God exalted or vindicated Jesus at the resurrection (adoption?), that the next stage was to see Jesus as sent by God, to be vindicated at the resurrection, and the latest stage reflects belief that the eternal, pre-existent Christ became incarnate in Jesus, who was then resurrected to return to the right hand of the Father. (To be honest, the only details I remember now from Fuller are his nifty diagrams.)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2016

      Ah, it was an important book for me back in graduate school. My approach is very different (not based on “titles” of Jesus)

  20. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  March 1, 2016

    Both of you posting would be really fun!

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