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Early Christology: How I Changed My Mind

It seems like every time I write a book, based on the research I do I change my mind about one thing or another that I’ve thought for a long time.  Some people (including some fellow scholars) think that’s a weakness or a problem.   I think of it as one of my charming personality traits.  🙂

OK, seriously, I think more scholars ought to be willing to change their minds — instead of being intransigent and thinking they are always right.  If intense research gives you new and different insights, that’s a *good* thing, not a problem.

I think about this a lot every time I’m in the midst of doing research for a book (such as now) (well, OK, such as almost always), and just now I was looking through old blog posts , and I ran across one (almost exactly five years ago today!) where I talk about a big change of mind involving the early understandings of Jesus as a divine being, in connection with the book I eventually published, How Jesus Became God.  Here is what I said.  (This new view is one that I now heartily endorse still!)


In these posts I have been arguing that there were two separate streams of early Christology (i.e. “understandings of Christ”).  The first Christologies were almost certainly based on the idea of “exaltation.” Christ, as a human being, came to be exalted to the right hand of God, where he was made to share in God’s status as a reward for his faithfulness. The earliest Christians – the earthly disciples themselves (or at least some of them: we have no way of knowing if they all “converted” to believe this about Jesus) –thought that this happened at Jesus’ resurrection, where God “made him” the Son of God (and thus the Lord, the messiah to come, the Son of Man, and so on). Later there were Christians who thought this exaltation occurred at his baptism, so that he was the Son of God for his entire ministry.

The other type of Christology came a bit later.  It was an “incarnation” Christology which indicated that Jesus was a pre-existent divine being – for example, an angel – who became a human being for the purpose of salvation.  This was the view of …

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  1. Avatar
    godspell  March 2, 2018

    Irenaeus famously said the point of Christianity was for everyone to become God. Irenaeus was no hippy-dippy Gnostic, and Christianity was a full-fledged religion by then, with a large following.

    This probably isn’t all that far from what Jesus himself thought. That’s why he thinks anyone could perform any miracle, if they had faith the size of a mustard seed. To have absolute faith in God is to become God, in some sense. To share in God’s power. Jesus knew he was just a human being, but inside every human being is the divine. There is no line separating the two, except the line we ourselves draw. Erase that line, and anything becomes possible. But many of us can’t. Those are the goats. Unfortunately, humans beings also have a potential to become one with the demonic.

    Obviously Jesus believed there was a supreme expression of Divinity, which is what he and other Jews worshipped. But as you say, there was an underlying sense that there were many gradations of divinity, and men and women could themselves become divine beings. Or demonic beings (perhaps also able to perform lesser feats, like Pharoah’s sorcerors in Exodus, turning their staves into snakes).

    It’s hard for people to live up to their divine potential, very easy for them to live up to the demonic. God would ultimately have to intervene on behalf of those who gravitated towards Him, as opposed to the other side. Separate the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats.

    Obviously this is guesswork, but the goal is internal logic that is supportable based on what we already know, right?

  2. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  March 2, 2018

    Good post! I think changing your views in the light of new evidence is a positive quality to have, otherwise we’re just hanging onto a bias. Viewing Christology through the lens of the Nicene Creed is an example of what all historians have to struggle with. Often we view history through the lens of modern concepts or layers of views that have accumulated through the centuries. It can be difficult to discover the ideas and concepts previous generations held, and humbling to realize that people in the past didn’t quite think the way we do today.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  March 2, 2018

    “I think more scholars ought to be willing to change their minds”

    One would hope so.

  4. Avatar
    tomruda  March 2, 2018

    I really appreciate that you do change your mind. This means you are a “Dynamic” scholar, not a static one. This is important in that you don’t overlook what you don’t agree with. Rather you face the truth wherever it leads. I share this aspect with you and enjoy your scholarship in these writings. I don’t always agree, but I am challenged to consider what you wrote and how you arrived there. Thank you for this. I would be interested to learn how you see the mystical development of Christianity from an experience to a doctrine such as from actually being with Jesus spiritually in the early church to Nicea where the dogma and doctrines took over. To me, it appears things went from mystical experiences to a legal way of approaching the faith.

    • Avatar
      Caro  March 4, 2018

      Yes, and now I have close Christian friends who rate their mystical experiences as more important that doctrine. Why read the words of man when you can communicate directly with God via dreams and visions?I personally don’t have these experiences but I know people who genuinely do.

      • Avatar
        HistoricalChristianity  March 8, 2018

        Really? Of course people have dreams. But how do you know they are getting messages from God? How do they know?

        Today, science understands a lot about how the brain works, and how dreams work. No scientist thinks dreams are a source of knowledge. Even Freudian dream interpretation has fallen out of favor. That said, I’d like to ask a Christian who is a scientist why they think their religion is true. If you accept the dreams of Paul, why not Mohammad or Joseph Smith?

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 2, 2018

    One of your best traits is that you continue to learn and modify your views accordingly.

    I have several “new age” friends, probably too many, who often talk in mystical ways about God being in them and their being part of God. I am not saying I get what they are saying, but, for them, the division between human and divine is not as clear as it is in my thinking.

    By far, my favorite scripture is the parable in Matthew about the sheep and the goats. You have probably blogged about this before, but do you think that this is a parable that Jesus actually said and, if so, was Jesus really talking about heaven and Hell when he said it? It just stands in such contrast to the rest of Matthew.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2018

      I think he’s referring to what will happen not at death but at the last judgment (which he expected very soon!)

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 4, 2018

      Not heaven or hell, of course, but the apocalypse. It’s very much in context. It’s what all of Matthew 24 was about.

  6. Avatar
    smackemyackem  March 2, 2018

    I like where you are going with this.

    I have pondered this for quite some time myself. If the pagans believed in levels of divinity, then why not the earliest Christians?

    In the Hebrew Bible, Moses and others are called God. This was a way of saying that they were God’s representative on Earth. Perhaps this concept whether borrowed from other religions or not, morphed into a kind of divine spectrum. As time went on, maybe some questioned what that actually meant. For some, Maybe Moses and the others were divine in some sense. And this carried over to the Jesus movement.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 2, 2018

    Actually, I found the answers to my sheep and goats question on your blogs dated 10/18/17, 10/25/17, and 11/3/17. The answer is that since the statements made by Jesus in this “parable” are different than those made by Paul, about the importance of belief getting one to heaven, they meet the criterion of dissimilarity and are, hence, probably something Jesus actually said. Secondly, the statements are not about heaven, but about rewards made to living people at the time of the apocalyptic coming of the Kingdom of God. Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2018

      Ah, right! I thought I’d dealt with that before I got sidetracked from that thread. I’ll return to it.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 2, 2018

    For those new to the blog, I have found that I can find specific blog topics by just Googling “Bart Ehrman: Plus topic”

    For example: “Bart Ehrman Blog: Sheep and Goats” brought up 6 topics that were of interest.

    • Avatar
      tcasto  March 5, 2018

      Have you found an efficient way to search within Bart’s site?

      • Bart
        Bart  March 6, 2018

        There is a very nice search function built in. Click the magnifying glass in the upper right hand corner.

  9. Avatar
    anthonygale  March 2, 2018

    I also wish that more scholars, in many fields, would be willing to change their minds. In fact, why isnt that expected? The entire point of doing research is to expand knowledge. How can one expect to expand knowledge without ever discovering something they didnt expect? How can someone think, study and have experiences for decades and not think they may have been wrong about something, especially when trying to solve big problems? To avoid hypocrisy, I must concede I may be wrong about this, but it boggles my mind to think otherwise.

  10. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  March 2, 2018

    I’m quoting from memory, but do you think the quotation by Jesus of the psalm, ” ‘Have I (God) not said, ”You are gods”?’ So why do you object when I say I am the son of God?” accurately reflects something Jesus might have said about himself?
    On scholars who become entrenched, I was taught that history as done by historians is a science, which means being ready to admit their hypotheses have been wrong. Would that not apply to all fields of research?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2018

      No, it’s from John’s Gospel and is unattested elsewehre.

      • Avatar
        Tetragrammaton  March 5, 2018

        Actually Dr., Psalm 82:6 is what Jesus ( or the author of John) quotes in John 10:34. “I said ye are gods…”

        Questions: Dr Ehrman , don’t you think that John 10:30 is a misunderstood statement (often usted to back the claim that Jesus claimed divinity(?)). John 10:30 is a text that makes sense only when read with its context John 10:23-39. It’s a “Ones” of purpose and not essence or substance. Wasn’t Jesus saying in John 10:34 on that “in our language (Hebrew/Aramaic) people\prophets are called gods, check the psalm 82:6 or genesis or Exdusus and you will find the prove. Why then find problem with me calling myself the “son of god” if people are called by greater titles?”

        • Bart
          Bart  March 6, 2018

          Yes, I completely agree it needs to be read in context. But notice how Jesus’ Jewish opponents react once he says it. This is a clue to what John meant by it.

  11. Avatar
    Boltonian  March 2, 2018

    More power to your elbow. What is the point of research? If one has not grown or been changed in some way then it has all been wasted effort.

  12. Avatar
    fishician  March 2, 2018

    Don’t know if this will come up in your thread, but I’ve always wondered how one can say that God, as Jesus, “died” on the cross. How can God die, since he is eternal? His spirit would continue on as if nothing happened, presumably. To call it death seems like a cheat. Why would a temporary cessation of the physical body functions constitute death, and why would that kind of “death” pay for anyone’s sins? But this is the kind of paradox that theology thrives on.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2018

      I think the idea is that the human died but the spirit lived on. My hunch is that these earliest Christains didn’t plumb the theological questions very deeply.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 4, 2018

      Gods died all the time, usually killed by other gods. Only the Johannine community thought Jesus was eternal.

    • Avatar
      godspell  March 5, 2018

      Well in the original version of the story, he’s clearly not God–Mark sees him as a man. A man who has doubts, who cries out that God has forsaken him. He may believe he’s going to live on in some form, but he’s clearly not sure of that.

      And man, you know, crucifixion really hurts.

  13. Avatar
    ddorner  March 2, 2018

    Dr. Brant Pitre has presented a few rebuttals of your views (mostly in a book called The Case For Jesus.)

    One point he brings up is the verse in Mark 6:50. He says that in english there’s some ambiguity in the translation of “it is I” from the greek. He argues that the context should actually be “It is I am.” (i.e. Jesus is making a pronouncement about his divinity, just as in John.)

    Pitre’s main thesis in his book is that Jesus is covertly saying he’s God in the synoptics (primarily through his miracles, and correlations with the OT [Job 3, reflects the walking on water story etc.].) And that it’s just not as obvious as it is in John.

    I realize there’s a distinction between what the gospel writers believed and what the historical Jesus said and did. But when you say that “Mark never has Jesus calling himself God” would that still be true if Jesus is indeed referring to his own divinity in Mark 6:50 as Pitre says?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2018

      Ha! That’s a good one. EGO EIMI is simply the way to say “Yup, it’s me.” I wonder if Pitre thinks that when the man born blind in John 9 says EGO EIMI (John 9:9) he was claiming “I am divine”? 🙂

      • talmoore
        talmoore  March 5, 2018

        Dr. Ehrman, correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the first person pronoun in Greek (ego) function not unlike in Latin (ego)? Namely, that since the first person singular is implied in the verbal conjugation, the pronoun is only added for emphasis. For instance, in Latin, “sum” means “I’m”; but “ego sum” means “_I_am”.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 6, 2018

          Yes, the verb in Greek already contains the subject (first, second, or third person), so the use of a personal pronoun makes it emphatic, or, in some cases, provides a slightly different nuance — as in the present case (when answering “is it you?” one would say “ego eimi” — “yes, it is I”)

  14. Telling
    Telling  March 2, 2018

    When we have a hand wearing a glove, we wouldn’t ask if the glove is the hand, or whether the gloved hand is half glove and half hand. The glove is a mere tool of the hand.

    We can similarly think of God as the awareness we call “us”, the physical man a mere interface, a portal into the physical world. We, awareness, are the “I am” (God), the physical body is “man”.

    The degree of divinity within us is dependent on how cognizant we are of our own being, called “self-awareness” and “present-moment awareness” in the metaphysical world. Gaining in this cognizance of our own very beings, we will find we are developing powers beyond the physical man. Some people see auras, others have degrees of telepathic communication, may awaken within dreams and perhaps guide the dream (lucid dreaming), and may have or develop healing powers common in Asian countries. Eventually, per the occult sciences, we will become what we now call “God”, all powerful beings from a contemporary viewpoint, yet in reality we will have a developed power of essentially dreaming in a shared environment.

    This is called “gnosis” for Christians, an heretical teaching. It does however explain what Christians can only argue over — Was Jesus God or Man, or … etc.

    I just heard your last month’s Licona debate this morning on Youtube, I’ll listen to the Q&A after lunch today. Good debate, I liked it.

  15. tompicard
    tompicard  March 2, 2018

    you know, i dont think there is anything that Jesus said that implies

    > . . . asking whether Jesus has crossed that enormous and
    > unbridgeable chasm between the human and the divine.
    > In this way of thinking, the human is one kind of thing,
    > the divine is another kind of thing, and being one or
    > the other is a HUGE and INSURMOUNTABLE difference.
    > God is separated from humanity by an enormous gulf.

    what did Jesus say that implies any of the above? ? ?

    I am pretty sure he described the proper relationship between humans and God exactly opposite that.

    ( i am not much interested in whether Paul or John said silly stuff like that)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2018

      He didn’t feel a need to address the issue one way or the other, since on this particular point there was no debate in his time and place.

  16. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  March 2, 2018

    The confusion results from the almost universal presumption that the NT authors (and Christianity itself) grew from a Jewish base. I think it grew from a Greek philosophical base. Thus, Dr. Ehrman’s idea not only makes sense, it’s obvious. The Greek mystery religions had already been thinking about a universal sacrifice, and whether such a sacrifice had to be a god. In Greek (polytheistic) thought, what does it take to be a god? Their answer was radically different from the answer of Judaism, since they had hundreds (thousands?) of gods. What’s one more? Who’s counting?

    By the first century, Judaism was firmly monotheistic. But they still believed in angels. Everyone else recognized these angels as gods. Giving them a different name didn’t change anything. For that reason, some thought Judaism was still polytheistic.

  17. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  March 3, 2018

    All of that is interesting and has some support. However, it is a fallacy to say that earliest Christians believed so-and-so, or to qualify that by saying some of them, and to believe or infer that because one gospel was produced before the others it is more correct. THAT is what is false.

    For example, Mark and some of the Pauline letters certainly came before the finalized version of Matthew, and the gospels of Luke and John from a PRODUCTION point of view. However, Matthew and John are the only gospels that the earliest Christians attributed to actual people who knew and learned directly from Jesus. Mark was believed to have never met Christ, but to have translated Peter’s memory. Luke was a doctor that talked to disciples and those that he believed had first-hand knowledge. But Matthew and John were believed to have been first-hand accounts which would be more accurate in any other evidential setting even if written later.

    I am not claiming that there weren’t various Christologies among the first Christians. I am saying that those that were the least developed did not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the earliest Christians; just the beliefs of the first RECORDERS of the earliest Christians…two completely separate things.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 4, 2018

      Those beliefs and authorship attributions came considerably later. No gospel diarist even claimed to be an eyewitness.

      • Avatar
        AlbertHodges  March 5, 2018

        Really not sure your point. If you are contending that the different Christologies, including those that saw Christ as God, came later and were not part of first century Christianity, you are wrong. There were varying Christologies in different communities but it is pure nonsense to hold that the idea of Jesus as God came much later.

        • Avatar
          HistoricalChristianity  March 8, 2018

          It isn’t nonsense, but that’s not the idea I was talking about. The claims of authorship were late. The RECORDINGS of ideas was late. The earliest proto-orthodox Christian writing we have is Paul. Not until John 1 do you have an unequivocal claim of the deity of Jesus.

  18. Avatar
    ardeare  March 3, 2018

    As someone who has never believed in the Trinity, it was a simple matter to distinguish between God the Father as divine and superior, Jesus the Son who became a savior and a (lesser) God, and the Holy Spirit who is a God of truth and love. The Holy Spirit, in many ways, reminds me of a mother’s love and comfort. Of course, none of these things can be proven and my journey has taken me to the edges of atheism on occasion.

    Indeed, it can be said that if not for prayer and good works; each giving me a sense that something larger than myself is aware of my existence, I would fall even more often than I do.

    • Avatar
      Carl  March 5, 2018

      Perhaps a divine son could have a divine mother and father. Just as a human son could have a human mother and ‘illegitimate’ father.

  19. Avatar
    Carlflygt  March 3, 2018

    Looks like you’re opening, In what sense are human beings of the right sort able to be God? You are opening a way to think about humanity evolving into angels and divinity.

    I think we can say some positive things here.

  20. Avatar
    jdub3125  March 3, 2018

    Does the NT say anywhere whether we all have a pre-existence prior to birth into this earthly life?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2018


    • Avatar
      ardeare  March 4, 2018

      Ephesians 1:3-5 , Hebrews 12:9, and Revelation 12 speaks of pre-existence. Of course, interpretation is everything. Origen of Alexandria believed in the pre-existence of souls. One interesting point is that Origen would have had access to scriptures that we no longer have.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  March 5, 2018

      The per-existence of souls is a very Greek concept. See, for example, Plato’s Phaedo and Phaedrus.

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