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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
    Brand3000  January 21, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman:

    Ignatius to the Trallians 2:13: “…[some] pretend that he only seemed to suffer, (they themselves only seeming to exist) why then am I bound? Why do I desire to fight with beasts? Therefore I would die in vain; therefore I will not speak falsely against the Lord.”

    Here do we find Ignatius arguing in favor of the traditional Christian doctrine vs. early Gnosticism?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 22, 2019

      He is arguing quite vehemently, here and elsewhere, against a Docetic Christology, in the days before Gnosticism itself had appeared.

  2. Avatar
    Brand3000  January 21, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman:

    Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans:

    1:7-12: “He suffered truly, as also He raised Himself truly; not as certain unbelievers say, that He suffered in semblance, being themselves mere semblance. And according as their opinions are, so shall it happen to them, for they are without body and demon-like. For I know and believe that He was in the flesh even after the resurrection; and when He came to Peter and his company, He said to them, Lay hold and handle me, and see that I am not a demon without a body. And straightway they touched Him, and they believed, being joined unto His flesh and His blood. Wherefore also they despised death, nay they were found superior to death. And after His resurrection He both ate with them and drank with them…”

    Ignatius seems very strong in his emphasis on the bodily nature of Jesus. Can this be used along with Paul’s own comments (especially in 1 Cor. 15) as multiple attestation that Jesus’ resurrection was bodily as both men confront those who have suggested otherwise?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 22, 2019

      It certainly shows that they agreed Jesus’ body was raised, but they seem to have understood that differently. For Ignatius it is Jesus’ revived corpse, for Paul it is a glorified spiritual body, a *transformation* of his corpse.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  January 23, 2019

      “multiple attestation that Jesus’ resurrection was bodily as both men confront those who have suggested otherwise” — No, it is attestation that those authors and their communities (the proto-orthodox) believed it was bodily. The virulent argument attests to the fact that there was another peer community that believed it was not bodily. Few of their writings survive. But we find among them no evidence suitable for resolving the question. We have only philosophical arguments behind their opinions. They didn’t argue about what they all agreed on: the universal sacrifice of Jesus.

  3. Avatar
    Brand3000  January 29, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman:

    About the resurrection appearances to groups (i.e. 1 Cor. & Mt. Lk. Jn.): Is your position that these experiences were like the group visions of Mary?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2019

      I don’t know what they were like. My point in raising the issue with Mary is that it is not implausible that group visions happen (in one way or another)

  4. Avatar
    Brand3000  February 4, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman:

    I’ve been in a back and forth with somebody. He says that the appearances were only understood by the followers themselves to be visions, but like you say they themselves believed them to be actual bodily appearances. As a point of evidence I cited Paul’s comforting of those who lost loved ones who were in Christ. Obviously, Paul thinks something real and physical awaits them, and he sees Jesus’ resurrection liked with the future resurrection of believers. Here’s my conclusion: If the whole thing was only understood to be just based on visions how would Paul ever comfort them? They’ll be resurrected in visions? See, it doesn’t make sense. Do you agree with me?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2019

      I think maybe the problem is putting a *modern* understanding of “vision” on the issue. Ancient people didn’t think that “visions” were “not real.” They were real. What they saw was really there. But not visible to everyone. They were given to a person by a divine being. But completely real.

      • Avatar
        HistoricalChristianity  February 5, 2019

        I agree. That would be a false dichotomy. The ancients thought dreams and visions revealed truth. Much ancient religious belief was based on the dreams and visions of the shaman.

      • Avatar
        Brand3000  February 5, 2019

        But if the group appearances actually happened as reported, then they would be as real as can be because at that point the guy next to you could also see him/it, thus no more private vision, correct?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 7, 2019

          Group visions do not necessarily mean that *everyone* in teh group sees them.

  5. spencer290
    spencer290  July 13, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, as always, thank you for your time and dedication.

    I have been studying “Misquoting Jesus” and “How Jesus Became God” and I just wanted to clear something up for myself.

    Do we have an early manuscript of the Gospel of Mark which, at Jesus’ baptism, states, “…today I have begotten you.” instead of just “…you are my beloved son, in you I am well pleased.” Or do we have evidence of preliterary traditions or any text in Mark containing an exaltation/low Christology either at his baptism or resurrection? Or does Mark simply not allude whatsoever to the time when Jesus became (at a high level) the Son of God/God? If we do not have any reference to the time when Jesus became (at a high level) God in Mark (the earliest gospel), doesn’t this somewhat leave a hole in the evolutionary Christology model? We should see “Mark” having an exaltation/low Christology somewhere.

    I just remember when I was reading “Misquoting Jesus” making a note that we have an early manuscript of both Mark and Luke where “…today I have begotten you.” is written. Though, it seems like in “How Jesus Became God” you emphasize the “…today I have begotten you.” passage only in Luke, and you don’t really mention Mark.

    Thank you for your time. I can use all the help I can get!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2019

      No, I don’t think this is an issue for the Gospel of *Mark*. It is for the Gospel of *Luke*. And yes, there is one old Greek ms and a couple of Latins that have that wording. In my book Orthodox Corruption of Scripture I make an extended argument for why it is almost certainly what Luke originall wrote.

  6. spencer290
    spencer290  July 14, 2019

    So you’re saying we don’t have any evidence of an exaltation/low Christology in Mark, the earliest gospel?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2019

      No, I think there is evidence of it. But it’s not obvious and direct as in the speeches in Acts. I absolutely think Mark had no idea of pre-existence or incarnation, e.g.

      • spencer290
        spencer290  July 15, 2019

        What do you think the evidence for an exaltation Christology is in Mark?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 16, 2019

          There are clear indications that Jesus is not merely human but is “Son of God” in some kind of unusual sense; e.g., the Transfiguration.

  7. Avatar
    Snipitt  October 14, 2019

    I’m new to the blog hope someone is still reading it

    I think the story of Jesus is perfect and makes complete sense god creates Adam gives him a test he was destined to fail to bring on Jesus as the second Adam literally god in flesh or the word of god in flesh come to reconcile man with god and put him in right standing with god I.e righteousness

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