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Early Christology: How I Have Changed My Mind

I’m ready now to get back to the issues involved with early Christology and the question of How Jesus Became God. In this post I’ll quickly review what I’ve covered up till now and indicate a major change in my thinking that has happened over the past six months.

In these posts I have been arguing that there were two separate streams of early Christology (this too has been a major shift in my thinking, and is closely related to the one I will be discussing momentarily). 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.

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Jesus as Divine in the Synoptics
Futuristic Interpretations of the Book of Revelation



  1. Avatar
    Joshua150  March 3, 2013

    Exactly. You are a good scholar.

  2. Avatar
    Billypaul49  March 3, 2013

    I’m waiting (-:

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    Emmett  March 3, 2013

    The spectrum of the divine is certainly not a thing of the past. Roman Catholics have a rich and ancient history in which all sorts of gods and demigods act as proxies for Yahweh. They don’t call these beings gods and demigods; they are Saints, or, even better, Patron Saints. (My mother, a devout Catholic all her life, had a special demigod for finding a parking space on the Lower East Side of Manhattan: her deceased sister. After driving in circles for an hour, it worked!)

    What I’m getting at is that once one accepts this whole saint business, it extends to Jesus. All the saints had human form; Jesus had human form. The early Christology, which saw Jesus as pre-existing, is incompatible with this perception. A synthesis had been achieved by the time of the Renaissance: that the Father is omniscient, and so every action we take is known beforehand. Everything Jesus would do was known by the Father beforehand. Everything every saint did was known beforehand. And so when Catholics think of “the word made flesh” it is nothing other than this eternal knowledge of who we are and will be, manifesting itself as the chief of the saints: Jesus. Just as it was once Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, St. Augustine. These latter three were in the same league but not of the same order of magnitude as Jesus.

    It’s a peculiar way of thinking — an extension, really, of the pagan spectrum of the human and divine.

  4. Robertus
    Robertus  March 3, 2013

    Do you see 1 Cor 8,6 as expressing Paul’s view that Jesus Christ was the primordial divine instrument of creation? If so, isn’t that about as divine as you can get? More so it seems than just an ordinary angel or heavenly messenger. I know you don’t think Paul knew the writings of Philo, but this idea of an instrument of creation is pretty darn well divine, less so perhaps with a demiurge, especially in a gnostic dualist sense, but still pretty damn divine, don’t you think?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 3, 2013

      I’m wrestling with the verse a lot these days. I’m *inclined* to see it as a reference to Christ as Sophia/Wisdom as in Proverbs 8 (Wisdom was with God as a master worker when he made all things)…..

  5. Avatar
    toddfrederick  March 3, 2013

    “In what sense is Jesus God?” In what sense am I God? In this comment I’m speaking personally.

    I don’t have much patience for dogma and doctrine. I can’t imagine Jesus’ followers using such ideas as “…of one essence…”

    I see Jesus and his people in a much more human earthy way than the later theologians who wrote the creeds and the theologies did. I see Jesus as a God filled human ( as any of us can be God filled humans, more or less), who brought the love of God and love of man to a very brutal world (a new way of seeing God and man), who pushed the envelope to the point of death. I don’t see Jesus as he is pictured by the popular media or in mystical evangelical paintings. I see Jesus as a swarthy Jew who lived what he believed and painted a way of living that is as good today as it was in his time.

    I will be interested in what is portrayed this Sunday in the History Channel’s new Bible series. I don’t have high hopes for much in the way of reality.

    Thank you for presenting this Christology series…I am learning much.

  6. Avatar
    Jdavis3927  March 3, 2013

    Very interesting thoughts again Bart..thanks.

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    dallaswolf  March 3, 2013

    How interesting is this! The first thing that comes to mind are all of the variables that this opens up. Like what belief system or tradition are we coming from; what is the frame of reference of a particular NT believer? Persian, Egyptian, Hebrew, Pheonician, Greek, Roman, Gaulic? From what social strata; slave/peasant, landed, military, priestly, ruling/aristocratic?

    And this ties right into your theme on the great diversity in the early church; that there were indeed many “christianities” out there vying with the proto-Orthodox prior to Nicea (and after).

    Fun stuff!

    • Avatar
      Scott F  March 4, 2013

      Just as there are many today. When reading Paul’s letters to the churches, I realize that they were just as screwed up and confused as the churches of our time.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 3, 2013

    Hmm? Intriguing, but getting complicated. Keep plugging away.

  9. Avatar
    pawel  March 3, 2013

    I thought about one difference between Mathew and Luke’s gospel – i.e. “blessed are the poor in spirit” vs. “blessed are the poor”. Mark Goodacre gives it as an example of more “primitive” version in Luke, and more spiritual/developed in Mathhew (discussing it as contrary to anticipation in light of Fafrer theory). It occured to me – maybe it is Matthean alteration of original (Q?) text in order to exclude association with (heretic) Ebionites?
    Prof. Ehrman, does such a supposition make sense to you? Does it work in greek or/and aramaic?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 3, 2013

      Interesting idea. It’s hard to tell whether Matthew or Luke is the older (Q) form (Mark Goodacre doesn’t believe in Q, of course); Luke’s seems more primitive in some respects BUT it also coincides with Luke’s own agenda to stress Jesus’ concern for pressing social issues of poverty etc.

      • Avatar
        Beatle792  March 4, 2013

        If you go by the progression of how Jesus becomes divine earlier and earlier; from the Resurrection in Paul, to the word became flesh in John, Mark and Luke have Jesus becoming the son of God at his baptism. It would almost make sense that Matthew would be the later gospel (than Luke) because Jesus becomes divine at an earlier point in his life.
        You can almost see even at this early stage how they almost HAD to come up with the trinity.

  10. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  March 3, 2013

    Bart, will you also tackle the crucial issue of what exactly a ‘trinity’ is supposed to be and how it could actually make any rational and logical sense whatsoever? And how this impacts the whole Jesus story.

    Because, for example, if Jesus ‘is God’ then what does it mean to say that Jesus has *died* or why should this ‘death’ be seen as a big deal then? God didn’t die, right? But in that case ‘dying’ only means that the physical vessel that the Son was using ( = that physical body people used to identify as ‘Jesus’) shutdown its bodily functions at the cross while the immortal, eternal soul/spirit of the Son never ceased to exist!

    And what’s a couple of hours of human pain for an eternal, infinite, omnipotent being? Probably like a bug bite was for me when I was a kid: it hurts like hell at the time but I had forgotten about it soon after!

  11. Avatar
    Adam0685  March 3, 2013

    Your rephrasing of the question has the potential to reshape how people unerstand conceptions of divinity in earliest christianity

  12. Avatar
    natashka  March 3, 2013

    A SPECTRUM of divinity in which some humans had a share in/of it? Yes, YES, this makes sense!!! Keep going, please keep going!!!!!

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 3, 2013

    You mind find Maureen Dowd’s article in today’s New York Times of interest. Google “How Mary Feels about Being a Virgin” and read the part about two disciples putting pressure on Mary to change her “story” to support theological arguments about the divinity of Jesus.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 3, 2013

      Thanks. My wife snatched the Sunday Review before I could get to it; but I’ll take a look.

    • Avatar
      natashka  March 4, 2013

      Got tickets to see that play, can’t wait. My theory as to why we barely hear from mom Mary or Mary Magdalene–two of the most important people in Jesus of N’s life and in Christianity–is that their stories would greatly differ from the one the men’s club created and wanted to promote. The honorable women did not want to fabricate and be part of the theatrics, so their words were disposed of and they were hidden away. Gonna check Bart’s book–Peter, Paul, and Mary–to see if he concurs. Bart, do you think Mary M was an apostle?

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  March 5, 2013

        Depends completley on what you mean by the term “apostle”! In early church tradition she was sometimes called “the apostle to the apostles.”

  14. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 3, 2013

    This is fascinating! I can’t wait to buy your book, so I’ll have the totality of your explanation spelled out in one handy place. (I also plan to buy that textbook that will include your interpretation of the Old Testament.)

    Can’t resist asking a question based on one of your responses on the previous page. You indicated that Christianity became a religion that would *last* because of the ideas that developed from belief in Jesus’s resurrection. I’ve long imagined Christianity would have died out if it hadn’t, at some point, been embraced by the Roman Empire. And I’ve suspected – cynically – that they embraced it because it *sounded* great to rhapsodize about the Empire having been “conquered” by this divine being who’d humbled himself by incarnating in a remote province and submitting to death on the cross…while all the while they were stressing his advice to “turn the other cheek” when abused by those in power, and to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Have I been completely wrong about that?

    Oh, one more question! Is there historical evidence for that “INRI” sign having been affixed to the cross?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 3, 2013

      I think the rhetoric of suffering became more prominent once Christianity “succeeded” in the empire, but I’m not sure that’s why it was accepted (though some scholars have argued that it was part of the picture). I have a long and complicated view about what about Christianity made it attractive to people. But that’ll take more time than a blog post!

      I don’t think INRI was itself on the placard, thought the words spelled out may well have been.

  15. Avatar
    maxhirez  March 3, 2013

    The languages of the Christians of the first four centuries seems to have followed an evolution from Aramaic to Greek (and Coptic at a branch) to Latin-what overall effect(s) did this flow have on the way that the fathers were forced to put down their ideas about Jesus’ nature? Do the words and ideas for “God” or “son” even translate perfectly enough between these languages to get a sense of what each successive generation thought it was getting from the previous?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 3, 2013

      The words God and son translate well enough. But other words that became very important in the debates (for example “substance” and “person”) were a bit trickier in the shift from Greek to Latin and back.

  16. Avatar
    hwl  March 3, 2013

    Did 1st century Jews think of angels as “divine” beings? When posed to Trinitarian Christians today, they probably would say “depends on what you mean by divine”.
    How about the issue of the divinity of the Holy Spirit? Do you think NT authors think of the Spirit as “divine”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 3, 2013

      Yes, in *some* sense they were divine, because they were more godlike than humans. The Spirit was widely thought of as the Spirit of God, and so also divine (not human, not vegetable, and not mineral!).

      • Avatar
        hwl  March 4, 2013

        If so many beings can be considered divine in some sense, one wonders in what sense is 1st century Judaism monotheistic. This reminds of the joke about a liberal theologian who was accused of denying the divinity of Jesus. He replied in defence: “That is absolutely untrue. I never denied the divinity of Jesus – nor of any other man.”

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  March 4, 2013

        But how could the Spirit be the Spirit OF God if, according to the trinity concept, The Spirit IS God? Whatever that (or actually the word ‘God’ itself) is actually supposed to really mean … The same if Jesus IS God then who was he crying out to on the cross? Himself? Or was one third of the Trinity split off and now crying out to the remaining two thirds of the Trinity?

        I’m really looking forward to your post on the Trinity then 🙂

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 5, 2013

          I guess the same way the “Word of God” can also *be* God in John 1:1-3.

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  March 5, 2013

            But is such a claim logical and/or rational? It seems that the word ‘God’ is being used in two different ways there, thus making the statement in John 1 incoherent. The x of y cannot at the same time equal to y. Either x equals to y or it does not. x cannot be an aspect of y and yet BE y at the same time. Except if ‘God’ is meant as ‘made out of Godstuff’ , thus not referring to an unique, independent entity. If you get what I mean …

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  March 5, 2013

            For early Christians the son of God was God, just as the son of man was man and, one might suppose, the son of a dog is a dog and the son of a cat is a cat!

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  March 6, 2013

            But in that case the word ‘God’ refers to a certain *category of beings* and not to ONE specific being! The son of *a* human is a human but he is not THAT human who created him (with the help of the mother of course). Yet Christians claim that the Son IS God (and they seem to refer to a unique entity/being here, not to some category of beings), they don’t simply claim that the Son is *divine* or one god among many, are they?

            I think that one of the major problems with Christian theology is that certain of its core words and concepts are actually very vague and also very badly defined. They can mean anything and nothing. And Christians used them in contradicting and incoherent ways.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2013

            You may want to read some serious theology written by serious theologians. From the fourth century onwards, they could be very precise indeed!

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  March 11, 2013

            Oh, I give you that they’ve come up with very elaborate and complex concepts. But that does not mean that they’ve resolved the contradictions at the base of those concepts. Or that they’re not using the same word/concept, like for example ‘God’, in very different ways, thus trying to gloss over the inherent contradictions of their religious belief.

            Logically speaking it is simply not possible for ‘the Son of God’ to BE ‘God’ if the word ‘God’ means the exact same thing in both statements.

  17. Avatar
    gavriel  March 3, 2013

    What do you think of Géza Vermes’ ideas on the Christ hymn of Phillippians, that it is an early second century interpolation (Christian Beginnings, p. 109) ?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 5, 2013

      I can see why scholars (and Vermes is a truly great one) might want to do so, since if it is second-century, then it is much easier to trace a neat linear development of christology from low (Jesus as human) to high (Jesus as divine) chronologically. But I’m afraid it is a seriously minority opinion among scholars…..

  18. Avatar
    stephena  March 20, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman: Doesn’t substituting “in what *sense* did the early Christians see Jesus as God?” simply accept the Nicene formula as in some sense VALID as a starting point? That throws in the towel on the discussion and makes unwarranted assumptions about Jesus’ Nature before the search for answers begins, IMO.

    Of course it’s unlikely the earliest Christians felt this way at all. I find it literally impossible for a Galilean Jew or a Jerusalem Jew to see ANY man as sharing in God’s Divinity – either partially biologically, through a magical birth (which was 100% acceptable in the Greek & Roman Pagan world) or in a way that has a man sharing in Divine attributes, such as being able to know all things in advance (and clearly Jesus did not know the date of his Return (“Only the Father” knew.) There’s the evidence of those who knew him, including his family, didn’t see him as Divine, and the Jerusalem Community after AD 33, through AD 62 at least, existed in Jerusalem and were in and around the Temple every day, according to Acts (and other historians) so they were not preaching Jesus = God or they’d have been stoned to death.

    A fair reading of all supposed proof texts for the Trinity used by scholars and Doctors of the Church for centuries – and their context – shows that Jesus was 100% man, who at every opportunity seems to deny he was God (“only One is good, God” “I can do nothing of myself, except through the Father”, etc.) Even when some Scribes and Pharisees THOUGHT he was equating himself with God, he denied it. So I’m not sure how we can start off a discussion by saying that Jesus WAS considered God, at least in the earliest years. I think you’re on more solid ground with the Pauline Church esp. in the late 1st and early 2nd century (though even in the Letters, Paul considered Jesus NOT to be God, but “the man, Christ Jesus” a mediator.)

  19. Avatar
    TheGreatTheophilus  December 31, 2013

    Dr. Erhman,

    Have you read God Crucified by Richard Bauckham? I think he challenges some of your views on angels and God being set along a spectrum.

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