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How Jesus Became God: More Questions

In yesterday’s post I began to explain some of the problems that I had started to have with my original way of imagining this book, How Jesus Became God  (I give the original prospectus in the three posts preceding that one).  The problem I mentioned yesterday was a big one: I came to think that the proposal did not take into account fully enough the variety of Christological expressions that one finds at the same time in early Christianity, but seemed to assume that there was some kind of straight line, linear progression from a low Christology to a high one.

To some extent I still think that there was a progression.  It is clear, at any rate, that the Christology embraced at the Council of Nicea was MUCH “higher” than the one found in the Gospel of Mark.   You’d have to be blind not to see the difference.  But something has to account for the fact that in our earliest source – Paul – we appear to get some kind of high Christology already, years before Mark. (Not nearly as high as at Nicea; but higher than Mark’s).

There was another big problem that I had with the proposal.   It was that in my older way of imagining the development of Christology was I did not seem to be taking into account what was *driving* the development.  Why were Christians saying new and exalted things of Jesus?  What was behind it all?

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The Earliest Christology
How Jesus Became God: My Change of Direction



  1. Avatar
    Joshua150  February 5, 2013

    Very good. It was the ‘idea’ of the time.

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    andrew0410  February 5, 2013

    Very interesting. I have often foolishly assumed that developments in faith communities take place in hermetically sealed cocoons, without any impact from contemporary culture. It was reading David Bebbington’s ‘Evangelicalism in Modern Britain’ which first opened my eyes to the considerable influence that contemporary culture has had on developments within one particular strand of Christianity. No reason to think things were any different with Christianity in antiquity.

    I look forward to this book enormously, and just love this blog.

  3. Avatar
    KungFuJoe  February 5, 2013

    Wow. That actually makes a ton of sense, not only in regards to how the High Christology of Jesus developed, but as to how persecution against Christians developed, as well. If mass of people began ascribing a man with the honors normally reserved for the Emperor, it’s very understandable that the officials of the Empire might take offense.

    Two questions: Did the exaltation of the Roman Emperors coincide simultaneously with the development of High Christology, or did one precede the other? And did any of the early Church Fathers write about the Romans claiming divinity for the Emperor?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 6, 2013

      The exaltation of the emperor came first; the Christian views may have been imitative. And yes they did.

      • John4
        John4  November 29, 2015

        Hey Bart 🙂

        You write: “It can’t be an *accident* that Jesus was put on the same level as the emperor at almost exactly the same time that the emperor was being exalted to a divine status. Romans called the emperor the “savior” and the “lord” and even “God.” And these are things that Christians called Jesus.”

        In its “Statement on Language”, a Presbyterian Hymnal Committee recently expounded on an implication presumed to inhere in the Christian appropriation of one of these titles of the emperor:

        “That “Jesus Christ is Lord (kurios)” is one of the oldest confessions concerning Jesus. It has both a Roman and a Jewish background. On the one hand, “Lord” (kurios) was the title of the Roman emperor. When the writers of the New Testament confess Jesus to be Lord, they thereby proclaim that not Caesar, but Christ rules this world.”


        Thanks, as always! 🙂

  4. Avatar
    toddfrederick  February 5, 2013

    Yes…you said it correctly. I was focusing on Constantine alone too much in my previous comments, but it had to do with the Roman influence on the early Christians and the Christian churches, and the Roman’s calling their emperor God. I want to learn more about this. I hope your book will get deeply into that.

  5. Avatar
    Scott F  February 5, 2013

    This is all cool. Has your research uncovered any work linking Jesus divine titles to those of the empeor? Didn’t James Dunn write something about the distinctive ways in which early Christians worshiped Jesus? Does this come into play?

  6. Avatar
    lfasel  February 5, 2013

    As to who wrote the Book of John is up for grabs unless one accepts the traditional view. To think that a Fisherman from Galilee who was by accounts uneducated and unlearned wrote it is highly improbable. Especially when one takes into account that the ability to read, write and compose took yrs to learn, add to that the cost, which mostly the rich could afford , not the common man. I know Professor James Charlesworth believes that JN 1 was a later addition, as well as CH 15 &17. As you mentioned Prof. Ehrman, the relegating of people into a God like status was a common practice. When Paul and Silas healed a man the first thing the people thought was that the Gods had come down to them in human form and wanted to worship them.

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    AmenRa  February 5, 2013

    It would seem to me, in light of your emphasis that the title “son of god” is as much of a political consequence as a religious one that the development of a High Christology of the Nicean and post Nicean age should be seen as an attempt to create a religious figure, i.e., Jesus to politically unite Roman empire. An empire that was religiously diverse and politically complex. The Roman emperor becomes the head of the Christian Church is the vicar of Son of God on earth. Have you read Caesar’s Messiah by Joseph Atwill? Maybe the Christology we have today is not of linear development as you suggest, but was the craftsmanship of Government sponsored churchmen after Nicea, who restructured by forgery and murder of the heretics to give the appearance that the Christ story began with a high Christ view, then poisoned by heretics only to be purified by the council of Bishops at Nicea and subsequent chuch councils.

  8. Avatar
    songster  February 5, 2013

    As I noted previously, nothing happens in a vacuum.

  9. Avatar
    rlboles  February 6, 2013

    Fascinating! Can’t wait to read your book!

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    Wilusa  February 6, 2013

    This is fascinating! But…I’d been under the impression that the Romans thought of their emperors as “divine,” but on a lower level than the classic gods – Jupiter, Mars, et al. Is that wrong?

    I suppose that even if they didn’t think of the Emperor as the “one true God,” their calling him a god could have influenced the Christians. And I’m eager to learn what was going on in the Johannine community!

    I hope that at some point in your book, you’ll offer suggestions as to how Jesus’s followers could have come to believe he’d been resurrected. (Assuming he really hadn’t been.) My own guess is that there was an honest mix-up, and people like Peter and Jesus’s brother James really believed his body had “disappeared” from where it was supposed to be. Given that belief, they could easily have worked themselves up into experiencing “visions.”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 6, 2013

      Yes, that’s right. He was divine, but not one of the Great Gods. Just as Jesus was divine, but was not God the Father.

    • Christopher Sanders
      Christopher Sanders  February 7, 2013

      I do think you should include a section on your view of Jesus’ resurrection hallucinations, maybe state some good psychological evidence, to help people along in that degree. I’ve been researching the area of psychology relevant to that discussion but it’s slow going, with everything else I have to do, and I’d love to see what you’ve come across in your time.

      This book could really make the biggest splash in New Testament critical studies, on the popular level, especially, in forever… Very much looking forward to what you’re going to turn out…

      Interesting to note that Son of Jupiter, ect, were used but not “Son of God”, on mythical figures like Hercules, ect. Still, I have to wonder if the popular idea of these sons of gods didn’t influence the adoption of Jesus as a son of God, or at least prepare the common pagan mind for it.

  11. Avatar
    wisemenwatch  February 6, 2013

    Oh that trip does sound like a dream trip! As they say, “free your mind, and the rest will follow…” But really, Dr. Ehrman? I am aghast! that it took a pillar for you to realize this! I was expecting something earth shattering – not something noggin’ shattering! But maybe not everyone will know this already…

  12. Avatar
    Dennis  February 6, 2013

    From Dr. Michael Shermer I have learned that every religion defines their God and/or gods differently. This is in part due to how we perceive causal events. That is, according to Shermer, Foster and Kokko, individuals lack the ability to assign causal probabilities to all sets of events that occur around them and this deficiency causes them to lump causal associations with non-causal ones.

    Superstition, then, arises as an evolutionary mechanism to explain events by creating causal links between the event itself and the response–even when there is no direct causal link between the two. In other words, human brains have evolved to favor strategies that make many incorrect causal associations in order to establish those that are essential for survival and reproduction.

    Simply put, our innate patternicity, that is our ability to detect patterns in the real world, often times leads to wrong inferences about reality. These mistaken inferences about casual events explains the development of superstitious reasoning. Superstitious reasoning, in turn, explains many facets we see within the development of religious belief. Not only the highly ritualized customs and practices, but also the very way in which religious believers think about God.

    Is there any way to incorporate or link scientific cognitive error studies with the contruction of christologies? Even if its just “more likely or probable”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 6, 2013

      I don’t have a good answer; I’ll have to think about it.

    • mini1071
      mini1071  May 6, 2014

      Oh my! Would that mean that the same “patternicity” (sic) that likely was a key survival trait for Homo Sapiens – that at least was key to us leaving hunter gathering and becoming agrarian food producers – was also precedent to our superstitions and belief in gods?

  13. Avatar
    Jerry  February 6, 2013

    From above
    ” And these are things that Christians called Jesus. Soon after the pagans were doing it. Moreover, the “son” of a divine emperor was the “son of God.” In fact, the only people in the empire to be called “son of God” were the emperor and Jesus. (Other divine men were called “son of Zeus” or “son of Apollo” etc. But the term “son of God” was used only of emperors. And then Jesus.)”

    I think NT Wright and John Crossan have taken a similar tack in various writings- Is your view that much different from theirs?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 6, 2013

      My view will definitely be different from Wright’s, and probably closer to Crossan’s, with some differences.

  14. Robertus
    Robertus  February 6, 2013

    A very interesting component. Are there significant differences from when Alexander the Great or Antiochus IV Epiphanes assumed divine status? Or, if comparable, were there Jewish teachers of those periods assuming resurrected or divine-like status and followings? If not, perhaps it is the apocalyptic mindset that is the crucial difference at the time of Jesus?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 6, 2013

      I think the difference is that other Jewish teachers were not believed to have been raised from the dead.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  February 6, 2013

        And what led to the initial belief in Jesus’ resurrection? Was it traumatic grief and guilt based on their abandoning their beloved but grandiose master at the time of his grusome crucifixion? Something like Gerd Lüdemann?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 7, 2013

          I wish we knew! But it’s a good guess.

          • Robertus
            Robertus  February 7, 2013

            But is it enough of an explanation for the rather rapid growth of a new movement into foreign countries and continents? Does it really explain Paul and his communities? Are there good historical analgoues for other similar phenomena? Not that I expect you to answer all such questions, but it is perplexing. Mythicists and apologists, alike, are not convinced by L. I sometimes think that there must have already been a number of communities or Gallilean and Syrian villages already successfully practicing Jesus’ ethics of the kingdom of God that functioned as a cell or base of early believers that accepted or experienced the resurrection as confirmation of an already growing movement that was not founded primarily upon the resurrection. The Q-people cursed and shook the dust off their feet of the villages that did not accept their preaching so perhaps there were other villages that had already accepted Jesus’ preaching before his execution. I can more easily understand and accept grief-guilt apparitions as a catalyst if there were already some kindling to be enflamed by apocalyptic mania. Make sense?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  February 8, 2013

            Makes sense, but my view is that the idea that Jesus had enormous success and converted hundreds during his public ministry is a later one. The early followers of Jesus convinced others that Jesus had been raised. I think they did it by telling of the miracles that were worked in jesus’ name. But that’s a very long story!

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 6, 2013

    How interesting about “external” factors. I thought you were headed to Paul having a high Christology which passed down through the Marcionites and Peter and the disciples having, in conflict with Paul, a lower Christolgy which passed down through the Ebionites and the two movements remained in conflict until Constantine molded all views into one view. Carry on.

  16. Avatar
    screwtaperocks  February 6, 2013


    I can hardly wait to read more about how you deal with Philippines 2. The seemingly early and high christology had always been a difficult issue for me. It created one very difficult conundrum for me as I first started to liberalize my theology. I remember having that passage drilled into my head as the most significant set of verses to apologetically show the Deity of Christ. The other big ones being John 1:1 and 8:58. Those 2 I could ultimately make sense of, but let me ask you, “How can a strict Jew (Paul) adopt such an idea?” That’s the million dollar question. Isn’t it?

  17. Avatar
    ecbrown88  February 6, 2013

    Fascinating! I also *knew* this, but you’re right, it never hit me about the timing. In the Republic, of course, no man was called a god (or even a king). The fact that the Emperorship, with its divine trappings, was pretty darn new during early Christianity never occurred to me, either.

    I recall reading a book as a youngster called 44 BC- AD 14, about the period of Augusuts, and that his birth was supposedly heralded by a comet or supernova or conjunction or some sort of celestial sign. Sound familiar?

  18. Avatar
    brandyrose  February 6, 2013

    How interesting! Are you saying that pagan Christian converts brought this terminology into their new Christian communities, and put these terms onto Jesus, or that the Christians used these terms to “sell” Jesus to potential pagan converts? Both are pretty interesting me, though I’m not sure how you could know which direction it went.

  19. Avatar
    kidlat  February 6, 2013

    I think you’re in the right track. Most readers are already familiar with Roman history in books and movies (my favorite is Caligula, LOL) and it would be easier to understand your argument. So this is how Paul actually changed Christianity, by letting pagans switch their allegiances from mythological or human gods to Jesus but continue their practices under a different label. When the Roman Pantheon was converted into a church the pagan idols were replaced by Christian idols, pagan holidays became Christian, etc. I just wonder what would Christianity be like if Paul never got involved at all. Sometimes I’d like to think that it wasn’t really Jesus that Saul met but the devil (how would he know anyway). This is going to be a wonderful book. More power to you.

  20. Avatar
    James Dowden  February 6, 2013

    Does anyone call a Roman emperor “dei filius” or Jesus “divi filius”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 7, 2013

      Michael Peppard in his book on Son of God in the Roman World argues that dei and divi were in fact used interchangeably.

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