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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
    tawfiq  February 7, 2013

    Have you not read:
    Jesus and Gospel
    Graham N. Stanton
    Publisher: Cambridge University Press (August 2, 2004)
    ISBN-10: 0521008026

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 7, 2013

      Yes indeed I’ve read it. And recommended it to others!

      • Avatar
        tawfiq  February 21, 2013

        Dear Professor
        May I suggest a book to you? I am mindful of your very busy schedule of lectures and writing but some of the ideas in this book are pertinent to what you are discussing in this:
        The Price of Monotheism
        Jan Assmann
        Publisher: Stanford University Press
        ISBN-10: 0804761604
        ISBN-13: 978-0804761604

        In the introduction of the book (which follows from his earlier book: Moses the Egyptian) he proposes the idea of Secondary religions (or counterreligions) which form from the play of ‘syncretistic acculturations’ and ‘antagonistic acculturations’.

        It can even be suggested that in the development of early Christian theology one can view Jesus of Nazareth is an anti-Messiah since his life and death can be seen as the antithesis of Jewish Messianic expectations and also the anti-Roman-God-Emperor yet claim the Truth that he is both the Messiah and God.

  2. Avatar
    eppic  February 7, 2013

    Wow this is truly fascinating. I’ve never before considered the external influences of the time being in many ways the driving force behind the development of a high Christology, but now it does indeed make sense and seems so obvious. Thank you for this insight!
    Having come from a conservative evangelical background myself (Mennonite Brethren), I tried my hardest but never really did get the whole theology of Jesus being fully God yet at the same time fully human. It always seemed like a paradox; like two opposites somehow co-existing in perfect harmony. Can someone be purely good yet at the same time be purely evil? The God-man concept seems like too much in the way of theological gymnastics to try reconciling opposing bible verses.

  3. Avatar
    hwl  February 8, 2013

    Are you also saying that Jesus never claimed to be “son of God” (in the Jewish sense of the term, alongside other OT figures) and that the early Palestinian Christians didn’t do so?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 8, 2013

      I don’t know if Jesus did or not. If he did, he probably meant he was the son of God in the way that all people have God as their Father. But the early Palestinian Christians certainly thought he was the Son of God in a unique sense.

      • Avatar
        hwl  February 9, 2013

        Is it clear that Mark was referring to Jesus as the Son of God in a unique sense? If so, surely this sense is still uniqueness of a human being, not a divine being?

  4. Avatar
    Vridar  February 8, 2013

    “That is, I had to think about how what was going on in the world around them influenced the Christians (with converts increasingly being drawn from pagans, who worshiped the emperor as god) and their view of their alternative lord, savior, and God.”

    As I walked the Ephesus street in front of the “slope houses, rich houses” I couldn’t help but think of Paul walking that street and thinking “how gross.” Me sleeping and performing humanly functions in the wild and these people with “air conditioned” homes with running water. At the time I started reading the Bible and religious studies in a politic, economic context. It has helped me understand the turmoil of the times.


  5. Robertus
    Robertus  February 9, 2013

    The main proponent of this line of approach was Richard Horsely, correct? It is an important social even political context for understanding Paul’s language of Lord, Savior, Son of God, gospel, etc, but I think it’s probably a mistake to see this as the primary matrix from which this language developed. In my opinion, more fundamental is Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom of God, which would be seen by some perhaps as in confrontation with the Kingdom of Ceasar, but by others as subsuming and ultimately dominating all earthly dominions. Many seem to think the Kingdom of God is absent in Paul, but it is at least minimally present, and I think should be seen as part of the background and strained continuity between Jesus and Paul. Would appreciate your thoughts on this.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 10, 2013

      I’m a little lost in knowing which comments of mine you’re referring to. But I do think Jesus saw the Kingdom of God as standing in direct conflict with the kingdoms of this world (esp. Rome), and that Paul as an apocalypticist had a very similar view to that extent.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  February 11, 2013

        Sorry, I wasn’t that clear. Do you think that Paul’s language and thoughts referring to the kingdom of God (Rom 4,17 1 Cor 4,20 6,9-10 15,24.50 Gal 5,21 1 Thess 2,12) were dependent upon some idea of Jesus’ preaching on the kingdom of God?

        It seems to me this theme is not emphasized enough when looking for continuity/discontinuity between Jesus and Paul.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 11, 2013

          No, my sense is that as an apocalyptic Jew, Paul had his own notions about the coming kingdom, which happened to coincide in some ways with the views of Jesus, since he too was a first-century apocalyptic Jew. But Paul never refers to the proclamation of Jesus about the Kingdom, and I don’t see much evidence that he knows much about it.

          • Robertus
            Robertus  February 12, 2013

            Do we have any indication that Paul was apocalyptic prior to his experience of the resurrected Christ? What do you make of his language of ‘inheriting’ the Kingdom of God? Are there close analogues to this in contemporary Judaism? I will look again at Qumran texts when I get a chance.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  February 13, 2013

            Yes, as a Pharisee he would have been an apocalypticist, and the fact that he interpreted Jesus’ appearance to him as a “resurrection” shows that he was already using apocalyptic categories. Good question about analogues to “inheriting” — I’m not sure.

          • Robertus
            Robertus  February 13, 2013

            Very interesting. I never realized that all Pharisees were apocalyticists. I was probably just anachronizing a more modern sense of heaven.

  6. Avatar
    SHameed01  January 18, 2014

    According to John 17:3 where Jesus calls the Father, “the only true God”, it seems that Jesus is clearly stating that HE IS not God but only the Father is. But according to Dr. James White this isn’t the case since in John 17:5, Jesus asks the Father to glorify HIM with the glory HE had WITH THE FATHER.

    What’s your take on John 17:5 personally? Does Jesus by asking the Father to glorify HIM with the same glory he had with the Father before the world began implausibly imply Jesus preaching about HIS DEITY? Is Dr. White’s interpretation the only implausible one?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 19, 2014

      I think in the Gospel of John Jesus is understood to be a pre-existent divine being who was equal with God before he became human. I also think that has very little relationship to what hte historical Jesus thought about himself. None in fact!

      • Avatar
        SHameed01  February 3, 2014

        But wouldn’t it still be contradictory if Jesus calls the Father the only one true God and then moments later says HE IS EQUAL to the FATHER? Could this be an example of a Bible Contradiction?

  7. Avatar
    SHameed01  February 3, 2014

    I know of your debate with Dr. Wallace, where he talked about how we if all the NEw tEstament manuscripts were to be destroyed we can still reconstruct all that Jesus did say and preach from the letters of the Church Fathers.

    My question is how reliable are the manuscripts that we have of the Church Fathers’ LETTERS to know what Jesus and the NEw Testamant actually did teach about the Jesus’s identity and WHO HE REALLY was?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 3, 2014

      It’s a complicated qustion. We don’t have the originals of any of the writings of the church fathers either, so these texts also have to be reconstructed. In *most* (not all) cases there was less reason for scribes to alter these texts than texts of Scripture, but it’s a long story. The reality is that we do not have extensive early mss of the NT — or of the writings of the church fathers; so no matter how many later ones we have, it is very difficult indeed to know what was in the earlier ones (that no longer survive).

      • Avatar
        SHameed01  February 9, 2014

        Do you know what is the dating of the earliest manuscript of the letters of the church fathers?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 9, 2014

          It depends which church father you mean! There is no manuscript that has all of them in them. All of the church fathers have separate manuscript traditions. Do you have one in mind?

          • Avatar
            SHameed01  February 22, 2014

            Well what I meant is from ALL the writings of the Church fathers or their copies, which manscript is the earliest? And associated with which Church father?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  February 23, 2014

            Hmmm. Good question I never thought about it. There is a second-century papyrus fragment of the Shepherd of Hermas. I doubt if there are many witnesses for any of the church fathers older than that….

  8. Avatar
    SHameed01  February 22, 2014

    This is a documentary on youtube, called The Human Jesus made by Unitarian Christians. You may find it interesting:

  9. Avatar
    walstrom  February 18, 2015

    How firmly grounded in reality is the claim of Jehovah’s Witnesses that the ‘divine name’ (Jehovah) belongs in the New Testament?
    Here is the list of reasons given by the Watchtower Organization:
    Among the above iterated we find:

    Recognized Bible translators have used God’s name in the Christian Greek Scriptures. Some of these translators did so long before the New World Translation was produced. These translators and their works include: A Literal Translation of the New Testament . . . From the Text of the Vatican Manuscript, by Herman Heinfetter (1863); The Emphatic Diaglott, by Benjamin Wilson (1864); The Epistles of Paul in Modern English, by George Barker Stevens (1898); St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, by W. G. Rutherford (1900); The New Testament Letters, by J.W.C. Wand, Bishop of London (1946). In addition, in a Spanish translation in the early 20th century, translator Pablo Besson used “Jehová” at Luke 2:15 and Jude 14, and nearly 100 footnotes in his translation suggest the divine name as a likely rendering.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2015

      The big problem is that Jehovah is not the divine name. Maybe I’ll explain about that in a post. It’s a made-up word.

  10. Avatar
    SHameed01  February 26, 2015

    Just recently I have seen James White’s debate with Muslim apologist, Shabir Ally on the topic of “Did Jesus’ earliest followers consider him to be God?” which took place on January 2015.

    In the debate, James brought the Carmen Christi up, saying that it testifies to the deity of Jesus and that it is Pre-Pauline. He then started using that as proof for his assertion that the belief in the deity of Christ was part of the beliefs of primitive Christianity.

    Any comments?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2015

      Yes, this one of the few things I agree with him about. I discuss the passage in my book How Jesus Became God (a book that White will not like at *all*!)

      • Avatar
        SHameed01  February 28, 2015

        What does the earliest copy of the Carmen Christi date to? Also when does the earliest reference to the Carmen Christi date to?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 1, 2015

          I”m not sure what you mean by “earliest copy.” Do you mean the earliest Greek manuscript of the book of Philippians? Or do you mean the earliest attestation of the “hymn”? That would be Philippians, written around 55 CE, quoting the “hymn” from an earlier source.

          • Avatar
            SHameed01  March 5, 2015

            I was talking about the earlier source (from which Phillipians is quoting it from), in one of my questions (the other you just answered and thanks). In other words the original source of the hymn, what is the earliest manuscript do we have of that?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 6, 2015

            We don’t have the hymn in any source outside of Philippians. The earliest manuscript of Philippians is P46, from around the year 200.

  11. Avatar
    SHameed01  February 27, 2015

    Is the Carmen Christi proof that the deity of Christ was part of the earliest Christology?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2015

      Yes indeed (although I was say it was *one* of the early Christologies, not “the” early Christology)

      • Avatar
        SHameed01  February 28, 2015

        So if I understand you correctly would it be correct to say that there were Unitarians among the earliest followers of Jesus?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 1, 2015

          I know some Unitarians who would say: “Definitely Yes”!

          • Avatar
            SHameed01  March 1, 2015

            Yeah but what do you say as a historian? Historically as you have mentioned there were more than one Christologies among the earliest followers of Jesus, so historically would it be safe to say that there Christians among the earliest Christians who did not believe in the deity of Jesus?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 3, 2015

            Again, I deal with this at length in my book. Yes, there were early Christians who believed Jesus was entirely human, but that he had been exalted to a divine status — but not to a level of equality with God.

  12. Avatar
    SHameed01  March 3, 2015

    Whenever James White is confronted with the argument that Mark represents the earliest Christology and that John represents a later more developed Christology, he (White) then attacks the scholars who claim this to be bias and coming from a naturalistic predisposition ( as a way of discrediting them ). What are your comments on that?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2015

      It’s the view of virtually every Christian critical scholar I know; I suppose if someone doesn’t agree with White they are a radical anti-supernaturalist secular Satan-worshipping maniac?

      • Avatar
        SHameed01  March 5, 2015

        He has the tendency of requesting his opponents to refer to the works of Conservative scholars (whatever that means) and one time he was talking about how believing scholars should be used as references to Bible related topic.

  13. Avatar
    flshrP  August 15, 2015

    You wrote:

    ” I was looking at a large ornamental stone that had an inscription on it. The inscription described the emperor Augustus and called him “god.” And something hit me. Surely I knew this before, but it had never really HIT me before. I don’t know why. But it hit me at this moment and it nearly took my breath away. This was really important. The Christians began calling Jesus God at just the same period that the Romans began calling their rulers God.”

    Gee, I thought this idea had been around for years and years if not centuries. I remember this idea being discussed in a Theology 101 course I took in the late 1950s at one of the Jesuit universities (one or two courses in theology were required in those long past days regardless of your major–mine was Physics).

  14. Avatar
    RAhmed  September 23, 2015

    Greetings Dr. Ehrman!
    I’ve read quite a few of your books and other books on the subject of the historical Jesus, but one thing that remains a bit unclear to me is what kind of “son of God” each gospel writer believes he is talking about. In particular the Gospel of Matthew since it is the “most Jewish” of our gospels. Does Matthew believe that Jesus is the son of God in the very Jewish sense? In other words, does he just use this title as a reference to the Biblical understanding that all messiahs are sons of God? Or does he view them as a demigod of some kind being half human and half God?

    Also, are all of the gospels stemming from the Pauline communities? In which case I would assume all of them do in fact have a much higher view of Jesus than just the Jewish concept of kings beings sons of God since Paul seems to have considered Jesus as some sort of angelic being.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2015

      Even Jews believed that there were “sons of God” who were divine beings. See, e.g., Genesis 6. And the king, the son of God, is sometimes called “God”. I talk about all these references in my book How Jesus Became God.

      • Avatar
        RAhmed  September 25, 2015

        I didn’t realize that the king himself was ever called “God”. Interesting. I listened to your Great Lectures series on “How Jesus Became God” but I haven’t yet read the book. Look forward to it.

        One last question. Do all early branches of Christianity come from the communities founded by Paul and James? Or were there other contemporary preachers who had completely different ideas of who/what Jesus was? In other words, if we are to have a family tree of all Christian ideologies (Gnostics, Ebionites, Proto-orthodox, etc.), do they all go back to one of these two communities?

        For example, Paul mentions other apostles with different views on Jesus than his (2Cor 11:4-5). Is he just talking about the people from James or were there other preachers who were rooted in neither James or Paul?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 26, 2015

          No, there were lots of other forms of Christianity as well.

          • Avatar
            RAhmed  September 26, 2015

            Fascinating. I had always understood all of the other forms of Christianity like Gnosticism to have been offshoots of Paul’s communities. Thank you for answering.

  15. Avatar
    Phrygia  April 9, 2016

    Bart, I have a question about that “twelve thrones” quote which you consider authentic. If historical, wouldn’t you say it makes Jesus out to be kind of nutty? -Maybe that’s more of a comment than a question.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2016

      I wouldn’t say he was nutty. I’d say he was a committed apocalypticist.

      • Avatar
        Phrygia  April 12, 2016

        I don’t know, I think it’s one thing to be a apocalypticist and quite another to believe you’re a central figure of the coming cosmic events. It’s like the difference between believing in the second coming and believing you are Jesus come again. Though it’s possible he did really say it and didn’t believe it, in which case he would be a bit of a conman, and not a nut. Then, there’s always the other Trilemma option, that he’s the Lord. 🙂

      • Avatar
        Phrygia  April 13, 2016

        Dr. Ehrman, I have another question about that “twelve thrones” quote. You’ve said this is what Jesus was betrayed over, but then why do you think the gospels instead record the betrayal over simply where to find him? Especially, when they still include the “king of the Jews” charge at the trial.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 14, 2016

          I think they wanted the ‘kiss’ to be the betrayal, so that it would fulfil scripture, and that required a narrative context of Judas identifying who Jesus was (as if those coming to arrest him wouldn’t know!)

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