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How Jesus Became God: My Change of Direction

Over the course of my last three posts I have indicated what my original idea was for the book How Jesus Became God.    When I first started writing the proposal for the book (as you have seen it) I had planned to write it with Oxford University Press.  But about three or four years ago I made a career decision.   At that point I had published three trade books with HarperOne (an imprint of Harper Collins, the branch that publishes in religious studies).  All three of them had made it onto the New York Times Bestseller list.   That had never happened to me before.  A lot of that is luck, but it takes a *ton* of work from the publisher to make it even possible.   I think Oxford is an absolutely terrific press.  In my opinion they are absolutely among the best press in the world at publishing scholarly monographs and *are* the best at publishing college level textbooks in religious studies.  But they are not as geared toward trade books.  With Harper, on the other hand, trade books is the ONE thing they do.  And they do it terrifically well, as I realized after I had done those three books with them.  And so I ended up making a career decision: I would publish my trade books with Harper and I would publish everything else (monographs, textbooks, readers, and so on) with Oxford.  And so that’s what I’m doing these days.

One of the reasons that matters for How Jesus Became God is because my earlier trade books with Oxford (e.g., Lost Christianities; Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene; and so on) had tended to be a bit more academic than my Harper books, which were a bit more popular in orientation.  So with the new orientation I wanted to rethink how I was imagining the book.   And the first half of the proposal as you’ve seen it, in particular, has become very different indeed.

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How Jesus Became God: More Questions
How Jesus Became God: The “Original” Idea, Part 3



  1. Avatar
    toddfrederick  February 5, 2013

    Well, now to figure out what you figured out. I have a few ideas but they involve a theological (spiritual / super-natural) approach rather than one of raw history. I guess I’ll need to wait for your book to find out. 🙂

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    Dr.Context  February 5, 2013

    Since your view on the Philpppians passage has not had time to solidify, I wonder if I may be so bold as to interject a different view on which to ponder. I will hit the high points knowing that explanation on every detail will not be needed. Adam was made in God’s image yet failed to represent that image. Jesus accomplished this, being credited with being the exact representation. He was in the form/image of God. But unlike Eve, who not willing to glorify God as a creature, wanted to be “like God”. But Jesus, instead of trying to grasp this glory as his own, exalting himself as those called to shepherd before him had done, he humbled himself. Unlike those who had made themselves as gods rather than serveing the people, having the people serve them. Jesus, rather than milking his status for all this world could give, served the people. Therefore God demonstrated his chief character, that whomever humbles himself will be exalted, so he gave him a name above all others.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 5, 2013

      Oh, sorry. Yes, my view has indeed solidified. I had long *wanted* the Adamic view you lay out to be right (I first encountered it in 1982 — over thirty years ago now). But I don’t see how it can be. I’ll deal with the question on my blog.

      • Avatar
        Dr.Context  February 5, 2013

        I did not realize that my ideas preceeded me and had a name. I would very much like to explore this. Any books that come to mind?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 6, 2013

          Yes, it is a view that’s been batted about for some time. I first encountered it in 1981 in a book still worth reading, by Ralph Martin, called Carmen Christi, the more recent editions of which are called A Hymn of Christ. It is a book length treatment of the passage.

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    Jim  February 5, 2013

    Regarding the unexpected high schema appearing early, it would seem that those who had (or thought they had) experienced a vision of Jesus would naturally be starting off with a relatively high Christology. These followers might also be more inclined to be vocal about their view as well. The followers who had not “received” a vision (the vast majority) were probably more likely to follow the low to high path being more convinced over time.

    These visions apparently happen on rare occasion today as in the case of Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri who revealed the name of the Messiah from a vision he experienced before he died in 2007 (along with a strange prediction). The original Israel Today article is no longer available so I don’t know if it was a hoax or not. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0DTT3u2JZ8

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    wisemenwatch  February 5, 2013

    The pre-existance of Jesus as the Archangel Michael has been taught by both the Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, who love to teach Daniel and Revelation side by side and who are conceivably America’s first radical last-dayers:

    Daniel 12:1 And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.

    12:2 And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (leading to the soul sleep doctrine of both Witnesses and Adventists)

    12:3 And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.

    Call them apocalyptists, cults, crackpots, or whatever, both these groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists have fine-tooth combed the scriptures and come to the same conclusion – the pre-existence of Jesus.

    And, Dr. Ehrman, I hate to keep beating the same dead horse, but once again, I am seeing a great deal of astrological and celestial terminology in the Book of Daniel. He was trained by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), and the footnote in my NIV Bible for Dan 1:17 states that this training would have included astrology and divination by dreams. How do we know that “night visions” are the same things as dreams? Astrology and dreams, night visions (of real stars and planets?) and dreams. Consciously scrying by watching clouds is a lot easier to make sense of than a dream caused by the “pulse” you consumed for dinner. Even his Babylonian name “Belteshazzar” means “Marduk (Jupiter) protect his life”. These sound like literal ‘heavenly’ visions to me. Everytime I see words pertaining to celestial phenomena, I am thinking real celestial phenomena.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 5, 2013

      I think the problem is that you’re imagining that Daniel really was a sixth century Judean relocated to Babylon. Critical scholars are unified in thinking that the book was actually written in the 2nd century BCE, pseudonymously.

      • Avatar
        wisemenwatch  February 6, 2013

        I was aware of the late dating of Daniel, but its not by any means *just* Daniel where I see it. It doesn’t matter that today Daniel is believed to have been written after the date it was claimed to be written. What matters is what Jesus, the Jews, and the early Christians believed about it. If I were Jesus, or a first century Christian, of enough education, or common knowledge, to get myself in trouble, I would believe that Daniel was trained by the Chaldeans, and I would be asking myself what exactly it was that the Chaldeans taught the great prophet Daniel.

  5. Avatar
    Dennis  February 5, 2013

    Talked with your publisher have you? 😉

  6. Avatar
    Scott F  February 5, 2013

    You’re going to make us buy the book to find out the answer aren’t you :O Of course, I was going to buy it anyway 🙂

  7. Avatar
    Adam  February 5, 2013

    Wow, you love keeping us in suspense, don’t you? Really looking forward to this book.

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    RonaldTaska  February 5, 2013

    This is getting more interesting. I agree that the five “titles” did not “grab” me. I am not a theologian, but, as an amateur, had also reasoned that there must have been a slow, steady chronological development of a higher Christology. The other option would be the early emergence of differing Christologies (low versus high) that remained different. The quote from Paul does seem to change things a bit. I look forward to what comes next.

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    Wilusa  February 5, 2013

    If that “poem” was written at an early date, what sort of beings did its author think were inhabiting “heaven”? (For their knees to bow at the name of Jesus?)

    Since the idea of deceased humans’ souls going “up there” would only come later, did the Jews and earliest Christians envision “heaven” as being inhabited by throngs of angels? That doesn’t seem to jibe with the Od Testament authors’ having been reluctant to mention “angels,” lest they weaken the concept of monotheism.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 5, 2013

      the heavenly ones must be angels, I would suppose. And so the qeustion is — what was Jesus? (!)

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    Adam0685  February 5, 2013

    Most NT scholars hold that Paul wrote Philippians or that Philippians is early (50-60’s). Is there evidence for this other than the fact that it says it’s written by Paul? Could not one make the argument that its “high Christology” suggests it’s a later book (like those who argue that 1-2 Timothy is late and not written by Paul because it gives expression to a late church structure?). I just find it odd that if Paul thought Jesus was divine in any sense why didn’t he explicitly mention this in his other letters?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 5, 2013

      The vocabulary and writing style is Pauline. Its concerns are Pauline. Its other theological investments are Pauline. It is easily placed within a Pauline chronology. So it looks like it’s Paul’s….

      • Avatar
        Adam0685  February 6, 2013

        I’ll have to wait for your book to see if there is any other historical or literary evidence that Paul or other early Christian writers thought Jesus was somehow “god” or somehow divine before later texts like Gospel of John, Colossians, Hebrews, and Revelation seem to do. This is indeed possible, but it seems speculative. I haven’t seen this affirmed in early texts, but I’ll maintain an open mind. Also, I find it very odd that if Paul thought Jesus was “god” or somehow divine it does not come out in his other letters. It seems to be an important matter if it were true! I wonder if Phil 2:6-11 is a later addition to the letter. I will have to look into the manuscript evidence..

        • Christopher Sanders
          Christopher Sanders  February 7, 2013

          I’ve wondered the same thing… As you’ve demonstrated, the Bible’s original text is open to some doubt. Could Paul’s relevant passages have been later doctored and edited in the name of orthodoxy?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  February 7, 2013

            It doesn’t look like it.

  11. Avatar
    hwl  February 6, 2013

    I had thought Oxford UP only does academic and scholarly books. Does the publisher actually have an internal classification between trade books and academic ones? Why do you consider Lost Christianities (Oxford) to be a trade book?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 6, 2013

      They used to have a distinct trade division that is now part of academic. Lost Christianites is a trade book because it is written for a general audience rather than scholars and was meant to sell in places like Barnes and Noble, unlike most scholarly books.

  12. Avatar
    micclan@ozemail.com.au  July 7, 2019

    Geza Vernes, The Changing Faces of Jesus, also notes this seemingly early emergence of high Christology in Paul in the Phill. poem.
    He does not agonise much about it but opts for a retrospective insertion into Paul from a later period. He notes that the poem is self contained and does not easily flow for the prior content. So, he seems comfortable enough with the probability of later insertion..
    The idea of an angel, just below God, promoted to equal ranking by service, does sound a little strange, despite the Judaic tradition of Dual Powers. I get the idea of twin powers in the sense that the unknowable, ineffable God had to have a “voice” to communicate to his Chosen people. But a partner God, promoted to the self same status because of excellent service, seems strange and forced in a Judaic context- and is not explicit in the poem.
    Leaving aside the issue of respective power/glory status, does Paul speak explicitly about a pre-existent Jesus? If yes, does he specify pre-existent from when? Michael

    • Bart
      Bart  July 8, 2019

      Yes, I’d say that Vermes is very much in the minority, if that’s his actual position. It fits beautifully in the context of what Paul is saying, that it is more important to be self-sacrificing than to assert oneself, with Christ as the prime example of one who did that. The fact that it is indeed a self contained unit suggests that it was a pre-existing poem that Paul inserted at this point. At least that’s the most widespread view (over the past seventy years or so), which I agree with.

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