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How Jesus Became God: The *Original* Idea

Several people have asked about the book I’m working on this term, How Jesus Became God, in particular in relation to what I mentioned in yesterday’s post, how I’ve learned a lot doing my research and changed my views on important issues related to the  book.  Explaining all that is a bit complicated, and I thought one good way to do it would be to show what I had *originally* planned to do with this book when I first proposed it to a publisher maybe seven or eight years ago, and then explain how the book now will be different, both in the way I’ll set it up and in what I think now about the topic.

So for this post and the next two I will reproduce my original book proposal.  REALIZE, please, that this is what I was ORIGINALLY planning.  In lots of ways it still makes sense, but I’ve changed it now, and to make sense of the changes, you have to see what the original looked like.  So here’s part 1 of the original proposal:

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Jesus of Nazareth was an apocalyptic prophet who anticipated the imminent end of the age and who warned his Jewish compatriots to repent in view of the cosmic crisis that was soon to come. God, Jesus proclaimed, would intervene in the course of history to overthrow the forces of evil, sending from heaven a divine-like figure called the Son of Man in a cataclysmic act of judgment.  This Son of Man would bring a new order to this world, a utopian kingdom to replace the evil empire that oppresses God’s people.   And this was to occur within Jesus’ generation.

Jesus’ followers accepted his message and saw him as a prophet of God who understood God’s will; some of them anticipated that when the new kingdom arrived, he, Jesus himself, would be its anointed king.   But any such hopes about Jesus as the messiah were convincingly dashed when he was arrested by the Roman authorities, interrogated, tortured, and crucified as a lowly criminal.  In a prodigious reversal, however, the hopes of Jesus’ followers were then reconfirmed, and radically transformed, when they (or some of them) came to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to his own right hand.  Belief in Jesus’ resurrection changed everything.  In particular it redirected the disciples’ belief, away from the apocalyptic message that Jesus himself proclaimed to a faith in Jesus himself, away from the beliefs held by Jesus to the beliefs about Jesus.

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How Jesus Became God: The “Original” Idea, Part 2
During my Leave…

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 31, 2013

    I am still impressed with one of the points of one of your earlier blogs that describes how Jesus is referred to as being God only in the Gospel of John and not in the earlier three Gospels. It seems very unlikely that the other Gospel authors would have omitted such an extraordinary point unless Jesus was not viewed as being God by these three authors. So, something changed, or, at least, some other view evolved from some followers somewhere apart from the authors of the three earlier Gospels.

  2. Robertus
    Robertus  January 31, 2013

    Well, I see a few things that I would change, but I’ll wait and see before commenting on specifics. It’s always exciting to see scholars change their minds. Rather rare, I think. Thanks for letting us in on your thought process.

  3. gmatthews
    gmatthews  January 31, 2013

    Sounds like a fascinating new book and based on what you say here the one I will be most looking forward to since I first found your books a decade ago!

  4. Avatar
    Mikail78  February 1, 2013

    Bart, I got another question that may reveal even more of my ignorance. I’m just curious. You are a scholar and an expert on the historical Jesus and early Christianity, and have been for quite a long time. You say you are doing research for this book, “How Jesus Became God” (By the way, I can’t wait and I totally look forward to reading it). Just how much more research do you have to do, considering the fact that you’re already an expert in the subject? What more is there for you to know? Am I wrong about this? Am I missing something here?

    Also, I don’t know if you are aware of it or not, but your “Forgery and Counterforgery” is now available on Kindle. I plan on buying it very soon. I feel bad that I’m contributing to the death of books, but hell, it’s convenient and it’s cheaper, so I gotta do what I gotta do. 🙂

    Oh, and on a random note, you once said on this blog that you are a proud member, with the rest of us, of the “Barnes and Noble club” on areas outside of your expertise and scholarship. Your humility and desire to relate to us laypeople is admired, at least by me.

    Oh, and concerning the super deep and important questions of life, who is your pick to win the super bowl? 🙂

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 1, 2013

      Well, on the important matter — it’s complicated. I’m picking and pulling for the 49ers. But I have bet a very expensive bottle of wine on the Ravens. The way I’m lookin’ at it, I win either way. (And yes, I realize, I also lose either way…)

      Research. Well, for most of my trade books research means reading tons and tons of things that I should have read before but haven’t (it’s literally *impossible* to keep up with all NT scholarship). Rarely do I read anything that changes my mind about anything, but with this book that has indeed happened. The books I’m reading for this particular research include:
      * Studies of early Christology
      * Studies of the resurrection (both historically and literarily)
      * Studies of visionary experiences (deceased loved ones; religious figures [e.g., the Blessed Virgin Mary]; psychotic; drug induced; etc.)
      * Studies of Emperor worship
      * Interpretations of key NT texts
      * Christology in the church fathers, up through the Fourth century
      And, well, other things!

      • Avatar
        jsoundz  February 3, 2013

        Mikail78 – Good SB question

        Bart

        Despite the Superbowl outcome will history look at the Harbaugh brothers as greater than or less than the Mannings? I’m betting on the Harbaugh’s since their dad once coached at my alma mater, Western Michigan University. Regarding basketball (a good Jesus question here) any hope for another title from the Tar Heels this season.? Sadly, my Michigan State Spartans should be a push-over this year.
        Enjoy postings especially when you include sports, either metaphor or literal . Also, glad you included the works of Fredriksen, a great writer.

        Jeff

  5. Avatar
    Jim  February 1, 2013

    I should wait until your current proposal is posted before asking this question, but patience just isn’t me. Also, I haven’t gone through your Jesus; Apocalyptic Prophet book yet, but I did peak at the index for references to Mark 13. Is it possible that Jesus wasn’t as apocalyptic as we might think?

    I have heard that some NT scholars think that much of Mark 13 is a separate piece of apocalyptic literature containing proclamations that the historical Jesus may have never spoken. Some of the first generation Jesus peeps followed John the Baptist prior to his beheading. John was likely hard core apocalyptic as implied from his baptism ministry, lifestyle etc. So possibly his former followers influenced the apocalyptic content in Matthew. Or maybe sections like Matt 24/25 contain post 70 CE embellishments from his own primarily Jewish community?

    Could Matthew have added additional material to Mark 13 in an effort to pump up his community to persevere and remain committed to Jesus, and for hanging in there they would be soon vindicated (resurrection)? If one groups Mark 13/Matt 24/25/Luke 21 as later (post 70) embellishments, it seems like a lot of Jesus’ apocalyptic edge is attenuated. However, I could just be talking out of my butt if there is little support for Mark 13 being a later insert.

  6. Avatar
    toddfrederick  February 1, 2013

    Thank you…I was hoping you’d write a bit about this issue.

  7. Avatar
    PaulH  February 1, 2013

    Most of your recent books have come under attack from the Evangelical/Apologist Christian brigade. Whereas “Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth”, seemed to get viciously attacked by members of the “new atheist” movement, Richard Carrier in particular.

    Has that experience changed the way you approach “How Jesus Became God”?

  8. Avatar
    AmenRa  February 1, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman, I fundamentally believe you are doing a great service as an agnostic to the Church in general. We need to “think” about our faith. In light of the upcoming book and your recent book, Did Jesus Exist, I have this question about the proper translation of Hebrews 8:4. The Geneva 1599 Bible, the NEB and Robert Mounce translates this verse thusly:

    Hebrews 8:4
    1599 Geneva Bible (GNV) 4 [a]For he were not a Priest, if he were on the earth, seeing there are Priests that according to the Law offer gifts,

    Mounce Reverse-Interlinear New Testament (MOUNCE) 4 So if he had been on earth, he would not be a priest, since there are already those who offer the gifts prescribed by the law.

    New English Bible: 3Every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices: hence, this one too must have something to offer. 4Now if he had been on earth, he would not even have been a priest, since there are already priests who offer the gifts which the Law prescribes, 5though they minister in a sanctuary which is only a copy and shadow of the heavenly. . . . [NEB]

    These translations are in stark contrast to the majority of translations which states, “If He (Jesus) were on earth (now) . . .Is the grammatical interpretation exclusive on how the past tense should be rendered. For if it favors the “had been” then, in my opinion it opens the door to consider: Is Jesus a Heavenly figure in the platonic mythological realm, i.e., a “son of God” who has always resided in the heavenlies. Or really did Calvary and the resurrection happen on Earth or is it an heavenly event, i.e.,Jesus never existed on Earth.

    Would you please share your NT expertise on this subject.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 1, 2013

      It’s a contrary to fact conditional sentence: If he *were* on the earth (but he is not), he would not be a priest. The sentence does NOT mean that Jesus was not ever on the earth; it means that he is functioning NOW as the high priest but NOT on the earth (but in heaven). In Hebrews there is absolutely no doubt that Jesus was on the earth during his life, as a reading of the entire letter shows quite clearly.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 1, 2013

    Do you think the first three Gospels could have been written by Christians (such as the Ebionites) who did not believe that Jesus was/is divine and that the later Gospel of John might have been written by a Christian from a different group (such as the Marcionites) who believed that Jesus was/is divine? Or did this idea that Jesus was God slowly and steadily evolve over time among all Christians? I guess I need to buy the upcoming book to find out….

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 1, 2013

      That’s what I used to think. It’s one of the things I’ve changed my mind about in a rather radical way. More to come!

  10. Avatar
    pdahl  February 1, 2013

    Bart,

    Like many others, I very much look forward to reading your forthcoming book “How Jesus Became God,” having enjoyed many of your others over the past few years. Having just re-read historian Charles Freeman’s 2003 book entitled “The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason,” I was intrigued with his central thesis that original Greek rationality and reason were later suppressed by (and then lost in) the early Christian communities en route to formulating their orthodox conception of the faith as we inherited it.

    Unlike Rubinstein”s clear focus on the Arian controversy in “When Jesus Became God…”, I found that Freeman’s 20 chapters take a much broader, 1000-year view of the development of Christian theological thought — starting from the 4th and 5th century BCE Greek rationalists; continuing on with Jesus (ch. 8), Paul (ch. 9), and John (ch. 10); and only then focusing on the Arian controversy per se (chs. 11-12).

    I’m not sure if Freeman’s contribution is considered within your field as being a scholarly book or a trade book — ditto for Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” — which I certainly understand would influence your choice to reference it (or not) in your own book. Either way, what are your thoughts as a classicist and historian regarding the central thesis conveyed in his book title? Thanks for any response.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 1, 2013

      I’m afraid I haven’t read it. But I don’t think early Christians “suppressed” Greek rationality. The earliest Christians were rural peasants from Aramaic-speaking Galilee, and wouldn’t have been able to tell you the difference between Plato and Alexander the Great!

      • Avatar
        pdahl  February 2, 2013

        Well, I should have been a bit clearer. Actually, I didn’t mean quite as early as the Aramaic-speaking peasants from Galilee, who were simply proclaiming their experience with Jesus before those coming along later sought to explain it in letters and gospels. And my casual use of the word “suppressed” is far less nuanced than what Freeman actually meant.

        Instead of those first peasants, I was thinking mostly of those later “proto-orthodox” church fathers who formulated the doctrines, dogmas, and creeds that got cemented in the fourth and fifth centuries — and which we then inherited largely unchanged since then. In this regard, Freeman’s narrative about the initial abandonment of [Greek] evidence-based reason is focused mainly on those centuries book-ended by Paul and Augustine, with a later chapter on reason’s rediscovery in the Christian world by Thomas Aquinas, many centuries later.

        In developing his thesis, Freeman cites one of Paul’s genuine 7 letters (can’t remember which one, offhand) that dismissed as foolishness the wisdom of those [Greek] philosophers who placed such a high premium on premise, evidence, and reason as we understand them today. Basically, one is left with something of a Pauline “faith trumps reason” idea — which I consider somewhat akin to Luther’s famous pronouncement that “reason is the enemy of faith” (as stated in reference to the Copernican cosmology, I think).

        This “faith-trumps-reason” stance seems to have pervaded — and limited — Christian understanding across the centuries, an unfortunate detour that Freeman claims began with Paul. In contrast, a “both-and” approach to faith and reason — in which biblical faith equates to divine trust (as in the original Greek) rather than to strict adherence to doctrinal belief (i.e., what it came to mean later) — would probably resonate more with thinking people of today who value both the spiritual (right-brained) and rational (left-brained) ways of knowing, respectively, in their pursuit of what’s ultimately true.

        Anyway, having read the historical accounts of both Rubenstein and Freeman, I would say (but strictly as a non-scholar in this field) that the former account makes a strong case for explaining *when* Jesus became God — although there’s some of the *how* in there — whereas the latter considers more of the *how*, but essentially by exploring just one potential facet of the question largely to the exclusion of any others. So, it’s precisely these other perspectives and fuller details regarding the broad question of how Jesus became God that I eagerly look forward to reading about in your forthcoming book.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 3, 2013

          I can’t comment on Freeman, since I haven’t read him. About Rubenstein I’d say that proto-orthodox Christians already considered Jesus to be God before the Arian controversy, and Arius was no exception.

  11. Avatar
    Vridar  February 1, 2013

    Realizing this is your original outline and knowing I should hold my comments and questions until after the final post, my ADD kicks in and needs immediate gratification. Did you originally think Jesus was carrying on, or carrying out, John the Baptizer’s original journey? Also, I’m interested in the transformation of “the beliefs held by Jesus to the beliefs about Jesus.” The last few years this thought has helped me understand the fundamentalists’ thinking. I believe I first heard the “religion OF Jesus instead of the Religion ABOUT Jesus” thoughts from one of your The Teaching Company lectures. BTW, those lectures started my quest for the historical Jesus. And, I forever will be in your debt for starting me on this journey. It is fascinating.

    Ron

  12. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 1, 2013

    I’ll be interested in seeing what your “two paths” were!

    I remember that a language usage at this site initially struck me as unusual. You, and others, referred to the concept of Jesus’s supposedly being “raised” from the dead. “Raised” by God, of course. But coming from a Catholic background, I’d always heard it said that he *rose* from the dead – rose of his own volition, since he was believed to *be* God.

    Here’s what I’m driving at. In Jesus’s time, some people evidently were willing to believe the dead could be miraculously “raised.” But is it possible they thought God always worked through some sort of “holy man” in these cases? If so, Jesus’s supposed resurrection would have been startlingly different, because he’d been alone in that tomb. Could that have been a factor in people’s coming to believe he was divine?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 1, 2013

      I think what’s different when it comes to Jesus is that he was not raised in order to die again, but, in the view of the disciples, was raised in an immortal body. Big difference!

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  February 3, 2013

        Oh, I see! A “preview” of the way they expected *all* the dead to be restored upon the coming of the Kingdom. Thanks for that insight!

  13. Avatar
    MicahStott  February 2, 2013

    Most of us are interested in these things as a hobby and my reading queue is bombarded by the sheer number of authors writing about Jesus and the New Testament.

    I can think of NT Wright, James Dunn, Maurice Casey, Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham and Paula Fredriksen who all wrote books dealing with Jesus becoming God. I had never even heard of Rubenstein until your post today.

    So, as a layman with limited time to devote to this and the sheer number of resources, which of the above guys (or others) are actually worth reading prior to reading your book when it’s released? Possibly two or three of the best choices.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 3, 2013

      Acctually, I’m not sure these all deal with Jesus becoming God per se, though they do deal with the development of NT Christology. I’d say all five of these authors are worth reading! But for the topics I’m dealing with, probably the best to start with are Dunn and Hurtado.

  14. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 3, 2013

    On a second reading of this, I notice that at that point you were just saying that some of Jesus’s “followers” expected him to be the “anointed king” of the new Kingdom God would establish on Earth – not indicating that he himself claimed it. That’s a possibility you’ve thought of more recently, right? That his privately telling his disciples he would be such a “king” was the information Judas gave the Romans, their justification for arresting him.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 3, 2013

      I think he taught this to the disciples,and so Judas had the information from him that he could betray.

  15. Avatar
    ErikdenTuinder  August 29, 2018

    I am currently reading your book “How Jesus Became God” and I am loving it! But something came to mind when reading page 131. You write:

    “No, what made Jesus different from all the others teaching a similar message was the claim that he had been raised from the dead. Belief in Jesus’s resurrection changed absolutely everything. Such a thing was not said of any of the other apocalyptic preachers of Jesus’s day, and the fact that it was said about Jesus made him unique.”

    Then I remembered this passage from Mark:

    “King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” – Mark 6:14

    John was considered an apocalyptic preacher, doesn’t this stand at odds with the quote from HJBG or am I overlooking something here?

    As always, thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 29, 2018

      I think the difference is that we do not have any record of John’s immediate *followers* thinking he was raised from the dead.

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