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Other Christians Who Denied that Christ was Divine by Nature

In my previous post I discussed on group of early Christian “adoptionists” – that is, followers of Christ who maintained that he was not really a divine being (by nature) but was a human who had been “adopted” by God (at his baptism) to be his Son.  To be sure, from that point on he was in some sense divine; but he was not born of a virgin and he did not pre-exist his appearance in the world.  The group I mentioned yesterday was the Jewish-Christian Ebionites.

There was another group known (or thought) to have a similar Christological view that was not in the least Jewish, but was from start to finish gentile.  This is a gropu that emerged in second century Rome called the Theodotians, named this because the founder of their sect was named Theodotus.  He was a cobbler by trade.  But he obviously didn’t work making shoes 24/7; he must have had time for some serious theological reflection as well.

Here is what I say about Theodotus and his followers in my discussion The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (modified slightly to get rid of the scholarly jargon).

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In external appearance, the Roman adoptionists of the second and early third century do not seem at all like the Ebionites. They….

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Is Luke’s Christology Consistent?
Was Christ God? The View of Jewish-Christian Ebionites

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    MMahmud  October 17, 2015

    Absolutely amazing. Thank you so much Bart. I hope you continue producing quality work like this. I especially like your strong insistence on being fair, sticking to the evidence and making clear the variety of possibilities and highlighting your own personal views on these issues.

  2. gmatthews
    gmatthews  October 17, 2015

    Out of all the earliest “heresies” (I also include here the community that might have used the Gospel of Thomas) which do you think was closest to the truth of who/what Jesus was and his actual message? Ie, that he was human and an itinerant apocalyptic preacher. Obviously all of the heresies were still religions so there was some belief in the divine involved (miracles, the Resurrection, etc). Seems to me like it would be something related to Judaism like the Ebionites or the group that James lead in Jerusalem. I’ve been reading Martin Hengel lately and if I follow him correctly he says the start of the real spread of the religion (outside of Paul’s gentile churches) was when the Hellenists in Jerusalem (the group Stephen was part of) got involved and started to evolve The Way. From that it would seem like if this is true then the earlier Christian movement in Jerusalem would have been closer to the true Jesus since Acts chapter 6 surely wasn’t more than a handful of years after the death of Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2015

      Yes, my sense is that some of the Jewish Christian groups were more “historically” correct in their veiws of what Jesus said, did, and stoof for.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 17, 2015

    So they’re saying Theodotus “claimed that Christ was not himself divine, but was a ‘mere man.’ Because Jesus was more pious than all others, at his baptism he became empowered by the Holy Spirit to perform a divine mission.”

    What was the “divine mission” thought to be? That is, are these adoptionists thought to have believed Jesus was an apocalypticist, or something else? (And when did the *Roman* church stop stressing apocalypticism?)

    You mentioned excommunication. I only recently realized that in the Catholic Church today, at least, excommunication bars the person even from the “sacrament” of Penance. Which would mean, to someone who really believes it, that they can’t *possibly* avoid spending eternity in “Hell”!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2015

      His mission was to die for othewrs.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  October 19, 2015

        Yes…but had the “atonement” idea *replaced* the “apocalyptic” idea, or did these people supposedly believe both? That Jesus had died to “atone for” all the sins believers had committed, *and* that they’d enjoy eternal life in a divine “Kingdom” located on Earth?

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  October 18, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, I’ve actually been working on trying to see if I can reconstruct the (purported) words of Jesus into Hebrew. (So far I’ve been very successful, but that’s a-whole-nother topic. Let me know if you’re at all interested that.) However, reading your blog about the early christological debates got me thinking about the Carmen Christi from Philippians 2, and when I re-read it I started to notice a lot of familiar Hebraisms popping out at me, so I gave it a go. Below you’ll find my attempt at a Hebrew reconstruction of the doxological hymn (assuming that early church sang it in Hebrew, which–for my sensibilities–is far more likely than in Aramaic, but, again, that’s another topic). I’m not sure if your Hebrew skills are on par with your Greek skills (I’m pretty sure your Greek skills are far superior to my Hebrew), so if you have any questions as, let me know. As can see the verse is in an heptameter, a rather common meter for Hebrew (you see a lot of heptameter in the Psalms, Proverbs and Prophets, for example) and the rhyming scheme ends in hey (or aleph or ayin). Many lines start with a Lamed, was I have noticed was a rather common starting letter with Jesus as well, possibly because rolling sound of liquid consonants allow for a thunderous start to a verse. You’ll also notice internal rhymes with some words (e.g. b’tsviyon and b’dmiyon).
    בצִביוֹן האֵל היה
    לֹא לָקַחַת אמדה
    להיות האֵל שָׁוֶה
    ולהִתְרוֹקֵן דוֹמֶה
    הצִביוֹן עֶבֶד קחה
    בדִמיוֹן אָדָם עשה
    במַרְאָה כאִישׁ מצא
    לְהִשְׁתַפֵּל דוֹמֶה
    להיות כָּנוּעַ
    למָוֶת בעץ

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2015

      One problem is that Jesus didn’t speak Hebrew. Aramaic was the language of Palestine.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 19, 2015

        Alas, Dr. Ehrman, I figured you would say that. But, here’s the problem. When one tries to reconstruct the putative words of Jesus into Aramaic, you get something rather banal and lackluster, that is, something that sounds like a translation (cf. Jeremias’ Aramaic translations or the Peshitta to see what I’m talking about). Although Aramaic and Hebrew are very similar languages–practically mutually intelligible, actually–there are certain Hebraisms from scripture that Jesus clearly adopts in his sayings (indeed, being a native Hebrew speaker myself, they practically pop right out at me). Here’s one example to illustrate what I’m talking about. (This is just one excerpt from my year long attempt at reconstructing Jesus’ aphorisms in Hebrew–a so-called UrGospel that I hypothesize was initially written down within years if not months of Jesus’ death, in Hebrew, by his disciples–so it’s still a work in progress):

        אבא בשמימ
        שמך מקדש
        הבא מַלְכוּתך
        היום תננו
        הקִיוּמנו

        Now, I’m sure, from your knowledge of Hebrew, you instantly know what this is. But before we get into that, I want you to notice several features. First, the meter is pentameter. In fact, it’s iambic. That is, it goes Da-da Da-da Dah, like a Shakespeare sonnet. If you read some verses in the Tanakh, particularly Proverbs, you’ll see this same meter all over the place. This suggests to me that Jesus was quite knowledgable of Proverbs, in Hebrew! and that he modeled his preaching on the Hebrew scripture–possibly to sound more legit–similar to how a contemporary preacher might talk in King James English in order to sound more liturgical. In other words, it’s a pretense or conceit.

        Furthermore, notice the syllabic structure and internal rhymes. (It took my a couple days to untangle that mess.) Jesus uses אבא, the Aramaic word for father, which even by that time had supplanted the Hebrew אב for father. And then notice that in the second verse he (likely) says הבא (“the coming”) that rhymes, literally, with אבא. That is, Jesus mindfully constructs this prayer (tefillah) in such a clever way that it’s instantly memorable. He interally rhymes אבא (“father”) with הבא (“the coming”). Not only that, the other half of those verses, בשמימ and מַלְכוּתך, respectively, are cleverly antithetical. That is, we have line 1, אבא בשמימ (“Father, in the sky”) and line 3, הבא מַלְכוּתך (“The coming kingdom yours”). Sky kingdom. Earthly kingdom. Not a coincidence.

        First off, this poetic construction wouldn’t work nearly as well in Aramaic, because by the time of 1st century Judea, Aramaic was too clumsy to express such a poetic construction. Second, this is biblical Hebrew, as Jesus–assuming he could read Hebrew (which I do)–would have been very much familiar with from reading the Tanakh. Third, the ease with which those verses fall naturally into poetic Hebrew is simply too convenient to ignore. But wait. There’s more.

        The last two verses (I have yet to fully reconstruct the entire Lord’s Prayer) fall so naturally into Hebrew, that it simply can’t be a coincidence. Just look at them:
        היום תננו
        “Today, give to us”
        הקִיוּמנו
        “Our subsistence”
        We have haYom in the first line (“Today”) and in the second line, it also starts with a hey (the definite article), and then there’s a Yom (yod-waw-mem) again within the structure of the word for daily subsistence, Qiyum! And, of course, both lines end (i.e. rhyme) with the first person plural suffix (-nu), both of which were rather awkwardly transliterated directly into the Greek version.

        Dr. Ehrman, it’s all right there. At one point, I, too, was confident that Jesus only spoke Aramaic. No more. At this point, I’m convinced that Jesus preached in Hebrew. He uttered his famous words of wisdom in Hebrew! Why? Probably for the same reason a contemporary revivalist preacher recites Biblical verses in King James English, because it sounds holy! And that’s only the practical matter of it. The reality is that when one back translates some of the putative sayings of Jesus from the Gospels into Hebrew, suddenly, verses that are enigmatic in the Greek suddenly make so much more sense.

        I’ll give you one other example from the pages I have so far managed to reconstruct over the past year. You’ll probably instantly recognize this passage, too.

        אתם מלח התֵבֵל
        אִם מלח תָפֵל
        במַה יתַבֵּל

        I simply need to transliterate the Hebrew for the majestic poetry of these lines to be clear.
        Atam melach hatevel
        Im melach tafel
        baMah yitabel

        Notice, again, the last two lines are in pentametric verse, for ease of memorization.
        Tevel (“earth”) rhymes perfectly with Tafel (“flavorless”), and both rhyme perfectly with yiTabel (“to season”).
        Jesus is making a pun. He is saying that his listeners are what give flavor to the earth (as opposed to the sky/heaven).
        He is saying if his listeners were to lose their “flavor” then there would be nothing left with which to flaver the earth, i.e. there would be no reason to spare the earth. Like a flavorless piece of food, the earth would be discarded. So it is incumbant that those who are the “flavor” of the earth remain so, so that God has a reason to spare it.
        This cannot be a coincidence! Jesus spoke this in Hebrew!

  5. Avatar
    Menoclone  October 18, 2015

    I wonder, what would have been Christianity if the Adoptionist philosophy had won the day? Would Christianity have survived the competition with paganism? Being merely human seems a deficit, when stacked against divinities. Yet, if Adoptionism had survived, what a marvelous philosophy it would be today. The Ebionites (The Poor) would have had ascendency, with all the implications that would entail.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2015

      Christianity would have probably remained a sect within Judaism

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 18, 2015

    All this reminds me of our current diversity with thousands of denominations all claiming to have the “truth.” What a mess!

  7. Avatar
    toejam  October 18, 2015

    I’m really enjoying this recent branch of threads. Thank you again. I have completely off-topic and rather textually scrutinizing question though, if you don’t mind. I was just reading about a textual variant in Jude 5, where some manuscripts read that it is Κύριος (the Lord) who is the one who “delivered his people out of Egypt”, while other it is Ιησούς (Jesus). This is a pretty fascinating variant. I’m curious what your view on this is.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2015

      Yes, I mention the variant (very briefly) in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture as an anti-adoptionist variant (it shows Jesus’ pre-existed as a divine being)

  8. Avatar
    michael  October 18, 2015

    This is a really interesting series of posts! I just watched a special screening of the movie ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ as part of our local film festival where Martin Scorcese was honoured for his work with the Grand Prix today. The movie gives an interesting take on the ‘full humanity’ of Jesus from the viewpoint of Scorcese/Kazantzakis, just like the Ebionites and Theodotians of the past few posts must have been trying to do (I am generalising of course). What I found lacking in the midst of so much human emotion was a consistent and appealing message from the fully human Jesus. There were so many changes of direction subject to his fervours, fears, self-doubt, anger and enthusiasm, that it was hard to imagine how anybody at the time would have been convinced by the central message of his ministry. I feel sure you have done a post on this movie/book before, but I can’t seem to locate it. Could you point me in the right direction please?
    Many thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2015

      No, I’m afraid I haven’t dealt with it on the blog. But I have my students in one of my classes (on Jesus in scholarship and film) watch it every year.

  9. Avatar
    Jayredinger  October 19, 2015

    “Rome| An Italian expert studying a first century document written by the Roman historian Marcus Velleius Paterculus that was recently discovered in the archives of the Vatican, found what is presumed to be the first eyewitness account ever recorded of a miracle of Jesus Christ. The author describes a scene that he allegedly witnessed, in which a prophet and teacher that he names Iēsous de Nazarenus, resuscitated a stillborn boy and handed him back to his mother.”

    Hi Bart, I found this on the web, are you aware of this discovery and have you heard of the Roman historian Marcus Velleius Paterculus?

  10. Avatar
    godspell  October 19, 2015

    Well, this is what comes of letting mere laypeople read scripture. There’s always the danger they’ll figure out what it actually says. 😉

  11. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  October 19, 2015

    Hi,

    Before the Roman empire adopted Christianity as its religion, how did proto-orthodox christians combat what they called heresy? Was it only in theological/literary grounds?

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2015

      Yes, I think it was only in preaching, teaching, and writing (not in bashing heads)

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