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Paul’s Christology

A small bit from my now chapter 7:


I have read, pondered, researched, taught, and written about the writings of Paul for forty years, but until recently there was one key aspect of his theology that I could never quite get my mind around.   I had the hardest time understanding how, exactly, he viewed Christ.   Some aspects of Paul’s Christological teaching have been clear to me for decades – especially his teaching that it was Jesus’ death and resurrection that makes a person right with God, rather than following the dictates of the Jewish law.  But who did Paul think Christ was exactly?

One reason for my perplexity was that Paul is highly allusive in what he says.  He does not spell out, in systematic detail, what his views of Christ are.   Another reason was that in some passages Paul seems to affirm a view of Christ that – until recently – I thought could not possibly be as early as Paul’s letters, which are our first Christian writings to survive.  How could Paul embrace “higher” views of Christ than those found in later writings such as Matthew, Mark, and Luke?   Didn’t Christology develop from a “low” Christology to a “high” Christology (using these terms that I am no longer fond of) over time?  And if so, shouldn’t the views of the Synoptic Gospels be “higher” than the views of Paul?  But they’re not!  They are “lower.”  And I simply did not get it, for the longest time.

But I get it now.   It is not a question of higher or lower.   The Synoptics simply accept a different Christological view from Paul’s.  They hold to exaltation Christologies and Paul holds to an incarnation Christology.  And that, in no small measure, is because Paul understood Christ to be an angel who became a human.


I’ll explain all that more fully in the next post or two.

Paul’s View of Jesus as an Angel
Our One-Year Anniversary!



  1. Avatar
    Adam0685  April 10, 2013

    Kinda unrelated, but in general do you think the new perspective on Paul is generally accurate (or more accurate than the predominate view before it?).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 12, 2013

      If the “new perspective” means understanding Paul as a Jew instead of a Lutheran — yup, I buy that!

  2. Avatar
    stephena  April 10, 2013

    Wow, this is a novel view. Can’t wait to hear the reasoning. It’s almost blindingly obvious (as you’ve stated repeatedly before) that Paul always spoke in an Adoptionist manner, as did, I believe (and you used to believe) the earliest Christians. Before deliberate alterations, as you know, Mark and even Luke had several Adoptionist-supporting passages, and even John features more subordinationist messages than one would think, given the exalted Hymn tacked onto the beginning by later scribes. This Angel theory will be an interesting one.

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    JoeWallack  April 10, 2013

    “Paul understood Christ to be an angel who became a human”

    Huh? It sure looks like the other Way around. Per Paul live Jesus was unreMarkable (this explains why Paul never believed in live Jesus). The implication from Paul’s related silence is that live Jesus was just an ordinary man before he received The Spirit. “Mark” as usual follows Paul (and why wouldn’t he since Paul is the only known significant Christian author before “Mark”) and shows Jesus as just another ordinary guy/sinner who needs baptism for the reMission of sins). There’s your development from Paul to “Mark”.


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 11, 2013

      I don’t think Paul thinks Jesus received the Spirit; anyway — I hope you’ll be interested in my full argument in the book!

  4. Avatar
    peetypu  April 10, 2013

    Hello Mr. Erhman,

    I know this question has nothing to do with your topic but i would like very much if you could tell me whether it is true or not that the The concept of eternal torment in hell is nowhere to be found in the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 11, 2013

      The book of Revelation speaks of the Lake of Fire that burns forever; that’s where the image comes from.

  5. Avatar
    GeorgeWerkema  April 10, 2013

    Paul needed an incarnation Christology (or perhaps, a divine Christology) in order to make his three-part system work. The bait in Paul’s message was the resurrection. Do this and you will be raised up into eternal life. But to make that work, Paul needed substitutional atonement. You are sinners but salvation by the grace of God through faith that Jesus is your atonement can fix that. But to make that work, Paul needed a divine Jesus, one that could bear the punishment of death and come out of it.

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    RonaldTaska  April 10, 2013

    I have not previously thought of Paul seeing Jesus as an angel, but I have always thought that all three descriptions of Paul’s conversion given in Acts seem to involve a heavenly Jesus and then Paul seems to have very little to say about the life of the earthly Jesus relating more to the heavenly than to the earthly Jesus. I am trying to fit this with what you have taught us about Gnosticism and Docetism, Did Paul see Christ as being separate from Jesus? .

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 11, 2013

      Nope, he saw him as one thing! A divine being made incarnate and then exalted even higher, as I’ll try to show.

      • Avatar
        pdahl  April 16, 2013


        Why do you think earliest Christians, as echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians, came to view Jesus as having ‘died for our sins’? Were they simply reaching back to OT passages like Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 in an attempt to explain the Christ event, post hoc? Or do you think Jesus himself ever made this claim, either in his ministry or as formal words of institution at the Last Supper? This question goes to the very heart of Christian belief and represents one of my major doubts about orthodox theology, given that we can now marshall abundant counter-evidence that modern humans evolved by natural- and social- selection processes operating over hundreds of millennia to be *both* saints *and* sinners. Thanks for any reply.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  April 16, 2013

          No, I don’t think Jesus made any such claim. And I think the appeal to the passages of Scripture came only after the had interpreted the death as salvific (although I could be persuaded otherwise). My sense is that once they came to think Jesus had been raised, they realized God was on his side, and in that case they had to explain why he had died, and decided it must have been God’s will, and not for any wrong that he himself did…. and so it went, until quickly they thought, “it must have been not for his sins but for the sins of others.”

  7. Avatar
    toddfrederick  April 11, 2013

    Glad to see you get to Paul…for one never knowing Jesus he has strong view of who he is…through visions as I understand it. Looking forward to your thoughts.

  8. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  April 11, 2013

    Is that also the reason why Paul doesn’t seem to be interested a lot in the earthly Jesus or what he taught while being alive?

  9. Avatar
    philologue  April 11, 2013

    Wouldn’t it be nice if Paul had written a book of systematic theology to work with?? Bothers me profoundly that he spends so much time adivising churches on behavioral issues and rarely if ever bothers with theology. Isn’t that more important, especially in a faith-over-works theology??

  10. Avatar
    Alfred  April 11, 2013

    Post more! Post more!

  11. talitakum
    talitakum  April 11, 2013

    I think this issue is similar to the “Lord / Son of Man” title used for Jesus. Paul never uses the “Son of Man” title, he prefers “Lord”, while synoptic gospels make a large use of “Son of Man”. Also, “Lord” is used in others NT epistles and by church fathers, while “Son of Man” has (almost) never been used outside/after Gospels. I think this difficult to explain if we just consider the straight chronological orders of the NT writings.
    The only explanation, in my opinion, is that the Gospels go really back to some ancient traditions the pre-dates Paul – probably back to the historical Jesus himself. At the time of Paul, Son of Man title was already “superseded” by more evoluted christological titles like “Lord”.
    But the historical accuracy of the Gospels preserved the Son of Man designation 😉

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 11, 2013

      Interesting idea. All I’ll say for now is that “pre-Paul” simply means “something before the 50’s CE.” It doesn’t mean “therefore from the life of Jesus himself.”

      • talitakum
        talitakum  April 12, 2013

        Yes, agree. Although I believe that titles such as “Son of Man” (and maybe, with less probability ,”Son of David”) could actually go back to earthly Jesus, while “Lord” is a christological title that can only have been used after resurrection appearances.

        I’m really looking forward to see how you will deal in your book with christologies of “pre-Paul” period, a period of which we have no direct witnesses, a sort of “grey area” well described by the late Martin Hengel when he said that “there was more development in christology during the period from the crucifixion of Jesus to the writing of St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, than in the following seven centuries of the development of patristic dogma”.

    • Avatar
      Ron  April 12, 2013

      Most of the NT writers (Cheney and Black say “all of [them]”) were familiar with and influenced by the Book of Enoch, ch. 37-71 (http://www.ccel.org/c/charles/otpseudepig/enoch/ENOCH_2.HTM), which predates the earliest NT writings by several decades. John of Patmos gives a comparable statement (Rev. 1:7, 13; 14:14), and the designation from Ethiopic Enoch probably goes back to Dan. 7:9ff.

  12. Avatar
    Ron  April 11, 2013

    It’s really a mistake to separate the incarnation and exaltation Christologies, and to view the NT Gospels and Paul as expliciting expressing one or the other. In fact, both Christologies are expressed in varying degrees by Paul and the Synoptics. As you know, Matthew speaks of Jesus as born “by the Holy Spirit,” and he relates how the chief priests and scribes inform the magi where he was to be born according to the Hebrew prophets. The Synoptics repeatedly report Jesus as fullfilling prophecy (count the phrase “for it is written”). He relates how Jesus explains (Matt. 22:41-46) to the Pharisees who the Christ (Messiah) is – i.e., as a preexisting Being. Of course, the Pharisees dared not ask him another question because it went against their entrenched belief that he was a futuristic “son of David,” not the “son of God.” This is incarnational Christology! This view does not preclude exaltation stages or experiences that a spiritual being (we are all in this category) must accomplish while inhabiting a human body.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 12, 2013

      I don’t see any evidence to suggest that Matthew saw Jesus as a pre-existent divine being (which is what is required of an incarnation Christology).

      • Avatar
        Ron  April 12, 2013

        If you read the passage, it will eventually become clear. Jesus is quoting from Ps. 110, in which David is referring to the Christ (Messiah), of Whom cannot be the “son of David” but rather a pre-existent Being-Angel-Son of God. And, Peter viewed Jesus the exact same way as Jesus viewed himself – as both “Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:35-36). Paul viewed Jesus the same way, as you are just now coming to realize. The “Virgin Birth” is incarnation Christology in a nutshell, of which the magi and others knew well in advance.

  13. Avatar
    webattorney  February 3, 2014

    Is there any evidence anywhere, and if not, do you think Paul ever saw or talked to Jesus when Jesus was alive?

  14. Avatar
    Zboilen  January 1, 2017

    Hi Dr. Ehrman. I had a question that is a bit irrelevant to this post but has to do with the Christology in the book of Hebrews. In verse 5 the author writes,

    For to which of the angels did God ever say,

    “You are my Son;
    today I have become your Father”?

    When do you think that the author sees Jesus as becoming the Son of God? Do you think he sees Jesus as being the eternal Son of God or rather becoming the Son of God at some point in the past?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 1, 2017

      I don’t think there’s enough evidence to know fully. Later in Christianity lots of readers didn’t take “become” overly literally as referring to something that happened in the past.

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