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Response to the Response: How God Became Jesus

My publisher, HarperOne, asked me to write a 1000-word response to the book that was written in response to How Jesus Became God.  As you probably know, the book is called, somewhat expectedly, How God Became Jesus.  I have toyed with the idea of giving a chapter-by-chapter response here on the blog.   I’ve grown a bit cold to the idea, though, since I’m not sure every chapter of their book really needs a response.  I may respond to a couple of the chapters.  In the meantime, here’s one response you can read that is, interestingly, written by Daniel Kirk, a professor of NT at the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, about one of the better chapters in their book: http://www.jrdkirk.com/2014/04/24/god-became-jesus-part-1-review-evangelical-response-ehrman/

What I give below is the overall response to the book that I wrote for my publisher.  We had thought about publishing it somewhere, but I’ve decided to give it here instead.


It is always exciting to publish a book that is considered controversial; it is more exciting when it is thought to be controversial before anyone has read it. But the height of authorial excitement (and intrigue) comes when someone decides to produce  a lengthy response to a book without even knowing what is in it.

I can understand why there was a flurry of oppositional activity afoot before How Jesus Became God saw the light of published day.   This is a book that deals with an inordinately important issue – important not only for Christian believers but for all of us who are interested in the history of our form of civilization.   If Jesus had never been considered to be God, we never would have had Christianity.   That in itself is enormous.  But consider the other consequences.

If Jesus had remained, in the eyes of his disciples, simply a Jewish preacher who ended up on the wrong side of the law and was crucified for his efforts, his followers would have continued on as a sect within Judaism.   There would not have been large scale Gentile conversions to this form of Judaism, any more than there were to other forms of Judaism.  If large numbers of Gentiles had not converted to faith in the God-man Jesus, the religion of Jesus would never have grown to be a very sizeable minority within the Roman empire by the beginning of the fourth century – when Christians numbered something like three million persons.   If they had not been this significant presence in the Empire, the emperor Constantine would almost certainly not have converted.  If the emperor Constantine had not converted, there would not have been the monumental conversions of the fourth century.   Without these conversions, Christianity could not have become the state religion of Rome.   And as a result, it would never have become the dominant religious, social, cultural, political, and economic force of the West.  We would not have had the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, or Modernity as we know it.

A lot rides on the question of How Jesus Became God.

Evangelical Christian scholars who knew that my book was coming were reasonably certain that they would not like what I had to say, whatever that might be.   And so, sight unseen, they agreed to write a response book.  I then provided them with copies of my manuscript and they set out to uncover its flaws.

I imagine that to some extent they were disappointed that I didn’t come up with some outlandish claim that, for example, Jesus was not considered God until the Council of Nicea in 325 CE.   Instead, I attempt to provide a clear, coherent, and historically cautious story, step by step, of how the divinity of Jesus developed in early Christianity.   Of course fundamentalists and hard-core evangelicals will not be comfortable with this kind of historical approach.  Among other things, I insist that Jesus did not declare himself to be God or even think that he was God.  Just the contrary.  Belief in the divinity of Jesus arose only after his death, because some of his disciples came to believe he had been raised from the dead.

But according to standard Christian belief, Jesus knew he was God and said he was God.   That belief may be commonsensical to anyone who holds certain theological views affirming the infallibility, or even the complete inerrancy of the Bible, but it does not fare well in light of our historical evidence, as I explain in my book.

Still, the scholars who have produced How God Became Jesus are not fundamentalists, even if they are conservative Christian scholars who toe the theological line.   Yet even they would agree that during his lifetime Jesus did not go around declaring that he was the second member of the Trinity.  On the other hand, by the fourth century, virtually all Christians of record believed he was the second member of the Trinity.  So how does one get from Point A (Jesus’life and teachings) to Point B (the Trinitarian theology of the later church)?  There needs to be a narrative of how it happens, and my conservative evangelical detractors need a narrative as much as anyone else.

What surprises me most about their response to my book is that they never provide a coherent narrative – or indeed, any narrative at all.   Their objective is much simpler:  to poke holes, if possible, in this or that detail of my exposition.   I am heartily in favor of a rigorous and reasoned scholarly contretemps about each and every key issue:  public debate has long been my modus operandi.  But what is the alternative to my narrative?  The title of their response book is hopeful, suggesting that Jesus did not become God but that God became Jesus.  But where is the historical – or even theological – argument that this is what happened?  Possibly it exists somewhere, but not within the confines of their book.   It may be that these five authors didn’t have time to put forward a coherent counter-proposal – they were under quite a rush to have the response appear!   Possibly they don’t agree among themselves about how it all happened.

But I suspect there is a deeper reason as to why they provide no alternative vision.   On one hand, they want to attack my views on historical grounds.   But on the other hand, their own view – that Jesus actually was God in the flesh – is not based on historical evidence but on religious beliefs and theological assumptions.  It cannot be established by historical methods of inquiry.  And so they have resorted to something other than proposing a historical reconstruction.  They have decided to deconstruct rather than construct.  I think in the long run that’s a pity, because if they had provided a sustained statement about what they really think, readers would have a very easy time indeed recognizing which of the two books is a historical treatment of what happened in the rise of early Christianity and which is simply a restatement of traditional Christian dogma.

An Interview about My Agnosticism
Video: Bart Ehrman vs. James White Debate



  1. Avatar
    Hank_Z  May 2, 2014

    Wow…your response zeroed in on the huge weakness in their book. That’s far better than trying to argue point-by-point and chapter-by-chapter with them. Well done, Bart!

  2. Avatar
    Hank_Z  May 2, 2014

    Five scholars contract to write a rebuttal book…before they even know what they’re going to rebut! Not an intelligent decision, in my opinion. Not surpisingly, it seems to be the crux of the problem.

  3. Avatar
    toejam  May 3, 2014

    Excellent response. I have no desire to read their book. If it was done by those from varying theological assumptions, that would be interesting. But the whole project smells of blatant apologetics.

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    GokuEn  May 3, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman, in your latests book you have embraced the theory that “high” (i.e.: incarnation) christology is very ancient dating even before Paul. Does that change your views on dating of the Gospel of John at all? One of the common arguments for the late dating of this Gospel is precisely its “advanced” theology which includes a incarnation christology. But if such christology is as old as your book argues, shouldn’t we open the possibility that the Gospel of John might of been composed earlier than we think?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 5, 2014

      I think there are lots of other reasons still to think John is much later than the other Gospels — but it’s a long story!

      • Avatar
        GokuEn  May 6, 2014

        Could you direct me to a place where I could learn some of the reasons?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 6, 2014

          Sorry — reasons for what?

          • Avatar
            GokuEn  May 7, 2014

            Sorry, I meant the whole argument to date the Gospel of John the way scholars usually do without appealing to its incarnation Christology.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  May 7, 2014

            Yes, there are other reasons for dating it late. Among other things, the controversies with “the Jews” looks highly developed. But I should stress that the *kind* of incarnation Christology in John is very different from what you find in Paul.

  5. Avatar
    prince  May 3, 2014

    M.Bird said in HGBJ on page 15:

    “Hurtado addresses instead the worship patterns in the early church and what they tell us about the divine status of Jesus. His conclusion is that esrly Christian worship shows a clear veneration of Jesus AS THE GOD OF ISRAEL IN HUMAN FORM.”

    Hurtado does not adhere to this notion of God of Israel incarnate in Jesus! Nonsense!..

  6. Avatar
    godspell  May 3, 2014

    I’m almost done with the book now, and I’ve been impressed with how you’ve gone out of your way to make room for faith in it–there’s none of this “How can you believe such rubbish?” that you get from the likes of Dawkins and the late Mr. Hitchens. Nobody is being insulted here. You might as well say modern archaeology insults Native Americans by saying their ancestors came here across a land bridge, something none of their religions would agree with. I don’t see any Christians being insulted on their behalf. Do unto others…..?

    I don’t agree with every single point you make–my vision of Jesus is a bit different from yours. For example, I question whether he told people he was the Messiah. I think there’s plenty of room for doubt there. Your arguments in this area are strong, but not unassailable. The eagerness for the Messiah to arrive was so great in this period that a figure as charismatic as Jesus would inevitably invite speculation as to whether he was ‘The One.’ The 12 thrones comment is just in Matthew, and we may not have it in its original form, or properly understand its meaning. I do not dismiss the argument out of hand, but I question it.

    Also, as a New Yorker, I well remember Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, an influential leader of the Hasidim in our city. Many of his followers were convinced he was the Jewish Messiah. As far as can be determined, he never at any time said he was, he many times tried to discourage the idea (though I half-suspect he enjoyed the rumors, all the same), and was criticized by other Jewish religious leaders because they felt he must have somehow encouraged this belief. But he’s been gone a while now, and nobody has come forward to say he ever made the slightest intimation he was the promised one, even in private. To me, this is modern evidence that a Messiah cult can easily be created around a living man who is not actually trying to convince people he is the Messiah. His denials are simply not believed. And because he’s trying to inspire them to believe more deeply in their faith (and in his interpretation of that faith), his denials will, by their nature, not be that believable–since of course he does believe the Messiah is coming, and only God could know who it’s going to be. Jesus reportedly said no man born of woman was greater than John the Baptist, and we can be reasonably sure he did say that. The Messiah would, by his nature, be greater than John (unless John was Messiah, as many believed). Jesus was born of a woman. I take that as an indirect denial.

    I myself am no longer a believer in the true sense–raised Catholic, and have felt a continuing identification with that faith, even while forced to reject the supernatural elements of it. And not believing in the words of the Apostle’s Creed, I don’t feel right about going to Mass and pronouncing them. I also disagree with the Church on many social issues, but that’s true of many devout Catholics. For me, the problem is that while Jesus the man is more important to me than Jesus the god ever was, you don’t worship a man. You can learn from him.

    I read about people like Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, and Dorothy Day–and Pope Francis (whom even some atheists seem to like!), and I feel proud of them. And other religious people, like Dr. King and Gandhi, of course. It’s clear that to be a person of true faith is something special and powerful (and rare), and how much we owe to the genuine luminaries across history. But I can’t pretend to believe what I don’t believe. It’s been clear to me for a while that Jesus wasn’t God, and didn’t think that he was. So reading your book has helped clarify some important points that I didn’t understand, even after having read a number of other books on the early history of Christianity, including two of yours.

    I don’t want us to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There has to be a way for us to retain the valuable things Christianity across the ages has contributed–and all the other belief systems our ancestors created to light their way through dark times. There are many dark times ahead of us, we can have no doubt. We’re going to need people of faith to survive them. But for our past to be a understanding, not confusion and division, we have to know what really happened, as much as possible. So thank you for helping in this.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 3, 2014

    I hope you will provide responses to their specific arguments…because I’m curious as to what they said, but would never consider reading their book!

    One thing I’ve thought of… I imagine you’ve been criticized for saying the living Jesus “didn’t think he was divine.” I can understand your reasoning (based on the Synoptics, not accepting John as reliable): if he was willing to tell his disciples he was the Messiah, he would also have told them if he believed he was something more than that. You’ve acknowledged that he could have been divine without, in his human lifetime, knowing it. But I’ve realized there’s another possibility: it could be argued that he didn’t tell the disciples he was something more than the Messiah because they would have been so awed – for all practical purposes, *crippled* by awe of him.

    I don’t believe that, of course, any more than you do. But I think it’s a possibility you should have acknowledged.

    And I still dislike this sentence: “We would not have had the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, or Modernity as we know it.” It’s unclear as to what you’re implying, even if you’re no longer following it up with “We might all still be pagans.” That we’d never have developed the printing press? Never progressed beyond the technology of ancient Rome?

    History would undoubtedly have been unimaginably *different*…and I think that’s all you should have said.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 5, 2014

      My view is that one could think of lots and lots of reasons why Jesus didn’t tell his disciples he was God even though he thought he was; but you’re still left with the question of what evidence there is that he thought he was….

      Yes, I know you don’t like my sentence! I’m NOT arguing that history would not have happened, or that things would have been worse. They may have been MUCH MUCH BETTER! Maybe they would have developed technologies that allowed them to discover electricity in 537 CE! But whether better or worse, they would have been almost inconceivably DIFFERENT. That’s my only point.

  8. Avatar
    Matt7  May 3, 2014

    I’m glad we have Freedom of Speech and the separation of Church and State. I’m sure Dr. Ehrman’s detractors would prefer to be able to just make him recant rather than having to go through the trouble of coming up with a narrative of their own. But at least they still have demagogy.

  9. Robertus
    Robertus  May 3, 2014

    Is their response worth reading? Do they poke any big holes in your theory? Do they acknowledge any surprise that you’re now a belated member in good standing of the Early High Christology Club?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 5, 2014

      No, no surprise. And no real surprises. I you want to see what some of the best evangelical scholars would say in response, it’s worth reading. But I personally found it on the whole disappointing….

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 3, 2014

    Your reply is a very courteous and restrained response to having been called a “sloppy” historian among other things. With regard to your critics: By their fruit, you shall know them.

    Obviously, what scares and offends people is the idea that humans may have made up the idea that Jesus was/is God regardless of whether this was done quickly or progressively or in different ways and rates by different groups.

    I read Kirk’s 4-part series on your book as well as his article on the Bird and his colleagues book. Kirk makes good points, but his series is a little too complicated for me to grasp completely and gets a little tedious to read. I think that has been one of the problems with many of the responses to your book. The responses get way too complicated. Sometimes, things are complicated. Other times, complicated writing means that people just don’t have a clear view of what they are saying.

  11. Avatar
    prairieian  May 3, 2014

    We have here a dialogue of the deaf…which I assume was, and is, half expected. Bart has been quite clear as to the historical approach that he takes to subject of Christianity in general and remains silent on the matter of faith because there is no debate with faith.

    Nevertheless, a historian of any period or subject is well aware how difficult it is to arrive at the truth. The recent past, despite the vastly greater degree of documentation, still eludes a definitive definition of exactly what happened, let alone answering the questions of “why”, “to what effect” and “does it matter’. Antiquity is extraordinarily difficult given the paucity of resources, and the significant gap in mentalities between ourselves and then. Having modern readers and historians really grasp how different mentalities were not that long ago is a struggle, let alone the very alien cultures of two millennia ago. (Think on the evergreen controversies over the commencement and conduct of the First World War.) Obviously, one must try, notwithstanding these very real difficulties. Bart has so done.

    Those who wish to debate the issues raised by Bart need to do so in the same arena. If they already have the answer from the perspective of faith there is no debate. Hence the dialogue of the deaf comment above. I am astonished that the rebuttal book was written so hurriedly and before the publication of Bart’s book. That is not the sound approach to an academic argument. I guess that might work as a polemic, but then polemic is not the relevant or appropriate arena of combat. I take it we must await a more reasoned critique.

  12. Avatar
    willow  May 4, 2014

    I may respond to a couple of the chapters.

    Please do; and thank you.

  13. Avatar
    greenbuttonuplift  May 4, 2014

    Great piece Bart. In your view, who has attempted set out a historical narrative of ‘how god became jesus’ and how well did they do? What might constitute a worthy line of argument?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 5, 2014

      I don’t think it can be done historically. But theologians can do it, of course! And many of *them* would argue that God became Jesus by means of the incarnation.

  14. Avatar
    richard gills  May 4, 2014

    Dr Ehrman

    are there many pagan greek words which have been redefined by christianity?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 5, 2014

      Great question. I suppose “baptism” and “anointed one” would be two prime candidates. (the words aren’t “pagan,” but they commonly get used in pagan contexts.)

  15. Avatar
    Rosekeister  May 4, 2014

    That’s a pretty devastating review of the first few chapters by Daniel Kirk. I hadn’t planned on reading the response but am interested if you think they made any good points that you feel are fair historical arguments rather than theological reinforcements to induce readers to stay far far away from anything you write?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 5, 2014

      Most of the arguments are attacks on my historical views by assuming counter-historical-views (not all).

  16. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 4, 2014

    I followed the link above and read Kirk’s critique of that chapter of “How God Became Jesus.” Wow! The author of the chapter (I read the review last night, and I’ve forgotten his name) was so snide and mocking – disgusting! As Kirk said, the guy was trying to make fun of you, but wound up making *himself* look like an ignorant fool. I can see why you might not feel a need to provide a chapter-by-chapter “refutation” of this crap.

    I was impressed that Kirk, despite being an evangelical (a term I admit I don’t fully understand), gave *your* book such a good review. I found it interesting that one of his main disagreements with you dealt with the “empty tomb” story.

    Personally, I can’t accept the idea that the Sanhedrin as a whole might have decided to give Jesus a decent burial. Kirk did say it might have been only one member. But either way, it involves the very people who’d wanted Jesus executed – or one of them – later “relenting” to some degree. I think it makes more sense that if a member of the Sanhedrin provided the initial burial – meant to be temporary – he’d been a secret sympathizer with Jesus’s ideas all along.

  17. Avatar
    nichael  May 4, 2014

    Dr Ehrman

    It may be too soon after the publication of HJBG for a good answer to this question, but are you aware of –or can you suggest to the reader– a response which, while “disagreeing” with the argument(s) in HJBG, might be considered more suitable (perhaps “substantial” is a better word here) on scholarly ground.

    (I guess, in part, what I’m asking is that I –as one outside the field– would be interested in seeing what such a response would look like.)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 5, 2014

      I’m sure there are lots of responses on teh Internet, but I haven’t looked at them. There is nothing else in print that I’m aware of yet.

  18. Avatar
    nichael  May 4, 2014

    I’d like to thank you for posting the link above to the article by Daniel Kirk. Aside from the content of the article itself there was one sentence that caught me eye.

    After listening to your earlier debate with James White, a debate which was purportedly a scholarly discussion of a historical topic, I think it’s safe to say that Dr White showed his hand when he characterized such techniques as (quote) “…weapons used against the faith”.

    Compare this to the following statement in Dr Kirk’s summary:
    “In short, my assessment is that an evangelicalism that has Ehrman as its chief foe is in better shape than an evangelicalism that has Bird as its great champion.”

    The fact is that for some of us it’s useful to be reminded occasionally that there are evangelical scholars who do have things to say that should be listened to. Thank you Dr Kirk.

  19. Avatar
    Mikail78  May 5, 2014

    A few things. I’m reading this book (How God became Jesus) right now. It’s hard not to get frustrated. Michael Bird made a complete idiot out of himself. Is he trying to come across as a serious scholar by using childish insults? Also, the chapters are really nit picky and presuppose that everything in the Bible is 100% historically accurate, which is obviously a problematic idea. Probably the best chapter in this book, and the only one so far that actually attempts to deal with history is the chapter by Craig Evans on whether Jesus was buried in a tomb. Even if Jesus was really buried in a tomb, we don’t know where this tomb is, do we? We can’t go to it today and see if it’s really empty. Even when I was a fundy believer, I never understood the apologetic argument that said “We know jesus rose from the dead because of the empty tomb.” This is a ridiculous argument! The empty tomb is part of the story! What evidence do we have today for this empty tomb? This is just an assertion without facts. A wiser man than me said this argument is similar to saying that “the land of oz must exist because where would the yellow brick road lead to?”

  20. Avatar
    Mikail78  May 5, 2014

    I’ll give Michael Bird credit for something. What he says about Rahm Emanuel is true. In all of Chicago’s history, he might be that city’s worst mayor ever. It makes me all the more glad that I moved far, far away from there.

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