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The Earliest Christology

When I earlier said that I thought my older view of the development of Christology was problematic, in that I had been imagining a more or less straight line of development from low to high Christology, I did not mean to say (as I may have mistakenly been understood as saying) that I have now given up the idea of a line of development.  What I’ve given up on is the idea that there was basically ONE form of Christology that developed from low to high.  I now think that all Christologies ultimately go back to TWO different forms, that originated separately from each other, with one being earlier than the other, and both developing separately from each other, until they were finally fused together.

I realize I’m more or less giving away my book at this point, but I’ll just sketch out the basic idea and leave its full exposition for the print version.

Here I’ll say something about the oldest Christology, as I understand it.  This was what I earlier called a “low” Christology.  I may end up in the book describing it as a “Christology from below” or possibly an “exaltation” Christology.  Or maybe I’ll call it all three things.

The basic idea behind this Christology (by the way, Christology simply means “understanding of” or “teaching about” Christ) is that Jesus was understood to have been a human – a full flesh-and-blood man – who came to be exalted and glorified by God and so raised to the rank of the divine.   And so the Christology starts out *down here* among us mortals with a human being (so it is a “low” Christology) who then comes to be divinized (and so “exalted” – thus an exaltation Christology).

Along with lots of other scholars, I think this was indeed the earliest Christology.

I do not think that Jesus or his disciples, during his public ministry, understood him(self) to be anything other than a human being.   They (including himself) may have seen him as a great teacher (he was) or as an important prophet.  And I will argue in my book that Jesus probably did understand himself in even greater terms, that he thought that he was the one whom God would appoint as ruler of the future kingdom when it arrived in power with the coming of the cosmic judge of the earth that Jesus called the Son of Man.  To that extent, and in that way, I think that Jesus did understand himself to be the messiah – the future king of God’s kingdom.  But he did not think of himself as a political messiah, or as the coming son of man, or as God.   All of this, of course, I will have to demonstrate in my book, but I already have argued such things in my earlier work, including Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

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Exaltation Christology: Some Background
How Jesus Became God: More Questions



  1. Robertus
    Robertus  February 6, 2013

    Very nicely expressed. Who first developed this idea of a ‘Christology from below’? I’m aware of it theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg, but do not know of the roots of this terminology, if perhaps it predates Pannenberg.

  2. Avatar
    Kasey  February 7, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman,
    Could you list a couple of the main sources you used to develop the notion that the two most primitive christologies originated separately.

    Also, what do you think was the ostensible cause for these two primitive chrisologies to fuse together?

  3. gmatthews
    gmatthews  February 7, 2013

    The synoptic gospels don’t seem to go as far as you explain here with their celebration (or lack thereof) of Jesus as the “true” son of God. Only John does that. Correct? If so, what if there were a schism in the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion of Jesus. Some disciples believed those who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus and others, with crushed spirits, maybe just went away in disgust after he was crucified like a common criminal. This could explain why there was such a long period of time between his death and the first known Christian writings— assuming that the fact that non-scholarly people just didn’t write much down isn’t a good enough reason! Maybe the authors waited until the eyewitnesses who didn’t agree with them had died before their wrote their version of events. Obviously this doesn’t take into account the earlier theorized gospels of Q, M, etc. I’ve just always wondered why the gospels went to the trouble of naming 12 disciples and then after the Ascension we hear nothing more of over half of them.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 7, 2013

      No, that’s the tricky part. The Synoptics definitely see Jesus as the son of God. The question to ask them is in what *sense* he was the Son of God.

      12 apostles: the number itself appears to be what matters.

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  February 7, 2013

        Ok, I had forgotten you had previously mentioned here or in one of your books that the number of apostles was the important part. I still wonder though just how into the new religion his followers were. Some (most?) were obviously drinking the kool-aid, but surely not all of them? But, I suppose there’s no way to know that with the present written works we have.

  4. Avatar
    maxhirez  February 7, 2013

    “The disciples came to believe that he was not here – even though he had been raised from the dead – because he had been exalted up to heaven itself, where he currently was, with God.”

    This is an interesting point and the crux of the argument of course. I can only think of two places in the Gospels that hint at this-in the fake ending of Mark and in John where Jesus tells Mary it hasn’t happened yet. Both very late sources. Would this argument apply to the twelve or to successive generations of disciples, primarily?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 7, 2013

      My sense is that the earlier view is that Jesus was taken up to heaven not in an ascension but immediately upon being raised.

      • TWood
        TWood  March 1, 2017

        You probably cover this elsewhere I’m sure… but this seems to possibly explain why none of the four canonical gospels mention the post-Easter ascension… because they would necessarily not have an ascension after the resurrection if they both happened simultaneously… and only Acts needed to address the ascension issue because it dealt with the time when the church transitioned from pre-Easter to post-Easter (which begged the question where/when/how did Jesus ascend exactly?) and it seems possible that Acts is using the ascension of Elijah and subsequent power transition to Elisha to illustrate Jesus’ transition to the Church… which would also explain Acts’ unique explanation of the ascension (unique if compared only to the four gospels… including, interestingly, Luke)… this also explains Paul’s vision of Jesus being the same *kind* of vision the likes of Peter and John had (according to 1 Cor 15)… so my scattered question (sorry) is: does any/all of this match the consensus of 21st century critical scholarship?

        I think it’s one of the most interesting subjects in biblical studies… I’ll buy “How Jesus Became God” for more details… but a quick reply letting me know if I’m on the right track would be helpful. Thanks!

        • Bart
          Bart  March 1, 2017

          Yes, I think you’re on the right track.

          • TWood
            TWood  March 1, 2017

            One question that I can’t satisfactorily answer is explaining John 20:17: “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”

            Yet in other passages we see others (e.g. Thomas) touching him… what do you think is going on here? Is John saying Jesus appeared only to Mary before his exaltation?

            Whatever it is, it seems that Jesus ascended after this appearance and before the other appearances (which means the resurrection and the ascension did not take place at the same time in John’s view)… this seems to align more with Acts’ idea that Jesus rose, walked the earth, and then ascended… even though John doesn’t actually record the ascension and has Jesus walking the earth for a much shorter duration than Acts… Any insight on this passage would be much appreciated…

          • Bart
            Bart  March 3, 2017

            right! It’s always been a key question about that verse. Did Jesus go up to heaven and return by then? Or do the two passages come from two different sources that the author has not reconciled?

          • TWood
            TWood  March 3, 2017

            From your answer I’m gathering that you don’t think there’s enough evidence either way to know for sure (and I’m sure you’re correct). My guess is either John wants to honor Mary Mag. as seeing a special first appearance, or John is mixing a later source with earlier ones that don’t actually make sense (this seems most likely considering chs. 15-17, 21 are probably later additions—maybe 20:17 also got mixed in there somehow).

            1. Are there any other NT passages (apart from Acts and John 20:17) that imply Jesus wasn’t exalted at the same time he was resurrected?

            2. What’s the best resource for more info on this *specific* subject (that covers all the pertinent passages about the resurrection-ascension-exaltation complex and how most NT authors see this as a singular event)? I’d really like to learn more about this… scholarly work preferred… but trade work is fine too…

          • Bart
            Bart  March 5, 2017

            1. Not that I know of; 2. Nothing comes to mind off hand, I’m sorry to say.

          • TWood
            TWood  March 5, 2017

            Interesting that subject isn’t focused on very much (seems rather interesting to me). I dig this blog because it brings up questions like this that are fun to research… thanks.

  5. Avatar
    Mikail78  February 7, 2013

    I’m fascinated by the story of jesus leaving this physical universe by rising to heaven after his resurrection. This appears to be rooted in a pre-scientific cosmology, such as the one communicated in Genesis, where it says there is a firmament above the earth. Here’s my question, Bart. In addition to the failed apocalyptic prophecies of the New Testament, including the sayings of Jesus, I think the tale of the ascension, which is obviously communicating a false cosmology by implying that one can leave this physical universe if they fly high enough above the earth, is a HUGE giveaway and clue that the resurrection story is completely mythical and not historical, even though many people at the time and now believe it was a historical event. Hell, I’m sure the writer of Luke (you and the harper collins study bible informed me that the ascension in Luke is not in many earlier manuscripts) and Acts thought it was historical, but they were communicating myths without knowing it, because they too probably had the same false cosmology.

    Bart,is my thinking and assessment of this situation accurate? Or am I off?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 7, 2013

      Yes, it is rooted in an ancient mythology. But most of the authors of the NT do not think of Jesus as physically ascending.

      • Avatar
        Mikail78  February 7, 2013

        Bart, you said, “But most of the authors of the NT do not think of Jesus as physically ascending”

        Then in what sense did they think Jesus ascended? The tales of Jesus ascending in Luke and Acts appear to me to be a description of Jesus physically acending to heaven. Am I wrong? Am i missing something? Please clarify. Thanks.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 8, 2013

          The physical ascension is narrated only in Acts. The other authors appear to think that God took Jesus up to heaven at the resurrection.

          • Avatar
            Mikail78  February 8, 2013

            OK, thanks for the clarification.

  6. Avatar
    Jim  February 7, 2013

    Regarding the letter of Romans, this was probably Paul’s last letter (~late 50s or early 60s) and reflected his most up to date understanding. During his life he had some contact with Peter, John and Jesus’ brother James. In the AV version of this letter, Romans 1.3 reads “Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh”.

    From the Greek, does the word for “seed” clearly imply the product of (human) semen of the family line of David? I guess what I’m asking is if from the Greek reading this verse implies that Paul didn’t question that Jesus had a human father (he hadn’t heard of the virgin birth from anyone he encountered). Thus his conclusion is summarized in verse 4 as per your post. I also gather that the idea of Jesus preexistence (as God) never came up on his Damascus road experience otherwise he would have likely introduced it in his writings.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 7, 2013

    Very intriguing! But…I’m puzzled as to how the first handful of people who came to believe this managed to convince a significant number of other people.

    Those first few believers, Jesus’s disciples, were probably illiterate. There’s no reason to think any of them were gifted preachers. They must have had to lie low for a while, after what had happened to Jesus. And even *reaching* significant numbers of people would have been difficult in that era.

    “Jesus rose from the dead. But you’ll never be able to see any evidence that he did, because he’s already ascended to Heaven.” I know some (many?) of the disciples’ contemporaries accepted that, but I’m perplexed as to how it came about.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 7, 2013

      It’s the key question!

      • TWood
        TWood  March 1, 2017

        Real quick… sorry… but when the questioner says:

        “‘Jesus rose from the dead. But you’ll never be able to see any evidence that he did, because he’s already ascended to Heaven.’ I know some (many?) of the disciples’ contemporaries accepted that, but I’m perplexed as to how it came about.” Then you say “It’s the key question!”


        I agree it’s the key question, but isn’t the answer: “The reason ‘it came about’ was that multiple people (e.g. Peter, James, Paul, et al.) claimed Jesus appeared to them after his resurrection/ascension—and so their eyewitness testimony is the evidence by which they accepted their beliefs? I’m not asking if this proves the claims are true… I’m asking, based on the best historical evidence, eyewitness claims are the evidence for why/how ‘it came about’—isn’t that basically right? In other words, without these eyewitness claims, it’s hard to even explain how Christianity began in c. 30 CE.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 1, 2017

          Yes, that’s my view too. But it is still a key question!

  8. Avatar
    Christian  February 7, 2013

    From your books, I knew these fragments, but the way you intend to piece them together is quite illuminative. Please start writing your book in earnest!

  9. Avatar
    Dennis  February 7, 2013

    ” but only Jesus had actually been physically raised from the dead never to die again”. What about the story of Lazerus? I guess he had to die a second time. bummer.

  10. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 7, 2013

    Where I’m coming from: I think that showing “how Jesus became God” has to begin with showing how significant numbers of people came to believe he’d been “resurrected.” And it seems to me that even if he really had been resurrected, that should have been extremely hard to do, given the lack of evidence. (Yes, millions of people today believe in the Resurrection. But they’ve been indoctrinated, taught from childhood to believe in it.)

    It might actually be easier to convince gullible people of such a thing in today’s world. If there’d been TV in Jesus’s time. everyone in Palestine would have known his face and voice, if only from snippets during newscasts. They might, before his death, have come to “know” and trust some of his disciples. And then they would have heard them making impassioned claims.

    But ideas couldn’t be spread that way 2000 years ago. I’m thinking, is it possible that there were very few believers at the outset – but they then went off to preach in distant communities, and gave people there the impression that way more people back in Jerusalem believed the story than actually did? Thinking many other people had accepted what the disciples were saying might have induced their listeners to take it seriously.

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 7, 2013

    Interesting, as your writing usually is. Keep going. I understand the term “low Christology” better than the other two terms.

  12. Avatar
    Sharif  February 24, 2013

    I’m a little late in the game, but I just read through all of your posts from this month on Christology so far. It’s been a real delight to read, and I am looking forward to the coming posts. Just from reading this post several questions came to my mind. If the concept of Jesus being the Son of God is post-resurrection, does this mean Jesus never understood himself as the Son of God even in a very Jewish sense? In what sense was Jesus considered “divine” in the exaltation and incarnationist Christologies and how in the world did this fit into the early Christians’ worldview of Jewish monotheism? Did all early Christians come to see Jesus as having been or become divine in *some* sense (what about the Ebionites?). Why did the disciples come to believe Jesus was resurrected from the dead, as opposed for example to the Docetic view that he did not really die, or the view that he appeared to them in the form of an apparition? You said you would answer some of these questions in your upcoming posts, so I am really looking forward to it.

    Also, I think in your book you should note that there is a disagreement—even among scholars who affirm that Jesus was an apocalypticist—over whether or not Jesus understood himself to be the Son of Man. It is always useful to know whether or not something represents the consensus of scholarship, or simply the opinion of the individual scholar, while considering the evidence put forward.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 26, 2013

      These are all good questions — but too many and too involved to answer here! On two of them, yes, I think Jesus did think of himself as the Son of God in some sense, since I think he thought he was the future messiah; and no, not every Christian thought Jesus was divine — some thought he was a human, without remainder.

  13. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  April 26, 2013

    Bart, some Christians refer to Jesus forgiving sins as evidence for Jesus having been, or being, God indeed. The logic being that only God can forgive sins (Mt 9:2 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Have courage, son! Your sins are forgiven.” 3 Then some of the experts in the law said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming!”).

    But John makes it sound like forgiving sins is simply an ability that can be given, by God and via the Holy Spirit, to those that he sends: John 20:21 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.” And after he said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.”

    Aren’t therefore those Christians wrong? Forgiving sins is NOT an exclusive right or ability of God himself. It can be given to others.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 26, 2013

      Great point! I’d never thought of relating the two passages before, but it’s a very effective response (If jesus can allow other humans to forgive sins, why couldn’t God allow Jesus to do so? )

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  April 27, 2013

        Exactly. It seems like forgiving sins is an ability that can be shared with other: someone who has the authority to forgive sins can give this authority to others as well (God > Jesus > Apostles > … ).

        • John4
          John4  December 23, 2015

          Yes. From the Westminster Confession of Faith:

          Chapter 30 Of Church Censures

          The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of his church, hath therein appointed a government, in the hand of church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.

          2. To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed; by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain, and remit sins….


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