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What the Resurrection of Jesus MEANT

 

In my previous post I indicated that I was a bit disappointed at my public debate with Michael Bird at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary that he did not propose an alternative solution to “How Jesus Became God,” some other sense of how it happened different from the one I proposed.  If he disagrees with my scenario, what scenario does he himself imagine?  I’m not sure.

Part of the problem is that he himself said during the debate that Jesus did not go around during his public ministry saying something like “Hello – I’m God, the Second Member of the Trinity.”  That’s exactly right, he certainly didn’t.  But later Christians were saying that about him. So how do we get from point A to point B?

I don’t see any viable alternative to the one I mapped out (I’ll point out in a second where Michael does disagree with it, even if he doesn’t propose an option).   It is clear as day from Mark’s Gospel that…

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Christ as the Adopted Son of God
A Less Weighty, Personal Matter

58

Comments

  1. ffg  February 24, 2016

    Dr Ehrman, I thought your arguments in the debate were crystal clear. As a lay person I could not figure out what Michael Bird was arguing for. I understood he was against adoptionism which I found difficult to understand. Even an unschooled reading of the relevant texts suggests that Paul believed Jesus was declared or exalted God’s son at the resurrection. What strikes me as odd is that your arguments may actually be helpful for the survival of Christianity (albeit in a different form ), if evangelicals were not so committed to biblical inerrancy. What I further find confusing and perhaps you can help – Michael Bird seems to concede in the debate that John’s gospel is not to be taken literally but is somewhat of a mystical portrait of Jesus. If that is true of John’s gospel, then it begs the question as to how he can then accept the other gospels as literally true ?

  2. Adam0685  February 24, 2016

    Very thought-provoking post!

    When we say they thought he was *made* a divine being, did they think, for a lack of a better word, that his *nature* changed (he was no longer human after his resurrection), or that his *status* changed–that had been given a status equal with the divine?

    On another note, it seems like John has a different view than Paul regarding Jesus’ body (Jesus points to the scars on his body in John, suggesting it was thought by John to be the same body).

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2016

      My sense is that the earliest followers of Jesus did not have any philosophical knowledge or wherewithall, and probably wouldn’t even think in terms of “nature” or “essence.” They just thought God had made Jesus divine. If pressed, they might have had trouble differentiating nature and status. Just my guess.

  3. godspell  February 24, 2016

    Mark, isn’t it possible that Jesus did not think he was the Messiah–or wasn’t sure he was–but his disciples believed he might be, were hoping that he was?

    I’ve mentioned this before, but Peter is angry when Jesus says he’s going to be killed. Why? Upset, certainly. But Peter seems infuriated his master would say such a thing. Obviously any man can be killed, life being extremely cheap in the world they both inhabit, and they both are aware of the recent execution of John the Baptizer, Jesus’ former master.

    Peter thinks Jesus is the Messiah–in fact, he’s the one who in another story is the first to say so, and Jesus says that for this he shall be the rock of Jesus’ church, but would Jesus have said that? He’s not trying to form a new religion, we know that now. So that’s an invention, added to justify Peter’s later position. Peter’s belief that Jesus is Messiah might not have been invented, though. He might have been a particularly strong advocate for this view, without Jesus directly supporting it. Jesus would have had to deal with internal politics in his small group, just like any cult leader. It’s actually one of the more interesting sub-strains of the gospel story, the conflicts between the disciples, each with their own idea of who the man they’re following really is. (Judas’ ideas must have been very interesting).

    So Peter is right to protest this claim of Jesus that he will be killed soon–how can he be? He’s the Messiah! And Jesus’ response to this perfectly reasonable protest (reasonable in context) is that Peter is Satan. He’s making a connection between Peter’s statement and his own story about how he was tempted in the desert by Satan (perhaps in a vision). He would like to believe both of them, but he knows it’s wrong. His destiny is to die. God has called him to this, and he can’t weaken. He’s angry at Peter for trying to make him question this. Whether he’s the Messiah or not–and I think he doesn’t really know what to believe about this–he knows he’s being called to sacrifice himself. As his master John did before him, but this sacrifice will mean more. Will achieve more. Or so he wants to believe.

    I’m not saying this is a proven fact, but is it an impossible scenario, based on what we know?

    • godspell  February 25, 2016

      And just to make the above fully on-topic, as I should have done to start with, could this be why some of Jesus’ followers began to see visions of him after the crucifixion? Because they were so sure he was the Messiah, that they could not accept he was dead? Since they did not believe the Messiah could die, they unconsciously decided Jesus had conquered death itself. And having made this unconscious choice, they then used the visions to make the conscious choice to redefine what being Messiah really meant.

      • Bart
        Bart  February 25, 2016

        Yes, it’s hard to psychoanalyze them — but this could be part of it!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2016

      I’m not quite sure what you’re asking, but Peter appears to object to the idea of Jesus being killed because the messiah was supposed to be the victorious warrior who destroyed his enemies, not someone who would be tortured to death by his enemies.

      • godspell  February 25, 2016

        I seem to recall you saying that not all visions of the Messiah said he’d be a warrior in the literal sense. But yes, Peter is objecting because Jesus is saying he’ll be killed by his enemies, and as Peter and most other Jews of the time would see it, the Messiah can’t die, at least not before he’s achieved his purpose. The story hints at a real source of conflict between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus began to adopt this more fatalistic mindset, perhaps in the wake of John’s execution, but since his followers probably had never met John, or at least had no deep connection to him, the death was not so real to them, and did not have the same significance.

        Guesswork is fun, but it’s not everything. How much of this is about these people who lived long ago, and how much is about us, and how we feel about things today?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 26, 2016

          Memory scholars ahve long known that what we recall about the past (and how we recall it) is radically dependent on what we are experiencing in the present…

  4. moose  February 24, 2016

    Mr Ehrman.

    One of the Greek words used in connection with the resurrection of Jesus is; Strong G450 ἀνίστημι – anistēmi.

    In the Septuaginta we find a variation of this greek word used in Nathan’s Messiah Prophecy; ἀναστήσω – anastēsō.

    2 Samuel 7:12 When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up(ἀναστήσω) your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom.

    Nathan’s Prophecy can therefore be interpreted as follows: “I will resurrect your offspring to succeed you”.

    The only question is – which offspring? David had, after all, seventeen sons.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2016

      The word literally simply means “to raise up” (not “resurrect from the dead”)

  5. VirtualAlex  February 24, 2016

    Like most Christians he probably hasn’t thought it through logically or within the context of how people thought 2000 years ago. He didn’t give an answer because he doesn’t have one. He just BELIEVES because all the other Christians say they believe too. I actually think most of them don’t but they want to stay in the club.

  6. moose  February 24, 2016

    One more thing, Just to answer your main question.

    Mr Ehrman:”It is clear as day from Mark’s Gospel that during his public ministry, no one understood who Jesus was.”

    Well, this is precisely according to the prophecy of Isaiah!

    Isaiah 53:
    Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
    (…)
    who considered
    that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?

  7. cheito
    cheito  February 24, 2016

    DR Ehrman:

    YOUR COMMENT:

    I will deal with our disagreement on the point in my next post, where I argue that the earliest followers of Jesus believed he had been made the Son of God at his resurrection.

    MY COMMENT:

    I think the accuracy of the answer to the question about who Jesus really is, depends on which manuscripts are employed to arrive at that answer. If the documents used aren’t historically factual then the conclusion will be fickle and mere speculation at best. You can’t determine who Jesus really claimed to be relying on contradictory and fictitious written records. To ascertain the true nature of who Jesus was and claimed to be we must have historically correct accounts from eye-witnesses of Jesus very words. Do we have such records? I believe we do? Is so-called “Mark” one of these records? I don’t believe so!

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 8, 2016

      I disagree that it depends on which manuscripts we choose to go by. It’s not a matter of which but a matter whether any of them can really tell who Jesus was. The simple facts that who he was changes so much warns us that the task of finding out might be impossible. Of course, Luke Timothy Johnson argues that the real Jesus and knowing the real Jesus is not dependent on scripture at all.

    • VirtualAlex  March 12, 2016

      I don’t think it’s a matter of WHO JESUS REALLY WAS. Obviously he was a flesh-and-blood man like every other human who ever existed. It’s about WHOM PEOPLE BELIEVED HE WAS, as prof Ehrman states. That is ALL the writings can tell us.

  8. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  February 24, 2016

    I’ve read a few posts that Bird made about Mark’s Christology on the patheos website. He describes what he believes to be in the text but doesn’t explain WHY he thinks as he does. He also uses terms like “kyricentricity” to describe Jesus. I cracked up at Dustin Martyr’s reaction to using the term: “Despite my attempts to really get at what Bird is saying this word (which Darth Vader would describe as a ‘technological terror you’ve constructed’) I cannot seem to lock down what is intended.”
    Perhaps I’m overly critical, but I don’t understand why he engaged in a debate without having any substance to his answers.

  9. Jana  February 24, 2016

    Do you consider the Gospel of Thomas as authentic (and I use this word loosely given what I’ve read and I ask tentatively because I am way behind on my reading here) … maybe better is ‘on equal footing’ as the four Gospels? If so, Jesus refers to himself as Divine in verse 30 Jesus said, “Where there are three deities, they are divine. Where there are two or one, I am with that one. “Would that not indicate that he considered himself not only Divine but part of a “God Head?”

    I have to keep reminding myself about early Christian followers including the disciples … they were largely illiterate and prone to literal interpretation of what quite possibly be considered in other traditions mystical events. There seems to be a continual need to “connect the dots” and doing so in a simplistic fashion.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2016

      I think we need to treat Thomas just like we treat all the early Gospels — it may contain authentic sayings of Jesus, but each one needs to be tested by our criteria. V. 30 doesn’t seem to pass the criteria very well….

      • Jana  February 25, 2016

        Have you treated Thomas? (I might have missed it)

        • Bart
          Bart  February 26, 2016

          Yup; I have a chapter on it in Lost Christianities. Now I would want to rewrite the chapter in some rather important ways (I no longer think of Thomas as a Gnostic Gospel, for technical reasons) (though my basic interpretation of its meaning is pretty similar to what it was)

          • Wilusa  February 26, 2016

            You no longer think of Thomas as a Gnostic Gospel? I hope you’ll devote a post to explaining that!

          • gabilaranjeira  February 27, 2016

            Oh… It would be interesting to know what you think now.

          • Bart
            Bart  February 29, 2016

            So my view now is that if a document doesn’t spell out in some detail (or at least refer to) the Gnostic cosmogony, then it’s hard to know whether it should be considered gnostic or not.

      • Emmdee41  February 25, 2016

        How can one achieve salvation according to the Gospel of thomas?

  10. dragonfly  February 24, 2016

    Is it possible Michael thinks your book is about how Jesus *actually* became God, rather than how people came to believe he was God?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2016

      I think at the end of the day he understands what I’m arguing.

  11. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  February 24, 2016

    You’ve written that the Gospel of John is believed to be stitched together from different sources and that the seams of this are visible in certain verses. Are scholars able to say “this section is older than that one”? I’m wondering in particular about the “I am” statement Jesus makes in John and how it alludes to God telling Moses “I am”. Biblical literalists immediately go to John (completely ignoring the synoptics) for their “proof” that Jesus and God were one. I was wondering if there is any way to date the “I am” statement to definitively later than Mark.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2016

      Yes, that is part of what scholars argue. The Prologue (1:1-18), the I am sayings, etc. appear to be later than, say, the call of the disciples in 1:35-52, where there is not a hint of Jesus being divine.

  12. Emmdee41  February 24, 2016

    Hello,
    If Bird agrees with you that Jesus did not go around calling himself God, then the debate should be over at that point. Because if later people claim that he was God(or became God), they are effectively saying they know Jesus better than himself.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2016

      I think the deal is that we weren’t debating whether Jesus was God, or whether he could be God if he didn’t say he was God. We were debating how people came to *think* he was God (whether he was God or not).

      • Emmdee41  February 25, 2016

        Yeah…Right.Although the two are related in some ways.

  13. Stephen  February 24, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    Given that the question driving Mark is how Jesus can be the messiah doesn’t it follow that Mark’s intended audience were Jewish converts? Since pagan gentiles would have had no Messianic expectations would they have needed to be convinced that they needed to modify those expectations?

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2016

      I don’t think Mark’s audience could be Jewish — or that Mark could be Jewish — because of the (mis)information he provides in Mark 7, where he informs his readers that all the Jews wash their hands before eating. If they were Jews, he wouldn’t have to tell them this. If he were a Jew he would know that it’s actually not true.

      • Stephen  February 25, 2016

        Yes, I do see the problem. But unless I’m misunderstanding you, you’re saying that Mark presupposes at least some familiarity with pre-Easter Jewish Messianic expectations on the part of his audience. If so what pagan gentile community would combine that familiarity with an ignorance of Jewish cultural practices?

        thanks

        • Bart
          Bart  February 26, 2016

          The audience would have been made up of *Christians* — as such, they would have been people who would have been told about the Jewish Jesus and how he was the messiah and savior.

      • gabilaranjeira  February 27, 2016

        If he was writing to gentiles, could it be that the narrative about Christ’s passion was something like the “test and quest” stories typical os classic mythology heroes? Thanks!

  14. talmoore
    talmoore  February 24, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,
    When it comes to the post-crucifixion narrative I try to put myself in the position of the disciples, similar to how a detective might try to put herself into the position of the murderer. I start off with the assumption that the disciples believed three key things right up to the point of Jesus being arrested and executed.

    1) The Kingdom of God was coming anyday now. It could be tomorrow; it could be next week; it could even be next month, but it is, for sure, this year. Jesus’ role in this case was as a prophet who assured the disciples of this “fact”, so as long as Jesus was with them the disciples knew they had a hotline to God.
    2) When the Kingdom arrived God would separate the righteous from the unrighteous. The righteous would be allowed to remain and abide in the new paradise on earth, while the unrighteous would be struck down in the terrible war between God and Satan’s forces, and the bodies of the unrighteous would be thrown onto the fire to burn to ash, to never rise again. Jesus’ role in this case was to be something like an advocate for his disciples. That is, since Jesus was such a holy man, with a hotline to God, Jesus could and would vouche for and defend his followers on Judgment Day, as an attorney would his client, and God would then favor the disciples being judged “righteous” enough to enter the Kingdom.
    3) All the righteous — צדיקים — dead (i.e. the Jewish saints) would then be raised from the dead, to live eternally in God’s Kingdom. Jesus clearly wouldn’t have a role here, because he would still be alive when the Kingdom arrived? Right?

    So, now let’s consider how these three factors would need to change post-crucifixion for the disciples to continue in their faith.
    1) The arrival of the Kingdom of God would now need to be postponed indefinitely, contingent on any number of events that the disciples are now left on their own to figure out — because Jesus was no longer there to offer his authoritative voice. Solution? Jesus would still be able to talk to them and prophesy to them in (holy) spirit form, reassuring them of the coming Kingdom and giving them advice on matters as the movement readjusted.
    2) Jesus would still be there to vouche for and defend his followers, because upon the Day of Judgment, Jesus will be there, now in his immortal spirit form, to vouche for and defend his people before God. That’s why the very early church kept stressing loyalty to Jesus, because it was Jesus, in spirit form, who was going to return to defend and vouche for all those who stayed loyal to him.
    3) Well, clearly Jesus was no longer going to still be alive when the Kingdom comes, but since all the righteous were going to be resurrected, and Jesus was obviously a righteous man, then Jesus was also going to be resurrected. But since Jesus also had to be the advocate for all his loyal followers it would make sense that Jesus would need to be resurrected before Judgment Day. And since Jesus had to be one of the resurrected that means his body must have been properly buried in a stone tomb like a proper righteous Jew. And (in the disciples minds) that would mean Jesus couldn’t have been thrown into a mass grave or burned outside the city with the garbage. And since the disciples (believed they) saw Jesus coming to them in dreams and visions (#1), that must mean he had already been resurrected in (holy) spirit form and was advising them from the heavenly abode already.

    Once you put all those pieces together, it not only makes the gospels’ post-crucifixion narrative understandable, it almost makes it inexorable.

  15. Omar6741  February 24, 2016

    Professor Ehrman,
    Did the followers of Jesus believe in a general bodily resurrection of the dead at the end of time,to be followed by immortal reward in Heaven or immortal punishment in Hell?
    If so, they might well have believed only that Jesus was specially favoured, so that he had been given his resurrection and reward early; in other words, they might well have thought he had been gifted with the special transformation that all of them would later undergo (unless they ended up damned, of course :-)). This would make him special, but he would have a long way to go before becoming a “god” for them.
    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2016

      Yes, they probably did. That’s why they called Jesus the “first-fruits of the resurrection.” One conclusion they drew is that since he was the first, everyone else will soon follow. But apart from the question of when the end will come, is the issue of what they came to think about Jesus as the one first raised. What I’m arguing in the debate is that before they believed he was raised they did not think he was divine, and after he was raised they did. So the resurrection is the key to Christology.

      • Omar6741  February 25, 2016

        Right, thanks.
        The problem I am still facing is this: if Jesus was “the first-fruits of the resurrection”, then his being raised from the dead was just a version — clearly a more distinguished version — of what was meant to happen to all people at some point.
        But if that is right, then Jesus’ resurrection can’t be what motivated others to think of him as a divine being, since they would be going through the same process at some point, (and some even said many saints went through the very same process soon after Jesus was raised.)
        Why wouldn’t the disciples just think of his resurrection as God’s vindication of Jesus in the face of the ultimate humiliation he experienced on the cross? This is the view of his resurrection I found in the Pseudo-Clementines, and it doesn’t require that Jesus get all of God’s power and glory.
        In a nutshell: a belief in Jesus’ resurrection just doesn’t seem to be nearly enough to account for the belief that God had given Jesus all his power and glory — something else had to be going on if that is what the disciples really believed after his resurrection.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 26, 2016

          Actually, there were Christians who thought at the resurrection people would be made into “angels” — that is, divine beings who would never die.

  16. RonaldTaska  February 25, 2016

    My guess from reading Dr. Bird’s book and hearing his argument at the debate on youtube: The author of Mark and the disciples thought that Jesus was God incarnate because Jesus did things only God can do, namely forgive sins, and also “demons” recognized Him. NO, I DON’T THINK THIS ARGUMENT IS CONVINCING! What in the world are “demons”? Your appropriate response would be: If someone were God, wouldn’t it be very important to make this extraordinary event crystal clear in the Gospel of Mark?

    Look, one of your cardinal features is that when you develop a point, such as ancient Biblical texts are different (“Misquoting Jesus”) or there are contradictions in the Gospels (“Jesus, Interrupted”) or that the earliest Christianities were different (“Lost Christianities”), or that there were other Gospels not accepted into the Bible (“Lost Scriptures”) or that six of Paul’s epistles were forged (“Forged”), you present overwhelming evidence about your point and, yet, all too often this evidence gets completely ignored as people try, using confirmation bias, to retain the views they already hold.. I find this denial of overwhelming evidence to be quite frustrating to say the least, but it is the way the world “turns.” I think Dr, Bird, despite his remarkable sense of humor and likable personality, may be doing this.

  17. nacord  February 25, 2016

    Off topic from Christology: I’m curious what the earliest Christians thought of the concept of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit seems to be thrown by the wayside until Constantinople. Was he/it mostly just left as an enigma? Did the Jewish concept prevail here? Were people too wrapped up in Christological debates for the first two centuries after Jesus to care about this other character? I know you you have a kazillion questions thrown at you, but perhaps we could get into a little Pneumatology in the near future. Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2016

      It’s hard to know because the earliest Christians don’t lay out a detailed theology of the Spirit.

      • Boltonian  February 25, 2016

        This is what I wrote on a Members’ Forum discussion concerning this subject.

        ‘To my small mind, and talking to Christians of different persuasions over the years, the three in one might be described thus: the Father is the ineffable and unimaginable creator of all things; Jesus is the personification of God, who allows us to comprehend Him and His nature to a degree; the Holy Spirit is God entering me and communicating His wishes to me and who guides me through this vale of tears.’

        This is obviously the view of SOME Christians, who think about such things, TODAY, not orthodox Christians of the time of the early church fathers.

  18. wnhelms  February 25, 2016

    Dr Ehrman, love your books.

    Question: what do the historical figures like Socrates, the Bal Shem Tov, King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes, Santa Claus, and Jesus have in common?

    Among other things, they are all admirable charactors created by later writers. They never wrote anything themselves. They either are completely fictitious charactors or have fictitious and unverifiable biography’s. If you think about it, real historical charactors who we have a lot of historical information about, are much less likely to be exalted due to the popular common sence and their reality principles.

    If nothing can be checked out (they can’t speak from the grave) than the imagination is free to create the kind of character that will best sell. If the fictional character is based on a once living person, so much more convincing. Jesus’s character was based on the Greek charactor of Socrates and Hebrew figures in the Hebrew Bible. How could’ve the NT authors have found a better mix?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2016

      For some of those figures, there is historical evidence: Baal Shem Tov and Jesus, for example. AS it turns out, I have a discussion of them in relationship to each other in my book Jesus Before the Gospels, coming out next week!

  19. Wilusa  February 25, 2016

    Haven’t read your next post yet. But it seems to me that Bird is influenced – can’t help being influenced – by his personal belief that Jesus actually was divine, all along. And maybe, that the people he encountered should have sensed it (and some of them did), even though he wasn’t making any claims.

  20. Dipsao  February 25, 2016

    It always puzzled my why Mark ended the the way it did while 16:9-20 and the other three gospels end with post-resurrection physical appearances but you explained it succinctly: he had returned to heaven. Is it fair to assume, then, that the post-resurrection physical appearances recorded elsewhere are apologetic responses to doubters and/or efforts to round out Mark’s original “deficiency”?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2016

      Maybe not to Mark itself, but certainly the appearances are meant to show that Jesus REALLY DID rise from the dead.

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