Monday, May 12, 2014

How Jesus Became God - A Review

I’ve just finished reading Bart D. Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.

This is my fourth Ehrman book.  He’s a New Testament scholar and professor of religion at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  I heard him speak some time ago here in Berkeley and was quite taken with his ability to express complex ideas in plain language.  Since then I have read the views of this one-time Sunday School teacher and preacher who chucked his fundamentalist understanding of the Christian Scriptures and went on to become a serious historian.  I like, by the way, how he managed to do the smart thing of building on what he knew when changing careers. 

The only problem with publishing so much (some twenty-five books and counting) is that he tends to repeat himself.  That’s fine, I suppose, and I’m willing to grant that as he continues to read and research and to think, he may be not so much repeating himself as casting what he has said before in a broader, or at least different, context.

The previous books of his I’ve delved into include Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why; Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them); and Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know About Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine.  The subtitles would seem to have been generated by the publisher (they are in the third person) and not the author, with an eye to selling to a broad audience.

That’s a bit dishonest.  While it’s true he has a wonderful way with words and writes about things this fundamentalism-infatuated country really ought to know, he also can be deadly dry and serious.  Such was the case in the latter half of How Jesus Became God, where, after tracing the notion of divinity among the early followers of Christ, he fills out the picture with the battles over what would come to be established doctrine.  So you learn how various power groups battled over whether Christ would be fully human, fully divine, first one then the other, or both at the same time.  What makes this of great interest to Christians and others living in a christianesque or post-christian cultural world is learning that virtually every possibility has been held at one time or another, and Christ’s divinity came about only long after the flesh and blood man of Galilee had been dead for some time, almost as if to suggest that if you knew the guy, knew his acne and bad breath, you would be far less likely to see him as a God.  These concepts are important enough to have names: incarnational Christology - the belief that Jesus started as God and took on human form; and exaltation Christology - the belief that Jesus was exalted as a human being in whom God was "well pleased" - so pleased, in fact, that in the end he became divine.

The first serious thinking I did while reading the book came with the notion of the development of the concept of divinity in the first place, and the fact that we live in a cultural space today when things are pretty much in black and white.  There is the Divine Being, and there are us human beings.   We are mortal, fallible and weak; He (capital H, male pronoun) is omnipotent, omniscient and Perfection personified.  But that’s not the only way of looking at the concept of divinity.  In fact, even today, the Roman Catholic church sees divinity as a spectrum of holiness.  We like to put Satan at one extreme and Almighty God at the other.   We put man at the center and make him a pawn in a game between Perfect Good on the one hand and Perfect Evil on the other, notions we personify and give the names of God and the Devil.

But it turns out that we have created in our imagination a number of gradations in between.  What exactly do we think saints are?  After they die, I mean, not while they perform magical or even simply lofty acts while alive.  How do we explain the “beatification” process?   Where do the angels fit in?  What’s the difference between a saint and an angel?  What are demons?  What do we do with all these creatures?  And what, exactly, does the expression Son of Man mean?   I always thought it referred to the fact that Jesus was born to humans.  That’s not exactly true.  Ehrman’s explanation is not totally satisfactory (it’s actually a precursor in the Book of Daniel of a messiah figure), but he makes you wonder how many more of your assumptions you might ought to question.   And what, exactly, is a hypostasis?   Is it something too obscure for most of us, a piece of theologian-jargon?  Or is there something to the idea that the “Wisdom” of God is different from other kinds of wisdom and from other abstract concepts?  And does that fact demonstrate that we can consider even words as having a divine nature?   Logos, for example.  I know this may not read easily here in summary form, but if you bury yourself in Ehrman’s history, I suspect you’ll find yourself as intrigued as I became.

As a historian, Ehrman places Jesus in a world where even the Emperor was considered a divinity.  The larger Greek and Roman worlds were filled with multiple gods, each with distinctive features and roles to play in messing with the fate of man.  It did not take a great leap of faith for folk to wonder, once word got out that Jesus had appeared to a number of people in the flesh, had been seen eating and drinking (and was thus still human and not merely a specter), just how “divine” this Jesus of theirs actually was.

But that then begs the question, if he was divine, did he become divine at birth?  At his baptism?  At his resurrection?  It would take centuries for the followers of this man they believed to be the messiah to work out.  And it’s interesting to note that it had to be worked out post-scripturally, by church authorities, since the Bible doesn’t give the answer to that question.  In fact, the Bible reveals only that the questions started coming early on, and were not answered by the time the books of what we call the Bible were codified.

This would not seem to bother Catholics all that much.  They have a tradition of the “magisterium” – the teachings of the church stemming from the seventy or so “church fathers” from the second century on – men like Augustine and Origen (who was eventually bounced out) and Jerome and Athanasius and John Chrystostom.  But for Protestants, for whom scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the authority on Ultimate Truth, it can be more than a little disconcerting to discover what the Bible presents is not so much “answers,” as fundamentalists like to believe, as differing points of view, which, of course, is the source of debates about what actually happened in Jesus’s lifetime and what it means and the entire field of theology in the first place.

Many will want to buy the book to find these contradictions that abound in the bible, to find proof that the literal fundamentalists don’t really know the Bible they would shove down our throats.  But Ehrman is not very helpful here.  He makes it clear that he has no intention of addressing the question of whether the resurrection actually took place.  That’s a question of belief.  As a historian, he can only observe that people believed it took place and trace the consequences of that belief.    Life goes on, believers on one side, empiricists on the other.

I had a friend who used to steal Gideon Bibles from hotel rooms, take them home and cut them up.  He covered the walls of his garage with butcher paper and he would paste biblical stories alongside analogous stories in the Koran, as a way to understand the Koran.  His saw the Koran as essentially a desire to “correct” biblical errors, and was interested in finding out which parts of the bible they selected to correct.  I was reminded of him when reading Ehrman’s suggestion that we read the Gospels “horizontally” – side by side - and not in isolation – to see what they cover and don’t cover, where they overlap and what one leaves out that you have to get from another.

These questions then lead naturally to the next question.  What about the contradictions contained in the Gospels that were left out?  What are we to do with the information contained in them?   A believer has a ready answer:  God decided which books he wanted us to read.   There is no evidence of that, of course, and a historian looking for answers only finds more questions.

We laugh at the idea of medieval scholars debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but overlook the fact we’re still debating other questions that may to folks in the future appear to be equally silly.  Why do we ask the questions we do?  Where do they come from?  What are we not asking?

To read a book such as this is to find yourself opening yourself up to an explosion of questions, and in the end, it may be this experience of mind-expansion that matters more than the particulars of any scholarly investigation.  The details of how Jesus became divine are interesting in themselves, but so is the discovery of how many long-held assumptions you have that could use some questioning.  If Ehrman were writing less of a popularizing book, he might have located his writing in the work of other biblical scholars.  He does make passing reference to one theologian, Raymond Brown, but this book was clearly written, in large part, as were his previous books, for the general public and not for other scholars.  His claims about how Jesus became God or vice versa are not original.  Ehrman’s goal was to make these claims readable to modern audiences.

I have deliberately not tried to address the claims Ehrman makes.  I am in the camp of Ehrman's general audience (not scholarly audience) readers, interested to some degree in biblical scholarship, but not one of Ehrman's colleagues.  For what it's worth, a number of scholars who disagree with Ehrman's claims took the time to write a rebuttal.  Just as Ehrman's title reflects his position as an exaltationist Christologist, the title of his opponents' book, How God Became Jesus, marks their approach as incarnationalist.  If it's not too much dancing on the head of a pin, you can hear their arguments here.   Without chiming in on the criticisms, I have to note that one of them is that Ehrman closes his mind to the possibility of divine intervention in history.  Well, yes. As Ehrman took pains to say, he is a historian, not a believer.  

It’s probably in the nature of religion that some people become obsessive about their search for answers.  These days few people are exercised over whether Christ became God at his birth, or his baptism, or his resurrection.  It’s enough for them to think that Jesus wants them for a sunbeam to shine the whole day through.  Or to be their friend sitting next to them in the cab of their truck as they thunder across the plains delivering wheat to the population west of the Rockies.  It’s refreshing to discover religionists, frankly, still inspired to go beyond America’s package tour approach to the topic.  Refreshing to find somebody who tells you he may have lost his faith that Jesus was a god, but not his admiration for the historical apocalyptic preacher who believed the world was about to end and was so admired by his followers that they came to believe he could walk on water and raise people from the dead.   He must have been one hell of a guy, Ehrman thinks, and you find yourself agreeing with him.

The Catholic Church has lost its grip.  Its obsession with sexual purity and reproduction and male dominance has led to its ever increasing irrelevance.  The Evangelicals are a sad bunch of cannon fodder for the right wing in American politics.  Neither of those groups inspire people to want to dig around, as Ehrman and other historians of religion love to do, to know and to understand more about the roots of Christianity as part of World Civilization.  “Christology” – the name for that practice – does not figure in the top ten of human activities.  So I don’t image a very large audience for Ehrman’s latest.

But, if only to shut those folks up who tell you to read your Bible for answers, there is something to be said for learning how Mark was written first, copied in large part by Matthew and Luke, and how John was written much later, by a Greek-speaker far removed from the world of the other three.  And then wondering how it came to be that this most divergent of the four gospels came to be taken the most seriously.  And then maybe you’ll want to know more about this curious belief system that is Christianity.  And maybe you’ll actually read some of this history.

There’s definitely something there.  Ehrman’s books have been translated into twenty-seven languages and three of them have actually made the New York Times bestseller list. 

Just a side note.  Although this has nothing to do directly with Ehrman’s work as a scholar and historian, I note with interest that while Ehrman has left his faith behind, he has not left behind his belief in the importance of looking out for “the least of these, my brethren.”  He supports local efforts to aid the homeless, for example, and writes a blog, using money from it to support such groups as Doctors Without Borders, an organization I also admire greatly and contribute to regularly.  His organization is known as the Bart D. Ehrman Foundation, a “not-for-profit organization whose overarching purpose is to raise money for charities devoted to poverty, hunger, and homelessness.” 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I read "How Jesus Became God" and the refutation, "How God Became Jesus." Both books explained progressive Christology, how almost all Christologies - high and low - were around very early on, and how these Christologies were chronologically *eliminated,* from low to high, as the nascent church built its orthodoxy.

My comments, and these go to both books, are: 1) they assume that Jesus’s ministry was apocalyptic, when Crossan and others make a good case that Jesus’s ministry was sapiential – that is, present here now and attainable through good deeds and adhering to the law, and 2) that the Pauline epistles are the earliest source writings – when the Epistle of James the Just arguably pre-dates them.

For further discussion of these comments, and a thorough review of both books, please check out my Reader’s Guide to Bart Ehrman's How Jesus Became God.

This is the latest in a series which includes my best-selling Reader’s Guide to Reza Aslan’s Zealot , and my Reader’s Guide to Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus .