Did you hear the one about Jesus "becoming" God?
Part 1 in a series exploring "How Jesus Became God" by Bart Ehrman
Recently I finished How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee by leading Bible scholar Bart D. Ehrman.
If you’re at all interested in the Historical Jesus (meaning, not just the Christ of the New Testament who became the object of Christian worship, but the man-in-the-flesh Jesus of Galilee who walked the earth, taught people about the Kingdom of God, and was eventually killed by the state) then I think you’d love this book. Chalk full of historical context, literary criticism, and excellent biblical scholarship, for those curious about the development and progression of the first few centuries of Christian theology, it’s an excellent resource.
But reader beware: if you don’t want your beliefs shaken, stirred, or otherwise inspected, then skip this book. I’m not saying I think everything Ehrman states is true, nor do I make the same conclusions about some of the data as he does, but there is enough packed in these pages to legitimately call in to question some of Western Christianity’s core commitments. Odds are, you won’t come out of this book with the same ideas and beliefs as you went going in.
Therefore, if you read Perspective Shift hoping to have your perspective, um, not shifted (🧐), then perhaps skip the next couple months. Because in the coming weeks I’ll be sharing my summary of How Jesus Became God (HJBG) and chiming in from time to time with my own thoughts. If you’ve read it I’d love to hear your thoughts in the coming weeks. And for everyone else, as I share with you some of what Ehrman writes, let’s hear your feedback, impressions, and questions in the comments!
THE ABSURD SUGGESTION THAT JESUS “BECAME” GOD
For many Christians, the title alone would be enough reason to toss this book in the bin. For these book-tossing Christians the notion that Jesus became God is preposterous at best and heretical at worst.
The prevailing attitude in much of Christianity (and to be sure, in most/all of evangelical Christianity) is that Jesus is of one substance with God the Father, and that he has existed as such for all of eternity as the Son of God (within the Trinity) while also being fully God. And that even though he was equal with God Almighty as a fully eternal Divine being, 2000 years ago he became a human (thus existing as fully God and fully human at the same time) in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, who was then crucified, raised by God, and ascended into heaven to sit (once again) at the right hand of God.
Even many of you reading that last paragraph might’ve found yourself thinking, “Wait, you’re just describing basic, fundamental Christian theology. But you’re making it sound like maybe it’s… not that?”
To state it again, saying that Jesus became God is, for many, silly (at best) and heretical (at worst) because that implies that there was a time when Jesus was not God.
And yet this is precisely what Bart Ehrman aims to demonstrate.
In HJBG, Ehrman makes the case that “Jesus was not originally considered to be God in any sense at all, and that he eventually became divine for his followers in some sense before he came to be thought of as equal with God Almighty in an absolute sense” (p44, emphasis mine). He lays out, in a fascinating manner filled with of sorts of surprise twists and insight, the development of how Jesus (again, in Ehrman’s view) went from being primarily understood as an “apocalyptic prophet from the backwaters of rural Galilee” to one considered as equal to the One God Almighty, Maker of all things.
LEARNING TO READ the BIBLE DIFFERENTLY
In order to get there (or to even come close to there) Ehrman has first had to let go of many if not most of his religious background’s beliefs about the Bible. For much of his life, Ehrman was a (very dedicated and very sincere) Christian for many years before he shifted into the kind of agnosticism that he claims today. Part of his shift involved a similar trajectory as mine own as it relates to the Bible. Namely, we’ve both come to the conclusion that the Bible is not a perfect (aka, without error) book, that it is not authored by God in a real/literal sense (meaning, every word in the text is exactly as if God himself held the pen and scroll), and it is not intended to be understood as a divine textbook containing all the important answers to life’s deepest questions.
I bring this up at the outset because many Christians haven’t yet been exposed to some of the excellent Biblical scholarship of the past few centuries that have helped move us from a surface level, hyper-literal reading of the text, to one that is much more informed by tools and disciplines aimed to more accurately deduce how these books might’ve originally been written, understood, and applied. One quick example is the Gospel of John.
Growing up I was taught that it was simply one of the four gospels, written by the Apostle John (the “one whom Jesus loved”), and—like Matthew, Mark, and Luke—should be viewed as a literal, historical, and factual representation of what actually happened 2000 years ago. However, now (most) scholars better understand that John was not only not written by John (removing the eye-witness aspect of it), but it was written several decades after the other three, and was not written for the same kind of pursposes as the other three. Which is to say, the Gospel of John should not be read with the expectation that the stories in it literally happened as is written, nor that the words spoken by Jesus were legitimately quotes of his.
The reason I share this example (of how 20th century Biblical scholarship has changed/improved our understanding of the Bible) is because, germane to this book, it is in John (and really only in John) where we read Jesus himself making claims about “being God.” In other words, of the accounts we have that can be relied upon to preserve some of the actual words and teachings of Jesus (aka, Matthew, Mark, and Luke), none of them contain moments where Jesus explicitly says he is God. When someone like Ehrman, then, proposes an evolving belief around Jesus not originally being seen as God, but then over time becoming viewed as one and the same in substance as God Almighty, it can sound absurd to those of us familiar with all the times in John where Jesus pretty clearly says, “I am God.”
For those ready and willing to suspend what they’ve always thought and believed about the Bible and Jesus, I suspect you might be shocked at what we’ll discover in this journey through HJBG.
Let us not fear change, and let us not fear that which might bring about change.
If the point in life is not in fact to believe the right things, then may we trust that it’s okay to be open to believing new things and/or stop believing some of the old.
Okay, I think that’s enough preamble for this journey.
If you want to get a copy of the book yourself you can do that here.
I’ll jump in to Chapter One next week!
Excited to explore this stuff with you.
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TODAY ON THE ALTER
Few people make better things than my buddy Scott Erickson.
For years he has been creating art that elevates our consciousness and awakens our hearts to the beauty and awe all around. His newest book, SAY YES, uses original art and gorgeous story telling and truth proclaiming to explore the surprising life beyond the death of a dream.
If you've ever struggled with depression, with a loss of meaning, with immobilizing fear, then SAY YES should be your next purchase.
No, I've never heard it said this way, "Jesus becoming God". I've heard people believing that Jesus was God. I do not accept either beliefs mainly because there is no scripture in the bible where Jesus ever said he was God. There is more scripture describing that Jesus was the son of God and God was his father. And that settles it for me.
I think HJBG is going to be a great discussion. I think part of what comes across to me in Ehrman's works is the importance of understanding the nature of Hebrew storytelling. What were these ancient authors trying to communicate to their audience about the nature and character of the person Jesus? I'm sorry that Ehrman's spiritual quest led him from liturgical practice to agnostic atheism. I wish he'd been able to find Progressive Christianity along the way. He seems like a good fit for it.