How do we even know anything about Jesus?
Part 6 in a series exploring Bart Ehrman's, "How Jesus Became God." When's the last time you stopped to consider how you know what you know about Jesus?
This is an ongoing series exploring Bart Ehrman’s bestselling book, How Jesus Became God.
Chapter 3: Did Jesus Think he Was God?
I remember the first time I encountered a question like that of the title of chapter 3, “Did Jesus think he was God?”
It was while reading a book by NT Wright back in 2005, not too long after I had unofficially begun my auditing of my evangelical heritage. At the time, the notion of Jesus not thinking of himself as Second-in-the-Trinity God struck me as both absurd and intriguing. I realized that, although I’d spent my entire life up to that point just accepting that Jesus knew he was God and so clearly he thought of himself as such, at the same time it’s also a little... weird, I guess?... to imagine a human being thinking about themself and of themself: I am God. (I don’t know if that made sense to you, but it was the thought swirling in my mind back in those days).
As the years went on, and as I continued working through different approaches to reading the Gospels and understanding the Bible, I moved away from the idea that Jesus walked the dusty roads of Galilee while thinking, “I am God.” Toward which Christological direction I was headed in wasn’t always clear, but the more in touch with the historical Jesus I got, the less convinced I was that when he lay his head down for sleep as a teenager, for instance, he thought, “Man, what a disaster... I’m the freaking King of the Universe who’s spent a billion years bossing angels around, and now I can’t even have ashishot because it’s a school night!”
All that to say, when I got to chapter 3 of “How Jesus Became God,” I was looking forward to digging into this topic further.
If He WAS God, Why Didn’t Jesus Say So?
Early in this chapter Ehrman asks, “If Jesus really went around calling himself God, wouldn’t the Gospels at least mention the fact? Did they just decide to skip that part?” (p. 87)
The first ‘aha’ moment I had years ago when reflecting on this issue is that in three of the four Gospels (the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke) Jesus never explicitly says that he is God.
The only Gospel that does (John) quote Jesus as saying something resembling a belief in himself as being God is not only the latest Gospel (written some 50-60 years after Jesus) but is also seen by most scholars as a Gospel driven more by theology than by historical accuracy. Meaning, for all but the most conservative scholars, the words attributed to Jesus in the book of John are more like reflections of what some early Christians believed about Jesus, and not literally quotes of things people remember him saying verbatim.
I suppose the argument could be made that Jesus did indeed think of himself as God, but he... what... didn’t like to talk about it? Or, only talked about it in veiled manners? Or, preferred the “show it, don’t say it” method of communication? Regardless, Ehrman’s point is, if Jesus did think of himself as God, and if he did say as much, then why wasn’t that the headline? Or at least included somewhere along the way?
Instead, we are not given a picture of a guy who walked around talking about himself as though he believed himself to be God.
So what do we have?
That’s what chapter 3 is about, and I’ll spend a few weeks unpacking it.
In order to get in to the question of Jesus’ thoughts or beliefs about his own sense of identity and divinity we need to spend some time talking about the sources that we have for this information, eg, the Gospels.
How We Even Know About Jesus
I know this is obvious, but it needs to be said: the only way we know anything at all about the life of Jesus is because of the Bible.
Now, the radical atheist might therefore conclude, “And therefore we mustn’t hold any beliefs about this Jesus because our only sources are unreliable and biased!” Whereas the radical fundamentalist might say, “And therefore we shall believe everything said about Jesus because the Bible is perfect and written by God!”
I reject both those extremes.
No, dear Fundy, the Bible is not perfect. It is not without error. And it is not the product of God’s unaffected authorship. But also, no, dear Athey, neither is the Bible entirely unreliable, either.
When it comes to the Gospels, we aren’t being bad historians or scholars if we approach these sources as containing potentially reliable accounts of what might have transpired and what might have been said some 2000 years ago.
It’s not easy, of course, discerning which is which (between “this almost certainly was said or done” versus “meh, this is probably something added in much later”). But scholars have developed some pretty impressive tools to aid us, which we’ll get to in a bit.
But back to the question at hand: how do we know anything about Jesus?
Answer: The Gospels (mostly… with bits from some of the other NT letters scattered here and there, too).
Most scholars agree that the earliest Christian sources we have come from the Apostle Paul (who, remember, never met or knew Jesus). He wrote some of his letters 20-30 years after Jesus (and, btw, he never said anything about Jesus claiming to be God).
The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were written probably around 65-70 AD (so, that’s about 35-40 years after Jesus). And then John came much later, probably 80-90 AD. Even though church tradition states that these four Gospels were written by their namesakes, such claims are dubious. (Reminder for those who forgot: Matthew and John were both earthly disciples of Jesus; Mark was Peter’s secretary; and Luke was Paul’s traveling companion). The authors of each book don’t identify themselves (unlike, for example, in Paul’s letters where he writes, “It is I, Paul…”), and the first time we start to see attributions of authors to them is a century after they were produced.
(BTW: It’s not the end of the world that these books weren’t written by their namesakes. That doesn’t (have to) destroy their credibility or reliability. I know fundamentalists say otherwise, but don’t let their fears and insecurity persuade you.)
I bring this up because I think it matters that we understand, acknowledge, and hold in our minds the reality that our best (only) sources about who Jesus was and what he said and did were written several generations after he died, by people who were not eyewitnesses of the events, and who likely didn’t even speak the same language as Jesus.
My point is not to cast aspersion on the Gospels, but to remind us that we must not simply open our English bibles, read a story about Jesus in Matthew, and conclude that we now know precisely what happened and what was said 2000 years ago in a town outside Jerusalem.
Such (inaccurate and shallow) interpretations of the Gospels (and the Bible as a whole) is what has gotten modern Christianity into a whole lotta trouble.
And yet, as mentioned a minute a go, I think the Gospels can be taken as reliable (and, in a sense, authoritative) sources on Jesus, but it must be done with care. It must be done with an understanding (as best we can, anyway) of how these sources came to be, why they were written, what it might’ve meant to it’s original audience, and so on.
The Origin of the Gospels
Quick thought exercise just to get us in the mood.
Imagine if someone today wanted to do a biography on John Belushi. Like Jesus, Belushi was in his early 30’s when he died, and like the Gospels, it’s been four decades since his passing. So imagine someone spending the next year or so researching his life. They could pull up old recordings of his comedy, they could read things he wrote, and they could definitely talk to many eye witnesses. It wouldn’t be unfathomable to consider that such a biography would be fairly accurate in terms of getting John’s quotes right and recounting certain stories with veracity.
But imagine going back in time a hundred years and doing the same thing with, say, Jesse James, the infamous American bank and train robber. Again, you’d be working forty years after his death, but you can imagine how much fewer sources you’d have to work with. No video evidence, no audio recordings, but hey, you could perhaps find a photo or two! And if you worked hard enough, you might track down some eyewitnesses who might remember that one time at the bank when that one guy pulled out a knife…. Your best bet, though, would be local clippings of newspapers attempting to recount the recent robberies and testimonies of what happened.
Go back another hundred years and imagine someone wanting to write the biography for Johann Christian Bach, the 18th child of the much more famous, Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s suddenly getting harder and harder to imagine amassing the kinds of details necessary so that—forty years after the person died—you are 100% nailing an accurate account of their life and what they said.
What I’m trying to illustrate is just how far removed we are today from life in Palestine 2000 years ago. It’s okay (even encouraged) for us to hold out the possibility that the Gospels as we read them today may not be exactly representative of the things Jesus said and did.
I know that my old evangelical self fears such a notion, but the past two decades have given me a lot of grace and space to no longer require that everything in the Gospels (or the Bible) must be an exactly fly-on-the-wall account of what really, literally happened.
So then, if the earliest accounts of Jesus’ life (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were produced some four decades after the fact, by people who weren’t around when it happened, and based on information handed to them not by the internet, and not by tape recordings, and not by paper documents from the local library or county clerk…
… then how were they created?
Where did these earliest sources on the life Jesus get their information from?
That’s where I’ll pick it up next week.
In the meantime, I’d love to know:
What’s it like for you to consider that the Gospels were not only not written by the people they were named after, but not written by eyewitnesses at all?
Is that a new idea for you?
If not, can you recall what it was like when you did learn/hear that?
How does it change how you read the Bible (if it does)?
READ THE REST OF THE SERIES
Part 1: Did you hear the one about Jesus “becoming” God?
Part 2: We Can't Just Simply Read the Bible (Alone) and Declare It Sufficient for Comprehension
Part 3: The gods, us humans, and all the stops in between
Part 4: Even ancient Israelites saw Divinity along a continuum
Part 5: Humans becoming God(like), plus other worship-worthy-Beings