Jesus and God?
If you were asked, When did Jesus become God? What would your answer be?
The Gospel writers and Paul give us four different answers. For Mark it was when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. For Matthew and Luke it was his moment of conception by the Holy Spirit. For John it was from the beginning of creation, and for Paul, when Jesus was resurrected and appeared to the disciples and to him.
In his 2014 book, How Jesus became God (Harper Collins), Bart Ehrman1 introduces readers to the manner in which a Biblical historian goes about drawing on the sources we have, to deduce an answer to this question (and incidentally to my rephrasing of it as When did Jesus become God?).
What I particularly liked about the boo0k was the clear way it set out the historical and literary processes of analysis that a scholar from one of these disciplines uses to address this type of question.
He starts by identifying the main sources that are available to us today and the timing of their appearance after Jesus death. About 20 years later, 50-60 CE, there are the seven epistles of Paul that scholars agree are certainly his writing. A decade later there is Mark’s Gospel 9 which draws on a probably lost source scholars called Q. In the 80-85 CE period, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles ap[peared, and towards the end of that first century John’s Gospel was written.
None of these very Greek literate authors had known or met Jesus alive. They were writing down stories and beliefs they were told by Jesus’ immediate or subsequent followers in the various parts of the Roman Empire where these writers were living.
Ehrman, on literary grounds, adds to these sources some short sets of words that appear in Paul’s epistles and in Acts, which he calls Pre-literate traditions. His criteria to identify these are that they are a self-contained bit of the larger text, that is highly structured, like a poem, and contain phrases and words not otherwise used by Paul or Luke. He sees them as short creeds or poems that were being used in these very early gatherings of Christians (followers of Jesus as Messiah or Christ) much as we now repeat phrases and words in family graces or in services of worship. The distinctiveness of these extra sources is unfortunately almost lost in the way the Bible is now presented.
The historical phenomenon that Ehrman acknowledges as requiring an answer to his primary question is the rapid emergence of groups of persons after Jesus death, who acted out their lives in quite new ways, because they believed that Jesus was God. It has been estimated that the growth rate of these groups was at least 40% per decade for the next two or three hundred years, despite them often paying dearly under the Roman authorities for their practices and beliefs.
The historical criteria Ehrman uses are as follows:
- independent attestation in several of the sources,
- dissimilarity – stories that are not positively helpful to writers basically trying to promote the Jesus message,
- contextual credibility – statements that are, or are not, consistent with what is known about the social context at the time of Jesus from other sources.and
- cultural appropriateness – statements that are, or are not, in keeping with Jewish culture and tradition.
By applying these criteria to the source materials, Erhard works through a number of questions before Jesus’ death, like Did Jesus think he was God? and Did the disciples think Jesus was God? What is the significance of Pilate’s charge, Are you the King of the Jews? and What was Judas’ act of betrayal? He concludes that there is no historical case for Jesus being God in his lifetime, but that both Jesus and the disciples were very expectant of an apocalyptic event soon to happen in which they would all have important roles in the Kingdom of God that would follow.
Erhard then turns to Jesus’ death and what happened in the post-death days. There is great confusion in the gospel sources about the empty tomb, who was there, and where the disciples went after the crucifixion. There are, however, attested stories about some of his followers believing they saw Jesus after his death. While history cannot vouch for such appearances of Jesus, history can vouch for these claims about his appearances in a form that was both familiar but with other qualities.
After a short review of the commonness of the experience of reporting seeing persons after their death in modern society, and extrapolating this likelihood to Jesus’ time, Erhard concludes that it is their belief in these appearances and their interpretation of them as Jesus had been especially exalted by God that changed their lives.
They began to share with others, their knowledge of Jesus’ teaching as a human being and their belief in him as having been specially chosen by God to be resurrected and exhalted to divine status and purpose – the first steps towards the movement that became Christianity. So Paul begins his letter to the Romans (1:3-4) by quoting a very early pre-literary credal statement of these pioneering Christians:
A1 who was descended B1 who was appointed
A2 from the seed of David B2 Son of God in power
A3 according to the flesh B3 according to the Spirit of Holiness by his
resurrection from the dead
The A statements affirm the humanity of Jesus and the B statements affirm his exaltation into the spiritual and divine realm.
Erhard’s historical quest leads to the resurrection of Jesus as the primal event for his Divinity, displacing his incarnation, his baptism, and his crucifixion.
The rest of this very readable and engaging book discusses the historical development of these low and High Christologies from the initial Binitry of God to the Trinity position that came to hold sway after the great councils of the Christian Church in the 4th and 5th centuries.
1Bart Ehrman describes himself, as initially a believer somewhat theologically to the right of Rev Billy Graham, who through his studies and experience now sees himself as a non-believer. In an earlier book, Peter, Paul and Mary, he explores in a delightful way the historicity and myths about these three pre-eminent persons in the Jesus story.
Peter Fensham 26 Feb 2015
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