Bart Ehrman, a respected New Testament scholar who is not a christian, has recently written:
“Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalypticist from the backwaters of a rural part of the Roman empire, a Jewish preacher who got on the wrong side of the law and was executed for crimes against the state, how is it that within sixty years of his death his followers were saying that he was a divine being? And that within 150 years they were saying that he was the second member of the Trinity?”
What are christians to make of this?
Bart Ehrman’s view
Ehrman doesn’t believe Jesus was God’s son. He is arguing that the earliest evidence for Jesus portrays a human teacher and prophet, but the later christian documents show progression to the point where he is seen as divine. Could he be right?
A growing understanding of Jesus
In Jesus’ lifetime
The gospels show that the disciples struggled to understand Jesus (see, for example, Mark 8:14-21, 8:31-33, 9:5-6, 10:35-40, John 14:8-11). The disciples at first wondered who Jesus was (Mark 4:35-41), but gradually came to recognise him as the Messiah (Mark 8:27-30 – ‘Christ’ means anointed one, or the Messiah), the promised king who would usher in God’s kingdom on earth. But this understanding was too radical to be shared publicly at first (Mark 8:30).
But Jesus had more to reveal, that he was in fact the incarnation of God himself. But he did this gradually, because it was such a difficult teaching for a fiercely monotheistic Jew. (Note that the title ‘son of God’ did not necessarily make a claim to divinity, as kings were commonly referred to in such a way.) His divinity is implicit in some of his sayings and actions (see Jesus – son of God?), but his disciples didn’t always recognise this.
So when Jesus left them, they definitely weren’t yet fully understanding Jesus or the mission he was giving to them. It therefore isn’t surprising that Jesus continued to teach them after his resurrection (Luke 24:25-27), and promised that the Holy Spirit would reveal more in the future (John 14:26, 15:26, 16:13).
By the Spirit
So it seems clear that the Holy Spirit continued to teach them in the days after Pentecost. We can see this in the story of Peter and Cornelius, in Acts 10, when the Spirit taught Peter, and eventually the whole church, an important lesson about the mission to the gentiles which was not easy for Jews to accept.
The divinity of Jesus
The earliest example of the apostles’ preaching is the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), when Peter began teaching that Jesus was the Messiah, but concluded: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” The Greek word translated ‘Lord’ could refer to a king or to Caesar (Wikipedia), but was also used to translate the Hebrew Yahweh, so Peter’s use is not clear. But it certainly indicates an exalted status, and seems to indicate at least a move towards recognising Jesus’ divinity. Peter’s words “God has made this Jesus … Lord” fall short of later teachings that Jesus was the eternal son of God, and suggest his understanding of Jesus was not yet complete.
Calling Jesus “Lord” continues through Acts (e.g. 9:17, 10:36, 11:17, 15:26, etc), and the disciples heal, baptise and preach in Jesus’ name, suggesting that his name was already venerated. By the time Paul began to write his letters, Jesus was recognised as a divine being from before the dawn of time (Colossians 1:15-17, Philippians 2:6), and Paul’s use of creeds and hymns show that he wasn’t the first to do this (see New Testament Chronology and Christian Origins). The exalted view of Jesus finds its full expression in the prologue to John’s gospel (John 1: 1-14), probably the last New Testament book to be written.
New Testament Scholar, Larry Hurtado, says:
“The treatment of Jesus as in some sense associated with God in some kind of special way seems to be there in the earliest evidence we have.”
The doctrine of the Trinity, that defines Jesus’ relationship to God the Father was not developed for some time after the New Testament was written, but is based on hints within Paul’s writings (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 1:1, Galatians 1:3, 1 Corinthians 12:4-6).
It seems there may have been a period after Jesus’ resurrection when the apostles were unclear about Jesus’ divine status, but worship of Jesus as divine seems to have begun within a decade or two of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
It will be interesting to see what evidence Bart Ehrman brings forward to support his idea that it took 6 decades.
Read the whole series
This post is part of a series on Training disciples to stand. Check out all the topics here.
Photo from MorgueFile
Opinions from scholars are all over the place, still. I’ve been watching “The First Christians” and the scholars in the documentary–made about 13 years ago–have Jesus not living in a backwater but in an urban center. They also believe, at least at the time the episode was made, that the site at Qumran was that of an apocalyptic cult. In 1999, Yale university was teaching that may not be the case. Amazing how quickly–and slowly–ideas on these events change.
Yes. I just hope that overall they are making progress towards what is true.
Do you believe there is a finite amount of knowledge to be gained out of the bible ? To clarify : stupendously big is infinite in practical terms. Basically do you think that at some point in the near future the pursuit of further knowledge will not give relevant results. That even though one might still not be able to learn it all within his or her lifetime, a consensus has been reached.
“Opinions from scholars are all over the place, still. I’ve been watching “The First Christians” and the scholars in the documentary–made about 13 years ago–have Jesus not living in a backwater but in an urban center.”
Well, Sepphoris was quite close to Nazareth, but I wonder: did the documentary advance the cynical Jesus theory?
“Do you believe there is a finite amount of knowledge to be gained out of the bible ? To clarify : stupendously big is infinite in practical terms. Basically do you think that at some point in the near future the pursuit of further knowledge will not give relevant results.”
Interesting question. I’m inclined to think that there’ll always be something new to learn, for two reasons.
1. In terms of information or facts, we are dealing with history, and I suppose there are still many artefacts and documents buried out there somewhere, and some will still be discovered, and we’ll learn something from them.
2. I believe God gives us progressive revelation, via the Holy Spirit. As the human race progresses (in some areas at least!), we need to know and do new things, and the Holy Spirit will be teaching those who are willing to listen. This will involve the Bible and likely require new understandings in some places.
Well Obviously I disagree but I don’t think that really matters in this case. If you found new scripture, how would you know it was the real thing. What process would you use to determine this ?
I don’t see any likelihood of new scripture, we have all we need and the age for that has passed. I just think we are now in the age of the Spirit, and he may give us new understandings of scripture and how to apply it.
Do you mind the questions ? Please say if you do, I can understand this becomes tedious after a while. I assure you that this is merely the result of my immense fascination for how people think. Anyway if you don’t mind :
How would this new understanding be revealed ? How do you know an idea is a newly revealed understanding ? Is it a metaphysical process ? Can it be ? Given that it would have physical consequences ? What matters do you think are subject to change ? Are there ones that aren’t and why ?
Those are pretty good questions, sir Ian.
Ian, no I am happy to try to answer questions.
I think my views on this are not strictly “orthodox”, and I will be blogging on it soon, but briefly … I think God is revealing new truth all the time. For example:
* In the NT we see Peter learning the gentiles were included in God’s plan (Acts 10 & 11) and the church learning that gentiles didn’t have to follow the Mosaic law (Acts 15).
* In history, we can see the Reformation as a time of God teaching truths that had been forgotten or under-emphasised.
* In my time as a christian, God has taught christians truths about materialism (from the hippies), the environment, sexism, racism, etc from our surrounding culture, and has been re-shaping the church quite drastically. I see trends in changing christian beliefs about the Bible, hell, evangelism and social justice that will eventually (IMO) lead to changed beliefs generally.
So the new understandings come in mostly normal ways (forward thinking and prophetic people ‘see’ a new truth – perhaps already being discussed in the secular world – and help others to see it), and we can know with hindsight because we can see that the changes were good. I think we could do this much better, and ‘know’ in advance, if we recognised this was what God planned to do through his Spirit, and follow the NT teachings on discerning the Spirit through consensus and peace. And I think that too will come, but its a way off yet.
Dunno if it’s a metaphysical process (I guess you mean just worked out in the head?) but I think all this has very tangible effects. The church today, overall, is way different to what it was when I was a young christian, and there’s more to come. For example, we need to work out what God is saying about homosexuality, christian leadership, church buildings, decision-making and prayer, and somer of the other things I mentioned above.
Does than answer the questions? Thanks.
For the most part. I was looking for something more concrete, but then again if you would be correct it does not follow that god’s work is obvious. What church are you referring to btw, the Catholic one ? Because I honestly don’t see how that monstrosity has ever been a force for good in this world but then again I don’t think I want to discuss this. Thanks for the response.
I think the concreteness is in the flexibility and growth in the church’s understanding. One person I read said that one big difference between christianity and all other religions is its ability to adapt.
I am not talking about the Catholic church or any other organisation, but about christianity as a whole.
Thanks for your interest.
Sorry for the vitriol then, but I’ve had too much experience with the Catholic church to give them any credit.
I didn’t feel any vitriol. All believers compromise the message of Jesus in some way, but I think the larger and more powerful organisations get, the more likely they are to be corrupted by people using them for their own ends, whether deliberately so, or unconscious. I think the Catholic Church has had that problem for much of its existence. It has done much good, but also much harm.
But I have not been talking about any organisation, but the sum of all believers.
I know. I just wanted to make sure you I didn’t offend you. Anyway, have a nice day.
Why do you doubt Ehrman’s claim of 60 years?
Not sure what you are getting at here. Ehrman said:“within sixty years of his death his followers were saying that he was a divine being” I agree with him that there was development in the disciples’ understanding of Jesus, and I agree with this statement – in fact I think it happened quicker than that.
The really interesting question isn’t what did Jesus teach about himself. It’s why did he not teach a nice clean tied-down doctrine like the creeds try to be.
If he was in any sense “from God” and giving God’s view on things, then why did he leave his own status and nature so strangely undefined?
There’s no way to know why, but one possible reason is that whatever his relationship with the Father is, it’s not going to be something we can easily grasp (or maybe not grasp at all). In which case any “credal type” definition is going to be well not wrong, but inadequate.
The doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to rationalise all the clear but apparently contradictory statements in Scripture. I agree with it because I think it’s the best wording I ‘ve seen on the subject. But I think it would be foolish to conclude it’s the whole story.
Historically the church has schismed over creedal definitions, usually on the Trinity. Some important, some schisms frankly were playing with words. We may need creeds, but they can be loaded guns in the hands of the foolish.
Look at the way people over the ages have described God. They use the language and the concepts they are familiar with. They have to. So medaeval writers see him as the King of Heaven. They thought of heaven organised like their own world, with kings. I’ve worked in IT for nearly 50 years, I think of the relationships in the Trinity in terms of something analogous to dataflows (don’t laugh – I do, honestly). That’s the way my mind works. I’m sure neither view is quite right, but if it’s close enough for me to serve God, then does it matter.
After all, just ask any particle physicist if light is a particle or a wave, then guess if they really understand their own answer, or ask what the equations describing quantum behaviour actually mean. If that’s just the universe he created, what’s the odds we can understand what sort of being the Creator is.
So what I’m really saying is let’s not be too worried about exact definitions, accept not knowing every answer, just as long as our answers are good enough to let us get on with the important question. What does he require of us.
Hi cerddaf, I agree with just about all you say here and the thinking behind it – except I am not an IT person so I don’t see the Trinity as analogous to a data flow! But I agree with you that our understanding of God can only be partial and analogical. WE really do think quite alike on all this.
I agree that jesus couldn’t fully explain his divinity because his disciples (and us) could never understand fully. But I also think there were possibly more local, human and practical reasons.
1. The Jews were strong monotheists, and it was a big jump from there to a fully divine human being, so he gave his disciples time.
2. As a human being, he emptied himself (Philippians 2). This is a much discussed phrase, but I think we can assume that he didn’t understand himself to be divine at the moment of his birth (he was a baby!). So his divine consciousness had to grow and develop, so who knows exactly what he knew himself at any point in time?
3. If it was generally known he considered himself divine, he would have been even more mobbed by the masses and even moire quickly dealt with by the Jewish religious leaders (for blasphemy) and the Romans (for sedition).
So that’s a few extra thoughts. But I strongly agree with your last paragraph! Thanks.