A Look at Bart Ehrman’s Christology

Recently, Bart Ehrman was interviewed by World Magazine about his book on Christology called How Jesus Became God. I have met Bart because we had him do a debate for us at our campus about five years ago,

I could mention many things about this interview. But I wanted to mention something about this question and Bart’s response here:

It says:

Evangelical scholars, at least, say that there are at least 80 references in all four of the Gospels to Jesus calling Himself either God or the Son of Man or some other phrase that has connotations of divinity or even actual assertions of divinity. You disagree with that?

Ehrman says:  Just not me. Apart from evangelical Christians, you don’t find this view represented very much in scholarship. Evangelical Christians of course think Jesus is God and therefore he must have called himself God, but if you look at the synoptic Gospels what Jesus teaches about is the coming kingdom of God and that people need to prepare for this coming kingdom by repenting and living lives that are worthy of the kingdom. It’s whether the historical Jesus himself called himself God.

What are the new arguments in this book that should cause us to reconsider the church’s historical understanding of who Jesus was?

Ehrman says: It depends what you mean by new. I’ll make two points. One is that when a scholar writes a book for a general audience, it’s not in order to promote brand new views. Almost always it’s in order to explain to a general audience what it is scholars are saying, and that’s the case in this book. I’m explaining what scholars say. There are things in this book that I came to realize that I’d never thought before, so that’s all to the good. There are half a dozen things that I completely changed my mind about in doing this book, but there’s nothing here that is radically turning scholarship on its head because it’s not a book written for scholars.

If I were to write a book for scholars, it would be a very different book. For a general reader there’s a lot of stuff here that’s new, including the one you started out with: Jesus probably didn’t call himself God, and yet the authors of the New Testament do think he was God. Why is it that that happened? Why do his followers say he’s God when he didn’t say so himself?

This is what makes little sense to me. I have said it before:

There are some good reasons as to why Jesus would never say explicitly “I am God.” The Hebrew Bible forbids worshiping anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9). And for Jesus to ever say something so explicit would insinuate that he was calling upon his audience to believe in two “Gods”- the God of Israel and Jesus. Also, for Gentiles, such a claim would allow for Jesus to fit nicely into their polytheism (the belief in many gods).

In Judaism, there is a term called “avodah zarah” which is defined as the formal recognition or worship as God of an entity that is in fact not God. In other words, any acceptance of a non-divine entity as your deity is a form of avodah zarah. (2) And as of today, I just mentioned that the Hebrew Bible forbids worshiping anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9).

One way to answer this objection is to discuss what is called Implicit and Explicit Christology.

Secondly, I would never expect any of the New Testament authors to say directly “Jesus is God.”  That’s why they use Jewish categories such as Wisdom, Word, and Shechinah to help their audience understand the deity of Jesus.

Another approach to this issue is to ask the question, ”Why was Jesus accused of blasphemy? According to Jewish law, the claim to be the Messiah was not a criminal, nor capital offense. Therefore, the claim to be the Messiah was not even a blasphemous claim. (3) Why was Jesus accused of blasphemy? According to Mark 14:62, Jesus affirmed the chief priests question that He is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Coming Son of Man who would judge the world. This was considered a claim for deity since the eschatological authority of judgment was for God alone. Jesus provoked the indignation of his opponents because of His application of Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 to himself. Also, many parables which are universally acknowledged by critical scholars to be authentic to the historical Jesus show that Jesus believed himself to be able to forgive sins against God (Matt. 9:2; Mark 2: 1-12).

Forgiving sins was something that was designated for God alone (Exod. 34: 6-7; Neh.9:17; Dan. 9:9) and it was something that was done only in the Temple along with the proper sacrifice. Therefore, Jesus acts as if He is the Temple in person. In Mark 14:58, it says,”We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.’ The Jewish leadership knew that God was the one who was responsible for building the temple (Ex. 15:17; 1 En. 90:28-29).(4)

Also, God is the only one that is permitted to announce and threaten the destruction of the temple (Jer. 7:12-13; 26:4-6, 9;1 En.90:28-29). (5) It is also evident that one reasons Jesus was accused of blasphemy was because He usurped God’s authority by making himself to actually be God (Jn. 10:33, 36). Not only was this considered by the Jews to be blasphemous, it was worthy of the death penalty (Matt. 26:63-66; Mk. 14:61-65; Lk. 22:66-71; Jn. 10:31-39; 19:7).

The Son of Man/Elect One

The Son of Man (bar ’anosh)  saying is employed to Jesus’ earthly ministry (Mk. 2:10,28; 10:45; Matt. 13:37). As the Son of Man He and is subject to the same humanity and he personally has to suffer a cruel death  and rise from the dead (Mk. 8:31;9:31;10:33). The Son of Man also has a future function as an eschatological judge. Jesus spoke of this function in the following texts:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations , and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father , inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels….’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Matt. 25: 31-36).

“You, who have persevered with me in my tribulations, when the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne will also sit upon thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (cf. Matt. 19: 28; Luke 22: 28,30).

One of the most pertinent issues is Jesus’ use of Son of Man in the trial scene in Mark 14.

And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need?  You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” And the guards received him with blows.-Mark 14: 60-65

By Jesus asserting He is the Son of Man, he was exercising the authority of God. It is for this reason that we don’t want to minimize why Jesus earned the charge of blasphemy here. According to Jewish law, the claim to be the Messiah was not a criminal or capital offense. If this is true, why was Jesus accused of blasphemy? Jesus affirmed the chief priest’s question that He was not only the Messiah but also the Coming Son of Man who would judge the world and would sit at the right hand of God. This was considered a claim to deity since the eschatological authority of judgment was for God alone. Hence, Jesus provoked the indignation of his opponents because of His application of Daniel 7:13-14 and Psalm 110:1 to himself.

Daniel 7:13-14 and the Son of Man

I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven  there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion,  which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one  that shall not be destroyed. -Daniel 7:13-14

When it comes to this text, the debate is over the referent. The ESV translates it as “a son of man” while the JPS translates it as “a human being” which is a paraphrase.[1] Some Jewish interpretations have interpreted the text to be about a human collectively (i.e., the people of God who are “personalized as the Messiah”).  The evidence for the collective interpretation is seen in the following texts:

But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.”- Daniel 7:18

And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.- Daniel 7:28 [2]

A quick glance here would seem to indicate that the collective interpretation has some merit. However, a closer reading reveals some challenges with interpreting the Dan 7:13-14 text as referring to a collective group. This text seems to reveal that God is bringing a figure with a status over angelic millions in a heavenly court scene.[3]  If anything, the people on earth are supposed to find a tremendous future for themselves in this royal figure. Secondly, all peoples, nations, and languages will serve the figure in Dan. 7:13-14. When “serve” is used here and in other parts of the bookof Daniel it means to “pay reverence to” as seen in  Dan.3:12,14,17,18,28; 6:(16)17,(20)21;7:14,27. So now the question becomes how anyone can pay reverence to anyone other than God? 

This would make sense given the context shows this type of vision would be one of hope for the generation of people that would read this text.  Another challenge to the collective interpretation is that the figure in Dan 7:13-14 is coming with the clouds of heaven.  Daniel Boyarin says the following:

From the earliest layers of interpretation and right up to the modern times, some interpreters have deemed the “one like a son of man” as symbol of a collective, namely, the faithful Israelites at the time of the Maccabean revolt, when the book of Daniel was probably written. Other interpreters have insisted that “[one like a] son of man” is a second divine figure alongside the Ancient of Days and not an allegorical symbol of the People of Israel. We find in Aphrahat, the fourth century Iranian Father of the Church, the following attack on the interpretation (presumably by Jews) that makes the “one like a son of man” out to be the People of Israel: “Have the children of Israel received the kingdom of the Most High? God forbid! Or has that people come on the cloud of heaven?”…Aphrahat’s argument is exegetical and very much to the point. Clouds-as well as riding on or with clouds- are a common attribute of biblical divine appearances, called theophanies (Greek for “God appearances”) by scholars. J.A. Emerton has made the point decisively: “The act of coming in the clouds suggests a theophany of [YHVH] himself. If Dan vii.13 does not refer to a divine being, then it is the only exception out of about seventy passages in the Old Testament.[4]

 The Son of Man and Elect One in 1 Enoch

It should be noted that the collective interpretation  of Dan 7:13-14 faces some stern opposition in the Pseudepigrapha which commonly refers to numerous works of Jewish religious literature written from about 200 BC to 200 AD.

As Randall Price notes:

The concept of the Messiah as a “son of man” after the figure in Daniel 7:13 is expressed in a section of the apocryphal book of 1 Enoch known as Similitudes, which has been argued to have a date as early as 40 B.C. It should be noted that scholars have found in Similitudes four features for this figure: (1) it refers to an individual and is not a collective symbol, (2) it is clearly identified as the Messiah, (3) the Messiah is preexistent and associated with prerogatives traditionally reserved for God, and (4) the Messiah takes an active role in the defeat of the ungodly. New Testament parallels with Similitudes (e.g., Matt. 19:28 with 1 Enoch 45:3 and Jn. 5:22 with 1 Enoch 61:8) may further attest to a mutual dependence on a common Jewish messianic interpretation (or tradition) based on Daniel’s vision. [5]

Even though the writings in Enoch  are not part of the Protestant Canon they are dated just before or around the time of Jesus. Therefore, they help provide the historian with valuable information into the Jewish religious life and thinking patterns at the time of Jesus. The following examples are adapted from The Messiah Texts by Raphel Patai. [6]

And there I saw him who is the Head of Days, and His head was white like wool, and with him was another one whose countenance had the appearance of a man And his face was full of graciousness, like one of holy angels. And I asked the angel who went with me and showed me all the hidden things about the Son of Man: Who is he and whence is he and why did he go with the Head of Days? And he answered and said to me: This is the Son of Man who has righteousness, With whom dwells righteousness, And who reveals all the treasures of the crowns, For the Lord of Spirits chose him. (1 Enoch 46:1-3)

He shall be a staff for the righteous. Whereon to lean, to stand and not to fall,And he shall be a light to the nations, And hope for the troubled of heart. And all the earth dwellers before him shall fall down, And worship and praise and bless and sing to the Lord of Spirits. It is for this that he has been chosen and hidden before Him, even before The creation of the world and evermore.(1 Enoch 48: 4-6)

1 Enoch 51.3: The Elect One will sit on [God’s] throne.

1 Enoch 52.4: And he said to me, ‘All these things which you have seen happen by the authority of his Messiah so that he may give orders and be praised upon the earth.’

1 Enoch 62.5: …and pain shall seize them when they see that Son of Man sitting on the throne of his glory.

1 Enoch 62.7: For the Son of Man was concealed from the beginning, and the Most High One preserved him in the presence of his power; then he revealed him to the holy and elect ones.

1 Enoch 62.14:  The Lord of the Spirits will abide over them; they shall eat and rest and rise with that Son of Man forever and ever…

1 Enoch 69.29:  Thenceforth nothing that is corruptible shall be found; for that Son of Man has appeared and has seated himself upon the throne of his glory; and all evil shall disappear from before his face; he shall be strong before the Lord of the Spirits.

On top of my own thoughts, Larry Hurtado, one of the experts on the topic of early Christology, has written a review of the Bart Ehrman book How Jesus Became God. Check it out here.

SOURCES

[1] C.W Morgan and R.A. Peterson, Theology in Community: The Deity of Christ (Wheaten: Crossway, 2011), 53-55.

 [2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] D. Boyrian, The Jewish Gospels (New York: The New Press, 2012), 39.

(5) Randall Price, The Concept of the Messiah in the Old Testament, available at  http://www.worldofthebible.com/Bible%20Studies/The%20Concept%20…;

[6] See R. Patai The Messiah Texts: Jewish Legends of Three Thousand Years (Detroit: Wayne State University Press), 1989.

[2]

[3]

[4]

[5] Randall Price, The Concept of the Messiah in the Old Testament at http://www.worldofthebible.com/Bible%20Studies/The%20Concept%20…;

[6]

[7]

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2 thoughts on “A Look at Bart Ehrman’s Christology

  1. jamesbradfordpate January 13, 2015 / 4:17 pm

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    Reblogging for future reference. Not sure if I entirely agree, since there is the issue of possible Christian interpolations; still, this post presents information about interpretations of the Son of Man.

  2. chab123 January 14, 2015 / 9:01 pm

    James, the earliest sources for Christology and the deity of Jesus are Paul’s Letters. If you go under our Historical Epistemology tab, there are resources on Paul. I haven’t seen any good evidence for interpolations in Paul.

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