How Jesus Became God

How Jesus Became God: The Exhalation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee
© 2014 Bart Ehrman
416 pages


When did the early followers of Jesus of Nazareth begin to regard him as not just a prophet worth following, but actually divine?   Bart Ehrman builds off his previous work investigating the historical Jesus to follow how his subject became regarded as God – and what that meant — in the decades and centuries that followed his time on Earth.   In pursuit of the question, Ehrman explores ancient beliefs about deity, and  the many arguments that early Christians had as they were working out what was true and what it meant.  

The real question to consider, posits Ehrman, is not when Jesus became God, but what Christians meant by calling him god.  While the western world of today regards deity as something absolute and other – either a thing is divine or it isn’t —    the Greco-Roman world of our own past understood divinity as a spectrum, with a chief god or source of being on one end, followed by smaller gods like the Olympians, and still minor deities and spirits until at the very end the deistic surveyor arrived at we mere mortals, with only a spark of divinity inside us. There were often cases where the divine and humans mixed more than usual, though; Zeus and others often took on mortal form, and often bore children who were half-divine.  Because gods were enmeshed in physical reality – Poseiden and the ocean,   Osiris and the Nile –there was no concept of a real divide between the worlds of the gods and of men.  

Most educated westerners will have some appreciation of the above, but lesser known is the presence of a divine spectrum in Judaism – which, despite its role in giving the west a singular, absolute being,   also had semi-divine creatures – angels, for instance,  of varying grades and who in early stories consorted with humans and gave birth to giants.  The king of Israel had an exalted role and divine titles, and was regarded as a chosen son of God. Still later traits of God  were regarded as having a distinct existence – most notably, Wisdom, which is outright worshiped in books like  The Wisdom of Jesus, son of Sirach, and The Book of Wisdom,  Jewish tradition also held that certain people, like Enoch and Elijah, and escaped death and been taken into heaven bodily.

After examining the Gospels and other period texts,   Ehrman believes that Jesus was best understood in his own time as an apocalyptic prophet, one who preached that the end of the world was at hand, that the long drama of good versus evil was about to be concluded in a decisive victory for good, led by the Messiah.   Although Jesus never publicly announced himself to be the Messiah, his disciples certainly believed this to be the case – and when they came to believe he was risen,   he began being viewed as not merely the chosen one, but divine —  favored by God and raised to heaven as his own son.  It was the belief in his resurrection that truly set Jesus apart from other prophets of the day.  

What this divinity meant fluctuated much in the first few decades, as early Christians were influenced by both Jewish and Roman culture, and Jesus’ growing meaning took strength from both.  Against the claims of the Roman god-emperor came another Son of God, one who many regarded as the living incarnation of God’s logos.   The belief that Jesus had been chosen and adopted by God as his own at some point grew into a belief that Jesus had been the anointed one from his conception on – and still later, that Jesus had existed, with God, prior to creation and that his birth had been an incarnation of a spirit which already existed. Ultimately, several church councils were needed to establish a  creed that permitted consensus, and by the first Council of Nicaea, it was firmly believed that Jesus was God – although creeds often created ground for new argument once the old one had been settled.

Both believers and nonbelievers will find much of interest here, though any book that has a chapter on the Trinity has to get into the  weeds a bit. Although Ehrman’s outlook is secular, he isn’t hostile towards Christians,  and emphasizes time and again that he’s only writing about known facts, not matters left to belief or interpretation.   His careful review of Biblical and other texts allows for a fuller appreciation of the world in which the early church formed, particularly the many debates about what it meant for Jesus to be both God and man.  

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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