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Early in 2016 a group of scholars gathered at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to debate the question: how did Jesus become God? I wish I had been there, because it is a question of interest to me. For those who know me and my work, I’ve worked on aspects of this question since the late 1980s when I was writing my dissertation.
Well, thanks to YouTube we can all be there to at least hear the comments and arguments of these scholars. I want to help you find them so I’ll post them here and eventually pull them together.
The first is a debate between Bart Ehrman and Mike Bird.
Click here for the link.
Or if you prefer, cut-and-past the URL to your browser:
How God Became Jesus
I’m heading to San Diego to attend the Annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting. I’m meeting with former and future publishers, scholars, and a variety of former students. One of my duties while there is to preside over a session of a program unit called The Extent of Theological Diversity in Earliest Christianity. The session will offer a panel review of Bart Ehrman’s new book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. The title and subtitle tells you the essential story; Ehrman suggests that Jesus was understood first as Jewish itinerant teacher from Galilee; only later did his disciples claim he is divine. How much time goes by he does not say, but apparently he thinks in some circles it happened early even though it took centuries for the language to be worked out in church councils. Accordingly, Jesus didn’t regard himself as divine in any sense, nor did his earliest disciples. Jesus was, in fact, an apocalyptic prophet who announced the end of the current evil age. He did believe and describe himself as the coming king of God’s future reign, the Messiah of God. Once the disciples came to believe that Jesus had conquered death and was exalted to God’s right hand, they came to hold to his divinity. It is an important new book, some say his most significant book to date.
The book is published by HarperOne, an imprint of Harper Collins. Interestingly, when Bart’s book was being prepared, someone got the idea to commission a group of other scholars to respond to the book. This happened at Zondervan, which is now part of the Christian Publishing Group of . . . yep, Harper Collins. Nice stroke. Both ways, they win. “Heads, I win. Tails, you lose.” So editors at Zondervan appointed Michael F. Bird of Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia to edit the book, and he assembled an impressive group of internationally recognized scholars to answer various aspects of Bart’s book. Their book is entitled How God Became Jesus The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature. On the cover it also says it is “a response to Bart D. Ehrman.” The scholars Bird assembled include: Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole, Charles Hill, Chris Tilling. Each scholar takes on a different challenge. For example, Craig Evans addresses the question of burial practices at the time of Jesus. Ehrman claims Jesus was not buried; instead, in keeping with what happened with other crucified persons, Jesus’ corpse became food for scavengers. If there was no burial, there could be no empty tomb, so those traditions must have been invented by early Christians convinced Jesus somehow conquered death. Professor Evans presents evidence that crucified people were occasionally buried and makes the further claim that Jesus must have been one of them. This is the way it goes. Point. Counterpoint.
Both books make an important contribution to the study of early Christianity, in particular how early Jesus’ followers came to regard him as divine. In the history of the west and of the Christian church this may well be one of its most significant chapters.
I am fortunate to be chair of an SBL Program Unit called: “The Extent of Theological Diversity in Earliest Christianity.”
Here is our description as listed on the SBL site:
Description: Focusing on the evidence for Jesus’ death and resurrection as a narrative used to shape the identity of emergent communities, and on the alternatives to this narrative preserved in early Christian sources, this Consultation explores the origin, nature and extent of theological diversity in earliest Christianity from the beginnings until approximately 180 CE. By fostering a conversation involving the testing of various reconstructions of early Christian history against the range of relevant evidence, the unit seeks to bring greater precision to the study of “orthodoxy and heresy in early Christianity.”
This fall one of the two sessions we will sponsor seeks to address the question: “How Did Jesus Become God?” Bart Ehrman has written a book on the topic and it will be published in March 2014 by HarperCollins. Here is the full title: How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Ehrman has agreed to let us offer a session in review of his book. We are in the process of putting together the panelists for the review session. Ehrman will give a response to his reviewers. I haven’t seen the book yet. I am still waiting for my advance copy.
Ironically, a daughter company of HarperCollins, Zondervan, commissioned a book in response which is scheduled to be published this spring as well. Michael Bird pulled together a group of contributors to “answer” Ehrman’s historical reconstruction. Other than himself these include Simon Gathercole, Chris Tilling, Craig Evans, and Charles Hill. Zondervan will release the book this March as well under the title: How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart Ehrman. Apparently HarperCollins shared the electronic manuscript of Ehrman’s book with Zondervan in order to provide—what can only be described as—a timely response. I’d be interested in how all of this happened. If you compare the front covers of each book, you can see how similar they are.
Needless to say this promises to be a great conversation over an important and controversial topic.
Here are some of the people we are talking with about being on the panel. I’ll announce the final panel in about a month:
Bart Ehrman, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Larry Hurtado, University of Edinburgh
Dale Martin, Yale University
Michael Bird, Ridley Melbourne College
James McGrath, Butler University
Craig Evans, Acadia Divinity College
If you are planning on being at SBL in San Diego in November 2014, be sure to look up our group and join us for the dialogue.