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How God Became Jesus

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.How Jesus Became God

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.How God Become Jesus

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.

The Early High Christology Club

I am a card-carrying member of The Early High Christology Club (EHCC).  Well, in the spirit of full disclosure we don’t actually have cards, we have a mug.  It is a highly sought-after prize.  If you are mug-worthy and see one, do everything you can short of stealing it to get one.  Carey Newman of Baylor University Press, also an EHCC charter member, made the first investment in the mugs.  A bit of explanation is in order.EHCC mug

The Early High Christology Club is a loose affiliation of scholars who have written books or articles arguing that the early followers of Jesus—as early as we have evidence—had a high Christology, that is, their assessment of his significance included that he was, in some sense, divine. Now this is actually an historical conclusion based on our reading of the literary evidence; it does not depend on any confession. The earliest evidences we have in the New Testament or any Christian sources are the letters of Paul; so much of this historical construct has been built upon a close reading of his letters.  There are all sorts of issues involved: how did Paul and other NT writers express their “Christology”? what kind of language was used? where did that language come from?  how does this comport with their reading of the Christian Bible, the Septuagint? how early is “early”? how high is “high”? –how did these early Jewish Christians regard Jesus as divine without setting aside their monotheistic heritage?  Paul, for example, claims to be a monotheist and yet he appears to regard Jesus as divine (e.g., 1 Cor 8.6; Phil 2:5-11).  If Jesus were divine, then did early Christians worship him?  If so, did they worship him the same way they would have worshiped God?

Not all people agree, of course, with the members of the EHCC.  There is the Late, Low and Slow Club (LLSC)—though I don’t think they have a mug—which concludes that the early followers of Jesus regarded him as a human being only. Many decades later when Christianity moved beyond the constraints of its Jewish heritage, Christians began to regard Jesus as divine. The LLSC posits a lengthy period of development from a low to a high Christology, anywhere from 60 to 100 years.   Now, members of the EHCC also posit a period of development in the Church’s Christology, but they think this development happened rapidly, perhaps even within a few years after Jesus’ crucifixion.

Founding member, Larry Hurtado, presents an official EHCC mug to Professor Martin Hengel (seen here with his wife)
Founding member, Larry Hurtado, presents an official EHCC mug to Professor Martin Hengel (seen here with his wife)

The EHCC meets regularly and informally at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.  Carey Newman and Larry Hurtado, distinguished (now retired) Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh, co-sponsor the annual gathering.  Carey provides the room.  Larry brings the food and drink.  Stories are told.  Friends catch up. There is a lot of laughter.  At a given moment in our gathering someone recites our founding myth.  Some who have heard it say that it is so good it cannot possibly be true; but those of us who were there know it happened just as we say.