Jesus was a lower-class Jewish preacher from the backwaters of rural Galilee who was condemned for illegal activities and crucified for crimes against the state. Yet not long after his death, his followers were claiming that he was a divine being. Eventually they went even further, declaring that he was none other than God, Lord of heaven and earth. And so the question: How did a crucified peasant come to be thought of as the Lord who created all things? How did Jesus become God?
The full irony of this question did not strike me until recently, when I was taking a long walk with one of my closest friends. As we talked, we covered a number of familiar topics: books we had been reading, movies we had seen, philosophical views we were thinking about. Eventually we got around to talking about religion. Unlike me, my friend continues to identify herself as a Christian. At one point, I asked her what she considered to be the core of her beliefs. Her answer gave me pause. She said that, for her, the heart of religion was the idea that in Jesus, God had become a man.
One of the reasons I was taken aback by her response was that this used to be one of my beliefs as well—even though it hasn't been for years. As far back as high school, I had pondered long and hard this "mystery of faith," as found, for example, in John 1:1–2, 14: "In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father." Even before that, I had openly and wholeheartedly confessed the Christological statements of the Nicene Creed, that Christ was
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
But I had changed over the years, and now in middle age I am no longer a believer. Instead, I am a historian of early Christianity, who for nearly three decades has studied the New Testament and the rise of the Christian religion from a historical perspective. And now my question, in some ways, is the precise opposite of my friend's. As a historian I am no longer obsessed with the theological question of how God became a man, but with the historical question of how a man became God.
The traditional answer to this question, of course, is that Jesus in fact was God, and so of course he taught that he was God and was always believed to be God. But a long stream of historians since the late eighteenth century have maintained that this is not the correct understanding of the historical Jesus, and they have marshaled many and compelling arguments in support of their position. If they are right, we are left with the puzzle: How did it happen? Why did Jesus's early followers start considering him to be God?
In this book I have tried to approach this question in a way that will be useful not only for secular historians of religion like me, but also for believers like my friend who continue to think that Jesus is, in fact, God. As a result, I do not take a stand on the theological question of Jesus's divine status. I am instead interested in the historical development that led to the affirmation that he is God. This historical development certainly transpired in one way or another, and what people personally believe about Christ should not, in theory, affect the conclusions they draw historically.
The idea that Jesus is God is not an invention of modern times, of course. As I will show in my discussion, it was the view of the very earliest Christians soon after Jesus's death. One of our driving questions throughout this study will always be what these Christians meant by saying "Jesus is God." As we will see, different Christians meant different things by it. Moreover, to understand this claim in any sense at all will require us to know what people in the ancient world generally meant when they thought that a particular human was a god—or that a god had become a human. This claim was not unique to Christians. Even though Jesus may be the only miracle working Son of God that we know about in our world, numerous people in antiquity, among both pagans and Jews, were thought to have been both human and divine.
It is important already at this stage to stress a fundamental, historical point about how we imagine the "divine realm." By divine realm, I mean that "world" that is inhabited by superhuman, divine beings—God, or the gods, or other superhuman forces. For most people today, divinity is a black-and- white issue. A being is either God or not God. God is "up there" in the heavenly realm, and we are "down here" in this realm. And there is an unbridgeable chasm between these two realms. With this kind of assumption firmly entrenched in our thinking, it is very hard to imagine how a person could be both God and human at once.
Moreover, when put in these black-and- white terms, it is relatively easy to say, as I used to say before doing the research for this book, that the early Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke—in which Jesus never makes explicit divine claims about himself—portray Jesus as a human but not as God, whereas the Gospel of John—in which Jesus does make such divine claims—does indeed portray him as God. Yet other scholars forcefully disagree with this view and argue that Jesus is portrayed as God even in these earlier Gospels. As a result, there are many debates over what scholars have called a "high Christology," in which Jesus is thought of as a divine being (this is called "high" because Christ originates "up there," with God; the term Christology literally means "understanding of Christ") and what they have called a "low Christology," in which Jesus is thought of as a human being ("low" because he originates "down here," with us). Given this perspective, in which way is Jesus portrayed in the Gospels—as God or as human?
What I have come to see is that scholars have such disagreements in part because they typically answer the question of high or low Christology on the basis of the paradigm I have just described—that the divine and human realms are categorically distinct, with a great chasm separating the two. The problem is that most ancient people— whether Christian, Jewish, or pagan—did not have this paradigm. For them, the human realm was not an absolute category separated from the divine realm by an enormous and unbridgeable crevasse. On the contrary, the human and divine were two continuums that could, and did, overlap.
In the ancient world it was possible to believe in a number of ways that a human was divine. Here are two major ways it could happen, as attested in Christian, Jewish, and pagan sources (I will be discussing other ways in the course of the book):
* By adoption or exaltation. A human being (say, a great ruler or warrior or holy person) could be made divine by an act of God or a god, by being elevated to a level of divinity that she or he did not previously have.
* By nature or incarnation. A divine being (say, an angel or one of the gods) could become human, either permanently or, more commonly, temporarily.
One of my theses will be that a Christian text such as the Gospel of Mark understands Jesus in the first way, as a human who came to be made divine. The Gospel of John understands him in the second way, as a divine being who became human. Both of them see Jesus as divine, but in different ways.
Thus, before discussing the different early Christian views of what it meant to call Jesus God, I set the stage by considering how ancient people understood the intersecting realms of the divine and the human. In Chapter 1 I discuss the views that were widely held in the Greek and Roman worlds outside both Judaism and Christianity. There we will see that indeed a kind of continuum within the divine realm allowed some overlap between divine beings and humans—a matter of no surprise for readers familiar with ancient mythologies in which the gods became (temporarily) human and humans became (permanently) gods.
Somewhat more surprising may be the discussion of Chapter 2, in which I show that analogous understandings existed even within the world of ancient Judaism. This will be of particular importance since Jesus and his earliest followers were thoroughly Jewish in every way. And as it turns out, many ancient Jews, too, believed not only that divine beings (such as angels) could become human, but that human beings could become divine. Some humans were actually called God. This is true not only in documents from outside the Bible, but also—even more surprising—in documents within it.
After I have established the views of both pagans and Jews, we can move in Chapter 3 to consider the life of the historical Jesus. Here my focus is on the question of whether Jesus talked about himself as God. It is a difficult question to answer, in no small measure because of the sources of information at our disposal for knowing anything at all about the life and teachings of Jesus. And so I begin the chapter by discussing the problems that our surviving sources especially the Gospels of the New Testament—pose for us when we want to know historically what happened during Jesus's ministry. Among other things, I show why the majority of critical scholars for more than a century have argued that Jesus is best understood as an apocalyptic prophet who predicted that the end of the age was soon to arrive, when God would intervene in history and overthrow the forces of evil to bring in his good kingdom. Once the basic tenor of Jesus's public ministry is set, I move to a discussion of the events that led up to his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. At every point we will be intent on our one leading question for this chapter: How did Jesus understand and describe himself? Did he talk about himself as a divine being? I will argue that he did not.
These first three chapters can be seen as the backdrop to our ultimate concern: how Jesus came to be considered God. The short answer is that it all had to do with his followers' belief that he had been raised from the dead.
A great deal is written today about Jesus's resurrection, both by scholars who are true believers and apologists, who argue that historians can "prove" that Jesus was raised, and by skeptics who don't believe it for a second. It is obviously a fundamental issue for our deliberations. If the early Christians did not believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they would not have thought that he was different from any other unfortunate prophet who ended up on the wrong side of the law and was executed for his troubles. But Christians did think Jesus was raised, and, as I argue, that changed everything.
From a historical perspective there is an obvious question: What, actually, can we know about the resurrection? Here we enter into highly controversial topics, some of which I have changed my mind about in the course of doing my research for this book. For years I had thought that whatever else we might think about the stories of Jesus's resurrection, we could be relatively certain that immediately after his death he was given a decent burial by Joseph of Arimathea and that on the third day some of his female followers found his tomb empty. I no longer think that these are relatively certain historical data; on the contrary, I think both views (his burial and his empty tomb) are unlikely. And so, in Chapter 4 I deal with what I think we as historians simply cannot know about the traditions surrounding Jesus's resurrection.
In Chapter 5 I turn to what I think we almost certainly can know. Here I argue that the evidence is unambiguous and compelling: some of Jesus's disciples claimed that they saw him alive after he had died. But how many of his disciples had these "visions" of Jesus? (I leave open the question of whether they had these visions because Jesus really appeared to them or because they were having hallucinations—for reasons I explain in the chapter.) When did they have them? And how did they interpret them?
My overarching contention is that belief in the resurrection—based on visionary experiences—is what initially led the followers of Jesus (all of them? some of them?) to believe that Jesus had been exalted to heaven and made to sit at the right hand of God as his unique Son. These beliefs were the first Christologies—the first understandings that Jesus was a divine being. I explore these "exaltation" views of our earliest surviving sources in Chapter 6.
In Chapter 7 I move to a different set of Christological views that developed later and that maintained that Jesus was not simply a human who had been exalted to the level of divinity, but a preexistent divine being with God before he came to earth as a human. I show the key similarities and differences between this "incarnation" view of Christ (in which he "became flesh"—the literal meaning of the word incarnation) with the earlier "exaltation" Christologies. Moreover, I explore key passages that embody understandings of the incarnation in such books as the Gospel of John, the last of the canonical Gospels to be written.
In the following chapters we will see that Christians living after the New Testament was written—into the second, third, and fourth centuries—developed views of Christ even further, with some Christians taking positions that were eventually denounced as "heresies" (or "false") and others asserting views that were accepted as "orthodox" (or "right"). Chapter 8 deals with some of the heretical "dead ends" taken by Christian theologians of the second and third centuries. Some of these thinkers claimed that Jesus was fully human but not divine; others said he was fully divine but not human; yet others said that Jesus Christ was in fact two beings, one divine and the other human, only temporarily united during Jesus's ministry. All of these views came to be declared as "heresies," as did yet other views that were put forward by Christian leaders who, ironically, wanted nothing more than to embrace ideas that were "orthodox."
The debates over the nature of Christ were not resolved by the end of the third century but came to a head in the early fourth century after the conversion of the emperor Constantine to the Christian faith. By then, the vast majority of Christians firmly believed that Jesus was God, but the question remained, "in what sense?" It is in this early fourth-century context that battles were waged in the "Arian controversy," which I explore in Chapter 9. The controversy is named after Arius, an influential Christian teacher of Alexandria, Egypt, who held to a "subordinationist" view of Christ—that is, Jesus was God, but he was a subordinate deity who was not at the same level of glory as God the Father; moreover, he had not always existed with the Father. The alternative point of view was espoused by Arius's own bishop, Alexander, who maintained that Christ was a being who had always existed with God and that he was, by nature, equal with God. The ultimate denunciation of Arius's view led to the formation of the Nicene Creed, which is still recited in churches today.
Finally, in the epilogue, I deal with the consequences of these particular theological disputes after they were resolved. Once Christians far and wide accepted the view that Jesus had been fully God from eternity, equal with the Father, how did this affect the various disputes Christians had, for example, with the Romans who had earlier persecuted them and whose emperor had been widely believed to be a god? Or with Jews who were now accused not just of killing Christ, but even of killing God? Or with one another as debates over the nature of Christ continued apace, with increasingly greater nuance, for a very long time indeed?
These later debates are intriguing, and highly significant, in their own right. But my strong contention is that they cannot be understood without grasping the history of what went before. And so in our historical sketch we will be particularly interested in the key Christological question of them all: How is it that the followers of Jesus came to understand him as divine in any sense of the term? What made them think that Jesus, the crucified preacher from Galilee, was God?
From How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee by Bart D. Ehrman. Copyright 2014 by Bart D. Ehrman. Excerpted by permission of HarperOne.