The Exaltation of Jesus and Others - The Christology Debate


7.   The Christology Debate

Christology is the study of the nature of Christ and his divinity.  The adjective ‘divine’ refers to (1) one who is a deity, or (2) relating to or preceeding directly from God.  Jesus can become divine in one of two ways:

A ‘low’ Christology starts with Jesus as a human who is then exalted by God.  This may also be called an adoptionist Christology, as shown by the wordings at his baptism and transfiguration.  Jesus is raised in status by either exaltation or adoption.   Bart Ehrman prefers to call this an exaltation Christology [BE3b, 232, 249].

A ‘high’ Christology takes Jesus to be a pre-existent divine being before he came into the world.  ‘Incarnation’ literally means ‘became flesh.’  The bible allows for a divine being (an angel or god) becoming human, but in most cases it is temporary.

In 2014 two books were published debating which of these Christologies best described the earliest Christian understandings:

Ehrman, Bart D.  How Jesus Became God: the exaltation of a Jewish preacher from Galilee. HarperOne, 2014.   He usually quotes the NRSV.  [BE3b]

Bird, Michael F, Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, and Chris Tilling.  How God Became Jesus: the real origins of belief in Jesus’ divine nature – a response to Bart Ehrman.  Zondervan, 2014.  They usually quote the NIV, which is favored by evangelicals.  [HGBJ]

Ehrman’s point of view has also been supported by these two recent books by qualified non-Christian scholars of early Christianity:

Fredriksen, Paula. From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. A comparison of the earliest Christian views of Jesus and the latter views.  [PF4]

Wilson, Barrie.  How Jesus Became Christian.  Random House Canada, 2008.  [BW1]

The majority of Christian scholars believe that the incarnationist Christology applied to most of both the early and later Christians; their books are too numerous to list.  Both sides agree that the synoptic gospels contain a mix of the two Christologies, as they were never written with a consistent and coherent point of view.

7.1       Ehrman’s Beliefs

Dr. Bart Ehrman has a PhD in Christian theology, but has changed his position over time to being an agnostic (in terms of what we can prove) and an atheist (in terms of what he believes).  In his book, How Jesus Became God, Ehrman presents these beliefs:

  1. “Many traditions in the Gospels do not derive from the life of the historical Jesus but represent embellishments made by storytellers who were trying to convert people by convincing them of Jesus’ superiority and to instruct those who were converted.” [BE3b, 127].
  2. Both the exaltation and incarnation Christologies are found throughout each of the synoptic gospels, likely because those books reported many things and did not try to harmonize the thinking. Explicit claims to Jesus’ divinity in John are secondary and unreliable stories written by the author of John.  These are not Jesus’ words; they are John’s words placed on Jesus’ lips” [BE3b, 271].
  3. Five modern scholars (E.P. Sanders, Geza Vermes, Dale Allison, Paula Fredriksen and Bart Ehrman) all agree that “Jesus did not spend his ministry declaring himself to be divine.” [BE3b, 88]. “One of the enduring findings of modern [liberal] scholarship on the NT and early Christianity over the past two centuries is that the followers of Jesus, during his life, understood him to be human through and through, not God.”  [BE3b, 44].
  4. Despite modern Christian teachings, Jesus did NOT consider himself to be the Son of Man, but he did think that he would be the king of the kingdom of God soon to be brought by a future Son of Man. [BE3b, 119, 126].
  5. The Romans would never allow Joseph of Arimathea or any other Jew to bury Jesus’ body in a known grave, so the story of the burial in a known tomb and the finding of the empty tomb is likely untrue [BE3b, 164].
  6. The only reliable reports of the post-crucifixion appearances of Christ are the reports of visions. This is supported by: (1) his list of NT stories of followers who do not recognize the raised Christ, and followers who express doubts [BE3b, 190-2]; and (2) the fact that ten to twenty percent of modern human beings have visions of recently deceased loved ones [BE3b, 195-199].  It is not surprising that some of the grieving disciples believed they had seen the risen Jesus, but these were just visions.
  7. Jesus “believed and taught that he was the future king of the coming kingdom of God, the messiah of God yet to be revealed. This was the message he delivered to his disciples, and in the end, it was the message that got him crucified.  It was only afterward, once the disciples believed that their crucified master had been raised from the dead, that they began to think that he must, in some sense, be God.” [BE3b, 128]
  8. With the passing of time, Jesus went from being a potential (human) messiah; to being the Son of God exalted to a divine status at his resurrection; to being the incarnation of the Word of God who existed before all time and through whom the world was created; to being God himself, equal with God the Father and always existent with him. [BE3b, 353].

7.2       Four Issues

As noted above, five Christian scholars have written a rebuttal to Ehrman’s book entitled How God Became Jesus: the real origins of belief in Jesus’ divine nature [HGBJ].  Here we discuss just four of the issues they raise.

(1)       NT support for an exalted Christ. 

An exalted Christology is supported by these NT passages about his life:

  • At his conception by the Holy Spirit, as found in Mt 1.20-21 and Lk 1.31-33.
  • At his birth, where both the Magi (Mt 2.1-12) and the shepherds (Lk 2.8-20) revered him.
  • At his baptism, a voice from heaven says, “You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased” (Mk 1.9-11). In some versions, Luke quotes Ps 2.7, saying “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” (Lk 3.22).
  • In Luke’s version of the transfiguration, the voice from the cloud says “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Lk 9.35).

An exaltation Christology is also supported by three passages in the NT that are recognized as pre-literary traditions.  These are the earliest ideas about Jesus that appear to be quotations from the earliest Christians, made before the writing of the NT books, where the authors also express their own opinions about Christ.

In Acts 5.30-31, Peter tells the Jewish leaders:  “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.  God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”  This exaltation occurs after the resurrection, and not from the beginning of time.

In Rom 1.3-4, Paul says:  “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be [designated] Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by [his] resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”  The footnote says ‘spirit of holiness’ probably means the Holy Spirit, but Paul never uses that phrase elsewhere.  That phrase is a semitic phrase, indicating that this passage was likely spoken in Aramaic, and is therefore an early formulation [BE3b,223].  The words [designated] and [his] are found in the RSV but not the NRSV.  Note that his exaltation occurs at his resurrection.  This is a pre-Pauline tradition. [BE3b, 218-225, 353].

In Phil 2.6-11, Paul provides us with a transitional Christology that combines elements of both types [BE3b, 266].  Phil 2.7b-10 reads:  “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

These examples show that the NT contains significant support for an exaltationist Christology amongst the earliest Christians.  Ehrman was right.

(2)       Burial in a Known Grave

Was Jesus buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a known grave, as stated with multiple attestation in all four gospels ( Matt 27.57-61, Mk 15.43-47, Lk 23.50-53, Jn 19.38-42)?

Bart Ehrman says “it is highly unlikely that Jesus was decently buried on the day of his execution in a tomb that anyone could later identify.”  His arguments are: [BE3b, 157-164]

  • We do not know, and cannot know, what actually happened to Jesus’s body. It was normal to let the bodies of crucified criminals decompose and be eaten by scavengers.  Another possibility for criminals was burial in an unmarked common grave.  There is some evidence for both of these statements about Roman practices.
  • Pontius Pilate showed no sensitivity to Jewish practices. This second point is not completely true, since Pilate needed the cooperation of Jewish leaders to keep Jerusalem peaceful, and he freed Barabas at the request of the Jewish crowd.

Craig Evans answered Ehrman’s views with the following points [HGBJ, 75-93]:

  • It was in fact Roman practice, under various circumstances, to permit bodies of the crucified to be taken down and buried.
  • Some Roman laws say the bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives, and the bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial.
  • Jewish law would have insisted on requesting the body for burial, and before the sunset of the day; Both Philo and Josephus claim that Roman administrators in fact did acquiesce to Jewish customs – numerous examples are given;
  • According to law and custom, when the Jewish Council condemned someone to death, by whatever means, it fell to the council to have that person buried properly, but not in a place of honour. Joseph of Arimathea did this for the council.
  • There is archaeological evidence that crucified persons were buried: their bones found in ossuaries often have the nails of crucifixion still embedded in them; and when the nails are not attached, they have calcium deposits from the adjacent bones.
  • As shown in three other NT passages, the recently dead were washed, usually perfumed, and then wrapped for their initial burial. One year later, the bones were gathered and placed in a bone niche or an ossuary (bone box).
  • The near-east archaeologist Jodi Magness says “the gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial are consistent with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law.”
  • Evans argues that the Pharisees (including Paul) and others expected any resurrection to be of some sort of body, so an empty tomb must be part of the proof of resurrection.

Evans’ arguments are convincing; on this point Ehrman is wrong.  Jesus’ body was prepared and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea; and some women came on the morning of the third day and found the known tomb empty.  However, the reports of what the women saw at the tomb, apart from an empty tomb, are very contradictory and thus unreliable.  What figure(s) did they see?  Was the stone rolled back or not?

(3)       The Son of Man

In the four gospels, Jesus used the phrase ‘Son of Man’ many times, applied to both current and future activities.  It is likely that the phrase was known to the Jews as coming from Ezekiel 2.1-6, Daniel 7.13-14, and 1 Enoch 37-91.  However, none of his disciples ever called him that name, and neither did Paul!  So we must ask if Jesus was referring to himself as the Son of Man in any of these passages?

The Christian apologist Michael Bird claims the many sayings about a future Son of Man are best understood with Jesus as the intended subject; and Jesus appears to have understood himself as the figure in Daniel 7.13-14, who would be enthroned beside God on God’s own throne.  [HGBJ, 19, 61-67].

However, according to one Bible dictionary, “There is some discussion as to whether the historical Jesus actually used this term, and if so, did he mean it as a reference to himself or to a divine deliverer he believed was coming?  Or is the term a post-Easter title retrojected by the Gospel authors upon the pre-Easter Jesus?” [Bdict, 984].  A second bible dictionary suggests that Jesus may have chosen ‘Son of Man’ as a safe phrase, since calling himself ‘Son of God’ or ‘Messiah’ would have met with objections from the Jewish leaders. [ZIBD, 1383]

The issue here is that the Christian apologists, in the majority, think Jesus was referring to himself as the Son of Man but Ehrman thinks he was not.

We will examine the question of the correct interpretation of the NT usage of the phrase ‘Son of Man’ in three steps.

  1. First, we put aside John’s gospel because its theological emphasis makes it unlikely to have recorded what Jesus really said. This is common practice among most liberal scholars.
  2. Secondly, we examine the text of the three synoptic gospels, taken at face value. And finally, in step 3 (below), we discuss the question of how many sayings might have been retrojected into the synoptic gospels by authors who already believed that Jesus was the Son of Man during his lifetime.

Not counting duplicates (passages repeated in two or three gospels), there are 39 different passages using ‘Son of Man’ in the three synoptic gospels.  Twenty apply to Jesus being the Son of Man during his lifetime.  The other nineteen apply to the Son of Man who is to come, whoever that might be.  Thus, the passages have been classified into four categories as follows:

JL       Jesus – Lifetime    20 passages.  ‘Son of Man’ refers to Jesus Himself during his Lifetime.  These include references to his expected betrayal, suffering and death.  Three examples are:  Mt 9:6  “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—’Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.”
Lk 7:34   “the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”  Mt 20:18  “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death;”

JF        Jesus – Future  5 passages.   ‘Son of Man’ refers to Jesus Himself as one who will come in the Future, starting with his resurrection.  Two examples are: Mk 9:9  “As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”   Mt 19:28  “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

IF        Indeterminate – Future 10 passages.  Here, it is not clear if references to the ‘Son of Man’ in the future refer to Jesus or Another person.  Three examples are:   Lk 12:10 “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”  Mt 26:64  “Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”  Lk 18:8  “I tell you, he [God] will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

AF       Another – Future  4 passages.   ‘Son of Man’ seems to refer to Another person, not Jesus, coming in the Future.  Two examples are:  Mt 24:30  Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.”  Lk 21:36  “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

To summarize, we have 20 passages where Jesus is apparently already the Son of Man (JL); 5 passages where he is clearly presented as the future Son of Man (JF); and 14 passages where the future Son of Man is not clearly identified (IF, 10) or where he is clearly someone other than Jesus (AF, 4).

  1. Thus, we reach the third part of the assessment: How many of the NT references to the Son of Man are historical? Here are three of the problems: (1)  In the JL category, why does Jesus almost always refer to the Son of Man in the third person (as if the Son of Man were another person) when he is supposedly referring to himself?  (2) Why do none of his disciples, not even the three leaders (Peter, James and John) ever refer to him by that title?  Neither does Paul.  (3) There are also contradictions between the references in the four different categories.  Maybe Jesus could be both the present and future Son of Man, but what about the references (AF and IF) that do not appear to refer to Jesus?   All things considered, something is wrong here.

The best solution is to think that the historical truth is that ‘Son of Man’ only referred to a being coming in the future, but it was improperly retrojected by the believing gospel authors as a description of the living Jesus also.  This explains why he seems to refer to himself in the third person, and why none of his disciples ever called him Son of Man.  This was Bart Ehrman’s solution, and it is the best solution.

(4)       Levels of Divinity

Both sides agree that the synoptic gospels contain a mix of the two Christologies, as they were never written with a consistent and coherent point of view.  They also agree that the idea that Jesus is God was the view of the very earliest Christians soon after his death.  About this, Ehrman asks, “But in what sense, or in what way?”  [BE3b, 3]   The Christian apologists agree that this is a good question, but provide a different answer. [HGBJ, 118]

In Mark 2.1-12 Jesus heals a paralytic by saying his sins are forgiven.  The scribes object, saying “who can forgive sins but God alone?”   Ehrman says that “Jesus may be claiming a priestly prerogative, but not a divine one,” while Bird says Jesus is not a Levite and he wasn’t in the temple, and only a priest in the temple can forgive sins [HGBJ, 58].  This claim is too narrow.  Ehrman is correct!

Simon Cathercole argues that angels are on a different level than God and Jesus
[HGBJ, 101].  Chris Tilling thinks that Ehrman’s use of the word ‘divine’ is too broad. [HGBJ, 117-133].  This dispute is because Ehrman thinks there are levels of divinity.  For example, he thinks that angels are lower than God, and even angels have their own hierarchy of divinity.  Angels sometimes cross the barrier and come to earth.  Ehrman is right, but he would have been better understood if he used ‘supernatural’ instead of ‘divine.’

Ehrman says Jews also thought there were divine humans; and that divinities could become human.  He has a whole section on ‘humans who become divine’ in Judaism [BE3b, 30].   Ehrman says “It is absolutely the case that by the time of Jesus and his followers most Jews were almost certainly monotheists.  But even as they believed that there was only one God Almighty, it was widely held that there were other divine beings – angels, cherubim, seraphim, principalities, powers, hypostases.  Moreover, there was some sense of continuity – not only discontinuity – between the divine and human realms.”  [BE3b, 83].

7.3       Conclusions on the Christology Debate

Ehrman is right in thinking that:

  • Jesus did not see himself as the Son of Man – the relevant texts were retrojections;
  • Jesus can forgive sins without being a priest;
  • Some of the disciples believed they had seen the risen Christ, but these were just visions;
  • There was some sense of continuity between the divine and human realms; and
  • Many of his earliest followers saw Jesus as being exalted or adopted to God-like status within Judaism, at his baptism or his resurrection – an exaltationist Christology;

Ehrman is wrong in thinking that:

  • Jesus was not buried in a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea, and subsequently found to be empty by the women;
  • Paul saw Jesus as a human exalted to divinity – although Paul’s writings are mixed, most of them are closer to the incarnationist Christology.
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