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:
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:
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]
Craig Evans answered Ehrman’s views with the following points [HGBJ, 75-93]:
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.
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).
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:
Ehrman is wrong in thinking that: