Although the author wrote many books in between, I see this as a good follow-up to “Misquoting Jesus.” In the first book, Ehrman established that what we have in our New Testament today has been modified extensively over the centuries. We probably won’t really know what the “original” sources looked like, but by examining what’s left and applying critical thinking, we can at least lay a baseline. For instance, one method scholars use to determine veracity of early documents is the criterion of dissimilarity: if something would have been unlikely for an early Christian to have wanted to add it, then we can consider it more authentic. There are other methods, all of which are like applying psychological detective work to long ago history.
Now in “How Jesus Became God”, Ehrman looks at the reasons for Christianity’s belief in a divine Jesus. He starts by pointing out that myths and stories about people becoming divine, or divine beings becoming human for a time, were not uncommon in the time period. One example who can actually be described in very similar fashion to Jesus was Apollonius. What we can, with high probability, say about the life of Jesus: he was baptized by John, was an apocalyptic preacher who declared a soon-to-come kingdom of God on earth, and was executed for teaching that Jesus himself would be the Messiah, God’s chosen king in that kingdom. (Ehrman suggests that this latter teaching, of Jesus as future king, was the secret that Judas betrayed to the authorities.)
“Jesus began his ministry by associating with a fiery apocalyptic preacher, and in the wake of his death enthusiastically apocalyptic communities of followers emerged. The beginning was apocalyptic and the end was apocalyptic. How could the middle not be?”
So how did we get from the life of Jesus, a man, to the concept of Jesus as God? If you know the New Testament you might think the answer is obvious: because Jesus said he was the Son of God. But all those passages can be shown to be later additions. “…the followers of Jesus, during his life, understood him to be a human through and through, not God.” In Ehrman’s hypothesis, Jesus was not thought of as anything more than a holy man during his life. But then, after his death, his followers began to believe that he had been resurrected. This was the key that caused early Christians to re-evaluate the teachings of Jesus, and to retrofit his identify as more-or-less God himself.
What caused them to believe in the resurrection? Ehrman points out that leaving bodies up on the cross to rot and be eaten by scavengers was a big part of the punishment of crucifixion – it would have been unusual to allow someone to be taken down only a few hours after death. The tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea is probably an invented story. The belief in resurrection could have been due to visions experienced by a few key followers, namely Peter, Paul, and Mary. Ehrman notes that ~10% of people (P. McKellar 1968, T.B. Posey 1982, A.Y. Tien 1991) have reported vivid visions or hallucinations at some point in their life, not uncommonly during the grieving period for a loved one who has unexpectedly passed (“bereavement visions”). The accounts of Jesus appearing physically to all the disciples were probably added later – stories of doubters remain but don’t make sense if he was actually physically there; they do make sense if the doubters were only doubting the visions that others reported.
Continuing the evolution of beliefs, Ehrman posits that the early Christians first subscribed to a “low” or “exaltation” christology: that Jesus was a man, who was exalted at his death to semi-divine status, as evidenced by the miraculous resurrection. The earlier gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke, mostly support this view of Jesus. (Note that Ehrman mostly rejects John as historical as it is much different in tone and a much later addition — 90 AD. John is the source of virtually all of Jesus’s own clear divinity claims. I can picture the apologists: “easy to argue your claims when you throw out our most powerful source!”)
In not so many years, the low christology became a high, or “incarnation” christology: that Jesus was a pre-existing divine being, who came down to earth as a human. Ehrman admits something is not quite right with his timeline, since the earliest parts of the New Testament, the Pauline epistles written about 50 AD, suggest a high christology but the early gospels, not written until 65 AD at the earliest, suggest a low christology. Some speculation is that the oral traditions which later became the early gospels pre-existed Paul, but were just not written down yet, or at least not in any form we still have. (For that matter, consider that the whole of early Christian belief was not written down for many years, but was like the game of telephone. We don’t have any original sources written in Aramaic, the language of Jesus and his immediate followers, but only in Greek.)
As time went on, doctrine continued to be molded and heresies (which are only ideas which ultimately were not accepted by the church) pronounced as scholars and leaders tried to reconcile incompatible scripture. Witness the admittedly weird doctrine of Trinity: God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are One, but separate. Jesus was fully divine, but also fully human. What does that even mean?? The heresy of Marcion was particularly interesting. He thought the God of the Jews and the God of Jesus were separate beings, one a god of justice who established the law, and the other a god of mercy who provided the means (Jesus) to save us from the law.
This is a fascinating book, particularly for someone with a Christian background. Part of me wonders, is this really true? Is Ehrman just spouting off lies from the devil, trying to lead me astray? I think, ultimately, belief is a choice; we can never know the truth of practically anything, much less the truth of events which occurred two thousand years ago. But Ehrman and his colleagues are the world experts – in a blog post, Ehrman points out that his views are more or less the consensus of bible scholars at all the major universities in America; after all they use his textbook. They are the heirs of many before them and the torch-bearers holding the best reconstruction of events that humanity can muster.
The exception, people who disagree with him, come from the evangelical bible college and fundamentalist apologetic community. Something in this disagreement strikes very deep, and is very similar to what I’ve noticed in researching Mormonism lately. If truth is what you are after, then you should consider the merits of all sources and all sides. Weigh the evidence, and see where it leads. Pre-supposing a conclusion is what I see apologists do time after time. Sure, you can cherry-pick little details which support your position. That’s what flat earthers and anti-vaxxers do, too. But looking at the big picture and deciding what the whole of the evidence suggests is the more sound method.
I wholeheartedly admit I am not and will never be an expert on the bible, or early Christian history, or early Mormon history, or anything really. Relying on the consensus of experts, while not totally abandoning our own critical thinking and realizing that we will never know the whole “truth”, seems like the best option we have.
This is a very readable introduction to textual criticism of the New Testament. Ehrman begins with his background as a youth in an evangelical church, one which accepted the Bible as the unerring word of God. As he studied more, however, he realized that we most definitely don’t have the original words of the New Testament in our Bibles today – so how can we claim that the Bible is the pure, unadulterated word of God? Especially in the first few centuries after Christ, individual books were written, passed around among congregations, and copied – sometimes with unintentional mistakes; sometimes with intentional changes to “correct” what was read to better reflect the scribe’s own beliefs.
Textual criticism is the process of trying to figure out what the originals actually said, generally by examining as many ancient manuscripts as possible. (The earliest known manuscript of what’s now in our New Testament is a short copy of a part of John 18 dated to the early second century.) Scholars trace the origins of these manuscripts (ie. find out what versions they themselves are copies of) and examine the historical context of their authors to determine what version is “right” when there are differences. And there are many differences – Ehrman says more differences than there are words in the New Testament. But, he also acknowledges that the vast majority of these are fairly inconsequential. The remainder, though, can really change how the whole story is interpreted…
Ehrman points out what are probably the most striking examples in our modern Bibles which are almost certainly different from the originals. While most changes are a word or phrase, there are two rather large passages which don’t seem to be in the originals – one is the story of the woman taken in adultery – “he who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone”; the other is the “longer ending” of the end of the book of Mark.
Most divergence occurred in the first few centuries, when congregations were small and not yet formalized, the doctrine was in flux, and professional scribes were not always available. These “errors” take on three forms:
- changes to support a particular doctrinal belief or agenda. One interesting one of these was Marcion – his philosophy was that the God of the Old Testament was separate from the God of the New Testament, who sent Jesus to save us from the God of the OT.
- Simple transcription errors: there just weren’t that many literate people; some early scribes could only copy letters but not understand them.
- Recognizing errors due to 1 and 2 and attempting to correct, but without access to any better sources.
The whole question of scriptural validity was very important during the Protestant Reformation. The basic Protestant premise was that authority could be obtained from following the Bible alone, whereas Catholics claimed a historical authority from the apostles in the form of pope and priesthood. Pointing out changes to the scripture would seem to weaken the Protestant position. In response to something called Mill’s Apparatus, which pointed out thousands of errors in the commonly accepted Greek Bible vs earlier sources, Daniel Whitby ceded that the Bible may not be original, but claimed that God would not allow text to be corrupted so much to not adequately achieve its divine purpose.
Interestingly, the Greek translation that was in common use in Mill’s day was largely a product of Erasmus, who produced a side-by-side printing in Greek and Latin. It was something of a rushed effort. In some cases, he lacked Greek sources so he translated from the Latin Vulgate (4th century, Jerome) back into Greek…not original at all!
In the book’s conclusion, Ehrman returns to his own biography. Since God obviously didn’t somehow miraculously preserve the original words of the Bible, he reasoned, maybe they weren’t inspired in the first place at all? But then he thought that even if we did have the original books of the Bible, they would still be different and focus on different details, maybe even be contradictory, simply because they are the product of (or at least were given as intermediary to) very human authors, with their own beliefs and “agenda” – just like the scribes who would later copy them. As an example, he points out the passion stories in Mark and Luke — Mark portrays Jesus in despair and full of suffering, while Luke’s Christ is calm, in control, and accepting of his fate as necessary for the salvation of all. While it is accepted that Luke used Mark as a major source when writing his own Gospel, he chose to focus on something completely different.
Ehrman: “Readers completely misinterpret Luke” when they “take what Mark says, and take what Luke says, then take what Matthew and John say and meld them all together, so that Jesus says and does all this things that each of the Gospel writers indicate. Anyone who interprets the Gospels this way is not letting each author have his own say; anyone who does this is not reading what the author wrote in order to understand his message; anyone who does this is not reading the Gospels themselves – he is making up a new Gospel consisting of the four in the New Testament, a new Gospel that is not like any of the ones that have come down to us.”