Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book review - How Jesus Became God

When I was a kid, the theology of the Jehovah's Witnesses provided much of what informed my belief system. Lucky for me, my parents never fully joined, but we basically had their belief system - like the whole bit about no birthday parties or "pagan" holidays. (You know, like Christmas.) Two things that really separated my beliefs from most Christians I knew was that I didn't believe in hell (at least, not as a place of eternal suffering) nor did I believe that Jesus and God were one and the same. From what I was taught, Jesus was a separate being - a "created" being by Jehovah. (That's the Latin version of Yahweh for those who don't know.)

I'm sure a lot of Christians find that idea to be ridiculous. After all, Jesus IS God. I mean...duh. Trinity. Same substance. All that stuff.

Turns out that the JW's would have been in good company back in Christianity's early days, as that was a point that took more than a few centuries to settle. Ultimately, the "Jesus is God" crowd won out, and that became the standard belief for the majority of Christians worldwide. I've learned all about this in many of the books by Bart D. Ehrman, who has written extensively on the historical Jesus. (I recommend Misquoting Jesus) as a good starting point.

Ehrman was an evangelical Christian who took it upon himself to study the New Testament and its historical roots. The more he learned, the more his faith began to slip away, as he discovered many problems with those books. What sorts of problems? Well, we don't have the original copies of any of them. The older copies don't match the newer copies (suggesting that scribes changed - deliberately sometimes - the text). We don't know the authors. And, some of the books we think were written by Paul probably weren't - yet they still made it into the Bible.

Ehrman is now an agnostic, but he very firmly states that we can be sure that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person who was crucified by the Romans. I understand that there are quite a few "mythicists" out there who have written books demonstrating that Jesus was a complete fabrication, and they have taken Ehrman to task for his assertions. Personally, I'm totally agnostic on this issue. I haven't read the arguments for a mythical Jesus, and I think that even if I did, it would take a great deal more studying to have an informed opinion. Let's just say that I have no problem accepting the idea that there really was a Jesus, even though much of his story has been embellished with miracles and all that good stuff. I feel the same way about Heracles though.

In How Jesus Became God, Ehrman goes back to the earliest writings on Jesus and makes a pretty convincing case that early Christians did not make the claim that he was one and the same as the God of the Old Testament. It was an idea that evolved over time. Not only that, but even the concept of "Son of God" evolved, as it didn't necessarily mean the same thing in its original context that we would think it means today.

Even if you haven't read Ehrman's other books, I think that this one is pretty accessible. He covers a lot of territory that he has elaborated on in his other books. (Lost Christianities is another good one.) But overall, this one stands on its own if you're primarily interested in learning how an apocalyptic preacher transformed in the minds of his followers into the Creator of the Universe. Obviously, if you're a Christian, you're probably going to dismiss what he has to say outright unless you're really open-minded to completely changing your world view. (I'm a bit skeptical in parts myself though. I don't take the man's every word as fact, but I think that he makes a pretty solid case for most of what he says.)

I was really glad to see him address the evidence of the empty tomb in this book. That's one of my pet peeves when it comes to Christian apologists. Many of them will assert the empty tomb of Jesus as "evidence" of him being God. There are many problems with this, including: they don't know where this tomb even was, the report of an empty tomb wasn't written by an eyewitness, there are plenty of natural explanations as to why a tomb would be empty, etc. What's even more important, and Ehrman brings it up, referencing one of my favorite scholars on this subject, John Dominic Crossan, is that it's highly unlikely that Jesus would be given a tomb in the first place. Part of the whole punishment involved in crucifixion is that you weren't given a proper burial - your body was left out for the birds and wild dogs to devour. It's not too hard to see why this particular part of the story would have been changed - as nobody wants a Dog Food Savior.

If you're like me, and find this whole topic interesting while not having any particular attachment to it - allowing your opinion to shift with the evidence - then I recommend checking it out.


Patrick Goggins said...

I read "How Jesus Became God" and the refutation, "How God Became Jesus." Both books explained how almost all Christologies - high and low - were around very early on, and how these Christologies were chronologically *eliminated,* from low to high, as the nascent church built its orthodoxy.

My comments, and these go to both books, are: 1) they assume that Jesus’s ministry was apocalyptic, when Crossan and others make a good case that Jesus’s ministry was sapiential – that is, present here now and attainable through good deeds and adhering to the law, and 2) that the Pauline epistles are the earliest source writings – when the Epistle of James the Just arguably pre-dates them.

For further discussion of these comments, and a thorough review of both books, please check out my Reader’s Guide to Bart Ehrman's How Jesus Became God.

This is the latest in a series which includes my best-selling Reader’s Guide to Reza Aslan’s Zealot , and my Reader’s Guide to Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus .

Lance Johnson said...

I'll check them out.