Bart Ehrman is one of the most highly regarded New Testament scholars of the modern day, and a persistent thorn in the side of Evangelical Christians. Like many well-respected Biblical Scholars in academia, Ehrman’s notions don’t exactly support conservative, religious views of the Bible, and he says as much in the majority of his books. But his latest book may have some seeds for hope in conservative circles.
No, Ehrman has not converted (re-converted?). His latest book does not state that Jesus was God, rose from the dead, is the savior of mankind, or anything so blatant. However, the things it does say are worthy of heavy consideration, especially in comparison to some of Ehrman’s previous stances.
Ehrman’s new book, How Jesus Became God: The Exultation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, looks at the development of the notion that Jesus was the same person as God.
“A lot of people have this misconception that it was at the Council of Nicaea that Jesus was ‘decided’ to be God, which is absolutely wrong.”
“It gets a little complicated, which is why it takes a whole book to explain it, but the basic idea I have is that in the Greek and Roman worlds, there were ideas that some human beings were made divine – the become divine by being exalted.
“There are other stories in the Greek and Roman world where a divine being becomes a human. So in one case, you have the exaltation of a human being to divinity, and in another case you have the incarnation of divinity into a human.
“I think John has the incarnation view, and I think the synoptic Gospels have the exultation view.”
Bart then cites a passage in Philippians to show that Paul had a combination view of these two.
So clearly Bart has not adopted a conservative position on this topic. So why is this good news for Evangelicals? On the same episode of Unbelievable?, conservative Christian scholar Simon Gathercole comments:
“I thought ‘Oh this is just another evolutionary tale which is just a re-hashing of an old idea …where Jesus starts off as a rabbi or even a prophet and then becomes Messiah, and then becomes Lord, and then becomes pre-existent, and then becomes God.
“What I was anticipating was that the earliest Jewish Christians sort of had a rigid conception of monotheism and then when you get out of the Jewish environment and take Jesus out into the wild and wacky pagan world, then he can be called a god.
“Bart’s whole approach to the question is very different from that, and it was refreshing to see a different take.”
There are two key points in this book upon which conservatives may pin some hope. The first is that Bart has, indeed, changed his mind on several historical facts surrounding the resurrection and the rise of Christianity:
“I did think that people didn’t come out and call Jesus God for decades after his resurrection – that they had a different understanding of Jesus – and I’ve changed my mind, when I wrote this book.”
Ehrman has come to the conclusion that the Christian ideals about the deity of Jesus are far earlier than scholars have previously been willing to admit. This being so, the writings of otherwise liberal and unbelieving scholars such as Ehrman may be adopted into the defense of an early and accurate view of the divinity of Jesus.
The second, and possibly more important admission Ehrman makes is that the visions of Jesus resurrection were probably historical:
“I think from anybody’s perspective, you’d have to say that it’s not the resurrection that starts Christianity, it’s the belief in the resurrection. Because if Jesus had been raised from the dead and nobody knew about it, then obviously you wouldn’t have Christianity.
“So it’s the belief in the resurrection, and the question is, what motivated that belief? And that’s where I spend a good bit of time in the book trying to show why it is that the belief in the resurrection started.”
“This is something else I’ve changed my mind on. I came to think (this will be controversial) that the traditions about Jesus having a known tomb that was discovered to be empty are probably not historical. That belief in the resurrection hinges completely on the visions. Now whether or not you agree about the empty tomb, it is true in the New Testament that the empty tomb doesn’t convince anyone to believe. And you can understand why.
“If someone goes to a tomb where a body used to be, they don’t immediately say resurrection. They say ‘grave robbers.’ Or they say ‘hey, I’m at the wrong tomb!’
“So the immediate thought isn’t ‘resurrection.’ It’s the visions of Jesus in the New Testament itself that are said to inspire faith in the resurrection.”
Dr. Gary Habermas spent over five years examining and cataloguing hundreds of prominent secular scholars from the 1980’s to current day according to the first-century records that they considered historic facts. Among these he found strong support that a significant number of early Christians did have some kind of transformative experience.
In one of his epistles, the Apostle Paul, whom scholars agree wrote his books in the mid-first century, decades after Jesus’ ministry, says the following:
English Standard Version (ESV)
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
Given the early dating of this passage, it would be bold indeed to make such a claim if there were, in fact, no eyewitnesses. Paul could be discredited as a fraud very quickly by citing specific witnesses (Cephas/Peter, James, and “the twelve”) and by listing numerous witnesses (over 500) that did not exist. And if Paul was discredited, his letters would most likely not continue to be copied and circulated so widely.The post resurrection appearances of Jesus are not simply reported by one person or group of people on one instance. Rather, it is reported on multiple occasions by multiple people or groups of people, many of which had not communicated with one another prior to witnessing Jesus alive. The reports of the witnesses are not restricted to one or two books, but are independently attested by all four gospels and several of the epistles. Multiple, independent attestation is one of the hallmarks of the truth of an eyewitness statement.This is something that even the harsh German critic of the resurrection, Gerd Lüdemann, had to admit to:“It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.” (Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus?, trans. John Bowden (Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p.80)
Ehrman should not be taken to be saying anything more than what he admits to; however his admissions, and the change of mind that has led to them, support the idea that the very earliest Christians held the divinity of Jesus and experienced resurrection appearances that are difficult to explain as illusion, hallucination, or hypnosis.
While Ehrman does not support Evangelicals, his admissions add evidence to the Christian conceit.