How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher From Galilee, Bart Ehrman

I’ve sat in church enough to know that, eventually, the question comes up: “If Jesus were to walk in here right now would he recognize this place as His church?”

In How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman argues that the answer is No. Not because the modern church is doing it wrong, but because the question is wrong. Ehrman makes the case that the historical view of Jesus is an amalgam of historical fact, purposeful fiction, and a lot of wishful thinking that would probably surprise even Jesus. (To see one version of how this works out, read the first fifty pages of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Masterful writing.) During the first centuries of the Christian church, a recurrent battle raged for the primacy of ideas. Some believed that Jesus was fully human but an excellent and worthy moral teacher. A strong argument was made that Jesus was human and adopted by God at his baptism. Gnostics argued that Jesus discovered secret knowledge available to anyone as a trade for mortifying the flesh which was considered the seat of evil. And Judaism? It surprises people today to learn that many early Christians were vehemently anti-Semitic, believing the god of the Jews to be spiteful, mean, and petty compared to the gentle teachings of Jesus.

The Sliding Scale of Church Orthodoxy

Ideas, beliefs, and values change over time, and the church is no different. In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman outlined an argument that the New Testament is, to some degree, a fiction: we really can’t say or know for sure what the autographical texts said, and we have firm evidence of tinkering. The history of the church follows a parallel line. During the first century, one could take their pick from various views of Jesus, the new Christian church, and its relation to other religions. As an orthodoxy emerged, competing ideas were rooted out. ‘Heretics’ were hunted down. False teachers run out of town. That Jesus was `very God of very God’ became prominent and dissenters were shunned. This orthodoxy would have surprised many early followers of Jesus.

Summary

For readers of Ehrman, this is familiar ground. His writing is accessible, and he notes enough references to provide plenty of fodder for research. Like the response to his other books, not everyone will be amused. His argument is historical, and fact-based, and doesn’t align with current orthodoxy. It’s a good read, though, for anyone interested in early Christianity and the development of the early church. There’s lots to think about here no matter what side of the coin you enjoy. A good book.


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