Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Three books by Bart Ehrman

  • Did Jesus Exist? (2012)
  • Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999)
  • How Jesus Became God (2014)
If I was going to recommend three books to newcomers to the field of historical Jesus studies, it would be these three.  Ehrman is an interesting guy.  He rejected the Christian fundamentalism of his youth to become a secular Bible scholar writing in the academic mainstream.  An engaging writer and teacher, he has perhaps done more than any other writer of our time to bring the insights of modern Bible research to a wider audience.


Ehrman wrote Did Jesus Exist? to examine the claim which one sometimes encounters to the effect that Jesus of Nazareth was not a real person.  This view, which essentially originated with Bruno Bauer in the nineteenth century, is accepted by very few specialists in the field today (Robert Price is the main exception).  However, it has a certain level of following in popular culture.  This irks Ehrman, who thinks that other nonreligious people who adopt it are letting the side down by embracing an untenable theory.

Ehrman not only disposes of the theory; more importantly, he replaces it with a positive survey of the evidence for the life of Jesus.  He usefully goes over all the familiar sources, within the New Testament and outside it, from Q to the Gemara.  He refers to the work on form criticism pioneered by Dibelius and Bultmann.  He notes that traditions about Jesus are multiply attested in different sources, and that they can be traced back to Aramaic-language originals circulating in Palestine in the years after Jesus' crucifixion.  He gives a general overview of the sources of the Gospels and Acts.  He also makes the point, which is not always paid due attention, that the letters of St Paul (40s-60s AD) contain crucial pieces of information about the historical Jesus.  The chronological references in the letters indicate that Paul became a Christian soon after Jesus' crucifixion, in the early 30s; and he was almost certainly acquainted with Jesus' biological brother James.

One of Ehrman's most interesting points is that the idea of a crucified messiah was a complete novelty in Judaism.  The messiah was supposed to be a triumphant, kingly figure, whereas crucifixion was an utterly shameful punishment for social outcasts.  Ehrman uses this as an argument against the Jesus-never-existed position - the crucified messiah story is so weird that it must have been created by people who were trying to reconcile their faith in a real-life messiah figure with the fact that he had been crucified.  But the point is of wider interest.  In Christian culture, we are very used to the idea of the messiah humbling himself to suffer death on a cross.  It seems natural.  We forget how scandalous it would have been to ancient Jews (and still is to modern ones).


In Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Ehrman goes further in attempting to discern what we can say about the historical Jesus.  Again, he provides a survey of the evidence for Jesus' life, as well as a short sketch of the historical background to it.  Prominent in this background were two elements.  First, there was a history of tension between the Jewish people and their Roman imperial rulers, with occasional uprisings led by religious revivalists.  Second, there was the Jewish ideology of apocalypticism.  The world (it was said) had fallen under the control of Satan, but God would soon intervene.  He would send down his messiah, resurrect the dead of former ages, execute a final judgement on all of humanity, and bring in a utopian kingdom for the righteous.

Ehrman puts forward the view, which is more or less standard among scholars who are not conservative Christians, that Jesus was an apocalyptist - just like his predecessor John the Baptist and just like the early Christian communities which came after him.  According to our earliest and best sources, his mission was based on calling Israel to repent in expectation that the world would end soon with the coming of the "Kingdom of God".  (Ehrman briefly discusses the strategies used by a minority of scholars, like John Dominic Crossan, to get around this source material.)  This was a radical message.  It had little to do with bourgeois family-values Christianity.  People were to give up everything and commit themselves utterly to God in preparation for the coming day of judgement, when the first would be last and the last would be first.  Sell all you have and give it to the poor.  Turn your back on your family if need be.  Soon none of this will matter.  Blessed are the meek, for they really are about to inherit the earth.

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover and started getting himself noticed by the big boys, they assumed that he was just another politico-religious revolutionary and had him executed.  There is a deep-rooted and probably authentic tradition that this had something to do with a betrayal by a follower called Judas, who seems to have told the authorities that the wild man from Galilee had been shooting his mouth off about bringing in a new kingdom.  After his crucifixion Jesus' followers began to report that he had come back from the dead and appeared to them in visions.  This phenomenon was quickly interpreted as a resurrection.  Jewish apocalyptists were expecting the dead to be resurrected at the end of history, and this (they surmised) was what had happened to Jesus.  His resurrection would shortly be followed by the general resurrection and the last judgement.


In How Jesus Became God, Ehrman fills in the last part of the story - how theological reflection led to the development of the conception of Jesus as divine, Deum de Deo; lumen de lumine; Deum verum de Deo vero.

By the time of Jesus, the Jews had largely completed their evolution into monotheists, but they continued to believe in a variety of supernatural powers which stood between humankind and God.  There were tales of God visiting humans in the form of an angel; humans (Enoch, Moses) becoming celestial beings; the mysterious divine "Word" of God; and the "Son of Man" from the book of Daniel who would appear at the end of the world.  And, of course, the Graeco-Roman pagans who came into the early Christian church were very familiar with stories of anthropomorphic deities, incarnations, divine emperors, gods fathering human children and so on.

It was on this pool of ideas that Jesus' followers drew when they were confronted with the fact that their messiah had suffered death and (apparently) been resurrected.  The first theory, which can be found in some early New Testament texts (e.g. Rom. 1.4), seems to have been that God raised Jesus up and exalted him to be his Son at the time of his resurrection.  Alternatively, there was the view, found in Mark's Gospel, that Jesus had achieved this status at his baptism; or the view, found in Luke, that he had been begotten by God in the womb.

Mixed in with these theories - there was no simple linear progression - was the idea that Jesus was the incarnation of a pre-existing divine being.  This was Paul's view.  Ehrman accepts the theory that Paul thought that Jesus was specifically the incarnation of an angel; but this relies too much on a single phrase in his letters (Gal 4.14).  Paul never really lays out his Christology explicitly.  What is much clearer is that John's Gospel sees Jesus as being an incarnate deity in the full sense: an incarnation of the Word of God, equal to God since the beginning of time.  It was this view that eventually prevailed to become classical Christian orthodoxy, as encapsulated in the Nicene Creed.


These books provide an interesting and accessible introduction to New Testament criticism and Christology.  Ehrman summarises the leading modern scholarship with a sure touch, and he writes with skill and charm.  I would recommend them to anyone interested in the fields which they cover.