UNC religion professor describes how Jesus became accepted as divine

jmurawski@newsobserver.comMarch 13, 2014 

  • Nonfiction

    How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee

    Bart Ehrman

    Harper Collins, 416 pages

Heated debates about the historical Jesus have led to an impasse on the question of proving whether the first-century Palestinian Jew was human or divine.

Now comes UNC-Chapel Hill religion professor Bart Ehrman applying the modern historian’s methodology to approach the conundrum from a different angle. His latest book, “How Jesus Became God,” analyzes the ways in which Jesus was equated with the Godhead in Christianity’s formative years.

The casual churchgoer might assume that this question is novel, sowed by secular humanists and cranky academics. But disagreements were raging back in the fourth century, when church fathers declared the official doctrine intended to resolve the issue for all ages: that Jesus is both fully human and 100 percent divine.

This is the stuff that goes to the heart of the Christian religion, or at least it used to wrack the Christian conscience. For centuries, one’s salvation depended on professing faith in punctilious doctrines about Jesus. “Heretics with slightly different views were in danger of eternal damnation,” Ehrman reminds us.

Ehrman tackles the issue from the perspective of a former fundamentalist Christian who lost his faith, and since has relished playing the nullifidian scourge to his former evangelical brethren.

For starters, he asserts that Jesus’s divinity wasn’t concocted generations after the fact, as he had long believed. Ehrman now says the executed messiah was deified “virtually right away” – by witnesses who knew him personally – after word of his resurrection spread. It has been said that Christianity covered more new ground theologically in its first 20 years than it did in the next 2,000.

This glorification took many forms, none of which would likely pass the heresy litmus tests of the Middle Ages. Early on, Ehrman contends, Jesus’ followers deemed him a human exalted to divine status, or a celestially begotten angel in human form, but it was assumed that Jesus was subordinate to his putative father, the God of Israel.

It would take several centuries for Christians to profess that Jesus and God were one and the same and had been so since the beginning of time, Ehrman contends.

Ehrman, an agnostic, insists that Jesus never taught that he was divine, only that he was messiah, and that the two concepts were not interchangeable then as they are now.

Ehrman’s arguments are meticulously supported with citations from the Gospels and the Epistles. His critics will be quick to point out that whenever Scriptural passages contradict his thesis – such as quotes attributed to Jesus claiming “I and the Father are one” – Ehrman simply says those passages are embellishments or fabrications.

Still, I’ve personally yet to meet a Christian who believes that Jesus walked about Galilee declaring: “I’m the Second Person of the Trinity!”

Ehrman approaches the matter as a backward time traveler in a quest for the authentic past, and reverses the theological evolution followed by the apostles and church fathers.

“I started out thinking of Jesus as God the Son, equal with the Father, a member of the Trinity,” Ehrman writes. “But over time, I began to see him in ‘lower and lower’ terms, until finally I came to think of him as a human being who was not different in nature from any other human being.”

Thus Ehrman ends up in the place where the disciples may have started out around the year 30 A.D. when they chucked their day jobs and ditched their families to follow Jesus of Nazareth:

“I now think of Jesus as a true religious genius with brilliant insights.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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