How Jesus became God by Dr. Bart D. Ehrman is an excellent, comprehensive, easy to read history about the begining of Christianity by a man who was once a very conservative Christian, who is now an agnostic, but who offers readers a non-dogmatic, respectful, historical examination of early Christianity. His ultimate goal in this book is to explain how and why early Christians began to believe that Jesus was God.
He, like US President Thomas Jefferson and the famed Russian author Leo Tolstoy accepted the idea that Jesus existed, but denied that he ever produced any miracles. Jefferson and Tolstoy produced books of the New Testament where all miracles are eliminated. Ehrman writes that all we know about Jesus is what men who never met Jesus said about him long after his death based on imaginative legends and exaggerations that grew up after his death by generally uneducated people, many of whom lived in a different country than Jesus, knew little or nothing about the practices of Judaism during Jesus’ lifetime, did not speak his language, and did not understand his beliefs.
Among much else, Ehrman explains how historians verify whether ancient claims are true, and he applies the rules in his examination. He writes that his “overreaching contention is that belief in the resurrection [of Jesus] – based on visionary experiences – is what led the followers of Jesus (all of them? some of them?) to believe that Jesus had been exalted to heaven and made to sit at the right hand of God as his unique Son.” Ehrman, who inserted the parenthetical questions in this quote, explains how visions can be a natural but untrue phenomenon and gives many examples, some outlined below. So the claims of seeing Jesus after his death never happened. The following are some more of the many ideas that Dr. Ehrman tells us in his excellent very informative book.
- Jesus taught who ever listened to him that the age he and they lived in was controlled by evil forces, but God would soon intervene and destroy everything and everyone who were evil, he would create a good utopian kingdom on earth, and rid the world of pain and suffering. He, Jesus, would rule this kingdom. His twelve disciples would serve as officials in this kingdom under him. And this will happen soon. People living today will see it. In essence, he gave his listeners what is called an apocalyptic message, one that never occurred. He never claimed or even hinted that he was God or even the messiah, just the future king.
- Jesus, according to Ehrman, “was a lower-class Jewish preacher from the backwaters of rural Galilee who was condemned [by the Roman governor of Judea Pontius Pilate] for illegal activities and crucified for crimes against the state [i.e. Rome].
- After Jesus death, some of Jesus’ disciples believed that he was resurrected because some people claimed to have seen him.
- There are many reasons why historians like Ehrman dismiss the idea that people saw Jesus after he died on a cross, For example, Jesus does not appear to anyone in the first Gospel written about 25 years after his death, the Gospel of Mark. If people claimed they saw Jesus, Mark would have said so. In Matthew 28:17, the next Gospel written, we read that Jesus appeared to eleven disciples but “some doubted.” Ehrman comments, “Why would they doubt if Jesus was right there, in front of them?” In Luke 24, women report that Jesus has been raised, but the disciples consider it an “idle tale” and do not believe it. In Acts 1:3, Jesus is said to spend forty days showing his disciples “many proofs” that he was alive. Ehrman writes, “Many proofs? How many proofs were needed exactly? And it took forty days to convince them?”
- How did the acceptance of the idea that Jesus was resurrected from death lead to the idea that he was a God in some way? It proceeded by steps in thinking. If Jesus was resurrected and then disappeared and only seen on some occasions for a while, and then not at all, where was he? Answer: The same God who resurrected him must have taken him to heaven. If he is taken to heaven, what is he doing there? He must be helping God. If he is helping God, God must have given him some divine powers. Thus he must be a God in some ways. Perhaps he was turned into an angel or something like an angel.
- Ehrman says that this kind of thinking led to disputes. One of the primary ones was the question: Did Jesus have this power only after he was resurrected and adopted by God or did he have it before he was born as a human? Another: If Jesus had the power before he was born, when before he was born was he created and when before he was born did he get the divine power? Still another was: If he had the power before he was born as a human, how could he be both human and divine? These and other questions bothered the early Christians.
- Ehrman writes: “It took a long time indeed for Jesus to be God in the complete, full, and perfect sense, the second member of the Trinity, equal with God from eternity and ‘of the sane essence’ as the Father.”
- It was not until the Roman emperor Constantine wanted to cut the strife that existed in Christianity that one of the main contentions was resolved, At the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, an assembly of bishops decided that not only was Jesus God, but he was the son of the Father and equal to him since the beginning of time. There was no time when Jesus was not God the son.
- While the question of how and when Jesus became God was decided by a plurality vote, Ehrman notes that some difficulties still remain today. This why he became an agnostic.
Whether you agree with Dr. Ehrman’s reasoning and the proofs he offers or not, and whether or not you are bothered by the application of the methodologies of history he applied to religion, you will find this book to be thought provoking.