Ehrman, B. (2015). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher From Galilee. New York, New York: HarperCollins.
A Book Review
Rev. Deacon Mark Koscinski CPA D.Litt.
Bert Ehrman is one of my favorite religious writers. I think I have read every book he has published. There are many reasons why I like to read Professor Ehrman. He taught at Rutgers University, my alma mater. His writing is erudite, but yet very readable. He provides concise, understandable explanations of difficult theological issues. Professor Ehrman also includes tremendous amounts of basic information that every professed Christian should know.
I don’t believe a word he says. Perhaps that is an overstatement of the situation. As a Christian I don’t accept much of what he says. As a college professor I am much more understanding of his positions. Yet, I am not persuaded by many of the conclusions he draws in his book. Yet, I continue to go back to this book-and his other writings- because I believe I have learned so much from them. You may say this is a contradiction, but please allow me to explain.
One of the fundamental issues when studying religion is we all bring our own “baggage” to the study. In my case, I am a Byzantine Catholic deacon, committed to the tenets of my faith. Professor Ehrman has a much more colorful background. Initially he was a believer, a member of a Protestant congregation. Subsequently he became a non-believer. His conclusions are often colored by this background. For instance, a Catholic reading his books would not easily pick up on the importance Catholics attach to the sacraments. His conclusions tend toward a secular, scientific explanation. While neither of these by themselves is a deficiency is scholarship, the reader needs to constantly keep Professor Ehrman’s orientation in the back of his mind.
How Jesus Became God is a short but brilliant history of the development of Christology over the first several centuries of Christianity. Professor Ehrman begins by asking how a simple preacher from the backwoods of the Roman Empire could now be considered a member of the Holy Trinity, equal in majesty and power to God the Father. He discusses the two theories of how this occurred: “Exaltation” theology and “Incarnation” theology. Professor Ehrman attempts to show how the early Christians were believers in the Exaltation of Jesus (i.e. he was a human raised to an exalted status) as opposed to Incarnation theology, which ultimately became the mainstream views of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Churches. It is the Incarnation theology that results in Jesus becoming part of the Holy Trinity.
At this point, I understand I can be accused of bringing my own “baggage” into the discussion. After all, as a Byzantine Catholic deacon I stand in front of the Royal Doors at the beginning of each Divine Liturgy and look at the icon of the Incarnation. This icon is symbolic of Christian salvation, as it is the point divinity literally becomes humanity. Eastern Christians have been taught our salvation begins with the Theotokos saying “yes” to the Angel. The Word then became incarnate in our time and space for our salvation. To me, there is no contradiction or no issue about the early Church leaders working out these issues over a period of time. Perhaps Exaltation theology was the prevalent view at that time. As Professor Ehrman very ably recounts, it was a concept familiar to the culture of the time. It is seemingly natural the first Christians would think in those terms. What is important is they understood something hitherto unknown happened that at least in their minds changed the entire dynamic of salvation history. God had intervened in history, and they set out to understand how and why.
Professor Ehrman writes at great length about how other early Christians, including St. Paul saw Jesus as the “Angel of the Lord.” Even casual readers of the Bible have discerned the Angel of the Lord who appears throughout the Bible and spoke to Moses from the Burning Bush was not your run of the mill angel (if of course there is such a thing). While this is an intriguing concept, the quotes used to justify this idea fall short in my opinion. If early Christian writers (including those who wrote in the post-Apostolic period) had thought Jesus was the Angel of the Lord, more of the Church Fathers would have written about that. I do not believe the “argument from silence” is applicable in this situation (maybe they did believe it, but they didn’t write about it or their writings are lost) either.
Lest you believe I have focused on only the negatives of this book, I need to say Professor Ehrman’s discussion of early Christian hymns and creedal statement found in the Bible is brilliant. His summary of Christological thinking from Arius to Nestorius should be required reading for all Catholic catechism classes.
How Jesus became God was on the New York Times Bestseller List. It is easy to see why. It is another thought provoking book by Professor Ehrman, and well worth reading by anyone even slightly interested in the subject.