In this latest book from Bart Ehrman we get a mixed bag of results. On the one hand, he is back in form writing a good popular book on a subject often misunderstood by the lay public. In How Jesus Became God, Ehrman demonstrates that Jesus was worshiped as a god from basically day one. The notion that High Christology developed later, false. On the other hand, I am starting to see a trend in his writing now, wherein he gets right anything he simply culls from existing scholarship and distills for public understanding, but doesn’t always get right everything he tries to add of his own or off the cuff. And the problem with that is that lay readers won’t know which is happening, and thus can’t always trust what he says.
The best rule I can advise is, if Ehrman cites scholarship for a statement he makes, he is at least telling you correctly what that scholarship says (which itself may be wrong, but not by any fault of Ehrman’s). If he doesn’t cite any scholarship for a statement he makes, he might be wrong and you should aim to double-check before relying on it. The rest you have to figure out from the merits of his logic, judging from premise to conclusion. And sometimes that’s solid. Sometimes it’s not.
The Main Thesis
The most startling feature of this new book is that in it Ehrman has now completely reversed a position he took against me in Did Jesus Exist (as is well known, I published a detailed critique of that awful book). He now admits that from the very earliest recorded history, indeed even earlier than that, even possibly their very first year, Christians regarded Jesus as a pre-existent divine being. That this was not a later development first encountered in the Gospel of John, for example. “The idea that Jesus is God is not an invention of modern times…it was the view of the very earliest Christians soon after Jesus’s death” (p. 3). Because, “soon after Jesus’s death, the belief in his resurrection led some of his followers to say he was God” (p. 83). Ehrman concludes that at least “some Christians were saying that Jesus was a preexistent being (a ‘later’ view) even before Paul began to write in the 50s–well before our earliest gospel was written” (p. 235), in fact, he admits, “it must have been remarkably early in the Christian tradition,” because “it was in place well before Paul’s letters” and thus did not originate in the time of the gospel of John as has commonly been insisted (p. 276).
And on that point he is right. I have been making this argument for years. I saw the evidence and scholarship proving this even before I wrote Not the Impossible Faith. Now he has looked at all of that, too, and come to the same conclusion. Ehrman also very carefully demarcates a variety of distinctions crucial to this realization, which is one of the best contributions this book makes to the field: Ehrman shows that there was no binary dichotomy of either God or human, but that in fact a whole continuum existed between them, even in Jewish conception. Indeed, far from being unusual, the Jews already believed “divine beings (such as angels) could become human” (p. 5) and that there were many other degrees of divinity between man and God.
Thus, when Ehrman says the first Christians declared Jesus to be god, they were not saying he was identical to God the Father, but that he was a subordinate deity, an archangel appointed to the status of celestial Lord, who existed since the beginning of time (and then, in Christian conception, descended to become incarnate and die, in order to rise again to divine status). Ehrman shows that this was a common type of view within several Jewish theologies of the time, and therefore was not, and would not have been, regarded as contradicting their monotheism. There was nothing un-Jewish about it. In fact it was very typically Jewish.
Ehrman also argues this served as a competing Jewish claim against the claims to divinity of the pagan Emperor, and thus was as much a political statement as a religious one. But that’s a more untenable view. Countless sons of god were worshipped in the Empire, from Romulus to Asclepius, and Jesus was no less safely in heaven, and thus no more a threat to imperial power, than they were. He was, in fact, no politically different than them in any such respect. No more than Antinoos (Hadrian’s deified lover) or Hercules (believed to have been a historical conquerer of the Peloponnesus) or Glycon (a crafted but nevertheless physically living, and deified, ‘snake-man’ worshipped and officially recognized as divine by emperors themselves).
So I think his speculation there is wrong. But he is right about Jesus being deified, and recognized as a pre-existent deity descended into flesh, right out of the gate. And that does disagree with the “traditional” consensus, that such a so-called “high Christology” evolved later over time. But in fact the majority of recent studies in the field have been taking the same view Ehrman now does. So he is joining a rising tide against the traditional consensus, and as I’ve surveyed this literature and evidence myself, I have also concluded that that consensus has been effectively refuted by this new collective of scholarship, dozens of books and articles of which Ehrman cites in his notes.
This of course presents a problem for Ehrman. Because admitting the first Christians regarded Jesus to be a preexistent divine archangel lends unexpected support to mythicism. As many mythicists have been arguing this very point for decades now. And Ehrman can’t have that. So he wants to have it both ways, and throughout the book he tries to argue both that high Christology started right out of the gate, and also that it developed over time. In one respect he is correct, in that the original view of Jesus as a subordinate created being, an archangel assigned the Supreme Lord’s powers, evolved into the far more absurd view that Jesus was literally identical to the One True God. The latter may have been blasphemous to mainstream Jews. But the former was not (as Ehrman extensively proves). And yet the latter did not evolve until long after the first apostles were dead and Christianity had already been established across three continents. This nixes a lot of cherished Christian ideas about how Christianity began and why the Jewish elite originally opposed it.
As Ehrman now explicitly says, identifying “Jesus as messiah, as Lord, as Son of God, as Son of Man–[all] imply, in one sense or another, that Jesus is God.” And yet “in no sense” does that mean he was “understood to be God the Father” (p. 208). This is exactly what I argued in Not the Impossible Faith, and which Ehrman once denounced as misinformed (DJE, p. 167). Yet now he admits I was entirely correct. Based on past experience, I won’t hold my breath for his apology. But it’s nice to see him on board now at least.
But Ehrman also wants to claim that Christianity “must” have started with a low exaltation Christology (because historicity is in serious trouble if it didn’t), and (he supposes) one sect of it just super-rapidly (in just a year or two?) elevated that to a high incarnation Christology, even though there is no evidence of there ever being that first stage. Ehrman only tries to invent that evidence out of a fundamentalist reading of Mark and a few passages in Acts and Paul that he insists on reading in conjunction with a number of circular presumptions about what went on in their formation.
The Invented Evidence
The irony of historicity defenders today is that they are forced to act like Christian apologists, by inventing readings and claims against the obvious, inventing evidence that doesn’t exist, contriving harmonizations of contradictions based on ad hoc suppositions of convenience, resorting to egregiously fallacious logic, and then, most astonishing of all, reading the Bible literally. Ehrman has done all of this before.
In this case, Ehrman resorts to a literalist reading of Mark, treating the text essentially just as Christian fundamentalists do. But Mark is not writing literal history. He is writing allegory (as I have thoroughly demonstrated, citing both evidence and scholarship on the point, in On the Historicity of Jesus, ch. 10). So reading Mark literally is to get exactly wrong everything he is saying. Mark actually does not say anything about where Jesus came from and never discusses cosmology or theology. Moreover, Mark is defending Pauline Christianity decades after Paul, and yet Paul was already firmly and unapologetically assuming a high incarnation Christology, it was in fact the only Christology known to him, and was so unopposed by any alternative that in his letters it needed no defense. So why would his followers decades later reverse course and depict a low exaltation Christology instead? This makes no sense as an interpretation of what Mark is doing.
And here is where Ehrman falls off the rails of sound method: as in DJE, despite no longer being a Christian, he is still towing the Christian party line that Mark is a history book and is intending to tell his readers what actually happened, as some straightforward story. But that’s contrary to every sound literary analysis. Mark is fabricating a symbolic allegory. He thus cannot be taken literally at anything. He is not portraying any Christology. He is assembling lessons about Christian life and the gospel, and doing so with myths. The most obvious demonstration of this is the fig tree incident, where it is obvious Mark in no way actually means Jesus withered a fig tree for the absurd reason that it wasn’t bearing figs out of season. The fig tree represents the Jewish temple cult, and its withering represents what God allowed to happen to it, and why (as a result of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D.). So when Mark has Jesus adopted by God at his baptism, Mark is not trying to say that that is historically what happened, any more than he was trying to claim Jesus actually withered a fig tree for no sane reason. The baptism scene is a model for Christian baptism. This is what baptism meant in the church: adoption by God, cleansing one of their sins for all time. Jesus is thus simply a mythic stand-in for every model Christian. This is a story not about Jesus, but about baptism. And even insofar as it is about history at all, it only embodied the claim (true or not) that the Baptist cult endorsed the Jesus cult as their superior and successor.
Once we see what Mark is doing, we must realize he can supply us with no evidence of an exaltation Christology phase of Christianity, much less a phase that was phased out within his own sect decades before he wrote. Because he is not writing about how the church originated. Or about the cosmological foundations of his Christology. And once we drop the insupportable assumption to the contrary, we have no reason left to think there ever was such a phase. Ehrman of course needs there to be, because if there wasn’t, the historicity of Jesus becomes very hard to maintain. He needs historicity. So he needs exaltation Christology. So he needs Mark to be a historian. And so he ends up acting like a Christian fundamentalist, and treats Mark as though he is writing a history of the church’s origins, when in fact he is writing mythology for decades-later Christian life and ideas.
But on the point that Christianity began with a high incarnation Christology, many scholars concur with Ehrman and me. It was once a fringe view that has now grown to a large and fairly decisive mainstream challenge to the old guard. It is obviously the correct view. As Ehrman points out, the evidence just can’t be denied. Paul knew no other version of Christianity. For Paul, Jesus was a pre-existent divine being whom God used as the agent of creation, and only later sent to assume a body of flesh and thereby die, and thus become an instrument of salvation for the corrupt world order. Ehrman tries to squeeze a few years (or days?) of low exaltation Christology into Christian history before that. But this is just his own conjecture. There is no evidence of it in Paul. And Mark is decades later, is not at odds with Paul, and not writing literal history.
All of Ehrman’s other evidence consists solely of showing (from Paul and Acts) that there was an early belief that Jesus was declared the Son of God at his resurrection. What he fails to consider is that Jesus was re-declared so, in other words, reaffirmed to his previous status, which he had relinquished (as Philippians 2 says), having shed that status to become human and die. Ehrman at no point considers this alternative, even though it is self-evidently what the Philippians hymn is saying–a hymn which Ehrman agrees is pre-Pauline and thus among the earliest recoverable Christian tradition. In contrast with that, Ehrman has nothing comparable supporting his theory. I have to conclude his exaltation-phase theory is baseless. It hangs on the weakest and vaguest of evidence, and then only when bolstered by convenient speculations, while contradicting directly all the evidence we have.
This is a good book for beginners, as it explains a lot of things in the study of religion that experts take for granted but often forget everyone else often doesn’t know. But I still worry that Ehrman, being a little lazy, miseducates a lot by getting facts slightly wrong (and sometimes more than slightly), as if he were an amateur. I don’t expect everything to be correct (we can’t know everything) but sometimes his mistakes are not the kind we should expect him to make, and this happens far too often, two factors that combine to make this defect of the book worthy of remark.
Many examples are no big deal, except that a reader who doesn’t know they are wrong might cite or quote this book on this or that point, assuming what it seems to say is correct, and get embarrassed by someone more knowledgeable, or reach incorrect conclusions from mistaken premises. Other examples are a little more serious, or even a bit astonishing.
(1) Ehrman says Christians regarded Jesus to be God’s “unique son” (p. 7), but it’s not clear what he means by that. All Christians baptized were God’s son, so Jesus wasn’t unique, he was only the first (hence firstborn). He was uniquely assigned the powers and role of Lord, but that’s not quite the same thing. Likewise, Ehrman says, “when the earliest Christians talked about Jesus becoming the son of god at his resurrection, they were saying something truly remarkable about him” (p. 232), which can’t be entirely true, because Christians were saying this about themselves, saying they themselves were the adopted sons of God (OHJ, p. 108). It can’t have been more remarkable for Jesus than it was for a Christian. Maybe this was remarkable in certain respects, but if so, it was remarkable not because it was said of Jesus, but because it was said of all baptized Christians. This includes the Christian concept of inheritance, which is stated by Paul many times: we shall inherit the kingdom of God, not just Jesus will, because like Jesus, we are all sons and thus heirs. Jesus is special only in being the firstborn, in other words the primary heir. The nuance is important for understanding just what the Christians were actually preaching. Ehrman seems not to notice.
(2) That’s the most trivial example. Another is when Ehrman defines “henotheism [as] the view that there are other gods, but there is only one God who is to be worshiped” (p. 53). That’s not entirely correct. Henotheists can sometimes worship other gods as the supreme God’s subordinates or manifestations (as we see in pagan henotheism). This is an example of a minor mistake that could mislead lay readers, who expect more accuracy, and might go on to insist this is what henotheism means–when, really, it’s not, it’s just one variety of henotheism. It’s a little strange to see Wikipedia outperforming Ehrman on defining a basic concept in the study of religions. What Ehrman is defining is monolatry. But again, this is a small error and not that big a deal (after all, one will find common, non-specialist dictionaries repeating the same error).
(3) Another small but problematic error is that Ehrman seems not to know the First Principles of Origen mostly only survives in the Latin translation of Rufinus, who altered everything to be more in tune with orthodox thinking, a fact Jerome complained about explicitly. So in fact what is said there are not the views of Origen, nor maybe even of any Christian of the 3rd century, but the views of Rufinus, and anti-Origen orthodoxists of the 4th century. This is often not known in the field and is thus an easy mistake to make, so again this error is not egregious. But nevertheless, it does undermine everything Ehrman says about this text (p. 313), which is based on his assumption that it contains the early third century thoughts of Origen.
(4) But things get weirder when Ehrman says “most people at the time Jesus lived, apart from the upper-crust Roman elite, did not have last names” (p. 112-13). This is wrong twice over. All Roman citizens, regardless of social status, even the poorest of the poor, even freed slaves, had the trinomen, and therefore had what we mean by last names (a surname or family name). It was actually a fundamental indicator of citizenship. And nearly everyone else had the same kind of last name our last names used to be: Johnson, for example, is what it literally says, John’s son. Jesus Benjoseph, for example, would have been recognized and in documents even used as Jesus’ name, if his father’s name was indeed Joseph. That’s a last name. It’s not clear why Ehrman thinks our last names are in any sense different, apart from the trivia of how we grammatically construct them now. (Even if he means a persisting family name, that’s in the Roman trinomen, which all Romans of all social positions held. Newly minted citizens might have invented or borrowed ones to get their new family tradition started, but that’s no different from Ellis Island names today. [Or not.])
(5) More worrying is when Ehrman seems ignorant of actual Mishnah law, and the latest literature on crucifixion, and on crucifixion’s use in Judaism (pp. 256-57). Contrary to what Ehrman implies, Paul is not making any distinction in his letters between Jewish stoning procedure and “crucifixion,” nor would it make sense to, since the Jewish curse law he cites in Galatians, that cursed is anyone hanged on a tree, not only applies to those stoned by Jewish courts, but is even in fact a quotation of that very Deuteronomic law. From Paul alone, there is no indication he ever meant or imagined Roman crucifixion anywhere in his letters. I can understand making the inference based on the Gospels (if, like Ehrman, you think the Gospels are history books). But I can’t understand why Ehrman would suggest it’s intrinsic in Paul’s language, or necessary to Paul’s soteriology. It’s not. (OHJ, pp. 61-62.)
(6) Or when Ehrman says it’s “widely thought” that the gospel of John “did not rely on” the other gospels, which is demonstrably false, both as to the fact of it, and as to the “widely thought” part. Nearly every major expert on John has concluded otherwise (Waetjen, Barrett, Cribbs, Dodd, Parker, Bailey, even Raymond Brown: OHJ, pp. 268-69). And the evidence is pretty undeniable that that is the case. There actually is no valid argument for independence. The notion that John did not always copy his source verbatim, for example, is struck dead by the fact that copying verbatim is actually an unusual way to use a source in antiquity. The way John uses his sources by rewriting them in his own fashion was actually the method of redacting and coopting material most assiduously taught in schools of the period, the very schools we know the authors of the Gospels had passed through, as doing so was the only way to acquire the command of compositional Greek exhibited in their work. Meanwhile, John copies and responds to so many things in the Synoptics that it simply makes no sense to suppose he is not in actual fact using and responding to them (e.g., OHJ, pp. 487-89, 503-05).
(7) Or when Ehrman says, “the Romans who did crucify [Jesus] had no concern to obey Jewish law and virtually no interest in Jewish sensitivities” and therefore were under no obligation to take Jesus down for burial once he had died (pp. 156-59). The facts are exactly the contrary, as proved extensively by Josephus, who explicitly discusses this fact, and even cites imperial decrees commanding that Roman authorities respect Jewish laws and not interfere with their being carried out (for evidence and scholarship on this point, see my chapter on “The Burial of Jesus in Light of Jewish Law” in The Empty Tomb). In Ehrman’s clumsy attempt to prove the Romans did not make such accommodations, he fails to cite a single example from Judea before the Jewish War, when and where that imperial decree was still in effect. He only cites examples from outside Judea, and not involving Jews or Judea. That’s a fallacy, citing a general practice that is well known not to apply to Jews and Judea at the time, as evidence that it did. This is like arguing that women must have high average testosterone levels by citing abundant evidence that men do.
Ehrman thus mistakenly thinks the same rules applied to Jews and in Judea of the early first century, as to everyone and everywhere and everywhen else, when in fact this imperial decree documented and discussed by Josephus proves the Jews were treated exceptionally in just this respect. Ehrman shows no sign of even knowing this decree existed, or any of Josephus’s discussion of it. Ehrman instead botches his reading of Philo, whose testimony Ehrman gets exactly wrong, and of archaeology, which Ehrman likewise gets wrong.
As to the first point (Philo), in the passage Ehrman discusses, Philo is actually arguing that the established practice was to honor holy days. And what was against standard practice was the choice not to do this, which is why failing to do so is for Philo a criminal accusation against the prefect of Egypt in his case. Ehrman confuses this somehow as arguing that it “wasn’t” the standard practice, and that refusing the legally required burial was the norm. That’s simply not what Philo is saying. He is saying quite the opposite of that (as I show in my chapter for The Empty Tomb).
As to the second point (archaeology), the fact that we have recovered the bones of a crucified person from an ossuary confirms that in fact convicts did receive formal burial, because the only way those bones could have gotten there is by having been buried somewhere to retrieve them from for secondary burial, usually six months to a year later. Ehrman shows no sign of knowing that Mishnah law mandated that the Sanhedrin itself bury convicts in a special graveyard for the condemned (see, again, my chapter on this in The Empty Tomb), who could then be recovered for secondary burial later, after the flesh rotted from the bones. Thus the archaeology does not support Ehrman on this; it contradicts him.
(8) Ehrman also falsely reports that Pilate showed no respect for Jewish sensitivities. To the contrary, when he tried to violate the Jewish law against icons, Pilate acquiesced to Jewish law when the Jews launched a protest. And if the Jews would be willing to slit their own throats en masse to enforce that law, they would likewise any other he tried to interfere with. And failing that, they would have brought a legal case against him to the emperor, for violating imperial edicts, which in fact they eventually did (for an unrelated offense), and he was deposed. Josephus thus does not say Pilate abolished or ignored all Jewish laws; he simply records those specific instances in which he did, which were all specific political acts serving Pilate’s imperial interests, and not a blanket ignoring of all Jewish laws. Exceptional cases are presented exactly as such, particularly as stirring outrage and violence against Pilate’s sporadic violations of the imperial decree. Missing nuances like this is typical of Christian apologists. It’s a bit strange coming from a secular historian.
(9) Some of Ehrman’s mistakes could just be bad writing. For example, he says, “In none of the stories of divine humans born from the union of a god and a mortal is the mortal a virgin” (p. 24). When I first looked at this line, nearly two hundred people had highlighted it in the kindle edition, showing the danger of Ehrman’s lazy writing (or thinking? or research?) miseducating the public. As an expert, I know enough to imagine that what he actually means is “remains” a virgin, not “was” a virgin. Certainly many divine conceptions in Greek and Roman legend were bestowed upon virgins, in fact that was a common trope (for obvious narrative reasons: the only way to be sure the conception was supernatural is if the mother had never yet been with a man, especially, if such was the case, whichever man she was at the time married or betrothed to).
For example, Plutarch says legend had it the mother of Romulus was a virgin, impregnated mysteriously by the god Mars while she was locked away (specifically to prevent that very thing). One might suppose this was accomplished sexually, but that isn’t really as relevant a distinction as Ehrman makes out. And here yet again Ehrman simply acts like a Christian apologist, arguing as if this distinction matters, when in fact it doesn’t: all syncretism combines the borrowed concept, here a god impregnating a virgin to establish divine patrimony, with a native concept, here the common Jewish disgust for sex, which motivated the Judaizing of the borrowed mytheme by simply deleting the sexual element from it (see That Luxor Thing). But even the absence of sex is attested in pagan mythology. Most famously, in the case of Perseus, a golden shower (drops of gold falling from the ceiling into his mother’s vagina) is far closer to Mary being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (just as magical a substance, which just as surely went into her womb to impregnate her). So she remained as much a virgin as Mary did, as even early Christians conceded (Justin, for example, had to admit Perseus was born of a virgin). There were also sexless conceptions of other kinds, for example in the myth that has Hera giving birth to Hephaestus by act of will rather than sexual union. So the Jews did not want for precedent in pagan mythography.
So did Ehrman simply misstate what he meant, by accident? In the example he cites, Ehrman says the woman was not a virgin even before the god visited her (Alcmena, who “had already had sex with her husband”), so bad writing does not appear to be the best explanation of this error. It certainly looks like Ehrman is falsely saying there were no women in these divine conception legends who were virgins when first approached by a god, which is incorrect. Even the mother of Alexander the Great claimed God had impregnated her on her wedding night (in the form of a thunderbolt; later the story became it was a giant snake), before her husband had consummated their marriage. And obviously she had to, otherwise Alexander’s divine patrimony would be in question. Similarly the famous Osiris myth, carved into the very pyramids, describes the God getting with the mother on her wedding night, disguised as her husband, before her real husband gets his turn (see, again, That Luxor Thing). And precisely the same was being said of Plato in the Christian era (as Origen reported, “For some have thought fit…to relate as a possible thing that Plato was the son of Amphictione, Ariston being prevented from having marital intercourse with his wife until she had given birth to him with whom she was pregnant by Apollo,” Against Celsus 37). So Ehrman’s example of Alcmena is disingenuous and deeply misleading.
(10) It’s all the stranger when Ehrman says early on in the book (p. 18) that “I don’t know of any other cases,” besides Jesus, “in ancient Greek or Roman thought of this kind of ‘god-man’, where an already existing divine being is said to be born of a mortal woman.” And then later he discusses exactly such an example: Proteus Peregrinus; as if Ehrman had forgotten he had just claimed he didn’t know of any! As Ehrman correctly reports (p. 36), Peregrinus was said to have claimed to be the god Proteus in the flesh, despite having been born of a woman. And that’s not the only example. Philostratus reported the same claim was made of Apollonius of Tyana. And Plutarch reports the belief that Romulus had said he was a pre-existent deity (to be named Quirinus) who became incarnate (and then died and “returned” to heaven), despite also being born to a mortal woman. Ehrman himself says Moses was likewise thought by some Jews to be a pre-existent divine being born subsequently of a woman (p. 82). So it’s almost as if the Ehrman who wrote the rest of the book wasn’t talking to the Ehrman who wrote the first part of the book. Perhaps Ehrman imagined these examples were ambiguous as to whether they were claiming to have a human mother or denying it, but there is no evidence they were claiming otherwise. So that seems more like an opinion than a fact.
(11) I also found it weird (as I already noted above) that Ehrman would claim Jesus and the Roman Emperors (and one could perhaps understand him to also mean the Greco-Macedonian Kings before that) were the only historical people in antiquity called the son of god (p. 355). But all Christians called each other the sons of God (they were adopted as such through their baptism, as Paul repeatedly and clearly says). Plato was believed to be the son of god (Apollo). Alexander’s incarnated snake-god Glycon was also explicitly the son of god (again Apollo) and Roman emperors even paid him homage as such. Yes, Glycon wasn’t a real “person” per se, we know he was just a snake, but he was still a living, historical being, whom even Emperors recognized as an existing incarnate god on earth and hailed as the son of a god, without any political ramifications. This deeply undermines Ehrman’s entire thesis about the politics of calling Jesus the son of God. The Jews even called angels the sons of God. And again, Christians called themselves the sons of God. So it doesn’t look like a political challenge at all.
(12) There are also statements Ehrman makes that one might suppose are not errors but differences of opinion, yet he portrays his opinion as overwhelmingly dominant when in fact there is a large number of widely respected experts who disagree. And failing to concede or even mention that looks too easily like a deception perpetrated on his readers. For example, Ehrman calls arguments for Q “formidable” when in fact they are not even good. Like him, I used to think there were formidable arguments for Q, because that’s what everyone said. Until I actually read all the arguments for Q (and arguments against). And then I felt betrayed by what the “consensus” had told me. This is one of several revelations that led me to conclude the “consensus” in this field is simply not trustworthy.
Ehrman hasn’t learned this lesson yet. Ironically, considering this very book of his illustrates extensively how wrong the presumed consensus was, about the very subject Ehrman is elucidating. He trusted the consensus, so much so he even cited it against me. Then he checked…and found the consensus had betrayed him. Now he sides against it. In other words, now he sides with me. And as he discovered, he isn’t alone. Experts had been proving this for decades…and the “consensus” simply ignored them, or just gainsaid them without any sound argument. Because the “consensus” can’t ever be wrong, evidence be damned. Ehrman just hasn’t realized that this is not an isolated case. What he found for this, is true about almost everything he cites “the consensus” for. Including Q. And the method of criteria. And so on.
It’s kind of sad that Ehrman goes on failing to learn this lesson, and thus goes on promoting a certainty in the field that does not exist and in fact has been deeply undermined by many of his peers. I think this makes him a bad educator, placing his ego ahead of accurately informing the public. It would be different if he actually presented his arguments for the claims he makes that are challenged by the community, and thus admitted arguments had to be made to assert his own certainty, rather than using a fallacious, even dishonest, appeal to authority instead…an authority that doesn’t even relevantly exist.
(I also disagree with Ehrman’s silly nonrationalistic epistemic relativism, essentially a historian’s version of Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria [pp. 132, 143-47, 163-65, 172-73, 187-88], which he convolutedly designed in order not to offend religious believers. But I needn’t fisk any of that, because his treatment of the philosophy of history here is sufficiently contradictory and confusing as to be almost unintelligible. The best antidote is already my book Proving History, so I refer anyone interested in that question there. I won’t dwell on it further here.)
Despite all the things like I have surveyed above, it has to be said that Ehrman also fills this book with a lot of correct information, too, much in fact that most people don’t know and even many scholars deny, and a lot of that he backs with evidence, cited scholarship, and good argument. It is thus useful in that regard. For instance, Ehrman gets ancient demonology right, thus de facto refuting Maurice Casey, who denied everything Ehrman here proves correct. Casey, for instance, mistakenly cites 1 Enoch to claim no demons lived on earth; while Ehrman realizes it says the opposite, and understands the significance of this for understanding early Christianity (e.g., p. 64).
Just be careful to double check any claim Ehrman makes that he doesn’t back with sources and evidence. Especially claims as to what didn’t exist or never happened, claims that require far more pervasive familiarity with ancient history than your average biblical textual critic gets in school. I am most surprised by this because he should have already taught himself his lesson. This whole book shows he was wrong about a lot that he once insisted wasn’t true or didn’t exist. He even explicitly says so, several times, throughout the book. So he ought to know how precarious such claims are if you don’t thoroughly research them first. Yet, alas. We have all the errors surveyed above. It’s unfortunate.
It’s nevertheless nice to see Ehrman finally on board now arguing things we mythicists have been arguing for decades. For example, he most explicitly admits now that “saying what Jews thought is itself highly problematic, since lots of different Jews thought lots of different things. It would be like asking what Christians think today” (p. 50). Many of his arguments in DJE are based on his insistence that Jews only ever monolithically thought one thing, and would never ever think anything different. He now admits, for example, that many Jews not just believed in but worshiped angels alongside God. The idea of worshiping subordinate deities, and still claiming to be monotheists, was not alien to them at all. Indeed, he now admits that when rabbinical sources condemn an idea as heresy, this means there were in fact Jews who believed that, not that no Jews would (p. 69). In fact, Ehrman says, the more vehemently the rabbis condemn a belief, the more extensively that belief was probably actually held by Jews of the time. Among these is the belief that there was more than one worship-worthy god in heaven. He cites scholarship thoroughly demonstrating this.
Ehrman also now agrees that Philo already attests a Jewish theology in which the Logos is the firstborn Son of God and the eternal Image of God, the same being Jesus was identified with (p. 75). (He overlooks the passage where Philo says a Jesus named in the OT is this very same being, but that’s not unexpected, since it requires some cross-checking to discover: see OHJ, pp. 200-05.) He also finds Philo attesting a Jewish belief that Moses was a pre-existent divine being who became incarnate to live on earth and then ascend back to his station in heaven, establishing yet another Jewish precedent for Christian incarnation Christology (p. 82).
Ehrman also dares to admit that Paul’s letters are weirdly silent about a historical Jesus. “I sometimes give my students an assignment to read through all of Paul’s writings and list everything Paul indicates Jesus said and did,” Ehrman reports, and “my students are surprised to find that they don’t even need a three-by-five card to list them” (p. 89). He just doesn’t connect the dots. For example, he freely uses arguments from the silence in Paul’s letters that the story of Joseph of Arimathea was invented later and not known to Paul (p. 141); yet the exact same reasoning entails all the historicizing tales of Jesus were invented later and not known to Paul. Just a little consistency would lead Ehrman to the mythicist position on Paul.
Ehrman also finds evidence in Paul that explicitly states that Paul and his Christian congregations simply assumed without argument that Jesus was in fact an angel. He found this demonstrated by the grammatical analysis of Gal. 4:14 performed by several previous scholars (p. 250). I had not discovered that argument myself, and it is intriguing, supporting my case for that same conclusion in OHJ.
One of my favorite observations from Ehrman is his admission that “storytellers were apt to add details to stories that were vague, or to give names to people otherwise left nameless in a tradition, or to add named individuals to stories that originally mentioned only nameless individuals or undifferentiated groups of individuals,” citing Bruce Metzger’s famous article “Names for the Nameless,” in which “he showed all the traditions of people who were unnamed in New Testament stories receiv[ed] names later,” which if visible in the written record, could and would have operated on any oral record preceding our earliest written record (p. 154). Details therefore do not make the stories more convincing. I found this very same fact confirmed in studies of urban legends, which I cite in OHJ. It’s worth noting that in urban legends that get “background facts” added to them (like history and geography), those facts often are accurate. Yet the story they are added to is wholly fabricated. Take note of that. It’s almost exactly what Luke did to Mark and Matthew.
Ehrman also presents some good arguments against the Christian apologetical claim that no one would claim Jesus was raised unless they knew the tomb was empty (pp. 7, 174), and he makes a good case for the bereavement vision hypothesis (which certainly makes sense if we start from the premise that Jesus existed: pp. 194-96). He takes several positions stalwartly against Christian apologetics, positions which also (inadvertently) support my case for the non-existence of Jesus, such as that “there was nothing categorically different about any” of the appearances to any of the first apostles, “they were all appearances from heaven” (p. 206).
But Sad Deceptions
Unfortunately, Ehrman then distorts the evidence in other places, leaving out damning information and thus disturbingly mis-informing his readers.
Here is an example:
“[Christians] pointed to passages in the Bible that talked about one who suffered and was then vindicated, passages such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22. Jews, though, had a ready response: these passages are not talking about the messiah. And you can see by reading them yourself, in fact the word messiah never occurs in them.” (p. 116)
This is disturbingly misleading in several ways. First, Ehrman had earlier explained that Jews used a number of different ways to refer to their messiah, including “chosen one” or “elect one” (e.g., p. 66). Guess what the dying-and-vindicated man in Isaiah 53 is called? You guessed it, God’s elect, in other words “the chosen one” or “elect one.” So it is disingenuous of him to claim the word “messiah” was not in them therefore they were not messianic. Jews did not restrict passages as being about the messiah to only those that explicitly used the word messiah. Ehrman himself knows this, even says so elsewhere in the very same book, yet here his argument requires his readers forget it. It is thus fallacious on the facts.
Worse, all actual Jewish writing that ever discusses Isaiah 53 says it is about the messiah. All of it. For example, this is simply assumed without argument in the Talmud, where incidentally its rabbinical sources conclude that this very scripture predicted the messiah would die and be resurrected. This is the second thing wrong with Ehrman’s statements: he omits all the evidence telling against him, all the evidence instead arguing that the Jews actually did imagine a dying and rising messiah (whom Ehrman admits the Jews would regard as in some sense a god), and even saw such a thing in the very passages he says Christians were pointing to. They also were not scandalized by this, and saw no need to be defensive about it. It’s simply taken for granted, no argument needed. Thus, Ehrman’s portrayal of Jews as being incapable of imagining such a thing is false on its face. There is no evidence Jews had a problem coming up with the idea. They often did.
The third thing wrong with this is that Ehrman strangely “forgets” to mention one other passage anywhere in this discussion, Daniel 9, which actually does have the word messiah in it, and actually does say the messiah would die (and, incidentally, also gives a mathematical prediction as to when this would happen that on the simplest calculation gives us the era of Pontius Pilate). It also says a great and final atonement for all sins would be effected upon or shortly after that death; and Isaiah 53 says the chosen one’s death would in one blow atone for all sins. It would be nearly impossible not to see these passages as referring to the same person, and we have some evidence early Jews may indeed have made that connection (in the pre-Christian Dead Sea “Melchizedek” scroll). Ehrman might dispute that (the scroll is badly damaged so its exact meaning can be debated), but he can’t dispute the fact that the passages are easily seen as referring to the same figure, and he can’t dispute the fact that in Daniel the Jewish scriptures did in fact predict a messiah’s death, in a passage that explicitly uses the word messiah and explicitly says he will die.
Ehrman has confusingly tried to dismiss that latter point by claiming that Daniel 9 was about a past figure, but that is moot: by the dawn of the first century, few Jews were seeing it that way, but regarding Daniel as an as-yet-unfulfilled scripture, and therefore not about a past figure (it is actually undeniable that the Melchizedek scroll sees it that way, and Josephus attests to others who did as well). And Ehrman is perfectly capable of understanding this. Because he says exactly the same thing of Daniel 7: “However one interprets Daniel in its original second-century BCE context, what is clear is that eventually in some Jewish circles it came to be thought that” it was referring to a “future deliverer” (p. 65). As for Daniel 7, so for Daniel 9. For the exact same reasons. Ehrman thus doesn’t even follow his own advice. Once again, much like a Christian apologist.
This evidence is damning to Ehrman’s argument here. Yet he knows all of this. So his omitting it is deeply troubling to me. It looks like an attempt to deceive, to doctor and alter the evidential record so that only his conclusion seems viable, and not even tell anyone about the evidence contradicting him, much less attempt to wriggle out of it. This same behavior plagues his entire case for historicity…
Ehrman Still Stuck on Bad Arguments for Historicity
Ehrman again just asserts without any evidence or arguments that stories Matthew adds to Mark he “obviously got them from somewhere” (p. 95), when it seems more obvious to me (and countless other scholars in the field) that Matthew is himself inventing them. He isn’t getting them “from” somewhere. So why does Ehrman leap instead to the position of the Christian apologist? No explanation. He says the same for Luke. This is the same thing Ehrman did in DJE: he just fabricates non-existent, unattested sources left and right, without basis, evidence, or argument. And then uses them to declare his conclusion a certainty. Meanwhile, he then admits John made everything up. But why does he concede this for John, but not then make the obvious next step and realize as for John, so for all?
Likewise again Ehrman defends the method of criteria, even though all experts who have published specific studies of them have found them irreparably flawed and unusable (as I document, extensively, in Proving History). Ehrman just hasn’t caught up with the literature. Yet he is telling his readers that his conclusions here are “taken as a fact by almost all critical scholars,” which isn’t true. Indeed, his fake sources are doubted by a great many leading experts. As is the notion, for example, that anything repeated in multiple sources all goes back to Jesus. Obviously the nativity narratives do not go back to Jesus, for instance, no matter how many independent sources we have for them (there are indeed at least six). As nearly all critical scholars agree. So Ehrman isn’t accurately representing even the consensus, much less checking if the consensus is correct. This is bizarre, because he admits the stories in the Gospels have layers of embellishment on them (p. 96), and yet then he says “Jesus is said to have been crucified by Pontius Pilate in both Mark and John, and there are independent aspects of the story reported in M and L. And so that’s probably what happened…” But leading experts on John conclude John got this from Mark (John even quotes mark verbatim in several places), and M and L just mean the things Matthew and Luke add to Mark independent of each other. In other words, “layers of embellishment.”
Ehrman’s methodology thus makes no logical sense. He admits the core facts have been embellished, and yet the moment he encounters one of those embellishments, he declares it an independent source for the core story being embellished thereby! Imagine this. I hear a story from Sue, and I embellish it. Ehrman comes along and says Sue’s story must then be true, because my embellishments must have a source independent of Sue! That is Ehrman’s argument.
Ehrman also selectively cites his evidence to distort reality. Because in reality, the sources don’t agree on this detail. Some say the agents of King Jannaeus killed Jesus. Some say he was crucified by Herod. The only source, literally the only single source, that says he was crucified by Pilate, or even Romans at all, is Mark. All other sources repeating that detail simply get it from Mark, and embellish it. So not only is there only one source, not several, but when we look at all the sources, we see several divergent accounts of who killed Jesus, not one. Even by Ehrman’s own faulty assumptions (he gullibly trusts the interpolation in 1 Thessalonians 2 to be authentic), Ehrman must concede Paul says it was the Jews who killed Jesus; no mention of even the Romans, much less Pilate.
This illogical labor on Ehrman’s part to slap heaping wodges of duct tape on the whole historicity thesis in a desperate attempt to keep it from crumbling only leads Ehrman to say silly things. For instance, when he says Paul “never says that Jesus declared himself to be divine.” That is a silly thing to say, as it is the very worst argument from silence conceivable (ironically for someone so hostile to arguments from silence–when they don’t go his way). In actual fact Paul never discusses Jesus even having a ministry, much less teaching or saying anything at all during it. In fact, Paul never refers to anything Jesus ever said before his death (and indeed one should ask why!), except as whispered to the prophets, which did in fact proclaim his divinity, and yet Paul says Jesus taught him the gospel on their first (revelatory) meeting (Galatians 1).
So certainly Paul believed, and taught, that Jesus declared himself to be divine (in the sense Ehrman rightly and carefully demarcates, as a subordinate divine being), since everywhere Paul talks about the gospel, the divinity of Jesus is essential to it, and is credited as having been communicated to the apostles by Jesus (by revelation–both directly, and indirectly through his influence on the Biblical prophets). Indeed there is no conceivable reason why Paul’s hallucinations of a celestial Jesus (real or pretended) would ever have been coy about it. So surely we should not conclude that Paul attests to a time when Jesus wasn’t claiming to be divine. There is no evidence of that in Paul. The more so as Paul believes Jesus was announcing his future triumph and divinity to the prophets already in the OT, and thus in fact had long been discussing it. Paul never seems aware of any time Jesus wasn’t saying this.
One Big Dropped Ball
In Ehrman’s last chapter he discusses later developments (such as of the Middle Ages) and how Christians evolved into insisting upon a trinitarian monotheism even though Christendom had never embraced such a thing before. What I found lacking here is any real explanation of why they were so murderously obsessed with doing that. Why did Christian “orthodoxists” so desperately need to affirm only “one” God, and why at the same time insist Jesus and the Holy Spirit were the same exact thing as that one God? What was so repugnant, or dangerous, or destructive of their other beliefs, in the notion of just embracing three deities, or simply saying Jesus was an archangel doing God’s will, as Paul was teaching in the first place? It can’t be said this obsession was simply intrinsic, since there were countless Christians content with alternatives, both at the faith’s origin and in every century ever after. So why were these other Christians not content with them?
Ehrman offers just one theory in a couple of sentences, undefended (p. 343): the view that Christianity was actually obsessed with political unity and sought to enforce that by demanding theological unity: one god, therefore one empire. But that doesn’t really explain anything. The Romans sought unity without having to obsess over monotheism, and so did the Jews (as Ehrman’s very book establishes). Likewise the Chinese. And just as the Roman Empire had subordinate rulers, so could its cosmo-theological analog. So why could they not accept Jesus as the kind of deity Paul recognized: God’s viceroy? Ehrman’s only preferred theory does not answer that question. Indeed, it seems to just repeat the question as if it were an answer. “Why did the Christians obsess over this extremist unity concept? Because the Christians were obsessed with an extremist unity concept.”
Ehrman also does not examine Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian, or Nestorian or Assyrian Christianity, for example. They did not necessarily follow the Nicene creed, or interpret it the same way. I found this to be an unfortunate defect of the book, which could have, and should have, included an informative chapter on such histories, because they would inform the Western tradition by contrast and comparison.
In conclusion, there are a lot of errors in this book, from the trivial to the serious. But overall it does soundly establish the key point that Jesus was regarded as a pre-existent incarnate divine being from the earliest recorded history of Christianity, even in fact before the writings of Paul, and that this was not even remarkable within Judaism. The specifically trinitarian concept of Jesus being identical to the supreme God he shows did indeed only arise much later. But that even Jews accepted a spectrum of divinity, and not a binary, Ehrman also well proves. He thus establishes a cornerstone of the mythicist thesis. And destroys a cherished cornerstone of liberal Christian historical interpretation. In defense of historicity, meanwhile, this book adds nothing. In fact, it takes quite a bit a way. The pillars are crumbling.