A Look at Bart Ehrman’s Objection: The Earliest Christians Did Not Think Jesus Was God

Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

By Eric Chabot, Director, Ratio Christi, The Ohio State University

I have been reading through Bart Ehrman’s “Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. I could not agree with Ehrman more on several points he makes in the book on the problem with the Jesus Mythers. However, there are still some areas of disagreement. I will address one of them in this post: Ehrman says:

“That the earliest Christians did not consider Jesus God is not a controversial point among scholars. Apart from fundamentalists and very conservative evangelicals, scholars are unified in thinking that the view that Jesus was God was a later development within Christian circles. Fundamentalists disagree, of course, because for them Jesus is really God, and since he is God, he must of known he is God, and he must of told his followers, and so they knew from the beginning that he was God. This view is rooted in the inerrancy of scripture, where everything that Jesus is said to have said, for example in the Gospel of John, is historically accurate and beyond question. But that is not the view of critical scholarship. Whether or not Jesus really was God (a theolgocial, not a historical question), the earliest followers did not think so.[1]

While I do have a lot of respect for Ehrman, this objection just seems to fit more into the category of the “popular Bart” rather than the “scholarly Bart.” In other words, I  think the “scholarly Bart” knows better here.

First, I can see several reasons as to why Jesus did not go around and take very opportunity to say “I am God” during his ministry on earth. The Jewish Scriptures forbids worshiping anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9). We also need to remember  the Shema, a creed that every Jew would have memorized from a very early age. When we read Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which says, “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is our God, the Lord is one,”

Louis Jacobs sums up the significance of The Shema:

There is only one God and there are no others. Allied to this is the idea that God and his essence are indivisible. A deity like Baal could be split up, as it were, into various deities, hence, the plural form Baalim and Ashterot found in the Bible when speaking of pagan gods. The polytheistic deities were thought of as separate beings, frequently in conflict with one another, each having a part of the universe for his or her domain. Monotheism denies the existence of such beings.[2]

For Jesus to ever say something so explicit such as “I am God” would insinuate that he was calling upon his audience to believe in two “Gods”- the God of Israel and Jesus. Also, for Gentiles, such a claim would allow for Jesus to fit nicely into their polytheism (the belief in many gods).

Furthermore, within Judaism, there is a term called “avodah zarah” which is defined as the formal recognition or worship as God of an entity that is in fact not God. In other words, any acceptance of a non-divine entity as your deity is a form of avodah zarah.

Why was Jesus accused of blasphemy?

Another approach to this issue is to ask the question, if the ministy of Jesus made never led anyone to think Jesus was divine/God incarnate then why was Jesus accused of blasphemy? According to Jewish law, the claim to be the Messiah was not a criminal, nor capital offense. Therefore, the claim to be the Messiah was not even a blasphemous claim. According to Mark 14:62, Jesus affirmed the chief priests question that He is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Coming Son of Man who would judge the world. This was considered a claim for deity since the eschatological authority of judgment was for God alone. Jesus provoked the indignation of his opponents because of His application of Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 to himself. Also, many parables, which are universally acknowledged by critical scholars to be authentic to the historical Jesus, show that Jesus believed himself to be able to forgive sins against God (Matt. 9:2; Mark 2: 1-12).

Forgiving sins was something that was designated for God alone (Exod. 34: 6-7; Neh.9:17; Dan. 9:9) and it was something that was done only in the Temple along with the proper sacrifice. So it can be seen that Jesus acts as if He is the Temple in person. In Mark 14:58, it says,”We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.’ The Jewish leadership knew that God was the one who was responsible for building the temple (Ex. 15:17; 1 En. 90:28-29). N.T. Wright has expanded on this in his book The Challenge of Jesus.

More On Jesus and His Actions

In his book Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity, Richard Bauckham has asserted that while some Jewish writers in the late Second Temple period did utilize some of the Greek metaphysical language, their understanding of God is not a definition of divine nature- what divinity is- but a notion of the divine identity, characterized primarily in ways other than metaphysical attributes. Bauckham suggests that in studying the relationship between Jewish monotheism and early Christology, it is imperative to understand the religious sects during Second Temple Judaism. The one God of Second Temple Jewish belief was identifiable by His covenant relationship with Israel. Various New Testament scriptures demonstrate that while the early Christians used titles to describe Jesus as God, they also clearly believed Jesus was God as evidenced by assigning attributes to Him which were clearly reserved for God. Moreover, they did so in a distinctly Jewish way that at the same time adhered to the monotheistic tradition of first- century Judaism.

While Greeks focused on philosophical matters of the nature of the divine, Jewish monotheism was more concerned with God’s divine identity. The God of Second Temple Judaism was identifiable by three unique attributes: (1) The God of Israel is the sole Creator of all things (Is. 40:26, 28; 37:16; 42:5; 45:12; Neh. 9:6; Ps 86:10; Hos. 13:4; (2) The God of Israel is the sovereign Ruler of all things (Dan. 4:34-35); (3) The God of Israel is also the only the only being worthy of being worshiped (Deut. 6:13; Ps. 97:7; Is. 45:23; Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9).

Jesus’ divine identity is affirmed by the fact that He was seen by his followers as having the same attributes as God. Through Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, Jesus comes to participate as God’s sovereign Ruler over all things (Ps. 110:1; Matt. 22:44;26:64; Acts 2:33-35; 5:31; 7:55-56; 1 Cor.15:27-28; Phil. 2:6-11; Eph. 1:21-22; Heb. 1:3; 1 Pet. 3:22). Jesus is seen as the object of worship (Matt. 14:33; 28: 9,17; Jn. 5:23; 20:28; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 5:8-12). He is also the recipient of praise (Matt. 21:16-16; Eph. 6:19; 1 Tim. 1:12; Rev. 5:8-14) and prayer (Acts 1:24; 7:59-60; 9:10-17,21; 22:16,19;1 Cor. 1:2; 16:22; 2 Cor.12:8). Jesus is also the Creator of all things (Heb. 1:2; Jn. 1: 1-3; Col. 1:15-16; 1 Cor. 8:6).

I guess my question is that if the earliest followers did not think he was divine/God incarnate, then who did they think Jesus was? Did Jesus have to go around saying “I am God” or did his actions speak alone for the fact of who He was?

Paul’s view of Jesus

I want to build on this last point by looking at Paul. Paul’s Letters are the earliest records we have for the life of Jesus ( 40 to 60 A.D.). They are also the earliest letters we have for the Christology of Jesus. Hence, to say the doctrine of the incarnation was something that came into existence much, much, later is problematic. In several of Paul’s Letters Jesus is referred to as “Lord” (Gr. kyrios). Hence, the willingness to do this place Jesus in a role attributed to God in Jewish expectation.” For a Jewish person, when the title “Lord” (Heb. Adonai) was used in place of the divine name YHWH, this was the highest designation a Jewish person could use for deity.

Let’s look at Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 8: 5-6:

For though there are things that are called gods, whether in the heavens or on earth; as there are many gods and many lords; yet to us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we live through him.

Here we see that  Paul ends up doing something extremely significant in the history of Judaism. A glance at the entire context of the passage in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 shows that according to Paul’s inspired understanding, Jesus receives the “name above all names,” the name God revealed as his own, the name of the Lord. In giving a reformulation of the Shema, Paul still affirms the existence of the one God, but what is unique is that somehow this one God now includes the one Lord, Jesus the Messiah. Therefore, Paul’s understanding of this passage begets no indication of abandoning Jewish monotheism in place of polytheism.

Also, as Gerd Theissen and Annete Merz point out :

Jewish monotheism could worship a heavenly being who owed status solely to God- but not an earthly man who was given divine dignity on the basis of his words and actions. In the time of earliest Christianity Jews could recognize heavenly figures alongside God (e.g. Son of Man, wisdom, or Logos). They could conceive of God exalting a human being (like Enoch) to himself. However, they protest against a human being making himself God (John 5:18; 10:33) and being worshiped (Acts 12:21-23; 14:8-18) [3]

Also, as pointed out by Bauckham, Paul believed that Jesus was God by attributing attributes to him that were distinctly reserved for God. And he did so in a distinctly Jewish manner while also preserving monotheism. There were three attributes that first century Jews uniquely assigned to God:

1. God is the Sole Ruler of all things

2. God is the Sole Creator of all things

3. God is the only being deserving of worship

So let’s look at how Paul matches up the data here:

1. Jesus participates in God’s sole rule over all things

Phil: 3:20-21: “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.”

Eph. 1:21-22: Paul speaks of Jesus being ”far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet…”

Here, Jesus is clearly given the authority to rule above every one of God’s created beings.

2. Jesus as the Creator of all things

Jesus is clearly thought by Paul to have been the creator of the universe. This attribute is reserved only to God in Second Temple Judaism. Paul makes it clear that Jesus created all things.

Col. 1:15-16: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”

3. Jesus as worthy of worship

As discussed above, only God was worthy of worship in Second Temple Judaism. Nevertheless, Paul discusses the worship of Jesus. Since God is the sole Creator and Ruler of all things He alone should be worshiped. Even within the Roman Empire, Jews worshiped God alone. No other entity was worthy of worship. Here is one of the earliest Christological texts:

Philippians 2:6-11: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

I guess my question for Ehrman is, who did Paul think Jesus was? Is it even significant for Paul to give Jesus the title “Lord?”

Conclusion

Is it possible that the followers of Jesus did think Jesus was God? Given what we see in Paul’s Letters, is this something that was really invented much later? The evidence seems to say the opposite. While  I do respect Ehrman, he seems to be off on this one.


[1] Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historcial Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York, Harper Collins, 2012), 231.

[2] Louis Jacobs, A Jewish Theology,  (London, Behrman House) 21, 22.

[3] Gerd Theissen and Annete Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 95.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Eric Chabot

Eric is the Chapter Director for The Ohio State University (OSU) which is the largest campus in the country (60,000 students). He is a graduate of Southern Evangelical Seminary (M.A. in Religious Studies) and has been doing campus ministry on the Ohio State campus since 2004. Eric has had almost 18 years experience with reaching out to the Jewish community with the Gospel and went to work as a full time missionary in 2005 for CJF Ministries. Eric is also a graduate of Frank Turek’s Instructor’s Academy and an instructor at The Messianic Studies Institute in Columbus, Ohio where he teaches on topics such as Messianic Apologetics, Messianic Prophecy, and the Resurrection of Jesus. Eric has also spoken on college campuses on the existence of God and written several journal articles for The Messianic Literature Outreach. He has also been on several radio broadcasts such as Alex McFarland’s Truth Talk Live and Ryan Dobson’s Higher Ground. Eric lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife Lucy and his two children, Elise and Jack.