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Ehrman on Jesus: Amendments

June 2, 2014

My posting on Bart Ehrman’s latest book, How Jesus Became God, generated a number of responses, the most important of which was from Ehrman himself.  In particular, he took umbrage at my suggestion that on a few matters he seemed insufficiently informed or up to date.

In a series of email exchanges, he insisted that, in a couple of my criticisms, I’d misunderstood his intended meanings.  So, in the belief that it’s totally unprofitable to criticize a view not held by a book’s author, I’m happy to amend my posting on these points.  I’ll itemize them briefly below.

First, on the question about the origin and meaning of the expression “the son of man,” I’d taken from Ehrman’s discussion the inference that he affirmed the now-outdated view (formerly held widely) that the expression was well established as a fixed title for an eschatological figure in ancient Jewish apocalyptic thought.  He insists, however, that he accepts that the expression wasn’t a fixed title or well-known.  He allows that Jesus may have coined it, or may have appropriated it from somewhere (he’s “agnostic” on the question, to use his own term).  But, he also insists, Jesus used it to refer, not to himself, but to a future eschatological figure.

It’s this latter bit that remains, in my view, a problem, however.  If “the son of man” wasn’t a relatively well-known title for a relatively well-known figure, i.e., if it was something of a novel, or at least very unusual, designation, then how were Jesus’ disciples supposed to get what “the son of man” designated?

My own view (and not mine alone) is that Jesus took an expression frequently used in Hebrew & Aramaic, “a son of man,” and adapted it to express a particularizing force:  “the son of man.”  And, further, I hold that he used the expression as his own distinctive self-designation, comprising what we can call a feature of Jesus’ “idiolect” (to use a linguistics category).  This fits with the fact that the Gospels clearly all understand all uses of it as self-designations.  So, either these writers all were confused, or deliberately shifted from Jesus’ meaning (thereby over-riding Jesus on the matter), or else the Gospels preserve Jesus’ use of the expression as his distinctive self-designation.  Certainly, it’s noteworthy that there is no evidence in the NT that “the son of man” ever functioned as a confessional title, unlike, e.g., “Messiah/Christ,” “Lord,” “Son of God.”  I’ve laid out my thinking further in my concluding essay in Who is This Son of Man?, eds. Paul Owen & Larry Hurtado.

The second point on which Ehrman complains is my comment about places where he emphasizes that in this or that NT text Jesus isn’t pictured as God “the Father.”  I’d inferred that Ehrman meant (erroneously) to contrast this with what became classical Christian doctrine.  Ehrman rather firmly insisted that he isn’t actually that ill-informed which I am relieved to know as I otherwise think of him as relatively well informed.  Instead, he assures me, he intended to contrast these NT texts with the view of some modern Christians who treat Jesus as God the Father (and/or non-Christian moderns who assume that Christians do so).  Well, OK.  As I replied, however, it would have helped me (and others?) grasp this intended meaning had he made that explicit.  But I’m happy to correct my inference.

As he didn’t complain about other things, I assume that he regards them as fair comment (whether he finds my own view of things persuasive or not).  My thanks to Bart for his attention to my posting and help in setting out more clearly the issues and our respective positions.

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  1. Just a brief comment on the earlier statements about divinity. A person (P) can be “divine” in a weak or strong sense. Chalcedon affirmed that Christ was truly God and truly man (451 CE), which can be interpreted or reworded as fully God and fully human. To be fully divine means that P has all the properties (attributes) of deity. Angels are divine in a weak sense; Christ is supposed to be divine in a strong sense according to the creeds.

    • Yes, but these distinctions (just as you cite them) post-date the NT by a few centuries. Once again, I plead for us to try to figure out and employ the conceptual categories used at that time, first century CE, and in the religo-cultural setting (which was shaped very much by Roman-era Jewish tradition).

      • Just for the sake of clarification, when you say that the distinctions Edgar mentioned post-date the NT, I assume you are referring specifically to the belief that Christ was later conceived to be “truly God and truly Man”, is that correct? I trust, however, that you were not denying that angelic beings were conceived of as divine in a weak sense, as Edgar noted?

        Forgive an old man like me, who’s had the pleasure of reading much of your work, but who has an imperfect memory, but I had the impression, based on your writings, that you would not have objected to observations such those offered by D.S. Russell, i.e. that, in some ways, angels shared the nature, though not the being, of God. I’d quote him directly, but you typically snip the quotations I present, so I’ll save you the trouble and me the frustration of going down that road 🙂

      • All talk of divine “nature” etc. postdates the NT. This term doesn’t feature in OT or NT writers. Angels can be called “gods” (in certain poetic contexts as in the Psalms), and “sons of God”, and so there is an implicitly close connection with “God”. But when the question arises of the relationship, the “angels” are consistently treated as servants, messengers, and creatures of YHWH.
        But in the NT the “pre-existent” Jesus is the agency of creation, not a creature himself. There seems to be a closer analogy in this matter to the way that Wisdom is portrayed in Wisdom of Solomon. Paul and the other NT writers had plenty of opportunities to refer to Jesus as a/the angel of the Lord or such, and none ever does. That ought to signal something!

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Since Bart Ehrman believes that Paul and the early Christians viewed Jesus as an exalted angel, he can’t really be said to agree with the “early high Christology” view, can he? Isn’t what he is really conceding is that it was belief in Jesus’ per-existence that was surprisingly early rather than belief that he was fully divine?

    • Donald: You’ll just have to read Bart’s book! Yes, he think that Paul saw Jesus as some kind of divine being, that, for want of a better category, Bart calls “angel” (albeit, principal angel, “angel of the Lord”, not just any angel). But the more relevant thing is that he agrees that Jesus from a very early post-Easter time was regarded as “divine” in one sense or another. I don’t know what you mean by “fully divine”. Is that like being “fully pregnant”??

      • LOL Ugh. Your response strikes a chord, because Ehrman responds all my questions, and those of others, about his odd Christ-as-angel assertion on his (paid) blog with, “buy/read my book!” so your comment is a bit chuckle-inducing!

        That said, I also have read this part of his book and read his blog posts on the subject and I find his rather novel interpretation of certain utterances by Paul that “prove” his point to be totally unconvincing, and not shared by any modern scholars I can think of. And a bit disappointing, since he previously (and for decades) has held that the earliest Christians viewed Jesus as fully human in an Adoptionist sense (something with which I think is far more plausible, the book of Acts and all of Paul’s descriptions of Jesus’ ministry) and only later evolved into the Nicean formula. Today, he believes they saw him as semi-divine – as an angel, somehow – immediately after the resurrection.

        Shouldn’t one or more of the Church Fathers, let alone Church Councils, have revealed to the world that Jesus was an Angel if this was the case?

      • Well, Stephen, one of the terms that Justin Martyr (mid-2nd century CE) applied to Jesus was “angel” (e.g., Dialogue with Trypho 56), because (Justin says) “He brings messages to those to whom God the Maker of all things wishes,” citing the incident where three figures meet Abraham as an example.
        In short, Justin uses the meaning of “angel” = “messenger” for Jesus as the Word/message/revelation of “God the Creator”. But it’s also clear that he distinguishes Jesus from the company of beings called “angels”.

  3. According to last Ehrman’s post on his blog, I don’t think he took it well.. Before even engaging the major points of disagreement, he’s complaining about your statement regarding his expertise on Christology development. I expect a lot of traffic on his blog in the next few days! 🙂

    • Yes, well, he did take exception to my statements. But they were my honest inferences from what he wrote. He corrected a couple by explaining what he really intended. But all I can review is what an author writes, not what he intended but didn’t make explicit. However, in light of email exchanges, I’ve attempted to correct my initial inferences. I still find a few places of curiosity, such as statements that in early CHristian ideas of Jesus’ incarnation he was “temporarily human.”

      • Yes, unfortunately all of us humans are just “temporarily” here! 🙂 Dr. Hurtado, besides few disagreements with Ehrman, do you think he could now possibly be considered as an “EHCC” member??

      • “If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck.”

  4. Thanks for the article Dr. Hurtado. Even though I’m not a scholar or historian, and I have no right to judge who is right or wrong, it seems to me that Ehrman’s usage of ‘The Son of Man’ by Jesus to referr to some future eschatological figure seems a bit problematic.

  5. Well said.

  6. Larry,

    Fair amendments.

    While Ehrman may well be fully informed about the status quaestionis of Christology & Christian Origins, he does not always demonstrate an awareness of that knowledge in HJBG and case in point is his glaring and frankly strange omission of Richard Bauckham (and Hurtado could have done with more air time too). Granted, his book was not meant to be an exercise in Forschungsgeschichte, still, if he is introducing his audience to what scholars are saying, he’s made a couple of big omissions.

    In some places I also got the impression – perhaps wrongly now – that Ehrman was suggesting that since Jesus is not equated with God the Father in a modalistic sense, he is not “fully” divine. I’ll have to re-read those sections of HJBG again.

    Otherwise, I fully agree with the Son of Man stuff! I think Ehrman fails to wrestle with the semitic background of “son of man”. Makes me wonder what Maurice Casey would have said to Ehrman!!!

    This is a great warm up for San Diego!!!


    • “Makes me wonder what Maurice Casey would have said to Ehrman!!!”

      Setting aside the question about Ehrman’s take on the phrase “Son of Man”, which is a puzzle that some have felt may never have a definitive solution (see The Son of Man Debate, by Delbert Berkett, page 124), I think that, broadly speaking, Ehrman’s view seems to merge views like those held by Larry Hurtado with views held by the late Maurice Casey. Thus, I think that Casey would have had positive things to say about Ehrman’s book. He is certainly correct to point out, as he has recently on his blog, that many of his critics lack a historical paradigm of their own, even though they don’t let that stop them from criticizing him.

      As someone pointed out on another blog, Ehrman qualifies as a member of the Early High Christology Club, while he also feels that there were developmental stages by which Jesus ultimately came to be viewed as God. In that respect I think Ehrman is correct, even though I disagree with him about some particulars. Dr. Hurtado has shown that veneration of Jesus erupted early, and he has offered a historical paradigm to account for this, but venerating Jesus and viewing him as God himself aren’t the same thing.

      • Sean: As Ehrman also notes (rightly), when someone talks about “Jesus viewed as God,” it’s not terribly clear what is meant. I prefer to avoid such abstractions and focus on specific statements of confession/belief and, still more important in my mind, devotional practices. These, in the ancient period, are our best indicators of the religious stance of people.

      • “These, in the ancient period, are our best indicators of the religious stance of people.”

        That may very well be so, but a very real historical difficulty emerges, it seems to me, in that once we grant that a “mutation” in religious practices occurred in which early Christians perceived that God required them to included Jesus as a central figure within the context of their worship, we are in uncharted territory. We can no longer assume that old perceived boundaries necessarily apply. That’s why your paradigm is considered acceptable by some Unitarians, such as Dale Tuggy, who gave a very interesting lecture explaining how the worship of Jesus can be viewed as acceptable even for those who believe that he’s not God. Your historical paradigm is very instructive indeed, but I’m not sure it answers the question that Dr. Bird apparently thinks it answers.

      • Sean: In my view, positions such as “Unitarian” et alia all presuppose categories and questions of a much later period than the NT writings. My own approach is to try to avoid bringing such baggage into the analysis of them. In my view the NT writings don’t address those later questions, but the NT treatment of Jesus did help demand those later questions, although they were framed in philosophical categories of that later period.

  7. Bogdan permalink

    Very opened and very honest/professional, Dr Hurtado. Thanks

  8. Professor Hurtado,

    I was interested to see in your original comment (on Ehrman’s book) your view that Ehrman seems to have effectively accepted that there was an early high Christology. His subsequent email exchanges with you do not challenge that?

    I note in an earlier blog post (a couple of years back) you gave a very helpful summary of the state of academic thinking on this point:

    “Early High Christology”: A Recent Assessment of Scholarly Debate”

    Ehrman’s views in this respect seem to confirm a move towards recognition of an early, high Christology?

    • Well, Ehrman says in his book that he shifted from an earlier/initial assumption that a “high” christology emerged only late to a realization (as he probed evidence & studied scholarship on the matter) that in fact there was an early and sudden eruption of beliefs in Jesus’ heavenly exaltation and his divinity in one sense or another. Can’t say if Ehrman is indicative of a trend, but it’s obviously affirming to see scholars coming around to a view that I’ve advocated for a few decades now.

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