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Back from San Diego

November 28, 2014

I’m back from the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, this year in San Diego, a busy but enjoyable four days of conference.  Aside from the sun and warm temperatures (25-27 Celsius), there were numerous interesting sessions and lots opportunities to chat with colleagues and long-time friends, many of whom I see only at this event annually.

Saturday morning, there was a panel discussion of Bart Ehrman’s recent book, How Jesus Became God.  I’ve blogged on the book earlier here and (with amendments) here, and reviewed the book in Christian Century, the review available here.  So, my own contribution was mainly some positive and critical observations already published.  But in this session I focused more on assessing how well the book served to inform fairly a general public about the matters discussed, and offered a mixed verdict.  My main complaint is that on some controversial matters, Ehrman seems to me to present his/one side of the argument without indicating that or why other competent scholars see things differently.  If all you want to do is push your own ideas, I guess that’s what you do.  But if you want to give a fair indication of scholarly opinion, then I think you have to do better.

As I’ve noted in earlier postings and reviews of the book, there are also some curious statements such as the claim repeated a couple of times in the book that the orthodox doctrine of Jesus’ “incarnation” is that the heavenly Son became “temporarily human.”  In fact, from Paul’s letters onward, so-called “orthodox” Christians emphasized that Jesus was and remains genuinely human, necessarily so because his resurrection and glorification are the model and promise of the future salvation of believers (e.g., Rom. 8:29; 1 John 3:1-3).  But, on a number of other matters, Ehrman does a decent job of explaining things.  I was, however, a bit disappointed that so much of the session was occupied by Bart and Craig Evans arguing over warrants for judging whether Jesus was or wasn’t buried, when there were other substantial issues that could have been engaged as well.  In any case, it’s already hit the New York Times best-seller list and so will likely promote a wide popular interest in the fascinating phenomenon that I’ve researched and written about over some 35 years:  the early and vigorous eruption and development of devotion to Jesus, particularly the constellation of beliefs and devotional practices that are already taken as traditional in Paul’s letters (from ca. 50-60 CE).

The highlight of Saturday evening was a dinner at a Brazilian steak house, along with a number of contributors to the volume of essays:  Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism:  Essays in Honor of Larry W. Hurtado, eds. Chris Keith & Dieter Roth (the publisher’s online catalogue entry here.  I am genuinely touched by those who contributed to the volume, and myself honoured by it.

My own other presentation was a fresh autopsy analysis of P22 (P.Oxyrhynchus 1228), two fragments of a 3rd century CE copy of the Gospel of John, housed in the Glasgow University Library.  I posted on the results of my study earlier here.  The essay is to appear in a multi-author volume in due course.


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  1. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Ehrman argues that the early Christians viewed Jesus as an angel whereas you, Dunn and others have argued against an angel Christology in early Christianity. It’s not about differing degrees of specificity, those two views are at odds. When Ehrman concedes that the early Christians viewed Jesus as divine he only does so while making clear that their conception of divinity was completely different from the view that made later Nicene formulations possible. Jesus was viewed as divine by the early Christians only in the sense that he was a divine being from the spiritual realm. Only much later did the idea of “divinity” come to entail Jesus possessing the qualities and prerogatives of God almighty:

    “Jesus now had been exalted to heaven and is the heavenly messiah come to earth. In an even more real sense, he was God. Not God almighty, of course, but he was a heavenly being, a superhuman, a divine king, who would rule the nations.” P. 208

    “One of the mistakes that people make when thinking about the question of Jesus as God involves taking the view that eventually was widely held by the fourth Christian century and assuming that this was in place during the early days of the Christian movement… Jesus became God in that major fourth-century sense. But he had been seen as God before that, by people who did not have this fourth-century understanding of the relationship of the human and divine realms.” pp. 43 and 44

    • Donald: You’re flogging a red herring!! If you read my own writings you’ll see that I don’t make the move that you criticize. I don’t focus on such “ontological” questions (largely because they weren’t the vocabulary of earliest Christian circles), focusing instead on the historical significance of the “dyadic” shape of early Christian worship/devotion, Jesus included along with God. Bart presumes that the only way to accommodate a pre-existent Jesus is to define him as some kind of angelic being. That’s more specific and I have been, and, in my view, also a bit simplistic.
      But, on the key historical question, Bart agrees that devotion to Jesus as in some way divine, including, remarkably (and he agrees that it’s remarkable) Jesus’ inclusion programmatically in devotional practice, commenced remarkably early, not later. So, he’s EHCC material . . . definitely eligible to sup the golden nectar that made bonnie Scotland famous.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        If you draw early high Christology so broadly, so as to include those who view the early Christians as in some sense worshipping Jesus as an angel, then you might as well declare Arius himself a member of the EHCC.

        In reality you have expressed the view that Martin Werner’s Angel Christology was a failure and rightly forgotten (in “One God, One Lord”), and that the pattern of Jesus devotion in early Christianity “requires” some sort of formulation along Nicene lines that includes “Christ with(in) God” (At the Origins of Christian Worship, page 102). That statement does seem somewhat ontologically specific, and fundamentally at odds with the Angel Christology outlined by Bart Ehrman.

      • Oh, dear Donald, do be assured that Bart and I disagree on whether Paul thought of Jesus as an angel. But we agree that an utterly remarkable treatment of Jesus as “divine” (in one way or another), including particularly the inclusion of Jesus as recipient of cultic devotion, erupted quite early. I’ve always been more focused on the praxis of Jesus-devotion than on trying to analyse it from the later standpoint of Nicene-type categories. I fully maintain that the devotional pattern already taken for granted by Paul was perhaps the key factor that continued to generate efforts to develop doctrinal categories to justify/explain how Christians could be monotheists and still have two distinguishable recipients of their worship. This did demand the controversies that led to Nicaea.

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Doesn’t Ehrman’s book claim that Paul and the early Christians viewed Jesus as an exalted angel? That being the case, although both you and he agree that Jesus became “divine” early in Christian development, it would appear you have significantly different views of what that divinity entailed at that stage. So I’m a bit surprised you see to downplay the differences and instead welcome him as if he has come around to your point of view. I know he presents himself as having “come around” to early high Christology. Nevertheless, when he argues for early angel Christology he’s patently closer to the views of Martin Werner than he is to James Dunn, never mind Hurtado and the other genuine members of the EHC.

    • Oh, yes, Bart is much more specific about the “ontological” nature of the pre-existent Jesus than I am. But Gieschen (on whom Bart draws) is a member of the EHCC. We’re not doctrinaire, Donald! How do you know what/who “genuine” members of the EHCC are??

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