When Jesus Became God


Bart D. Ehrman, in When Jesus Became God, writes about what we can historically know about Jesus, which isn’t much. That’s because no contemporary records of Jesus have come down to us, and because the books of the New Testament are inconsistent with history that has come down, and with each other.
King Herod didn’t try to kill all the boys two years old and younger in Judea, for instance. There’s a tradition that Jesus and his family visited Egypt that may actually be valid (it goes back pretty far), but if so, that’s not why.
Shepherds or wise men may have visited him after he was born, but not both. According to two Gospels, not either. There does seem to be a tradition in Iran that two (not three) wise men (Magians) visited.
He may have been descended from King David through Joseph (which shouldn’t count if God literally made Mary pregnant), but the two geneologies given in two separate Gospels don’t agree.
He may have been literate, and have studied the Torah, but maybe he just listened to it frequently, and had great insight. The disciples almost certainly were not literate, since they were mostly manual laborers from Galilee, a rural area from which no one important had ever come. All the books of the New Testament were written in Greek, which the disciples may not even have known, and written (beginning with Paul’s epistles) at least two decades after Jesus’s death. The Gospels were written between 35 and 65 years after. This means that the writers had almost certainly never met (or seen) Jesus, and had probably not even met anyone who had. Several oral traditions provided the framework for what was eventually written down, and the above inconsistencies weren’t the only ones. We can pretty much guarantee that things were added. The question is, what in the Gospels actually happened?
Most likely Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist did happen. John forgave him his sins, and is the superior figure in that story, which is not how later Christians would have preferred to portray him.
Evidently, he was crucified in Jerusalem after getting in trouble with the authorities. That’s also something Christians wouldn’t have boasted about. The rest of the story about his trial and crucifixion don’t add up, though.
In one Gospel he says exactly two words to Pontius Pilate, in another they have an extended dialogue. The former is more likely than the latter, especially since the latter has Pilate saying Jesus was an innocent man. Unlike Jesus, records of Pilate have survived, and he was not a sympathetic character. Ehrman thinks that Judas betrayed Jesus by telling the Romans he called himself King of the Jews. That would be enough to get him crucified for being a potential revolutionary.
The stories of the crucifixion are inconsistent too. In one, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” In another, he tells the thief crucified beside him that they’ll meet in paradise.
The rest of the story in the Gospels is mostly unlikely too. People usually took longer than a few hours to die, and they were rarely removed from the cross after death. Romans had no concern over Jewish sensibilities about the Passover or the Sabbath, and even if he had been removed from the cross, the story of the tomb is most unlikely too. Jesus isn’t portrayed as being rich, and his family was about 120 miles away. His disciples (also not rich) had run away fearing the Romans would get them too (except for Judas).
So why did the Christian religion begin?
Ehrman thinks it’s because of the resurrection. Not because Jesus died and came back, which wasn’t unheard of. He had brought Lazarus back to life, after all, and various magicians claimed to be able to do the same. But Peter and Mary Magdalene at least (and later, Paul) had had visions of him that convinced them he was somehow still alive. The other stories about him allowing Thomas to put his finger in his wounds and eating a piece of fish seem to be later additions: there was controversy about whether resurrection would be physical or spiritual.
On the other hand, other scholars say that few seem to have believed in the resurrection immediately afterwards. Possibly that too was added to the legend.
This was important because Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher, who seems to have really believed that the world as he and the disciples knew it would soon be coming to an end, when it would be replaced by the Kingdom of God, over which he would reign, and his disciples over the Twelve Tribes. By the time the Gospels were written, it must have been apparent this hadn’t happened, and probably wouldn’t. Rome had crushed the rebellion of 66-70 CE. That had changed the world, but hadn’t inaugurated God’s Kingdom as far as anyone could see. Unless the picture people had of the Kingdom of God was entirely erroneous. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say, “…the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.”
Just why Jesus’s resurrection made not only his disciples, but lots of other people believe he was not only the Messiah, but the Son of God, and eventually equal to God, is unclear. The visions at least some people had of him after his death must have been vivid. Peter, Mary Magdalene, and Paul must have been utterly convinced that what they perceived was real, and there may have been more people than just they. Once they were convinced, the question was, where was Jesus? He was alive after death, but not among them. The next idea was that he had been taken up into heaven.
This wasn’t unprecedented either, since it had happened to Enoch and Elijah. The next question was, what was his role in heaven? Had he been a mortal who had been “adopted” by God? Was he a preexisting angel? The idea that he was the Son of God had some precedent too. Both kings and angels could be Sons of God.
An obsessive process had begun. Christians, even those outside Judaism, as converted by Paul, accepted there was only one God. But if Jesus was God’s Son in the sense of being another version of God, how could there be only one? Did Jesus, while on earth, pray to himself? If he was literally God, how could he fit into a single human body? It would have been simpler to just declare Christianity a polytheism, but instead, Christianity obsessively searched for the correct definition of what Jesus and God were, respectively, and declared each other heretics for any definition that was incorrect. This was bad enough when Christianity was illegal. It became worse when Christianity first became legal under Constantine, then the state religion under Theodosius some eighty years later.
That happened in the fourth century CE, a tumultuous time for Christians. Still trying to get that definition right, the dispute was now whether God and Jesus were of the same or similar substances, a question which seems utterly trivial today, but didn’t then. Eventually Jesus was declared to be of the same substance, to such effect that, as a Jewish writer noted, hardly anyone talks about God the Father anymore, only about Jesus. The disaster of power politics took Christianity over and changed it from its beginning as a religion of love to a religion of power that persecuted its perceived enemies, different only theologically from the Romans who had actually crucified Jesus. Pagan religion was actually usually tolerant, as most forms of religion around the Mediterranean and Middle East had similarities, so that it was easy to see one god as a version of another under a different name. The Jews were disliked because they wouldn’t worship the Emperor as a god, but consented to praying for him. Christians also refused Emperor worship and went so far as to call the gods of the Empire demons. This didn’t make them popular.
The pagans were persecuted more systematically by Christians than Christians had been persecuted by pagans. Jews began to be persecuted by Christians too, only in small ways to begin with, but with pogroms to follow later, and the Holocaust less than a hundred years ago. Anti-Semitism is seen quite early in the New Testament gospels. Jews are blamed first for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah, although he hadn’t done any of the things (like driving the Romans out of Judea and becoming a great king) the Messiah was expected to do. They were also blamed for killing Jesus (though it was actually the Romans) and thus rejecting their own God. They were also blamed for misunderstanding their own religion, which Christians claimed to correctly understand. People will go to absurd lengths to find scapegoats, and Jews became the foremost scapegoats of the next 2,000 years. Heretics and witches weren’t treated much better.
Not all Christians wanted to play the power game. Saint Francis is an example of someone who followed the actual teachings of Jesus, but he was not part of official Christianity.
As interesting as the evolutionary process of Christianity was, there’s another question worth pondering: is there any validity to it? People unwilling to grant any credence to the supernatural will say there is not. This seems almost as narrow-minded as the Church insisting on its own definitions of what is right and wrong, and severely punishing anyone who disagrees. Religious fanaticism seems to have entered history with Christianity, but not all Christians have been fanatics. There have always been believers who were extremely good people from our accounts of them.
In this age in which science has in some ways replaced religion, one of the problems with the supernatural is that it’s difficult to experiment with, and also difficult to replicate any experiments. Historians like Ehrman can’t tell us whether what the religion teaches is valid. They can only tell us what we can know about the time and background of the New Testament. They also can’t tell us why Jesus’s disciples and the followers they converted decided he had been the Son of God. As Ehrman points out, that concept wasn’t entirely unknown to Judaism, and it was a lot more familiar to the pagans whom Paul and others began converting. Ehrman may be right in thinking it was the resurrection, but some of the phenomena described in Acts, as when a large crowd was able to hear what the disciples said in their own languages, or the experience of the love feasts that early Christians celebrated, must have been unusual and powerful. Perhaps people then were more open to describing their experiences as divine or supernatural before the correct theology had been worked out. But if there had been no experience, how did people become converted? Early Christians must have become different enough to make an impression on the people they converted. Part of it may have been that Christians performed good works that pagans usually did not, but it seems unlikely that would be enough. If the supernatural had nothing to do with it, how is Christianity’s popularity (and at a time when Christians could look forward to the possibility of persecution) to be explained?
In recent times science has been identified by many with materialism, often defined as study only of what can be perceived. Science is also identified with use of technology. Neither is of any help in trying to study the supernatural. One thing that might be is the study of the alteration of consciousness, and the significance of the states arrived at. In fact, George Gurdjieff, said of the Sufis that they had taken practices from many different places and accepted those they could verify while rejecting those they could not. That sounds a lot like science to me.
Western science may not accept the supernatural, but there’s little reason to believe that Western science has successfully analyzed all of reality. Ancient religions have described phenomena that sound very much like phenomena Western science has discovered. If that’s true, how did they perceive them?
I find Ehrman’s book fascinating not because it sheds light on any supernatural truths, but because it tells us what we can know historically about a phenomenon we really don’t understand. It’s easy to simply deny any validity to religion, but more challenging to ask how it could be true if it were. That’s a question that doesn’t require one to believe or disbelieve in Jesus, but which may prove enlightening for anyone willing to ask and seek an answer.


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