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Bart Ehrman, a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is something of a celebrity skeptic. He's written a number of bestsellers exposing the alleged errors in traditional accounts of early Christianity. His book Misquoting Jesus (2007) asserts that the manuscripts used to compile the New Testament are corrupted and unreliable, deviant from original autographs. His book Forged (2011) claims that many of the New Testament writings were counterfeits written pseudonymously under the names of the apostles.
In his latest book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, Ehrman argues that belief in Jesus' divinity evolved over the first few centuries and eventually crystallized into what we know today. Jesus didn't claim to be God; rather, his followers thought he was divine because they believed he rose from the dead. But even then, the understanding of Jesus' divinity was incredibly elastic, ranging from a man exalted to be God's vice-regent to a pre-existent person who was equal with God. Only much later was Jesus identified as the Almighty. You can read Ehrman's own summary of his book at The Huffington Post.
Ehrman has a famous de-conversion, turning from an evangelical Christian to an agnostic. And he loves to tell his story. Ehrman is a gifted communicator, never short of a provocative quote. He knows how to stir a crowd, and he does well in talk shows, conferences, presentations, and debates.
But I've got my own de-conversion story to match his.
I grew up in a secular home in suburban Australia, where religion was categorically rejected—it was seen as a crutch, and people of faith were derided as morally deviant hypocrites. Rates for church attendance in Australia are some of the lowest in the Western world, and the country's political leaders feel no need to feign religious devotion. In fact, they think it's better to avoid religion altogether.
As a teenager, I wrote poetry mocking belief in God. My mother threw enough profanity at religious door knockers to make even a sailor blush.
Many years later, however, I read the New Testament for myself. The Jesus I encountered was far different from the deluded radical, even mythical character described to me. This Jesus—the Jesus of history—was real. He touched upon things that cut close to my heart, especially as I pondered the meaning of human existence. I was struck by the early church's testimony to Jesus: In Christ's death God has vanquished evil, and by his resurrection he has brought life and hope to all.
When I crossed from unbelief to belief, all the pieces suddenly began to fit together. I had always felt a strange unease about my disbelief. I had an acute suspicion that there might be something more, something transcendent, but I also knew that I was told not to think that. I "knew" that ethics were nothing more than aesthetics, a mere word game for things I liked and disliked. I felt conflicted when my heart ached over the injustice and cruelty in the world.
Faith grew from seeds of doubt, and I came upon a whole new world that, for the first time, actually made sense to me. To this day, I do not find faith stifling or constricting. Rather, faith has been liberating and transformative for me. It has opened a constellation of meaning, beauty, hope, and life that I had been indoctrinated to deny. And so began a lifelong quest to know, study, and teach about the one whom Christians called Lord.
As a biblical scholar with expertise in early Christian history, I spend most of my time teaching and writing about Jesus, the early church, and the development of Christian thought.
In many ways, I am the anti-type of Bart Ehrman—a biblical scholar with a university doctorate and a modest quiver of publications under my belt who has shifted from the secular to the sacred, transitioned from skepticism to faith. Consequently, I do not see Jesus as merely another man whom people later venerated as a god. No, when I look to Jesus, I see that God is with us and for us, because he became one of us. I believe that God became a man, Jesus of Nazareth.
When I heard Ehrman had a forthcoming book about how Jesus became God, my interest was piqued. I'm intimately familiar with Ehrman's earlier works—and I often enjoy them—so I had a pretty good idea where he was going with this topic.
I also knew that while Ehrman could be informative, his retelling of church history could also be wildly skewed in some places. So I teamed up with four colleagues (Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole, Chris Tilling, and Charles Hill), all leading authorities in their own fields, to publish an immediate response to Ehrman. We read Ehrman's manuscript over the winter and set out to write How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus' Divine Nature. In this book, we challenge Ehrman on the when, where, how, and who of the origins of belief in Jesus as God incarnate.
For many secularists, Ehrman is a godsend who propagates common misconceptions about Jesus and the early church. He believes there was a spectrum of divinity between gods and humans in the ancient world. Therefore, he asserts that the early church's beliefs about Jesus evolved: from a man exalted to heaven to an angel who became human to a pre-existent "divine" person who became incarnate to a subordinated or lesser god to being declared one with God.
My faith and studies have led me to believe otherwise. First-century Jews and early Christians clearly demarcated God from all other reality, thus leading them to hold to a very strict monotheism. That said, Jesus was not seen as a Greek god like Zeus who trotted about earth or a human being who morphed into an angel at death. Rather, the first Christians redefined the concept of "one God" around the person and work of Jesus Christ. Not to mention the New Testament writers, especially Luke and Paul, consistently identify Jesus with the God of Israel.
Many people get the idea that Jesus was just a prophet and never claimed to be divine. But a careful look at the Gospels shows that the historical Jesus explicitly claimed to exercise divine prerogatives. He identified himself with God's activity in the world. He believed that in his own person, Israel's God was returning to Zion, just as the prophets had promised. And he claimed he would sit on God's throne. These claims, when studied up close, are de facto claims to divine personhood, the reasons religious leaders of the day were so outraged.
Evidence shows that Jesus claimed to be God incarnate, and within 20-some years after his death and resurrection, Christians were identifying him with the God of Israel, using the language and grammar of the Old Testament to do so.
Sure, some sects in the first few centuries held heretical beliefs about Jesus. But the mainstream, orthodox view of Christ's identity was always consistent with and rooted in the New Testament, though orthodox Christology became more refined in the following centuries.
Ehrman's book is genuinely informative and provocative in places, but he gets many things wrong. Modern secular audiences—who prefer provocative sound bites from Richard Dawkins and conspiracy theories from Dan Brown—love to hear Ehrman's message. He provides solace to secularists: the whole Jesus-is-God thing is a big mistake that has negatively affected human history. In our culture, unbelief is trendy and religion is passé; people of faith are often derided as superstitious yokels from the boonies.
Some have great confidence in skeptical scholarship, and I once did, perhaps more than anyone else. If anyone thinks they are assured in their unbelief, I was more committed: born of unbelieving parents, never baptized or dedicated; on scholarly credentials, a PhD from a secular university; as to zeal, mocking the church; as to ideological righteousness, totally radicalized. But whatever intellectual superiority I thought I had over Christians, I now count it as sheer ignorance. Indeed, I count everything in my former life as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing the historical Jesus who is also the risen Lord. For his sake, I have given up trying to be a hipster atheist. I consider that old chestnut pure filth, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a CV that will gain me tenure at an Ivy League school, but knowing that I've bound myself to Jesus—and where he is, there I shall also be.
The real story of Jesus Christ is good news, and it transformed my life. That's why I'm fighting to tell it amidst a cacophony of misguided voices.
Michael F. Bird is lecturer in theology at Ridley College in Melbourne and coauthor of How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus' Divine Nature (Zondervan).