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A Look at Bart Ehrman’s Objection: The Earliest Christians Did Not Think Jesus Was God
by Eric Chabot
I have been going 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 theological, not a historical question), the earliest followers did not think so.
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,”
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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.
For Jesus to ever say something so explicit 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.
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