Why the Followers of Jesus Recognized Him as Divine

By Craig A. Evans

A feature-length summary critique of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee

Bart Ehrman’s recently published How Jesus Became God attempts to explain how Jesus of Nazareth, who never spoke of Himself in divine terms and whose disciples never thought of their master as anything other than a mere mortal like themselves, came to be regarded as God. Ehrman concludes that it was primarily belief in the resurrection of Jesus that led to the exaltation of Jesus. However, Ehrman doubts that Jesus was resurrected and doubts the stories of the discovery of the empty tomb. To reach the conclusions that he does, Ehrman omits important evidence and draws a number of unwarranted conclusions. The evidence is compelling that Jesus Himself made a number of statements that implied His divine identity and mission. There is also significant evidence that supports the Gospels’ narratives of the discovery of the empty tomb.

Why and how Jesus, who for most of His life would have been viewed as a man and nothing more, came to be viewed by His followers as God in the flesh is a good question. The question is especially pressing because the followers of Jesus were Jewish, and the Jews of late antiquity held to a strict form of monotheism. That is, the Jewish people—in marked contrast to Greeks, Romans, and other non-Jews—believed in one God, not many. Yet the first followers of Jesus, almost all of them Jewish, proclaimed His divinity. Why and how did that happen?

This is the question that Bart Ehrman addresses in his controversial book, How Jesus Became God.1 Given his current worldview, Ehrman rules out the possibility that Jesus actually was divine, “God in the flesh,” as it were. So the recognition of Jesus’ divinity had nothing to do with reality. No, the high Christology of the early church, whereby Jesus was proclaimed Israel’s Messiah and God’s unique Son, must be explained in purely mundane, naturalistic terms.

There are several facets in the case that Ehrman makes. He argues that Jesus never claimed divinity, that His original disciples did not think of Him as divine, that the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke) do not portray Jesus as divine, that the divine Jesus of John, the fourth Gospel, is unhistorical, that a major impetus for seeing Jesus in divine terms was the (mistaken) belief that He had been resurrected, and that Paul basically understood Jesus as an exalted angel and not really as God.

There are major problems with all of these proposals. Fortunately, they have received the critique they deserve in a book that appeared in print the very day Ehrman’s book made its appearance. Deliberately echoing the title and cover of Ehrman’s book, the critical response is called How God Became Jesus.2 In this brief essay I will touch on a few of the issues in Ehrman’s book that I regard as the most important…

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