When a person leaves religion or loses their faith, I’ve found that they tend to go one of two ways. Some people lose interest in religion altogether and want to get as far away from it as possible. In a way, I think this is a shame, because I’m one of the people that goes the other way; I decided that I wanted to give religion a closer look. I turned back around after walking away to scrutinize the history of Christianity and determine which parts of it, if any, are really true. And what have I found?
Not surprisingly, it seems that the truth—the best picture we have of the objectively true history of the Christian religion—is not what either Christians or atheists might want it to be. The general consensus among scholars is this: Jesus did exist… but he wasn’t God. As a matter of fact, there is a strong case for the position that he never even thought he was God.
But wait. Does that mean that Jesus was nothing more than a mere mortal human being like the rest of us? That he was just a “great teacher”? Yes, it does. This might call to mind a damning paragraph from C.S. Lewis’s famed Mere Christianity that, if true, would stop us in our tracks:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ This is one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (last paragraph of Chapter 3)
I was surprised to be reminded of this passage from Mere Christianity as I read Bart Ehrman’s When Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee in the past weeks. I found myself agreeing with his declaration of Jesus as a man, but was startlingly brought back to Lewis’s passage that I read years ago in college. The first times I read Mere Christianity, I hadn’t yet gotten around to studying the history of Jesus through the lens of history rather than reading the claims of Christian apologists. I wrote in the margin, “I agree… if there is a person that did say everything Jesus said, then he is crazy. What happened? He either existed as a normal guy & got overblown or was completely made up.”
I wish I could go back and tell my puzzled 2016 self to read Bart Ehrman. He answers all these questions, looking back at history using scripture as our data while using historical context as our Rosetta Stone for understanding scripture. He leaves no stone unturned. Before reading When Jesus Became God, I read his books Did Jesus Exist? and Misquoting Jesus. Reading several of his books feels like uncovering more and more of the big picture of who Jesus was and how Christianity began.
For example, understanding the historical context of the gospels is the key to understanding why, contrary to Lewis’s position, we don’t have to accept Jesus’s claim to be God. The truth is, Jesus himself never claimed to be God. This is a pretty easy historical fact to explain, and each of the three Ehrman books I have read help to uncover why this conclusion is the most sensical. Allow me to sum this up; in doing so, I’ll actually be summarizing How Jesus Became God, but there is great overlap with Did Jesus Exist? and Misquoting Jesus.
What happened is this. In his life, Jesus was a Jewish preacher and prophet who believed, as with many of his fellow Jews, that the apocalypse was coming within their lifetimes. His followers had read the prophecies in the Old Testament that God would send a messiah (which at the time only meant one in the bloodline of David who would be chosen by God to rule again, not a divine savior), and they thought that Jesus was this messiah. Notably, though, they believed that he would be the king who would rule them in the imminent afterlife that would follow the forthcoming apocalypse, not an earthly emperor.
Jesus’s views were unorthodox, and he was perceived as a threat by authorities in both the Jewish religious community and the Roman Empire after causing so much unrest, especially after making a scene at the temple. This is where Judas comes in: he had told the authorities that Jesus was thought to be the messiah, which they took to mean that he would try and overthrow the throne. The Roman authorities ended the threat that was Jesus by crucifying him. Ehrman goes much further in depth of the historical cultural context of all of this, but just know that Jesus, in his own opinion and that of his followers, was not supposed to be crucified. That was truly a shameful way to die in their eyes. Why would their future king meet an end like that?
Regardless of anyone’s beliefs about the historicity of the resurrection (again, Ehrman goes into much greater detail), a handful of the disciples had visions of Jesus in the midst of their grief after he died. Whether you think that he really appeared to them is a matter of personal belief, but historians, as historians, cannot claim it one way or another. All we know is that some people came to believe that after he had been crucified, he had been exalted by God to his right hand as an angel. This was the first time anyone thought Jesus was divine: after his death.
Over time, people thought he must have been divine throughout his adult ministry, and that his exaltation to divinity is what happened when God spoke to him at his baptism in the Jordan River. Later, it came to be believed that his divinity began at his supposedly virgin birth. Finally, centuries later, and at the end of When Jesus Became God, the Nicene Creed was developed, which affirmed that Jesus was wholly equal with God and, like God, had eternally existed and was not created. (Note: I linked to the translation used by the LCMS since it’s what I confessed for twenty years of my life. Encountering it in this book reminded me that I still have it memorized, and now every other translation just feels wrong.)
I first heard this TL;DR version of the “evolution of Jesus”, if you will, when listening to the Sunday School Dropouts podcast last year. My husband and I actually read the entire bible from start to finish, one piece per day, in 2019. The Sunday School Dropouts podcast made one episode for every book of the bible as, in their words, “an ex-Christian and a nonbelieving sort-of-Jew read all the way through the bible for the first time.” It was a great help in understanding what we had read once we finished each book, as we made the mistake of reading the New King James Version, which did not read well, and probably wasn’t even a very accurate translation. But I digress.
Sunday School Dropouts host Lauren O’Neal was actually the first person to make me aware of When Jesus Became God, so I suppose it is thanks to her that I’m writing about this today. Her description of how Jesus became God felt revelatory, and like everything was falling into place after we’d just read the gospels. Of course, since nothing can be easy in the bible, it’s very important to know that they were not written in the order in which they show up in the canon, but rather Mark was first, then Matthew and Luke, and finally John. If you know the gospels intimately, then you might recognize Jesus’s progression from being a servant of God in Mark to being one with God in John.
So in response to Lewis, no, Jesus never did claim to be God. “But what about when Jesus said, ‘I and the Father are one’ and ‘Before Abraham was, I Am’?” you may ask. To be blunt, those passages in John were later additions, from the time when people had already begun to believe that Jesus was God incarnate rather than a man exalted to heaven after death. All the gospels, like everything in the New Testament, underwent change after change during copy after copy, decade after decade, between the time and place of Jesus and the distant time and place of the gospels—especially John, the last to be written. (The journey of the New Testament through its years of copying is documented extensively in Misquoting Jesus.)
The history of Christianity as explained by Bart Ehrman, in this book and others, truly feels like a side of history that is hidden from public knowledge. This is evident even in that it feels like Ehrman himself is often the only person from the realm of New Testament scholars who will come down from that exalted land of academia and make this fascinating, wide-ranging, and complicated story accessible to a layperson like me. I’m hesitant about getting my information from a single source, but I can tell from Ehrman’s citing of his colleagues and from his even-handed examination of the evidence (which is so reminiscent of the beloved scientific method) that he does his best to forget his own prejudices and go where the historical evidence leads. It’s hard to know who you can trust in a field rampant with biases—the field that determines if the entire history of Christianity rests on any foundation at all.
Christians and atheists alike have a stake in whether or not the gospels are reliable, whether Jesus existed, and whether he thought he was God. Thus, it is both rare and refreshing to see that there are historians who take into consideration everything surrounding the context of the history of the New Testament to try and appreciate it for what it truly is, with no bias and no bullshit. C.S. Lewis never did this. Christopher Hitchens didn’t either. Truth doesn’t take sides. It doesn’t care if you weekly confess the Nicene Creed or if you adamantly believe that Jesus did not exist, as if your (non)belief is too weak to hold up if he did.