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Note: This essay is in response to Bart Ehrman’s “Why I Am Obsessed with Jesus.” Both scholars have recently published books about whether or not Jesus believed he was God.
I grew up as a “none.” My family wasn’t particularly anti-religious; we were just not interested in religion. I live in Australia, a very secular country with low church attendance. It has more Buddhists than Baptists. Jesus was a complete non-entity in my suburban world. I am ashamed to say that, growing up as a Gen-Xer in the 80s and 90s, everything I knew about Jesus I learned from Ned Flanders of The Simpsons.
Then a funny thing happened. While serving in the Australian Army, I visited a local church at the invitation of a friend. It turned out to be a fateful encounter. I had all my presuppositions blown away. These Christian folks weren’t the hypocritical, moralizing geriatrics that my parents and primetime TV had warned me about. These ordinary church folks were nice people — and not merely nice, but crazy nice, and they made a big impression on me.
Hanging out with them, I started to learn about Jesus. I read the Gospels and realized that I had been sold a lie. Jesus wasn’t a fiction — he was a historical figure, and if he really rose from the dead, then it was a game changer.
My game changed. I did my homework. I got religion.
After some soul searching, I resigned from the army, went to seminary, and eventually earned my PhD in religious studies. Now I’m a seminary professor who gets to spend his time talking about his one, all-consuming passion: the Lord Jesus Christ.
At one level, this is an academic activity. I’ve written technical monographs about the historical Jesus and presented papers at conferences on esoteric scholarly subjects pertaining to Jesus. I have also contributed to popular-level books about Jesus. I am a Jesus nerd.
My latest book (a collection of essays co-authored with four other scholars) argues that belief in Jesus’ full divinity was not a later invention, but is rooted in Jesus’ own claims about himself and in the testimony of the early church. We wrote it because . . . well, there is this guy, Bart Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He converted from being a fundamentalist Christian to becoming an agnostic, and he’s something of a celebrity skeptic. His latest book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, claims that Jesus did not think he was God and that he didn’t rise from the dead. But his disciples thought he did, and on that basis, they thought he was a human being who was made divine. Later, says Ehrman, some like St. Paul thought Jesus was an angel who became human, and later again, some like St. John regarded him a pre-existent being who was incarnated as a man.
I saw big posters for Ehrman’s book at a biblical studies conference in Baltimore last November. Immediately, I knew that my email box would fill up with nervous queries from friends and strangers because some colleague at work had read the book and was trying to explain that the whole “Jesus is God” thing was just a big mistake. So I decided that I’d like to do some preventative pastoral care and try to get a word in before all the hoopla started.
I ran the idea of a quick-time response to Ehrman by some friends who are leading scholars in the field of early Christian studies. They agreed to join me. These guys include Craig A. Evans (Acadia Divinity College, Canada), Simon Gathercole (Cambridge University, UK), Chris Tilling (St. Mellitus College, UK), and Chuck Hill (Reformed Theological Seminary, Florida). HarperOne was gracious enough to allow us to see a pre-pub version of Ehrman’s manuscript, and Zondervan was courageous enough to put our response on a fast-track publishing schedule. We worked hard over the Christmas break to write How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature.
Ehrman is a competent historian and a great communicator. We can affirm much of what he says. But he simply gets some things wrong — things like Jesus’ self-understanding, Jewish burial customs under Roman jurisdiction, early Christian claims about Jesus, St. Paul’s remarkably “high” estimation of Jesus, and the Christo-logic of the church’s teachings about Jesus as both fully human and fully divine.
I encourage you to read both books. Regardless of what one thinks about who is right in this scholarly melee, Ehrman and I would both agree on one thing: the debate matters. If Jesus is God, then the story of Jesus is the most important story of them all. If not, then worship of Jesus is at best a fanciful fiction and at worst has engineered the manipulation of our entire civilization. But make no mistake about it. Who Jesus is matters, and each of us needs to respond to the gnawing question that Jesus once posed to his disciples: “Who do you say I am?”
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