The claim at the heart of the Christian faith is that Jesus of Nazareth was, and is, God. But this is not what the original disciples believed during Jesus’s lifetime—and it is not what Jesus claimed about himself. How Jesus Became God tells the story of an idea that shaped Christianity, and of the evolution of a belief that looked very different in the fourth century than it did in the first.
A master explainer of Christian history, texts, and traditions, Ehrman reveals how an apocalyptic prophet from the backwaters of rural Galilee crucified for crimes against the state came to be thought of as equal with the one God Almighty, Creator of all things. But how did he move from being a Jewish prophet to being God? In a book that took eight years to research and write, Ehrman sketches Jesus’s transformation from a human prophet to the Son of God exalted to divine status at his resurrection. Only when some of Jesus’s followers had visions of him after his death—alive again—did anyone come to think that he, the prophet from Galilee, had become God. And what they meant by that was not at all what people mean today.
As someone who grew up Christian but left my faith behind in college, I’m interested in how religion affects society but I usually don’t pick up books like this. However, I’ve been following Rebekah at She Seeks Nonfiction since she was writing as the Closet Atheist. Rebekah documented the process of leaving the Lutheran church in college and now writes about her life, including a lot of book reviews about atheism and human origins. She reviewed this book in December and made me want to pick it up. If this book sounds intriguing to you, I encourage you to check out her blog as well.
With How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman makes study of the historical Jesus accessible. Ehrman is a professor at UNC Chapel Hill, and has been open about his own journey of growing up Christian but eventually leaving the faith. However, this is a history book, not a memoir or theology book, and though Ehrman does share a few of his own beliefs and opinions, he differentiates clearly between that and historical facts.
I’ll be honest – I did find this a little dry. I guess that’s par for the course when the author is an academic. But it held my attention, because I had never heard anyone talk about how people came to believe that Jesus was God. Apparently, it’s commonly understood in scholarly circles that this belief developed over time, and scholars even mostly agree that Jesus probably didn’t think he was God at all. According to Ehrman, pastors learn this in seminary, but few of them discuss it with parishioners once they begin pastoring. I think that’s a shame.
Ehrman is incredibly detailed with his explanations, starting with laying out how ancient peoples (not just Jews) viewed divinity as a continuum rather than something you are or aren’t. He talks about the evidence that Jesus didn’t believe he was God at all, and what we can and can’t know about the resurrection, historically speaking. Then he moves on to laying out how the early Christian beliefs developed.
This was the most interesting part to me. Apparently, the way people have understood who Jesus was has been changing almost since the moment he died. If I read the book correctly, Christians have gone from believing that Jesus was exalted to divinity at his resurrection, to believing that he became divine when he was baptized, to believing he became divine at birth, to believing that he had always existed and only assumed human form at birth. (This is in addition to several other theories, because it’s impossible for humans to agree completely on anything.) And this belief continues to evolve today. As Ehrman explains it, theology just gets more nuanced the longer it goes on. I grew up with the belief that Jesus was both fully human and fully God, so it was truly facscinating to read about the evidence that this wasn’t always the case.
Most Christians today do not realize that they have recontextualized Jesus. But in fact they have. Everyone who either believes in him or subscribes to any of his teachings has done so—from the earliest believers who first came to believe in his resurrection until today. And so it will be, world without end.78% through Kindle ebook version
The other thing that stuck out to me didn’t even have anything to do with the main thesis at all, and Ehrman only touches on it in the last few chapters. Christianity became a majority religion around the time that Constantine adopted it, and it seems that the rise of the Christian church coincided with a rise in Jewish persecution, because Christians believed that Jews had killed their own God. I may have to see if I can find more information on that, because like I said, that was only briefly mentioned at the end of the book. But it was chilling to read nonetheless.
Overall, I really enjoyed this and may have to read more of Ehrman’s work. But I’ll have to intersperse his books with more engaging fiction because I absolutely cannot do two dry-ish academic-type books back to back.