How Jesus Became God, a fascinating look at the divinity of Jesus from the point of view of his contemporaries

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book from professor Bart D. Ehrman was one of the most eye-opening studies I have read regarding Jesus and primitive Christianity. From the very beginning it embarks on a journey analyzing the texts of the New Testament proposing to answer the question of how (and when) Jesus became God, or in other words, how (and when) he started to be adored as such. It includes historical parallels of the Hebrew, Greek and Roman cultural worlds regarding divinity and how too at that period people could become gods, in a manner not dissimilar to what happened with Jesus. Step by step, example by example, it analyzes the reports about the life of Jesus in a chronological order, starting with the epistles of the apostle Paul (the earliest documents regarding Jesus that have been preserved), then the Gospel of Mark, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and finally the Gospel of John. Then it considers the controversies of the primitive church about what meant to proclaim that Jesus was God and the practical, theological and philosophical problems that it presented. It then covers the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, which was convened to put an end to the Arian controversy: the teaching that the Son of God was begotten from God the Father, and for this reason was subordinate to him, not coeternal with him, and not of the same substance.

I believe that even most Christians today would agree that Jesus wasn’t fully adored as God during his ministry, not even by his disciples, and it wasn’t at least until after the accounts of his resurrection that he was considered God. We have clear statements on the Gospels, specially Mark, affirming such. Some examples are the reports that the people from his hometown were amazed at his teachings and wisdom, wondering that he was the son of a carpenter, and took offense at him (Mark 6:1-11); that even his family, including mother and brothers, thought that he was out of his mind and tried to dissuade him from preaching (Mark 3:20-35); and the famous story of the doubting Thomas that would believe only if he saw with his own eyes (John 20:24-31), showing there was doubt among the disciples even after the accounts of the resurrection.

So, there was a progression, or rather a backward movement, of the moment that the first Christians understood that Jesus became God, starting with visions of him after his death, then going back to the crucifixion, his baptism, birth, sometime before his birth (but still after creation) and lastly eternity. The study of these formulations about the nature of Jesus is called Christology. We are going to explore some examples of Christologies below.

Around 20 to 30 years after the death of Jesus Paul wrote that Jesus was declared the Son of God at the resurrection, making use of pre-literary traditions, i.e., statements or hymns circulated orally before the written books of the New Testament. This is an example of Exaltation or Adoptionist Christology:

”Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the Good News of God, which he promised before through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was born of the offspring of David according to the flesh, who was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,“

Romans‬ ‭1‬:‭1‬-‭4‬ ‭World English Bible (WEB, emphasis added)

Other pre-literary examples from the Acts of the Apostles:

”We bring you good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this to us, their children, in that he raised up Jesus. As it is also written in the second psalm,

‘You are my Son.

Today I have become your father.’

Acts‬ ‭13‬:‭32‬-‭33‬ ‭WEB (emphasis added)

This one linking his exaltation with the crucifixion:

”“Let all the house of Israel therefore know certainly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Acts‬ ‭2‬:‭36‬ ‭WEB (emphasis added)

Then at the time that the Gospel of Mark was written, around 40 years after Jesus’s death, an understanding that Jesus was God during his ministry had been already developed. The Gospel starts in his adult life with his baptism where there is a declaration that he is the Son of God. There is no mention of a miraculous virgin birth at this point, either in the Gospel of Mark or in the epistles of Paul (although Paul introduces a transitioning Incarnation Christology in some of his letters).

”In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Immediately coming up from the water, he saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. A voice came out of the sky, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”“

‭‭Mark‬ ‭1‬:‭9‬-‭11‬ ‭WEB (emphasis added)

During the time when the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have been written, around 50 to 55 years after his death, Jesus had been recognized as the Son of God at the occasion of his miraculous birth through a virgin. These are the only two Gospels who mention this event. For the polytheist Greek and Roman people, this notion wasn’t so strange, since their gods had children with humans all the time. Even for Jews that wouldn’t be so alien, there is a passage of the Hebrew Bible that show something similar:

”When men began to multiply on the surface of the ground, and daughters were born to them, God’s sons saw that men’s daughters were beautiful, and they took any that they wanted for themselves as wives. The LORD said, “My Spirit will not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; so his days will be one hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim (or giants) were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when God’s sons came in to men’s daughters and had children with them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.

Genesis‬ ‭6‬:‭1‬-‭4‬ ‭WEB (emphasis added)

It was only in the Gospel of John, written about 60 to 65 years after the death of Jesus, that it was clearly affirmed that the Word was pre-existent and it was God before the incarnation.

”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness hasn’t overcome it.“

John‬ ‭1‬:‭1‬-‭5‬ ‭WEB

Differently from what has generally been presented later, there were several conflicting views about the person of Jesus in the early days of Christianity. The strands that didn’t conform with the orthodoxy were slowly and relentlessly silenced in the following centuries. To affirm that Jesus has not always been God was considered afterwards a heresy and those who professed it were cursed, exiled and threatened to be condemned to death. Nevertheless that was the view of many Christians before this was ruled as the official doctrine of the church, but remnants of these views have entered the New Testament.