And it came to pass that I read and ye shall learn of a pretty amazing book. Biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman takes on the subject of how, in history, the notion of Jesus as god developed. Was it there from the beginning? How did it arise? What does it even mean? Was he considered divine by believers before conception, at conception, at baptism by John, when he died on the cross, when he rose from the dead, when he headed upstairs to the executive offices? And the answer? Yes.
As with many mysteries there is a paucity of physical evidence. One might consider Ehrman’s task a very challenging episode of [Incredibly] Cold Case Files, or maybe fodder for a new version of a favorite show (as if there are not enough already) CSI Antiquity.
Not much to work with here as far as physical evidence goes, but Ehrman does apply his considerable skill to analyzing what documentation we have, tracing provenance, to the extent possible, applying what we know of the period(s), and lasering in on crucial questions.
Ehrman makes it very clear that he is not about trying to turn anyone away from a particular set of beliefs.
I do not take a stand on the theological question of Jesus’s divine status. I am instead interested in the historical development that led to the affirmation that he is God.
Or who said what, and when, where and why did they say it? And who saw what, where, when, how and why?
My knowledge of the period is extremely limited. Twelve years of Catholic school taught me a lot more about obedience than it did about biblical scholarship, and while I have read the odd book here and there about the period, I claim no particular expertise, so am not in a position to offer a particularly educated consideration of the information presented here. Ehrman, on the other hand, has written vast amounts on things biblical. I refer you to his considerable bona fides, here. I am inclined to give his very accomplished, educated interpretation of the material he examines a bit more weight than I might the opinions proffered by individuals boasting lesser scholarly accomplishment.
Key, of course, is the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Without that there is no such thing as Christianity, as prophets and Messiahs were sold by the gross at the dollar-store equivalent of the era. In fact, Ehrman opens his book citing an unnamed individual whom one might expect is JC, as the details are incredibly reminiscent. But no, it turns out to be another prophet entirely. (No, not Brian) His pilot was not picked up by the world at large, so you might find him in the antiquity channel’s version of “Brilliant but Cancelled.” And he was not alone. But, since any Tom, Dick, and Appolonius could claim to be a prophet, it was the claim that Jesus was resurrected that was key to a long run, and Ehrman focuses on that.
He looks into the details of Jesus’s death and supposed return. For example, how likely was it that he was buried at all? The answer will surprise you. How about the likelihood that someone who had just tried to have him done in would arrange a burial? How likely might it be for wanted criminals, as the apostles were, to stick around after their chief had been so harshly treated? It continues, but you get the idea. Each tiny piece needs to be examined.
One of the things that Ehrman does consistently and well is to define terms. Divine? In what sense? There is a lot of variety in levels of divinity. Ehrman points out a pyramidal structure common to many religions, and how supposedly monotheistic faiths shuck and jive trying to explain how the multiple divine entities in their religions do not violate the monotheism-
shrink-wrap guarantee covenant (it’s in the mouse print). He applies his piercing logic to notions of resurrection as well.
For [most ancient people—whether Christian, Jewish, or pagan] the human realm was not an absolute category separated from the divine realm by an enormous and unbridgeable crevasse. On the contrary, the human and divine were two continuums that could, and did, overlap.
(Bette Midler knows about that, for sure) So what was it that was supposedly seen?
It was widely believed in antiquity that the spirit we have within us was also made of “stuff.” It was material. But it was very highly refined material that could not be seen with the eyes. (Kind of like what people think when they imagine they’ve seen a “ghost”—there’s something there, made of stuff, since it can be seen, even though it’s pure spirit.) When Paul speaks of a spiritual body, then, he means a body not made up of this heavy, clunky stuff that now makes up our bodies, but of the highly refined, spiritual stuff that is superior I every way and is not subject to mortality.
Who knew there was such a level of detail to consider? Was the risen Jesus made of chunky human flesh or the sort ectoplasm more usually associated with someone like, say, Slimer . Or was he some ethereal non-substance?
And what about the veracity of the stories that were told of the supposed resurrection?
Even apart from the fact that they were written forty to sixty-five years after the facts, by people who were not there to see these things happen, who were living in different parts of the world, at different times, and speaking different languages—apart from all this, they are filled with discrepancies, some of which cannot be reconciled. In fact, the Gospels disagree on nearly every detail in their resurrection narratives
So, we are relying, in the gospels at least, on an inconsistent story, from multiple non-witnesses, that was the end result of a decades-long biblical version of the game telephone? These days, of course, you can probably become a god, or at least obtain, Wizard-of-Oz-style, a document attesting to your divinity, by sending a certain sum to a particular web site. (GodsRUs.com would be my guess). It was so much more complicated back then.
So, what might be less than divine in Ehrman’s examination? Well, we are digging through some very old material here, and it is not surprising that in a book focused in the Middle East a bit of sand gets in. The level of detail does, on occasion, cause one’s eyes to ascend to another level of being. But I found this a fascinating, and educational read, opening up many notions to consideration that I had never really thought about. Whatever it may do for your spirit, this book will definitely stimulate your brain.
Whether you find this examination of history divinely inspired or deserving a place on the lower levels of you-know-where, it is certainly a fascinating look at a critical element of history, and, by implication, religious belief. But don’t take my word for it. See, feel and read it for yourself. And if it doesn’t work for you the first time, hey, you can always come back to it.
Posted May 23, 2014
Ehrman’s blog, Christianty in Antiquity
Check here for a very nifty collection of audio and video clips of the author