Recently Bart Ehrman debated Michael Bird the question of how Jesus became God. Just as he had written in his book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee Erhman argued that
- the earliest devotees of Jesus viewed him as a normal man, a human messiah, who had been exalted to become God’s son at the resurrection.
- Later, Christians came to think that he was the Son of God prior to the resurrection and reasoned that he had been adopted as God’s son at his baptism, as we read in the Gospel of Mark.
- Still later others moved his divine sonship back to the time of his birth in Bethlehem. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke indicate that Jesus only came into existence as God’s son when born to Mary.
- Later still Jesus was thought to have been always divine, even before appearing as a man, as we read in the prologue to the Gospel of John.
My first response to this argument was that it ran counter to the pre-gospel evidence, the writings of Paul. But I double checked and saw that Ehrman does find stage #1 above in the writings of Paul. Paul does open his epistle to the Romans with a clear statement of #1 — Romans 1:3-4
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son,
A1 who was descended
A2 from the seed of David
A3 according to the flesh
B1 and was appointed
B2 the Son of God in power
B3 according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead
Ehrman is well aware that the rest of Paul’s writings inform us that Paul had a much higher view of Jesus than we read in these opening verses of Romans. So I think his larger argument still founders on the reef of Paul. But my interest here is Ehrman’s use of Romans 1:3-4 as the starting point from which he builds his case.
Ehrman informs his readers that many scholars have long considered these verses, 1:3-4, to be pre-Pauline creed that Paul is quoting. Indeed, Ehrman writes (p. 223) that
it could represent early tradition . . . from the early years in Palestine after Jesus’s first followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead.
Part of the reason Ehrman thinks the passage is so early is because of the words translated “spirit of holiness”: such a turn of phrase is an Aramaicism and since Jesus and his first followers spoke Aramaic it follows that they probably formulated the creed. (I will leave the identification of the flaws in this argument up to readers.)
Another reason to judge the passage early appears to be the focus on Jesus as the Davidic Messiah. Ehrman calls upon the much later gospels to support him here. He uses their late testimony (in the belief that true historical data can be gleaned from them via criteria of authenticity) to affirm that the disciples of Jesus believed he was the Davidic messiah in his own lifetime and that they continued to believe this after his death (even though he failed to overthrow Rome as the Davidic messiah was supposed to do) because of the power he attained with his resurrection.
Why think the words are not Paul’s own but a quotation of a well-known creed?
Why does Ehrman (presumably following widespread and long-held scholarly opinion) believe these verses are pre-Pauline words being quoted by Paul?
He writes that the verses are
highly structured, without a word wasted, quite unlike how normal prose is typically written and unlike the other statements Paul makes in the context.
Further, the passage
contains a number of words and ideas that are not found anywhere else in Paul.
Those unique ideas and phrases:
- “seed of David”
- Jesus being a descendant of David
- “spirit of holiness”
- Jesus becoming the Son of God at his resurrection
For a short two verses, those are a lot of terms and ideas that differ from Paul. This can best be explained if he is quoting an earlier tradition. (p. 221)
Paul nowhere else expresses any interest in (or even knowledge of) Jesus as an earthly messiah or a descendant of David. Paul nowhere else thinks of Jesus being made the Son of God only at his resurrection.
In fact — something Ehrman fails to mention despite his efforts to contrast verses 3 and 4 with everything we know about Paul’s Christology elsewhere — Paul stresses he is not the least interested in Christ “according to the flesh”. That Christ should be a descendant of David would have meant nothing to Paul. See 2 Corinthians 5:16:
Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer.
There is one more factor of interest for Ehrman in his argument that the passage is a quotation:
It is interesting as well to note — for purposes of showing that this is an existing creed that Paul is quoting — that one can remove it form its context and the context flows extremely well, as if nothing is missing (showing that it has been inserted):
“Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God, which he announced in advance through his prophets in the holy scriptures, concerning his son . . . Jesus Christ our Lord.” (p. 222)
The motive for quoting an anomalous creed
Why does Ehrman think Paul would quote such a creed? His explanation is that Paul is hoping to gain support from the Roman church to continue his missionary journey to “the ends of the world” i– that is, in Spain — even though the Roman church does not know him personally and has no doubt heard lots of negative rumours about him. For these reasons Paul, being the soft touch and gentle Christian that he is, very carefully opens up his letter with pains to get everything right and win the Romans on to his side: so he quotes a creed he is sure they are familiar with and that they would no doubt accept. Yes, Paul’s own views were more “sophisticated” than those of the creed, but Paul is meekly being “all things to all” men and women in order not to offend.
I find this explanation very strained. Sure one can find clues to justify each point made, but the overall conclusion as outlined here simply does not fit the larger themes of the epistle itself. Rather, the argument presented strikes me as lifting a few incidental remarks in the letter to central importance.
But let’s leave that rationale aside for now and concentrate on the arguments raised in support of the passage being a quotation of a very early creed. Questions arise:
Is it really likely that a formal and structured creed would be born so very early after the personal experience of believing Jesus to have been risen from the dead?
Why does Paul not explicitly acknowledge that he is quoting a well-known creed?
If he feels he does not need to explicitly acknowledge the fact that he is quoting, is this because the creed is so very well and widely known? But if that is the case then why do we not find the thoughts expressed in it mirrored elsewhere as well?
As for the second question above, I decided to run a quick search through the rest of Romans to see how many times Paul did take the trouble to point out when he was quoting even very well-known passages. My recollection told me there were at least a couple of such instances. I ran a quick search for the translation words “as it is written” in the King James version and found they occurred fourteen (14!!) times. I think it is safe to conclude that we have here a fair indication that in the Greek text Paul had a habit of making it clear whenever he was quoting passages even when they were well known as such to all.
So we have another anomaly with verses 1:3-4, but not one that supports the view that they are a quotation.
But look again at the reasons Ehrman listed for believing the passage to be a quotation of a pre-Pauline saying. I am sure you are way ahead of me on this one already, so let’s pause to have a look at one set of criteria set out for identifying interpolations.
The reasons for quotation are the reasons for interpolation
William O. Walker in Interpolations in the Pauline Letters lists six criteria to assist in deciding whether a passage is a subsequent addition:
- text critical evidence — includes a study of other texts in which references are made to the document
- contextual evidence — contextual flows or breaks within the document
- ideational evidence — how does the idea at the heart of the questioned passage compare with the ideas throughout the main document?
- comparative evidence — compare the thought expressed in the questionable passage with related thoughts expressed elsewhere.
- motivational evidence — what do we know of the motivations of various interest groups relating to the thoughts expressed in both the larger document and the questionable passage?
- locational evidence — what is the impact of the questionable passage being located at this point in the text?
Ehrman has said that removing the passage in question from the letter leaves the remaining text flowing very well indeed thank you very much. #2 Contextual evidence.
Ehrman has said that the ideas expressed in the passage are alien to the Christology found elsewhere in the Romans. I added Paul’s stress upon not having any interest in Christ “according to the flesh”. #3 Ideational evidence.
Ehrman has compared the phrases used in the passage and found them unlike Paul’s usage elsewhere in Romans (e.g. “spirit of holiness” for the Holy Spirit). We also see that Paul often quotes well-known passages in Romans and at least fourteen times introduces them with a clear statement that he is indeed quoting: “As it is written”. There is no such indicator with the supposedly pre-Pauline creed. #4 Comparative evidence.
Ehrman has found motivation for a quotation in Paul’s eagerness to get off on common ground or at least a point all can agree upon with his essentially unknown readership who have heard negatives about him and from whom he wants support to continue his journey to Spain. I find this rationale too much of a stretch. If such were Paul’s motivation he would surely be expected to explain and explicitly justify his own Christological views at some point, but he does not. And it is not like Paul to play deceptive word-games to win favour. On the other hand, we do know that at the time Paul’s letters attracted renewed attention in the late first and early second century they were at the centre of a controversy between Marcionites and proto-orthodox. The “quoted” passage does indeed serve very well as an anti-Marcionite barb with its stress upon the humanity and Jewishness of Jesus. See my discussion on the vridar.info website: Romans 1:2-6 — Anti-Marcionite interpolation? #5 Motivational evidence.
Ehrman suggests that Paul wanted to begin the letter with a sop. I suggest that by placing an anti-Marcionite passage at the very opening of the letter the reader is being disabused right from the outset of any suggestion that Paul should be interpreted in Marcionite ways. #6 Locational evidence.
Quotation of a pre-Pauline creed going right back to the first disciples of Jesus? Or an anti-Marcionite interpolation?
If the arguments swing more to the interpolation side then we are left without any Pauline testimony in support of Ehrman’s thesis for how Jesus became God.