Slightly edited 3 hours after original posting.
Did the earliest Christians regard Jesus as God?
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Did the earliest Christians see Jesus as God?
- God vs. an emanation of God
- Concepts of the Son and Logos; Paul and Philo
- Epistolary descriptions of the Son
- The Synoptic Jesus: Man or God?
- Why Mark’s divinity for Jesus is subdued
- The figure in the Philippians hymn: human or divine?
- “Nature” vs. “image” in the Philippians hymn
- Yet another “likeness” motif
- What is the “name above every name”? “Jesus” vs. “Lord”
- Another smoking gun
* * * * *
Jesus as God
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 231-240)
Was Jesus God?
Bart Ehrman now embarks on what is probably the thorniest problem in New Testament research. How was Jesus regarded, not only by his followers, but by the earliest Christians who spread the faith? Ehrman declares:
the earliest Christians did not consider Jesus God. . . . scholars are unified in thinking that the view that Jesus was God was a later development within Christian circles. (DJE? p. 231)
But what precisely is meant by the phrase ‘Jesus was God’? Much of the problem lies in Ehrman’s semantic woolliness. Later Church Councils declared Jesus fully a co-equal with God the Father, of the same substance, two ‘persons’ within the Trinity. I am aware of no scholarship, let alone any mythicist, who suggests that this was the view of any segment of earliest Christianity.
But to say that Jesus was an “emanation” of God is something else. The difference between Paul’s Son of God and Philo’s Logos as an emanation of God is largely a matter of personhood. Philo does not personalize his Logos; he calls it God’s “first-born,” but it is not a distinct ‘person’; rather, it is a kind of radiant force which has certain effects on the world. Paul’s Son has been carried one step further (though a large one), in that he is a full hypostasis, a distinct divine personage with an awareness of self and roles of his own—and capable of being worshiped on his own.
But an “emanation” is not God per se. That is why Philo can describe him as “begotten” of God. He can be styled a part of the Godhead, but he is a subordinate part. (I have no desire to sound like a theologian, but to try to explain as I see it the concepts that lie in the minds of Christian writers, past and present. They are attempting to describe what they see as a spiritual reality; I regard it as bearing no relation to any reality at all.) Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:28 speaks of the Son’s fate once God’s enemies are vanquished, a passage which exercises theologians because it looks incompatible with the Trinity. For here Paul says that the Son “will be subjected” to God, in the apparent sense of being ‘subsumed’ back into God, who will then become One again—“so that God will be all in all.” There will only be one ‘person.’
The “intermediary Son” concept
There can be little question that the idea of the Son, Paul’s “Christ” and spiritual Messiah, arose from the philosophical thinking of the era, which created for the highest Deity intermediary spiritual forces and subordinate divine entities to fill certain roles and to be revelatory channels between God and humanity. In Judaism, this was the role of personified Wisdom, though her divinity was relatively innocuous and her ‘person’ perhaps as much poetic as real. (She may have been a later scribal compromise when an earlier goddess consort of Yahweh was abandoned). In Greek thinking, the intermediary force was the Logos, though in varied versions (the Platonic Logos and Stoic Logos were quite different), and with an independence and personification less developed than Paul’s.
Thus the “Son” which we find described throughout the epistles is viewed in the sense of an emanation of God, not God himself. He has a personification of his own, and he fills certain roles.
Consider three passages:
- 1 Corinthians 8:6 – For us there is one God, the Father, from whom all being comes, toward whom we move; and there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came to be, and we through him.
- Colossian 1:15-20 – [God] rescued us from the domain of darkness and brought us away into the kingdom of his dear Son, in whom our release is secured and our sins forgiven. He is the image [eikōn]of the invisible God; his is the primacy over all created things. In him everything in heaven and on earth was created . . . the whole universe has been created through him and for him. And he exists before everything, and all things are held together in him. . . .
- Hebrews 1:2-3 – . . . the Son whom he has made heir to the whole universe, and through whom he created all orders of existence: the Son who is the effulgence of God’s splendor and the stamp of God’s very being, and sustains the universe by his word of power.
All three passages present the Son as the agent of creation (as was personified Wisdom in Jewish tradition). Two mention his sustaining power by which the universe subsists. They also see this emanation as making the ultimate God ‘visible’: he is the “image” of the Father who is known and communicates with the world through this filial intermediary. In Colossians, his redemptive role is mentioned: through him sins are forgiven and humanity has been released from darkness. (About the only thing never mentioned is the fact of this cosmic Son’s incarnation to earth and his identity in that life, but perhaps this was considered unimportant.)
Though Ehrman will argue against it, there can hardly be any question that these epistle writers viewed the Son as a heavenly figure, a part of God who existed on the spiritual plane. That this was an interpretation of the man Jesus of Nazareth is a post-Gospel rationalization, not to be found in the epistles themselves. That some modern scholarship can go further, as we shall see, and regard the epistolary picture as not indicating a belief in its Jesus as divine—whether equal or subordinate to God—is a travesty.
No Jesus as God in the Gospels
Second, who exactly constitutes “the earliest Christians” who Ehrman says did not see Jesus as God? Here is where his whole argument becomes hopelessly tangled. For rather than consider the situation in the epistles, Ehrman zeros in on the Gospels:
It is striking that none of our first three Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—declares that Jesus is God or indicates that Jesus ever called himself God. Jesus’s teaching in the earliest Gospel traditions is not about his personal divinity but about the coming kingdom of God and the need to prepare for it. This should give readers pause. If the earliest followers of Jesus thought Jesus was God, why don’t the earliest Gospels say so? It seems like it would have been a rather important aspect of Christ’s identity to point out. (DJE? p. 231)
Perhaps as the epistles ought to have pointed out the cosmic Son’s human incarnation as an important aspect of his identity? Be that as it may, Ehrman, as demonstrated earlier in this series, has jockeyed and massaged the evidence—including fabricating some of it—to produce a dubious witness (indeed, many “independent” ones) prior to the epistles, one which supposedly represented an oral tradition phase which later fed into the Gospels. This alleged tradition, he says, reflected the Synoptic presentation of Jesus as anything but cosmic—as apparently nothing other than human.
“Son of God” vs. “son of God”
As the first plank in his case, Ehrman points out that many individuals in the Old Testament, such as Solomon, were referred to as “son(s) of God,” which did not make them God. Rather,
(Solomon) was instead a human who stood in a close relationship with God, like a child to a parent, and was used by God to mediate his will on earth. . . . When the future messiah was thought of as the son of God, it was not because he would be God incarnate but because he would be a human particularly close to God through whom God worked his purposes.
The Synoptic Gospels do indeed downplay the divinity of their Jesus, although there are a few pretty strong suggestions that there is more to being Mark’s “S/son of God” than Ehrman has allowed. Mark in 13:32 says:
But about that day or that hour [the arrival of the End] no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son; only the Father.
Here, “the Son” implies a singular spiritual aspect of God (thus needing capitalization, which all translations that I know of give it), inhabiting heaven like the angels. It is not even sure that Jesus is intended to be referring to himself here, just as it hardly seems that he himself is supposed to be the messiah whom he prophesies impostors in the future will be claiming to be. Mark seems to prefer that Jesus think of and refer to himself as the Son of Man, but even this tradition has grown out of a previous expression in the Q tradition wherein such a figure is an apocalyptic one, expected from heaven and thus possessing at least some form of divinity.
Mark’s divinity of Jesus
But then Mark throws off the covers in 14:61-2 before the High Priest’s questioning: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” The latter, of course, means God, and Jesus answers: “I am.” Not only is this reference to “the Son” hardly to be put into Ehrman’s category of a human particularly close to God, the High Priest declares this claim to be blasphemy, for which Jesus needs to be condemned to death. It was hardly blasphemy to announce oneself as the messiah, nor even the apocalyptic Son of Man; and certainly not to call oneself a “son of God” in Ehrman’s sense. It could only be blasphemy if Jesus was declaring himself to be a divine part of God.
We might also wonder at God’s extreme reaction to the crucifixion, both in prodigies of nature and in his abandonment of his Chosen People by splitting the veil of the Temple, if this was only a man he felt a close relationship with. And the centurion’s reaction would have been an ironic understatement if all Mark wanted him to say was: “Truly, this man was one whom the Jewish God felt particularly close to!”
Besides, what was to be the point of Mark’s whole story by including the Passion? Jesus as God’s prophet is one thing: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” Mark’s ministry—though short on actual teachings, let alone memorable ones—might fit a “son of God” of the Ehrman variety. But a trial, execution and rising from his tomb? Something foretold in scripture (as Jesus constantly tells his disciples), whose purpose was a “redemption for many”? It is difficult to think that Mark would have created such a tale simply in terms of an individual whom he thought of as merely one among many who had been “sons of God.”
Distinguishing between Gospels and epistles
What Ehrman and historicism fail to take into account is the division between the Gospels and the epistles, two quite separate phenomena on the first-century scene. I pointed out earlier that the Synoptics grew out of the kingdom preaching movement of which Mark was a part, represented in Q. (The Johannine community later attached itself to their Jesus character and story). Thus Mark and his redactors were creating an allegorical tale based on quite human traditions: the teachings and activities of the Q prophets themselves and an imagined founder figure who had been developed only later as the sect evolved; that founder was given no death and resurrection, let alone a dimension as part of God.
The Passion in Mark’s Gospel was an insertion into that tradition, quite possibly based on a syncretization with some expression of the heavenly Christ cult (though probably not directly from Paul). That amalgamation with Galilee kept the “S/son of God” aspect given to Mark’s Jesus character on a noticeably lower plane than is found in the epistles. Still, Mark could not avoid according his Jesus some measure of divinity, a personal connection to God whose nature is hard to pin down from the text. Certainly, he was unable to avoid creating anomalies which would bedevil future scholarship.
The situation in Acts
By claiming an oral tradition origin for certain views of Jesus in the Gospels (which he has failed to provide any concrete evidence for), Ehrman has transferred the later picture created by Mark to a pre-Pauline period and presented it as the earliest view of Jesus. He backs that up by pointing to the speeches in Acts which allegedly portray Jesus of Nazareth according to a pre-Gospel tradition that Jesus was a human being who was only adopted as “son of God” in the sense of ‘a man special to him’—and then only at his resurrection. That Acts maintains the latter point is highly dubious, and it is hardly compatible with Ehrman’s own conviction that Acts was written by the same author who wrote Luke.
Besides, such an adoption only upon resurrection would imply that in his preceding life God did not treat the man Jesus as anyone special. That is hardly a view that would have been held by any early Christian, let alone Jesus’ former followers. Ehrman has failed to demonstrate that Acts could not have been founded entirely in the Gospels themselves (I’ve made that point in an earlier instalment). Given an increasingly popular dating for Acts in the second century, nothing in it can be securely allotted to an initial period of the faith, especially prior to the epistles.
The christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11
But now Ehrman’s case becomes thoroughly entangled. For he embarks on a consideration of the christological hymn in Philippians 2:6-11. But this is from the epistolary record, and yet he is offering it as an illustration of how he claims early Christians viewed Jesus not too long after his death. He will use this hymn to show that such a view was simply of Jesus as a “son of God” in the ‘special man’ category. That certainly bucks centuries of scholarly interpretation, though he points out that the hymn in just about every one of its lines is “much debated”—as is its very identity as a poetic liturgical piece, one of several in the epistles which are regarded as pre-Pauline creations. Still,
But one thing is clear: it does not mean what mythicists typically claim it means. It does not portray Jesus in the guise of a pagan dying and rising god, even if that is what, on a superficial reading, it may appear to be about.
One wonders how it can be “clear” that it does not portray Jesus as a dying and rising god, while at the same time it “appears” to be just that on “superficial reading.” This alerts us that the “superficial” text is going to need some spin doctoring to overcome that plain reading and render its true meaning “clear.” Nor do mythicists need to overplay the “pagan dying and rising god” claim; Judaism was capable of coming up with its own version which entailed a distinctive character of its own.
Ehrman lays out the entire passage as follows (the first line in brackets is not regarded as part of the hymn):
(Have this mind in yourselves which is also in Christ Jesus,)
 who although he was in the form [μορφη] of God [alt., being in very nature God (as in NIV)],
did not regard being equal with God something to be seized.
 But he emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave,
and coming [lit., becoming] in the likeness of humans.
 And being found in the appearance as a human
he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, [even the death of the cross].
 Therefore also God highly exalted him [literally: hyper-exalted him],
and gave to him the name that is above every name.
 That at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow
of things in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth.
 And every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.
[The words in square brackets in lines 2 and 5 are my own, and I have placed brackets around “even the death of the cross” in verse 8 since most scholars, including Ehrman, regard this as a Pauline addition. In the Philippians hymn is presented in prose, but it seems to have had a chiastic structure: the second half being a mirror image of the first half in terms of lines and meter.]
Form = nature? Or form = image?
Ehrman first addresses the opening line of the hymn (verse 6), crucial to his contention about the meaning of “son of God.” What does “in the form [μορφη] of God” mean? Does it mean being in the image of God in the way that Adam was made, and all humans are said to be? Or does it mean having the nature of God, such as in being an emanation of God, a part of him and sharing in his divine quality? Traditional scholarship has always taken it to mean the latter, that it is a statement of the pre-existence of Jesus, existing with God in heaven from before creation. Ehrman acknowledges that this “may be the right way to read the passage,” but he offers qualifications, and will shortly opt for a different understanding. He says,
Christ was in the “form of God,” (but) that does not mean that he was God. (DJE? p. 235)
I am going to assume that by “he was God” Ehrman would allow for the meaning of “he was a part of God,” in the sense of an emanation, though he never makes this clear, or that it is not to be equated with Council decisions in later centuries.
Divinity was his “form,” just as later in the passage he took on the “form” of a “slave.” That does not mean that he was permanently and always a slave; it was simply the outward form he assumed. (DJE? p. 235)
This is certainly woolly. “Divinity was his ‘form’” is particularly obscure. How does one, especially a man, “assume” the outward form of divinity? The line clearly implies that this “form” was his from the first, but perhaps Ehrman is taking this as meaning that the human Jesus had the ‘form/image’ of God in the same way as any other human being, and so to this extent his form was “divine.”
But then we run into trouble. “He assumed the ‘form/image’ of a slave/servant,” supposedly referring to when he became—what? Human? But he was supposedly already human. And “form/image” does not mean “role,” so it is not referring to when he submitted to death, as a slave/servant to God’s will. Besides, a later line repeats a similar idea, saying “becoming in the likeness of men.” Was he not in that ‘likeness’ from the beginning, according to Ehrman?
Ehrman reveals his preference that the solution to the opening of the hymn is that Jesus is seen as being in the “image” of God, as Adam was in the creation account in Genesis. The terms “image” and “form” are sometimes used synonymously in the Old Testament, and so Christ is styled as having been another Adam at the beginning, no more. And here Ehrman attempts some sleight-of-hand. Borrowing another motif from Genesis, he suggests that Christ, in not seeking equality with God in the hymn, is being contrasted with Adam who did want to be “equal with God” and so “grabbed for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
But Adam was not seeking equality with God in any sense that he would become God or even a part of God. The serpent’s temptation hardly went so far. Adam and Eve would simply “become like gods, knowing both good and evil.” That is not the same as achieving “equality with God” per se, but simply enjoying one of his abilities. Nor would the hymnist be making any point about his figure having a motive like Adam’s or being in parallel with him, seeking to acquire the knowledge of good and evil. That would be ludicrous.
If all Ehrman means is that Jesus possessed the ‘divine form’ of God in the same sense as Adam, that from his birth he had borne this image, why would the hymnist bother making such a point? But as the hymn is constructed, this “form from the first” is meant to present a contrast with the “form” he adopted as a slave. Such as we might say, John was born of the aristocracy but he led his life among the lower class, helping to lift them from their poverty. This and the hymn itself implies a stark, wide contrast, one that would be lost if all the first line meant was that Jesus from birth as a human being was in the “image” of God, no different from Adam or any other human being.
Clearly, the form that was in ‘equality with God’ is set against the inferior form he did take on, namely that of a slave or servant. He took on a nature similar to humans, one by which he could suffer and die; he shared one of their key essences.
There is no sense here of an “image” of anything, and thus by being set against the “form” he was initially accorded in the first verse, that first “form” cannot be understood in the sense of “image.” (In Colossians 1:15-20, as noted above, the word used for “image” is not μορφη, but εικων. And the concept of the Son/Logos as the “image” of God is not the same as that of man being made in the image of God.)
Moreover, how could a man be said to take on the image or likeness of men? Rather, sharing in the nature of God is being contrasted with sharing in the nature of the slave/servant who undergoes death. In neither case is he said to be God or to be a man.
Keeping equality with God? Or gaining equality with God?
Moreover, when it says that he “did not regard equality with God something to be seized,” it is hotly debated whether that means that he did not want to “retain” what he already had, or to “grab” something that he did not have. (DJE? pp. 235-236)
Ehrman opts for the latter understanding. But how was a human being to “grab” at equality with God? Why would an early Christian hymnist praise the man Jesus for not grabbing at such equality? Why would such an idea even have been conceivable, let alone formulated so soon after the man’s death? Even being exalted upon resurrection would hardly extend to having this man think he could grab equal status with God.
But if Christ Jesus is a heavenly emanation of God, he is subordinate to him, and thus not his equal—just as the Logos was not to be equated with God or considered an equal. It would be natural for a hymnist to praise this ‘first-begotten’ of God for not striving to become God’s equal, especially in light of him being willing to go in the opposite direction: he reduced his status by assuming the form/nature of a slave/servant obedient to God’s wishes—obedient even to death.
Ehrman is assuredly right in saying that if Jesus were already God there was no higher to go, so he must not have already been equal to God. But this inequality does not necessarily spell being human, for a spiritual Son and emanation is by definition less than an equal, something Ehrman has not taken into account. The occasional translation does assume a heavenly equality and understands the “retain” idea, such as the Translator’s New Testament: “he did not consider that he must cling to equality with God.” But this seems more a faith-based assumption dependent on post-Council orthodoxy than allowing that such a meaning could be contained in the words themselves. (The NEB offers as an alternative: “yet he did not prize his equality with God.” If the hymnist did have such a meaning in mind, it may be that for the purposes of his literary creation he did not bother with the niceties of whether an emanation was exactly equal or not.)
Driving the point home that the Son assumed a “likeness”
Three times does the hymnist make much the same statement:
- he took on the form of a slave/servant,
- becoming in the likeness of men,
- found in fashion as a man.
If this passage is indeed a hymn with metrical lines, this repetition of the same idea was designed to fill in needed lines. But then why not use the available space for some specific reference to a life on earth, to his identity in an incarnation, to some of his activities: teaching, miracle-working, prophesying? Why overwork the “likeness” motif if he became an actual man? Of course, the explanation here is that this descending figure did not become a man or incarnated to earth; he took on a spiritual equivalent—a likeness—to being human in a part of the corruptible heavens in order to undergo his death and rising at the hands of “the rulers of this age.”
The second half of the hymn has sparked even greater debate. As a result of his obedience to God in submitting to death, this figure—who so far in the hymn has not been named—is exalted. But when Ehrman carries over his “man like Adam” interpretation into the exaltation phase of the hymn, he is led into further problematic exegesis. (Ehrman also suggests that this second half presents an “adoptionist” scenario, that here the man Jesus is being adopted as God’s son. But there is nothing in the text to suggest that; there is no allusion to Psalm 2:7. The Son is merely given new power.)
We can repeat verses 9-11 here for easy reference:
 Therefore also God highly exalted him [literally: hyper-exalted him],
and gave to him the name that is above every name.
 That at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow
of things in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth.
 And every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.
[Ehrman has pointed out the “hyper-exalted,” but that works against him. It implies an exaltation greater than the one he enjoyed before. But what ‘exaltation’ would the human man have possessed prior to this? The word clearly refers to the Son being raised even higher, with greater power, than he previously stood when he simply ‘shared in God’s nature’ (verse 6).]
The interpretation of verses 9-11 has always been critical. What is the “name above every name”? The plain reading is that it is “Jesus.” The word “name” in both verses is the same: “onoma.” This descending-ascending figure, who has pointedly not been identified by any name in the hymn before, is now given a name, and at that name, “Jesus,” all in heaven, earth and Sheol bow their knee to him. With that understanding, the case for mythicism has been clinched, for it tells us that no “Jesus” lived on earth with that name before the resurrection.
But scholarship sees one way out: the “name” given to the figure in verse 9 is not “Jesus,” it is something else. And with that other name, the exalted entity who was allegedly already named Jesus receives his new homage. And what is that other “name”? There is only one candidate available. It is “Lord.” But how much sense does this make?
When is a title a name?
First of all, “Lord” is a title, not a name. It is sometimes claimed that the word “onoma” can encompass a title. But this is in the sense of a category designation, such as Ignatius saying that he is persecuted for his “name” in that he is a “Christian.” (See Bauer, def. II.) Even the common phrase “in the name of the Lord” is not making “Lord” itself a name, but refers to the act of calling upon God, referred to by one of his designations, whether Lord or Most High or Father, and so on. It is not identifying those terms as personal “names” but as titles. My father’s name was not “father.” That was a category designation and a form of address. If the hymnist wanted to identify the term given to Jesus as “Lord,” a title designation of God, he should have identified it as a title and not a name.
And what happens if the “name” given in verse 9 is not “Jesus” but some other term? It would be like saying, “He was given the name George, so that at the name of Robert every knee should bow.” There is a rather obvious non-sequitur in these verses that the hymnist should not have felt comfortable with. Is “Jesus” a name that could be called “a name above every name”? It could if it encompassed the meaning of Savior, which it does. This would make it a name greater than any other name of a divine or human entity other than God.
Another smoking gun?
But what if the “name” were “Lord”? Is that “a name above every name”? Since it is a title of God himself it certainly would be, presuming we could take “name” as encompassing a title. But the hymnist would then be creating a confusing picture, one in fact which is not just a non-sequitur but contradictory. In the usual scholarly scenario, Jesus receives obeisance from the entire universe on the basis of being given the “name above every name” in verse 9. In other words, the denizens of the universe are reacting to that name, whatever it is.
But if this “name” is “Lord” then verse 10 doesn’t fit, for there it is said that “at the name of Jesus” every knee shall bow. But it would not be the name “Jesus” which prompts the bending of the knee if it is allegedly the title “Lord.” There is a contradiction here which cannot be resolved. (The statement that “Jesus Christ is Lord” in the final verse need not reflect back on the previous verses, for it could as easily mean that the Son now given the name Jesus has become Lord, beside the Lord God himself.) We must return to seeing verse 9’s “name” as “Jesus,” which brings it into harmony with the statement of verse 10. And brings mythicism onto the gold medal podium.
In sum, would Ehrman really have us believe that such a scenario, such an exaltation, would be created for his simple “son of God,” even if he had consented to crucifixion? What other “son of God” in Jewish history, even a martyr, was ever given God’s own exalted title? What other “son of God” had every knee in the cosmos bent to him? And how would the crucifixion of a man give God the means to forgive humanity its sins? (Though that is not the stated effect in this hymn.) Even the author of Hebrews realized that this required divine blood. And the Gospel Jesus was eventually raised to divinity precisely because it was perceived that only the sacrifice of a god could bestow redemption.
This picture of the heavenly Son is in keeping with the cosmic portrayal of him in the other hymns we looked at earlier, which Ehrman does not address. Could Philippians 2:6-11 be said to offer a dying and rising god? It certainly looks like it. An entity who was divine to begin with, sharing in God’s nature, descends and undergoes death, then rises back to heaven in an exalted state. Ehrman’s admission was right: on “superficial reading” it certainly looks to be a duck.
Even Ehrman admits that the hymn implies that this man, this “son of God,” was after his resurrection exalted to a position worthy of equal worship with God.”
And on what basis? That they liked his teachings? That they ‘came to believe’ based on a rumor that he had risen . . . ?
The whole idea is preposterous.
Ehrman goes so far as to admit:
This final part of the passage is actually a quotation from Isaiah 45:23, which says that it is to God alone that every knee shall bow and tongue confess. However you interpret the rest of the passage, this conclusion is stunning. Christ will receive the adoration that is by rights God’s alone. That is how highly God exalted him in reward for his act of obedience. (DJE? p. 237)
Well, it’s more than stunning. It is beyond credence. Isaiah 45:23 shows the exalted exclusivity Jews allotted to their God. Were the earliest Jewish Christians willing to contravene that paramount monotheism to the extent of elevating a crucified criminal, calling him “the Lord Jesus Christ” with God’s name above every name, to a position beside God himself? Even Ehrman admits that the hymn implies that this man, this “son of God,” was after his resurrection exalted to a position worthy of equal worship with God.” And on what basis? That they liked his teachings (for which there is no evidence in the epistles)? That they ‘came to believe’ based on a rumor, a story, an idea, that he had risen after death—and not even in flesh to earth (as Ehrman will have it)? The whole idea is preposterous.
At this point, Ehrman stands on his wager. The Philippians hymn has Jesus becoming someone ‘worthy to be worshiped,’ and he hedges his description of this new recipient of adoration as someone who was exalted “to a position of divine authority and grandeur,” seemingly to avoid styling him a god. But despite such hymns being thought of as written prior to Paul, whose conversion Ehrman puts at two or three years after the crucifixion, and despite them having a depth and sophistication which could hardly have developed overnight, their sentiments, Ehrman declares, do not constitute the earliest interpretation of Jesus. No, that preceded even the pre-Pauline hymns. Which I guess slots it into the first week or two after Jesus’ death.
. . . to be continued
Latest posts by Earl Doherty (see all)
- Jesus and the Mythicists: Earl Doherty’s Concluding Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 34 - 2012-08-27 08:33:39 GMT+0000
- 33. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 33 (Ehrman’s Picture of the Apocalyptic Jesus) - 2012-08-20 01:00:34 GMT+0000
- 32. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 32 (Jesus an Apocalyptic Prophet?) - 2012-08-17 01:00:20 GMT+0000
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11 thoughts on “27. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 27”
I’m just reading Larry Hurtado’s http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2012/07/01/an-early-high-christology/ So, it’s interesting how a serious Christian apologist lines up with your views.
Not all scholars see the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark as “nothing other than human”. Henrik Tronier, for one, in an article no longer available online it seems, and that I once posted about, (The Acts and Words – and Person? – of Jesus as Parables in the Gospel of Mark), argued that Mark’s Jesus is presented very much as God. Not that Tronier doubts the historicity of Jesus. But he does see the author of this gospel allegorically depicting Jesus as the very manifestation of God himself. Part of that post:
Earl Doherty’s arguments about Christ in the epistles, and about Paul’s declarations that the great event is not Jesus incarnate but the Spirit revealing and inspiring the revelatory preaching of Paul himself and other apostles, strike a chord with what I recall studying years ago even as a believer and when I decided to study the epistles with painstaking word-by-word care — attempting to step outside any prior doctrinal loyalties. At that time I raised what Paul appeared to be saying with a number of other “brethren” and quickly earned the reputation of someone with “heretical tendencies” — they were disturbed by what I tried to point out was the literal meaning of Paul independent of any of our prior doctrinal perceptions.
It seems NT scholars, at least a good number of them, are just as blinkered by the doctrine of historicity as any “true believer” is blinded by his own church teachings. Maybe it is even more difficult for scholars to see this given many cannot even see that historicity really is an assumption and not at all grounded in factual evidence. Instead, if they see a couple of apparent anomalies (born of a woman) or (James the Lord’s brother) they latch on to these and use them to overturn the plain thrust of everything else that we read Paul saying about Christ. (Not unlike the way creationists latch on to supposed human footprints in conjunction with dinosaur tracks and tree fossils piercing several rock strata in order to “overturn” evolution?)
Maybe one reason I was attracted to some of Doherty’s arguments was because I recognized they addressed some of the understanding I had discovered long ago but in which no-one else I knew was interested — that others even found threatening to their faith.
Funny how Paul was said to threaten to turn the world upside down back then still threatens to do the same today. Just as back then the establishment scribes had to tame him to bring him into orthodoxy (hence The Book of Acts and the Pastoral forgeries) so today the conventional wisdom needs to keep Paul tamed and secured in their own establishment chains.
“This descending-ascending figure, who has pointedly not been identified by any name in the hymn before, is now given a name, and at that name, “Jesus,” all in heaven, earth and Sheol bow their knee to him. With that understanding, the case for mythicism has been clinched, for it tells us that no “Jesus” lived on earth with that name before the resurrection.” (my emphasis)
I agree. The hymn is clear that the name was given after the resurrection. And that is one reason why I think the hymn would make more sense if the name in question was “Simon”. Simon of Samaria was active after the alleged crucifixion and resurrection. Those alleged events were believed to have occurred before his time, so there was no contradiction in his claim to be a new manifestation of the Son who had suffered in Judaea.
And the hymn’s use of the words “form”, “likeness”, and “appearance” to describe the Son’s manifestation corresponds much better with the claims of Simon: “And so he (Simon) appeared as man, when in reality he was not man. And likewise he suffered in Judaea as Son—-though not actually undergoing suffering, but appearing to the Jews to do so… “ (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 6,19)
And this Simonian scenario explains better the connection the hymn establishes between the obedience of the Son (he “hearkened” to the Father) and the name given as a result of it: Simon (whose root meaning is “hear”). Simonians claimed that Simon was given his name because he had previously hearkened to the Father: “Appelatum fuisse Simonem dicebant, id est, obedientem, quia obedivit Patri mittenti illum ad nostram salutem” (Mansi, Coll. Conc. Tome 2, col. 1057. – translation: They (Simonians) say that he was called Simon, that is to say, the obedient, because he obeyed the Father when he sent him for our salvation.)
[If the hymn was originally about a “Jesus”, one would expect a sense more along of the lines of: Because he saved men, God gave him the name “Jesus” (Savior). But the hymn underlines “obedience”– not salvation.]
Finally, according to the very testimony of a proto-orthodox heresy hunter, the Simonians are described as in fact treating the name of Simon as sacred. As such, they avoided using it and replaced it with other names and titles like “Lord”: “They (Simonians) have a statue of Simon in the form of Zeus… And if any among them on seeing the images, calls them by the name of Simon… he is cast out as one ignorant of the mysteries”. (Refutation of All Heresies, 6,20) . There is very little in the early Christian record to indicate that the name “Jesus” was ever treated similarly.
How much of these traditions about Simon can be traced back into the first century, let alone at the time when these pre-Pauline hymns were written? I know the hymns are regarded among the no-Paul contingent as of course written in the second century along with everything else ‘by Paul’ and as having reference to docetism, but it is difficult to interpret everything in all the hymns as relating to docetism or other 2nd century issues, let alone to things Marcion would have been interested in presenting (or whatever group deriving from Simon). I can’t see the question of “the name above every name” having any application to either, or the question of why none of the hymns speak of a career on earth of teaching, miracle-working, etc. The one in 1 Timothy 3:16 pointedly makes no room for the latter sort of thing.
I know it can be hard keeping track of who-holds-what regarding Christian origins, so allow me to first refresh your memory about my position. I’m not sure that my view of Paul qualifies me for membership in the “no-Paul contingent”. I think that “Paul” is the second century makeover by the proto-orthodox of a real first century figure: Simon of Samaria. And as part of that makeover a ten-letter collection of Simonian materials was reworked by the proto-orthodox. The timeframe spanned by the original letters was from around 50 CE (for the earliest ones by Simon himself) to perhaps the early second century (for the later ones—the deuteroPaulines—by later followers of him, e.g. Menander, Saturninus). The proto-orthodox reworking of the letter collection I would date around 130 CE.
How would the Philippians hymn fit in this scenario? I don’t see the hymn itself it as pre-Simon/Paul. It is the myth to which the hymn refers that is pre-Simon/Paul—likely the same myth that is in the Ascension of Isaiah. As I see it, the hymn was Simonian and was written to celebrate a Simonian belief about how Simon got his name. He got it because he was a new manifestation of the descending Son of God. Since he previously hearkened to God in descending to save man, he was given the name Simon (“hear”) in his subsequent manifestation. The hymn was composed probably about the same time as the deutero-Paulines and inserted in the Philippians letter when some Simonian got the idea of cobbling together certain writings of his sect into a ten-letter ensemble.
The reason the hymn doesn’t speak of a teaching, miracle-working Son of God is because the pre-Simon/Paul myth didn’t have such a Son of God. That is to say, when the hymn was written the myth’s crucified Son of God did not have and never had had a teaching, miracle-working life. He only obtained that kind of life when, around 130 CE, a Simonian decided to give him one by writing a cryptic allegory in which a single life was put together using (1) the original myth of a descending and crucified Son of God and (2) the apostolic career of Simon of Samaria. Thus the two supposed manifestations of the Son of God were combined into a single life. The author dressed up his composite figure using Scriptural language and images and gave him the name “Jesus”, but it was understood that those “on the inside” would recognize who the allegory was really about. (Some people get a kick out of having a text that they and their group understand, but that everyone else will misunderstand!)
In light of the above scenario, yes, I do think the words “form”, “likeness”, and “appearance” in the Philippians hymn express the docetic belief of Simon and his followers. Docetism reached full-blown status in the mid-second century CE, but its roots go back earlier. How much earlier is debated. But it is intimately associated with gnosticism and, as you know, the proto-orthodox claim that Simon was the father of Christian Gnosticism. And, as I pointed out in my previous post, they do relate of Simon that he claimed to have “appeared as man, when in reality he was not man. And likewise he suffered in Judaea as Son—though not actually undergoing suffering, but appearing to the Jews to do so…”
Docetism is closely connected with a negative view of the material world including man’s flesh. The initial roots for such a view of matter are usually traced back to certain passages in Plato. From such a small beginning there gradually developed (with input from Persian dualistic ideas) a wave of pessimism in the West that ultimately culminated, in the fourth and fifth centuries, with a total devaluation of the visible, material world. At some point as this wave grew it became unthinkable to many that such a world could be the work of a Supreme God. This realization must have been particularly hard for Jews to deal with since they believed that their God was the Maker of the World. Nevertheless, at some point there was a first Jew or Jewish Christian whose “solution” to this problem was to demote the World-Maker—even though He was the God of the Jews.
The proto-orthodox claimed that it was a Christian named Simon of Samaria who took that first unforgivable step. He blasphemed the Creator. Simon assigned him to a group of worldmakers and blamed them for both the inferior world they made and for the laws they later enacted to further enslave men. He taught that “actions are just not by nature, but by convention, in accordance with the decrees of the angels who made the world and intended to lead men into slavery through precepts of this kind” (Against Heresies, 1,23,3). As you know, I think traces of this still remain in the reworked letters of Simon/Paul. There the culprits are called the stoicheia (the “element” angels) whose Law enslaves men with its prescriptions about “observing days, months, seasons and years” (Gal. 4:10), about “matters of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or new moon or sabbath… If you died with Christ to the stoicheia of the world, why do you still submit to regulations as if you were still living in the world? ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’”(Col. 3: 15 and 20).
Now if Simon did in fact blaspheme the Creator in this way, it would make sense that he would also refuse to the Son of God a material body of flesh. That is to say, docetism seems to go together with a negative view of the material world, and not as a later add-on or afterthought. I find the proto-orthodox claim believable that docetism was part of Simon’s gnosticism from the beginning.
I realize that for our information about Simon we depend largely upon the writings of Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus. But I consider the proto-orthodox alternative history of Christian origins (Acts of the Apostles) to be a mid-second century work too, so both versions arise at about the same time. And, honestly, I think there is more real historical data to be found in the anti-heretical writings of the proto-orthodox than in their Acts of the Apostles. In the anti-heretical writings we just have to control for the bias of the author. In Acts we’re dealing with a forgery in which from start to finish fabrication is followed by fabrication. From my perch, we are more likely to figure out the real origin of Christianity from the proto-orthodox anti-heretical writings than from the Scripture-based forgeries they produced.
At first blush, the one thing that doesn’t compute for me in your scenario is that if “Paul” began as Simon, and it was Simon himself who was the Son of God, whether docetic or otherwise, why does not the 2nd century ‘reworking’ of Simon’s personal material into a “Paul” figure not contain any suggestion of the ‘son of God’ characteristics for this Paul? I see no hint in any version we can see of Paul (including Marcionite) that ‘Paul’ himself was some kind of divine figure (or however you want to style it), capable of divine activities. In fact, the portrait of Paul in the epistles is of a very human, very neurotic individual, obsessed with justifying the legitimacy of his apostleship. I am not sure how the two concepts could be reconciled. Moreover, the ‘Paul’ writer of the epistles is very much focused on preaching a figure very separate from himself. I do not understand why Simonians of the second century would want to turn their Simon founder into the figure of Paul.
And if that is not their purpose, but rather to create an entirely fictional character who was preaching Simon, why does the figure of Christ in ‘Paul’ not bear more of a resemblance to a Simonian figure such as you perceive was believed in in the second century?
This would be the same sort of objection I have to regarding the Paulines as entirely Marcionite. The God and Christ preached in the Paulines simply doesn’t conform to Marcionite doctrine in any significant way.
In response to your first blush observations:
1. You wrote:
But if you look back over my comment you will see that you misread it. I did not claim it was the Simonians who “reworked” the letter collection. I said it was the proto-orthodox. My words were:
The intent of their (successful) makeover was to turn the Simonian author of the original letters into a proto-orthodox apostle of a proto-orthodox Christ.
2. You also asked:
And you noted:
But, as the example I cited in my post showed, Christ is not the Son of the “element” angels who ordained the enslaving Law. He stands in opposition to them. And surely that conforms to Simon’s teaching, not to the teaching of the proto-orthodox. Just as the descent of the Son in the “form”, “likeness”, and “appearance” of man also conforms to Simonian, not proto-orthodox belief.
And, in general, the letters zigzag on the issues about which the gnostics and the proto-orthodox differed: the Law, the flesh, the world, and sin. I hold that the zigs belong to the original Simonian stratum, and the zags represent subsequent proto-orthodox modifications.
3. You also wrote:
I agree that publicly Paul preached a figure separate from himself. But I am not sure if he did so in private. Remember, his enemies accused him of having a hidden gospel, of preaching himself, and of being a deceiver. And there are many indications in the letters that support those accusations. Paul is not just, as you say, neurotic. He also seems to suffer from dissociative identity disorder:
“I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
“But when [God]… was pleased to reveal his Son in me…” (Gal. 1:15-16)
“I know a man in Christ who… was caught up to the third heaven… And I know that this person (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up into Paradise and heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter… About this person I will boast, but about myself I will not boast…” (2 Cor. 12: 2-5). What!?
I realize that Paul’s splitting of his personality in this last passage is usually explained as just his way of protecting his humility. But you have to wonder: What was it he heard that could be so dangerous to his humility? It couldn’t have been just another revelation from heaven. The religious literature of the time was loaded with fantastic accounts of heavenly words and visions. No, the words he heard must have gone beyond that and involved him in some way very personally.
And they could not have just been words about his glorious apostolic ministry. Granted, his self-image in that regard, as you describe so well in your Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, is startling:
But his surpassing splendor as an apostle is something that he writes and boasts about quite openly and often. So however hard it is to conceive, the words he hints about in 2 Cor. 12 must have gone even beyond that. He cannot divulge them, because the words were of a nature to puff him up excessively and make people think more of him than they should. The words he heard were potentially so dangerous that an “angel of Satan” (2 Cor. 12:7) was given to him to harass him. Three times Paul “begged the Lord about this, that it should leave me”.
Now as you know, I think the “teaching, miracle-working” part of the Son of God’s bio in Mark’s Gospel is a cryptic allegorical portrayal of Simon/Paul. And in line with that, I think the words the Markan “Jesus” heard at the beginning of the Gospel and his flight to the desert to be tempted by the devil are an allegorical portrayal of the events Simon/Paul is talking about in chapter 12 of 2 Corinthians. If so, the gospel provides us with the ineffable words which no one may utter: “You are my beloved Son. In you I am well pleased.”
Divine words like those fit the bill as dangerous. Quite apt to puff up Simon/Paul excessively. And quite apt, if people found out about them, to change the way they regarded him. How tempting too it would have been for him to try to see what power belonged to his newly conferred (or discovered?) status, especially with prodding from an angel of Satan: “If you are the Son of God, then do such and such.”
Simonians claimed that Simon was not only “The Apostle”, he was also the very “Son of God”. I grant that it is possible that it was they who, after Simon’s death, added to his stature by making claims about him that he himself never made. The proclaimer may have become the proclaimed. But in light of many peculiar Pauline passages, and the accusations made about a hidden gospel, and the information about Simon provided by the proto-orthodox heresy hunters, I think it is more likely that the claim that Simon was the Son of God originated with him, not with his followers. Like the Markan “Jesus”, the author of the Paulines says his only ambition was to serve. Yet he knows how to lay claim to privileges. So although he no doubt viewed all the brethren as being the “body of Christ”, I don’t see that he would have had any problem with identifying himself in some special way with the head of that body, the Son of God.
I expect he was very selective about whom he let in on such a secret. It was not for his average sarkic Joes (1 Cor. 3:1). It would have only been divulged in private to trusted pneumatic disciples. Better yet, let the Father be responsible for deciding who gets to know the secret. That, I suspect, is how Simon/Paul went about dealing with the “surpassing greatness of the revelations” (2 Cor. 12:7), for that is the way the Markan “Jesus” is portrayed as going about it. Play the mystery man, yes, and freely lead your followers on with questions like “Who do men say that I am?” But leave it up to the Father to decide who gets to share in the secret.
This, by the way, is also how Simon proceeds in the pseudo-Clementines. He does not go around proclaiming “I am the Son of God”. Peter reproaches him thus:
On the “name above all name” being Jesus, I have posted on a contemporary classicist’s argument that the name had powerful metaphorical and mythical associations in such literary contexts, even being related to the Greek mythical hero, Jason, who likewise underwent a death and resurrection:
Gospel Puns on the Name Above All Names
Creativity with the Name of Jesus the Healer in the Gospel of Mark
And in an earlier generation the renowned Guignebert thought the name problematic from a historical point of view:
Would the historical Jesus of Nazareth really have been named Jesus of Nazareth?
The question of the “name above all names” has been addressed by some at FRDB — with the disappointing usual responses. Methinks that anyone who does not want mythicism to have any credibility is determined to avoid mythicist arguments.
(Sheesh, Hoffmann avoided completely my point by point criticisms of his Galatians 4:4 nonsense entirely on the grounds that he noticed I had mentioned somewhere in my posts the names of Doherty and Zindler.)
But it occurred to me in adding my two cents worth to the FRDB discussion that the series I have been doing on Matthew Novenson’s “Christ among the Messiahs” also helps us grasp that “Jesus” itself began as an honorific (cf Augustus, Epiphanes, Africanus) according to the Philippian hymn.
“About the only thing never mentioned is the fact of this cosmic Son’s incarnation to earth and his identity in that life, but perhaps this was considered unimportant.”
No, it was a “high context culture” so everybody knew that already. 🙂