Another Flip Flop Argument: Ehrman again on early Low Christology

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by Neil Godfrey

Once again we see evidence of the ad hoc nature of arguments built upon the assumption of the historicity of Jesus.
Peter preaching: From Wikimedia

After a closer look at Romans 1:3-4 in Ehrman’s case for the earliest Christians thinking of Jesus as a “mere man” who only became a Son of God at his resurrection, I had to try to get a better grasp of the next pieces of pre-Gospel (and pre-Pauline) evidence he offered: passages in several speeches in the Book of Acts. I suspected these would not be so assailable as his interpretation of the Romans passage but I was wrong.

Here are the exhibits:

“We preach the good news to you, that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled for us their children by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’” (Acts 13: 32– 33).

“Let the entire house of Israel know with assurance that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2: 36).

“the God of our fathers raised Jesus . . . This one God exalted to his right hand as Leader and Savior” (Acts 5: 30– 31).

Inconsistency would not be expected but….

As with the Romans passage Ehrman points out that the author of these passages, “Luke”, believed something quite different. Here in Acts Luke has the apostles preach their conviction that Jesus became the Son of God or was exalted to divine status only at the resurrection, while he himself (called Luke for convenience) actually believed that Jesus was the Son of God from the moment of his inception and birth. That’s why he wrote the nativity scene in Luke 1.

Ehrman concludes:

On Acts 13:32-33

In this pre-Lukan tradition, Jesus was made the Son of God at the resurrection. This is a view Luke inherited from his tradition, and it is one that coincides closely with what we already saw in Romans 1: 3– 4. It appears to be the earliest form of Christian belief: that God exalted Jesus to be his Son by raising him from the dead.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2014-03-25). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (p. 226). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

On Acts 2:36

The earliest followers of Jesus believed that the resurrection showed that God had exalted him to a position of grandeur and power. This verse is one piece of evidence. Here, in a preliterary tradition, we learn that it was precisely by raising Jesus from the dead that God had made him the messiah and the Lord. During his lifetime Jesus’s followers had thought he would be the future messiah who would reign as king in the coming kingdom of God to be brought by the Son of Man, as Jesus himself had taught them. But when they came to believe he was raised from the dead, as Acts 2: 36 so clearly indicates, they concluded that he had been made the messiah already. He was already ruling as the king, in heaven, elevated to the side of God. As one who sits beside God on a throne in the heavenly realm, Jesus already is the Christ.

More than that, he is the Lord. During his lifetime Jesus’s disciples had called him “lord”— a term that could be used by a slave of a master, or by an employee of a boss, or by a student of a teacher. As it turns out, in Greek the term lord in each of these senses was the very same term as Lord used of God, as the “Lord of all.” Just as the term Christ came to take on new significance once Jesus’s followers believed he had been raised from the dead, so too did the term lord. Jesus was no longer simply the disciples’ master-teacher. He actually was ruling as Lord of the earth, because he had been exalted to this new status by God. And it happened at the resurrection. The man Jesus had been made the Lord Christ.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2014-03-25). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (pp. 227-228). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

On Acts 5:31

Once more, then, in an early tradition we find that Jesus’s resurrection was an “exaltation” specifically to “the right hand of God.” In other words, God had elevated Jesus to his own status and given him a prominent position as the one who would “lead” and “save” those on earth.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2014-03-25). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (p. 229). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

So once again, as he argued in relation to Romans 1:3-4, here we find passages that are at odds with what the author of the larger two-volume work apparently believed. This is the foundation of the argument that these passages are adapted from very primitive Christian beliefs, relics that somehow hung around even into Luke’s day.

What is the motive?

So what could have motivated Luke to do something like this?

In fact there is a good explanation for why Luke would want to use these preliterary traditions in his speeches: because they encapsulate so well his emphasis in these addresses to “unbelievers” that God has drastically and dramatically reversed what humans did to Jesus, showing thereby that he had a radically different evaluation of who Jesus was. Humans abused and killed Jesus; God reversed that execution by raising him from the dead. Humans mocked Jesus and held him to be the lowest of the low, an inferior human being; God exalted Jesus and raised him to his right hand, making him a glorified divine figure.

These preliterary fragments provided Luke with just the material he needed to make this point, and so he used them throughout his speeches in order to stress his powerful message. The Almighty God had reversed what lowly humans had done, and Jesus, far from being a failed prophet or a false messiah, was shown to be the ruler of all. By raising Jesus from the dead, God had made him his own Son, the Messiah-King, the Lord.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2014-03-25). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (pp. 229-230). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

So theologically Luke, we are to assume, did not technically agree with the words expressed, but he did love the way they advanced his larger literary theme of reversal of fortunes so admirably.

No need to keep adding hypotheses unnecessarily

I am reminded of arguments by Paula Fredriksen and Burton Mack to the effect that if we have a literary-narrative explanation for what we read, something that appears because of the way it so neatly advances the plot, then we have a satisfactory explanation and need not seek to find additional reasons for the literary element. They were talking about the Temple “action” where Jesus cast out the money-changers from the Temple. They see no reason to assume its (otherwise quite implausible) historicity. See Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical for details.

But if inconsistency is Luke’s trademark . . . .


As happened when reading Ehrman’s arguments around Romans 1:3-4 questions arose in my mind. These led me back to an earlier work by Ehrman, one which I found much more impressive than some of his later outputs: The Orthodox corruption of scripture : the effect of early Christological controversies on the text of the New Testament. There it is interesting to read a quite different approach and conclusion to some of these very passages in Acts.

In that 1993 publication Ehrman argued quite something else, quite the opposite, in fact. On page 64 he speaks of the assumption that Luke would want to be consistent throughout his writings on his arguments for Christology as “demonstrably false.”

An obvious example comes in Luke’s depiction of Jesus as the Messiah. 

  • According to Luke’s infancy narrative, Jesus was born the Christ (2:11).
  • But in at least one of the speeches of Acts he is understood to have become the Christ at his baptism (10:37—38; possibly 4:27);
  • whereas in another Luke explicitly states that he became the Christ at his resurrection (2:38).
  • It may be that in yet another speech (3:20) Jesus is thought to be the Christ only in his parousia.

Similarly “inconsistent” are Luke’s predications of the titles Lord and Savior to Jesus.

  • Thus, Jesus is born the Lord in Luke 2:11,
  • and in Luke 10:1 he is designated Lord while living;
  • but in Acts 2:38 he is said to have been become Lord at his resurrection.
  • So too, in Luke 2:11 he is born Savior,
  • and in Acts 13:23—24 he is designated Savior while living;
  • but according to Acts 5:31 he is said to have been made Savior at the resurrection. 

Nor does the title Son of God, the title that is directly germane to our present deliberation, escape this seemingly erratic kind of treatment:

  • Jesus is born the Son of God in Luke 1:32—35,
  • descended Son of God according to the genealogy of 3:23—38,
  • and declared to be Son of God while living (e.g., Luke 8:28; 9:35);
  • but Acts 13:33 states that he became the Son of God at his resurrection.

This kind of titular ambiguity does not inspire confidence in claims that certain readings cannot be Lukan because they stand in tension with Luke’s use of christological titles elsewhere. (1993, p. 65, my formatting and bolding in all quotations)

I’m reminded here of other arguments I have encountered suggesting that Luke is the most catholic of the evangelists, or at least the person who produced the final canonical version of our Luke-Acts, in that he incorporated a wide range of beliefs, including some contradictory ones and those found in the earlier gospels (including possibly John).

Anyway, whatever we think of that thought, the quotation above from Ehrman’s earlier work kind of pulls the rug out from his current arguments in How Jesus Became God to the effect that Acts contains evidence that the earliest followers of Jesus held on to a primitive Christology.

Once again we see evidence of the ad hoc nature of arguments built upon the assumption of the historicity of Jesus.

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Another Flip Flop Argument: Ehrman again on early Low Christology”

  1. The practice of ad hockery often seems to lead to these self-contradictory or mutually contradictory arguments. These sorts of things are advanced for the defense of a pre-determined conclusion without any concern for simply following any line of reasoning wherever it leads without fear or favor.

  2. I’m sorry, but why, why why why, does Ehrman try to read the Gospels back into the Epistles like this. It’s one of the reasons I’ve stopped reading him. He clearly tells us that we have to read the Gospels seperately and let the authors speak for themselves, and then he pulls stunts like this.

  3. The gospels and Acts are pure fiction. Acts is internally inconsistent (actually contains blatant contradictions). “Luke” clearly had Josephus in mind and Paul’s letters when he penned his literary fiction. All the gospels rely on Josephus. I would never base any argument of fact on these sources unless it was to show how the literature was created and what purpose it served. Luke in Acts created a whole milieu out of bits of history and his imagination. His purpose was to shore up belief in a foundation myth. Of course he added little touches to make it seem authentic and primitive. Primitive Christology was part of the mix.

  4. So Ehrman is showing that Luke held many different views as to when Jesus became Christ? He hints that one of them, the earliest one perhaps, sees Jesus as becoming Christ only after the resurrection. Which has for most contemporaries, proven his status. But how is that established as the earliest view?

  5. I’m confused.

    ? Was Ehrman arguing earlier that Luke would want to be consistent? Or arguing that Luke’s other combinations of different beliefs mean that we can not label such combinations as non Lukian?

    1. As I understand Ehrman, he is saying in his debate with Bird arguing for the gradual development from a low to a high Christology that an inconsistency in Acts is an indication that a passage does not originate from Luke’s personal beliefs but has been introduced by Luke from some other source. The assumption is that we should expect consistency from the pen of Luke. Earlier, however, Ehrman had spoken of this assumption (the assumption that “Luke would not predicate the same christological title to Jesus on the basis of different moments, or junctures, of his existence”) as a “dubious premise” (p. 64).

      Moderns expect an author to be “(logically) consistent” — and in an end-note he clarifies this word “logically”: “Logical , that is, in a twentieth-century modernist sense. Luke certainly has a logic of his own, whether or not it is one that most moderns would subscribe to.”

      I’m not sure if I have only repeated your confusion, sorry.

  6. So Luke contains earlier strata not consistent with the author’s beliefs? How does that prove historicity? All it proves is earlier cultists had differing beliefs about Jesus. It can be demonstrated the author used Josephus’ writings, putting their work after c.100AD. A huge chunk of mainstream scholarship would have these works as a reaction to Marcion so putting them after c.140AD. 2-4 generations after Paul; post 1-3 major wars that devastated the Jewish communities across the eastern Mediterranean. We have far, far greater knowledge and far, far better tools to investigate than even the most senior magistrates and most connected intellectuals of the Roman Empire and cannot state anything about the matter with anything approaching certainty. For all practical purposes the Luke author and their sources had no way whatsoever of knowing the veracity or otherwise of their beliefs and assertions. The paltry remains of the Roswell weather balloon became a full blown UFO conspiracy/myth within ten years in the modern era with all our vaster knowledge and resources for gawd’s sake! If anyone thinks, having examined the evidence, Jesus has more than a 1 in 4 chance of being a real person (And that is being way,way generous!), they are bonkers. End of.

  7. Bart Ehrman writes about Jesus’ death that memories of Jesus’ death “do not appear to be remembered in any prejudicial way – for example, because they represent episodes of Jesus’ life that Christians particularly would have wanted to say happened for their own, later benefit (Jesus Before The Gospels, pg. 148).” This seems to fly in the face of Paul’s claim that Jesus’ atoning death is grounded in scripture. Recall Paul said “Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES (1 Corinthians 15:3).”

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