Michael Bird’s How God Became Jesus

How God Became Jesus is Michael Bird’s response to Bart Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God. Bird saw a prepublication advertisement at SBL and was struck by the need to respond quickly to Ehrman. He approached Zondervan about this idea and was given approval. He assembled a team of scholars (Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, and Chris Tilling) who wrote the response in less than 100 days. It was released at the same time that Ehrman released his book (March 25th, 2014).

Genre. The combination of writing styles makes the exact genre of the book hard to pin down. It is an apologetic work. Bird takes a more informal and homiletical approach as evidenced by his frequent citations of pop-culture. But the others take a more scholarly approach, taking Ehrman’s arguments and addressing them in turn. All in all, it is an undergraduate-level apologetic work.

Argument and Organization. The introduction (Ch. 1) has a few introductory remarks and an overview of the arguments in chapters 2-9.

Michael Bird argues that Ehrman misused the hierarchy of divine beings in non-Jewish cultures when he applied this knowledge to Jesus (Ch. 2). His basic claim is that Jesus was first deified like other ancient kings, then viewed as a preincarnate angel, and finally ascended to the throne of God. This view falls prey to parallelomania. And this view does not align with early Christianity. Christ was viewed early on as God. In Judaism, angels and heroes of the faith serve God the Uncreated Being and are not equal to him in his rule and worship. Jesus, on the other hand, received those honors from humans without critique.

Further, Jesus viewed himself as God (Ch. 3). He claimed God’s prerogatives, sovereignty, and work. Jesus also claimed to fulfill Israel’s hope for restoration. In doing so, he was claiming to fulfill Yahweh’s role in the restoration. And Jesus spoke not just for God but as God himself. Not only did he identify as God, but also as the Son of Man. The Son of Man was not just a claim to humanity, but also a claim to equality with God.

Ehrman stated that the empty tomb was a myth developed much later after the original disciples. The Romans did not bury Jesus because they were not accustomed to burying criminals. And since the tomb was not directly mentioned in early creeds, it therefore did not concern the early disciples. Craig Evans argued against this position (Ch. 4). Ehrman was wrong because the Romans did allow for the burial of the crucified. The Romans also respected Jewish laws about the burial of the dead, as attested by numerous archeological and literary evidences.

Gathercole argued that from the earliest records Jesus was viewed as God (Ch. 5). He starts with the Synoptics. They strongly imply Christ’s preexistence through his many purpose statements. The coming implies that he must have come from somewhere else and from some other time. Therefore, he must have come from a heavenly realm. Further, Jesus claimed the prerogatives of God, like forgiveness of sins.

He then moves to the time period before the NT was written. The information from the 20 years between Jesus’s ascension and the first documents do not indicate that Jesus was adopted as the son of God (as Ehrman claims). Rather, they indicate a change in relationship to others. His being did not change, but the circumstances did. And the new circumstances changed his relationship with all creatures. However, his relationship with the Father remained the same.

Ehrman claims that the early church had two Christologies: “exaltational” and “incarnational.” And Paul viewed Christ as an incarnate angel (Gal 4:14). Chris Tilling countered this conclusion observing that Ehrman did not do justice to all the data (Ch 6). The simple parallel between the words angel and Christ in Galatians 4:14 does not imply that Paul thought they were the same referent as Ehrman concludes. His distinction between Jesus as God but not God Almighty is tenuous at best. Also, his conclusions about the pre-Pauline doctrines are unsustainable. Further, Ehrman’s view that Paul believed in an angelic Christology is unreasonable (Ch. 7). He focuses on one passage, Philippians 2:6-11. He illegitimately imports his understanding of Galatians 4:14 into this passage. And he leaves out many other Pauline texts which refute his own position.

Charles Hill dismantled Ehrman’s case by pointing to church history (Ch. 8). The church has always looked back at the text of Scripture in order to refine its doctrine. With this devotion, the heretical positions were recognized and removed. The prime example of this removal was the Ebionite heresy. Ehrman says that they believed Jesus became God, but this claim cannot be substantiated from the historical record. Ehrman also claimed based on a statement by Tertullian that modalism was the major view of the church. But this claim is not an accurate interpretation of what Tertullian said. In another place, Ehrman said Tertullian was subordinationist—that Jesus was subordinate to the Father ontologically. This claim atomizes what Tertullian says and does not take into consideration the context.

According to Ehrman, the church was so filled with infighting that they had to “settle” with paradoxes (i.e. the Trinity; Ch. 9). He suggests that the church turned to paradoxes because it could not explain the conflicts between the two Christologies. He points to John as presenting a “incarnational” Christology and then to 1 John as presenting the conflicting “exaltational” Christology. But the problem is that even within the same book (e.g., John 1) both theologies are present. Ehrman ignores these passages. He argues that the earlier passages present Jesus as a man who became God and the later ones present the “incarnational” Christologies. But this is a pure assumption on his part. There is no proof that the early church followed this trajectory. On the contrary, the NT writers were comfortable with both Christologies simultaneously. The later interpreters were careful to note these tensions in the text and produce a paradoxical, orthodox creed. In his epilogue, Ehrman frames the deification of Christ as the cause of the persecution of the Jews. Thus, the deification of Christ is wicked because it causes suffering. Besides his numerous historical misinterpretations, he fails to note the persecution of the Jews by Muslims, the Nazis, and other governments. Besides this fact, he also left out how much good the church has done in the world.

The conclusion recaps the chapters and then leaves with some parting thoughts which do not add to the argument (Ch. 10)

Unique Features and Strengths. They take a clear stance on the deity and humanity of Christ. Also, the arguments where overwhelming against Ehrman. They were detailed, thorough, and substantiated which is everything Ehrman lacks.

Critique. First, Bird mocks Ehrman quite a bit (Ch. 10 especially). Ehrman’s lack of scholarship certainly deserves it, but ultimately it distracted from his purpose. He does not sound serious as he addresses the subject. Second, Bird’s treatment of the definition of divinity overlooks a vast debate on the nature of monotheism and related matters. His treatment of this should have been researched more thoroughly. Third, Tilling exerted himself to pay respect to Ehrman’s prestige, noting that he is a true gentleman and had some good points. But being a kind individual and having a sprinkling of truth is no replacement for bad scholarship and bad theology. The truth is, Ehrman shows a profound disregard for scholarship in his popular works. They are more akin to conspiracy theories. He is bent more toward deception rather than his presumed “unbiased” position. Given this level of scholarship (never mind the erroneous theological positions), Tillman’s token respect is out of place. Of course, Christian scholarship must not be vitriolic (as Bird tended toward), but at the same time it must be ready to call out people who twist the truth.

Evaluation. Overall, the book was an excellent rebuttal. The best chapters are 4-9 which deal substantially with Ehrman’s argument. I would suggest this book to anyone who has interacted with Ehrman.

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