Monday, June 16, 2014

Book review of How God became Jesus

How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus' Divine Nature - A response to Bart Erhman by Michael Bird, Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole, Charles Hill, and Christ Tilling. Published by Zondervan, 2014.

Let me say from the very beginning that this is going to be a peculiar review, because I confess that I read this response volume but didn't bother reading Ehrman's 'How Jesus became God'. I didn't bother for several reasons, including I have a fair idea of what Ehrman would say, I don't think he needs any more money, and I only have so much time to read books.

I do admit, thought, that this gives me a very one-sided view of Ehrman's arguments on this topic, much like our view of, say, the Valentinians derived entirely from reading Irenaeus. The presentation of Ehrman here is thus Ehrman through the eyes of his opponents.

The editor of the volume, Bird, helpfully tells us in the first line of his Preface, that "[t]he purpose of this volume is to offer a critical response" to Ehrman's recent book. Personally I find this very welcome, because one of my broader criticisms of Ehrman is simply that he regularly plays to a popular audience before, or without, writing for an academic audience, thus bypassing some of the academic rigour to which his ideas ought to be put. Furthermore, his style of writing often seems to make some of his conclusions accepted fact, in place of disputed theory. This applies not only to areas of disagreement with conservative Christians.

The structure of the volume is 9 substantial chapters by 5 writers each dealing with specific areas of Ehrman's account. Craig Evans deals with burial traditions (contra Ehrman's claim that Jesus almost certainly wasn't buried, because crucifixion victims were generally not buried). Bird deals with three topics: in an introductory chapter he deals with the general methodological and historical 'scene', and summarises nicely the "Early High Christology Club", a second chapter dealing with the topic of intermediary figures and how you carve up the ontological space of 'divinity' and 'non-divinity', and a third chapter dealing with Jesus' self-perception and conceptualisation.

Simon Gathercole offers a single chapter dealing with the question of "earliest Christology". This engages Ehrman about issues of what texts in the New Testament may be chronologically stratified, whether we can meaningfully distinguish "exaltation Christology" from "incarnation Christology" in the way Ehrman does, and how Ehrman reads scripture.

Tilling deals substantially with problems of both methodology (interpretative categories) and Pauline Exegesis, in two chapters. While Charles Hill offers two chapters that deal with Ehrman's depiction of post-NT Christianity and developments.

I briefly want to summarise what I felt were some of the most telling criticisms of Ehrman in this volume. Firstly, Bird does well to note how Ehrman seems to 'over-import' Graeco-Roman categories while making not enough of conceptions of Jewish monotheism. It seems to me that getting 'monotheism' right in terms of conceptualisation and categories is an important pre-requisite in this area, and often done poorly. I may have more to say on this in a latter blog post. Bird also criticises Ehrman for his lack of engagement with Bauckham and Hurtado, which many have noted as a very curious omission. Why does Ehrman not deal with the significant scholars who offer a credible and well-researched alternative to his view?

Evan's chapter is succinct and, in my view, casts significant doubts about Ehrman's conclusions on burial traditions. I would assess Evan's counter-presentation as providing a strong case that crucifixion victims in Judea were regularly buried and that this is not surprising at all.

The strength of Gathercole's and moreso Tilling's chapters is they way they reveal some of the operating assumptions that Ehrman is using, and how some of his presuppositions become conclusions, and vice versa. On the matter of exegesis, the way Ehrman centralises Galatians 4:4 and reads it in a curious manner, turning it into a key text for other exegesis; this, alongside the critique that the only extended exegesis is a contentious reading of Philippians 2:6-11, casts strong doubts about the foundational breadth of what Ehrman has to offer.

I found Hill's chapters engaging because it's 'more my area'. Again one of the main issues with Ehrman is the way he takes marginal readings and makes them foundational for unsupported claims. I think this can be seen in the way he takes up Ebionites and makes claims for them that are both difficult to sustain, and don't mesh with what Ehrman wants to say about adoptionist Christology anyway.

I think Hill's engagement on the whole orthodoxy/heterodoxy argument is a little light-on. I happen to agree, but engagement of the Bauer hypothesis needs more space than Hill can give it here. But on Modalism, again Ehrman seems to take a curious reading of Tertullian, turn it into a major proposition, and provide a significant revision of standard ecclesiastical history. These are not things one should just 'casually toss out' in a popular level book. If Ehrman wanted to write a significant book in the area, he should go ahead, I suspect it would not stand substantial scrutiny.

Hill's second chapter is an interesting one, in that it deals with two issues. Firstly is the way Ehrman portrays 'paradoxes'. Hill makes the point that paradoxes are not a 'problem', in the sense that they are endemic to Christianity. It's no surprise to me, and shouldn't be to anyone with some education in the field, that parts of scripture seem to offer different 'views'. Ehrman's conclusion, which is the basis of almost all critical methodology, is that this is problematic and evidence of different writers/sources/communities/conflicting factions, etc.. As Hill points out, you can find conflict between John 1:1 and John 1:14, but it doesn't suggest there is a redactional problem here, it indicates that Scriptures contain paradoxes, which is arguably the source of the productivity of Patristic theology.

The second issue Hill addresses is the way in which Ehrman links, prejudicially, the idea that Jesus is God with persecution of Jews by Christians. No one denies that (a) Christians from the 4th century on did indeed think of Jesus as God, (b) there was Christian persecution and maltreatment of Jews in the Roman Empire. However I think Hill does admirably to: firstly, nuance the historical record on the subject, secondly to raise the serious question: to what extent are propositions A and B linked? Ehrman links them, but does a poor job of showing that B follows from A, which is what he claims, and which functions so that B becomes an ethical objection against idea A.

For a hastily put together response-volume, there are some signs of that haste, and the quality of writing and engagement varies, but overall this is a strong contribution to the ongoing 'dialogue' with Ehrman. I continue to think that, besides critique of Ehrman's writings, there are significant meta-questions about Ehrman's scholarly 'persona'. Why does he continually write directly for the popular market often before or without engaging the academic field? Why does he maintain a paid-subscription blog (even if profits do go to charity)?

Ehrman is not going away (which is good!), and this volume is a valuable response on a critical level to some of his claims in his latest work, which will surely get a lot of 'airtime' in public discussion. As someone who is often writing in public forums and dealing with people's common conceptions of Christian History, I found this response volume a welcome work.

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