Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, and Chris Tilling, eds., How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Divine Nature. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014. 236pp. Paperback.
Reviewed by Dr. Ryan McGraw
For the last two hundred years, Biblical scholarship has virtually been obsessed with finding “the historical Jesus.” The authors of this volume respond to a recent attempt by Barth Ehrman to find the Jesus in whom the first-century Christians believed. Ehrman’s conclusion [in How Jesus Became God] is that the early Christians did not believe that Jesus was God Almighty, but that he was an angelic being who received divine honor. He teaches that the church moved from an exaltation Christology to an incarnation Christology, and thus perverted the views of early Christians. After reading countless attempts of this kind to reinvent the historical Jesus, this reviewer gets the wearied feeling that he is running on a theological hamster wheel or watching the same old movie repeatedly. Yet such assaults against the New Testament witness must be answered, and the five scholars in this volume do an excellent job demonstrating that the early Christians did in fact believe in a transcendent divine Christ.
Two things make Ehrman’s approach to early Christology significant (though far from unique): first, he is a scholar who is reaching a popular audience, and second, he was once a “fundamentalist” Christian. His opponents in this book are likewise well-respected scholars from diverse institutions such as Cambridge University and Reformed Theological Seminary, and they aim with great effectiveness at a popular audience. They do so with a blend of robust humor and thorough historical and biblical scholarship. Charles Hill, in particular, treats the important way in which Ehrman’s rejection of his “fundamentalism” forms a presuppositional backdrop for his historical research (176). The authors (especially Michael Bird) include comical references to a red-knuckled Santa Claus, communist racist chess pieces, bad television shows, and many more. This makes the book both entertaining and informative. One downside is the strange abstract picture on the front cover that I think is supposed to be Jesus. (I guess Zondervan has not taken to heart my past complaint letters about violating the Second Commandment with book cover art, or at least being considerate to those of us who have conscientious objections to them).
If you are looking for a defense and presentation of the gospel, then this book will disappoint you. The authors’ defenses of the early Christian belief in the divine Christ could potentially gain the consent of such diverse readers as the Pope, N.T. Wright, and Bob Jones. However, Christ’s divine identity is essential to the Christian faith.
Many modern versions of evangelical Christianity have an alarming habit of downplaying the person of Christ in presenting the gospel. God in Christ is presented as helping people through cancer, giving solace in sorrow, coping with life, and giving hope after death. However, a person can find all of these things through New Age philosophy. Jesus tells us that eternal life is knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent (Jn. 17:3). Just as sin is relational so salvation is relational. Instead of presenting a detached list of benefits (most of which are even accurate), Christians must take care to present Christ to sinners, and in him all the benefits of redemption. An orthodox Christology is not enough to present the gospel if it is not accompanied by an equally orthodox presentation of redemption as accomplished and applied. However, we must remember that we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord. The authors of How God Became Jesus at least defend the foundation on which we must do this.
Unfaithful scholars have typically shaped the faith of a generation of Christians by influencing their teachers via higher education. Ehrman aims at the people directly. This book meets Ehrman on a level playing field and disarms him successfully. Ehrman’s is not the first assault on the New Testament witness to Christ’s deity – and it will not be the last. But we must continue to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. This book is part of Christ’s provision to enable his church to do so.
The preceding was published in New Horizons.