In his 2014 book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne), former Christian Bart Ehrman turns from challenging traditional beliefs about the biblical text, as he had done in previous publications, to challenging traditional beliefs about the identity of Christ. By the fourth century C.E., Christians affirmed that Jesus is “very God of very God” and “of one substance with the Father” (Nicene Creed). Ehrman doesn’t think Jesus or the earliest Christians thought so.

“Jesus,” Ehrman argues, “did not declare himself to be God,” but “once the disciples believed that their crucified master had been raised from the dead,” it was then “that they began to think that he must, in some sense, be God” (128; emphasis added). Even then, Ehrman is confident they believed only that Jesus was “a human who came to be made divine,” and not the very incarnation of God himself (5). Thus, the man Jesus “became” God—that is, he was eventually thought to be—but he didn’t start out that way.

As it turns out, Ehrman’s confidence is misplaced, and his conclusions are too hasty, the result of overlooking critical evidence that works against his thesis. Though he admits that the author of John’s Gospel presents Jesus as almighty God incarnate, Ehrman insists earlier sources do not, including some sayings in Paul’s letters and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke: “none of these earlier sources says any such thing about him” (125; emphasis added). Yet, it is precisely in such earlier sources that some of the strongest evidence for the true deity of Christ can be found.

 

Not Taking Advantage of Equality with God:
Philippians 2:5–7

Ehrman acknowledges that Paul’s letter to the Philippians, written in the 50s or early 60s C.E., reproduces a still earlier poem, already familiar to his readers, that scholars call the Carmen Christi, or “hymn of Christ.” It praises Jesus,

(6) who though he existed in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,

(7) but emptied himself
by taking on the form of a slave,
by looking like other men,
and by sharing in human nature.

(8) He humbled himself,
by becoming obedient to the point of death
—even death on a cross!

(9) As a result God exalted him,
and gave him the name
that is above every name,

(10) so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow
—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—

(11) and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:6–11, NET)

As early as the second century C.E., Christians like Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian interpreted this poem as teaching that Jesus is truly God incarnate, having had “equality with God” prior to his human birth. Ehrman, however, insists that Jesus is said here to have preexisted his incarnation only as an angel, and not as God Almighty. Ehrman bases this on the Greek noun harpagmos, translated “something to be grasped,” which he says “is almost always used to refer to something a person doesn’t have but grasps for—like a thief who snatches someone’s purse” (263). Yet, what Ehrman neglects is that the word means something else in contemporaneous literature when it functions grammatically the way it functions here.

The word harpagmos in Philippians 2:6 is the complement of an object-complement construction, like the word “scholar” in “I consider Bart Ehrman a competent scholar”:

Subject Verb Direct Object Complement
I consider Bart Ehrman scholar
Jesus did not count equality with God harpagmos

When either harpagmos or its synonym harpagma is the complement to the object of a verb of thought or opinion, the construction is an idiom referring to something one already has and may or may not choose to exploit. For example, in Heliodorus’s Aethiopica, the young and virile Theagenes turns away the romantic advances of Arsace, whose servant Cybele marvels that the young man does not harpagma poieitai to pragma—does not “count the matter an advantage” (7.20):

Subject Verb Direct Object Complement
Theagenes did not count the matter harpagma
Jesus did not count equality with God harpagmos

For this reason, the NIV rightly translates the poem as saying Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” (emphasis added; cf. NRSV, H/CSB). Jesus was equal to God, but he refused to exploit his equality with God. Indeed, the poem uses the phrases “in the form of God” and “equality with God” as equivalent in meaning, and it affirms explicitly that the first of these was true of Jesus before his incarnation.

Importantly, Jewish authors use “form of God” to refer to genuine deity. Philo, for instance, says, “the form of God is not a thing which is capable of being imitated by an inferior one” (On the Embassy to Gaius 14.110). The same is true of “equality with God,” which is why Jews seek to kill Jesus for blasphemy for “calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). Thus, the Carmen Christi—which Ehrman admits preexisted Paul’s already early writings—teaches the historic doctrine of the incarnation of God the Son. The Son exists eternally as God, but at a point in time, at the crux of history, he entered into his own creation and became a human being.

Notwithstanding his mistake concerning harpagmos, Ehrman offers a second reason for thinking the Philippians poem presents Christ as less than God. The poem says that after Jesus’s incarnation, and after his obedient submission to death on the cross, “God exalted him” (v. 9). “If Christ were already equal with God,” Ehrman argues, “then it would not have been possible for him to be exalted even higher than that after his act of obedience” (264). Ehrman’s argument, however, ignores two fundamental truths at the heart of the poem: God the Son became man, and in so doing, he humbled himself.

Obviously, God could not have exalted himself higher than himself; that would be absurd. In his incarnation, however, refusing to exploit his equality with God, the Son “emptied himself” (v. 7), becoming a lowly human and stooping to serve those from whom he deserves service. It was this humiliated, inglorious God-man whom the Father exalted to the status and glory he rightly had before his incarnation, in return for his humility and obedience.

Ehrman’s misreading of the pre-Pauline Christ-hymn therefore fails to account for the peculiar way it uses the Greek word harpagmos, and for the humiliation involved in the Son’s becoming a servile human. Meanwhile, it is precisely because Jesus was always by nature equal to God that the poem can serve Paul’s purpose, which is to exhort readers—including you and me—“to treat one another as more important than yourself” (v. 3). Of course, we human beings are all bearers of the divine image and are therefore equals, but just as the preincarnate Christ refused to take advantage of equality with his Father, to whom he instead humbled himself, so we are likewise to humble ourselves before our equals, serving one another.

 

Longing to Gather Israel Under His Wings:
Matthew 23:37–38; Luke 13:34–35

According to Ehrman, the Gospel of John was written in the 90s C.E., approximately ten years after Matthew and Luke were written. He insists that while John depicts Jesus as true God incarnate, the earlier Gospels of Matthew and Luke do not. Again, however, Ehrman has overlooked critical evidence.

Matthew and Luke record Jesus lamenting, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34). Ehrman deserves to be cut a little slack for missing the significance of these texts; it is missed by many Christians as well, including stalwart defenders of the deity of Christ. Nevertheless, in the ancient Near East (ANE) and in the Hebrew Old Testament, protective bird imagery, like that with which Jesus here identifies himself, is always used of deity. In ANE iconography, for example, the winged-sun disk represents gods thought to protect royalty. And in the Old Testament, protective bird imagery always describes Yahweh, as when Moses sings, “Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings . . . the LORD alone guided him” (Deut 32:11–12; cf. Ruth 2:12; Pss 17:8–9; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7; 91:4). Nowhere is such imagery used to portray a mere creature.

Consistent with Jesus’s self-appropriation of protective bird imagery, which his hearers would have recognized as a claim to be true deity, Jesus also says he is leaving the temple “desolate” (erēmos, Matt 23:38) and “forsaken” (aphiēmi, Luke 13:35), the same language Yahweh uses in Jeremiah to describe the state in which he leaves the temple (erēmōsis, Jer 22:5, LXX; aphiēmi, Jer 12:7, LXX). Moreover, in Matthew, Jesus’s lament follows immediately after he promises to hold the scribes and Pharisees guilty for the murder of Israel’s past prophets (Matt 23:29–36). By saying, “How often would I have gathered your children together . . . and you were not willing,” Jesus is therefore referring to his repeated attempts as Yahweh to reach his people through his prophets in history. In Matthew and Luke, then, Jesus is indeed God incarnate.

As previously noted, Ehrman dates Matthew and Luke to the 80s C.E., a decade earlier than John’s Gospel, but if Ehrman is right, then Jesus’s lament must be part of a still earlier tradition. Matthew and Luke both appear to copy a great deal of what was written earlier in Mark, but Jesus’s lament is not recorded by Mark. It does, however, feature in both Matthew and Luke, which makes it part of what Ehrman calls “‘Q’—the lost source that provided Matthew and Luke with much of their sayings material” (95). Indeed, the Greek is nearly identical, requiring the existence of a tradition that predates Matthew’s and Luke’s use thereof (identical text appears in bold):

Matthew 23 Luke 13
(37) Hierousalēm Hierousalēm, hē apokteinousa tous prophētas kai lithobolousa tous apestalmenous pros autēn, posakis ēthelēsa episunagagein ta tekna sou, hon tropon ornis episunagei ta nossia autēs hupo tas pterugas, kai ouk ēthelēsate. (34) Hierousalēm Hierousalēm, hē apokteinousa tous prophētas kai lithobolousa tous apestalmenous pros autēn, posakis ēthelēsa episunazai ta tekna sou hon tropon ornis tēn heautēs nossian hupo tas pterugas, kai ouk ēthelēsate.
(38–39) Idou aphietai humin ho oikos humōn erēmos. Legō gar humin, ou mē me idēte ap arti heōs an eipēte, “Eulogēmenos ho erchomenos en onomati kuriou.” (35) Idou aphietai humin ho oikos humōn. Legō [de] humin, ou mē idēte me heōs [hēzei hote] eipēte, “Eulogēmenos ho erchomenos en onomati kuriou.”

By Ehrman’s reckoning, then, Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem predates the Gospels of John, Matthew, and Luke, and must stretch back earlier than even the 80s C.E. Since the protective bird imagery Jesus employs would have been recognized by his hearers and the Gospels’ first readers as language reserved for true deity, Jesus must be self-identifying as Yahweh, who lovingly reached out to the Israelites throughout their generations. Matthew 23:37–38 and Luke 13:34–35 therefore provide us with early evidence that Jesus was thought to be God incarnate.

 

Conclusion

In How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman tells an interesting story of doctrinal development. According to Ehrman’s story, the historical Jesus claimed only to be a man, but those who later believed God had raised him from the dead became convinced that, in so doing, God had also exalted Jesus to a divine status. Still later, Jesus’s followers came to believe that he had preexisted his birth as an angelic being. Finally, by the time John wrote his Gospel, some Christians thought Jesus preexisted his incarnation as God himself, a belief that would become enshrined in Christianity’s early ecumenical creeds. Yet, as interesting as Ehrman’s story is, it is just that—a story.

As we have seen, the deity of Jesus, which Ehrman insists is the final stage in the development of Christian Christology, is in fact taught in early New Testament material predating its reproduction therein. In an early hymn or poem reproduced by Paul in his letter to the Philippians, Jesus is praised for having refused to exploit his equality with God, and for instead humbly subjecting himself to humiliation, by becoming a man and serving those who ought to have served and worshiped him. In an early tradition reproduced by Matthew and Luke in their Gospels, Jesus self-appropriates protective bird imagery, which hearers and readers would have associated exclusively with deity. The New Testament is therefore not, as Ehrman would have us believe, a record of how Jesus “became” God. It is a record of how God became Jesus.

 

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Chris Date is a guest contributor for CityLight, an Adjunct Professor of Bible and Theology at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary, as well as the public face of the ministry Rethinking Hell. He lives with his wife and sons in the South Puget Sound area and works full time as a software engineer.