Ryan M. McGraw
For the last two hundred years, biblical scholarship has been virtually obsessed with finding the “historical Jesus.” The authors of How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature (edited by Michael F. Bird) respond to a recent attempt by Bart Ehrman to find the Jesus in whom the first-century Christians believed. Ehrman’s conclusion is that the early Christians did not believe that Jesus was God Almighty, but that he was an angelic being who received divine honor. Ehrman claims that the church moved from an exaltation Christology to an incarnation Christology, and thus perverted the views of the early Christians. After reading many attempts of this kind to reinvent the historical Jesus, this reviewer gets the wearied felling that he is running on a theological hamster wheel or watching the same old movie repeatedly. Yet such assaults on the New Testament witness must be answered, and the five scholars in this volume do an excellent job of 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 (a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina) who is reaching a popular audience. Second, he was once a “fundamentalist” Christian. His opponents in this book are likewise well-respected scholars from such diverse institutions 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 (p. 176). The authors (especially Michael Bird) include comical references to a red-knuckled Santa Claus, communist and racist chess pieces, bad television shows, and much more. This makes the book both entertaining and informative.
One downside of the book is the strange, abstract picture on the front cover that I think is supposed to represent Jesus. (I guess Zondervan has not taken to heart my past letters complaining about violating the second commandment with book cover art and asking them at least to be considerate of those who have conscientious objections to pictures of Jesus.)
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 also (supposedly) 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 (John 17:3). Just as sin is relational, so salvation is relational. Instead of presenting a detached list of benefits (most of which are not even accurate), Christians must take care to present Christ to sinners, and in him all the benefits of redemption. An orthodox Christology alone does not present the gospel; it must be 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 distorted or even undermined the faith of a generation of Christians by having a bad influence on those who have become their teachers. Ehrman aims at the people directly. This book meets Ehrman on a level playing field and disarms him successfully. Ehrman’s assault on the New Testament witness to Christ’s deity is not the first one to get into print, 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 reviewer is the pastor of First OPC in Sunnyvale, Calif. How God Became Jesus is published by Zondervan (paperback, 236 pages, list price $16.99). New Horizons, February 2015.