This review is a gratefully received addition by guest poster Peter. If anyone else has a further review of any other book they have read and would like to submit it, please contact me.
Modern day Christians hold that Jesus and God are one. The Athanasian Creed for instance holds that “…there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.” However, the belief that a man could participate in the divine nature in this way is anathema to Jews both ancient and modern. So how could a sect with such Jewish origins come to believe that Jesus and God could be equal?
Bart Ehrman tries to answer this question in his latest book How Jesus Became God. He describes eloquently how views about Jesus progressed through intermediate steps. For instance, Mark, the earliest Gospel seems to take an “adoptionist” view: nothing is mentioned about Jesus’s supposedly supernatural birth or pre-existence at all. Rather it seems that Jesus was adopted as God’s son at his baptism (Mk 1:9-11). On the other hand, John’s Gospel, which was the last of the 4 canonical Gospels to have been written, takes a highly exalted view of Jesus. Here Jesus is said to declare that “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30), and Jesus is identified at the beginning of the Gospel as the eternal Word (or logos) who participated in creation (Jn 1:1-5). Having said that however, it’s worth nothing that John does stop short of the position that Jesus and God are co-equal however. Stating his own subordinationist view, the third century Christian writer Origen is even able to quote John
“It is obvious that we, who maintain that even the sensible world is made by the creator of all things, hold that the Son is not mightier than the Father, but subordinate. And we say this because we believe him who said ‘the Father who sent me is greater than I’ [Jn 14:28]” (cited in Geza Vermes From Nazareth to Nicea, pg 221).
This would seem to point to a steady movement from “low” Christological views (where Jesus originates “down here”) to higher ones as the Christian movement moved further from its Jewish roots. However, as Ehrman points out, Paul’s views do not seem to fit this trend, in that, as we shall see, Paul seems to take quite an exalted view of Jesus even though he is thought to have written before the Gospels. This is the bit of Ehrman’s book that I would like to focus on in this post. How did Paul view Jesus’s nature? Ehrman’s answer is a little surprising, though apparently not new: Paul thought Jesus was an angel.
Paul and Jesus
It is quite clear that Paul regards Jesus as a divine or semi-divine being. In Galatians 4:4, Paul makes a special point of mentioning that Jesus was “born of a woman”, which in most biographies wouldn’t be that remarkable, but would be noteworthy if Jesus in fact had a divine nature. In 1st Corinthians 15:47 Paul contrasts the earthly origin of Adam with the heavenly origin of Jesus “the first man is from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven”. Romans 8:3 also has Jesus “sent in the likeness of sinful flesh”, again suggesting that in Paul’s view Jesus was no ordinary man. Romans 9:5 may also point in this direction – even to the point of hailing Jesus as God – though unfortunately the interpretation of this verse hangs on the placement of a comma. Some translators render it “…is the Christ. The one over all God, blessed forever. Amen” – which would seem to hail Jesus as a divine being. Others however put God and Jesus in different categories (“The one over all, God, be blessed forever”). Romans was dictated to a man named Tertius (Rom 16:22) who could have saved everyone a lot of trouble if he had stopped Paul to ask– though since punctuation had yet to be invented in those days, we will let him off.
What kind of heavenly being was Jesus supposed to be? Like pagans of the time, ancient Jews viewed divinity on a continuum. For example, the divine-human boundary could be crossed. There were divine beings that could descend to Earth (such as the Watchers or “Sons of God” in Gen 6:2) as well as humans who could be taken up to heaven. The latter group include Enoch who “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him” (Gen 5:24), and Elijah who ascended to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). There were also, of course, God’s divine servants who occasionally came down to Earth – angels. There are two places where Paul seems to talk about Jesus as one of these. In Galatians 4:14, Paul reminds the Galatians of their close relationship with him by saying
“[Even] though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Jesus Christ”
Here Paul seems to refer to Jesus as an angel. An alternative reading of this passage could of course be “as an angel of God, or as Jesus Christ”. However, Ehrman cites other New Testament scholars (Charles Gieschen and Susan Garrett) who point out that the Greek grammatical construction being used in this verse means that Paul is in fact using Jesus as an example of an angel. A more detailed argument for this is presented in the book.
A second passage is the hymn in Philippians 2:6-11. Ehrman argues that Paul is quoting this hymn from some earlier source. However, even if Paul did not himself compose it, the fact that he quotes it to provide an example of selfless behaviour suggests that he shared the beliefs of the original author. In this hymn, Jesus is described as having been God’s servant, a heavenly being “in the form of God”, who was then “born in human likeness”. His devotion was such that he even allowed himself to die on a cross, for which he was rewarded by being even more highly exalted – being given “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth”.
It seems that Paul viewed Jesus as a divine entity, but would he have agreed that Jesus was God’s equal? The benediction in Romans 9:5 suggests that this may have been possible (though as we said the evidence for this is ambiguous), but end of the hymn in Philippians also seems to point this way. However, Phil 2:11-16 does not suggest that Jesus was God’s equal before in his pre-incarnational state. In the hymn, Jesus is said to have viewed equality with God as “not something to be grasped after” but instead chose to become human as a service to God. This suggests that he originally wasn’t God’s equal (the point is that he didn’t ambitiously seek that equality). Moreover, in the hymn, Jesus is said to have been exalted even more highly after his death. How could that be if the two were already equal? You can’t be more exalted than God.
It seems therefore that Paul believed that Jesus was a divine being, originally less powerful than God the Father, who came down from heaven and became human. His reward was to become more exalted than before – possibly even to equality or near equality with God himself – but only after his death by crucifixion.
It’s a very exalted view of Jesus, but it differs from the modern Trinitarian view.