Did the Earliest Christians Think Jesus Was an Angel? A Response to Bart Ehrman (Part 2)

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

May 6, 2014

Note:  This is the second installment of a series of blog posts reviewing Bart Ehrman’s new book, How Jesus Became God–The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (HarperOne, 2014). For the prior post see here.

Ehrman’s core argument is that Jesus was a mere man who gradually, over time, came to be regarded as more and more divine, until he was ultimately (in the fourth century) regarded as the God of the universe.  He states, “It will become clear in the following chapters that Jesus was not originally considered to be God in any sense at all, and that he eventually became divine for his followers in some sense before he came to be thought of as equal with God Almighty in an absolute sense. But the point I stress is that this was, in fact, a development” (44).

In other words, Ehrman argues that the earliest Christians did not understand divinity as something that was “all or nothing”–it could have gradations.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Ehrman begins his volume with a discussion of “gods” and semi-divine beings in the Greco-Roman world because this was a world which clearly did view divinity as something that could have degrees. The problem with such a starting place, however, is that the earliest Christology was not born in a Greco-Roman context, but in a decidedly Jewish one.  Indeed, it was born into a Jewish world which was concretely monotheistic.  And in a monotheistic Jewish world, there are no “half-way” gods.

How, then, does Ehrman avoid this obvious problem for his thesis?  Richard Bauckham in his book Jesus and the God of Israel (Eerdmans, 2008), though not responding directly to Ehrman, describes Ehrman’s kind of approach precisely:

Much of the clear evidence for the ways in which Second Temple Judaism understood the uniqueness of God has been neglected in favour of a small amount of highly debatable evidence. Intermediary figures who may or may not participate in divinity are by no means characteristic of the literature of Second Temple Judaism (5). . . Methodologically, it is imperative to proceed from the clear consensus of Second Temple monotheism to the more ambiguous evidence about so-called intermediary figures. (13).

Ehrman commits the very fallacy that Bauckham describes—he highlights the limited number of ambiguous or debatable passages about supposed semi-divine figures and uses those instances to override the larger and more established monotheistic trends in first-century Judaism. The problem, of course, is that even if his interpretation of these passages is correct (and that is questionable), these passages at best represent only the minority report. And why should we think the earliest Christians held this fringe/minority view of divinity when they formulated their ideas about the identity of Jesus? Or for that matter, why should we think Jesus himself held these minority views when he expressed his own identity?

Each of Ehrman’s examples of supposed semi-divine figures cannot be addressed here, but he bases his argument primarily on angels, particularly the mysterious “angel of the Lord” phenomenon in the OT. However, the idea that early Christians saw Jesus in the category of an angel runs contrary to numerous other lines of evidence. For one, Jesus is clearly distinguished from the angels (Mark 1:13; Matt 4:11), given Lordship over the angels (Matt 4:6, 26:53; Luke 4:10; Mark 13:27), and exalted in a place above the angels (Heb 1:5, 13).  In addition, Jesus is accorded both worship (Matt 28:17; Luke 24:52) and the role of creator (1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:16; Phil 2:10-11)—two key marks of God’s unique divine identity within Judaism—whereas angels are never portrayed as creating the world, nor as worthy of worship (Col 2:18; Rev 19:10, 22:9).

Ehrman attempts to overcome these clear restrictions on angel worship by flipping them around to his advantage: “We know that some Jews thought that it was right to worship angels in no small part because a number of our surviving texts insist that it not be done. You don’t get laws prohibiting activities that are never performed” (54-55, emphasis his).

Yes, you don’t get laws prohibiting activities that are never performed; but at the same time you can’t use laws prohibiting activities as evidence that those activities actually represent a religion’s views! It would be like using the Ten Commandments (which are filled with prohibitions) to argue that ancient Judaism was a religion that embraced idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, adultery, murder, coveting, and so on.

Again, Ehrman is using what is, at best, a condemned and fringe activity (angel worship) as characteristic of first-century Judaism.That simply doesn’t work as a model for how early (Jewish) Christians would have viewed Jesus.

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