Building a Mystery

Polish Cross
Source: Berto Iks

How did Jesus, an itinerant preacher with a few followers in a Roman backwater, become God? As Bart Ehrman in How Jesus Became God posits, there are two answers to this question. One is the spiritual, and the other is the history of the spiritual. Ehrman, a former Christian fundamentalist, is very upfront about his agnosticism but makes the point that he is not making a judgment about the veracity of Jesus' divinity, just presenting a history of early Christology (beliefs about Jesus) and the church. He holds that knowledge of the resurrection is of a different kind than that of historicity, which is based on verifiable (one might say scientific) evidence. That explanation out of the way, Ehrman goes on to put the Old Testament and gospels in their historical and theological contexts. After describing to the best of his ability both what we can and cannot know about several different issues, Ehrman describes the evolution of Christology from the death of Jesus until the Council of Nicea in the 4th century.

I find Dr. Ehrman's approach very evenhanded. He isn't out to rain on anyone's parade, whether that of Pope Francis or Richard Dawkins. One learns how what Christians believe came to be in its earliest forms, not what to believe. Copiously footnoted, he presents mainstream scholarship on Christology and the early church to a lay audience. Anything more than basic theology generally makes my brain hurt, but even I was generally able to follow along as the beliefs about Jesus became ever more sophisticated. Anyone interested in why Christians believe what they do and how that happened will be interested in this book. Fortunately, patrons should find this a readable primer on a complex subject.

If you like this book, Ehrman has written plenty more. Did Jesus Exist? is an argument for Jesus as an historical personage once again based on voluminous research. For more information on why the gospels read the way they do, look to Misquoting Jesus.  Of course, if you find problems with Ehrman's scholarship or arguments in the book I just reviewed, there is a rebuttal from the Christians: How God Became Jesus by Michael F. Bird, et al.