Bart Ehrman thinks that Jesus became God—not in reality, of course, but in the minds of the early Christians. Against Ehrman, Simon Gathercole argues in How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—-A Response to Bart D. Ehrman , much as Michael Bird did earlier, that the Synoptic Gospels “see Jesus as having pre-existed and as divine in the strong sense of that word” (116). Again, I think the chapter demonstrates that evangelicals are on very weak ground here and should really just come to terms with the christological limitations of the prophetic-political narrative in the New Testament. The affirmation that Jesus is “Son” belongs to a specific, circumscribed argument about kingdom. It has nothing to do with divinity or pre-existence. So with all due respect for Gathercole’s good intentions, let me explain why I think he is barking up the wrong tree.
I have come…
Gathercole highlights a handful of passages where Jesus speaks of his mission in terms of having come to do something: “I came (ēlthon) to cast fire on the land…”, etc. The implication is that he must have come from somewhere. Jesus does not mean that he has come to a particular place—to Capernaum from Nazareth, for example. The closest parallels in the Old Testament and Jewish writings appear to be “statements that angels make about their earthly missions”:
And he came and spoke with me and said, “Daniel, I have just come out (exēlthon) to show you intelligence. At the beginning of your supplication an ordinance went out from the Lord, and I have come (ēlthon) to explain to you, for you are shown mercy. (Dan. 9:22–23 NETS)
No prophet or messiah “sums up his life’s work this way”, so it appears that Jesus is presented as having come from heaven to accomplish his mission (97-98).
The parallels are interesting and may have some bearing on how we read the Synoptic “I came” sayings. But what is missing in the Gospels is the supernatural or visionary narrative frame that makes it clear that the angels come from heaven. Nothing else in the Synoptic points unequivocally to pre-existence, and in the absence of that explanatory context I’m not sure that the simple “I came” statement can carry such great theological weight.
An incidental problem for Gathercole is that the argument rather plays into the hands of Ehrman, who suggests (as Michael Bird puts it) that “a much better analogy for Jesus’ divinity is in the stories of chief angels who visited earth and humans who later became angels” (23). So Gathercole has emphatically to deny that “Jesus is viewed as an angel in the Gospels”. I agree, but I think that there is a better way of understanding the “I came” sayings.
A first point to note is that the sayings mostly have an antithetical structure by which Jesus corrects a possible misunderstanding of his mission. They are not mere statements of his life’s work, as Gathercole suggests. They address controversies. They have marked rhetorical force.
- Scribes from among the Pharisees don’t understand why he eats with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk. 2:17; Matt. 9:13; Lk. 5:32; cf. Lk. 19:10).
- He came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfil them (Matt. 5:17).
- He came not to bring peace to the land (en tēi gēi) but to cast fire upon it (epi tēn gēn), to provoke divisions between father and son, mother and daughter, and so on (Lk. 12:49-53). (I think it is clear, particularly given the allusion to Micah 7:6, that as with the saying “the meek shall inherit the land”, Jesus has in mind the land of Israel, not the whole earth. He has in view the war against Rome.)
- The disciples should not make the mistake of lording it over each other, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45; cf. Matt. 20:28).
Arguably, then, the “I came” sayings are to be correlated with Jesus’ explicit account of his mission in Luke 4:43: “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” He was sent, therefore he came. This brings the sayings firmly into the sphere of controversies surrounding the sending of a prophet to Israel. On the one hand, Isaiah says that the Lord “has sent me to bring good news to the poor” (Is. 61:1). On the other, Jeremiah speaks of the false prophets whom God did not send to Israel (Jer. 14:14-15). It seems to me much more likely that the “I came” sayings refer to this prophetic pattern than to pre-existence. Jesus came because he was sent, but his coming was highly controversial and many did not believe that he had “come from” God.
This is my Son…
Gathercole disputes Ehrman’s view that, according to Mark at least, Jesus became Son of God at his baptism (98-99): “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mk. 1:11). According to Ehrman: “This voice does not appear to be stating a preexisting fact. it appears to be making a declaration. It is at this time that Jesus becomes the Son of God for Mark’s Gospel.” Gathercole observes in response that something very like this is said at the transfiguration: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mk. 9:1). “Presumably,” he comments, “God is not adopting Jesus again.” Presumably not.
But it seems to me that Ehrman and Gathercole both miss the point of the heavenly declaration. This is not a divine sonship that is announced. It is the affirmation that Jesus is the obedient servant, ideal Israel, “my chosen, in whom my soul delights”, upon whom God puts his Spirit (Is. 42:1). It is an affirmation of his messianic status, not of divinity in any sense.
This should not be confused (as I suspect it is by Ehrman) with the later appointment or designation (not adoption—Ehrman is wrong here) of Jesus as Lord and Christ, judge and ruler of the nations, on the strength of the resurrection and according to Psalms 2 and 110. For example:
For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:34–36)
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9–11)
After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”? (Heb. 1:3–5)
At his baptism Jesus is confirmed as God’s obedient Son or servant, the embodiment of faithful Israel. At his resurrection Jesus is given the authority to rule the nations on YHWH’s behalf, at his right hand, because he was obedient even to death on a cross. Neither of these narrative entails pre-existence. Neither can be interpreted as an affirmation of divine identity.
The authority to forgive sins, etc.
Gathercole goes on to argue that there a number of other places in the Synoptic Gospels where it appears that Jesus “has the privileges of YHWH, God himself”:
Strikingly, Jesus says and does things that not only overlap with what God in the Old Testament says and does. Jesus says and does things that are privileges uniquely of the God of Israel. When Jesus speaks and acts this way, responses—unsurprisingly—include worship on the one hand and accusations of blasphemy on the other.
I have argued elsewhere that Jesus forgave sins because he believed that he had been been given the authority to do so, not because he understood himself to be God. Gathercole is right to say that this was something that “no angel, prophet, or even nondivine Messiah, or any other figure, had the authority to do” (99). But the only explanation for this supremely presumptuous act supplied by the passage is that the Son of Man has been given authority on earth to forgive sins. The people naturally marvel at this, but they do not draw the conclusion that Jesus is God (Mk. 2:1-12; Matt. 9:1-8).
The same would hold for other exceptional actions. Gathercole quotes Matthew 11:27, arguing that Jesus “has the power of electing people to be saved”—as though he were actually God himself: “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him”. But he conveniently omits the preceding statement: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father….” Jesus has the power to elect because he has been given the power to elect—a power that was the unique privilege of YHWH alone but which has exceptionally been given to his obedient Son or servant.
In connection with this theme Gathercole then cites Craig Evans’ comment on Mark 13:27 that it is an extraordinary thing “that Jesus refers to angels belonging to him as well”. But this is what Evans actually says (emphasis added):
The assertion that the “son of man” will send his angels is astounding and only underscores the heavenly authority that has been invested in this individual (cf. Dan 7:14: “And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him”), for throughout the OT it is God who commands and directs the angels of heaven.1
Evans’ does not infer from the fact that the Son of Man sends out angels that Jesus is divine. He takes it as evidence, rather, that the authority of God has been invested in the Son of Man—the figure who represents the persecuted saints of the Most High and who was given dominion and glory and kingdom by God.
The appointment of twelve disciples is a symbolic and prophetic action and not a claim to be, in some literal sense, “occupying the position of God in the Old Testament”. So too the sea miracles. The argument that Jesus belonged “in the divine triad Father-Son-Spirit” (e.g., Matt. 28:19) is mere presumption. There is no “divine triad” here, only the instruction to baptize new disciples “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. On the evidence of Matthew’s Gospel this can only mean “in the name of the Son to whom authority has been given”.
Finally, Gathercole maintains that when the disciples offer proskynēsis to Jesus at the end of Luke’s Gospel (Lk. 24:52), “it is clearly worship due uniquely to God that is in view” (101). In fact, the passage rather differentiates between the worship of Jesus and the blessing of God. But in any case, this is after the ascension into heaven. It says nothing about how Jesus was viewed during his earthly life. Nor does it really get us beyond Ehrman’s argument that Jesus acquired divine status after death, much as a Roman emperor did.
So I don’t think that Gathercole has made a convincing case—not on the strength of the arguments put forward in this chapter—for his claim that pre-existence and divine identity are attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. The texts he cites demonstrate only that Jesus was sent by God, that he had been given the power and authority of God, that he performed prophetic actions, and that at his exaltation he was given the authority to judge and rule over the nations. Gathercole mentions passages in John, Paul and Hebrews in which “we find almost formulaic statements that through Jesus all things were created” (101). But as I’ve said before, that is another story.
- 1. Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20 (Word books, 1989), 329.
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