Leading Atheist Scholar Bart Ehrman Affirms The Gospels Present A Divine Jesus


By James Bishop| This story isn’t exactly contemporary news given that Ehrman penned his piece nearly four years ago. However, having enjoyed and engaged some of Ehrman’s thoughts presented in his works before, I decided to bring to light the points he makes in this piece.

I think a good first step would be to acknowledge Professor Ehrman’s beliefs, especially for readers who are largely unfamiliar with him. Ehrman, a New Testament/early Christianity historian and distinguished professor of Religious Studies, is an agnostic with atheist leanings. He openly states in a number of his books that he does not believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that Jesus was in no way or form God incarnate.

Ehrman is thus arguably one of the leading informed critics of Christianity within the professional academy. He is also skeptical, much in the same way to David Hume, about miracles and whether or not we can even know if a miracle occurred in ancient history. So, it is quite apparent that with Ehrman we aren’t dealing with an ally to Christianity, or an individual who is open to agreeing with orthodox Christian views, in the sense that all four gospels present a divine Jesus.

This backstory gives, in my view, some value to Ehrman’s blog article because it has been Christians who have always viewed the gospel accounts as presenting Jesus who is divine and God incarnate. Many skeptics, however, would disagree, and argue that the synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) do not present Jesus in this way. They will often argue that only John’s gospel portrays Jesus in such a way, and that we should expect it because John’s gospel is the latest, and due to it being latest it shouldn’t be a surprise to discover an increasing layer of embellishment.

This, they will argue, is because John’s author embellished the core facts of the historical Jesus in such a way as to mould him into a divine figure. But Ehrman disagrees. He admits that Jesus’ divinity is presented throughout all four the gospel accounts including the synoptics, a view he did not initially hold.

According to Ehrman,

Until a year ago I would have said – and frequently did say, in the classroom, in public lectures, and in my writings – that Jesus is portrayed as God in the Gospel of John but not, definitely not, in the other Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I would point out that only in John did Jesus say such things as “Before Abraham, I am” (8:58; taking upon himself the name of God, as given to Moses in Exodus 3); his Jewish opponents knew full well what he was saying: they take up stones to stone him.

Later he says “I and the Father are one” (10:30). Again, the Jews break out the stones.  Later he tells his disciples, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”  (14:9). And in a later prayer to God he asks him to “glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world was created” (17:5). None of these sayings, or anything like them, can be found in the other canonical Gospels. Jesus is clearly portrayed as a divine being in John, but only in John (I would have argued).

However, Ehrman’s “big” change of mind occurred while he was doing the research for his book How Jesus Became God. Traditionally Christians, and Christian apologists, would have attributed things like Jesus’ act of forgiving sins, his ability to do miracles, and accepting those bowing down to him in worship as clear points as suggesting he was more than a mortal man, and thus God himself.

After all, who other than God has permission to forgive sins? However, Ehrman argues these alone are not convincing proof for that proposition, and “are completely compatible with human, not just divine, authority… none of these things, in and of itself, indicates clearly that Jesus is divine.” (visit Ehrman’s article for his own justification of these views). Yet, taken together, pens Ehrman, “One could argue that the three things taken together as a group makes a stronger case for Jesus’ divinity: Jesus has the role of prophet, priest, and king – not just one thing or the other. And together these things suggest he is something more than human.

Ultimately, however, there were two main things that changed Ehrman’s mind, “in doing my research and thinking harder and harder about the issue, when I (a) came to realize that the Gospels not only attributed these things to him, but also understood him to be adopted as the Son of God at his baptism (Mark 1:9-11), or to have been made the son of God by virtue of the fact that God was literally his father, in that it was the Spirit of God that made the virgin Mary pregnant (Luke 1:35), and (b) realized what “adoption” meant to people in the Roman world (as indicated in a previous post), I finally yielded. 

These Gospels do indeed think of Jesus as divine. Being made the very Son of God who can heal, cast out demons, raise the dead, pronounce divine forgiveness, receive worship together suggests that even for these Gospels Jesus was a divine being, not merely a human… But in a different sense from John.

Ehrman says that each of the gospel accounts represent the divinity of Jesus in different ways.  So, should one ask the question as to in what sense is Jesus God? the gospels will differ in answer, “John’s sense is different from Mark’s and Mark’s is different from Luke’s and Luke’s is different from Paul’s and so on. For Mark, Jesus was adopted to be God’s son at his baptism. Before that, he was a mere mortal. For Luke, Jesus was conceived by God and so was literally God’s son, from the point of his conception.  (In Luke Jesus did not exist *prior* to that conception to the virgin – his conception is when he came into existence).

For John, Jesus was a pre-existent divine being – the Word of God who was both with God and was God at the beginning of all things – who became a human. Here he is not born of a virgin and he is not adopted by God at the baptism (neither event is narrated in John – and could not be, given, John’s Christology).

Thus, Ehrman’s conclusion,

So yes, now I agree that Jesus is portrayed as a divine being, a God-man, in all the Gospels.  But in very different ways, depending on which Gospel you read.

This article was originally featured on the website of James Bishop and was republished with permission.
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