'How Jesus Became God'

Apr. 19, 2014 @ 11:30 AM

What, actually, can we know about the resurrection?
At sunrise services and church sanctuaries today in Chapel Hill and all over the world, Christian worshippers are giving their answers to this question.
In the introduction to his new book, “How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee,” Bart Ehrman asks the same question.
But the UNC-Chapel Hill religion professor and historian’s answer is quite different from those given by churchgoers this Easter Sunday.
Ehrman, a former conservative evangelical Christian, says that he is no longer a believer. However, as a historian, he is convinced that Jesus lived, preached a compelling message of a coming kingdom of God, was crucified by the Roman occupiers, and later many of his followers believed that they had seen him and experienced his presence.
Until recently, Ehrman also believed that Jesus “was given a decent burial by Joseph of Arimathea and that on the third day some of his female followers found his tomb empty.”
Recent research convinced Ehrman that part of the crucifixion experience as practiced by the Romans was to leave the body on the cross to rot and be eaten by scavengers and thus to deny the victim a burial. There is no reason, Ehrman says, to think the Roman rulers would make an exception for Jesus.
The burial and empty tomb are important parts of the Easter story and a key to Ehrman’s story of how Jesus became God.
But Ehrman’s question and answer are more complicated. He explains it this way: “Jesus was a lower-class Jewish preacher from the backwaters of rural Galilee who was condemned for illegal activities and crucified for crimes against the state. Yet not long after his death, his followers were claiming that he was a divine being. Eventually they went even further, declaring that he was none other than God, Lord of heaven and earth. And so the question: How did a crucified peasant come to be thought of as the Lord who created all things? How did Jesus become God?”
But since Ehrman does not believe that Jesus is God, his question is really, how did Jesus’ followers come to believe that Jesus is God?
For historical background he reviews how some ancient peoples believed that humans had become gods. For instance, Romulus, the legendary human founder of Rome, was taken up by the gods and made one of them. Roman emperors and kings of Israel were adopted by a god and were made divine as sons of god.
Greek and Roman myths had gods coming down and mating with humans. The result was a human child with divine powers, the child of a god. Some ancients believed that some gods had taken on the appearance of humans. Though they became human, they also remained divine.
Similarly, according to Ehrman, after Jesus’ crucifixion and reappearance, some of his followers believed that God had taken Jesus to heaven and made him divine. Some believed Jesus was adopted by God and made divine at his baptism. Others thought he became divine at his miraculous birth. Later, many came to believe that Jesus existed as a part of the divinity from the beginning.
Ehrman’s analysis of how Jesus came to be seen as God is interesting and instructive for believers and non-believers alike.
Especially on Easter though, most Christians will not quibble about such things. Instead, they will be giving thanks for their faith in a resurrected Jesus and the transformative power of their belief.

D.G. Martin’s regular weekly column appears on The Herald-Sun’s editorial page on Wednesdays and online at http://www.heraldsun.com/opinion/opinioncolumnists/martin. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. Viewers with access to UNC-TV’s digital channel UNC-MX can preview the program on the preceding Friday at 9 p.m. For information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.