Monday, February 8, 2016


If you want to do something interesting, set the Lord's Prayer beside the Nicene Creed. Why are they so different?

Bart D. Ehrman's How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee helps explain the difference.

Even so-called non-creedal Christian denominations like the Southern Baptists and many congregations in the Disciples of Christ adhere to the basic principles of the Nicene Creed.

By way of introduction--The earliest-written book in the New Testament was First Thessalonians. Paul wrote First Thessalonians (and several other letters) before the Gospel writers wrote the Gospels.

First Thessalonians deals with the resurrection at Christ’s Second Coming, whether the dead in Christ will rise first. In other words, the church was formulating resurrection doctrine before it was writing down the words of Jesus.

Some scholars believe it is hard to know the actual words of Jesus. Even in the Gospels Jesus' words are cloaked in the doctrines of the church.

So what does Bart D. Ehrman say about how Jesus became God?

He says it depends on what Biblical source you read. Most of the early Christian hymns and creeds (quoted by Paul and Luke) say Jesus was a man that God exalted at the resurrection.

Paul see things differently. In Philippians, Paul quotes a traditional poem that says Jesus was "with God" but "emptied himself taking the form of a slave." Because Jesus was obedient even to the cross, God elevated Jesus so that all would worship him. So, Paul saw Jesus as a lesser heavenly being who obediently chose to become human. God elevated Jesus at Jesus' crucifixion.

Mark says Jesus became God at his baptism. Matthew and Luke say he became God at his birth or conception. And, of course, for John, Jesus is the preexistent Word, the one who was God before time began.

Jesus came into a world where many humans and others were seen to be angels or gods. In one way or another, people called some emperors and Hebrew kings "god" or "son of god."

But the story does not end with the Biblical sources. The next two centuries saw what Ehrman calls hetero-orthodox (literally "other-orthodox") beliefs like adoptionism, docetism, and Gnosticism. These had to do with whether Jesus was human but not divine, human but adopted by God during his life or at his resurrection, divine but not human, or some variation/combination of human and divine.

Then the church became fascinated with how God and Jesus could both be God without there being two Gods. Along the way, they added the Holy Spirit into the discussion. 

And that leads to the Ehrman's discussion of various individuals (and the movements they represented), people like Tertullian, Origen of Alexandria, Novartian, Hippolytus, Arius, Alexander of Alexandria, Athanasius, Constantine, and others.

The Christian convert Roman Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicea (?20 May to 19 Jun, AD 325) to settle divisive issues and bring a unified Christian faith to the Roman empire. 

After the Nicene Creed people still squabbled about all this, but the Nicene Creed (with its later refinements) became the defining criteria for Roman Christianity from that time forward.

So why are the Lord's Prayer and the Nicene Creed so different? Because by the time of the Nicene Creed, Jesus had gone from being a human apocalyptic prophet to God, the second part of the trinity whose authority is established in a creed which devotes most of its space to Jesus.

Needless to say, some would contest Ehrman's way of setting out the history. (Is there anything in religion people don’t contest?) But I found Ehrman's book informative.

Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


Mathew Paust said...

Fascinating. I haven't checked Amazon yet, but I will anon in hope of finding this book. Thanks for reviewing it!

Mathew Paust said...

Just downloaded it on Kindle. You may be aware also of a rebuttal, also on Kindle:

Joe Barone said...

Matthew, I am aware of the second book and hope to read it too.