Skeptic Bart Ehrman Concedes that the Synoptic Gospels Present a Divine Jesus

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This isn’t contemporary news because Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar and professor of Religious Studies, authored his article nearly four years ago. 

But for anyone who has enjoyed and/or engaged Ehrman’s thoughts, this is worth reading. In particular, it is worth engaging for Christians. Ehrman has been arguably the leading intellectual proponent against Christianity and has debated many apologists on the subjects of the resurrection of Jesus, the reliability of the New Testament, and more. One could argue that if something sounds like Christian orthodoxy and Ehrman affirms it, it is probably true. Ehrman has no investment in agreeing with Christian orthodoxy; quite the opposite in fact.

We need to acknowledge Ehrman’s beliefs, especially for readers who are largely unfamiliar with him. Ehrman is an agnostic with atheist leanings. He openly states in a number of his books that he does not believe that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and that Jesus was in any way or form God incarnate. He is also skeptical, much in the same way as David Hume was, about miracles and whether or not we can even know if a miracle occurred in ancient history. With Ehrman, one isn’t dealing with an ally to Christianity or an individual who is open to agreeing with orthodox Christian views.

This backstory gives some value to this particular article we linked above. Why? Because it has been Christians who have maintained that the gospel accounts present Jesus as a divine figure and as God incarnate. Many skeptics, however, would disagree, and argue that the synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), our earliest gospels, do not present Jesus in this way. They will often argue that only John’s gospel, our latest one written, portrays Jesus in such a way (as a divine figure) and that we would expect this (it’s our latest and most developed gospel, after all). Because John is the latest, it unsurprisingly that it evidences embellishment. This has been the traditional view of critics of the gospels. 

But Ehrman now disagrees. He admits that Jesus’ divinity is presented throughout all four the gospel, including John. This is a view he did not initially hold,

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).

Ehrman’s “big” change of mind occurred while he was doing research for his book How Jesus Became God. Traditionally Christians, and Christian apologists, would have attributed things like Jesus’ act of forgiving sins, ability to perform miracles, and accepting those who worshiped him as pointers to him being more than a mortal man, and God himself. After all, who other than God has permission to forgive sins? 

But Ehrman argues these details alone are not convincing proof for Jesus being God: “[These] are completely compatible with human, not just divine, authority… none of these things, in and of itself, indicates clearly that Jesus is divine.” (readers can access Ehrman’s article linked above to consult his justification for these views). But when all of the details are taken together,

One could argue that the three things taken together as a group make 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.

It appears that two main things changed Ehrman’s mind,

[I]n 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 explains that each of the gospel accounts represents the divinity of Jesus in different ways. If one asks the question as to in what sense is Jesus God, the gospels will differ in their answers,

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).

Ehrman’s concludes,

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.

 

 

 

6 comments

  1. Good read, thanks for bringing this up 🙂

    Nit picking though: I think you should change
    “does not believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, *and* that”
    to
    “does not believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, *or* that”.
    The former was jarring for reasons I can’t quite get my head around 🙂

  2. Hi! I have a question related to this. Ehrman’s conclusion is this “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.” But the article is from 2014. So the question is “Do Bart Ehrman still hold this view(as we have read in this article)? or it has changed?

    • Hi. As far as I know I don’t think he’s retracted his views. In fact, he says he reasoned to it from the prior view that only John included a divine Jesus, so it is not likely he would have reverted to that view.

  3. Thank you for emphasizing this revelation from Ehrman. I think he is very confused on what he believes, even to himself. He states that Christ was not allowed a burial and likely remained on the cross to decay and then cast into a common tomb. I still do not see how this is a stumbling block to Christinans as the body could have been produced with ease, even in a decayed state. He needs to defend his position rather than just postulate possibilities. I was shocked when I came across his inconspicuous blog post where he admitted the synoptic gospels also regarded Jesus as divinity.

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