An Evangelical Response to Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet, Part 3

  1. Great swaths of agreement
  2. Disagreement #1: Are the gospels generally historically reliable?
  3. Disagreement #2: Did Jesus claim to be divine?
  4. Disagreement #3: Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet?
  5. Disagreement #4: Is the Bible inerrant?

Disagreement #2: Jesus’ claims about his identity

The second major difference between Ehrman’s view and that of evangelicals has to do with Jesus’ claims about his own identity. Before examining the conflict, let me provide an overview of Ehrman’s methodology, which is common among NT scholars. In the first section, I argued that there is quite a bit of external evidence which supports the historical reliability of the gospel narratives. If we do have reason to think that the gospels are generally historically trustworthy, then we would understandably be more hesitant to discard any particular saying in the gospels as unhistorical. But what if we were to conclude, with Ehrman, that the gospels are not generally historically reliable and include much that can be attributed to the later fabrication of theologically-motivated Christian communities? In that case, we would need stringent criteria to distinguish true, historical events and sayings that originated with the historical Jesus from later creations. Ehrman lists some of these criteria in Chapter 6 (p. 85-101).

First is the criteria of early attestation. In Ehrman’s words, “[t]he rule of thumb, particularly in the ancient world, is that earlier is better…Following this principle, our best source of all would be Paul… and then Q (i.e. the common source shared by Matthew and Luke for stories not found in Mark) and Mark, followed by [Matthew] and [Luke]” (p. 88) with John’s gospel being the latest. Second, is the lack of theological development. Again, to quote Ehrman, “accounts of Jesus that are clearly imbued with a highly development theology are less likely to be historically accurate” (p. 88) Third is the presence of bias: “whenever you can isolate an author’s bias, you can take them into account… statements supporting his bias should then be taken with a pound of salt (not necessarily discarded, but scrutinized carefully)” (p. 89). Ehrman mentions three other specific criteria: the existence of multiple independent attestation: “[a]n event mentioned in several independent documents is more likely to be historical than an event mentioned in only one,” (p. 90), the criterion of contextual credibility: “[a]ny saying or deed of Jesus that does not ‘make sense’ in this context [of first-century Palestine] is automatically suspect” (p. 94), and the criterion of dissimilarity. Let me take a moment to focus on this last criterion of dissimilarity, which Ehrman recognizes is the ‘most controversial’ of the criteria and one that historians ‘often misuse’ (p. 91).

The criterion of dissimilarity states that a saying or deed of Jesus is less likely to be historical if it supports ‘the sorts of things that early Christians were saying about Jesus’ and is more likely to be historical if it ‘does not obviously support a Christian cause, or even goes against it’ (p.92). Ehrman hastens to add that this criterion has some significant limitations: “Just because a saying or deed of Jesus happens to conform to what Christians were saying about him does not mean that it cannot be accurate. [Thus], the criterion of dissimilarity is best used not in the negative way of establishing what Jesus did not say and do, but in the positive way of showing what he likely did” (p. 92). In other words, Ehrman is saying that it is unwise to throw out saying based on the criterion of dissimilarity simply because it affirms something that the early Christians believed. This last affirmation will be a very important point in the following section, where I’ll examine one particular set of statements found in the gospels.

One of the key questions that emerges when we study the life of Jesus is that nature of his own claims about his identity. For 2000 years, Christians have worshiped Jesus as God incarnate, the unique Lord and Savior of all humanity. But was this the self-understanding of the historical Jesus? In other words, did the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth actually claim to be divine, or were these statements written back onto his lips by his followers? To answer this question, I want to adopt Ehrman’s own methodology. Consequently, I will grant for the sake of argument that we can dismiss the gospel of John almost in its entirety (a position which -as an evangelical- I obviously think is false!) and that we will filter the statements made by Jesus in the synoptic gospels through the criteria of historicity. Even with these restrictions and even if we limit our argument to just one subset of Jesus’ sayings, I think we can make the case that Jesus did actually claim to be divine. To do so, I’ll focus on the ‘Son of Man’ sayings which are found in all four gospels and ask what relevance they have to the self-awareness of the historical Jesus.

Both Ehrman and evangelicals agree that the historical Jesus did teach about the ‘Son of Man.’ This phrase was taken from the Old Testament book of Daniel, where the ‘Son of Man’ is a human-like figure who comes with the ‘clouds of heaven’, is given given ‘dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan. 7:13-14). In Ehrman’s estimation, this was the background for Jesus’ understanding and use of this phrase: “[Jesus made] predictions of a Kingdom of God that is soon to appear, in which God will rule…the forces of evil will be overthrown … and only those who repent and follow Jesus’ teachings will be allow to enter. Judgment on all others will be brought by the Son of Man, a cosmic figure who may arrive from heaven at any time” (p. 128). And later: “When Jesus refers to the Son of Man, he appears to be alluding to this vision in Daniel 7. Like other apocalypticists from his time that we know about, Jesus maintained that there will be an actual cosmic judge sent from God.. Jesus appears to have shared this basic apocalyptic vision and called the coming judge ‘the Son of Man'” (p. 147-148). However, Ehrman believes that the historical Jesus did not claim to be this divine ‘Son of Man’. For example, on p. 145, he writes: “when [Jesus] did use the phrase [Son of Man] to refer to a cosmic judge of the earth…he seems to be referring to someone other than himself [emph added]” (p. 146)

Given the meaning that both Ehrman and Christians ascribe to this phrase, it is very important to determine whether Jesus used it in this sense to refer to himself. If Jesus saw himself as the unique, cosmic judge of humanity who would one day come from heaven to destroy all evil and usher in God’s Kingdom, we immediately run into C.S. Lewis’ famous Trilemma: a man who made these kinds of claims for himself could not be a ‘good moral teacher’; he would be either a Lunatic, a Liar, or the Lord of all humanity. So did Jesus claim to be the divine Son of Man?

As a preliminary observation, we need to notice that the gospels are saturated with ‘Son of Man’ claims. The term was, by far, Jesus’ favorite self-designation; it appears on Jesus’ lips well over 60 times in the three Synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Because of this attestation, Ehrman agrees that Jesus used the phrase ‘Son of Man’. What he denies is that Jesus ever referred to himself as the divine ‘Son of Man’ figure in Daniel 7, the future, cosmic judge of humanity. In other words, Ehrman would maintain that when Jesus used the phrase ‘Son of Man’ to refer to himself, he was using it in a colloquial Aramaic fashion to mean something like “that man” rather than to make a claim to divinity. Let me then make several arguments for the historicity of Jesus’ divine ‘Son of Man’ claims. Not only do I think that Jesus claimed to be the divine ‘Son of Man’, I think that we can show he did so using Ehrman’s own methodology (a summary of my arguments is shown at right).

First, if you read carefully, Ehrman provides no positive argument for the position that Jesus did not claim to be the Son of Man. EhrmanJesusDivineOn p. 135 he writes “when Jesus talks about himself as the Son of Man in the Gospels -as he frequently does- there’s no way to know, in view of [the criterion of dissimilarity], whether that’s the way he actually talked.” Because the criterion of dissimilarity should not be used to rule out things that Jesus did not say (see p. 92), Ehrman is, at best, arguing that we cannot establish the fact that Jesus called himself the divine Son of Man through the criterion of dissimilarity. In other words, Ehrman is saying “We can’t really know using this criterion” rather than “He didn’t say this.”

Second, it seems difficult to reconcile the ideas that Jesus regularly called himself the ‘Son of Man’ and yet also taught extensively about a different divine ‘Son of Man’ who would bring judgment on all humanity. Isn’t it a bit strange for Jesus to have selected exactly the same phrase as both his chosen self-designation and as the title he gave to the divine cosmic judge of all humanity about whom he regularly preached? Neither of these two points seems debatable. Jesus certainly referrred to himself as the ‘Son of Man’; the phrase turns up nine times in the Q-source and over a dozen additional times in Mark’s gospel, often as a clear self-designation. For example, Jesus says things like “the son of man has no where to lay his head” Luke 9:58 / Matt. 8:20 or “the son of man came eating and drinking and you say ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard'” Luke 7:34 / Matt. 11:19. Similarly, Jesus’ defining role -according to Ehrman- was that of an apocalyptic preacher who proclaimed coming judgment at the hands of a figure whom he called ‘the Son of Man’ (see, for example, p. 128-132 or p. 144-145). So why would Jesus choose the same title for both himself and for this divine, apocalyptic figure? To give a modern example, many movies like Star Wars or Harry Potter make reference to a prophesied ‘Chosen One.’ In our context today, wouldn’t it be odd for a person to teach extensively about ‘the Chosen One’ and to then refer to himself as ‘the Chosen One’? I think the best explanation of Jesus’ choice of the term ‘Son of Man’ as a self-designation is that he indeed saw himself as the divine ‘Son of Man’ from Daniel 7.

Third, in the earliest sources (Q and Mark), there are sayings which seem to identify Jesus as the Son of Man not just in some colloquial sense, but as a figure who has divine authority. For example, Jesus concludes his argument with the Pharisees over the proper interpretation of the Sabbath by saying that “the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). Similarly, in Mark 10:45, Jesus says that “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In both cases, the term ‘Son of Man’ cannot be dismissed a simple self-identifier, since the ‘Son of Man’ -Jesus himself- is being characterized as one who has surprising religious authority and who comes to lay down his life for his people. Or consider the Q saying “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.” Luke 6:22 / Matt. 5:11. It makes sense if Jesus’ disciples (see v. 20) are rejected on Jesus’ account, but it makes less sense if Jesus’ disciples are being rejected because of some future cosmic figure who has not yet arrived. Here is another statement from Q: “For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so shall the son of man be to this generation…The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Luke 11:32-34 c.f. Matt. 12:39-41). The parallelism in this passage suggests that the Son of Man is a ‘sign to this generation’ like Jonah because Jesus the Son of Man ‘is here’ and is ‘greater than Jonah.’ It makes less sense to say that the future Son of Man will one day be a sign to this generation like Jonah and, incidentally, that Jesus is also greater than Jonah. All of these examples lend support to the idea that Jesus’ use of the term ‘Son of Man’ was not just a colloquial expression but deliberately assumed as the title of a figure with some kind of divine authority.

Finally, even some of the sayings which Ehrman himself accepts as historical are best understood as Jesus identifying himself as the divine ‘Son of Man.’ For example, Jesus makes the following statement in Mark: “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark. 8:38). Ehrman believes that this saying is historical precisely because “there is no indication that [Jesus] is talking about himself” (p. 135). Another passage in which Ehrman argues that the ‘Son of Man’ is to be distinguished from Jesus himself is found in Matthew 25 which, in Ehrman’s estimation, “probably goes back to Jesus” because “there is nothing distinctively Christian about it.”

But notice in both of these passages that the Son of Man refers to God as ‘Father’. Contrary to Ehmran’s claim that neither of these passage suggests that Jesus is referring to himself, this language reflects an important theological distinctive in the way Jesus addressed God. New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias writes: “There is as yet no evidence in the literature of ancient Palestinian Judaism that ‘my Father’ is used as a personal address to God” (Prayers of Jesus, p. 29) and scholar J.G. Dunn concurs, saying: “There remains a somewhat surprisingly strong consensus that Jesus’ own spirituality was distinctive for its use of ‘abba’ [‘father’] in address to God” (Christ and the Spirit, 407-408). Ehrman himself appears to recognize that the earliest Christians believed “Jesus had addressed God as Father” (p. 233). Given that this language was unique to Jesus, it is extremely odd to find it on the lips of the divine Son of Man – unless Jesus saw himself as the divine Son of Man.

By far, the clearest example of the problems attending Ehrman’s interpretation is found in his treatment of Jesus’ kingship. Ehrman accepts as historical Jesus’ statement “when the Son of Man is seated upon his glorious throne, you [the Twelve Apostles] also will sit upon twelve thrones” (p. 186). Yet in the next chapter, Ehrman asks a very interesting question: “[Jesus] probably didn’t think that God himself would physically sit on the throne in Jerusalem. Who then would?” (p. 217) He gives the following answer: “Jesus thought that he himself would be enthroned” (p. 217, emph. added) and later: “Those who heeded [Jesus’] words would enter into [God’s] Kingdom. This would be God’s Kingdom, ruled by his chosen ones-the twelve disciples on twelve thrones. And Jesus himself would rule over them. He, in effect would be the king of God’s coming Kingdom” (p. 218, emph added). This admission is baffling to me. If Ehrman believes that Jesus really taught that the divine Son of Man would be seated on the throne of God’s coming kingdom and also really taught that that he himself would be seated on the throne of God’s coming kingdom, don’t we have to conclude that Jesus believed himself to be the divine Son of Man? Would there be two kings of God’s kingdom: Jesus and the Son of Man? Would both kings rule over the twelve apostles?

For these reasons, even if we accept Ehrman’s methodology and even if we focus only on the narrow issue of whether Jesus claimed to be the divine ‘Son of Man’, we have good reason to believe that Jesus claimed to be divine. Why, then, does Ehrman reach different conclusions? I think the reasoning underlying many of Ehrman’s judgments runs roughly as follows:

  • P1. If Jesus said X, then he would be claiming to be the divine Son of Man
  • P2. But Jesus did not claim to be the divine Son of Man
  • C. Therefore, Jesus did not really say X

In other words, Ehrman’s presupposition that Jesus did not actually claim to be the divine Son of Man appears to be driving which the selection of sayings that he deems historical.

To be absolutely clear, I am not at all faulting Ehrman for having presuppositions or even for allowing his presuppositions to influence his approach to history. We all have presuppositions and they almost unavoidably influence our approach to history. To give a personal example, I believe the Bible is inerrant and that assumption absolutely affects how I approach the Bible. However, I think it’s helpful for us to recognize presuppositions and recognize how they are influencing our reasoning. In this particular case, I don’t think that a more objective use of the criteria of historicity upon which Ehrman relies would support his thesis. Ehrman offers no positive argument for excluding all of Jesus’ divine ‘Son of Man’ sayings, we have independent attestation of divine ‘Son of Man’ statements in the earliest sources, and we have several statements accepted as historical by Ehrman which imply that Jesus saw himself as the divine Son of Man. For all these reasons, I think we can conclude that Jesus saw himself as the divine figure from Daniel 7 who would one day come to judge all humanity. And if he did make such exalted claims, then the force of Lewis’ Trilemma begins to be felt: Jesus was either a megalomaniacal cult leader or the true Lord of humanity. No wonder that people who admire Jesus’ moral values, compassion, and character are loathe to make such a choice!

(Many thanks to Dr. Justin Bass for his insight into this topic! His debate with Dr. Ehrman on Jesus’ claims to divinity can be found here.)

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