I finally got around to begin reading Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God and so far, it’s okay. Ehrman draws comparisons of Jesus to other god-man figures around the same time period of Jesus and essentially, as far as I can tell, makes the assertion (among other related assertions) that Jesus never believed himself to be God incarnate. And as ridiculous as this may sound, that actually doesn’t bother me.
Saying that Jesus didn’t believe himself to be God isn’t the same as saying he wasn’t actually God – that is, simply because Jesus may not have believed himself to be God doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t. Jesus’ divinity need not have relied upon his self-awareness as God. John’s gospel would stand out as a little odd if Jesus didn’t actually believe himself to be God, but even so, he still could be God without believing it.
There are quite a few passages in the New Testament that instantly become more interesting with this understanding of Jesus’ self-understanding. When Jesus references the “Son of Man” or the “Human One” (as the CEB has it), who is Jesus talking about if he isn’t talking about himself?
One passage that comes to mind is Mark 8:27-33:
Jesus and his disciples went into the villages near Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’
They told him, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.’
He asked them, ‘And what about you? Who do you say that I am?’
Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ.’ Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: ‘The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.’ He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: ‘Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.’
As I said, there are many others, but most of them seem related to this one: predictions of the “Son of Man’s” torture, death, and resurrection. Now I know that Peter calls Jesus “the Christ” and then Jesus goes into a mini-lecture about the “Human One” or “Son of Man,” but to my understanding these were hardly indistinguishable terms. To reference one is to reference the other. If this is the case and Jesus did not believe himself to be the “Human One,” then perhaps we are seeing a bit of Jesus’ humanity – much more than we anticipated or even wanted.
If you hadn’t guessed it by now, Ehrman’s book is one about Christology (the study of Christ). Under such a study is the question of the divinity of Jesus: Whether he was God incarnate or an ordinary man who was later deified (as is Ehrman’s contention in How Jesus Became God). And after reading the hundred-some pages of Ehrman’s book, I am beginning to wonder if it isn’t a mixture of the two; that perhaps Jesus believed himself to be an ordinary man, yet was God incarnate, dwelling “among us.”
In passages like the one above, we find what we thought was a confident God-man testing his disciples about their faith. Yet if Jesus is the ordinary God-man, then might this be a scene of Jesus discovering who he actually is? When he’s asking what others think of him and then what the disciples think of him, perhaps he’s seriously wondering if he might be the Christ? And with his teaching about what the Son of God/Human One must suffer immediately following his discussion with the disciples, might this be Jesus fully realizing his fate? “He said this plainly,” half terrified and yet half mesmerized as to what was unfolding.
Although mostly to keep up with what’s popular, I am eager to read the rest of Ehrman’s book as well as the response, How God Became Jesus, from Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, and Chris Tilling – an endeavor I wanted to take up months ago. But for now, I would love to hear what others think about the idea of Jesus not knowing he was God: Do you think it’s plausible or ridiculous? What does it mean for our faith in Christ if this were true – what changes and what stays the same?