Greer Heard Preview pt. 5: Bart Ehrman

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In the weeks leading up to Greer Heard, we are posting Q&A’s we did with the speakers of this year’s Greer Heard forum. Our fifth piece is with Bart Ehrman. We want to provide these Q&A’s so that you are able to access the information presented at Greer Heard easier, as well as giving you a chance to see a piece of the person behind the ideas.

Steve: Bart, Where are you from?

Bart: My wife often asks me that. Short story, I first saw the light of day in Lawrence Kansas. My childhood was spent there and in Fremont Nebraska. After high school I attended Moody Bible Institute, where I majored in Bible-Theology. On graduation I went to finish my B.A. at Wheaton, majoring in English and taking Greek as my foreign language. For a Master’s degree I wanted to work on Greek manuscripts and so went to study with (the great) Bruce Metzger at Princeton Theological Seminary. I stayed, then, to do a PhD with him as his final doctoral student. I taught at Rutgers University in the mid 1980s and have been teaching, reading, and writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1988.

Steve: How did you arrive at this point in your life?

Bart: When I was a junior in high school I had a born again experience and asked Jesus to be my Lord and Savior. That’s what impelled me to go to Moody, to learn all I could about my faith and the Bible. I was totally committed to the Bible as the inerrant word of God and to a personal relationship with God through Christ. When I went to Princeton I started reading the Bible assiduously in the original Greek and Hebrew, and began to find to my surprise there were indeed problems with it: discrepancies, contradictions, historical errors, factual mistakes. I eventually left my evangelical Christianity and for about fifteen years was an active liberal Christian (among other things, Pastor of the Princeton Baptist Church for a year). Eventually, after moving to Chapel Hill in 1988, and after wrestling with the problem of suffering for years before that (the problem of how there can be so much sheer pain and wretched misery for so many innocent people in this world, if there is a God who answers prayer and intervenes on behalf of his people) I got to a point where I simply didn’t believe it any more. I became an agnostic, then, I suppose, eighteen or nineteen years ago. And I have to say, I feel more upbeat about life, cheerful, happy, and hopeful than I ever did before, with more to live for and less to fear. It has been a completely wonderful and unexpected transformation.

Steve: Who are the authors that have influenced you the most?

Bart: For my serious scholarship on the Greek manuscript tradition of the New Testament, one of my original fields of expertise, my mentor Bruce Metzger played an enormous role in my life. His books on the text and canon of the New Testament are absolutely fundamental. For my views of the historical Jesus, an academic interest of mine for over thirty years, I was, and continue to be, blown away by Albert Schweitzer’s amazing, insightful, and penetrating Quest of the Historical Jesus, the first book to popularize and make a compelling case for Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. For my views of early Christian history, another field of my graduate training and the focus of most of my research for the past twenty years, probably no one was more significant to me than Walter Bauer, whose book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity is probably the single most important book on the history of Christianity written in the 20th century. For my views of life, I owe an incredible debt to the great novelists of the nineteenth century, including, but not restricted to, Austen, the Bronte sisters, (especially) Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, Tolstoy, Doestoyevsky, and, well, others. OK, it’s anglo-heavy, but there it is. The nineteenth century has been my preferred reading for almost my entire adult life.

Steve: What are you going to assert at Greer Heard this year?

Bart: The big issue that I address in my book How Jesus Became God is how it is that a lower-class rural apocalyptic preacher of repentance from a remote and virtually unheard of backwaters of the first-century empire came, within months of his life to be considered a divine being worthy of worship, by the end of the century to be declared One with God Almighty, by the end of the second century to be God Almighty, and by the beginning of the fourth century to be a member of the Trinity, of the same substance as the Father and co-eternal with him. How did that happen exactly? I will be arguing that during his lifetime no one thought he was a divine being. What changed everything – both completely and radically – was the belief that God had raised him from the dead, a belief founded on claims by his disciples that he had appeared to them afterward. When they said that Jesus had been raised, they meant not only that his body had come back to life, but that he had been exalted to heaven. In the ancient world, anyone exalted to God’s throne was understood to have been made a divine being. From there thinking about Jesus grew and developed, so that soon Christians were saying that Jesus had not become divine, at his resurrection or some other point of his existence, but that he had been divine before appearing on earth. Over time they exalted him more and more, until theologians came to the point of confessing that he was “God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father, through whom all things were made.” This was not what the earliest followers of Jesus thought. But it became the standard view of the church. My book is about how that happened.

Steve: How will Michael Bird respond to your position?

Bart: If Michael is true to form he will respond most noticeably with some very bad jokes. So brace yourself. But apart from the humor, he will wholeheartedly disagree that there was a serious development in Christological views over the course of Christian history. In particular, I imagine (but don’t know) that he will argue that already during his lifetime Jesus considered and declared himself to be God, come from heaven for the salvation of the world. In other words, I would guess that Michael will argue that the kind of views found on Jesus’ lips in the Gospel of John, and only there, as it turns out, are things that he actually said, and that there was no fundamental development in Christological thinking over the years and decades and centuries afterward. At least no development that led to anything different from what Jesus actually said about himself. On this we will oh so disagree!!!