Questions of the Week: What are your views on the books by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman? How do you respond to his popular claims that the Bible repeatedly misquoted Jesus, that Jesus didn’t actually claim divinity for himself, that he wasn’t worshipped as God during his earthly ministry, and that the ascription of divine status to Jesus and accompanying devotional practices reflected in the New Testament occurred only after Jesus’s crucifixion? Is there any validity to Ehrman’s insistence that belief in the divinity of Jesus is entirely based on “visions” of the resurrected Jesus? Likewise, is there any validity to Ehrman’s assertion that the doctrine of the Trinity is a late development that slowly evolved from the belief held by early Christians that Jesus rose bodily from the dead?
My Answers: The belief that the Bible misquoted Jesus is historically unsustainable. Irenaeus in his book, Against Heresies, published in 180 AD, stated that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were in written form at the time that Peter and Paul were in Rome. Peter and Paul were in Rome 60–68 AD. Irenaeus also wrote that the Gospel of John was written by John the disciple while John was living in Ephesus, sometime near the end of the first century. Papyrus fragments of the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Matthew have been dated to the early part of the second century.1 These early dates for the four New Testament Gospels are so near the actual events that any misquote or forgery would have been immediately noticed and corrected by eyewitness contemporaries. The fact that there is no historical record of called-out mistakes or corrections to the four Gospels by contemporaries of the gospel writers testifies to the accuracy of Jesus’s quotes within them.
In my Paradoxes Sunday school class, I taught a series on the prophet Isaiah’s teachings on the Trinity. We discovered over 60 passages in Isaiah that provide an extensive and detailed definition and description of the doctrine of the Trinity. I present these passages and their doctrinal implications in an article that can be accessed here. Isaiah’s description of the Trinity is entirely consistent with how Christians have stated the doctrine of the Trinity in all their creeds. Ehrman is wrong about the late origin of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Ehrman is also wrong about the evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus being based on visions alone. There is the empty tomb. The powerful enemies of the emergent Christian faith, the Jewish religious leaders and the Romans, were unable to produce the body of Jesus. Also, it would take more than visions to persuade the 10,000+ Jews living in Jerusalem at that time—more than a third of the total population—to become Christians in the few days that followed Jesus’s death on the cross.
Concerning Ehrman’s claim that Jesus never claimed divinity for himself, the Jewish religious leaders clearly understood that Jesus made such an explicit claim when, as recorded in John 8:58, Jesus declared that “before Abraham was born, I am.” The Jewish religious leaders and all Jews living at the time understood that “I am” is a title that only God possesses. Consequently, the Jewish religious leaders, on hearing Jesus claim that he was “I am,” attempted to stone him to death for what they viewed as blasphemy. Ehrman is correct that Jesus in the Gospels is never recorded as referring to himself as the “Son of God.” Jesus did so to make a theological point. In the gospel accounts Jesus referred to himself as the “son of man” and his followers as “sons of men.” After the Day of Pentecost, the epistles exclusively refer to Jesus as the Son of God and his followers as “sons of God” or “children of God.” Jesus was making a doctrinal statement in these appellations. Only after the Day of Pentecost did followers of God become permanently indwelt by the Holy Spirit. For a more in-depth analysis of the biblical doctrines implied by the timely use of the terms “son of man,” “Son of God,” “sons of men,” and “sons of God” see Navigating Genesis, chapter 14 and appendix C.2