Judging books by their covers

 How God Became Jesus or How Jesus Became God?

©By Menashe Dovid

BartThe saying goes that one should never judge a book by its cover. However, when one has two book covers to consider and where one book is in answer to the other, it is possible to make a judgement based on the titles of the books alone without getting into the details of both books. The book in question is “How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee” by Bart D. Ehrman[1] (Mar 25, 2014) and the response to the book “How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman” by Michael F. Bird (Author), Craig A. Evans (Author), Simon Gathercole (Author), Charles E. Hill (Author) and Chris Tilling  (Author). Questions are always a good place to start:

“How did ancient monotheism allow the One God to have a ‘son’? Bart Ehrman tells this story, introducing the reader to a Jewish world thick with angels, cosmic powers, and numberless semi-divinities. How Jesus Became God provides a lively overview of Nicea’s prequel.” (Paula Fredriksen, Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and author of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews)

As those who are familiar with my blog know that have a tendency to state the obvious! To the initial part of the question: “How did ancient monotheism allow the One God to have a ‘son’? It is an actual fact very easy to answer this part of the question:

19 And the LORD said unto Moses in Midian: ‘Go, return into Egypt; for all the men are dead that sought thy life.’ 20 And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt; and Moses took the rod of God in his hand. 21 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘When thou goest back into Egypt, see that thou do before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in thy hand; but I will harden his heart, and he will not let the people go. 22 And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh: Thus saith the LORD: Israel is My son, My firstborn. 23 And I have said unto thee: Let My son go, that he may serve Me; and thou hast refused to let him go. Behold, I will slay thy son, thy first-born. Exodus 4

The activities of G-d’s son Israel, is further explained in terms of Israel described collectively as a servant. Certain of the prophetic specifications, which Christians often view as pointing exclusively to Jesus, are in fact borrowed from biblical descriptions of Israel’s experience. For example, in Isaiah 53:7 the servant of the L-rd is said to be like a flock led to the slaughter. In Psalms 44:22 Israel is said to be like a flock led to the slaughter.

“For on your account we are killed all the day; we are considered as a flock for the slaughter.”

To give another example, Isaiah 53:11 says “my righteous servant shall make many righteous.” We have just such an expression in the Book of Daniel regarding Daniel’s people Israel. Daniel 12:1b-3.

“At that time your people will escape, everyone found written in the book. Many among those sleeping in the dust of the ground will awake, some to the life of eternity and others to shame and to the contempt of eternity. And the prudent will shine like the brilliance of the firmament, and those who make many righteous like the stars, for eternity and ever.”

To give another example, Isaiah 53:11 says “my righteous servant shall make many righteous and carry their iniquities.” This language comes from the operation of Israel’s sanctuary. It was the duty of Israel’s priests to carry[2] the iniquity of others. Leviticus 10:16-17.

“Concerning the goat of the sin-offering Moshe diligently inquired. There it was ― ablaze. He was angry with Elazar and with Itamar the surviving sons of Aaron. He said, ‘Why did you not eat the sin-offering in a sacred place, for it is most holy? And it was given you in order to carry the iniquity of the congregation, to make expiation on them before the L-rd.’”

Numbers 18:1 is also explicit in this connection.

“The L-rd said to Aaron, ‘You, your sons, and your father’s house with you shall carry the iniquity of the sanctuary; you and your sons with you shall carry the iniquity of your priesthood.’”

Carrying the iniquity of others is also a prophetic gesture. Ezekiel 4:4-6.

“And you shall lie on your left side and place the iniquity of the house of Israel on it, the number of which you lie on it you will carry their iniquity. I have given you the years of their iniquity, according to the number of days, three hundred and ninety days. And you shall carry the iniquity of the house of Israel. And you shall finish these, then you shall lie on your right side, and you shall carry the iniquity of the house of Judah, forty days, a day for a year, one day per year I have imposed on you.”

During the exile, the children of Israel complain that their punishment is too severe, because they’re carrying the iniquity of previous generations.

“Our fathers sinned and they are no more, and we are carrying their iniquities.” [Lamentations 5:7]

In order to end the exile, the L-rd calls his righteous servant to resume Israel’s original mission task of carrying the iniquity of others. This is what priests do, and Israel is a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6).

It should be noted that in addition to the prophetic specifications borrowed from biblical descriptions of Israel, certain of the prophetic specifications do not seem applicable to Jesus at all. For example, Isaiah 53 verse 3 describes the servant of the L-rd as,

“A man of sufferings and familiar with sickness; like one who hides his face from us. He was despised, and we held him of no account. Yet it was our sickness he was bearing.”

Verse 10 adds,

“Yet the L-rd was pleased to crush him with sickness.”

The New Testament accounts relate numerous instances of Jesus healing people, but never is it told in the NT that he got sick in their place. If his work load and hiking itinerary is anything to go by, Jesus seems to have been a robustly healthy individual. If Jesus was characterized by sickness, the gospel writers do not note the fulfillment of prophecy.

Another particular which does not easily fit Jesus is in Isaiah 53:3,

“like one who hides his face from us.”

Hiding the face from others is the behavior proscribed by the Torah for a leper (Leviticus 13:45). We have no record of Jesus hiding his face. In fact, Christian teaching emphasizes the opposite: that Jesus is the disclosure of God; that in seeing Jesus’, God’s face is seen [2 Corinthians 4:6; John 14:9; 1:18].

Another particular which does not easily fit if the servant of the L-rd is Jesus comes in verse 8. It is evidently one of the astounded non-Jewish kings who confesses,

“On account of my people’s rebellion he plagued them.”

Within the framework of standard Jewish interpretation the statement makes good sense. If “my people” refers to the said king’s misbehaving subjects and “them” refers to the children of Israel, the prophecy is then saying that the L-rd plagued his servant Israel on account of these other people’s rebellion. But if, as Christians commonly claim, “my people” refers to Israel, who then can the antecedent of “them” be? Can Israel be both the referent of “my people” and the antecedent of “them?” Of course, it is a biblical truism that when God’s people Israel misbehave he punishes them, but why would the prophecy bring that up in connection with vicarious substitution? It is not vicarious substitution when people get what they deserve. Unless Jesus is the antecedent of “them,” it is difficult to construe this statement as referring to Jesus.

SOMThe activities of G-d’s son Israel and G-d’s servant Israel is further explained in terms of Israel described collectively as the son of man. In the 7th chapter of the book of Daniel, we learn of a prophetic vision granted to Daniel. He tells us of four great beasts rising out of the sea, one after another. After describing each of the four beasts Daniel sees “one like a son of man (כבר אנש Aramaic) coming with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13). Nearly all Christians do not entertain the slightest doubt that this verse is talking of their messiah Jesus! Indeed, they will even selectively quote that Jewish commentators like Rashi, who says that this verse is speaking of the King ‘moshiac’ (משיח Hebrew). To the Christian mindset ‘moshiac’ and ‘messiah’ are understood as interchangeable and are equivalent terms! A look at Daniel 7 shows that the Hebrew word ‘moshiac’ cannot appear anywhere in Daniel 7 because Daniel 7 is in Aramaic. The term ‘one like a son of man (כבר אנש Aramaic)’ is found in Dan 7:13.

Dan 7:13 is one of the few passages in scripture that comes along with a commentary. The commentary is Daniel 7 itself and the commentary informs us who the “son of man” is in Daniel 7:13! The commentary informs us that after Daniel had seen the vision he approaches an angel and asks for a clarification of all that he had seen (7:16). The angel replies that the four beasts represented four kingdoms, and the final dominion will be given to the “holy ones of the most high” (7:18) – a reference to the nation of Israel. The angel elaborates further by telling us that the dominion under all of the heavens is given to “the nation of holy ones of the most high” (7:27) – again a clear reference to the nation of Israel. According to the angel, each of the beasts represents a different kingdom, while the son of man in Daniel’s vision represents Israel. Can a man represent a kingdom/ people? Speaking of Babylon; “and four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another. The first [was] like a lion, and had eagle’s wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man (כאנש), and a man’s (אנש) heart was given to it. (Dan 7:4, 5)

The history and account of the activities of G-d’s son Israel, G-d’s servant Israel and Israel as the son of man is the context of scripture in stark contrast to what comes later. What nicene-creedcomes later is the introduction of an idea of a world thick with angels, demons, a devil, cosmic powers, and numberless semi-divinities weaved into how Jesus Became God or how God became Jesus. The idea further including the notion of God’s exclusive one and only Son and the singular son of man which eclipses and supersedes the context of scripture as summarized by the creed of Nicea[3]. The idea of how Jesus Became God or how God became Jesus is so significant to Paul that he counts all things [his own cultural background and a pharisee] but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, Phil 3:8. A recent blurb for a book “Divine Messiah” by Derek Leman readily admits the new innovation of the “Divine Messiah”:

In the early half of the first century, it happened so suddenly that there are no records of the way the innovation came about. The early community of Yeshua-followers started believing and practicing something beyond any previous concept. The Divine Messiah realization can be described from two perspectives, from below and from above. From below, it is the recognition that one who appeared to have been a teacher and miraculous messianic figure was actually someone much more exalted. From above, it is the realization that God and Messiah are different and yet utterly one in nature.

editingThe difference between how Jesus Became God or how God became Jesus makes for interesting reading, however, the context of scripture, i.e. Israel is unwittingly ignored and instead replaced by the innovation of the “Divine Messiah”. To add further to the confusion is Paul’s new thinking which includes the notion of an “Israel “after the flesh” (i.e., the Jewish people), non-Jews whom he calls “the nations,” (i.e., Gentiles) and a new people called “the church of God” made of all those whom he designates as “in Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:32). In contrast to Paul’s new thinking is the already established idea of humanity divided as “Israel and the nations”. What divides Paul from the already established idea of humanity divided as “Israel and the nations” is his insistence that God’s justifying forgiveness is only extended to those who accept his Divine Christ faith. Paul’s insistence is regardless of the difference between how Jesus Became God or how God became Jesus. The stark contrast to Paul’s insistence are the parts of the New Testament attributed to Jesus whom Paul never met, which appear to have missed the efforts of the redactors of the New Testament. Jesus affirmed the oneness of G-d and upheld the commandments of the Torah as the way to eternal life:

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ Mark 12

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” 27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” 28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” Luke 10

Alternatively and in addition, the Christian before considering the issue of a divine messiah, may wish to consider the context prior to such an innovation as a divine messiah. The context is vital to understand that prior to such an innovation as proposed by the NT alone, the terms son of G-d, son of man, messiah and servant are plainly defined in the Jewish Scripture and are in no ways jettisoned in a single messiah (divine or otherwise) who eclipses/ replaces Israel and G-d forbid, G-d himself. Can a single human being in essence be the embodiment of all that Israel collectively is? Certainly as we have many contextual examples, at the very least we have King David, Yoseph and Moshe who are prime examples of G-d’s anointed ones [Messiahs]. After all is this why at least two of Israel’s messiahs in rabbinic thought are ben Yoseph and ben David for this very reason?


[1] Bart D. Ehrman is the author of more than twenty books, including the New York Times bestselling Misquoting Jesus and God’s Problem. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is a leading authority on the Bible and the life of Jesus. He has been featured in Time and has appeared on Dateline NBC, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, CNN, the History Channel, major NPR shows, and other top media outlets. He lives in Durham, N.C.

[2] The goat [of the Day of Atonement] that was sent [into the wilderness] (Ley. xvi. 20, seq.) served as an atonement for all serious transgressions more than any other sin-offering of the congregation. As it thus seemed to carry off all sins, it was not accepted as an ordinary sacrifice to be slaughtered, burnt, or even brought near the Sanctuary; it was removed as far as possible, and sent forth into a waste, uncultivated, uninhabited land. There is no doubt that sins cannot be carried like a burden, and taken off the shoulder of one being to be laid on that of another being. But these ceremonies are of a symbolic character, and serve to impress men with a certain idea, and to induce them to repent; as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible. CHAPTER XLVI, THE GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED, BY MOSES MAIMONIDES.

[3] The Nicene Creed (Greek: Σύμβολον τῆς Νίκαιας, Latin: Symbolum Nicaenum) is the profession of faith or creed that is most widely used in Christian liturgy. It forms the mainstream definition of Christianity for most Christians.


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