Was Jesus Adopted by God?: Contra Bart Ehrman

Imagine you and your spouse went out on a Friday night several years ago to one of those highly anticipated Billy Graham Crusades. As was usual, Graham planned out his Crusades with careful thought and precision. He sent ahead evangelists to ready the people; he wrote out and memorized what he was going to say so that it was as powerful as it was lucid; he knew the audience he would be speaking to. And can you imagine Graham introducing one of his crusades this way: “Jesus Christ became the Son of God only after the resurrection, not before.” Then let us suppose that Graham, when confronted with the allegation, denied that he knew what he was saying, that he himself believes in the eternal Sonship of Jesus, and that he merely pulled this introduction out of a popular book.

Surely for a man who has deep convictions on the nature of Christ’s divinity and personhood such a blatant contradiction would expose deep theological dissonance and would be obvious to both his audience and himself. He would not have said it. Graham’s deep rooted views of Christ as pre-existent, divine, and the eternal Son-of-God would simply not allow such a statement to be made, either unintentionally or for the sake of establishing certain credentials amongst some extreme cults. Yet the question must be asked with the publication of a recent popular book, did the Apostle Paul say as much?

 

Bart Ehrman’s new book Did Jesus Exist is a generally solid defense of the existence of a historical Jesus. For anyone interested in the mythicist cause Ehrman’s book would be the first recommendation I would make. Why? Not only does he present a sound case for a historical Jesus which, at the end of the day invalidates the legitimacy of the mythicist cause, but Ehrman himself is an agnostic and has publically gone on record to disavow the Christian faith (see, God’s Problem). This is a strong point against the mythicist cause since Ehrman, as a non-believer, would have no personal stock in subscribing to a historical Jesus if the evidence didn’t demand it. So, this essay is not an attack on the book’s main premise by any means and, as a Christian who has appreciated (and, likewise, disagreed with) a good deal of Ehrman’s work, I would recommend the read to anybody. Despite the reputation that Ehrman has garnished in certain circles, I see him as a scholar to be listened and contended with and, at that, perhaps the best living text critic today.

 

My concern in this essay, however, is in the passing remarks made occasionally throughout the book which are likely foretastes of a follow up book of his detailing how Jesus came to be thought of as divine. Let it be first said that I am highly anticipating Dr. Ehrman’s next book which he has promised will deal with the issue of how Jesus became thought of as God. But in his book Did Jesus Exist? he issues a few teasers of what’s to come. I want to address one of them.

 

Ehrman makes several references to a “primitive” tradition which saw Jesus as becoming the Son of God only at his resurrection. That is, Ehrman believes that the earliest views of the Church were adoptionist. Adoptionism is essentially the view that Jesus became “adopted” into some sort of higher status at a certain point. Some early Christians thought this happened at the baptism. Others thought it happened at the resurrection. In Ehrman’s view, traditions about Jesus’ preexistence were only later developments like we find in John 1.1-18 and, thus, if we could get back to the earliest form of Christianity we would find Jesus’ followers saying “God adopted Jesus into the Son-ship. He was never eternally his Son.” Ehrman writes,

 

“Even though this view is not precisely that of Paul, it is found in an ancient creed that Paul quotes at the beginning of his letter to the Romans where he speaks of Christ as God’s ‘son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness at his resurrection from the dead’ (1.3-4)…More striking still, a similar tradition can be found in some of the speeches in Acts, showing that these speeches incorporate materials from the traditions about Jesus that existed long before Luke put pen to papyrus (111)…God exalted Jesus and made him his son, the Christ, at the resurrection. This is in all probability the earliest understanding of Jesus among his followers. (232)” [italics mine].

In order to avoid an overly-lengthy essay I want to focus on what appears to be to be the greater of the three verses, Romans 1.3-4. The meaning of this passage, I hope, will shed some light on the other verses. By way of full disclosure I want to state up front that my reasons for questioning Ehrman are not primarily theological (though it should be recognized that nobody, including Ehrman, is completely unbiased), but historical. Unlike certain theologians and scholars I am not opposed to thinking that the early Church first believed in Jesus’ adoption at the resurrection. Ehrman will be glad to know (if he ever reads this) that I attempt to work from a minimalist perspective in my research. I believe, theologically, that Christ’s status is divine and he has always been part of the trinitarian God-head. There is a place for progressive revelation in scripture and theology so admitting that in scripture we find such a progressiveness related to his Son-ship are not a theoretical problem for me. In other words, this would not stop me from recognizing adoptionistic creeds in scripture if, in fact, they were there. They would simply preserve for us the development of theological doctrines much like that of Satan or Hell. The problem, as you might guess, is simply that I do not see the earliest form of Christology as adoptionistic and I see it far from being obvious, or a likely probability, that these three passages, especially Romans 1.3-4, preserve this tradition. I want to bring up two points of emphasis before moving specifically into the text at hand.

First of all, scholars have made it a habit of telling the past what it is that they believed or didn’t know they believed. I’m not suggesting that they couldn’t make mistakes or be ignorant of their surroundings (Paul, for example, has a couple incomplete sentences, there is the legitimate historical question of whether Luke got the date on Quirinius’ census wrong, and Jude likely believed that Enoch wrote the Book of Enoch), but scholars spend a great deal of time detailing how unaware writers were of what it is they were writing. They equally spend a great deal of time detailing how systematic and careful they were with themes, metaphors, word plays, linguistic forms, analogies, etc. But here we see Ehrman suggesting that both Luke and Paul were blatantly unaware of the adoptionist Christologies they were writing when, indeed, they themselves didn’t hold to these views. This seems to me to be a bold remark and one which demands going beneath our surface readings since, in fact, it essentially is stating that Paul and Luke endorsed theologies of Christ contrary to the ones which they deeply held to. If there’s one thing socio-rhetorical criticism has shown us lately it’s that both Paul and Luke were sophisticated writers, thinkers, and rhetoricians. They rarely said something without thinking about how it would come across to their listeners or readers. To suggest that they managed to completely look over or fail to recognize a blatant adoptionist Christology in their writings plagues me as a difficult contention. It cannot be suggested that Paul’s use of the creed was merely an attempt to gain an ear with an audience that already accepted adoptionist Christology. As we see in his later letters, Paul is by no means an individual who places his own group acceptance at the expense of a poor Christology (see Gal, 1 Cor).

Secondly, if Ehrman is right about this being the earliest form of Christian Christology, then he must be able to explain how and why it died out so fast. For the first three hundred years of the Church there were intense battles fought over how we should properly understand Christ’s divinity, his preexistence, and his oneness with God. There were those, like Arian, that affirmed adoptionism. Indeed, there were probably many in the early Church that could only make sense of it this way. Adoptionism was significantly easier to square with Jewish monotheism. It didn’t require that they rethink God’s uniqueness. But the question is one of foundations. If the early apostles were adoptionists how did they lose it so fast? It would not be sufficient to say Paul suppressed it if, in fact, he is incompetent enough to affirm adoptionist creeds in his letters, knowingly or unknowingly. In other words, how did a simpler doctrine of Christology give was so quickly and easily to a vastly more complicated one? What seems more likely, in fact, is that the more complicated Christology (seeing Jesus as eternal, worthy of worship, and placed within monotheism) gave way to simpler Christologies like adoptionism.

But now we must turn to the text in question: Romans 1.3-4. Ehrman speaks of Romans 1.3-4 as if it is nearly a closed case that this is an adoptionist Christology. This is unfortunate as most of Ehrman’s readers will gain this impression without ever opening up a commentary on the issue. The conclusions on this verse from the scholarly world are not quite so assuming and Ehrman should know this. G.K. Chesterton once said, “The simplification of anything is always sensationalism.” Perhaps Chesterton was being a little over simplistic (pun intended), but this is of course the danger in bringing major scholarly discussions into the public eye. They should be brought into the public eye, of course, but as Ben Parker once said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Ehrman may see this as adoptionistic but this is hardly the scholarly consensus and it is a shame to leave his readers with such an idea.

James Dunn, one of the leading NT scholars and authorities on Romans, argues contrarily: “It is clear from this phrase that for Paul the resurrection marked a decisive stage in Christ’s divine Sonship—not as marking its beginning (the possibility that this was implied in the earlier formulation is not strong and depends on reading “in power” as a Pauline addition), but certainly as marking a significant “heightening” or enlarging of its scope” (23). He goes on to speak of this as possibly the “risen Christ’s exaltation.” Dunn notes, contra Ehrman, that the phrase “from his resurrection from the dead” is incorrect and should be translated “from the resurrection of the dead.” This is strengthened by the fact that the word ‘dead’ is in the plural, thus suggesting that Paul recognizes that Christ is really to be seen as the first-fruits of a general resurrection.

To go off of this I would suggest that Paul’s view of the universal resurrection is not that we are adopted into union with God. This happens at a point of justification and forgiveness (this is when we become sons and daughters of God). But at the resurrection we, like Christ, gain a new status. Christ’s status is, admittedly, superior to ours. His status is that of Lord. But nowhere in Paul’s theology is the idea that it is resurrection that brings us into adoption. Again, to suggest that this creed preserves such a tradition is to harp incompetence of awareness on Paul where it is not called for.

Leon Morris in his commentary on Romans likewise makes a similar point about Ehrman’s mistranslation of the verse. “There is no his in the Greek” (47). There is of course the obvious fact that Paul is writing of Jesus’ specific resurrection, but he does this in a way which recognizes the idea of “first-fruits” (1 Cor 15.20). Further, he notes, “Paul would not have accepted a view that Jesus was not divine until ‘appointed’ Son of God” (44). This again stresses the point of whether he would have used a creed of adoptionism without really knowing that that’s what it said. Paul knew the Greek and certainly if he had received such a tradition with enough time to memorize it he certainly would have had the time to think about its implications. Morris suggests that there is a deeper connection here with Psalm 2:7 and that a better translation with this in mind is “declared.”

Douglas Moo, in his massive commentary on Romans, disagrees with this translation and suggests that “declared” would not have been the recognized meaning in the first century. Since the verb is used seven other times in the NT, we can see how it is best understood in those occurrences. Moo’s conclusion is that we should best translate it as “determine or appoint.” Moo recognizes that this is “theologically troublesome” (48) but suggests that certain considerations remove this concern. I will note the two most significant ones in my opinion. First, he notes the idea that the resurrection caused Jesus to be “appointed Son” has other parallels in the NT. Ehrman’s references to Acts are examples of this. Moo argues, however, that the “tautologous” nature of the passages (that is, reflecting on Psalm 2.7 and David’s messianic King), do not have anything to do with a change of essence but with a change of status or function. In layman’s terms, Psalm 2.7 was about the appointment of a human King; later Christians reading Psalm 2.7 saw a deeper meaning to it (like they did with many OT passages) and, reading with Christ-like glasses, saw Jesus as the deeper meaning. If this is confusing let’s take another example. Matthew speaks of Jesus’ time in Egypt as a prophecy: “Out of Egypt I have called my Son.” Historically, this verse (Hosea 11.1) was about Israel. But early Christians reflecting on the OT saw Jesus as the final fulfillment of the verse. So while the verse was about Israel in the first place, its deeper meaning was about Jesus. The same is true of Psalm 2.7. Early Christians, reading the Psalms, saw this verse talking about Jesus in it’s deeper meaning while still affirming that on the surface it was directed towards the earthly King. If Paul had this verse in mind, which is likely, than he would see the use of the word ‘appoint’ as tautologically appropriate. But like Psalm 2.7 it concerns status, not ontology.

Secondly, Moo argues that what follows is best translated “Son of God in power” instead of “with power to be the Son of God” (Ehrman, for the record, favors Moo’s translation). The significance of this is obvious. The resurrection does not change the essence of Jesus’ divinity but leads to a “new and more powerful position in relation to the world.” (49). Like Dunn, Moo uses the terminology of “exalted” which is not the same as the concept of installment or a change in status. Liken it to a King whose empire is expanded and his power of governance is strengthened. He is still King as much as he ever was. But his status is exalted to something greater.

Of course, I am not suggesting here that Ehrman’s position on this is blatantly wrong or against all scholarly consensus. There are certainly a good deal of scholars who agree with his position, but it is certainly not the closed case that he presents for the public and the layman. Neither the qualifications nor the arguments of the scholars above cannot be dismissed on a whim. All scholars of any field writing on a popular level can fall into the trap of brevity and can make statements which are not so simple seem closed. I find it unconvincing that Ehrman has discovered what Paul simply was unaware of (or didn’t care to take issue with). Did we lose the adoptionist Christology so quickly? I doubt it.

Sources:

Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012.

Dunn, James. Romans 1-8. Dallas: Word Book, 1988.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1996

Morris, Leon. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1988.

  • Joshua Hargrave

    I enjoyed the read, Randy; thanks for it. I, like you and unlike many, have an appreciation for Ehrman in some respects. I was pretty much forced in undergrad to read every work he had written at the time because a professor loved his work. Though his work was usually scholarly and solid enough, I, too, found he was often untruthful in his presentation. What I mean by that is, he always presented the case he was writing for as open and shut. Period. I always gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking he had gotten far too used to covering subjects with brevity and concise analysis. After all of these years though, I would think his presentation would have gotten a bit better, for, to me, this is simply bad research and argumentation. I rarely finish books nowadays that do such. I think you are right though in saying, many will take Ehrman at his word and never pick up another book to confirm or see how vast the opinions are on the subject.

    • Randy Hardman

      Thanks man! Yeah, as much as I think he’s a good scholar, especially when it comes to text criticism (he’s one of the best obviously), I found myself incredibly frustrated with his statements that started with “Scholars agree that…” when, in reality, this only tells half the truth. Once one is prepared to rule out any “evangelical” from the world of scholarship one is bound to get a certain unbalance. That’s not to say that he should spend his time addressing those that fail to work with the historical criteria honestly (i.e. inerrantists), but there is a vast swath of scholarship that is serious in its approach and utilization of criteria that needs to be reckoned with. One of the reasons I would love to see a debate with Witherington and Ehrman.

  • Charlie Brown

    More than what others have written, Christ himself deals with His eternality and unity with the Father in His own statement… “And now Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began”. John 17:5

    • Randy Hardman

      It’s true. I think, however, that somebody like Ehrman would respond quite skeptically to most of the Gospel of John arguing that things like this are later developments. Ehrman doesn’t disagree that people came to believe in Jesus’ eternality or sonship; he disagrees that it was a belief in the earliest strata of evidence. His view is that things got distorted quickly–very quickly. And so this post was an attempt to argue that Ehrman just didn’t tell the whole story on his interpretation of this passage but read into it what he wanted to read into it.

      • Charlie Brown

        Yes, I understand your focus on the subject but find it interesting that Ehrman and others can make such assumtions on obscure ideas and create these ideas on what seems to be less evidence. So it seems to me anyway.