A provocative new theory of Easter
Christianity may have started with visions, says New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman
This Sunday morning, people gather in churches all over the world to celebrate the most important holiday in the Christian church calendar. According to the traditional Easter story, Jesus Christ was crucified and died, and was miraculously raised from the dead three days later, leaving behind an empty tomb. Some people believe this happened literally, others view it as a deeply meaningful metaphor, while many nonbelievers, of course, dismiss it as myth.
Historians broadly agree that Jesus was a real person: He was a preacher who attracted a following in first-century Palestine, and was executed by Roman authorities. But what happened when he died—how the death of this one Galilean street preacher gave rise to a major world religion—is an enduring puzzle as fascinating to secular historians as religious ones.
The New Testament scholar and historian Bart Ehrman has made a career of zeroing in on some of the most difficult questions at the intersection of faith and history. In books like “Misquoting Jesus” he brings a secular analytical perspective to events that his audience may be more accustomed to hearing about from theologians. In his new book, “How Jesus Became God” (HarperOne), Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, trains his lens tightly on the question of how, exactly, Jesus came to be understood by billions of people as an eternal deity. Ehrman begins with the life of the historical Jesus and ends at the Council of Nicea in 325, at which the foundations of Christian orthodoxy began to take shape.
Piecing together close readings of Biblical passages and similar texts from the same era and region, with a dose of informed intuition, Ehrman comes to some conclusions that may be jarring to conservative Christians: for example, that Jesus did not call himself divine. He writes that Jesus’ body was likely not buried in an individual tomb, but would instead have been left on the cross to be eaten by scavengers, and then deposited in an ignominious mass grave. But Ehrman also argues that at least some of Jesus’ disciples came to sincerely believe in his divinity very quickly after his death.
If Jesus’ followers did not find an empty tomb after his death, then what convinced them that Jesus had risen from the dead? Based in part on a fascinating foray into contemporary scholarship on visionary experiences, Ehrman concludes that at least a few of Jesus’ followers did have authentic-seeming visions of a risen Christ. It was these experiences, Ehrman believes, that convinced them that Jesus was more than human. Christians would spend the next three centuries debating exactly what kind of divine being he was.
Ehrman has become something of a flashpoint in conversations about how literally the New Testament can be taken on the story of early Christianity. He calls himself an agnostic, but he spent many years as an evangelical Christian, and he says he set out to write the book for both Christians and non-Christians. He is respectful in his engagement with Christian apologetics, and careful not to stake out claims about things like the reality of the disciples’ visions, or even on the question of whether Jesus was actually God. Nonetheless, some of Ehrman’s conclusions are so provocative (and his previous books have sold so well) that his publisher has embarked on an unusual experiment: A rebuttal to Ehrman by five Christian scholars, “How God Became Jesus,” is being published simultaneously by a HarperCollins Christian imprint.
Ehrman spoke with Ideas by phone and e-mail from his home in Durham, N.C. This interview has been edited and condensed.
IDEAS: So Jesus was a rabble-rousing apocalyptic prophet who preached about the coming kingdom of God, but did not understand himself to be divine.
EHRMAN: I’m not sure he meant to be rabble-rousing, although he ended up rousing a rabble. But you’re absolutely right: He did not go around calling himself God, and his disciples did not think he was God.
IDEAS: Is it widely accepted among scholars that Jesus did not claim divinity?
EHRMAN: That has been a widely held scholarly view for about 300 years among critical scholars. Among scholars who are evangelical Christians who are committed to the idea that Jesus is God and knew he was God, they maintain that Jesus did say that he was God.
The problem is that Jesus only makes claims for himself as being divine in the Gospel of John....But what scholars have long noted is that Jesus doesn’t say any of those things in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are [written] much earlier than John....What I argue in the book is that it’s virtually inconceivable that if it was known Jesus called himself God, that Matthew, Mark, and Luke would just leave that part out.
IDEAS: The image of the empty tomb is so powerful for Christians. Was there something in particular that sparked the idea for you that it was visions of Jesus, rather than the empty tomb, that convinced Jesus’ followers he had been resurrected?
EHRMAN: The New Testament itself never says the empty tomb made anybody believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. That was the starting point for me, because I realized, even if they had discovered an empty tomb, if you put a body in a tomb and then three days later you go back to the tomb and the tomb’s empty, you don’t immediately think, “Oh, he’s been exalted to the right hand of God.” You think somebody moved his body, or there have been grave robbers here, or you think, “Hey, I’m at the wrong tomb!”...
What I realized is the people who came to believe in the New Testament, it’s always because they’ve had a vision of Jesus afterwards, including Paul....That led me to look into what we know about hallucinations, based on modern psychological research. And it turns out hallucinations happen a lot. The two most common kinds of hallucinations are of deceased loved ones—your grandmother dies and you see her in your bedroom two weeks later, that kind of thing. And the second kind is of revered religious figures....My view is that the disciples had some kind of visionary experiences; some of them did. And these visionary experiences led them to conclude that Jesus was still alive.
IDEAS: For a nonbeliever who’s not a Bible scholar or historian, what is to be gained from continually refining the timeline of what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus? What are the stakes here?
EHRMAN: There are some people who have argued that the Christian religion was invented by the apostle Paul, some years after Jesus death, or by his followers some weeks or months afterwards, or even by the women who later only claimed that they had found the tomb empty. But the historical reality appears to be that Christianity was not invented by people with an ulterior purpose—for example, by people who, for reasons of their own, wanted to start a new religion. It originated in real, actual experiences of some of Jesus’ followers, as they had visions of Jesus not long after his death. These visions were experienced by several different people—Peter, Mary, James, and then much later Paul. The visions appear to have taken these people by surprise. And they convinced all of them that Jesus was no longer dead, but had been raised bodily from the dead. If it matters when and how Christianity originated—the religion of over 2 billion people in our world today—then it is worth knowing that it began with the visionary experiences of some of Jesus’ friends and at least one of his enemies.
IDEAS: As I was reading, I kept thinking of C.S. Lewis’s idea that Jesus was either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord, and that there are no other possibilities.
EHRMAN: The problem is he left one option out. If you want to keep with “L”s, the option is “legend.” I’m not saying Jesus is a legend. But C.S. Lewis’s formulation is that Jesus called himself God, and if he called himself God, he was either telling the truth or he wasn’t. If he wasn’t telling the truth, he either knew it or he didn’t....But Lewis doesn’t consider the idea that Jesus calling himself God could be legendary.
IDEAS: What kinds of reactions do you anticipate from conservative Christians?
EHRMAN: My own view is that Christians have nothing to be afraid of in my book....But there are things in it that some kinds of Christians will find objectionable, including, for example, the idea that Jesus did not call himself God during his lifetime. And including the claim that he probably wasn’t given a decent burial so that there wasn’t an empty tomb. I think those two claims in particular, conservative evangelical Christians might find disturbing and wrong.
IDEAS: What are your thoughts on “How God Became Jesus,” the book being published specifically to refute yours?
EHRMAN: They never present an alternative point of view. All they do is attack me....If they want to put together a coherent argument that it’s not that Jesus became God but that God became Jesus, I would very much like to see how they’re going to do that historically. I can see how they might want to say it theologically; that might be their religious belief. But how are they going to establish that on historical grounds?
IDEAS: What would you say about the significance of Easter for someone who accepts the conclusions of your book but still finds meaning in the Christian tradition and the person of Jesus?
EHRMAN: For someone who’s still a believer, Easter is everything. That’s when it came to be thought that Jesus is God, or if you’re a Christian you could say that’s when it was recognized that Jesus was God....The Christian faith is based on that. The striking thing that I think a lot of people don’t give enough thought or attention to is that this one who is made a divine being is precisely the crucified man. Christianity in our age has turned into a religion all about power and wealth and influence. The point about Jesus is that he was not a man of power, wealth, and influence. He was a lower-class peasant who was crucified. So I would think that Christians who are celebrating Easter should recognize that the one that God vindicated was a lowly person who was in support of the poor and the oppressed.
Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.