My recent debate with one of the world’s leading New Testament (NT) scholars, Dr. Bart Ehrman, actually began four years earlier at another debate. At McFarlin Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University (my alma mater), Dr. Bart Ehrman and Dr. Daniel Wallace debated the topic “Can We Trust the Text of the New Testament.” The debate was historic; with nearly 1,500 people in attendance, it was the largest debate ever on the text of the NT. We had planted a church (1042 Church) in Frisco, TX earlier that year (2011), and I brought my entire church—all 25 of us—to the debate that night.
Bart maintained hard skepticism on the reliability of the NT manuscripts throughout the debate. This was despite the hard evidence of reliability Dan Wallace presented. During the audience Q&A, I had the opportunity to ask him a question. I really wanted to see how radical this skepticism was. I asked him how early a NT manuscript of the Gospel of Mark would have to be for him to consider it trustworthy? He said if we found multiple copies, written one week after Mark wrote it, then he would trust it! This was when our debate actually began. You can listen to Dan Wallace discussing my question to Bart here.
After closing statements, when Dan and Bart were sitting at their book tables in the back, I approached Bart and asked if he’d be willing to debate me. I’ll never forget his response. He said, “And who are you?”
Despite knowing very little about me, Bart graciously accepted, and four years later we were arguing before an audience of 700 (and hundreds more online). The topic: Did the Historical Jesus Claim to Be Divine.
It truly was an honor to share the stage with Dr. Bart Ehrman. Unlike many online critics of Christianity, Bart is not a glorified internet blogger, Youtube enthusiast, or frequent commenter on Facebook. Nor does he write self-published books on why Abraham Lincoln did not exist. Bart is a world-renowned scholar in his field as well as an excellent writer, speaker, and debater.
I thanked him in my opening speech for his excellent books (e.g. Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code and Did Jesus Exist?) that have done a great deal of good in dispelling repeated myths online about Jesus, the Bible, and early Christianity. I also mentioned how Bart scolded a large group of Mythicists when one of them told Bart they didn’t believe Jesus existed. Bart took this opportunity to tell them all that they look foolish to the scholarly world. It was a glorious exchange.
To be fair, Bart has made clear in his books and lectures that he is not out to attack Christianity. He says his primary goal is to bring the dominant views of NT scholarship to the layperson. He goes on to say pastors all over America are not teaching their people what scholars are saying about Jesus, the NT, and early Christianity. Now, I largely agree with that simply because many pastors across America are not teaching their people much of anything in depth about Jesus, the Bible and early Christianity (not to mention church history, doctrine, apologetics, etc.). I know of a mega “Bible” church not too far from me that spent most of their sermon one Sunday showing the cartoon movie Up. Viewing cartoons, listening to 10 reasons why you should vote Republican, and other “feel good” emotionally driven type sermons are the regular diet of most Christians sitting in the pews across America. I believe God is using people like Bart Ehrman as a catalyst to move this 3rd grade level Christianity teaching on Sundays to PhD level Christianity (which is really just Christianity).
However, I disagree that what Bart presents in his books and his lectures is the settled, dominant view of NT scholars today. This is not the place to critique each of Bart’s books, but having read almost all of them, I would say on most issues he only tells one side of the story. In other words, Bart does an excellent job laying out for a popular level audience what the more skeptical, liberal side of scholarship is saying on subjects such as textual criticism, authorship of NT books and their reliability, historical Jesus studies, etc. Yet, there is an entire other side of scholarship that is not getting a fair hearing in his books. To quote from Proverbs: “One man seems persuasive, until another man comes and questions him” (Proverbs 18:17). Bart seems very persuasive in his lectures and his books, but we need Dan Wallace, Richard Bauckham, NT Wright, and other formidable scholars, on the other side of these issues to come and question him. This is my primary critique of the way Bart presents NT scholarship in his books and lectures.
DISCLAIMER: I’m writing this article assuming you’ve watched the debate. It’s two and a half hours long. You’ll get the most out of this analysis if you watch the debate first. Watch it now!
4 Critical Areas of Disagreement
Bart and I disagreed about a lot during our debate. However, my analysis will focus on four critical disagreements. We’ll look at the first two in this article.
- What did Jesus’ earliest disciples believe about Jesus’ divinity?
- Did Paul and the authors of the Gospels believe Jesus is YHWH come in the flesh?
- Is the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels radically different than the Jesus of the Gospel of John?
- Did the historical Jesus claim to be the Son of Man from Daniel 7:13–14, or was he referring to another Son of Man distinct from himself?
What Did Jesus’ Earliest Disciples Believe about Jesus’ Divinity?
“If Jesus called himself God, wouldn’t that be widely known?” Bart asked during our debate.
The first argument I made to demonstrate that Jesus claimed to be divine was that his earliest followers, Peter, James, and John (and Paul), taught that he was divine. I demonstrated from the Philippians 2:6–11 hymn, the 1 Corinthians 8:6 creed, and others, the earliest traditions we have about Jesus from his original followers proclaimed and worshiped him as God. That Jesus was God was widely known as we can see from all the evidence we have from the first few decades after Jesus’ death. Where then did they get these radically unique ideas (Messiah = God)? It’s reasonable to assume they learned it from Jesus himself.
Bart dismissed this argument up front. He agreed that Jesus’ earliest followers proclaimed him as God. However, he kept repeating that this says nothing about whether Jesus himself claimed to be God.
I disagree. In fact, Bart disagrees with himself as well.
Bart Disagrees With Himself
To illustrate, Bart argues in many of his books that the historical Jesus claimed to be the Messiah because we know his earliest followers proclaimed him as such. Moreover, Bart argues, no one in the ancient world expected the Messiah to die and rise again. Where did this unparalleled idea (dying and rising Messiah) come from? It appears it came from Jesus himself.
At this stage I want simply to make the most basic point. Jesus’ followers must have considered him to be the Messiah in some sense before his death, because nothing about his death or resurrection would have made them come up with the idea afterward. The Messiah was not supposed to die or rise again.
What this means is that Jesus probably taught his closest followers that he would be the king of the coming kingdom of God. In other words, at least to those of his inner circle, Jesus appears to have proclaimed that he really was the future messiah, not in the sense that he would raise an army to drive out the Romans, but in the sense that when the Son of Man brought the kingdom to earth, he, Jesus, would be anointed its ruler. No wonder his disciples considered him the messiah. He appears to have told them that himself.
This argument is virtually the same case that I made at our debate on why it is reasonable to infer that the historical Jesus claimed to be divine. Namely, Jesus’ earliest followers proclaimed him as God, and this is a radically unique idea to hail a crucified Jewish Messiah as God.
Bart’s Logic Cuts Both Ways
Bart uses this same historical argument to prove that Jesus taught his followers that he was the Messiah. I use it to prove that Jesus taught his followers that he was God. Bart says no one expected the Messiah to die and rise again. Well no one expected the Messiah to be God either!
As Larry Hurtado has put it:
In early Christian circles Jesus is recipient of the sorts of expressions of devotion that are otherwise reserved for God alone, and which simply have no analogy in Jewish tradition of the Second-Temple period. Put simply, this worship of the risen/exalted Jesus comprises a radical new innovation in Jewish monotheistic religion.
Where then does this radically unique “innovation” within Jewish monotheism come from?
For example, we know Paul believed Jesus was:
- Pre-Existent (Phil 2:6, 2 Cor 8:9)
- Creator of the Universe (1 Cor 8:6)
- Human (Phil 2:7–8; Gal 4:4–5)
- Equal with God (Phil 2:6)
- YHWH in the flesh (Phil 2:10–11; Rom 10:13)
- “God” (Rom 9:5)
Did Paul make all this up? Bart doesn’t think so:
There are no grounds for assuming that Paul, whose views of Jesus were taken over from the Palestinian Jewish Christians who preceded him, held a radically different view of Jesus from his predecessors.
Therefore, Paul’s Christology couldn’t have been different than Peter, James, and John’s. Imagine Paul making such exalted claims about Jesus while Peter and James were saying he was only a prophet. Paul would have mentioned this disparity! Paul actually affirms the unity of their doctrine in 1 Corinthians 15:11: “Whether then it was I or they (Peter, James, John, et al), so we preach and so you believed.”
So where did Jesus’ chief apostle Peter, his brother James, and his beloved John get these radical ideas about this crucified man? The historical Jesus appears to have told them himself.
Did Paul and the Gospel Authors Believe Jesus Is YHWH Come in the Flesh?
“He [Jesus] is definitely not YHWH for any author of the New Testament.” –Bart Ehrman (from our debate at about the 01:19:00 mark)
Of all the issues Bart and I discussed, I was most surprised with his belief that equating Jesus with YHWH is a form of Sabellianism. Sabellius was a heretic from the third century who taught that the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit were different modes of God’s being (hence the parallel term modalism). For Sabellius and other modalists, Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit are not distinct persons, but instead they are all the same one person of God.
Bart seems to think that the NT authors believed YHWH was always God the Father and so to equate Jesus with YHWH would be a form of Sabellianism. Bart also said in our debate: “Elohim is the term that gets applied to Jesus.”
Bart has these titles for God the Father and Jesus completely confused. Allow me to take a moment to demonstrate that the NT authors used Elohim and YHWH the exact opposite way than what Bart contended in our debate.
Elohim is the Hebrew title for “God” in the OT that gets translated into Greek as theos and into English as “God”. YHWH is the personal Hebrew name for the God of Israel revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14–15 and gets translated into Greek as kurios and into English as “Lord”.
Lord, YHWH, Kurios, Theos, and the Divine Persons
It is very clear that the NT authors overwhelmingly used kurios• (Lord) for Jesus and theos* (God) for God the Father. To illustrate, kurios (Lord) is used 540 times for Jesus in the NT and only 121 times to refer to God the Father. Jesus is referred to as theos (God) only 11 times in the NT and God the Father is called theos (God) almost 1,300 times.
Now consider just Paul’s letters. In Paul’s letters, God the Father is called kurios (Lord) only 12 times, but Jesus is called (Lord) 245 times. Conversely, Paul calls Jesus theos (God) only 2 times in all of his letters (Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13), but God the Father is called theos (God) 542 times!
This is most clearly shown in Paul’s redefining of the Shema in 1 Corinthians 8:6 where Elohim (God) for Paul is God the Father and YHWH (Lord) is Jesus.
“For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” (1 Corinthians 8:6)
The NT authors have predominantly reserved the title theos (God) for God the Father and the title kurios (Lord) for Jesus, God’s Son.
In addition, Elohim = theos = God almost always refers to God the Father in the NT. Bart is flat out wrong that “Elohim is the term that gets applied to Jesus.” In fact, the only place in the entire NT that quotes an OT passage using Elohim as a reference to Jesus is Psalm 45:6–7 (quoted in Hebrews 1:8–9). Even here though there is a second Elohim that refers to God the Father: “Therefore God (the Son), Your God (the Father), has anointed You…” (Psalm 45:7: Hebrews 1:9).
Is Jesus Called YHWH?
What about the name YHWH? Remember, YHWH gets translated into Greek as kurios (Lord) which is the title reserved almost exclusively in the NT for Jesus. Bart did bring up the fact that the Hebrew title Adonai also gets translated as kurios (Lord), which is true. However, what conclusively shows that the NT authors did see Jesus as YHWH is that almost every time they quote an OT passage referring to YHWH in the NT, it now refers to Jesus.
This can be demonstrated from these four examples (and there are many more):
1) Did John the Baptist prepare the way for YHWH (Isa 40:3–5) or Jesus (Matt 3:1–3; Mark 1:1–3; Luke 3:1–6; John 1:23)?
Interestingly, in Isa 40:3 it speaks of a “highway for our God (Elohim)” yet all four Gospels delete Elohim/theos/God when they quote this passage (Matt 3, Mark 1, Luke 3, John 1). Why? It seems all four Gospel authors didn’t want there to be confusion that Jesus was both YHWH and Elohim. They wanted to reserve the title Elohim for God the Father and YHWH for Jesus so they all dropped Elohim/theos from their quotation. Clearly, for all the Gospel authors John the Baptist is preparing the way for Jesus (YHWH from Isaiah 40:3).
2.) Do we call on the name of YHWH (Joel 2:32) or Jesus (Romans 10:13)?
Bart and I went back and forth on this, and I made the point that in Joel 2:32 the “Lord” behind Paul’s quotation is YHWH. Bart didn’t respond directly to this point, but only expressed shock that I thought Jesus is YHWH in the flesh. But that is exactly what Paul (and the earliest followers of Jesus) believed as Romans 10:13 clearly demonstrates.
3.) Is YHWH the Lord of the Shema (Deut 6:4–5) or Jesus (1 Cor 8:6)?
This is the clearest expression of how Paul probably interpreted most passages in the OT. Paul redefines the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 and sees the “God” (Elohim) there as God the Father. He also sees the “Lord” (YHWH) there as referring to Jesus Christ. This seems to be the way Paul interpreted Elohim (God the Father) and YHWH (Jesus) in the Hebrew Scriptures.
4.) Will every knee bow to YHWH (Isa 45:23) or Jesus (Phil 2:10–11)?
Let’s look again more closely at the text in Isaiah this hymn is alluding to:
Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. I have sworn by Myself, the word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back, that to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance. They will say of Me, ‘Only in YHWH are righteousness and strength.’ (Isaiah 45:22–24)
Notice, YHWH says, “to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance…” (45:23).
Paul says that it is to Jesus that every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess him as Lord. Jesus is not a separate being from YHWH here. Jesus is YHWH come in the flesh to whom every knee will bow one day and every tongue will confess as Lord.
What about places where YHWH is clearly God the Father in the NT?
For the NT authors, YHWH was the personal name of the God of Israel. Moreover, they seemed to feel free applying this name to all three members of the triune God. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit could all be addressed as YHWH.
The Father is explicitly addressed as YHWH in at least two places in the NT in distinction from Jesus. Psalm 110:1, quoted throughout the NT, clearly sees YHWH as the Father and Adonai as the Son. Similarly, Psalm 2:2 addresses the Father as YHWH and the Son as his Christ/Messiah according to Acts 4:25–26.
Even the Holy Spirit is addressed as YHWH a few times in the NT. 2 Corinthians 3:17 says, “The Lord is the Spirit,” and in the context, the “Lord” here is YHWH whom Moses appeared before in Exodus 34:34. In addition, Hebrews 10:15–16 begins a quotation of the OT by saying “The Holy Spirit also testifies for us, saying…” Then he quotes what the Lord (YHWH) says in the original context of Jeremiah 31:33.
Yet, in the vast majority of cases, YHWH = kurios = Lord is primarily reserved for Jesus according to every author of the NT. Jesus is YHWH come to us in the flesh.
Lastly, the most explicit text where Jesus himself says essentially, “I am YHWH” is in John 8:58. Here the Jews pick up stones to stone him because he said, “Before Abraham existed, I Am.” “I Am who I Am” is what YHWH said to Moses in Exodus 3:14 when Moses asked him his name. It’s the exact same phrase in the Greek (ego eimi) translation of Exodus 3:14 as it is in John 8:58. This is the personal name of the God of Israel. Bart agrees that this is a divine claim by Christ. If Jesus isn’t claiming to be YHWH here, then what is he claiming?
In sum, when the earliest Christians, long before Paul, confessed, “Jesus is Lord,” they were saying this:
Jesus is YHWH come to us in the flesh. The God of Israel has come to save us as he promised through the Holy Scriptures, but the way he came is nothing we could have ever dreamed. He literally became flesh, even Jewish flesh and walked among us. And he, the Lord of Glory was crucified for our sins and buried, but God the Father raised him from the dead and exalted him to his right hand as the Sovereign King and Lord of all. Filled with his Spirit, we will proclaim this good news to the ends of the earth as we await his return to judge the living and the dead. Maranatha! (1 Corinthians 16:22)
- Mythicists are a segment of the atheist population that believe the historical man Jesus of Nazareth didn’t exist. ↩
- Bart Ehrman. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2014, p. 118. ↩
- Bart Ehrman. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NT, 2012, p. 319. ↩
- Larry Hurtado. How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus. William B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, 2005, pp. 47–48. ↩
- Bart Ehrman. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NT, 2012, p. 256. ↩
- The Old Testament was written originally in Hebrew (and some portions in Aramaic) and the New Testament was written originally in Greek. Around 250 BC, Jews in Alexandria translated the first five books of Moses (Gen, Exod, Lev, Num, Deut) into Greek. Probably within a few hundred years after this, all the OT books were translated into Greek. The earliest strata of this Greek translation became known as the Septuagint (LXX). The NT authors utilized the Greek translation of the OT (the LXX) predominantly in their quotations from the OT. This is why we have to look at the Hebrew, Greek OT, and the Greek NT when we discuss these issues. ↩
- All these statistics come from my personal research in the NT. In other words, I counted all these titles of Jesus and God myself. If anyone would like to see the data laid out in full, you can email me at [email protected] and I will send it to you. ↩
- Shema is the first Hebrew word in Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear!” The Shema (Deut 6:4) is considered the most foundational text for Jewish monotheism in the entire Hebrew Bible. Jews at the time of Jesus probably recited the Shema more than once a day. ↩
Justin W. Bass has a Ph.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary in New Testament Studies. His recent book is entitled The Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 and Christ’s Descent into the Underworld. He has received a Masters of Theology from DTS and a Business degree in Entrepreneurship from Southern Methodist University. Dr. Bass is currently the Lead Pastor of 1042 Church in Frisco and a Professor at Dallas Christian College and Dallas Theological Seminary. When he is not working, he is reading, watching movies (usually Lord of the Rings), and spending time with his high school sweetheart Allison Bass and their two kids Arianna (5) and Christian (2).