If Jesus Never Called Himself God, How Did He Become One?

Apr 7, 2014
Originally published on April 8, 2014 4:26 am

When Bart Ehrman was a young Evangelical Christian, he wanted to know how God became a man, but now, as an agnostic and historian of early Christianity, he wants to know how a man became God.

When and why did Jesus' followers start saying "Jesus as God" and what did they mean by that? His new book is called How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.

"In this book I actually do not take a stand on either the question of whether Jesus was God, or whether he was actually raised from the dead," Ehrman tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I leave open both questions because those are theological questions based on religious beliefs and I'm writing the book as a historian."

Ehrman is the author of several books about early Christianity, including Misquoting Jesus and Jesus Interrupted.


Interview Highlights

On a major difference between the first three gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — and the last gospel, John

During his lifetime, Jesus himself didn't call himself God and didn't consider himself God, and ... none of his disciples had any inkling at all that he was God. ...

You do find Jesus calling himself God in the Gospel of John, or the last Gospel. Jesus says things like, "Before Abraham was, I am." And, "I and the Father are one," and, "If you've seen me, you've seen the Father." These are all statements you find only in the Gospel of John, and that's striking because we have earlier gospels and we have the writings of Paul, and in none of them is there any indication that Jesus said such things. ...

I think it's completely implausible that Matthew, Mark and Luke would not mention that Jesus called himself God if that's what he was declaring about himself. That would be a rather important point to make. This is not an unusual view amongst scholars; it's simply the view that the Gospel of John is providing a theological understanding of Jesus that is not what was historically accurate.

On how Roman emperors were called "God"

Right at the same time that Christians were calling Jesus "God" is exactly when Romans started calling their emperors "God." So these Christians were not doing this in a vacuum; they were actually doing it in a context. I don't think this could be an accident that this is a point at which the emperors are being called "God." So by calling Jesus "God," in fact, it was a competition between your God, the emperor, and our God, Jesus.

When Constantine, the emperor, then converted to Christianity, it changed everything because now rather than the emperor being God, the emperor was the worshipper of the God, Jesus. That was quite a forceful change, and one could argue that it changed the understanding of religion and politics for all time.

On the emergence of the Trinity

Christians had a dilemma as soon as they declared that Christ was God. If Christ is God and God the Father is God, doesn't that make two gods? And when you throw the Holy Spirit into the mix, doesn't that make three gods? So aren't Christians polytheists? Christians wanted to insist, no, they're monotheists. Well, if they're monotheists, how can all three be God?

So there are various ways of trying to explain this, and one of the most popular ways ... was called modalism. It's called modalism because it insisted that God existed in three modes — just as I myself at the same time am a son, and a brother and a father, but there's only one of me — well these theologians said: That's what God is like. He's manifest in three persons, but there's only one of him, so he's at the same time father, son and spirit. So he's in three modes of existence, so there's only one of him.

On the difference between history and the past

What I try to teach my students is that history is not the past. ... There are a lot of things in the past that we cannot show historically. For example ... you simply cannot show what my grandfather ate on March 23, 1956. I mean, he ate something for lunch that day, I'm sure, but there's no way we have access to it. So it's in the past, but it's not part of history. History is what we can show to have happened in the past.

One of the things that historians cannot show as having happened in the past is anything that's miraculous. Because to believe that a miracle has happened, to believe that God has done something in our world, requires a person to believe in God. It requires a theological belief, but historians can't require theological beliefs to do their work. ...

[Historians] don't invoke miracle because it's beyond what historians can prove. Miracles may have happened in the past, but they're not part of history. So that applies to the resurrection of Jesus. Historians acting as historians — whether they're believers or nonbelievers — acting as historians, they simply cannot say Jesus was probably raised by God from the dead. But historians can look at other aspects of the resurrection traditions and see whether they bear up, historically.

On the empty tomb and the resurrection

Was Jesus put in a tomb and three days later that tomb was found empty? Well, that's a historical question. And to answer it, it doesn't require any set of religious beliefs; you can simply look at the sources and draw some historical conclusions. ...

Before I wrote this book and did the research on it, I was convinced, as many people are, that Jesus was given a decent burial, and on the third day the women went to the tomb, found it empty, and that started the belief in the resurrection.

Apart from the fact that I don't think Jesus was given a decent burial — that he was probably thrown into a common grave of some kind — apart from that, I was struck in doing my research by the fact that the New Testament never indicates that people came to believe in the resurrection because of the empty tomb. This was a striking find because it's just commonly said that that's what led to the resurrection belief.

But if you think about it for a second, it makes sense that the empty tomb wouldn't make anybody believe. If you put somebody in a tomb and three days later you go back and the body's not in the tomb, your first thought isn't, "Oh, he's been exalted to heaven and made the son of God." Your first thought is, "Somebody stole the body." Or, "Somebody moved the body." Or, "Hey, I'm at the wrong tomb." You don't think he's been exalted to heaven. In the New Testament it's striking that in the Gospels the empty tomb leads to confusion but it doesn't lead to belief. What leads to belief is that some of the followers of Jesus have visions of him afterward.

On why he's interested in studying Jesus' transformation

If Jesus had not been declared God by his followers, his followers would've remained a sect within Judaism — a small Jewish sect, and if that was the case it would not have attracted a large number of gentiles. If they hadn't attracted a large number of gentiles, there wouldn't have been this steady rate of conversion over the first three centuries to Christianity; it would've been a small Jewish sect.

If Christianity had not become a sizable minority in the empire, the Roman emperor Constantine almost certainly would not have converted, but then there wouldn't have been the masses of conversions after Constantine, and Christianity would not have become the state religion of Rome. If that hadn't happened, it would never have become the dominant religious, cultural, political, social, economic force that it became so that we wouldn't have even had the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation or modernity as we know it. ... It all hinges on this claim the early Christians had that Jesus was God.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When my guest Bart Ehrman was a young, evangelical Christian, he wanted to know how God became a man. But now as an agnostic and historian of early Christianity, he wants to know how a man became God. When and why did Jesus' followers say Jesus is God, and what did they mean by that?

Ehrman's new book is called "How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee." Ehrman is the author of several popular books about early Christianity, including "Misquoting Jesus" and "Jesus Interrupted." He's a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Bart Ehrman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Explain the fundamental question that you're asking in your new book.

BART EHRMAN: Well, the question is, how it is that a Jewish preacher who was predicting the imminent end of the age as he knew it, and ended being crucified for his messages, how is it that we went from a crucified peasant to the second member of the Trinity? Jesus eventually comes to be seen of as God, and the book is about how that happened.

GROSS: Why did you want to ask that question?

EHRMAN: In my various books, I tried to deal with big issues, and I think this is the biggest issue I've ever dealt with. And the reason is that if Jesus had not been declared God by his followers, his followers would have remained a sect within Judaism - a small, Jewish sect. And if that was the case, it would not have attracted a large number of gentiles.

If they hadn't attracted a large number of gentiles, there wouldn't have been the steady rate of conversion over the first three centuries to Christianity. It would've been a small, Jewish sect. If Christianity had not become a sizable minority in the empire, the Roman Emperor Constantine almost certainly would not have converted. But then there wouldn't have been the masses of conversions after Constantine, and Christianity would not have become the state religion of Rome.

If that hadn't happened, it would never have become the dominant religious, cultural, political, social, economic force that it became so that we wouldn't have even had the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, or modernity as we know it.

(LAUGHTER)

EHRMAN: And so this is a big question. It all hinges on this claim the early Christians had that Jesus was God.

GROSS: Are you saying that Christians made the claim that Jesus is God in order to grow bigger, to grow behind being a small cult?

EHRMAN: No, I don't think they had any idea that that would happen. The earliest Christians thought that Jesus had been taken up into heaven and then made a divine being and that he was coming back. And they thought it was going to happen very soon. So they had no idea that they were going to revolutionize Western civilization. They didn't think there was going to be a Western civilization; the end was going to come.

GROSS: So did Jesus' earliest followers consider him to be God?

EHRMAN: Well, what I argue in the book is that during his lifetime, Jesus himself didn't call himself God and didn't consider himself God and that none of his disciples had any inkling at all that he was God. The way it works is that you do find Jesus calling himself God in the Gospel of John, our last Gospel. Jesus says things like: Before Abraham was, I am, and I and the father are one, and if you've seen me, you've see the father.

These are all statements that you find only in the Gospel of John, and that's striking because we have earlier Gospels, and we have the writings of Paul, and in none of them is there any indication that Jesus said such things about him. I think it's completely implausible that Matthew, Mark and Luke would not mention that Jesus called himself God if that's what he was declaring about himself. That would be a rather important point to make.

So this is not an unusual view among scholars. It's simply the view that the Gospel of John is providing a theological understand of Jesus that is not what was historically accurate.

GROSS: Jesus was referred to as the king of the Jews. Did he call himself that, and what did that mean it is time? Do we know? Can we have any idea what that meant in its time?

EHRMAN: Yeah, we do know, and actually to be a king of the Jews simply meant literally, being the king over Israel. It is a very difficult question to get to, what Jesus taught about himself because of the nature of our gospels, but one thing is relatively certain, that that the reason the Romans crucified Jesus was precisely because he was calling himself the king of Israel.

Now, Jesus obviously was not the king. So what might he have meant by it? Well, what scholars have long thought is that Jesus was talking about not being put on the throne by means of some kind of political show of power, but that Jesus thought the world as he knew it was coming to an end and God was going to bring in a kingdom, a new kingdom in which there would be no more injustice or oppression or poverty or suffering of any kind.

And in this kingdom, Jesus appears to have thought that he himself would be the future king. And so Jesus meant this not in the regular political sense but in a kind of apocalyptic sense, that at the end of the age, this is what was going to happen: he was going to be installed as king.

GROSS: So Jesus saw himself as the messiah. What else did that mean in its time?

EHRMAN: Well, a lot of Christians today have a wrong idea about what the messiah was supposed to be. The word messiah is a Hebrew word that literally means the anointed one. This was used in reference to the kings of Israel. The ancient kings of Israel, when they became king during the coronation ceremony, would have oil poured on their head as a sign of divine favor.

And so the king of Israel was called God's anointed one, the messiah. There came a point at which there was no longer a king ruling Israel, and some Jewish thinkers began to maintain that there would be a future king of Israel, a future anointed one, and they called that one the messiah. And so the messiah for most Jews simply referred to the future king of Israel.

And so when Jesus told his disciples that he himself was the messiah, he was saying that in the future, when God establishes the kingdom once more, I myself will be the king of that kingdom. And so it's not that the messiah was supposed to be God. The messiah was not supposed to be God. The messiah was a human being who would be the future king, and that's probably what Jesus taught his disciples that he was.

GROSS: When you're asking the question of did Jesus really rise from the dead, was there really an empty tomb, a tomb that he had been buried in, as a scholar of the historical Jesus, where do you go to try to answer those questions?

EHRMAN: Well, there are some questions that history can answer and other things that history cannot answer. What I try to teach my students is that history is not the past. Now that seems a little strange to my students, but I explain there are a lot of things in the past that we cannot show historically. For example you can't show, even if you want to, you simply can't show what my grandfather ate on March 23, 1956.

I mean, he ate something for lunch that day I'm sure, but there's no way we have access to it. So it's in the past, but it's not part of history. History is what we can show to have happened in the past. One of the things that historians cannot show as having happened in the past is anything that's miraculous because to believe that a miracle's happened, to believe that God has something in our world requires a person to believe in God, it requires a theological belief.

But historians can't require theological beliefs to do their work. That's why historians, whether they're historians of World War II or of the Napoleonic age or of ancient Alexandria Egypt, historians who deal with historical subjects don't invoke miracle because it's beyond what historians can prove. Miracles may have happened in the past, but they're not part of history.

So that applies to the resurrection of Jesus. Historians acting as historians, whether they're believers or non-believers, as historians they simply cannot say Jesus was probably raised by God from the dead. But historians can look at the other aspects of the resurrection traditions and see whether they bear up historically. So for example, the question was there an empty tomb, was Jesus put in a tomb and three days later that tomb was found empty? Well, that's a historical question and to answer it, it doesn't require any set of religious beliefs. You can simply look at the sources and draw some historical conclusions.

GROSS: OK, so one of the things you look at is typically what happened to the bodies of men who were crucified. And when you try to answer that question, what answers do you come up with?

EHRMAN: You know, this is one of the things that really startled me in doing my research for this. I actually changed my views about this question about whether there was an empty tomb three days after Jesus' death, and the reason I changed my mind about it is because I started to look into what we know about Roman practices of crucifixion.

Now it's interesting that we never have any literary descriptions in any writing at all. These no description of how exactly crucifixion was performed. But there are references in ancient Greek and Latin texts that refer to people who have been crucified, and what is striking is that in virtually every instance, we're told that the person was left on the cross in order to rot away and to be eaten by scavengers so that the punishment of crucifixion wasn't simply the torture involved, it also was the horrible effect of not being given a proper burial.

GROSS: The desecration of the body after death.

EHRMAN: Absolutely, the body was to desecrated, and this was scandalous to ancient people. But the Romans did it this was as a disincentive for crime. So it's not just that you're going to go through a horrible death; your body is going to rot in the cross, and scavengers are going to eat it.

And this is the typical procedure for crucifixion in the ancient world, and so I ask in my book is it likely that there was an exception in the case of Jesus. So in the Gospels, of course, Joseph of Arimathea asks for Jesus' body, and Pontius Pilate gives it to him, and then Joseph puts it in his tomb, and three days later that tomb is found empty.

Well, I ask the question in my book is Pilate, from what we know about him from other sources, likely to have made an exception with Jesus or with anyone else? Is Pilate likely to have said, well, OK, in this one case, we'll actually take the carcass off the cross and put it in, and give him a decent burial? I think it's highly unlikely, for reasons that I lay out in the book, given what we know about Pilate from other sources.

GROSS: What are some of the reasons you think Pilate would not have made an exception?

EHRMAN: Well, what we know about Pilate comes to us from various sources, including the Jewish historian Josephus and the philosopher from Alexandria, Egypt, named Philo, what we learn about Pilate from these sources is that Pilate was not a nice fellow. He was not concerned about the people that he ruled. He was ruthless. He was hard-hearted. He was mean-spirited, and he simply did not care about the religious sensibilities of the Jews in Palestine as we learn from several episodes in both Josephus and Philo.

And so even if the Jewish authorities who had arranged for Jesus to be crucified with Pilate, even if they decided, well, let's give him a decent burial, there's nothing in the record to suggest that Pilate would ever do that, and we have no record of any governor of any province in the entire Roman Empire who would bow to the religious sensibilities of their people in order to give somebody a decent burial.

And so it seems unlikely to me that the exception was made in the case of Jesus.

GROSS: Say an exception was made. Do you have other questions about the entombment of Jesus before the resurrection?

EHRMAN: Yeah, you know, before I wrote this book and did the research on it, I was convinced, as many people are, that Jesus was given a decent burial, and on the third day the women when to the tomb, found it empty, and that started the belief in the resurrection. Apart from the fact that I don't think Jesus was given a decent burial, that he was probably thrown into a common grave of some kind, apart from that, I was struck in doing my research that the New Testament never indicates that people came to believe in the resurrection because of the empty tomb.

And this was a striking find because it's just commonly said that that's what led to the resurrection belief. But if you think about it for a second, it makes sense that the empty tomb wouldn't make anybody believe. If you put somebody in a tomb, and three days later you go back, and the body's not in the tomb, your first thought is not oh, he's been exalted to heaven and made the son of God. Your first thought is somebody stole the body, or somebody moved the body, or hey, I'm at the wrong tomb. You don't think he's been exalted to heaven.

And in the New Testament it's striking that in the Gospels the empty tomb leads to confusion, but it doesn't lead to belief. What leads to belief is that some of the followers of Jesus have visions of him afterwards.

GROSS: OK, and then you question those visions. What are your questions about the visions?

EHRMAN: We know a lot about visions from modern research. It turns out that about one out of eight people among us has had some kind of visionary experience in which we've seen something that wasn't really there and were convinced that in fact it was there. That's a vision. Now the way I write my book is that I leave open the question of what caused these visions of the disciples.

People who are Christian will say the reason the disciples had visions of Jesus after his death is because he was raised from the dead, and he appeared to them. And so they would call these visions appearances of Jesus. Non-Christians would look at the same information and say the disciples had hallucinations. And so I got interested in this question of hallucinations and started to look into it, and it turns out that hallucinations are very common among people, still today, and two of the most common kinds of hallucinations are of deceased loved ones and of revered religious figures.

So in terms of deceased loved ones, sometimes somebody will have a vision of his grandmother in his bedroom a couple weeks after his grandmother dies. That happens a lot. In terms of revered religious figures, we have all sorts of documented reports of the blessed Virgin Mary appearing to hundreds of people at one time, thousands of people at one time.

And so in my chapter, I deal with these incidents of visions that we know about from the modern people and from history, and then I point out that a historian as a historian can certainly say that some of Jesus' followers had visions of him and that since they had visions of him, they thought that he was no longer dead. And since they were the kinds of Jews who thought that afterlife was lived in the body, that it wasn't that your spirit lived on after your body died but that the afterlife was a bodily existence, if they thought Jesus was alive again, they necessarily thought that he was alive again in his body.

And this is then what begins the belief in Jesus' bodily resurrection.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bart Ehrman, and he's a scholar of the New Testament. He's a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He's written several bestselling books, including "Misquoting Jesus." His new book is called "How Jesus Became God." Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Bart Ehrman, who's written several bestselling books about the New Testament. He's a former Evangelical Christian who is now an agnostic and a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. His new book is called "How Jesus Became God."

You write that the first 20 years after the death of Jesus is particularly significant in perceiving Christ as God. What happens during those first 20 years after his death?

EHRMAN: Those 20 years are both really important and really mysterious because we don't have any Christian writings from the period. The earliest Christian author we have is the apostle Paul, whose letters were written mainly in the 50s of the Common Era. So if Jesus died around the year 30, and Paul's first letter is around 50, and that's our earliest writing, that means that have a 20-year gap where we have no writings at all by any Christian. And so it's a complicated period to study.

What I argue in my book is that in the New Testament, including the letters of Paul and in the Book of Acts, for example, there are occasional passages that scholars have identified as what they call pre-literary traditions. What that means is that the authors are quoting materials that had been in circulation prior to the time of their writing, and so they're pre-literary, and they're traditions because they've been floating around for a while.

What's interesting is when you isolate the pre-literary traditions in Paul in the Book of Acts that refer to Jesus and his status as the son of God, what these consistently point to is that Jesus became the son of God when God raised him from the dead, that it was at the resurrection of Jesus that God made Jesus his son.

This is what I call an exaltation Christology. Christology simply means your view of Christ. And then exaltation Christology is one that says that Christ had been a human being and that God had exalted him to a position of divinity. The earliest Christians, during those first 20 years, the very earliest Christians, appeared to have thought that that's what happened. God raised Jesus from the dead and made him a divine being.

GROSS: There's another view of that, which is that, you know, Jesus was always divine.

EHRMAN: That's right, and what I try to show in the book is that that's a later view within Christian circles, that the initial view, based on these pre-literary traditions, is that Jesus is exalted to be divine and that as Christians thought about it more and more, they tried to put it all together.

And so the first Christians, as soon as they believe in the resurrection, they think God has taken Jesus up into heaven, he's made a divine being. Then they thought, well, it wasn't just at his resurrection, he must have been the son of God during his entire ministry. And so Christians then started saying he must have been made the son of God at his baptism.

That's a view that you appear to get in the Gospel of Mark, which begins with Jesus being baptized and God declaring him his son at the baptism. As Christians thought about it more, they started thinking, well, he wasn't just the son of God during his ministry; he must have been the son of God during his entire life. And so they started telling stories about how Jesus was born the son of God. And so there developed traditions about Jesus being born of a virgin.

And so in our Gospels written after Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus' mother is virgin so that he's the son of God from his birth. And Christians thought about it more, they thought, well, he wasn't just the son of God during his life, he must have always been the son of God. And so then you get to our last Gospel, the Gospel of John, where Jesus is a pre-existent divine being who becomes human.

That point of view I call not an exaltation Christology, not going from a human to being made a divine being, I call it an incarnation Christology, where you start out as a divine being and then temporarily become human. And so these are the two fundamental kinds of Christology that you get in your earlier years, an exaltation and an incarnation Christology.

GROSS: Bart Ehrman will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "How Jesus Became God." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Bart Ehrman about his new book "How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee." Ehrman is a former evangelical Christian who now considers himself an agnostic. He's a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is the author of several books about early Christianity, including the bestseller, "Misquoting Jesus." His new book - like its title suggests - is about how Jesus' followers came to see him as God.

So what were some of the beliefs in ancient times, in the times of Christ, about divine beings and earthly people and whether they had any interaction at all and, you know, whether there were divine beings on Earth?

EHRMAN: Right. This is something that is not widely known outside the realms of scholars. We today, many of us think of Jesus as the only miracle working son of God of the ancient world. As it turns out, he wasn't the only one. There were a lot of individuals in antiquity in Greek, Roman and Jewish circles who were thought to be both human and divine. There were basically three ways that this could happen. You find this in Greek and Roman mythology and you also actually find it in Jewish texts. Sometimes you have a human being who is a superior human being, either unbelievably powerful or beautiful or wise and because of this person's superiority, a god or the gods, or the God of Israel, exults the person to Heaven and makes that person a divine being. So the person starts out as a human and becomes divine. That's one way that a human can be divine.

A second way is that sometimes in legend and mythology, a divine being will have sex with a mortal and the offspring will be a divine human, so that, for example, that's how Hercules is born. Hercules mother is a mortal but his father is Jupiter, the king of the gods. So that's a second way, someone born to the union of a divine being and a mortal being. The third way is that sometimes divine beings can take on human shape. And so when Jupiter comes down to get Hercules' mother pregnant, he comes down in the form of a human. And so gods can temporarily become human.

Now these ways of looking at it are found in Greek and Roman mythology, but they're also found in Jewish texts. The Christians took up all three ways and applied them to Jesus. The earliest Christians maintained that Jesus was a human being who was made God - a god - a divine being. Later they ended up saying that Jesus was born to the union of God and a mortal because the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and that's how she conceived Jesus, so Jesus literally had God as his father. And then later Christians started to say that in fact, Jesus was a divine being who temporarily became a human being. So these three ways of understanding divine humans in the ancient world are picked up by Christians who develop their Christologies accordingly.

GROSS: So ancient Greeks and Romans believed that there were many gods and that those gods can visit Earth and that some gods actually procreated with humans. But at the same time, were some people elevated almost to the status of god? Was, I mean was Julius Caesar, for instance, almost deified?

EHRMAN: Yeah. He wasn't almost deified, he absolutely was deified. And his adopted son, Caesar - who became Caesar Augustus - his adopted son, Octavius, was very much in favor of the decision that in fact, Julius Caesar had become a god because if his father had become a god what does that make him?

(LAUGHTER)

EHRMAN: He's the son of god. And so absolutely, figures like Romulus became a god - the founder of Rome and other people. And then the Roman emperors, of course, were often said to have become gods, either at death or sometimes even during their lives.

GROSS: And how did that deification of the emperor fit, do you think, in how the Romans change Christianity when Constantine converted?

EHRMAN: Yeah. One of the things that struck me in writing this book is I came to realize with a clarity that I hadn't seen before that right at the same time that Christians were calling Jesus, God, is exactly when Romans started calling their emperors God. So these Christians were not doing this in a vacuum. They were actually doing it in a context and I don't think that this could be an accident, that this is the point at which the emperors were being called God. And so by calling Jesus, God, in fact, it was a competition between your god, the emperor and our god, Jesus. When Constantine, the emperor, then converted to Christianity, it changed everything because now, rather than the emperor being God, the emperor was the worshiper of the god, Jesus. And that was quite a forceful change and one could argue it changed the understanding of religion and politics for all time.

GROSS: So you described how in ancient times Greek and Roman mythology have gods who come to Earth, they have gods who mate with humans and have offspring. And you say that the whole debate over the nature of Christ came to a head in the early fourth century after the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. So how did Constantine, a Roman emperor's conversion to Christianity, change the debate about the nature of Christ divinity?

EHRMAN: Well, the conversion of Constantine was - is absolutely everything to the success of Christianity, but also to this developing idea of who Jesus was as a divine being. And there are debates about why Constantine converted to Christianity. Some people think that he had a genuine religious experience, as described in some of the ancient sources. Others think that it was more of a kind of a cynical political move on his part. And my view is that I'm not cynical about it. I think Constantine actually had a conversion, but there was a political component to it.

Constantine was ruling over a fragmented empire and Christianity provided precisely what he needed to have a kind of cultural unity in his empire because Christianity emphasized oneness. There's only one god. There aren't lots of gods, as in Roman paganism. There's only one god. He has one son. There's one truth. There's one faith. One hope. One baptism. It's all about oneness. And Constantine saw this as possibly a unifying factor for his fragmented empire. The problem was that Christianity itself was fragmented over this question of who Christ is. Is Christ a subordinate divine being who came into existence at some point in the remote past, or is Christ fully equal with God and as one who's equal with God has always existed? So it may seem like a kind of a refined theological debate, but it was splitting the church and Constantine wanted the church to be unified because he wanted the unity of the church to help him unify his empire. And so...

GROSS: So which side did Constantine come down on?

EHRMAN: Constantine himself didn't really care.

(LAUGHTER)

EHRMAN: When he talks about it, he says he thinks it's a trivial theological matter and he doesn't really care but he wants the Christians to work it out. He wants them to agree, whichever way they go. Well, so he calls a council where bishops from around the world were called together to decide this issue: Who was Christ? Everyone at the council agreed that Christ is God. The question was: In what sense is he God? They debated these issues and eventually one side won out. The side that won out was the side that said Christ has always been God and he's equal with God. He's not a subordinate divinity, he's not lesser than God the Father, he's actually equal with God the Father. And this became then the standard belief from the Council of Nicaea.

GROSS: So I'm going to ask a question that I know will strike a lot of people as really stupid. So forgive me, those people, who think that this is stupid.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: In all of these interpretations of Christ's divinity, his divinity is connected to the god of the Old Testament.

EHRMAN: Yeah. So it's not a stupid question at all. It's actually the question because Christians had a dilemma as soon as they declared that Christ was God. If Christ is God and God the Father is God, doesn't that make two gods? And when you throw the Holy Spirit into the mix, doesn't that make three gods? So aren't Christians polytheists? Well, Christians wanted to insist, no, they're monotheists. Well, if they're monotheists, then how can all three be God?

So there were various ways of trying to explain this. And one of the most popular ways that I talk about in a chapter in my book was called modalism. It's called modalism because it insisted that God existed in three modes - just as I myself at the same time am a son, and a brother and a father, but there's only one of me - well, these theologians said: That's what God is like. He's manifest in three persons, but there's only one of him, so he's at the same time he's father, son and spirit. And so he's in three modes of existence, so there's only one of him.

This view was very popular. It was held by some of the early bishops of Rome - in other words, some of the early popes. But it came to be declared a heresy because it didn't emphasize enough the distinctiveness of Father, Son, and Spirit. So, for example, when Jesus in the New Testament prays to God, he's obviously not talking to himself. And so they're someone else. And so God the Father has to be distinct from God the Son. And the church fathers who argue this have all sorts of clever ways of trying to demonstrate this. One of which is, if you've got a son, that means you're the father, but if you're the father, you can't be the son to yourself. You can't both be and have a son and be one person. So this is the controversy that led to the formation of the Doctrine of the Trinity.

The Doctrine of the Trinity says that there are three distinct persons. They are distinct. They're not the same. They're all three different persons. They are all equally God and yet there's only one god. Now the best theologians have always classified that as a mystery, which means that you can't understand it with your rational mind. If you think you do understand it, then you misunderstand it.

(LAUGHTER)

EHRMAN: But you have the three persons, all of them equally God yet, there's only one god.

GROSS: So I ask this especially for people who aren't Christian. What is the Holy Spirit and where does it fit in the Trinity?

EHRMAN: So throughout the Hebrew Bible, the Spirit of God appeared on occasion, including "Genesis," Chapter One: God creates the heavens and the Earth and the Spirit of God hovers over the water. So the Spirit of God seems to be something separate from god himself. And in the New Testament, Jesus talks about when he leaves this earth the Holy Spirit will come as his replacement. And so it came to be thought that God existed but that God had a spirit that was a separate being from him. And so the Christian theologians in the third and fourth centuries started thinking that this third person was also part of the godhead, so that you had not only God the Father in heaven and Christ his Son on Earth, but also the Spirit who is among his people and so that became part of the Doctrine of the Trinity.

GROSS: Do you see the Doctrine of the Trinity as almost being a transition in the Roman world from believing in many gods to monotheism?

EHRMAN: Well, you know, it has been seen that way. And in the debates over the trinity, when there were people who wanted to insist that the three persons are all distinct from one another, the Christian opponents said you're polytheists like the Roman pagans. And so the balancing act was very complicated because Christian theologians wanted to insist that the son could not be the father and the spirit was not the father or the son, they're all different, and yet there's only one god. And so they ended up with a paradoxical affirmation that you have one god manifest in three persons. The three persons are distinct but they're not different in degree and they're not different in kind, they're all equally God, but there's only one god. And so this ends up being a paradoxical affirmation.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is religion scholar Bart Ehrman. He's the author of several bestselling books about the New Testament, including "Misquoting Jesus." His new book is called "How Jesus Became God." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Bart Ehrman who's the author of several bestselling books about the New Testament, including "Misquoting Jesus." He's a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His new book is called "How Jesus Became God."

You're book "How Jesus Became God" is published to coincide with Easter. And Easter, of course, celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, something which your book challenges as not having actually happened historically. So on the one hand, you can argue the timing of this is great. It, you know, continues a debate and a conversation at exactly the right time. On the other hand, you could say the publication of the book is timed in a very sacrilegious way because it challenges - it historically challenges the fundamental, or at least a fundamental belief of Christianity. How do you feel about the book being published just in time for Easter?

EHRMAN: I think it's important to understand that in this book I actually do not take a stand on either the question of whether Jesus was God or whether he was actually raised from the dead. I leave open both questions because those are theological questions based on religious beliefs, and I'm writing the book as a historian. I'm not allowing my religious beliefs or disbeliefs to affect how I tell the historical story of how Christology developed, how Jesus became God.

And so I leave open the question of whether Jesus was raised from the dead by saying that the reason the disciples believed he was raised from the dead is because they had visions of him. Believers will say, well, that's because Jesus really appeared to them, and non-Christians will say, well, they had hallucinations. But I leave open both possibilities.

The same is true with whether Jesus was God. I should say I had several colleagues read this book to give me suggestions about how to do it. These colleagues are all themselves Christian, they're Christian scholars, and I know one of them for sure, if you ask him, will say, is Jesus God? He'll say, yes, Jesus is God. And he doesn't disagree with anything fundamental in this book at all.

So I leave open the question of whether Jesus is God and open the question of whether he was raised from the dead because I see those as theological and religious questions, whereas I'm interested in the historical questions. So I feel very good about this book being released at the time of Easter because I think these are important historical issues of importance of course to Christians and especially at this time of year, but important as well to everybody who has any interest at all in Western civilization because this ended up being one of the most important questions for the development of our form of civilization.

GROSS: As we've talked about before on FRESH AIR, you used to be a Christian, a fundamentalist who took the Bible as literal. And now you describe yourself as agnostic. What meaning does Easter have to you?

EHRMAN: You know, I went through a number of stages as a Christian. I was - for a long time I was a very hardcore evangelical Christian, I guess you could call me a fundamentalist. And I thought back then that you can prove the resurrection happened historically, I had all sorts of historical proofs for it happening. I came to think that I no longer could do that, and I moved from being an evangelical Christian.

And for many years I was a fairly liberal Christian. And for me, the meaning of Easter was that in Christ God had manifested himself in this world, that Easter showed that God triumphs over evil and that evil doesn't have the last word, God has the last word. And I still resonate with that, but I'm not a believer in God anymore. And so what is the meaning of Easter now for me?

I think Easter continues to show me that there is horrible injustice and oppression and political violence in the world, but that we should wrestle against it. In the Christian story of God raising Jesus from the dead, God was saying no to the Roman Empire and the forces that were aligned against him.

There are political forces in our world today that do horrible things; acts of injustice and oppressions, creating poverty and misery and suffering, and I think we should say no to them. And so I understand that Easter story not to be a historical event, but I still think that it says something very important about how we ought to live in the world.

GROSS: So finally, did you see the movie "Noah?"

(LAUGHTER)

EHRMAN: I did not.

GROSS: Are you going to?

EHRMAN: Yes, I am going to see it. I actually enjoy watching biblical epics. I teach a course at Chapel Hill called Jesus in Scholarship and Film, where we watch a lot of Jesus movies, and I think the Jesus movies have tended to be better than the movies about the Old Testament. So I'm actually...

GROSS: Don't tell me you don't like "The Ten Commandments."

(LAUGHTER)

EHRMAN: Well, I'll tell you, it has some good moments. The parting of the Red Sea is quite spectacular.

(LAUGHTER)

EHRMAN: But yeah, generally I'm not a huge Charlton Heston fan. But Russell Crowe I can live with.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What's your favorite of the Jesus movies?

EHRMAN: My favorite Jesus movie is one that is not widely seen, that is absolutely the best ever made. It's called "Jesus of Montreal." It's fantastic. It's about a theater troupe that puts on a passion play in a Catholic cathedral in Montreal. And the events of their lives start reflecting the events of the Gospel story. It's extremely clever and really, really, very interesting and thoughtful movie.

GROSS: OK, well Bart Ehrman, thank you so much for talking with us. It's great to talk with you again.

EHRMAN: Well, thanks for having me.

GROSS: Bart Ehrman is a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. His new book is called "How Jesus Became God." You can read the introduction on our website, freshair.npr.org. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.