In a recent interview with Alex O’Connor, formerly known as the “Cosmic Skeptic,” critical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman made a startling claim about a beloved Bible story where Jesus forgives sins and heals a paralytic man (Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26). In this narrative, a paralytic man sought Jesus for physical healing, and went to great lengths with the help of his friends to be in Jesus’s presence. Jesus, seeing their faith, said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
The Pharisees erupted, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Jesus knew what was in their stubborn hearts, and so he offered a solution. “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” And so, with that, he told the paralytic man to rise and walk, and he did. It would be easy for someone to claim a divine prerogative like forgiving sins that resulted in no verifiable evidence of efficacy, but it would be much harder to claim one that would be verified when a known paralytic man was given the ability to walk. And so, the logic goes, the latter miracle would prove the former act of forgiveness—an act reserved for God alone.
Now, obviously, the incident described above demonstrates that Jesus claimed to be God and then vindicated that claim through a verifiable miracle. However, Dr. Ehrman has regularly denied that Jesus ever claimed to be God and tries to poke holes in any argument from the New Testament that would suggest Jesus ever made such a claim. Unsurprisingly, then, Ehrman has a few issues with this New Testament narrative. First, he says, it was the Pharisees who say only God can forgive sins, and they are Jesus’s enemies, so we can’t really trust what they’re saying. (Yes, they were there to pick up on Jesus’s nuance and, yes, they were experts in the Law, but what would they know?).
Second, Ehrman points out that the Son of Man was given authority by God to forgive sins, so the Son of Man does not have that authority in himself. Jesus performed the miracle to show that the Son of Man “had authority,” not to show that the Son of Man “is God.” Interestingly, the explicit wording of the Son of Man being “given authority” does not occur here in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. But it does occur in John 5:27, the one Gospel that Ehrman says explicitly identifies Jesus as God and so is not trustworthy![i] However, there are a few people “given authority” to heal in the Synoptics—the apostles. And do Matthew, Mark, and Luke say, as the video implies, that Jesus is merely passing along the authority he received? No. Matthew 10:1, Mark 6:7, and Luke 9:1 state rather plainly some version of this: Jesus gave them authority to cast out demons and heal illnesses!
So, to sum it all up, Dr. Ehrman is making the case that Jesus is not saying he was God, but saying he was given the authority to forgive sins when he said, “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
And this is why I’m confused. Not because pretty much all the claims Dr. Ehrman makes in this interview are faulty on a number of levels, which we go into in further detail about in recent episodes of our All Rise podcast with New Testament scholar Dr. Rob Bowman. Watch part 1 here and part 2 here.
No, I am confused because Bart Ehrman does not think Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man. And if Bart Ehrman does not think Jesus is the Son of Man, then the passage he uses here to claim Jesus never identified as God should have nothing to do with his argument about the divinity of Jesus. If you do not quite understand why this is so troubling, allow me to elaborate.
Why does Ehrman think Jesus isn’t the Son of Man?
When I first read in Dr. Ehrman’s claim that he did not think Jesus was the Son of Man in his book How Jesus Became God, I was very confused (it happens a lot). Jesus clearly identifies himself as the Son of Man a number of times, such as in the passage discussed above, or in Matthew 12:40 where Jesus prophesies about his impending crucifixion and resurrection, saying, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Jesus also asked his disciples who others think the Son of Man is, and after they give various answers, he asks them their own opinions by rephrasing the question: “But who do you say that I am?” That is, instead of asking who they think the Son of Man is, he gets more specific and asks who they think that he is. He’s not asking about some enigmatic third person. He’s asking about himself. To which Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replies that this is a truth revealed to Peter “by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:13-17).[ii]
So how does Ehrman deny such clear claims? Well, one simple argument he makes is that Jesus always speaks of the Son of Man in the third person, which Ehrman thinks is odd. Note that even in the passage above where Jesus clearly identifies himself as the Son of Man, he refers to the Son of Man in the third person. And never mind the fact that Jesus also refers to “the Messiah” in the third person several times (Matthew 22:42, 23:10; Mark 9:41, 12:35; Luke 24:26), yet Ehrman still thinks Jesus believed he was the Messiah.
The more thorough reason Ehrman denies Jesus is the Son of Man has to do with his criterion of dissimilarity. Basically, the early church had beliefs about who Jesus was. When we find affirmations of those beliefs in the New Testament, we cannot be sure that the authors of the Gospel are telling the truth in their recollection of events. However, if we find things stated not as strongly as early Christians might have liked, or not in ways they might have liked, then we have more confidence that the saying or event is legitimate. (Why the early church, which skeptical scholars allege were willing to change and corrupt the text for their purposes, let all of these allegedly inconvenient texts slip through their editorially manipulative fingers is quite a conundrum).
Here’s how this criterion plays out: Since the early church believed Jesus was the Son of Man, we cannot trust the New Testament when Jesus is clearly identified as the Son of Man. Yet, when the New Testament depicts Jesus referring to the Son of Man in the third person, which plausibly sounds as if he may be talking about another person, then those instances are more likely to be historically accurate. Therefore, Ehrman posits, Jesus most likely did not consider himself the Son of Man, because there are passages in the New Testament that the authors were less likely to have fabricated in which Jesus refers to the Son of Man without clearly identifying himself as the Son of Man.[iii] Yet again, all of this could also be said about Jesus’s self-understanding as the Messiah, since the early church also believed he was the Messiah, but Ehrman has no problem with that one.
This criterion of dissimilarity has been criticized since it is, to put it bluntly, rather silly. It is also a sort of blank check for ad hoc defenses of proverbial golden calves, as we have already seen. But let’s try to picture this one in a contemporary setting. Imagine your name is Dwayne Johnson, but you made a career out of referring to yourself as “The Rock.” You would say things like “The Rock says…” before you spoke your mind. When you wanted to make sure you were on the same page with those listening to you, you would make sure everyone could “smell what The Rock is cookin’.” You amassed millions (and millions) of fans. And then at some point in the future, some of those fans, along with family members and those who traveled with you extensively, decide to write about your life. They believed that you, Dwayne Johnson, were The Rock, and given their closeness to you in one way or another, they felt fairly confident in making that declaration. And so, in their biography of you, they write with the assumption that The Rock and Dwayne Johnson are the same person. But not so fast, says Bart Ehrman. Your fans, friends, and family truly believe you were The Rock, so we can’t possibly trust when they say so. You see, every time you, Dwayne, said, “The Rock says…,” you didn’t clearly self-identify yourself as the Rock, and so you probably thought someone else was the Rock. (Sometimes perhaps you did make it clearer, but we cannot trust those instances were reliably reported by your sycophants who are blinded by the fact that they knew you). Yes, you must have just thought you were speaking on behalf of the Rock. In the immortal words of Jon Lovitz, that’s the ticket! Hopefully, the dubious nature of this idea is apparent.
Just to put a fine point on this, here is how dissimilarity affects Bart’s argument. He says that Jesus never claims to be the Son of Man. Except, of course, when Jesus does. But when Jesus does claim to be the Son of Man, then you can’t trust the text. So, when Ehrman claims that Jesus never self-identifies as the Son of Man, it is because he excludes rather arbitrarily the times when Jesus does just that.
No, really, why does Ehrman think Jesus isn’t the Son of Man?
Given the contradictory claims Ehrman has made, and the selective application of his criteria, one might begin to wonder: what’s the real reason he doesn’t think Jesus is the Son of Man? Or, rather, what’s the real reason he must maintain a claim that strains this much credulity?
This is not an attempt to psychoanalyze Ehrman, but much that passes for scholarship these days is essentially just the method by which one fits data to a preconceived ideology. And in this case, I think Ehrman wants to deny that Jesus is the Son of Man because it would be a clear self-identification with at least some level of divinity.
Ehrman writes that in Second Temple Judaism, taking as its basis the description of the Son of Man in the Book of Daniel (Daniel 7:13-14), some Jewish circles began to think of the Son of Man as “a future deliverer, a cosmic judge of the earth, who would come with divine vengeance against God’s enemies and with a heavenly reward for those who had remained faithful to him.”[iv] In the apocryphal book, 1 Enoch, the Son of Man figure is considered God’s chosen/elect one who will sit on his throne, who will judge the deeds of all, who is eternal, who will set up his own kingdom. Ehrman admits even that the Son of Man is here referred to as the messiah (showing that some traditions thought the messiah may also be divine at some level, which is another thing Ehrman admits in his writing here but denies in the video interview that spurred this article).[v] In Ehrman’s words,
[The Son of Man] is not a mere mortal; he is a divine being who has always existed, who sits beside God on his throne, who will judge the wicked and the righteous at the end of time. He, in other words, is elevated to God’s status and functions as the divine being who carries out God’s judgment on the earth. This is an exalted figure indeed, as exalted as one can possibly be without being the Lord God Almighty himself.[vi]
So, as you can see, it is imperative for Ehrman to deny that Jesus is the Son of Man, for the Son of Man is, to some extent, divine. So, since Ehrman believes Jesus did not consider himself God, Jesus cannot consider himself to be the Son of Man. And any passage where he self-identifies as such must be considered illegitimate.
That is, unless it can somehow be argued that the Son of Man does not appear all that divine, as Ehrman states in the interview concerning the Son of Man’s authority to forgive sins on earth. In that case, Ehrman’s previous arguments go out the door, and Jesus gets to be the Son of Man. In other words, Ehrman applies criteria in an ad hoc, haphazard way for the sake of a presupposition, an ideological commitment that shall not be moved.
Clarifications and Conclusion
To be clear, our battle is not with Bart Ehrman. Our battle is with scholarship of all kinds that applies criteria in conveniently selective ways. We believe that any honest investigation of the evidence will point to Jesus. This assessment is only bolstered by the fact that those who wish to denounce the traditional view of Jesus must do so by constructing a house of cards. We are concerned that much of critical scholarship, much of what passes as “neutral” and “anti-dogmatic” scholarship, is anything but. As long as people know it is biased and dogmatic in its own way, that’s fine. But the façade of neutrality is damaging and dishonest.
What I have attempted to show here is troubling. And it is not the first troubling thing that we have unearthed from Dr. Ehrman’s archives, as you can read about here or watch here. But in this case, we have clear evidence that Dr. Ehrman denies that Jesus self-identifies as the Son of Man in one of his books, which allows him to deny that Jesus viewed himself as divine. But then, Dr. Ehrman allows that Jesus considered himself the Son of Man in an interview because, by doing so, he can then make an argument that The Son of Man/Jesus wasn’t divine. There are many things to disagree with on Dr. Ehrman’s points, but the main thing here is the contradiction he creates among his own work. If Dr. Ehrman was consistent, then he would admit that the passage in question in his interview has no bearing on what Jesus thought of himself, because he does not consider any passage where Jesus clearly self-identifies as the Son of Man to be legitimate. Or, conversely, he would have to say that Jesus was only saying the Son of Man wasn’t divine, but since Jesus wasn’t the Son of Man in Ehrman’s estimation, then it has nothing to do with the divinity or non-divinity of Jesus.
For these reasons, I think we should start questioning how seriously we can take the work of Bart Ehrman. And I only say this because I’ve learned from Bart Ehrman in the past. Specifically, I’ve learned that at any sign of an apparent contradiction, one should throw their hands up in the air, feign exasperation, and lose all confidence in the source of the contradictory material which, in this case, is Dr. Ehrman himself.
[i] Brief excursus: The theological understanding of the incarnation renders this issue even as Dr. Ehrman describes it as no issue at all—the Son of God became man and lived as a man, and so he achieved certain things as a special God-man through his obedience (as outlined by Paul, who was writing before the Gospels, in Philippians 2:6-11). And no one tries to hide this, for Luke himself writes in the lead up to this passage, “And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick” (Luke 5:17). And so, it must be said that Jesus may have received authority to do things as a man that were already his to do as God, but since he had put aside the divine prerogatives, he chose not to do things in his power as God, but in his obedient rewards as man. Ehrman also claims that anyone who has authority must have been given that authority when describing how the disciples were given authority by Jesus to later forgive sins, but the biblical understanding of God is that he is an ontological, necessary authority, and he does not receive his authority. In Jesus’s status as God-man, he both has and is given authority to forgive sins. And now, back to the show.
[ii] An important textual variant occurs in Matthew 16:13 that may make this even more clear. Many ancient manuscripts report Jesus saying, ”But who do people say I, the Son of Man, is?” This version makes it absolutely clear, for any who needed more clarity, that Jesus’s reference to the Son of Man is a self-reference in the third person. In a liturgical context where passages of scripture are read in isolation from one another, one can see where added clarity might be helpful. Since the majority of these manuscripts from from the Byzantine text—though some may be as old as the fifth century—and since one could make the case that this variant is attempting to clarify the text (which is a sign that adding ”I” is a later addition), the critical eclectic text opts for the reading without ”I”.
[iii] Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 106-112.
[iv] Ibid., 66.
[v] My theory on why Dr. Ehrman allows that Jesus considered himself the messiah, even though it should fail Ehrman’s criteria in the same way the Son of Man passages do, is because he believes Jesus was a particularly prophetic and apocalyptic messiah which, in that case, means he was a failed messiah. An article on Ehrman’s claim that Jesus was a “failed apocalyptic prophet” is forthcoming.
[vi] Ehrman, 67. Ehrman points out that 1 Enoch eventually identifies Enoch as the Son of Man. He also states that other traditions state that a mere mortal is elevated to this status. That is of no consequence to our view of Jesus as the eternally pre-existent Son of Man, however. Actually, it shows that Ehrman’s fears are correct: if Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man, then he claimed a divine status. Furthermore, it simply shows that other traditions had other beliefs about the Son of Man that sort of all circled around similar themes, and that the Jesus tradition seems to hold all of the threads together. So, the Jesus tradition is not an innovation, but a perfection of prior beliefs and loose threads, which has been part of Christian understanding, from Paul the Apostle and Clement of Alexandria to C. S. Lewis and Louis Markos.