Monthly Archives: April 2018

‘How Jesus became God’ by Bart D. Ehrman


2014, 371 p & notes

It seemed rather appropriate, if somewhat transgressive, to read this book over Easter. As a Unitarian, I don’t celebrate Easter but there’s a lot of God going around at Easter, particularly this most recent one which coincided with Passover. The author Bart D. Ehren is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, and he has written over thirty books about Christianity. He used to be an evangelical Christian, but is no longer. In fact, it sounds as if his distancing from his faith is very similar to my own, when he describes the way that he found that he could subscribe to less and less of the Nicene Creed. The exact same thing happened with me.

In this book Ehrman traces the historical development of the idea that Jesus was/is God.

He starts his book by noting that the divisions between the divine and human were not clear-cut, either in the Greek or Roman worlds in which Jesus operated, or indeed within Judaism itself.  In Greek mythology, there is constant slippage as gods become temporarily human, and humans become permanently gods.  In the Old Testament, there is the Angel of the Lord who appeared to Abraham, Hagar and Moses, and humans like Enoch who became angels. There’s the Son of Man figure and Wisdom and the Word, and the King of Israel.

He then turns to the question of what/who Jesus thought he was, and whether he talked about himself as God. He starts by considering the methodological problem of dealing with the source texts.  Paul’s letters were written twenty to thirty years after Jesus died, but Paul himself never met Jesus.  The gospels themselves were not written by eyewitnesses, and they were written between 35 and 65 years after Jesus’ death, based on oral stories. He notes that Matthew, Mark and Luke have both stories held in common, and some unique stories that do not appear elsewhere.  He characterizes Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet,  who predicted the end of the current evil age, who believed that God would intervene soon to destroy everything and everyone opposed to him. God would then institute a new kingdom on earth, and he (Jesus) would be king in that kingdom.   This was not a unique view: it could be found in the teachings of other apocalyptic-oriented Jews of his day.

He then turns to the resurrection.  There are many discrepancies between the gospels, so many that it is almost impossible to make a single narrative that combines the ‘facts’ of all four gospels.  We don’t really know whether he was buried, or whether there was an empty tomb.  But we do know that some of Jesus’ followers believed that he had been raised from the dead, that some of them had visions of him, and that the belief that he had been raised from the dead led them to consider him, in some sense, God.

The earliest Christians thought that Jesus had been ‘exalted’ and lifted up and given divine status after his crucifixion i.e. that he was a human who became God.  Others moved the moment of ‘exaltation’ further back in Jesus’ life:  the moment of baptism with John the Baptist and the dove, the moment of birth in the stable; the Annunciation.

Others- and this view came to dominate- saw him as already God, who became human i.e. became ‘incarnate’. This was the big change, and it occurred in the first twenty years after Jesus’ death. Jesus came to be seen as a pre-existing divine being, who became human.

He turns to Paul’s letters and John’s gospel at this point.  In particular he looks at Paul’s second letter to the Philippians, where the text suddenly breaks into a quite different rhythm and vocabulary. (Who, although he was in the form of God did not regard being equal with God something to be grasped after etc.) This, he suggests, is a poem that Paul is quoting.  In the book, the poem is presented broken up into poem-like metre, and it’s amazing how typography can change the way a test is read.   Likewise, he looks at John 1 (the ‘in the beginning’ prologue) and its reflection of Old Testament texts. I found this part fascinating: the idea that the gospels are a palimpsest of oral and poetic traditions, that can be traced backwards and identified by concepts and language that do not appear elsewhere.

He then shifts to the different heresies that arose in the second, third and fourth centuries:  the divine/human nature of God and Jesus;  whether there was ever a time when God existed but Jesus didn’t; whether they are one unitary being or two (or even three) separate entities, and the resultant concept of the trinity.  He then turns to the Nicean creed, our mutual stumbling block, which he demonstrates as not so much an affirmation of faith, as a refutation of the various heresies that were circulating the Christian world.

A good summary of his argument throughout the book appears in the epilogue:

To use the older terminology, in early Christianity the views of Christ got “higher and higher’ with the passing of time, as he became increasingly identified as divine. Jesus went from being a potential (human) messiah to being the Son of God exalted to a divine status as his resurrection; to being a pre-existent angelic being who came to earth incarnate as a man; to being the incarnation of the Word of God who existed before all time and through whom the world was created; to being God himself, equal with God the Father and always existent with him. (p.352)

This is almost the mirror opposite of his own beliefs about God (and a trajectory I have also followed), where Jesus became “lower and lower” until he understood him as a human being, no different to any other human being.  He now understands Jesus as “a true religious genius with brilliant insights”, but a man of the first-century Palestinian Jewish apocalyptic milieu.  He says that he resonates with the ethical teachings of Jesus (as do I) but that these, too, were delivered in a first-century apocalyptic format.  He argues that the views of Jesus have changed over time, and continue to change as Jesus is recontextualized, on an ongoing basis by each generation.

I enjoyed this book, which is very clearly set out with discrete sections and subheadings, and clear previews and summaries topping and tailing each chapter.  He interweaves his own personal spiritual journey through the telling, which I identified closely with.  I don’t know if I’ll read other books of his, though, because from their titles alone, they seem to be further elaborations on the themes in this one.  This book was a New York Times Bestseller, and perhaps that’s the level that I’m happy to leave my reading at.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it’s Easter

My rating: 8.5




Lecture video: Diana Paton, ‘Seeing Women & Sisters in the Archives of Atlantic Slavery’

From the Royal Historical Society site:

This is a fascinating lecture about a letter brought to Prof. Paton, written by a ‘brown’ Jamaican woman complaining about the treatment of slaves on a plantation from which she had been forced to return. The abstract reads:

“I was a few years back a slave on your property of Houton Tower, and as a Brown woman was fancied by a Mr Tumoning unto who Mr Thomas James sold me.” Thus begins Mary Williamson’s letter, which for decades sat unexamined in an attic in Scotland until a history student became interested in her family’s papers, and showed it to Diana Paton. In this lecture, Paton will use the letter to reflect on the history and historiography of ‘Brown’ women like Mary Williamson in Jamaica and other Atlantic slave societies. Mary Williamson’s letter offers a rare perspective on the sexual encounters between white men and Brown women that were pervasive in Atlantic slave societies. Yet its primary focus is on the greater importance of ties of place and family—particularly of relations between sisters—in a context in which the ‘severity’ of slavery was increasing. Mary Williamson’s letter is a single and thus-far not formally archived trace in a broader archive of Atlantic slavery dominated by material left by slaveholders and government officials. Paton asks what the possibilities and limits of such a document may be for generating knowledge about the lives and experiences of those who were born into slavery.

I like the way that she closes her lecture by reflecting on the forces that led to the preservation of this extraordinary letter, albeit within the archives of the owner in Scotland and not the family or homeland Mary Williamson herself.  As a result, it has been made available to her as a researcher in Edinburgh, but would not have been for a researcher in Kingston Jamaica.


‘The Autumn of the Patriarch’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


1975, 240p.

I cannot tell a lie: I don’t think that I’ve ever been as glad to finish a book as this one.  It was a difficult book anyway, and my choice of reading platform was disastrous.  I was reading it on an e-reader and then had to swap to a tablet when the e-reader kept crashing (I suspect that the size of the file is too big for it).

Why so difficult- apart from the technology? Because it is the same story told six times, with variations between each telling, and because there are very, very few full stops.  You could go pages and pages without a pause.  In this regard, it is similar to the short story ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’ that I read earlier this year. But a technique that was quirky and interesting in a short story became suffocating in a full-length novel.  I found myself thrashing through the text, as if I were drowning, waiting for somewhere to take another gasp of air. Because I was reading it electronically and the table of contents in such a large omnibus edition did not go down to chapter level, it was not easy to flip through to find where the chapter ended, for fear of losing my place – I’d never find it again.  In fact, I didn’t know where the book itself ended, and as the next chapter started up with the same story again, I began to despair lest I never reach the end of this book.

But I think that that’s how Garcia Marquez wanted you to feel. The story is about an unnamed dictator in an unnamed Caribbean island, who just does not die. Well – he does, ostensibly, in the first chapter where he engages a double to deflect any assassination attempts, and the double dies as a result. But in the succeeding chapters, his death is foreshadowed, but he just doesn’t die.  In a decrepit palace that is invaded with creepy-crawlies during the night, the Patriarch wanders from room to room, locking up the house, playing dominoes with other old dictators that he has imprisoned, raping the young women in the women’s quarters until he finally falls asleep on the floor, his arms cradling his head, only to wake up again the next morning and do it all again.

His country is submerging into debt and decay, and he is kept in power by his debtors, after they have pillaged the nation, causing him to even sell them the sea. He is uneducated and he forces the church and the people to deify his mother after she dies. Although impotent against his international debtors, he has absolute power within his own country, ordering mass deaths at will.  But he is fearful of losing his power, which is why this lonely figure wanders the house at night.

I read this story as part of a course that I am doing through Coursera called Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Between Power, History and Love, delivered in Spanish. Of course, I read the book in English: my mind just boggles at the thought of translating such complex sentences! After hours of translating, I worked out what the lecturers were saying, and their comments certainly added to my enjoyment of the story, but also highlighted to me how much is lost when reading an author who makes so many references to other (Spanish) texts.  I would never have picked it up, but the book pays homage to and subverts at least two other texts: Christopher Columbus’ account of the discovery of the Americas, and a poem ‘The Triumphal March’ by twentieth-century Nicaraguan poet Rubio Dario.  Well- both of those would have just slipped right past me!

The other point made by the lecturers was that this book, one of three ‘historical’ novels by Garcia Marquez, was published during the 1970s. The Patriarch is not named, but he could be any one of the dictators who have emerged from Latin America, and continued to do so when the book was published ( Pinochet in Chile, the Dirty War in Argentina etc).  It is part of a genre of Latin American ‘dictator novels’, but Garcia Marquez’s Patriarch is none of them and all of them.

Worth reading?  Yes – but be prepared for a really difficult read. And buy or borrow it as a real book. It’s just too hard to read electronically.

‘The Early Feminists: Radical Unitarians and the Emergence of the Women’s Rights Movement 1831-51’ by Kathryn Gleadle


1995, 189 p & notes

In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Sixty years later in the 1850s and 1860s the Langham Place circle emerged in London, described as “the first organized feminist movement in England”. But what happened in the years between 1792 and the 1850s? Was Wollstonecraft an outlier, or did the whole ‘woman’ question just fall into abeyance in the intervening 60 years?

In this book, Kathryn Gleadle argues that there was no wasteland in these intervening years. Instead, a network of writers and reformers existed during the 1830s and 1840s, particularly centred on an off-shoot of the Unitarian church at South Place in Finsbury. When the Langham Place circle launched into what we now see as first-wave feminism in the 1850s there was a strong representation of Unitarian women – or at least, women with strong Unitarian family connections, most particularly Bessie Raynor Parkes and Barbara Leigh Smith (later Bodichon). Gleadle argues that these 1850s women were the direct heirs -the daughters and granddaughters-  of an earlier, less recognized network of Unitarian women who, although they may not have taken a visible, audible part in radical politics, formed a bridge between Wollstonecraft and the 1850s.  This group is the focus of the book.

The mainstream Unitarian church of the early 19th century was influenced by two main intellectual streams.  The first was the longstanding rejection of the theological idea that Jesus was God, and the concept of the Trinity.  The second was the influence of John Locke, whose theories introduced a new intellectual and philosophical element into Unitarianism, making it a religion for intellectuals but increasingly concerned with social responsibility.  According to this two-strand world view in the mainstream Unitarian church, the universe was governed by laws laid down by God, which could be discovered through science, invention and inquiry. This was a time when the Industrial Revolution was changing the social and economic landscape of Britain. Many Unitarians  became industrialists and manufacturers, and in this they were similar to the other non-conformists and evangelicals described in Davidoff and Hall’s influential text Family Fortunes (my review here). They prized self-help and self-advancement, and were strongly influenced by Utilitarianism (I’ve always found it distracting that Unitarianism and Utilitarianism are such similar words.)  Although the Unitarian church had been criticized for its early support of the French Revolution in a spirit of fraternity, Unitarians were legally accepted by the 1830s under municipal and corporations reform, and indeed several Unitarian ‘captains of industry’ became mayors.

There was also a strong literary culture within the mainstream Unitarian church, with Wordsworth, Carlyle and Coleridge and German culture and Romanticism holding sway. There was the influence of  American transcendentalism (Emerson, Channing), and contact with left wing movements esp. Owenism in Manchester.

However, socially the mainstream Unitarian church was quite conservative, with strict rules of propriety, particularly for women, that were very similar to the mores in the Evangelical families described by Davidoff and Hall. Perhaps this is because Unitarians had come under fire for their political views during the French Revolution and were keen to prove their personal and familial respectability.  But as can be seen from the correspondence between many Unitarian women, the women in such families were often frustrated by  the socially straitened domestic life that was imposed on them.

Gleadle differentiates between this mainstream Unitarianism and what she calls ‘radical unitarianism’ (with no capital letters). This offshoot was centred on South Place Chapel in Finsbury, and its minister William Johnson Fox.  You can see a photograph of the interior of the Chapel here, with its exhortation ‘To Thine Own Self Be True’ clearly visible on the walls. Fox purchased the Monthly Repository Unitarian Journal in 1831 and  transformed it from a sectarian journal into a radical, non-denominational forum for literary and current affairs.  Mainstream Unitarians distanced themselves from this group. There were rumours about Fox’s marriage and he seemed inordinately fond of his ward Eliza Flower, with whom he set up after leaving his wife.  However, the congregation of South Place urged him to stay, and the chapel was officially detached from the denomination.

None of this will surprise modern day Unitarians.  The tension between radicalism and spirituality plays out again and again in Unitarian congregations- including those in Australia.

The  South Place coterie had at its heart a “vibrant, stimulating caucus of talented writers, artists and musicians” p. 37. In particular, they used literature as a way of urging change, particularly the works of Mary Leman Grimstone.  Edward Bulwer Lytton and Charles Dickens, Harriet Taylor and John Stewart Mill were closely involved with the South Place circle during the 1830s, and during the 1840s Anna Jameson and Mary and William Howitt  were attracted to its ideas.  It is this group, Gleadle argues, who formed the stepping stone between Wollstonecraft (who was also a Unitarian) and Langham Place.  “This vibrant group of intellectuals and reformers enjoyed both radical contacts and benefitted from a Unitarian influence that led them to formulate their own distinctive, reforming creed” p. 189.

Their feminism was not necessarily voiced in public meetings, but it permeated their writing and ideas. They argued that marriage was a form of domestic slavery, in that they were dependent on their husbands and confined within the walls of the home, and that from this position of bondage, they could not be expected to agitate for their own liberation. They did not wish to overthrow marriage, or the family, but they wanted to improve it. They argued for housing associations, where tasks could be shared, while maintaining the family unit.  Gleadle argues there are no ‘overlooked’ women leaders lurking offstage, but that historians need to look at the actions of radical unitarian men, and there you will find the women, utilizing their pens and their networks to promulgate their ideas.

I found myself floundering a little with this book, because many of the names that I expect would be recognizable to a historian of Victorian Britain were unfamiliar to me. There were occasional flashes of recognition-  ah! Mrs Jameson from my studies of Upper Canada! ah! The Howitts who ended up in Port Phillip!

What does come through clearly, however, is the networked nature of these connections between women, drawing on their correspondence and family trees, and the power of writing both publicly (albeit sometimes anonymously) and privately between family and friends. These women played a vital role in shaping public opinion of the ‘woman question’ and laid the foundation stones for the organized women’s rights campaigns of the following decades. It makes sense to me that these mid-century feminist activists did not emerge fully-formed, but were instead shaped by familial, social and cultural influences, just as activists often are today.  It also makes sense to me that 19th century British Unitarianism, especially with its tension between its ‘respectable’ and ‘radical’ wings should form such an influence.

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

Read because: I’m interested in the historical connections between Unitarianism and feminism

And by the way: there’s an interesting podcast on BBC’s ‘In Our Time’ on Harriet Martineau, which fits in well with this book.