Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Bart D. Ehrman Proves Muhammad is a false prophet Pt. 2a

Sam Shamoun

In this second part to our series concerning the views of liberal scholar and Bible critic Bart D. Ehrman, we will be examining Ehrman’s views on Philippians 2:5-11, also known as the Carmen Christi (“A Hymn of Christ”), thus called because many scholars believe that this particular section was an early Christian hymn that the blessed Apostle adopted as part of his epistle. Ehrman, on the other hand, thinks that this is a poem and not a hymn. Whatever the case may be, these scholars are agreed that this specific portion of Philippians predates the epistle itself and therefore was already in existence from a quite early period. As Ehrman explains:

“Some scholars have had a real difficulty imagining that a poem existing before Paul’s letter to the Philippians – a poem whose composition must therefore date AS EARLY AS THE 40s CE – could already celebrate AN INCARNATIONAL UNDERSTANDING OF JESUS…” (Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee [HarperOne, First edition 2014], 7. Jesus as God on Earth: Early Incarnation Christologies, p. 259; bold and capital emphasis ours)

We shall revisit Ehrman’s dating and statement that this poem presents an incarnational understanding of Christ a little later. For now we are going to break down this poem or hymn into two sections, namely 2:5-8 and 2:9-11, and begin our discussion of Ehrman’s views by focusing on the first section. We will address the second section in the second part of our analysis of Ehrman.

Here is what the first part of the hymn says:

“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Philippians 2:5-8 Authorized King James Version (AV)


Christ’s Prehuman Existence as the OT Angel of the LORD

In explaining the reason why he rejects the position of some scholars that the Carmen Christi does not speak of the prehuman existence of Christ, but rather focuses on his humanity in order to contrast him with Adam, Ehrman mentions the Apostle Paul’s beliefs concerning this issue:

“Third, and possibly most importantly, from other passages in Paul it does indeed appear that he understands Christ to have been a preexistent divine being. One example comes from a very peculiar passage in 1 Corinthians, in which Paul is talking about how the children of Israel, after they escaped from Egypt under Moses, were fed while they spent so many years in the wilderness (as recounted in the books of Exodus and Numbers in the Hebrew Bible). According to Paul, the Israelites had enough to drink because the rock that Moses struck in order miraculously to bring forth water (Num. 20:11) followed them around in the wilderness. Wherever they went, the water-providing rock went. In fact, Paul says, ‘the rock was Christ’ (1 Cor. 10:4). Just as Christ provides life to people today when they believe in him, so too he provided life to the Israelites in the wilderness. That would not have been possible, of course, unless he existed at the time. And so for Paul, Christ was a preexistent being who was occasionally manifest on earth.

“Or take another passage, one in which Paul actually does speak of Christ as a second Adam. In 1 Corinthians, Paul contrasts Christ’s place of origin with that of Adam: ‘The first man was from the earth, and was made of dust; the second man is from heaven’ (15:47). What matters here is precisely the difference between Adam and Christ. Adam came into being in this world; Christ existed before he came into this world. He was from heaven.

“And so, the interpretation of the Philippians poem that takes it as an indication that Christ was a kind of ‘perfect Adam’ does not work, on one hand, because the passage has features that do not make sense given this interpretation. And on the other hand, this interpretation is completely unnecessary. It does not solve the problem of an Incarnational Christology–because Paul clearly says in other passages that Jesus was indeed a preexistent divine being who came into the world. That’s what this poem teaches as well.” (Ibid., pp. 261-262; bold emphasis ours)

Ehrman believes that texts such as Galatians 4:14 suggest that Paul viewed the Lord Jesus as God’s chief angel, in fact THE Angel of the Lord spoken of throughout the OT writings:

“But this means that in Galatians 4:14 Paul is not contrasting Christ with an angel; he is equating him with an angel. Garrett goes a step further and argues that Galatians 4:14 indicates that Paul ‘identifies [Jesus Christ] with God’s chief angel.’

“If this is the case, then virtually everything Paul says about Christ throughout his letters makes perfect sense. As the Angel of the Lord, Christ is a preexistent being who is divine; he can be called God, AND HE IS GOD’S MANIFESTATION ON EARTH IN HUMAN FLESH. Paul says all these things about Christ, and in no passage more strikingly than in Philippians 2:6-11, a passage that scholars often call the ‘Philippians Hymn’ or the ‘Christ Hymn of Philippians,’ since it is widely thought to embody an early hymn or poem devoted to celebrating Christ AND HIS INCARNATION.” (Ibid., p. 253; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Ehrman further argues that this is the view of some of the other NT writers as well:

“In the most thorough investigation of Christological views that portray Jesus as an angel or an angel-like being, New Testament scholar Charles Gieschen, helpfully defines the Jewish notion of an angel as ‘a spirit or heavenly being who mediates between the human and divine realms.’ Once Jesus was thought to be exalted to heaven, he was quickly seen, by some of his followers, to be this kind of heavenly mediator, one who obediently did God’s will while he was here on earth. From there, it was a very small step to thinking that Jesus was this kind of being by nature, not simply because of his exaltation. Jesus was not only the Son of God, the Lord, the Son of Man, the coming messiah; he was the one who mediates God’s will on earth as a heavenly, angelic being. In fact, it came to be thought that he had always been this kind of being.

“If Jesus was the one who represented God in human form, he quite likely had always been that one. He was, in other words, the chief angel of God, known in the Bible as the Angel of the Lord. This is the figure who appeared to Hagar, and Abraham, and Moses, who is sometimes actually called ‘God’ in the Hebrew Bible. If Jesus is in fact this one, he is a preexistent divine being who came to earth for a longer period of time, during his life; he fully represented God on earth; he in fact can be called God. Exaltation Christologies became transformed into incarnation Christologies as soon as believers in Jesus came to see him as an angelic being who performed God’s work here on earth.

“To call Jesus the Angel of the Lord is to make a startlingly exalted claim about him. In the Hebrew Bible, this figure appears to God’s people as God’s representative, and he is in fact called God. And as it turns out, as recent research has shown, there are clear indications in the New Testament that the early followers of Jesus understood him in this fashion. Jesus was thought of as an angel, or an angel-like being, or even the Angel of the Lord–in any event, a superhuman divine being who existed before his birth and became human for the salvation of the human race. This, in a nutshell, is the incarnation Christology of several New Testament authors. Later authors went even further and maintained that Jesus was not merely an angel–even the chief angel–but was a superior being: he was God himself come to earth.” (Ibid., pp. 250-251; bold emphasis ours)

This is a rather shocking statement on Ehrman’s part since he virtually admits that the Hebrew Bible proclaims that this particular Angel is none other than Yahweh himself in visible form!

Note, for example, the following quotation where Ehrman references Genesis 16:7-14, which speaks of the Angel appears to Hagar, and then makes the following observations:

“… But then, after referring to this heavenly visitor as the Angel of the Lord, the text indicates that it was, in fact, ‘the LORD’ who had spoken with her (16:13). Moreover, Hagar realizes that she has been addressing God himself and expresses her astonishment that she had ‘seen God and remained alive after seeing him’ (16:13). Here there is both ambiguity and confusion; either the Lord appears as an angel in the form of a human, or the Angel of the Lord IS THE LORD HIMSELF, GOD IN HUMAN GUISE.

“A similar ambiguity occurs two chapters later, this time with Abraham. We are told in Genesis 18:1 that ‘the LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.’ But when the episode is narrated, we learn that ‘three men’ come to him (18:2). Abraham plays the good host and entertains them, preparing for them a very nice meal, which they all three eat. When they talk to him afterward, one of these three ‘men’ is identified explicitly as ‘the LORD’ (18:13). At the end of the story we are informed that the other two were ‘angels’ (19:1). So here we have a case where two angels AND THE LORD GOD HIMSELF have assumed human form–so much so that they appear to Abraham to be three men, and they all eat the food he has prepared.

“The most famous instance of such ambiguity is found in the story of Moses and the burning bush (Exod. 3:1-22). By way of background: Moses, the son of Hebrews, had been raised in Egypt by the daughter of Pharaoh, but he has to escape for murdering an Egyptian and is wanted by the Pharaoh himself. He goes to Midian where he marries and becomes a shepherd for his father-in-law’s flocks. One day, while tending to his sheeply duties, Moses sees an astonishing sight. We are told that he arrives at Mount Horeb (this is Mount Sinai, where later, after the exodus, he is given the law) and there, ‘the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush’ (Exod. 3:2). Moses is amazed because the bush is aflame but is not being consumed by the fire. And despite the fact that it is the Angel of the Lord who is said to have appeared to him, it is ‘the Lord’ who sees that Moses has come to the bush, and it is ‘God’ who then calls to him out of the bush. In fact, the Angel of the Lord tells Moses, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ (Exod. 3:6). As the story continues, the Lord God continues to speak to Moses and Moses to God. But in what sense was it the Angel of the Lord that appeared to him? A helpful note in the HarperCollins Study Bible puts it: ‘Although it was an angel that appeared in v. 2, there is no substantive difference between the deity and his agents.’ Or as New Testament scholar Charles Gieschen has expressed it, this ‘Angel of the Lord’ is ‘either indistinguishable from God as his visible manifestation’ or he is a distinct figure, separate from God, who is bestowed with God’s own authority.” (Ibid., 2. Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism, pp. 56-57; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Ehrman isn’t the only liberal critic of the Holy Bible who believes that some of the first Christians such as Paul depicted the Lord Jesus as the OT Angel of the Lord:

“As we saw in the previous chapter, Paul says that it was Christ, and not the human Jesus, who existed from the beginning of creation in the ‘form of God’ but then subsequently emptied himself, being born in the likeness of a mortal human being (Philippians 2:6-7). Paul makes the rather startling assertion that this cosmic Christ, ages before he was born as a human being, HAD MANIFESTED HIMSELF AS YAHWEH, THE GOD OF ISRAEL. He refers particularly to the time of Moses, when the Israelites ‘saw’ Yahweh as a mysterious cloud-fire: ‘And Yahweh went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way, and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light, that they might go by day and by night’ (Exodus 13:21).

Paul says that the God who led the Israelites through the Red Sea and in their desert wanderings for forty years, the one they called the Rock, WAS CHRIST (1 Corinthians 10:4; Deuteronomy 32:4, 18). He does not explain the particulars of his view, but the idea that there was AN ‘UPPER’ YAHWEH, who remains unseen, sometimes called ‘God called Most High,’ as well as A ‘LOWER’ MANIFESTATION OF THAT SAME GOD, CALLED THE ‘MESSENGER YAHWEH,’ who appears from time to time in human history in a visible manner on earth, WAS COMMON IN VARIOUS FORMS OF JUDAISM OF PAUL’S TIME. This lower Yahweh is not flesh and blood, even though in some of the stories he seems to ‘materialize,’ but when he appears he is then ‘taken up’ or in one case disappears in a flame of fire.

“This is very much akin to the Greek notion of the ineffable God manifest in the lower world as the ‘Word’ or Logos, which was an integral part of Platonic and Stoic cosmology. The Logos idea was appropriated by the Jewish philosopher Philo, a contemporary of Paul, to deal with passages in the Hebrew Bible THAT SEEM TO REFER TO TWO YAHWEHS, AN UPPER AND A LOWER. In the New Testament the Gospel of John adopts the Logos idea wholesale, but makes the shocking assertion that ‘the Logos became flesh,’ referring to the birth of Jesus (John 1:1, 14). This is akin to Paul’s view of the preexistent Christ. In the form of God, who emptied himself and was born of a woman.

“Paul says little more about the preexistent Christ as a manifestation of Yahweh other than that he was present in the days of Moses. Paul is focused entirely on the other end of history, the termination of what he calls ‘this present evil age’ (Galatians 1:14 [sic]). What Jesus represents to Paul is one thing and one thing only–the cosmic, preexistent Christ, being ‘born of a woman,’ as a flesh-and-blood mortal human being now transformed to a life-giving Spirit. This is what drove Paul and excited him most. For him it explained the Genesis creation itself and accounted for all the subsequent ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ of the human story. Humans were created to become Gods! ‘This slight, momentary affliction’ was preparing them for an ‘eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison’ (2 Corinthians 4:17).

“In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh, the One God of Israel, had declared: ‘Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other … To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear’ (Isaiah 45:22-23). Paul quotes this precise phrase from Isaiah but now significantly adds: ‘At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on the earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:10-11). Christ as the newly exalted Lord of the cosmos IS THE FUNCTIONAL EQUIVALENT OF YAHWEH.” (James D. Tabor, Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity [Simon & Schuster, New York, NY 2012], Six. A Mystical Union, pp. 133-135; bold and capital emphasis ours)

We will have more to say about the Carmen Christi’s application of Isaiah 45:23 to the risen Lord Jesus in the next part of our discussion.

Tabor goes on to say in a footnote:

7. The literal term in Hebrew, “messenger Yahweh,” is usually translated as “the angel of Yahweh” but this is not the best choice for English since “angel” in English has its own set of connotations quite different from Hebrew. In Hebrew the phrase used, malak Yahweh, MEANS A MANIFESTATION OF YAHWEH and this figure speaks and acts as Yahweh in the first person, appearing and departing, sometimes in a flame of fire (see Genesis 16:10; 18:33; 22:11; Exodus 3:2; Judges 13:20). There are a few passages where these “two Yahwehs” are mentioned in a single verse: “Then Yahweh (below) rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from Yahweh (above) from heaven” (Genesis 19:24). (Ibid, p. 257; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Thus, here is another liberal scholar who not only believes that Paul presented Christ as the Angel of the Lord, and therefore as the visible Yahweh that appeared all throughout the OT period to prophets and saints such as Moses, he even acknowledges that certain strands of Judaism could see that the Hebrew Bible posits two distinct entities as Yahweh God, One visible and the Other who remained invisible!

To say that this is a remarkable admission would be a wild understatement since, as both Ehrman and Tabor admit, this Angel identifies himself (and is identified by others) as God and performs functions which only God can perform, such as forgiving sins:

“And it came to pass at the time that the cattle conceived, that I lifted up mine eyes, and saw in a dream, and, behold, the rams which leaped upon the cattle were ringstraked, speckled, and grisled. And the angel of God spake unto me in a dream, saying, Jacob: And I said, Here am I. And he said, Lift up now thine eyes, and see, all the rams which leap upon the cattle are ringstraked, speckled, and grisled: for I have seen all that Laban doeth unto thee. I am the God of Beth-el, where thou anointedst the pillar, and where thou vowedst a vow unto me: now arise, get thee out from this land, and return unto the land of thy kindred.” Genesis 31:10-13 AV

“And he shewed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him. And the Lord said unto Satan, The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan; even the Lord that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee: is not this a brand plucked out of the fire? Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and stood before the angel. And HE answered and spake unto those that stood before him, saying, Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him HE said, Behold, I HAVE CAUSED thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I WILL CLOTHE thee with change of raiment.” Zechariah 3:1-4 AV

This Angel even embodies Yahweh’s name, meaning his essence, characteristics and authority, which explains why he is able to perform divine tasks and functions like pardoning transgressions:

“Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him. But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. For mine Angel shall go before thee, and bring thee in unto the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites: and I will cut them off.” Exodus 23:20-23 AV

To, therefore, acknowledge that Christians such as Paul were already proclaiming in the forties AD that Jesus was the incarnation of this particular OT Angel is truly astonishing since this means that the first generation of believers were preaching that the risen Lord was/is none other than the visible Yahweh that appeared all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures!

We are not through with Ehrman just yet since we have more from this scholar in the next part of our discussion.