Another element that Dr. Ehrman brings up is the idea of whether an exalted picture of Jesus existed in the 1st century. The claim is that the Nicene Creeds and other creeds that elevate Jesus to a very high standard represent only a thin strand of Christianity in the 1st century and not the larger Christian movement. In fact, this is a misrepresentation of the situation. First, virtually every strand of Christian belief in the 1st and 2nd centuries saw Jesus as a very transcendent figure – maybe not the full Son of God, but certainly a very transcendent figure. Some of the movements debated whether Jesus could actually be human because he was so transcendent. The only exception to this – and this is an important one –was the Ebionites. The Ebionites were Jewish believers that did not accept an exalted view of Jesus and they were seen as outsiders.
For Ehrman, the Ebionites claim to go all the way back to James and have roots in the Jewish-Christianity of the James-Peter kind of ilk. But Ehrman does not acknowledge that the Ebionites are only one strand of this Jewish-Christian heritage in the early Christian movement. The second group that was also Jewish-Christian was known as the Nazarenes. The Nazarenes were very orthodox in their Christology – or at least what reflected later orthodoxy. They had a high view of Jesus. So the Ebionites were not the only ones to make the claim going back to James. The Nazarenes was another group that was very orthodox that also claimed James in their roots and fit the general testimony of what we have from a variety of books and authors about the early Christian views on Jesus.
We know Jesus is worshipped very early on because in hymns embedded in Paul’s letters – that he probably did not write, but that reflect the situation of churches in the early 60’s AD – we know that Jesus is being worshipped as God. We see hymns such as Philippians 2 that says “Every knee will bow; every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” This is language that comes out of the Old Testament book of Isaiah that describes the God of Israel. But in Philippians it is being applied to Jesus. A very straightforward substitution is made.
In the earliest period, we see this early high Christology that is pretty much across the board. Certainly a transcendent Jesus is across the board. Even in movements that end up having roots in more Gnostic Christianity have a more transcendent Jesus – we see this in the Gospel of Thomas, and similar works. And the idea that there was a kind of human Jesus in the background that represents the historical Jesus actually has very little evidence to go for.