Was Jesus Christ divine, God incarnate, as most Christians believe? Or was he merely an extraordinarily charismatic human whose passionate followers later asserted he was divine — something he never claimed for himself? In other words: Is Christianity man-made?
That’s the central question up for debate Friday night by two world-class New Testament scholars at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in Gentilly.
Bart Ehrman, a best-selling author and one of the faculty stars at the University of North Carolina, and Michael Bird, an evangelical scholar from Ridley Theological College in Melbourne, Australia, will debate the question at 7 p.m. as headliners at the 12th annual Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum.
Ehrman and Bird are mirror images.
Ehrman is a former evangelical Christian whose scholarship led him away from belief, a story he frequently tells in his best-selling books about the origins of Christianity. He is a frequent contributor to CNN and television documentaries about early Christianity.
Bird, by contrast, is a former atheist whose scholarship led him into belief.
One of Ehrman’s recent titles is “How Jesus Became God,” published by HarperCollins. That was answered by “How God Became Jesus,” a response by Bird and four other scholars, published by HarperCollins’ Christian publishing affiliate, Zondervan.
According to Robert Stewart, the founder of the Greer-Heard Forum, Ehrman belongs to the school of scholarship that holds that Jesus was an uncommonly powerful apocalyptic preacher — but one who never claimed divinity for himself.
That status, according to Ehrman and others, was conferred on him decades after his death by Gospel writers who never met him, after turbulent decades of competition and infighting among early Christians who contended fiercely over the identity of Jesus.
Many Christians, by contrast, assert that there is good historical evidence to assert that Jesus did claim divinity — and that belief in his divinity was not a subsequent addition but was present from the first moment of the Christian movement, says Stewart, who is a professor of philosophy and theology at the local seminary.
Ehrman and Bird headline a two-day program that continues Saturday at the seminary.
From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, four other New Testament scholars from Boston University, the University of Edinburgh, Cambridge and Yale will discuss the earliest days of Christianity, with responses by Ehrman and Bird.
They all are part of an unusual exchange first launched in 2005, in which the Southern Baptist seminary annually invites a non-believer and an evangelical Christian to discuss a contested topic in popular culture.
Previous forums have discussed the growth of atheism, whether the Bible can be trusted, evolution and climate change.
The forum is open to the public for $20 for those who register online at www.greerheard.com before Friday.
Thereafter, the fee for the Friday and Saturday programs is $25 per person, payable at the door of the Leavell Chapel on the seminary grounds in Gentilly. The fee includes access to the speakers and a book-signing reception after the event.
The event also will be streamed live for free at www.greerheard.com.