When Jesus Became Divine
Was Constantine first to deify Christ, as 'The Da Vinci Code' claims? Hardly: It was debated from the church's earliest days.
Reprinted with permission from
The Da Vinci Code and the Secrets of the Temple (Eerdman's Publishing Co.).
The centuries are falling away; we are heading back to the fourth century--nearly 300 years after Jesus died. Here we encounter the Emperor Constantine, master (from 312 C.E.) of the whole Roman Empire. He decides to unite his subjects under a single religion, Christianity. And so the question looms large: Did Constantine declare Jesus to be God?
In "The Da Vinci Code," Leigh Teabing outlines the achievement of Constantine. Here, abbreviated, is Teabing’s account: Jesus Christ was a figure of staggering influence, perhaps the most enigmatic and inspiring leader the world has ever seen. Three centuries after his crucifixion, his followers had multiplied exponentially. Constantine decided something had to be done. He could see that Christianity was on the rise, and he simply backed the winning horse. He needed to strengthen the new Christian tradition, and held a famous ecumenical gathering known as the Council of Nicaea. Until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet, a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal. Jesus’ establishment as "the Son of God" was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea.
Is this right? To find out, we need to head back further still, to the first decades after Jesus lived and died. Jesus was Jewish. So were all his first disciples; so was the apostle Paul. It was the great principle of Judaism
that there was one God and one only; God is to be worshipped, as is nothing and nobody else. God says, in the book of the prophet Isaiah, "I am God, and there is none other; for every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess God" (Isaiah 45.22–23).
In the 50s or 60s C.E.--30 years at most after the death of Jesus--Paul wrote to his converts in the city of Philippi. In his letter he quoted a hymn, perhaps one that he had written himself, perhaps one he had inherited. He seems to expect his converts in Philippi to recognize the hymn; perhaps, then, he taught it to them on his own visit to the city, some five years before.
The hymn is in two parts. The first speaks of Jesus’ willingness to humble himself: "He made himself empty, being born in the likeness of humans; he humbled himself and was obedient to the point of death--and death on a cross." And in the hymn’s second part Jesus is rewarded for his obedience: "Therefore God has highly exalted him and has given him the name above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow" (from Philippians 2.6–10).
Every knee shall bow at the name of Jesus: Within 30 years of his death, Jesus was being given the worship that could be given to God alone. Of all the startling things in early Christianity, this is the most remarkable of all.
It was indeed under Constantine, in the fourth century, that the churches’ leaders defined in the terms of Greek philosophy what status this Jesus had in relation to God himself. But the instinct was there from the earliest decades: Jesus must be worshipped as God alone is worshipped. Such worship, in itself, raises more questions than it answers; and it would be 300 years before the churches’ thinkers had worked through all the possible implications (and hazards!) of all the possible accounts they could give of this Jesus. Constantine required his bishops to endorse one such view, expressed in sophisticated and carefully ambiguous language.
And why was a formulation--this formulation--needed just then? Did the emperor coolly calculate what would serve his imperial aims? No. The churches were in crisis, and only the emperor could resolve it.
In 318 C.E. a dispute broke out in the churches that would blaze or smolder for a century. A brilliant teacher named Arius, in Alexandria in Egypt, proposed a view of Jesus Christ that was based in Scripture, logical, and, to anyone trained in Greek thought, reassuringly credible. It went as follows: There is one perfect and utterly transcendent God; he alone is eternal, wise, and ruler of all. He is the source and origin of everything that is created. There can be no question of his sharing his divine essence with anyone else.