After spilling ample ink (well, pixels) on the subject “Was Jesus Divine? Early Christian Perspectives,” I’m finally ready to begin to draw some interim conclusions. I call these “interim” conclusions because I believe that what I’m proposing here is not carved into stone. As we continue to study the early Christian writings, as we continue to make sense of them in light of their historical and cultural context, our understanding of early Christian belief about Jesus will surely mature.
Before I proceed to some conclusions, I want to acknowledge three scholars whose work I have found to be particularly helpful in my effort to understand early Christian beliefs about Jesus. The first is N.T. Wright. His major academic work on Jesus has been invaluable to me. This includes three substantial tomes: The New Testament and the People of God; Jesus and the Victory of God; The Resurrection of the Son of God. These books require lots of time and money. Wright’s thinking can be found in a more user-friendly form in: The Challenge of Jesus; The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. (Photo: I’m interviewing N. T. Wright at Laity Lodge.)
In addition to Wright’s work, I have been instructed again and again by the scholarly efforts of Richard Bauckham, in particular, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity. I have also learned from Larry W. Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions About Earliest Devotion to Jesus. (Thanks to Rodney Reeves for reminding me to mention these sources.)
Now to some interim conclusions.
Perhaps the first conclusion, rather obvious, I’ll admit, is that there isn’t one simple answer to the question of why the earliest Christians came to see Jesus as divine. I suppose one could say, “Well, he was divine, after all, and the Holy Spirit revealed this to the early church. There’s your simple answer.” On one level, I believe this to be true. But the way in which the Holy Spirit revealed the true nature of Jesus’ divine/human identity wasn’t quite so simple as this makes it sound. It’s not as if, one day, a giant stone tablet proclaiming “Jesus is God” suddenly dropped from heaven. Rather, Jesus’ true and full nature was revealed to the earliest Christians in a variety of ways and times, as they reflected upon the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus in light of the Old Testament, and as they served Jesus as Lord and even worshiped him.
What is pretty clear from the historical records is that Jesus was not, by and large, regarded as divine during his earthly life. (Perhaps only the demons grasped his true identity!) There may have been moments in which his followers sensed the divine nature of Jesus, as in the story in Matthew 14 when he walked across the stormy water and got into the disciples’ boat, after which the wind ceased. “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matt 14:33). But even this text could be read without divine connotations, in that “Son of God” was a royal title and people literally worshiped (bowed down before) human sovereigns. At any rate, we have no evidence that the disciples started to think of Jesus as God immediately after this incident. This idea came later.
But not centuries later, as often been argued, both by scholars and by fiction writers such as Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code. And not even many decades later. Whatever you think of the divinity of Jesus, it seems undeniable to me that belief in his deity fills the pages of the earliest Christian writings we have. In fact, as I have shown in this series, from the earliest Christian writings (Paul’s letters) we have evidence that still earlier believers (the Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians) actually confessed Jesus to be Lord, actually praying to him. By the end of the first century A.D., most all Christians believed that Jesus was in some way divine. Yes, there may well have been a few hold-outs who maintained that he was only human. But these were a tiny minority among the followers of Jesus. The majority of the non-orthodox Christians, such as the Gnostics, tended to think of Jesus (or the Christ, at any rate) as more divine than human. They had problems endorsing the humanity of Christ, not his deity. If you read the history of Christological debates during the first four centuries, you’ll find that the discussion was not usually about whether Jesus was divine or not, but rather how he was divine (and human).
So, then, what led the earliest Christians, especially those who had known Jesus as a real human being, to believe that he was also in a real sense God in the flesh? We might point first to things Jesus did and said during his earthly ministry that hinted at his The fact that Jesus healed people miraculously and cast out demons would have shown his contemporaries that he was a man of power, not God in the flesh. Yet some of his mighty deeds, such as walking on the water or stilling the storm, suggested to his followers that he was more than a mere mortal. Moreover, unlike other Jewish prophets, Jesus spoke, not in the name of God by saying “Thus saith the Lord,” but as if he were God himself.
On top of this, Jesus assumed the authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:1-12). He didn’t just forgive those who sinned against him personally. Rather, he forgave sins in a way reserved for God alone. And he did so independently of the Temple and its sacrifices. Jesus’ opponents saw clearly the implications of Jesus’ forgiving people: “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). Ultimately this is one of the main reasons why Jesus was killed. By forgiving sins he implicitly denigrated the temple and put himself in the place of God.
So, even during his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke as if with God’s own authority. He worked wonders that one would think only God could perform. And he even forgave sins, something reserved for God alone. Yet Jesus didn’t go around proclaiming himself as God, but announcing the coming of God’s reign. Furthermore, almost everyone, including his closest followers, missed the implications of his deity-revealing words and deeds while Jesus was still alive.
And then there’s the not-so-little problem of Jesus’ death. Whatever one might have thought of him during his short ministry, his death on the cross would have ended all sp
eculation about his being a human messiah, not to mention God in the flesh. In fact, the death of Jesus – on a cross, of all terrible things – should have been the end of his significance. Thousands of Jewish rebels were crucified by Rome during the time of Jesus. A crucified Jesus was just one more sorry Jewish soul who messed with the Roman obsession for order and domination.
But then we come to the resurrection . . . . More on this next time.