In my last post I summarized several key factors in the early Christian discovery of the deity of Jesus. These were:
Jesus Spoke with God’s Own Authority
Jesus Forgave Sins as if He Were God
Jesus Assumed the Character of Divine Wisdom
Jesus Claimed Unprecedented Intimacy with God
The Death and Resurrection Showed that Jesus was the Divine Savior
These factors, when viewed in light of the resurrection, highlighted the deity of Jesus.
The Influence of Greco-Roman Culture Reconsidered
Earlier in this series I summarized one of the most common arguments that seeks to explain why Jesus was considered to be divine. This argument points to the influence of Greco-Roman culture upon Christianity. The earliest Christians were monotheists who thought of Jesus only as an inspired man, proponents of this view claim, but when Christianity spread into the Roman Empire, where the line between divinity and humanity was frequently crossed, Jesus was deified. This began to happen in the latter decades of the first century A.D., and was completed in the fourth century.
This argument sounds plausible until you examine the evidence. As I have demonstrations, the best evidence we have indicates that the very first Christians began to speak of Jesus as if he were, not just an inspired man, but the Lord himself. Moreover they worshiped him and prayed to him. This happened within ten or at most fifteen years after the death of Jesus. And it took place, not in the Greco-Roman ideological marketplace, but within the confines of faithful, monotheistic Judaism. Thus, the theory of a late, pagan-inspired deification of Jesus just doesn’t fit the historical facts.
If more proof were needed that the discovery of Jesus’ divine nature occurred within a predominantly Jewish worldview, one needs only review the points I made earlier in this part. It’s only within the context of Judaism that Jesus’ authoritative speech, forgiveness of sin, adoption of Wisdom’s ethos, and unprecedented intimacy with God the Father point to his divine identity. I don’t have the space here to discuss many of the other ways Jesus spoke and acted as if he were, not only the Lord’s anointed, but the Lord himself. As N.T. Wright has shown in his voluminous writings on Jesus, Jesus acted as if he was fulfilling Old Testament prophetic hopes focused on the Lord’s return to Zion and restoration of Israel. In a broad way, Jesus was doing that which the Lord, through the Hebrew prophets, had promised to do himself.
It seems clear to me that the historical evidence we have shows unmistakably that some of the earliest Christians considered Jesus to be divine. The beliefs of these folk are embedded in the earliest Christian writings we have, the documents of the New Testament. Of course there may have been some followers of Jesus who did not think of him as God in the flesh. Ironically, the main Christological debate in the second century A.D. did not have to do with whether Christ was divine, but whether he was human. The Gnostics argued for a divine but not really human redeemer. Orthodox believers defended the humanity as well as divinity of the savior. (Photo: Pieter Rubens, “The Resurrection of Christ,” 1611-1612)
Of course I can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that many of the earliest Christians believed Jesus was divine. Historical argumentation never affords such proof. But I have shown that the preponderance of the evidence supports this theory, not the “later deification under the influence of Greco-Roman culture” theory. Scholars who are enamored with a “later deification” view have to make up evidence for their side (like the layers of “Q” and the historical development of the “Q” community).
If I cannot prove absolutely that the earliest Christians believed Jesus to be divine, I’m even less able to prove that they were right in this belief. As an orthodox Christian, I believe that they were right, of course. And I believe this is a reasonable belief, for which there is ample evidence, both biblical and otherwise. At some point in the future I might write a companion series to this one in which I show why it’s reasonable to believe that Jesus was, in fact, divine. But even if I do this, I still won’t be able to prove the proposition that Jesus was God. If historical theories can’t be proved in some beyond-a-doubt sense, theological truths are even less absolutely provable. So, if someone is struggling with the idea that Jesus was both God and human, no amount of logic can pummel that person into orthodox faith. This is a job, not merely for human arguments, though they play a valuable role, but ultimately for the Holy Spirit.
Ah, the person and work of the Holy Spirit . . . now there’s another idea for a blog series. So many blog topics, so little time.