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There are many popular theories about why the earliest Christians considered to Jesus to be divine. You can find these regularly espoused by preachers, teachers, professors of religion, or debunkers of Christianity. As you might be able to tell already, I do not find these theories to be persuasive. But because they are so common, I thought I’d begin by summarizing them and showing why they are inadequate. I’ll start by examining theories espoused by faithful Christians, and then move to the debunking side of the equation.
Theory #1: The early Christians believed Jesus was divine because they believed he was the Messiah, the Son of God.
The belief in the messiahship of Jesus is indeed one of the oldest and most central of all Christian beliefs. In Matthew’s account of Peter’s confession of Jesus, after Jesus asked who his disciples thought he was, Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). The Gospel of Mark is introduced as “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ [Greek = christos, either Christ or Messiah], the Son of God (Mark 1:1). Similarly, the author of the Gospel of John states his purpose this way: “[I have written about the signs Jesus did] so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
So, then, don’t these passages make it clear that because the earliest Christians thought Jesus was the Messiah they also regarded him as the divine Son of God? Well, not exactly. Let me explain. (Photo: A stained glass representation of Peter’s confession of Jesus.
The words at the bottom say: “Thou art the Christ.” From Trinity
Lutheran Church in Pasadena, California.)
First, in Judaism of the time of Jesus, the title “Messiah” carried no implication of divinity. In Hebrew a mashiach was one who was anointed with oil for some special purpose. To recognize someone as a messiah was rather like saying that person had special authority or some special calling. But it was not in any way to imply that someone was divine. In the time of Jesus, many Jews yearned for the coming of a messiah, an anointed one who would bring freedom and liberation from Rome. This person would be blessed by God, execute God’s judgment, and ultimately be a vehicle for God’s salvation, but he would not be divine. Remember that the Jews were fiercely monotheistic. So early Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah would not have led them to acknowledge him as God in the flesh. There is no logical flow from messiahship to deity.
But, you might wonder, what about the apparent equation of Messiah and Son of God in the gospel texts mentioned above? Don’t these indicate that the Messiah was someone divine? We might easily think this to be the case because we tend to use “Son of God” in the sense of “God’s only divine Son.” This usage does go back to the early days of Christianity. But among Jews in the time of Jesus, “Son of God” was used in other ways. For example, the people of Israel could be called God’s son (Hosea 11:1). So could the righteous man who is faithful to God (Wisdom 2:12-18).
The Jewish king was also called the Son of God, though, unlike their neighbors in the ancient world, Jews didn’t deify their kings. Consider, for example, what God said about King Solomon: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me” (2 Samuel 7:14). Similarly, we read this in Psalm 89: “I have set the crown on one who is mighty . . . . I have found my servant David; and with my holy oil I have anointed him; He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!’ I will make him my firstborn . . . .” (Psalm 89:19-20; 26-27). Notice that in this passage God anoints (makes messiah) the king, who calls God Father, and who is God’s firstborn. But there was no implication in this text that the king of Israel was divine.
So, when Peter confessed Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” it’s unlikely that this meant, “the Anointed One, who is also the divine Son of God.” Rather, this confession simply used two more or less synonymous terms for “God’s chosen king and redeemer.”
Now I do believe that the identification of Jesus as Son of God did in fact have something to do with early Christian belief in his messiahship. I’ll examine this possibility in greater depth later in this series. But, for now, I simply want to point out that when Jews (like Peter) thought of Jesus as Messiah or even Son of God, they were thinking of him as royalty, not divinity.
So the common theory that virtually equates messiahship with deity doesn’t fit the historical and linguistic evidence. A first-century Jew could have acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah without the slightest notion that he was somehow much more than a special man inspired and authorized by God to deliver God’s people from bondage to Rome.
There is another weak argument for Jesus’ divinity that Christians often put forth, and this I’ll examine in my next post in this series.