Was Jesus Divine?
The Early Christian Understanding
Copyright © 2004 by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
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Was Jesus Divine? Introduction to the Series
“I’m okay with Jesus being a great teacher and even somehow a heavenly revealer,” a man said to me, “but I’m just not into this whole notion of Jesus being God. I have a hard time with that one.” Sound familiar? Have you ever heard this? Maybe even said it yourself?
Indeed, the deity of Jesus isn’t one of the easiest of Christian beliefs to grasp, though it is one of the most central. And, I might add, one of the most controversial. If Jesus was just an inspired human teacher, one who pointed the way (or a way) to God, this fits nicely within our contemporary religious milieu. But if Christians claim that Jesus was not merely a human prophet, but somehow also the one true God in the flesh, then this sets Christianity apart from other religions. It implies that Christ is not merely one possible way to God, but the one authentic way. In our world today, this claim seems arrogant and unkind, if not antique. [Also See Jesus .. The Only Way?]
Folks of the new age persuasion seem at first not to have a problem with the divinity of Jesus, because they believe that all people are, in some sense, divine. Like the Gnostics of days gone by, new agers affirm that a spark of the divine dwells within each person, and that we will experience life most fully when we realize that we are all in some measure divine. From this perspective, Jesus’ divinity seems to pose no problem, since, in the end, all people are divine. Jesus is the Son of God? Not to worry, because we are all sons and daughters of God.
But Christian orthodoxy has always affirmed, not that Jesus was divine in a way common to all people, but in a unique way. Jesus didn’t simply have some element of the divine implanted within him. Rather, he was the unique and perfect incarnation of the one true God. Whether new agers are right or not in their belief about the divine spark in human beings, what is claimed about Jesus is radically different than this belief, even if it happens to be true.
One of the questions people commonly ask when considering the deity of Jesus is: “Where did this idea come from?” Or, to put the question something differently: “Why did Jesus’ followers start thinking that he was, not just a human teacher and savior, but God in the flesh?” This is a crucial question, one that Christians should be able to answer. In this blogging series I will attempt to answer this question by examining the historical records of earliest Christian belief.
The question of why the earliest Christians believed Jesus to be divine is important, not only as a matter of historical interest, but also because the divinity of Jesus is often rejected today on the grounds that it was not an essential part of earliest Christian faith but a later addition. Because it came later, many have argued, it can be safely jettisoned, and we can all get back to the most authentic and politically-correct version of Christianity, in which Jesus is an inspired man, but only a man.
You can find this view in scholarly tomes tucked away in seminary libraries as well as in the pseudo-scholarly volumes on Jesus that fill the shelves of secular bookstores today. But one of the most popular vehicles for the dissemination of the “Jesus was just a great guy who later on got divinized” theory is the wildly successful novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Consider the following scene, for example, in which the “scholar” Sir Leigh Teabing explains to the ingénue Sophie Neveu what really happened at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325.
“At this gathering,” Teabing said, “many aspects of Christianity were debated and voted on – the date of Easter, the role of the bishops, the administration of sacraments, and, of course, the divinity of Jesus.”
“I don’t follow. His divinity?”
“My dear,” Teabing declared, “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.”
“Not the Son of God?”
“Right,” Teabing said. “Jesus’ establishment as ‘the Son of God’ was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea.”
“Hold on. You’re saying Jesus’ divinity was the result of a vote?”
“A relatively close vote at that,” Teabing added. (Da Vinci Code, p. 233)
I don’t have the time to refute the myriad of historical inaccuracies in Teabing/Brown’s description of the Council of Nicaea. But in this series I do want to examine closely the historical roots of Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus. In particular, I want to see if there is evidence, Leigh Teabing et al. to the contrary, that the earliest Christians in fact held Jesus to be, somehow, God in the flesh. I also want to try and figure out why they came to this rather peculiar conviction.
[See What Happened at The Council of Nicea?]
If we find that the earliest Christians did regard Jesus as divine, this doesn’t prove that they were right, of course. They might well have been mistaken. But if the historical record indicates that belief in Jesus’ deity goes back to the first Christians, then the popular notion of his divinity as a late addition to authentic Christianity will be seen as worthy of rejection, not because orthodox Christians don’t like it, but because it just doesn’t fit the facts.
In my next post I’ll begin to examine some popular theories, some advocated by Christians and others favored by secularists, that seek to explain early Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus.
Popular Theories About Why Early Christians Considered Jesus as Divine (Section A)
There are many popular theories about why the earliest Christians considered to Jesus to be divine. You can find these regularly espoused variously by preachers, teachers, professors of religion, and 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.
First, we must remember that 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 the 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 God, far less “a god.” 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 . . . .” (vv. 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.
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 deity. 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 argument for Jesus’ divinity that Christians often put forth, and this I’ll examine in my next post in this series.
Popular Theories About Why Early Christians Considered Jesus as Divine (Section B)
In my last post I began considering popular theories about why the early Christians considered Jesus to be divine. The first theory pointed to the fact that they thought of Jesus as Messiah and therefore Son of God. But I showed that, in the thought world of first-century Judaism – the world of the earliest believers in Jesus – both “Messiah” and “Son of God” were royal titles, pointing out Jesus’ divine anointing, but not his divine nature.
Perhaps the other popular theory espoused by many Christians points to the resurrection of Jesus as evidence of his deity. According to this argument, the earliest Christians believed that Jesus was divine because they believed he was raised from the dead. “Surely,” it is proposed, “human beings don’t rise from the dead. So the good news of Easter convinced the earliest Christians – as it convinces us today – that Jesus was in fact God.”
Now there is a grain of truth in this theory, as there was in the previous theory about the Messiah/Son of God. No doubt the resurrection of Jesus did figure significantly in the development of early Christian belief about Jesus’ deity. But the “resurrection therefore divine” argument is too simple to be correct, at least on the surface.
Many Jews in the time of Jesus expected that, in God’s time, human beings would experience resurrection. Mark 12:18 notes that “Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus . . . .” The implication is that this denial of resurrection set the Sadducees apart from many of not most other Jews in the time of Jesus. Most notably, the Pharisees believed in some sort of resurrection beyond death. But the Pharisees were surely not alone in this belief. We find the idea of resurrection among the Old Testament prophets, most notably Daniel. Daniel 12 envisions a time in the future when “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Dan 12:3). The post-biblical book of Wisdom, written a couple of centuries before Jesus, affirms that “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them” (Wis 3:1). In time, “they will shine forth” and “will govern nations and rule over peoples” (Wis 3:7-8). The promise of resurrection emboldened Jewish people to die rather than abandon their faith in God. In 2 Maccabees, a man who is being tortured to death says, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!” (2 Macc 7:14).
So, in the eyes of the first followers of Jesus, who were Jewish, of course, the resurrection of Jesus proved that he was righteous. It vindicated his life, his ministry, his message, and even his death. But it did not, at least at first blush, demonstrate that Jesus was God. The earliest Christians confessed that “God raised” him from the dead (Acts 2:24; Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 6:14), but they did not say that Jesus raised himself, thereby showing himself to be God.
I would certainly agree, however, that apart from the resurrection of Jesus, the early followers of Jesus would never have come to the conclusion that he was God in the flesh. In fact, there really wouldn’t have been any early followers of Jesus after his crucifixion, were it not for his resurrection. So the resurrection is crucial in the overall calculus that ends with Jesus’ deity. But the flow of ideas is more complex than the simple “resurrection therefore divine” argument that sometimes shows up in Easter sermons. Jesus could have been the Messiah/Son of God, and he could even have been raised by God on the third day after his crucifixion, without being divine. These things surely point in the direction of Jesus’ specialness, but more is required to get to his divinity.
I’ll get to this “more” later in this series. But before I do, I want to examine a very popular argument among secularists that purports to explain why the earliest Christians believed Jesus to be divine. I’ll deal with this in my next post.
Popular Theories About Why Early Christians Considered Jesus as Divine (Section C)
In my last two posts in this series I examined two theories that seek to explain why the earliest Christians regarded Jesus as divine. Both of these were found to be lacking, though both point in a direction that will ultimately lead to a plausible theory.
Today I want to examine a very common theory that seeks to explain the early Christian deification of Jesus without depending on the miracle of the resurrection. This theory claims that the earliest Christians, as faithful Jewish monotheists, hailed Jesus as an inspired teacher and/or as Israel’s Messiah, but not as a divine being. Yet as Christianity spread into the Roman world, the original, authentic Christianity underwent a transformation. Under the influence of Greco-Roman religion and culture, in which the line between the human and the divine was frequently crossed, the fully human Jesus began to be divinized. Soon, like Hercules or Julius Caesar, Jesus was considered to be a god. Thus the authentic early Christianity, with a human Jesus, was hijacked by the divinizing tendencies of the Greco-Roman world.
This theory is not an implausible one. You probably realize that I don’t buy it in the end, but the theory itself has considerable merit. There actually was a fine and permeable line between divinity and humanity in the Greek and Roman worlds. Consider the myth of Hercules, for example (in Greek, Heracles). His father was a god (Zeus) while his mother (Alcmene) was a human being. Hercules lived as a sort of god-man, with superior strength and other abilities. After his death he became a god. In basic outline, this story sounds rather like early Christian belief about Jesus.
Yet it wasn’t just mythical humans who became gods in the Roman world. The Caesars were also accorded this honor. Julius, for example, was recognized as a god after he was murdered in 44 B.C. His immediate successors (Augustus, Tiberius) were also divinized, but only after their deaths, at least in principle. Augustus was certainly more than willing to hint at his divinity during his earthly life. Toward the middle of the first century A.D., the Roman Emperors began to be recognized as gods even before their deaths. By the end of the first century, the Emperor Domitian left no room for speculation, calling himself “Lord” and “God” and requiring others to do the same. Those who would not pay him due homage, like the Christians, for example, were executed.
Into this milieu the early Christians proclaimed Jesus as one sent by God to bring salvation to the world. It’s not impossible to imagine that, in competition with gods like Hercules (who had a temple near the Roman Forum) and human heroes like the divinized Julius Caesar, Jesus also came to be thought of as divine. Moreover, this process of deification coincided with the movement of Christianity away from Judaism and toward paganism. So the Jewish commitment to monotheism was lost along the way, and, voilà, Jesus became divine.
As I’ve said, this theory has merit. But the question is: Does it fit the facts of early Christianity? As we examine the original sources that show us what the earliest Christians in fact believed about Jesus, does the “divinization under the influence of Greco-Roman culture theory” hold up? Or is another theory more plausible historically? These questions will guide the next steps in this series.
Earliest Christian Belief About Jesus: What Evidence Do We Have?
In my last post I laid out a popular theory among secular scholars and those who wish to debunk orthodox Christian faith. Let me review it briefly. According to this theory, the earliest Christians didn’t consider Jesus to be divine, but only an inspired man. These first Christians were, after all, monotheistic Jews who didn’t go around divinizing people. But as the Christian movement spread into the Roman Empire, it encountered a very different ethos and was transformed by that ethos. In the Greco-Roman world, unlike in the Jewish world, the line between humanity and divinity was frequently crossed, not only by mythological heroes like Hercules, but also by flesh-and-blood human beings like the Roman Caesars. So it was only natural that formerly pagan Christians, competing for religious allegiance against a slew of Greco-Roman cults, would divinize Jesus. Therefore, the one who was once only an inspired human redeemer and teacher became the One who was regarded as divine. (Those who reject classical Christian faith criticize this move to deify Jesus as an unnecessary and inauthentic add-on. Real Christianity, they claim, affirms the specialness of the human Jesus, but not his deity.)
I mentioned that this theory has merit as one possible explanation of how Jesus came to be seen as God. It isn’t a crazy theory (like the ones that “expose” Jesus as a space alien or a closet homosexual). One of the benefits of the “Jesus was divinized under the influence of Greco-Roman culture” theory is that we can actually look closely at the historical evidence to see if it is true or not.
What is the evidence for earliest Christian belief? Unfortunately, we don’t have newspaper accounts or in-depth interviews of the earliest followers of Jesus. There weren’t many reliable bloggers in the first-century A.D. either. Moreover, we don’t have any information about the very earliest Christian beliefs beyond what we find in the New Testament itself. The earliest Roman and Jewish descriptions of Christianity confirm what we see in Christian sources, but they were written at the end of the first-century A.D., decades after the Christian sources at our disposal.
The New Testament alone provides authentic historical information about the earliest Christians, yet this doesn’t come in systematic or exhaustive packages. Acts of the Apostles supplies some clues to the earliest Christian beliefs, but tells only a small part of the story of early Christianity, and was, in fact, written maybe fifty years after the events themselves (though with the help of earlier written sources no longer available to us). The New Testament gospels tell the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but provide scant evidence of what his first followers did and thought after Jesus disappeared from the scene. (Form-criticism does provide some access to this evidence, but its results are often quite speculative.)
Some scholars and many pseudo-scholars point to the document known as “Q” as a helpful source for earliest Christian beliefs. “Q” gets its name from the German word “Quelle” which means “source.” You’ll find some scholars who write about several versions of “Q,” going back to the very earliest days of Christianity. In the first drafts of “Q,” which conveniently don’t include verses in “Q” that contradict the “human Jesus” theory, Jesus is an inspired teacher of wisdom, but not a divine figure. The problem with this theory is that it is utterly fictional. There is no document “Q.” It is completely theoretical. Now the theory that Matthew and Luke had access to a document that consisted mainly of sayings of Jesus is a plausible one. I tend to believe it. But scholars who think they can peel back the editorial layers of this theoretical document, and in so doing get back to some authentic core of Christian belief, are lost in wonderland. They’re making it all up on the basis of precious little actual evidence. So even if there was a “Q” document, discussion of layers of “Q” and the early “Q communities” provides a sandy foundation for an understanding of earliest Christian belief.
If Acts of the Apostles, the New Testament gospels, and even the elusive “Q” don’t give us too much information about earliest Christian belief, where can we turn? To the writings of the Apostle Paul. Though scholars debate the details, all serious scholars agree that Paul’s letters were penned within a fifteen year period beginning in the late 40’s A.D. This means that the earliest Pauline letters were written only 15-20 years after the death of Jesus. Thus the letters themselves are primary evidence of what some of the earliest Christians believed (Paul, to be sure, and also his churches and his theological opponents).
Moreover, within Paul’s letters there are passages which, in all likelihood, point to Christian beliefs that are earlier than the late 40’s. Just as a preacher today might quote a bit of a hymn or a song, Paul included such materials in his letters. Some of these can be identified with a high level of probability. Thus these passages in particular get us back to some of the earliest Christian beliefs, those that pre-date Paul’s own writings.
In my next post I want to begin to look at one of these passages in Paul’s letters, a passage that most certainly includes one of the very earliest records of Christian belief about Jesus
. Maranatha! What Difference Does It Make?
Sometime in the mid-50’s A.D., the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church in Corinth. He concluded this epistle in the following way:
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord. Our Lord, come! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 16:21-24).
This passage this reads smoothly in English. But if you were to read the original Greek, you’d stumble upon a mystery. What you’d find is this:
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord. Marana tha. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus
No matter how well you knew Greek, you would not be able to understand the words, marana tha because, though they appear in Greek letters, they aren’t Greek words.
In fact, marana tha are Aramaic words. They mean “Our Lord, come!” (or possibly, “Our Lord is coming”). Aramaic was the language spoken commonly in the eastern Roman Empire, in lands such as Judea and Syria. But it was not the language of Corinth. In fact very few of the Corinthian Christians would have known what marana tha meant, unless Paul had taught them this meaning in an earlier visit to Corinth. The fact that he employs it in his letter suggests strongly that this was in fact the case. The Corinthians knew this Aramaic phrase because Paul had taught it to them during his first visit to Corinth, which took place around A.D. 52.
So, you may be thinking, that’s all well and good. I now know something about the origin of “Our Lord, come!” in 1 Corinthians 16. But why does this matter? Whatever does this tell us about the earliest Christian belief about Jesus and his divinity? Well, let me explain.
First of all, the fact that marana tha are Aramaic words suggests that they came at first, not from the quill of the Apostle Paul, but rather from the life and liturgy of the Aramaic speaking church. This means that their origin can be dated, not to the mid-50’s A.D., but much earlier. Marana tha comes from the 40’s, if not the 30’s. In other words, this phrase preserves some one of the earliest Christian prayers we have.
Second, the fact that Paul actually taught these Aramaic words to the Greek-speaking Corinthians suggests that they weren’t some incidental phrase Paul picked up somewhere in his early days as a Christian. Rather, they were important enough and used enough in the earliest church that Paul actually passed them on in their original tongue. This situation would be somewhat like that of the Hebrew words amen and hallelujah, which we know in the original language because they have played such a crucial part in Christian worship.
So, the phrase marana tha is both very old and very important. But what does it show us about the earliest Christian understanding of Jesus?
First, it’s quite clear from the context in 1 Corinthians 16 (and elsewhere), that the “Lord” being addressed as “Our Lord” (marana) is Jesus in particular, not God (the Father). Jesus is the one the early Christians are asking to come.
Second, consider the fact that the earliest Christians, most of whom were Jews, were calling out to Jesus as if in prayer. Not only did they believe that he rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, but they also believed that he could hear their requests. So as they worshipped the one true God, they also prayed to Jesus. This is quite a stunning development when you consider that it happened within a monotheistic Jewish context.
Third, the word “Lord” in Aramaic (mar) had a variety of meanings. It could be used as a term of respect for a human being. But it was also the word used by Aramaic-speaking Jews when they spoke to the LORD God. During his earthly life, Jesus was sometimes addressed as “lord” by people who meant simply to show respect to him as an honorable human being (for example, Matthew 8:6). But, after Jesus’ resurrection, the Christian use of “Lord” began to change. We see this illustrated powerfully in the story of “doubting Thomas.” When he finally realizes that Jesus is truly risen, Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
So when the earliest Christians, who still maintained their Jewish identity and central belief in one God, spoke in prayer to Jesus, calling him “Lord,” this suggests much more than merely a term of respect. Though it would be going beyond the evidence to conclude that the earliest, Aramaic-speaking, Jewish Christians believed that Jesus was somehow “fully God,” in the language of the fourth-century Nicene Creed, they had clearly moved in that direction.
We have seen that two apparently insignificant words in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians turn out to reveal quite a bit about the earliest Christian belief in Jesus. They show that some of the first Christians prayed to Jesus, as if to God, and referred to him with a title they used for God. These words also show us that the phrase “Our Lord, come!” was important enough and, I might add, used so commonly among the earliest Christians, that Paul taught the Corinthians both the Aramaic words and their meaning. Clearly, therefore, many of the earliest Christians regarded Jesus as far more than simply an inspired teacher of wisdom. He was someone to whom they prayed as if they were praying to God.
In my next post I’ll consider another piece of early Christian evidence that confirms and develops what we have seen in this post.
The Paradoxical Path to Lordship
In my last post I examined one of the very oldest bits of evidence for early Christian belief about Jesus. As you may recall, the original Greek text of 1 Corinthians 16:22 contains the Aramaic phrase, marana tha, which means, “Our Lord, come!” This shows that some of the very earliest Christians actually prayed to Jesus after his death and resurrection, even addressing him as “Lord,” the term used for God himself. So, though we can’t tell exactly what the first followers of Jesus believed about him, they surely held him to be much more than a man. In some way they related to Jesus as if he were God himself.
Another very early piece of early Christian belief confirms and expands upon this conclusion. In his letter to the Philippians, written during the mid- to late-50’s A.D., the Apostle Paul speaks of Christ in quite exalted language:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:5-11).
Notice that Jesus, prior to becoming human, was in the form of God and possessed equality with God. Moreover, in light of his obedient death, God exalted him and gave him the very name of God so that all creation might bow before him and worship him as Lord. Clearly Jesus is no longer in the “merely human” category.
At the latest, this passage was written about 25 years after the death of Jesus – still quite early. Yet the majority of scholars believe that Paul did not actually compose this text, but borrowed it from an early piece of Christian liturgy. The peculiar linguistic form of this passage, combined with its use of language that is unusual for Paul, combined with its “confessional” quality, have persuaded New Testament scholars that Paul employed a hymn that had been written earlier than Philippians. Just how much earlier we can’t tell. But, once again, we have in Paul’s letters, which are themselves the earliest Christian documents available to us, a piece of tradition which, in all probability, goes back to an earlier stage of Christian history.
This is all the more striking when you compare this text from Philippians with passages from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. In Philippians 2:9-11, God gave Jesus “the name that is above every name” so that every tongue might confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Compare this with Isaiah 42:5-8:
Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you; . . .
I am the LORD, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
Yet in Philippians 2, the Lord shares his glory with Christ, even giving him the name of Lord.
Three chapters later, in Isaiah 45:21-23, we read this:
Declare and present your case;
let them take counsel together!
Who told this long ago?
Who declared it of old?
Was it not I, the LORD?
There is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Savior;
there is no one besides me.
Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn,
from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
“To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear.”
Yet Philippians 2 claims that every knee shall bow to Jesus, and every tongue will confess that he is Lord. Why?
Notice, however, that Philippians 2 doesn’t confuse Jesus Christ with God the Father. The father exalts the Son, and is glorified when all creation confesses Jesus to be Lord. So, though we don’t have well-developed Trinitarian theology here, we certain have the seeds from which grew the Christian confession of one God in three persons.
Finally, we need to remember that the Apostle Paul was a faithful, monotheistic Jew. There is no evidence that his recognition of Jesus as God is a result of his being influenced by the Greco-Roman penchant for divinization. In fact, what is so striking about the hymn in Philippians 2 is that it is quite intentionally an application of Isaiah to Jesus. Passages in Isaiah once reserved for God alone have been applied to Jesus, who receives the name of Lord and who shares in divine worship. The use of Isaiah here suggests that the recognition of Jesus as God happened among faithful, Scripture-honoring Jews who saw in Jesus the very person of their God.
Moreover, what is most stunning about Philippians 2:5-11 is that the death of Jesus, even a scandalous death on the cross, contributes to his being regarded as God, rather than taking away from it. The one who died so ignominiously is the one who receives the worship of all creation as if he were God, and this worship is somehow a result of his humiliating death. Now that’s a paradox well worth further consideration.
In my next post in this series I’ll begin to look at another theological insight that contributed to early Christian exaltation of Jesus as God.
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is One!
One of the classic Jewish affirmations appears in the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:4-5, NIV). This is often called the Shema, Hebrew for the imperative “hear.” The Shema stood at the center of Jewish faith and worship in the time of Jesus, even as it does today. It affirmed the oneness of God, as well as the fact that this one God was also the Israel’s own LORD, the One who had revealed himself as Yahweh. (When “LORD” appears in all caps in the Bible, it translates the Hebrew name of God, YHWH.)
The Apostle Paul, having grown up in a committed Jewish family, would have heard the Shema countless times. Though the larger pagan world of his upbringing was filled with other so-called “gods,” Paul and his fellow Jews affirmed that theirs was the only true God, an affirmation that sometimes led to persecution of Jews, even occasional martyrdom. Yet no faithful Jew would abandon the belief in one God, the LORD, who was worthy to be loved with heart, soul, and strength. Jesus himself affirmed the importance of the Shema when he asked which commandment was the greatest: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30).
When he accepted Jesus as God’s Messiah, Paul continued to see himself as a faithful Jew. Yet his understanding of God began to change. Not only did he see the grace of God more clearly, but also he saw greater complexity in God’s own unique nature. This is evident in a passage from his first letter to the Corinthians, in a discussion focused on the question of whether or not Christians should eat food that had been sacrificed to idols. Here he writes:
Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Cor 8:5-6).
Here is a distinct echo of the Shema. Unlike the pagans for whom there are many “gods,” for Paul and the Christians in Corinth there is “one god, the Father.” This is the God who created all things, and who gives us our purpose in living.
But then Paul adds something radically new in the history of Judaism. Not only is there one God, but also “one Lord, Jesus Christ.” As we have seen in my last two posts, once again Jesus is called “Lord.” The context makes it clear that Paul was not using this word merely in reference to a human worthy of respect. Rather, Jesus receives the “name above all names,” the name God revealed as his own, the name of LORD.
In 1 Corinthians 8, the relationship of Jesus Christ to God the Father is extraordinarily intertwined. Jesus not only receives God’s unique name, but also he is the agent through whom God created all things and all people. Thus Jesus has begun to take on the attributes of God’s Wisdom as portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures and other ancient Jewish writings. In Proverbs, for example, as God creates the universe, Wisdom speaks in this way: “When [God] marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always” (Prov 8:29-30). God created, but Wisdom was the master worker. In 1 Corinthians 8, all things come from God, but all things come through Jesus Christ the Lord.
This passage reveals that the early Christian confession of Jesus as Lord did not, in the minds of the early Christians, mean they had abandoned Jewish monotheism in favor of pagan polytheism. They still affirmed the existence of one God. Yet somehow this one God now includes the one Lord, Jesus Christ.
A critic would say that this is folly. The early Christians would say that it is part of the mysterious nature of God. Later on, theologians would attempt to explain this mystery in more systematic terms, affirming that the one God exists in three persons (including the Holy Spirit). We can see the seeds of this Trinitarian theology in texts like 1 Corinthians 8. Though these seeds are of the tiny, mustard seed variety, nevertheless they show the beginning of Christian reflection on the nature of Christ, that which led to full-blown Trinitarianism in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D.
So far in this series we’ve seen that the earliest Christians addressed and referred to the risen Jesus as Lord, applying to him a name reserved for the God of Israel. They prayed to him (1 Corinthians 16:22). They worshipped him (Phil 2:9-11). They related to him as if to God himself. Therefore, the idea that the divinization of Jesus was a late development away from genuine Christianity fails to fit the evidence. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that the very earliest Christians regarded Jesus as far more than merely human. Moreover, this theological development happened, not under the influence of pagan polytheism, but while Christianity was still growing in the cradle of Judaism.
Why? Why did the earliest Christians, many of whom were faithful Jewish monotheists, regard Jesus as divine? What motivated them to regard the human Messiah as far more than human? I’ll seek to answer these questions in my next posts.
Who is the Savior? (Section A)
So far in this series we’ve looked at historical evidence that shows that some of the earliest Christian spoke of Jesus as Lord, applying to him the very name of Israel’s God. To their Lord they prayed and offered worship. Why? Why did faithful, monotheistic Jews begin to believe that Jesus, the human Messiah, was also in some sense the one true God?
Since all of this happened so early within Christian history, and since it happened even among the Aramaic-speaking followers of Jesus, who were, for the most part, devoted Jews, the “divinization under the influence of Greco-Roman paganism” theory doesn’t explain the facts. Moreover, in one of the early Christian texts that speaks of Jesus as the divine Lord (1 Corinthians 8:5-6), there is a clear rejection of pagan polytheism. So if the “pagan influence” theory fails to account for the early Christian belief in the deity of Jesus, what else might explain this startling theological development?
I would answer this question, in part, by pointing to the implications of salvation through Jesus Christ.
The early Christians believed that God’s salvation had come through Jesus, preeminently through his death and resurrection. Acts of the Apostles, for example, pictures Peter as proclaiming to the leaders of the Jews: “This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11-12). Similarly, in what might be the earliest of all extant Christian writings, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle writes, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:8). The good news about what God has done in Jesus is, according to Paul, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16).
From the fact that God’s salvation came through Jesus, the early Christians came to view Jesus as more than merely an agent of divine salvation. He began to be regarded as the very Savior. Consider the following New Testament passages:
Luke 2:11: “. . . to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Philippians 3:20: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
1 John 4:13-14 “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.”
We, who are so used to regarding Jesus as Savior, might miss the scandalous element in this confession. But a careful look at the Old Testament underscores the scandal. Rarely do the Hebrew Scriptures refer to human beings as agents of divine salvation. In the vast majority of texts, God and God alone is the true Savior. For example, through Isaiah God says:
When you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown! When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. . . . I am the LORD, and there is no other Savior (Isaiah 43:2-3, 11 NLT).
Or consider the opening of Psalm 62:
I wait quietly before God,
for my salvation comes from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress where I will never be shaken (Psalm 62:1-2, NLT)
So, the earliest Christians, most of whom would have been familiar with these and many other Old Testament passages that proclaim God as the only Savior, nevertheless assigned the title of Savior to Jesus. Yet if Jesus was the Savior, and God alone was the Savior, what did this imply about Jesus himself?
In my next post I’ll try to answer this question by examining another New Testament passage that weaves together the notion of Jesus as Savior with the idea of his divinity.
Who is the Savior? (Section B)
In my last post I began to answer the question of why the earliest Christians came to regard Jesus as divine. I showed how belief that divine salvation came through Jesus led to confessing Jesus as the Savior. Then, given the consistent testimony of the Old Testament to the effect that God alone is Savior, the move from Savior to divine Lord was obvious, however scandalous.
Consider one additional New Testament text that connects Jesus as Savior to Jesus as God. This one comes from the so-called “Infancy Narratives” in Matthew’s gospel. Joseph had just found out that his fiancée, Mary, was pregnant, though he had not been sexually intimate with her. So he resolved to break their engagement. But while he was sleeping, an angel appeared to him in a dream. The angel said:
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:20-23).
Joseph was to name Mary’s son “Jesus.” Why? Because “he will save his people from their sins.” There is a play on words here easily missed in English. Jesus’ actual name in Aramaic was Yeshua, or in Hebrew, Joshua. This name means, in either Semitic language, “The LORD is salvation.” So Mary’s son will be called “The LORD is salvation,” yet he himself will save Israel from their sins. From this one can produce a nifty syllogism:
Major premise: The LORD is salvation.
Minor premise: Jesus will save his people from their sins.
Therefore: Jesus is the LORD.
Also See Is the Name of the Messiah "Yeshua?"
Of course the angel made this conclusion clear by adding a line from Isaiah 7:14: “‘Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” Jesus will fulfill the promise of Isaiah. He will be, not only the Savior, but the One who is Emmanuel: God with us.
I began my last post with a question: Why did the earliest Christians come to regard Jesus as divine? Part of the answer is now apparent. The deity of Jesus was an extrapolation from his role as Savior. Because they experienced salvation through Jesus, and because they knew that God alone was the Savior, the early Christians concluded that Jesus must have been Emmanuel, God with us.
When I use the language of “extrapolation” and “conclusion,” I don’t mean to suggest that the earliest Christians sat down together and worked out logical syllogisms to prove the deity of Jesus. Faith is far more fluid and experiential than this, of course. But when you probe beneath the early Christian confessions to their theological foundation, you find that salvation through Christ led to the belief that he was the Savior, which led the faithful Jewish followers of Jesus to the unprecedented conclusion that he was also, in some measure, the one true LORD.
Centuries later, Christian theologians continued to define the nature of Jesus in light of his role as Savior. If Jesus were to save us, they argued, then he had to be fully human. Only in this way could he bear the penalty for human sin. Yet if he were merely human, then he wouldn’t be able to break the power of sin. So he must also be fully God. Thus the logic of the earliest Christians, from salvation in Jesus to Jesus as divine Savior, set the stage for later and more systematic examinations of Jesus’ unique nature as one who is fully God and fully human.
In my next post in this series I’ll examine another avenue of reflection that guided the early followers of Jesus to the conclusion that he shared in God’s own nature.
Echoes of Wisdom (Section A)
One of the most influential theological movements in ancient Judaism was what scholars call The Wisdom Tradition. Beginning many centuries before Christ, faithful Jews began to pass along popular wisdom, such as we find in the biblical book of Proverbs. Throughout this book are wise sayings of the sort popularized in America by Ben Franklin. For example, we find such pragmatic advice as:
Do not quarrel with anyone without cause,
when no harm has been done to you (Prov 3:30)
Do not enter the path of the wicked,
and do not walk in the way of the evildoers (Prov 4:14).
A slack hand causes poverty,
but the hand of the diligent makes rich (Prov 10:4).
But there was another strand woven through the fabric of the Wisdom Tradition, a more theological and reflective fiber. Some of the Jewish sages, besides passing on practical guidance, began to meditate on the very nature of wisdom, which for them meant divine wisdom. These meditations were enshrined in poetic praise of God’s wisdom, with wisdom being pictures as a woman, a female companion of God. In Proverbs 8, for example, we read:
Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice? . . .
“To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.
O simple ones, learn prudence;
acquire intelligence, you who lack it. . . .
Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold; . . .
The LORD created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago. . . .
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle of the face of the deep, . . .
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always. . . .” (Prov 8:1, 4-5, 10, 22, 27, 29-30)
Of course the monotheistic Jews who penned and read these lines didn’t picture Wisdom literally as a female god separate from the Lord. But in the creative freedom of their poetry, they waxed eloquent about the feminine glory of God’s wisdom.
In post-biblical Wisdom Tradition, Wisdom was increasingly pictured as a female consort of the Lord. We see this, for example, in books from the Old Testament Apocrypha, including the Wisdom of Solomon and the Wisdom of Ben-Sira (known also as Sirach or Ecclesiasticus). The Jewish sages believed, moreover, that Wisdom had come to dwell in Israel in the form of the Mosaic law or the temple. Thus the universal Wisdom of God found a place within the tradition and revelation of Jewish religion and theology.
[See General Information about the books of Sirach and Baruch at the end of the page]
Without question, the earliest Christians, along with other first-century Jews, were influenced by the Wisdom Tradition. You can see this clearly, for example, in the New Testament letter of James, whose advice giving sayings often sound a lot like those in Proverbs. Also, some of the sayings of Jesus contain distinct echoes of Jewish wisdom. One of the most striking of these echoes is found in Matthew 11:
"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30, emphasis added)
Now compare this with a couple of passages from the pre-Christian Jewish book of Sirach.
Come to [wisdom] will all your soul,
and keep her ways with all your might.
Search out and seek, and she will become known to you;
and when you get hold of her, do not let her go.
For at last you will find the rest she gives,
and she will be changed into joy for you.
Then her fetters will become for you a strong defense,
and her collar a glorious robe.
Her yoke is a golden ornament,
and her bonds a purple cord. (Sir 6:26-30, emphasis added)
Another chapter of Sirach pictures Wisdom as speaking for herself:
Come to me, you who desire me,
and eat your fill of my fruits.
For the memory of me is sweeter than honey,
and the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb.
Those who eat of me will hunger for more,
and those who drink of me will thirst for more. (Sir 24:19-21)
Sirach goes on to identify Wisdom as “the law that Moses commanded us” (24:23), a point to which I’ll return later. Sirach 24:19-21 are reminiscent, not only of Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11:28 to “Come to me,” but also of his offer of living water to the Samaritan woman in John 4, not to mention his language in John 6, where he speaks of eating and drinking his flesh and blood. Like personified Wisdom, Jesus says, “Whoever eats me will live because of me” (John 6:57).
Surely it was no accident that Jesus echoed the invitation of divine Wisdom. His multifaceted offer in Matthew 11 – Come to me; I will give you rest; Take my yoke; Learn from me; My yoke is easy – is an intentional imitation of Wisdom. By using this language, Jesus was saying, in a sense, “What God’s Wisdom offers, I offer. What divine Wisdom provides, I provide.” So, though he did not say directly, “I am the incarnation of divine Wisdom,” his language clearly implied as much. Jesus wasn’t the traditional Jewish wisdom teacher who pointed faithfully to God’s supreme Wisdom. Rather, he spoke as if he himself were Wisdom in the flesh.
In my next post in this series I’ll continue to pursue ways in which the connection of Jesus with divine Wisdom underscored early Christian belief in his divinity.
Echoes of Wisdom (Section B)
In my last post I began to examine echoes of Wisdom in the ministry of Jesus himself. By Wisdom, I mean not only the human trait of wise judgment, but the divine characteristic pictured in the Old Testament and other Jewish sources as a female consort of the Lord. When Jesus intentionally speaks in the voice of divine Wisdom, and not merely as a human sage pointing people to Wisdom, the implications are striking. Jesus, one might conclude, by talking as if he himself were divine Wisdom, is suggesting that he himself is divine.
The earliest Christians took this ball and ran with it. In several passages of the New Testament the biblical writers portray Jesus as God’s Wisdom come to earth (see, for example, Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:1-4). Perhaps the most obvious and significant of these texts is John 1:1-18, the prologue of John’s gospel. This passage begins:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Now at first glance, this passage appears to associate Jesus with the Word of God, not the Wisdom of God. And it surely does make this association. In the Old Testament, God speaks creation into existence (Genesis 1). Thus one might say, as some who wrote the books of the Old Testament did, that the Word of God created the world. Take Psalm 33 for example:
4 For the word of the LORD is upright,
and all his work is done in faithfulness. . . .
6 By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
and all their host by the breath of his mouth.
Moreover, as the Old Testament records that “the word of the Lord” came to someone to reveal God’s truth, so John’s prologue recognizes Jesus the Word as the one through whom God’s ultimate revelation has come.
Without question, therefore, the Old Testament notion of the Word of God stands behind the opening verses of John’s gospel. But this isn’t the whole story, because the echoes of Wisdom in John 1:1-18 are so loud as not to be missed by anyone familiar with the Jewish Wisdom tradition. Consider Proverbs 3:19, for example: “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens.” Sounds a lot like John 1:3, doesn’t it? But this is just the beginning. Consider the following parallels between the Word of God in John 1 and Wisdom in Jewish tradition:
The Word of God in John 1:1-18
The Wisdom of God in Jewish Writings
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. (vv. 1-3)
The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth (Prov 8:22-23).
When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always (Prov 8:27-30).
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people (vv.3-4).
For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD (Prov 8:35).
Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. (Wis 6:12)
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him (v. 11)
. . . I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded (Prov 1:24)
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (vv.10-12).
Send her forth from the holy heavens, and from the throne of your glory send her, that she may labor at my side, and that I may learn what is pleasing to you. For she knows and understands all things, and she will guide me wisely in my actions and guard me with her glory. (Wis 9:10-11)
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (v. 14).
For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. (Wis 7:25-26)
There are actually many more parallels between the Word in John’s prologue and Wisdom in Jewish tradition, a couple of which I’ll examine later. But the main point is clear, I believe. John’s picture of Jesus as the Word of God has been painted with Jewish Wisdom as a model.
John’s association of Word and Wisdom, as it turns out, was also something found in older Jewish sources. Consider the following passages:
For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding (Prov 2:6).
It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. When he utters his voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. (Jer 10:12-13) “O God of my ancestors and Lord of mercy, who have made all things by your word, and by your wisdom have formed humankind . . . ." (Wis 9:1-2)
For wisdom becomes known through speech, and education through the words of the tongue (Sir 4:24).
So, following in the footsteps of the Jewish sages, John painted a picture of God’s Word/Wisdom in the prologue of his gospel. The most shocking element of this picture, of course, is the unprecedented identification of Word/Wisdom with a man, with Jesus of Nazareth. I’ll examine this in greater detail in my next post.
Echoes of Wisdom (Section C)
After a week’s distraction because of the election, I’m back to my series: “Was Jesus Divine? The Early Christian Understanding.” Let me review briefly where I’ve been before getting to today’s new material.
I began this series with a simple question: Why did Jesus’ followers start thinking that he was, not just a human teacher and savior, but God in the flesh? Then I considered several popular answers to this question, none of which quite do the job. So I jumped into an examination of the earliest historical evidence to determine what the first Christians believed about Jesus and why. I then documented the exaltation of Jesus as Lord, and showed how the early Christian understanding of Jesus as savior led to seeing him as God.
In my last two posts I illustrated how Jesus was identified with divine Wisdom. The Jewish Wisdom Tradition often spoke of God’s Wisdom as if “she” were a female character, a consort of the Lord himself. The Jewish sages didn’t actually believe that Wisdom was some sort of goddess alongside the one true Lord, of course. But they exercised considerable poetic freedom in the way they portrayed God’s Wisdom as a female being.
In my last post I focused upon the prologue to John’s Gospel (1:1-18). Here John waxes eloquent about the Word of God, active both in creation and in revelation. Behind John’s notion of the Word lies the Jewish conception of Wisdom, as demonstrated by many clear parallels between Wisdom in Jewish tradition and the Word in John 1:1-18. Today I want to examine even more striking connections along this same line.
The first comes from the post-biblical Wisdom document known as Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus). Here divine Wisdom is pictured in this way:
Wisdom praises herself,
and tells of her glory in the midst of her people. . . .
“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and covered the earth like a mist. . . .
Over waves of the sea, over all the earth,
and over every people and nation I have held sway.
Among all these I sought a resting place;
in whose territory should I abide?
“Then the Creator of all things gave me a command,
and my Creator chose the place for my tent.
He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob,
and in Israel receive your inheritance.’
Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me,
and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.
In the holy tent I ministered before him,
and so I was established in Zion. (Sir 24:1-3, 6-10, emphasis added)
Glorious Wisdom, who existed in the beginning and who came forth from the mouth of God (as God’s Word) was seeking a place among people. God chose a special place for her tent, telling Wisdom to make her dwelling (literally, to pitch her tent) in Jacob. And what exactly was this tent? It was the tabernacle, later the temple, in which God was present on earth.
Another Jewish sage who went by the name of Baruch also waxed eloquent about Wisdom’s presence among the Jewish people:
Learn where there is wisdom,
where there is strength,
where there is understanding, . . .
Who has found her place?
And who has entered her storehouses?
No one knows the way to her,
or is concerned about the path to her.
But the one who knows all things knows her,
he found her by his understanding. . . .
This is our God;
no other can be compared to him.
He found the whole way to knowledge,
and gave her to his servant Jacob
and to Israel, whom he loved.
Afterward she appeared on earth
and lived with humankind.
She is the book of the commandments of God,
the law that endures forever.
All who hold her fast will live,
and those who forsake her will die.
Turn, O Jacob, and take her;
walk toward the shining of her light. (Bar 3:14-15, 31-32, 35-37; 4:1-2)
In Baruch’s vision, Wisdom wanted to be found by people, but they were uninterested in her. So God sent her to earth in the form of the law of Moses. One who embraces the law walks toward Wisdom’s light.
Both Sirach and Baruch envision God’s Wisdom as desiring to be found by people who fail to receive her. But Wisdom, glorious and shining with light, comes to earth to dwell among people. According to Sirach, her “tent” is the Jewish tabernacle/temple. For Baruch, she takes the form of the Mosaic law. True life will be found by the person who embraces Wisdom, either by participating in the Jewish sacrificial cult or by accepting and living by the Torah.
[See General Information about the books of Sirach and Baruch at the end of the page]
Now, with this picture of Wisdom’s visit to earth firmly in mind, read again these lines from John’s prologue:
In the beginning was the Word . . .
What has come to being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him,
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory, . . .
The law indeed was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:1, 3-4, 10-12, 14, 17)
John’s picture of the Word is clearly reminiscent of Wisdom in Sirach and Baruch. The Word seeks to be found by people, but is at first rejected. Undeterred, the Word finally comes in a definitive form among the Jewish people, not as the tabernacle or the law, but as the human being Jesus Christ.
The parallel between John and Sirach is even clearer in Greek than in English. Our translation reads, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” In fact “lived among us” is an distinctive Greek verb skenoo. It means, quite literally, “pitch a tent” (skene means tent in Greek). This is the same word group that appeared in Sirach 24: “and my Creator chose the place for my tent [skene]. He said, ‘Make your dwelling [kataskenoo] in Jacob . . .” (v. 8). Such a close verbal parallel is not an accident. John is intentionally using the language of Jewish Wisdom, though giving it a completely new meaning. God’s Wisdom has indeed “pitched a tent” on earth, not in the tabernacle/temple, but in the flesh of Jesus.
Similarly, in verse 17, John contrasts the Mosaic law with the “grace and truth” that has come through Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Whereas Baruch envisioned Wisdom as coming in the law, John identified the locus of Wisdom’s presence in the person of Jesus. He alone gives grace and truth, making God known to us (v. 18).
So, to summarize what we’ve seen so far, among the Jewish sages God’s Wisdom was seen as “pitching a tent” on earth in the form of the tabernacle/temple or the law. John, using similar language and imagery, says that God’s Word/Wisdom became flesh in Jesus. Wisdom’s “tent” wasn’t the tabernacle or the law, but the fully human person of Jesus Christ.
If Jesus was the incarnation of divine Wisdom, wouldn’t this imply that he was far more than human? Yes, according to John. As he says in verse 18: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). God the only Son!!?? This sounds serious, and indeed it is. In my next post I’ll begin to look at how Jesus as “son of God” also contributed to early Christian belief that he was God.
"Son of God" in Jesus and Judaism
In my last post I showed how the picture of Jesus in the prologue of John’s gospel was drawn with the Jewish figure of divine Wisdom in view, yet with a striking innovation. Whereas the Jewish sages envisioned Wisdom as coming to earth in the tabernacle/temple or the Mosaic law, John professed the incarnation of the Word/Wisdom of God in the person of Jesus (John 1:14). This astounding truth meant that Jesus was uniquely able to reveal God to humankind: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). So the Word/Wisdom of God is also “God the only son.” This suggests that the divine sonship of Jesus was part of what enabled the early Christians to identify him as God. So let us now turn to the issue of the “sonship” of Jesus.
For those of us who are used to referring to Jesus as the “Son of God,” it comes as a shock to realize how rarely this language appeared on his own lips. In fact, in the gospels “Son of God” is used more often for Jesus by Satan and demons than by Jesus himself (e.g. Matt 4:3, 6; 8:29). Only twice in the biblical gospels does Jesus refer to himself directly as Son of God:
“Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” (John 5:25)
“This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4).
We might wonder why, if Jesus was in fact the divine Son of God, he didn’t call himself Son of God more often. An answer to this question is found in the meaning of the phrase “son of God” among Jews in the time of Jesus. I wrote about this historical meaning in Part 2 of this series. But, since that was almost a month ago, let me reiterate what I explained then.
Among Jews in the time of Jesus, “Son of God” did not have the connotation of divinity. Consider, for example, the image of the son of God that emerges from the Old Testament. Through the prophet Hosea the Lord referred to the people of Israel as a whole as his son (Hosea 11:1). 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 . . . .” (vv. 19-20; 26-27). Surely the Lord was not suggesting that David is divine.
During the intertestamental period, Jews continued to refer to human beings (or in some cases, angelic beings) as sons of God. To cite one example among many, in the Jewish book of Wisdom the ungodly plot against the godly. Notice the description of the righteous person:
“Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord [paida Kyriou]. . . .
We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God’s child [huios theou], he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. (Wis 2:12-13, 16-18, my emphasis)
If Jesus had openly proclaimed himself as Son of God, his contemporaries would not have thought of this as a claim to divinity. They might have understood only that Jesus was touting his own righteousness. More likely, they would have heard a claim to be the promised Messiah, the human being who would lead Israel to throw the Romans out of God’s land once and for all. We see evidence of the messianic meaning of “son of God” in the gospels. For example, Matthew records Peter as confessing Jesus’ identity in this way: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). Similarly, though in a vastly different context, the high priest who interrogates Jesus prior to his death said, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (Matt 26:63).
So, if Jesus had often referred to himself as Son of God, he would have been understood as claiming to be the Messiah, not as claiming to be divine. But, even though Jesus surely understood himself as Messiah in an unexpected sense, he almost never referred to himself in this way. Given the true nature of his calling, adoption of the title “Messiah” would have confused matters greatly. The same would have been true for “Son of God.”
Yet, as we read the gospels, we find that Jesus often used the word “son” in reference to himself, not in the phrase “Son of God,” but in the expression “Son of Man.” To this curious title I’ll turn in my next post.
The Confusing “Son of Man”
In my last post I noted that Jesus rarely referred to himself as the Son of God. On the contrary, he frequently spoke of himself as the Son of Man. This title, rarely used by Christians today when we speak of Jesus, was by far Jesus’ preferred title for himself. It shows up over seventy times in the gospels, almost always on the lips of Jesus himself.
It’s ironic that Jesus’ favorite self-designation gets so little play among Christians today. It’s also understandable, because relatively few believers in Jesus really understand what he meant when he used the phrase “Son of Man.” And this is also understandable, because none of those who followed the earthly Jesus understood what he meant either, prior to his death and resurrection.
Consider the following scene from the Gospel of John. In the final hours of his ministry, Jesus said, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. . . . And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (John 12:23, 32). The crowd was perplexed, asking: "How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" (John 12:34). Even after repeatedly hearing Jesus speak about himself as the Son of Man, the people were still confused. They weren't even sure what in the world he was talking about. Even more surprisingly, Jesus's closest followers failed to comprehend his mission as the Son of Man. Peter, James, and John joined the crowds in their puzzlement (Mark 8:27-33; 10:35-45). So if you’re uncertain about all of this “Son of Man” stuff, you’ve got good company.
What does the expression “Son of Man” actually mean when it is applied to Jesus? We tend to think of it as an affirmation of his humanity. And in one sense this is true. The phrase “son of man” was, at base, an expression that meant “human being” both in Hebrew and in Aramaic, the spoken language of Jesus and his followers. On the most obvious level, one who said “I am a son of man” was simply saying “I am a human being.” You see this in the classic line from Psalm 8, for example:
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? Psalm 8:4, KJV)
The King James Version follows the Hebrew quite literally here. More recent translations render the sense of the verse in contemporary English, as in the following example:
What are mortals that you should think of us?
mere humans that you should care for us?
(Psalm 8:4, NLT)
Armed with the knowledge that the basic meaning of “son of man” is “human being,” we turn to the sayings of Jesus in the gospels. There we find anything but what we might expect. Jesus talks about one he calls “the Son of Man,” yet his descriptions of the Son of Man suggest that this figure is anything but an ordinary human being. Consider these two excerpts from the Gospel of Matthew:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31-32).
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see 'the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven' with power and great glory (Matt 24:30).
So, according to Jesus, the glorious Son of Man will someday be enthroned in heaven, in the midst of an angelic host. At that time he will exercise the power of judgment over all nations. This is no ordinary human being! Though his title points to his humanity, he functions in a role generally reserved for the Lord alone.
Where did Jesus get this stuff? Why did he use the expression “Son of Man” in such a striking way? In my next post I’ll examine the Jewish background behind Jesus’ usage of “Son of Man,” showing both Jesus’ continuity with Jewish tradition and his astounding break from that tradition.
The Son of Man in the Judaism of Jesus
In my last post I began to examine Jesus’ use of the self-designation “Son of Man.” I noted that although this was Jesus’ preferred title for himself, his followers have generally been confused by what Jesus meant when he called himself the “Son of Man.” Moreover, some of what he claimed for the Son of Man seems to be, on first glance, fantastic. According to Jesus, the time will come when the Son of Man will be glorified and enthroned in heaven, where he will execute judgment upon the nations. This "human being" seems to take on the attributes of God himself. Where did Jesus get these ideas about the Son of Man?
It should come as no surprise that Jesus’ picture of the glorious Son of Man is part his Jewish worldview. In fact, his description of the Son of Man can be traced back to a crucial text from the book of Daniel. One night Daniel had a terrifying dream about the future of human history. In his dream, he saw four dreadful beasts who rule over the earth and devour people through their political oppression. But, in the midst of the beasts, God appeared as "the Ancient One" who existed even before time itself (Daniel 7:9). He sat upon his throne in the presence of his heavenly court, judging the four beasts and taking away their power. [See Daniel Sets the Stage]
Then, unexpectedly, a new figure appeared:
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed (Dan 7:13-14, emphasis added).
In the original Aramaic of Daniel, the phrase "one like a human being" reads literally, "one like a son of man." This human figure rose from earth into the sky to appear in God's presence where he received the kingdom of God. The dominion of this human being is unlike any human reign because it "is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away" (Dan 7:14).
While still dreaming, Daniel approached one of the divine attendants, asking for the interpretation of the dream. He learned that the four beasts represent four kingdoms that shall dominate the earth. But when the Ancient One finally executes judgment upon the all four beasts, the saints will be exonerated. In fact,
The kingship and dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them (Daniel 7:27).
Therefore, the "one like a son of man" represents the faithful people of God who endure oppression and ultimately share in God's rule over the earth.
InPlainSite.org Note: However this does not fully take into account that Daniel 7:14 states that “To him (one like a son of man) was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him”. Son of Man in this verse cannot mean the people of God as people cannot serve themselves. Therefore the above verses seem to speak of the kingship and dominion being given to both the Son of Man and the people, who, at the same time, serve the Son of Man.
Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man didn’t dominate Jewish eschatological speculation in the time of Jesus, but it was picked up by a number of writers. In a writing known as 1 Enoch, the Son of Man executes divine judgment on earth by removing kings from their thrones and crushing the teeth of sinners (1 Enoch 46: 4-6). In another Jewish writing called 4 Ezra (or 2 Esdras), a human figure emerges from the sea and flies over the earth. When multitudes of humanity wage war against this human figure, he sends forth a stream of fire from his mouth that completely consumes his enemies. Thereafter, he gathers the faithful remnant of God's people to dwell together in peace (4 Ezra 13:1-57).
In my book Jesus Revealed I compared the Son of Man in intertestamental Jewish speculation to the character of Superman. Like the Man of Steel, the Son of Man has superhuman powers which he uses to defend “truth, justice, and the divine way,” which also happens to be the way of faithful Israel.
Surely Jesus’ description of the Son of Man derives, in part, from Daniel 7 and later Jewish visions. Consider once again the passages I cited in my last post:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31-32).
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see 'the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven' with power and great glory (Matt 24:30).
Yet this is not the whole story, because Jesus had other things to say about the Son of Man, things that appeared to contradict everything his Jewish contemporaries believed. To the unexpected and unsettling sayings of Jesus about the Son of Man I’ll turn in my next post.
Jesus, the Unexpected Son of Man
In my last post I showed how some of what Jesus said about the Son of Man was drawn from Jewish speculation about the future. Even as Jewish visionaries in the time of Jesus looked forward to a glorious Son of Man who would judge the nations, so did Jesus (see Matt 25:31-32, 24:30). But, in addition, Jesus also spoke of the Son of Man in a completely unprecedented and shocking manner. (I have discussed this in depth in my book, Jesus Revealed. What follows in this post is modeled on what I have said in this book.)
In one of the most dramatic scenes in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was. "You are the Messiah," answered Peter, boldly (Mark 8:29). But then Jesus began to teach them that he, as the Son of Man, "must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" (Mark 8:3). This revelation horrified Peter, who actually rebuked his master. Jesus responded with a stunning rebuke of his own, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things" (Mark 8:33).
At first glance we might scoff at Peter's foolish audacity. But if we recall Daniel's vision of the Son of Man, not to mention the development of this vision in later Jewish speculation, then we can begin to understand why Peter responded so negatively to Jesus' prediction of his suffering as the Son of Man. Everything Peter believed up to that moment identified the Son of Man as the victor, not the victim. He was to be glorified, not crucified. He was to judge the gentiles, not to die under their judgment. Jesus was turning the image up the Son of Man completely upside down and Peter intended to save his master from such folly.
In another incident from the gospels, Jesus’ other closest followers, James and John, showed their confusion about Jesus’ role as Son of Man. When he again predicted his imminent suffering as the Son of Man, these two disciples couldn't let go of their picture of his future triumph. They asked Jesus, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory" (Mark 10:37). It's as if they were saying, "All of this bizarre talk of suffering aside, we know that you'll soon be enthroned as the Son of Man, and we want to get a piece of your glory for ourselves." Jesus responded by explaining that they really didn't know what they were asking. If, indeed, James and John sought to share in his work as the Son of Man, then they first had to share in his suffering.
When the rest of the disciples realized what James and John had asked, they became angry, presumably because they wanted to protect their own share of glory. Jesus reproved the whole group:
Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
The disciples expected Jesus to be the luminescent Son of Man, the one who would be served by all peoples, as prophesied in Daniel 7. Jesus, on the contrary, saw his initial mission as Son of Man as rendering service, not receiving it. Even more unexpected, he came to give up his very life for the sake of others.
Nothing in the disciples' Jewish background had prepared them for this astounding claim concerning the mission of the Son of Man. Nowhere in Jewish thought prior to Jesus was the Son of Man envisioned as a servant who surrenders his own life for others. Where in the world did Jesus get this idea? Was it a brand new thought, a novel bit of special revelation? Or was Jesus bringing together familiar Old Testament concepts in some startling, unprecedented combination?
The last option is the correct one. Jesus framed his mission as the Son of Man by combining Daniel's fantastic dreams with Isaiah's poignant portrait of the suffering Servant of God. In the so-called Servant Songs found in chapters 42-53 of the Isaiah, God speaks of his chosen servant, the one in whom his soul delights: "I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations" (Isa 42:1). Beyond reestablishing the kingdom of God in Israel, the Servant will extend God's salvation "to the end of the earth" (Isa 49:6).
In chapter 52 Isaiah's description of the Servant seems at first to fulfill Jewish expectations for the one who will inaugurate God's reign: "See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up" (Isa 52:13). But then Isaiah's picture of the Servant takes a staggering turn. Many are "astonished" at him because "so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance" (Isa 52:14). Not only does he lack any sign of glory, but also he is so battered that people hide their eyes rather than look at him. The Servant's shocking suffering is not in vain, however, because he agonizes for the sake of others:
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed (Isa 53:4-5).
God's Servant even "pours out himself to death," giving up his life as "an offering for sin" (Isaiah 53:10-12).
Jesus appropriated these images when speaking of himself as the Son of Man who "came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). Through the "ransom" paid by his suffering and death, he would set many free from their captivity, just like God's Servant who took upon himself "the punishment that made us whole" (Isa 53:5). As the Servant "poured out himself to death" for the sake of others, Jesus would soon "pour out" his blood for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt 26:28).
Jesus interwove the unsettling picture of the Servant of God in Isaiah with Daniel's mysterious vision of the Son of Man. In this extraordinary tapestry, he combined Jewish hopes for God's glorious salvation with divine promises of the Servant's vicarious suffering. The Son of Man will be glorified, Jesus said, but not as you have expected, at least not at first. He will be lifted up, as you have hoped, but not initially into the heavens. Rather, the Son of Man as Servant of God will be lifted up on the cross, and, paradoxically, from there he will draw the whole world to himself (John 12:32-33). He will be glorified through a most inglorious death. Yet his sacrifice will be the source of life for others, the ultimate act of servanthood, the ransom for many.
Thus, through his suffering, Jesus fulfilled his destiny as the Son of Man. By dying on the cross, he bore the sin of many, thus becoming the Savior, not only of Israel, but also of all humanity. In his saving work, as we have seen earlier in this series, Jesus did what God alone could do. Therefore his followers began to see him as more than a human being. Moreover, because of his faithfulness as the suffering Son of Man, Jesus was believed to inherit the rewards reserved for the victorious Son of Man in Daniel 7: “To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan 7:14; see Phil 2:5-11).
In my next post in this series I’ll look at one additional piece of evidence from the gospels, verses where Jesus speaks of himself as God’s son in a curious and telling manner.
Jesus the Son
As we have seen, Jesus regularly referred to himself as the “Son of Man.” “Son of God,” on the contrary, appears on Jesus’ lips only twice in all of the gospels (John 5:25; 11:4). Not only did Jesus seem to avoid calling himself “Son of God,” but also that language, as I explained in an earlier post, had royal rather than divine connotations.
Yet Jesus did refer to himself with the word “son” in a phrase that suggested profound intimacy if not identity with God. It was the simple phrase “the Son.” Consider, for example, what Jesus said when talking about when the Son of Man would come (again) in the future: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt 24:36). Now this could simply be shorthand for “Son of Man” which appears in the next verse. But the sense of “the Son” seems to be different. Jesus was referring to himself, not merely as a child of God, or even as a royal Son of God, or even as the coming Son of Man, but as the Son of God. This suggests that Jesus’ sonship is in relationship to God is unique.
An ever more telling passage is Matthew 11:25-27. Here Jesus said,
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
Here Jesus again emphasized the uniqueness of his divine sonship. Only he, as the Son, knows God the Father. Only he, as the Son, can reveal God to us. This sounds very much like the last verse of the prologue to John’s gospel: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18).
Part of what is striking in Matthew 11:25-27, apart from Jesus’ self-reference as “the Son,” is his claim to intimacy with God, whom he has the audacity to call “my Father.” Jesus referred to God with the Aramaic word abba, something no Jew had done before. In the Old Testament God was the Father of Israel in a general sense, but never "my Father" in a most personal and intimate way. Over thirty years ago biblical scholars believed that abba was a childlike name for a father, something akin to "Daddy." But further research has shown that abba was employed both by toddlers and by fully grown children. Thus it was a term both of intimacy and respect.
Jesus' reference to God as "my Father" astounded his Jewish contemporaries, no doubt intriguing his followers while dismaying his opponents. How could a human being speak of God, the God whose name could not even be mentioned out loud, in such an intimate, personal way?
The opponents of Jesus saw his use of “my Father” as scandalous, if not blasphemous. But his followers saw something very different. For them, the unparalleled intimacy between Jesus and his Father, combined with his self-reference as “the Son,” suggested that Jesus was the Son of God in a unique way. He wasn’t just God’s favored king, or a righteous man, but a human being who was also God in the flesh.
The early church’s memory of Jesus’ baptism also fueled the fire of their high Christology. As Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, a voice from heaven proclaimed, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Given what we have learned about Jewish language for kingship, this statement might at first seem merely to be a recognition of Jesus’ royal calling as Messiah. But the word “beloved” adds a much richer meaning, a meaning we might easily overlook.
There is only one place in the Old Testament where a son is identified specifically as "beloved." This occurs in one of the most poignant stories of the Bible, when God tested Abraham by calling him to sacrifice his son Isaac. In his instruction to Abraham God said, "Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will point out to you" (Genesis 22:2). The word translated as "whom you love so much" actually denoted Isaac's uniqueness as well as his father's love for him. When the Hebrew Scripture spoke of someone as a "beloved son," this meant both "greatly loved son" and "only son." Thus when God called Jesus his "beloved" Son in his baptism, this word conveyed both God's profound love for Jesus and Jesus' unique status as the only Son of God.
Though the people who heard the voice from heaven identify Jesus as God’s beloved son probably missed the deeper theological nuances, the early Christians did not as they looked back upon Jesus’ baptism. From their perspective, this event foreshadowed what later became much clearer in the light of his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus was God’s only Son, the One who called God “Father,” the One who was uniquely able to reveal God to humanity because he was, not just the Son of God, but also, as John wrote, “God the only Son” (John 1:18).
The story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, from which we derived the connotation of “beloved,” offers a striking parallel to the story of Jesus in the New Testament. Abraham was supposed to sacrifice his son, yet didn’t do so because God stopped him and provided a ram for the sacrifice. Abraham’s “beloved” son was saved. But, as John 3:16 reports, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Whereas Isaac was delivered from death, Jesus, as God’s beloved Son, died so that God’s life might be given to humanity. In my next post I’ll begin to wrap of this series, summarizing what we have learned and offering a succinct explanation of why the early Christians believed that Jesus was divine.
Conclusions (Section A)
After eighteen posts on the subject “Was Jesus Divine? The Early Christian Understanding,” I’m finally ready to begin to draw some conclusions.
Perhaps the first conclusion, rather obvious, I’ll admit, is that there isn’t a 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.
What is pretty clear from the historical records is that Jesus was not, by and large, regarded as divine during his earthly life. 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 Dan Brown has claimed in The Da Vinci Code. And not even many decades later. Whatever you think of the divinity of Jesus, you must recognize 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, both worshipping him and 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 were 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 deity. 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; thanks to Chris Arveson for making sure I didn’t overlook this point). 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 speculation 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.
Conclusions (Section B)
No matter how Jesus lived, no matter what he said or did, if he had simply died on a Roman cross like so many other Jews in the first century A.D., then that would have been the sad ending to his story. We’d never have heard of Jesus. He wouldn’t even have been a blip on the radar screen of ancient history.
But Jesus’ story didn’t end with his crucifixion. No matter how you explain the rise of early Christianity, something extraordinary motivated the followers of Jesus not only to remember him, but also to proclaim him as the Jewish Messiah, the Savior of the World, and, yes, as God in the flesh. Even if you deny the historicity of the resurrection – and there are plenty of historians who do, mostly on the grounds that dead people just don’t come back from the grave – you’ve got to posit some fantastic experience that turned the followers of Jesus from a dejected and defeated bunch of cowards into one of the most effective propaganda machines in all of human history. [See Section on The Resurrection]
Yet the simplest explanation for the incredible rise of early Christianity is the traditional one. Jesus, having been crucified on Friday, was raised from the dead on Sunday. One of the very oldest pieces of Christian tradition we have affirms this fundamental story. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-7, the Apostle Paul passed on the basic outline of the Christian gospel in the same terms as he had received it. Here it is, in a nutshell:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (vv. 3-5).
To this Paul added a curious nugget: “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died” (v. 6). We don’t know of this appearance from any other ancient source. Paul’s point seems to be: “Look, lots of people saw Jesus alive after his death. And, as you know, most of them are still alive. You can ask them yourselves about the resurrection of Jesus.”
Christians of a more liberal stripe, supported by the efforts of some New Testament scholars, have tried to explain the rise of early Christianity without appeal to an actual resurrection. They’ve claimed that the language of resurrection was simply a mythological or poetic way to talk about the rise of the spirit of Jesus among his early followers, or some such tripe. But such efforts have to overturn the obvious meaning of the New Testament texts. Moreover, they make absolutely no sense in the context of first-century Judaism, as N.T. Wright has conclusively shown in his epic treatment of this subject, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Though the earliest Christians might have been mistaken, of course, they surely believed that Jesus had really been raised from having been really dead. (He was not raised like Lazarus, however, to the same sort of existence as before. Rather, Jesus had entered what we might call some new reality. Paul uses the language of “spiritual body” rather than “new reality” in 1 Corinthians 15.)
Later in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul dealt with the problem of people denying the resurrection from the dead, including the resurrection of Jesus. “If there is no resurrection of the dead,” he explained, “then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (vv. 13-14). Take the resurrection away from early Christianity and all you’ve got left is vanity.
Now if you’ve been reading this series from the beginning, you may wonder why I’m making such a big deal of the resurrection. After all, in Part 3 I rejected the argument that moved from the resurrection of Jesus to his deity. Now I seem to be resurrecting that argument (sorry!). What’s going on?
I am not claiming that the resurrection of Jesus immediately proved that he was God. The early Christians didn’t make this argument, nor did they believe this way. What the resurrection proved was that God had vindicated Jesus. It proved that the message and ministry of Jesus weren’t for naught, but were in fact the means by which God was bringing his kingdom to earth. The resurrection showed that Jesus wasn’t just full of hot air – or full of himself -- when he forgave sins, or when he spoke of his death as a new exodus. For early Christians, the resurrection was God’s stamp of approval on Jesus.
But if, therefore, God validated the ministry of Jesus, then it was right for him to have spoken with God’s own authority, and to have forgiven sins without recourse to the temple, and to have beckoned people to come to him as if he were the embodiment of divine Wisdom, and so forth. So, though one mustn’t jump immediately from resurrection to deity, the path from one to the other was clear enough for the vast majority of the earliest Christians to believe that he was divine, even though they were fervent monotheists.
In my next post I’ll wrap up this series and suggest a few implications.
Conclusions (Section C)
In my last post I argued that the resurrection of Jesus, though not proving that he was God, did vindicate him and his ministry. Through the lens of Easter, the early Christians began to see things about Jesus that they had not really noticed before. Or if they had noticed, they simply accepted these things as peculiar anomalies. Yet the resurrection both sharpened their vision and deepened their insight into the true nature of Jesus.
Jesus Spoke with God’s Own Authority
For example, though Jesus found his place within the prophetic tradition of Israel, and though he was considered a prophet by his Jewish contemporaries (for example, Mark 8:28), Jesus did not echo the prophetic claim to authority: “the Lord says.” This phrase, which appears more than 700 times in the Hebrew prophetic writings, never is heard on the lips of Jesus. He simply spoke authoritatively, as if he were the Lord himself. During his earthly ministry this directness stunned those who heard him and augmented his popularity (see Mark 1:27-28). But, after his resurrection, the followers of Jesus began to see his authority in a new light. He spoke as if he were the Lord because, in fact, he was the Lord.
Jesus Forgave Sin as if He Were God
Similarly, Jesus had the audacity to forgive sin, not sins done against him, but sin in general. Before healing a paralyzed man, for example, Jesus said to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). The Jewish scribes who heard him were incensed, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v. 7). Jesus explained that he, as the Son of Man, had this authority (v. 10). So, either God delegated to the human Jesus that which God alone could do, forgive human sin, or Jesus forgave sin because he was actually God in human form. The early Christians took this second option.
Jesus Assumed the Character of Divine Wisdom
According to many New Testament scholars (and scores pseudo-scholars), Jesus was a “sage,” a wise man in the tradition of the Jewish wisdom teacher. There is no doubt that Jesus filled this role to some extent, though it must be balanced with Jesus’ prophetic ministry as well. But Jesus was more than a mere sage. As I showed above in Part 11 and following, Jesus spoke, not just as a human inspired by God’s wisdom, but also as Wisdom herself. (Remember: Wisdom in Jewish tradition is portrayed as a female companion of the Lord.) The early Christians took this ball and ran with it, picturing Jesus as the embodiment of Wisdom (see, for example, John 1:1-18; Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:1-14). He was God’s Word/Wisdom incarnate (John 1:14).
Jesus Claimed Unprecedented Intimacy with God
Jesus startled both his followers and his opponents by speaking of his relationship with God in extraordinarily intimate terms. As far as we can determine, nobody before Jesus had the audacity to address God as “Father” in prayer, or to refer to God as “my Father.” Yet Jesus did so with unsettling nonchalance. Remember his prayer in Matthew 11:25-27:
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
It’s only a small step from there to what Jesus said in John 10: “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one” (vv. 29-30). Thus, in the prologue to his gospel, John describes Jesus, not only as the Son of God, but as “God the only Son” (John 1:18).
Though it was surely possible for Jesus, as a mere mortal, to have deep intimacy with God his Father, the way he spoke of God suggested that this relationship went beyond intimacy to identity of some sort. And yet Jesus still prayed to God his Father. Thus Jesus, as God the Son, was not the same being as God the Father. In the New Testament we find the seeds that later sprouted into full-grown Trinitarian theology.
The Death and Resurrection Showed that Jesus was the Divine Savior
As I explained in Parts 9 and 10 above, the early Christian confession of Jesus as Savior soon led the conclusion that he was God. The syllogism is an obvious one:
Jesus, through his death and resurrection, saved us from our sins.
Therefore he is the Savior.
But God alone is the only Savior.
Therefore Jesus is God.
Of course you don’t find this exact syllogism in the pages of the New Testament. But its logic convinced the early Christians, most all of whom were monotheistic Jews, that Jesus was not just a human Messiah, but God with us, Emmanuel. (For the record, this same logic motivated later Christological inquiry as well. The fact that Jesus saved humanity meant that he had to be both God and human.)
In my next post I’ll return to the theory that Jesus was divinized under the influence of Greco-Roman pagan culture. Then I’ll add a few closing thoughts as I wrap up this series.
Conclusions (Section D)
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
In Part 4 of 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 showed previously beginning with If more proof were needed that the discover 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.
I began this series by quoting Sir Leigh Teabing, a fictional character in Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code. According to Teabing, the earliest Christians thought of Jesus as a mere mortal. He was not considered to be divine until the fourth century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine imposed the deity of Christ upon the church. The evidence, of course, supports none of this, as I have shown. But the popularity of The Da Vinci Code, mixed with the gullibility of the reading public, has given the theory of the late deification of Jesus new life, so to speak. I expect we’ll be dealing with this afresh next year when the movie version of The Da Vinci Code comes out.
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 can’t prove for sure that the earliest Christians believed Jesus to be God incarnate, I’m even less able to prove that they were right in this belief. 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 expect I’ll 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 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.
Part 6, 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 worshipped 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. .
The Book of Sirach derives its name from the author, Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sirach (Sirach 50:27). Its earliest title seems to have been "Wisdom of the Son of Sirach." ....
....The book contains numerous maxims formulated with care, grouped by affinity, and dealing with a variety of subjects such as the individual, the family, and the community in their relations with one another and with God. It treats of friendship, education, poverty and wealth, the law, religious worship, and many other matters which reflect the religious and social customs of the time.
Written in Hebrew between 200 and 175 B.C., the text was translated into Greek sometime after 132 B.C. by the author's grandson, who also wrote a Foreword which contains information about the book, the author, and the translator himself. Until the close of the nineteenth century Sirach was known only in translations, of which this Greek rendering was the most important. From it the Latin version was made. Between 1896 and 1900, again in 1931, and several times since 1956, manuscripts were discovered containing in all about two thirds of the Hebrew text, which agrees substantially with the Greek. One such text, from Masada, is pre-Christian in date.
Though not included in the Hebrew Bible after the first century A.D., nor accepted by Protestants, the Book of Sirach has always been recognized by the Catholic Church as divinely inspired and canonical. The Foreword, though not inspired, is placed in the Bible because of its antiquity and importance”. [www.usccb.org/nab/bible/sirach/intro.htm]
Book of Baruch “is a book of the Old Testament in those versions of the Bible following the Septuagint (generally Roman Catholic and Orthodox). Baruch is included with the Apocrypha in the King James Version; it does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. The book is attributed to Baruch, trusted friend and secretary of the prophet Jeremiah. Addressed to the Jews exiled in Babylon, the work was written partly in prose and partly in poetry. The prose section (1-3:8) comprises an admission of sin, a promise of deliverance after repentance, and a prayer asking mercy and praising God. The poetry section (3:9-5:9) consists of verses in praise of wisdom and of God's commandments and of verses urging the exiles to be courageous and comforted. Chapter 6, which claims to be a letter of Jeremiah addressed to the exiles in Babylon, is a warning against idolatry. The three parts of the book were probably written at different times. Baruch may have been compiled as late as the 1st or 2nd century AD by an Alexandrian editor using original Hebrew manuscripts; it has been preserved in a Greek version.”