When did Jesus become God?

Note: This is the first in a series of posts that stem from content I am covering in my course on the History of Christian Thought for Wesley Biblical Seminary.


In the popular novel, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown asserts that Jesus was originally viewed by his followers as "a mortal prophet ... a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal." According to Brown, it was not until the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE that Jesus came to be viewed as "the Son of God" who existed "beyond the scope of the human world" (233).


These assertions are simply not true. The enormous corpus of pre-Nicaean Christian literature demonstrates beyond any doubt that Jesus was viewed by his followers as "the Son of God" long before 325 CE. In this post, I will present just a small sampling of this evidence.


The Undisputed Letters of Paul (50s CE)


The earliest extant Christian documents are the letters of Paul, written in the middle of the first century. The New Testament (NT) contains 13 letters that are attributed to Paul, but scholars debate the authenticity of 6 of these letters (Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus). Virtually all scholars, however, accept the authenticity of the remaining 7 letters. Scholars also agree that the earliest of these letters (probably 1 Thessalonians) was written around 50 CE, a mere 20 years after the crucifixion of Jesus.


In Paul's undisputed letters, Jesus is routinely referred to as the "Son (of God)" (see 1 Thess 1:10, etc.). Furthermore, Paul affirms the preexistence of Jesus. In Phil 2:5-7 Paul writes,

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (RSV)

Paul evidently believes that Jesus did not come into existence when he was born as a man. Rather, Jesus existed "in the form of God" prior to his incarnation (see also Rom 8:3).


Furthermore, Paul applies biblical passages about Yahweh to Jesus. In Rom 10:9-13, for example, Paul quotes the words of Joel 2:23: "All who call upon the name of the LORD shall be delivered" (RSV). In the original context, the "Lord" is obviously Yahweh, but when Paul quotes this passage in Romans, the "Lord" is Jesus. Likewise, in Phil 2:9-11, Paul borrows the language of Isa 45:22-23: "To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear" (RSV). Though Yahweh is the speaker, Paul applies these words to Jesus. According to Paul, every knee will bow "at the name of Jesus" and every tongue will confess "that Jesus Christ is Lord" (RSV).


Perhaps most astonishing is Paul's modification of the Shema: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one" (Deut 6:4 NIV). In 1 Cor 8:4-6, Paul is addressing the question of eating meat offered to pagan idols. Unsurprisingly, Paul first denounces idolatry and affirms the central Jewish doctrine that "there is no God but one" (8:4 RSV). Then, however, Paul makes a remarkable assertion: "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" (RSV). Here, exploiting the use of the two words "God" and "Lord," Paul has apparently split the Shema into two, thus inserting Jesus into the central confession of Jewish monotheism.


What is so surprising about Paul's Christology is not only how "high" it is, but also how apparently uncontroversial it is. In his excellent study, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, Larry W. Hurtado reaches this conclusion:

The Pauline letters show an impressively full and amazingly early pattern of belief and religious practice in which Jesus figures very prominently. ... This pattern of devotion and belief seems in fact to be presupposed as already in place by the time Paul wrote his epistles to various churches. ... A veritable explosion of devotion to Jesus took place so early, and was so widespread by the time of his [i.e. Paul's] Gentile mission, that in the main christological beliefs and devotional practices that he advocated, Paul was not an innovator but a transmitter of tradition. (153, 216)

Other New Testament Writings (60-100 CE)


In addition to the undisputed letters of Paul, the NT contains other documents that were composed in the first century. These documents also contain remarkable statements about Jesus. Here are a few of the most notable:

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities - all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. ... For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell. (Col 1:15-19 RSV)
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. (Heb 1:1-3 RSV)
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 were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. (John 1:1-3 RSV)
Thomas answered him [i.e. Jesus], "My Lord and my God!" (20:28 RSV)

Another notable text is John 1:18, which in some early manuscripts refers to Jesus as "the only begotten God." (Later manuscripts have the more common designation, "only begotten Son.")


In short, the ancient documents included in the NT demonstrate that Jesus was regarded by first-century Christians as a preexistent and divine person who created the cosmos.


Christianity in the Second Century


Christians in the second century continue to describe Jesus as divine. Ignatius, who wrote around 110 CE, routinely refers to Jesus as "Jesus Christ our God" or "our God Jesus Christ" (e.g. To the Trallians 7:1). He also describes Jesus as "God existing in flesh" (To the Ephesians 7:2; AF) who is "above all time, eternal and invisible" (To Polycarp 3:2; AF).


Evidence for the high Christology of the early Christians comes not only from the Christians themselves, but also from their pagan critics. While attempting to stamp out what he perceived a dangerous new cult, the Roman governor Pliny sought to find out what exactly the Christians were doing in their meetings. In a letter written to the Emperor in 112 CE, Pliny explains that, according to his informants, the Christians gathered to sing hymns to Jesus "as if to a god" (Pliny Ep. 10.96; LCL).


Later, in 178 CE, the pagan philosopher Celsus published a robust and lengthy critique of Christianity. In it, he asserted that the Christians were not true monotheists:

If these men worshiped no other God but one, perhaps they would have had a valid argument against the others. But in fact they worship to an extravagant degree this man who appeared recently, and yet think it is not inconsistent with monotheism if they also worship His servant. ... If you taught them that Jesus is not his Son, but that God is Father of all, and that we really ought to worship him alone, they would no longer be willing to listen to you unless you included Jesus as well, who is the author of their sedition. (Origen, Against Celsus 8.12, 14; Chadwick)

Arian Christology


According to Brown, those at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE were debating whether Jesus was the Son of God or merely a mortal man. In reality, no one at Nicaea believed that Jesus was merely a mortal man. Everyone at Nicaea believed that Jesus was the Son of God. Ironically, it was this very language which apparently lay at the heart of the dispute. The Gospel of John describes Jesus as God's "only begotten Son" (3:16, 18). A certain presbyter named Arius interpreted this language to mean that Jesus was created by God at some point in eternity past. The Council of Nicaea condemned this view and affirmed that both the Son and the Father exist without beginning.


While the theological question debated at Nicaea is certainly significant, one should note that Arius' view is lightyears away from the view that Jesus was merely a mortal man. Arius believed that Jesus was the preexistent Son of God who created the world. Despite affirming that the Son had a beginning, Arius believed that the Son "has subsisted before time, and before ages as God full of grace and truth [cf. John 1:14], only-begotten, unchangeable" (Letter of Arius to Eusebius; Stevenson).


Conclusion


In stark contrast to Dan Brown's fanciful conspiracy theories, the historical evidence clearly indicates that the earliest Christians confessed Jesus as "the Son of God" and worshipped him to an "extravagant degree."


 

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