previous arrow
next arrow

February 2019 Credo 

Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most significant and controversial figures of human civilization, and billions of people throughout history have regarded him as divine. But where did this astonishing idea come from? How did a human Jewish preacher come to be regarded as God?

Option #1: Jesus was divinized during the time of Constantine in the fourth century; the New Testament we read today—which claims that Jesus was divine (e.g. John 20:28-29)—have been significantly changed from the originals in the first century.

This view, popularized in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, has long been debunked by scholars. As historian Michael Licona observes, ‘The manuscript support for our present critical Greek text of the New Testament is superior to what we have for any of the ancient literature,’ and that ‘the wealth of manuscripts for the New Testament literature leaves us very few places where uncertainty remains pertaining to the earliest reading or at least the meaning behind it.’ Because of the abundant manuscript evidence, historians are able to ascertain that the New Testament passages which claim that Jesus was divine are essentially the same as those written in the first century.

Option #2: “Divine Christology” began towards the end of the first century, around the time when the Gospel of John was written.

This view is contradicted by the evidences found in the letters by Apostle Paul, which were written in the middle of the first century, and which reflected the beliefs of Christians which were already well-established even earlier. For example, concerning 1 Corinthians 8:6, New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham (1998) observes the Jewish conception that YHWH accomplished creation alone (Isaiah 44:24), and while Romans 11:36 refers to God as the Creator of all things, in 1 Corinthians 8:6 Paul divides it between God and Christ. These observations imply that Paul affirms the doctrine that Christ was ‘truly divine’, i.e. Christ and the Father are both within the being of YHWH. This conclusion is reinforced by a careful study of Philippians 2:6-11, and by evidences of devotional practices and expressions of spiritual desire for Christ found elsewhere in Paul’s epistles.

Option #3: it was Apostle Paul who introduced the idea that Jesus was divine, and thus distorted the real Jesus. Perhaps Jesus was divinized as a result of Greek or Roman polytheistic influences.

These views have been widely rejected by historians. Based on historical evidences of the time, the devout Jews during the Roman-era were very strict in their religious belief about reserving worship only for one God the Creator. Hence, it is unlikely that those devout Jews, such as the earliest Christian leaders including Paul who condemned idolatry (see Romans 1:18-25) and who were willing to sacrifice everything for their belief in God, would be opened to Greek or Roman polytheistic influences to distort their religion.

Even if some of these Jewish Christians did accommodate under polytheistic influences, there would have been strong objections from the more conservative Jewish Christians who would have considered the worship of Christ as blasphemy. Instead they were in widespread agreement concerning the status of Christ. This can be inferred from the fact that Paul’s writings (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, 15:3, 11; Galatians 1:23, 2:7-9) indicate that the gospel of ‘first importance’ concerning Jesus Christ was the common message, belief and identity marker of the earliest Christians, and that Paul acknowledged that he received the gospel from earlier Christians. Moreover, Paul acknowledged the authority of the Jerusalem apostles to validate—or even to invalidate—the gospel he preached (Galatians 2:2). Richard Bauckham summarizes the case against the view that Paul divinized Jesus:

‘Paul did not have sufficient power and influence to invent Christianity. After coming to believe in Jesus the Messiah, Paul was a major Christian missionary, who did much to spread the Christian Gospel, especially among non-Jews, in the areas of modern Turkey and Greece. But there was already a large Christian community in Rome long before Paul visited the capital. Christianity must soon have spread to Egypt and to Mesopotamia, developments with which Paul had no involvement… The centre from which the early Christian movement developed and spread throughout the ancient world was not Paul, but the Jerusalem church, led initially by the twelve apostles and subsequently by James the brother of Jesus. What was common to the whole Christian movement derived from Jerusalem, not from Paul, and Paul himself derived the central message he preached from the Jerusalem apostles.’

The historical evidences therefore indicate that Jesus was already regarded as truly divine by the earliest Christian church in Jerusalem led by the twelve apostles, and this happened because they perceived that Jesus claimed and showed himself to be truly divine (e.g. Matthew 28:19; Mark 14:60-64; Luke 24:50-52; John 20:28-29). Against this view, sceptics have claimed that the Four Gospels in the Bible are unreliable historical sources on Jesus. Many scholars have replied that this claim is based on widespread misconceptions ( http://ehrmanproject.com/ ). In any case, regardless of whether the Four Gospels are reliable, we still need to explain how the earliest Christians came to regard Jesus as truly divine. If Jesus did not claim and show himself to be truly divine by rising from the dead, this would not have happened; the earliest Christian leaders who were devout ancient monotheistic Jews would have regarded Jesus as merely a teacher or a prophet; they would not have come to the widespread agreement that he truly divine. Which they did.

The Jesus of history claimed to be truly divine. He died on the Cross for our sins, and overcame death to show that he is truly divine. He is the only one who can give us eternal and abundant life. As the Scripture says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). Jesus says ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ (John 10: 10).

Note: The contents of this article is mainly taken from Andrew Loke, The Origins of Divine Christology (Cambridge University Press, 2017). For detailed replies to sceptical scholars such as Bart Ehrman, please refer to that book.

Dr. Andrew Loke
 (PhD, Kings College) is Research Assistant Professor at The University of Hong Kong. A former medical doctor, he is has authored numerous books, including ETHOS Institute Engagement Series booklet, ‘Science and the Christian Faith‘.