How early is the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus?
When I answer this question, I only want to use the earliest, most reliable sources – so I can defend them on historical grounds using the standard rules of historiography.
The 4 sources that I would use are as follows:
- The early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, and 1 Corinthians 1
- A passage in Philippians 2
- Two passages from Mark, the earliest gospel
- A passage from Q, which is an early source of Matthew and Luke
So let’s see the passages.
I’ve written before about the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, which skeptical scholars date to 1-3 years after the death of Jesus, for a variety of reasons I covered in the previous post. Here’s the creed which definitely makes Jesus out to be more than an ordinary man. Ordinary men don’t get resurrection bodies after they die.
Here’s the passage: (1 Cor 15:3-8)
3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
5and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,
8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Additionally, 1 Corinthians 1:21-25 talks about Jesus being “the power of God and the wisdom of God”. Paul is identifying Jesus with the divine.
21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom,
23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
But it gets even stronger! You all probably already know that the most important passages in the Old Testament for Jews is the famous “Shema“, which is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The Shema is a strong statement of Jewish monotheism.
4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.
7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.
8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.
9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
So how does Paul fit Jesus in with this strong statement of Jewish monotheism?
Paul alludes to the Shema in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6.
4So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one.
5For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”),
6yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
Holy mackerel! How did that get in there? Paul is splitting the roles of God in the the Shema and identifying Jesus in one of the divine roles! Jesus is not an ordinary man. That passage “through whom all things came” foreshadows John identifying Jesus as “the Word of God”, which “became flesh and dwelt among us”. Holy snark – did you guys know that was all in here so early?
The date for 1 Corinthians is 55 AD. It should be noted that skeptical scholars like James Crossley accept these passages, and you can check it out in the debate audio yourself.
Check out Philippians 2:5-11.
5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The date for Philippians is 60-61 AD. Still within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses, and written by an eyewitness who was in contact with the other eyewitnesses, like Peter and James, whom Paul spoke with numerous times on his journeys to Jerusalem.
Mark’s gospel is the earliest and atheists like James Crossley date it to less than 40 AD, which is 10 years after the death of Jesus at most. When you read the gospel of Mark, you are getting the earliest and best information available about the historical Jesus, along with Paul’s epistles. So what does Mark say about Jesus? Is Jesus just a man, or is he something more?
1He then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey.
2At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard.
3But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed.
4Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully.
5He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.
6“He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
7“But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’
8So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
9“What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.
And Mark 13:32, talking about the date of the final judgment.
32“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
And again, this passage is establishing a hierarchy such that Jesus is being exalted above all men and the angels, too. And the passage is embarrassing to the early church, because it makes Jesus look ignorant of something, so they would not have made this passage up. Jesus is not an ordinary man, he is above the angels – God’s unique Son.
The “Q” source for Matthew and Luke
27“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
22“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
Since this passage is in both of Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark, scholars believe that it is in the earlier “Q” source used by both Matthew and Luke. Q predates both Matthew and Luke, and so it is also fairly early (maybe 67-68), although not as early as Mark and Paul. Bill Craig writes that this passage is also embarrassing because it says that no one knows Jesus.
You can learn more about the early belief in the divinity of Jesus by listening to a lecture by William Lane Craig and reading the related paper, and by listening to the debate between Richard Bauckham and James Crossley on that topic. The first link contains other scholarly debates on Jesus.