Did the early church invent the divinity of Jesus over a long period of time?

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity

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.

1 Corinthians

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.

Here’s the passage:

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.

Philippians

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

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?

Check out Mark 12:1-9:

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

Here’s Matthew 11:27, which is echoed in Luke 10:22:

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.

13 thoughts on “Did the early church invent the divinity of Jesus over a long period of time?”

  1. Different sects had different views between how human to divine Jesus was. The Nicean council decreed the mainstream view today. Some sects before even thought, like the Marcionites, that there were two separate gods, one for the OT and one for the NT! Then there was the debate over if Jesus was begotten as son of God or made son of god later on at his baptism…

    Merry Christmas Wintry Knight 🙂
    https://aladyofreason.wordpress.com/2018/12/24/baby-its-triggering-outside/

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  2. A Lady of Reason is a bit off, and I have studied these issues for a very long time (as in, I started seminary 20 years ago and had a lot of early church/Apostolic Fathers and Athanasius of Alexandria prior to starting).

    While it is true that Jesus at no point uses the exact phrase, “I am God,” in all four canonical gospels plus the Book of Acts plus the Pauline and Petrine literature and Hebrews and the Book of Revelation, it is clear that Jesus is God.

    Usually it is reasoned in both 1) indirect proofs, such as Jesus [and the Holy Spirit] having divine attributes and actions and 2) direct assertions.

    In terms of indirect proofs, for instance, Jesus can forgive sins, heal from his own prerogative, raise the dead from his own prerogative, has knowledge of what people of thinking, pre-existence.

    In terms of direct assertions,
    All three Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62, Mark 22:69) allude to Daniel 7:13-15. Jesus’ hearers, namely the high priest and other priests, do not think that “This is a lovely interpretation. Let’s talk about what you mean by that.”

    No — they think Jesus is committing blasphemy, equating himself with God.

    The Gospel of John contained many references to Jesus being God. For instance, Jesus claimed in John 10:30, “I and the Father are One.” (The Greek gender = neuter, is significant — “I and the Father are One [Thing/unit].”)

    We could have fun going through the entire Gospel of John, for starters:
    John 1:1a “In the beginning was the Word” (paralleling Genesis 1:1, “in the beginning [of God’s creating]…”)

    John 1:1c “The Word was God”

    John 1:2 “He was in the beginning with God”

    John 1:3 “All things were made through him…”

    John 1:12, ” But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,”

    John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt [Greek: eschenosen] among us…” eschenosen is from schenoo, and the Septuagint uses the same word of “the dwelling of God with men” (= Hebrew schakan).

    This fulfills Exodus 29:45 “Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God,” and Ezekiel 37:27, “My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God…”

    and so on.

    What the pre-Nicene church couldn’t fully understand was the exact relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and they also tripped themselves up a bit in their terminology.

    From the Jewish tradition, it is very clear that there is only one God. Tritheism would be polytheism, and the Jews were severely disabused of their polytheistic tendencies by the Exile. So obviously we have to eliminate that Christians worshiped three gods.

    Obviously in terms of logic, we have the law of non-contradiction, and based on this, there were points of contention. Did God the Father become God the Son, who later became the Holy Spirit? Or did Jesus become more divine by adoption or by his baptism? Or was it one God who had three different sets of activities, or maybe three different aspects or modes?

    Was Jesus fully God or merely qualitative (“kata poioteta”) united with God but not substianitally (ousiodos)?

    [The heretic] Sabellius had previously used “homoousios” in the context that God maintained the same substance, but manifested in three different modes: first as the Father, then transformed into the Son, and finally the activity of the Holy Spirit.

    We’ll paint it this way: Arius, a senior priest in Alexandria, nearly 40 years older than Athanasius, had been spreading a popular view, “the Son has a beginning but God is without beginning” (i.e., Jesus is the firstborn of Creation). His archbishop, Alexander, taught, “God is always, the Son is always.” Arius believed Jesus was the firstborn of Creation and was before all Creation, and was more than merely human as we are. This view was possibly in reaction to Sabellianism and overcompensating; Arius’ followers wanted to preserve a monotheistic doctrine without heading into tritheism. He denied the consubstantiality and the co-eternity of Christ and the Father. Instead, Christ was created from nothing. Arius’ view was extremely popular and had won many in the church including Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and even influenced emperor Constantine. This heresy broke out roughly in 318-9AD in Alexandria.

    Even the emperor Constantine did not understand why there was such fierce contention between the orthodox party of Alexander and Athanasius and the heterodox Arius. Vigorous letters written by Alexander of Alexandria to Alexander at Constantinople in reply to Arius are further evidence of the conflict. Arius was summoned first before a synod in Alexandria in 321, and was formally excommunicated and was exiled. Since Arianism found many sympathizers outside of Egypt, it threatened the peace of the whole Eastern Church. Constantine wrote that he found “the cause to be of a truly insignificant character and quite unworthy of such fierce contention.” However, for Athanasius, such a matter was greatly important; the real issue was the salvation of men and a matter of God’s honor.

    (I might insert here that there were numerous people swayed by Arius’ logic — it was far from the case that the council began on agreement. I have one paper that notes some 17 bishops openly sympathetic with Arius.)

    The Council of Nicea was called in 325 by Constantine to resolve the matter. And the champion of orthodoxy emerged: the young deacon Athanasius, not even 30 years of age, earnestly contended from apostolic doctrines (i.e., he reasoned from the Bible). After much discussion led by Athanasius, the council adopted the phrase “homoousios” to describe the Son’s relationship of the Father (of same substance or essence), as opposed to the Arian word, “homoiousios” (of similar substance/essence). “Homoousios” had been used previously by the heretic Sabellius but it is important to denote the context which he used the term. The Nicene formula used “homoousios” differently: it referred to that God was One, Eternally Existent, in the three hypostases (or in Latin: personae, from which we get ‘persons’): God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; but of the same substance (=homoousios).

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    1. I really appreciate the rigor of this reply. I’ll be saving the article just for this reply. Merry Christmas to you. God bless.

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    2. Just a caution here. The point of my post is to help people speak to non-Christians in the present day. Not to Christians. And not to ancient non-Christians. So, it will be very confusing to people who don’t do evangelism in the present day. “Why should we care if a text is early or not?”

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  3. Those in the early days that differed on the humanity divinity of Jesus would have been focused on the heated debate of how human Jesus. To the Greek Gnostic influence they wanted to have him more likes godly apparition becaue of how evil the flesh was to many of them and unfit for a God.

    The attack was on no way over making human and not divine which is what rh. Skeptics want to do. It is much like the reinterpret of separating Church and state as promise to freedom of religion, but they reinterpreted it in the 70s to make it that religion can have no philosophical influence

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  4. If you also don’t debate the book of John how do you get past all the.
    In the begining was the word, punting out how it was always part of God then dwelt among us.
    A claim of God and Jesus as eternal, there for the creation of the world along with the incarnation.

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  5. Good list and rationale, but I think you could choose better passages from Mark. Mark 2, showing that Jesus has the power to forgive sins would be good. Likewise, Mark 5’s calming the waves seems to deliberately echo Psalm 107:25-30’s language about YHWH, but using that passage would require a bit of explaining that a skeptic might not want to pay attention to.

    I’ve recently started Simon Gathercole’s The Preexistent Son, which presents the scholarly argument that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all implicitly suggest Jesus’ preexistence. Gathercole particularly focuses on the “I have come to __” passages and suggests this phrasing echoes that used for angels rather than earthly figures. Intriguing stuff

    He also notes how seemingly mainstream the divinity of Jesus was based on Paul’s letters. Paul is not afraid to attack his critics about law observance and circumcision, but he never NEEDS to argue with or rebut groups saying Jesus wasn’t divine. Admittedly this is an argument from silence, but still a relevant point.

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    1. But the skeptics of TODAY don’t think Jesus was divine.

      I agree with you about early Mark stuff, though. That all works, and skeptics will give you lots or all of Mark.

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      1. Oh I totally agree, I was only trying to say that if Paul’s views on Jesus’ divinity were unusual or controversial in the early church, one would expect him to spend time defending those beliefs in his letters. Paul’s views on circumcision and the law for instance were definitely controversial among the “Judaizing” Christians, and that’s why he uses a lot of text defending his views on those topics.

        The fact that Paul never presents arguments defending his views on Jesus’ divinity could be used as evidence that such beliefs were “mainstream” among almost all early Christians, even those that otherwise disagreed with Paul.

        It’s an argument from silence admittedly, but still interesting and something I hadn’t considered prior to recent readings.

        Merry Christmas to you!

        Liked by 1 person

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