Christians believe Jesus existed, the gospels record his words and deeds with reasonable accuracy (at least), and that the best way to understand Jesus is that he was divine, God’s son establishing God’s kingdom. Non-believers contest some, sometimes all, of these claims.
Sometimes scholars give definitive answers to these questions, sometimes they don’t.
A consensus of scholars
Virtually all scholars, regardless of religious belief or lack of it, are confident Jesus was a historical person (see Bart Ehrman on did Jesus exist and The Jesus myth wars heat up). Most scholars also accept that the gospels give us good historical information about Jesus, although there is considerable variation in exactly how reliable they believe them to be (see Archaeology and Jesus and How reliable is the New Testament text?).
But was Jesus divine?
On this, there is considerable diversity.
Some scholars avoid the question, claiming it is not a historical question but a matter of philosophy or faith. They prefer to point out the ‘facts’ of Jesus life that are pretty much “beyond dispute” (see Jesus in history) and leave the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Other scholars believe that faith in Jesus as divine was part of christianity almost from the beginning, citing passages such as Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 and the ancient statement of faith “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3).
And others take the view that Jesus was a Jewish prophet who would have recoiled at the idea of being made equal with God, and this view only grew up much later.
What does the New Testament say?
Several things are clear:
- The New Testament does not use the word Trinity, or teach the concept. The most we have are passages that can give support to the idea.
- There was some development in the apostles’ understanding of who Jesus was (see How did Jesus become God?) – they did not understand him easily.
- The phrase “son of God”, which to us means a divine being, to the first century Jews meant a human being, commonly one of the kings of Judah, who was especially favoured and exalted by God. Many of the phrases we associate with divinity may not have had that connotation back then.
Nevertheless there is much in the New Testament (see Did Jesus claim to be the son of God) and in the practices of the early christians, that can be seen as pointing to the later fully-formed belief in Jesus as divine, and eventually as the second person of the Trinity. New Testament Scholar, Larry Hurtado, says:
“The treatment of Jesus as in some sense associated with God in some kind of special way seems to be there in the earliest evidence we have.”
The coming battle
Larry Hurtado has made a special study of this matter, and has written two definitive books on it: Lord Jesus Christ (2003) and How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? (2005). He has set out his views on his blog (An “Early High Christology”). He claims his view is the same as that widely held by scholars who have studied the matter.
But two books by well respected scholars (Geza Vermes and Bart Ehrman) and currently in preparation can be expected to take a slightly more sceptical view. Expect this topic to become much argued on the internet and elsewhere.