In a recent discussion, a reader commented on a claim by Alvin Boyd Kuhn that “Christianity took a wrong turn during the 3rd century and looked to one man being divine”
We can all choose to believe whatever we wish, but is there any historical evidence for this claim?
Formal acceptance of the doctrine of Jesus as divine
The first of the early ecumenical councils, the Council of Nicea, was held in 325 CE, and accepted the doctrine of the eternal deity of Christ. The First Council of Constantinople in 381 CE endorsed these teachings.
There were several regional councils in the third century, but I can’t find any reference to them formulating doctrine about Jesus. But I presume the beliefs ratified at the Council of Nicea were developed some time before, in the third century.
How early did belief in Jesus’ divinity arise?
Dr Andrew Chester, Reader in New Testament Studies at Cambridge University, and James Crossley, Professor of Bible, Culture and Politics at Sheffield University, have both addressed this question, and both give similar assessments – from which I have summarised.
The broad limits of scholarly opinion
Many christians assume that Jesus was recognised as divine in his lifetime, but most scholars say that references to people “worshiping” Jesus in the gospels refer to a high degree of respect and devotion, but not to worship as to God, which would have been very difficult for a good Jew. Instead, they say, belief in Jesus’ divinity developed over time. The question at issue is over what period of time?
But scholars also disagree with some sceptics that there is no reference to the divinity of Jesus in the New Testament. At the very least, John’s gospel (generally dated to the late first century) clearly portrays Jesus as God – for example, the statements in John 5:16-18 and 10:31-33 about Jesus making himself equal with God. Many scholars also see evidence of Jesus’ divinity in other places in the New Testament.
Within this range, the scholars cannot agree – some say Jesus was worshiped as divine shortly after his death, others that this belief and practice were much slower to be adopted.
Soon after Jesus’ death?
Scholars such as Larry Hurtado, Martin Hengel and Richard Bauckham conclude that Jesus began to be worshipped very soon after his death, as is evidenced by early creeds or hymns preserved in the New Testament (e.g. Philippians 2:6-11) and use of the word kurios, Lord (used in the Greek Old Testament to refer to God) to refer to Jesus (see How on earth did Jesus become God?). The formulation of the doctrine to go with that worship was perhaps more gradual, but the basic belief was very early.
Late in the first century?
Other scholars, such as Maurice Casey, Geza Vermes and James Dunn, believe Jesus was seen as an exalted figure very early, even the adopted son of God, but this didn’t constitute belief that he was God, which would have been anathema for a good Jew. They suggest the belief only became prominent late in the first century when Gentiles became the majority in the church. Thus they interpret Philippians 2 as referring to an exalted person but someone less than fully God, and interpret the John’s gospel passages as being put in Jesus’ mouth by the gospel author(s).
Without being too dogmatic, we can conclude that the early christians, within a decade of Jesus death at most, found themselves viewing Jesus as an extraordinary man, the Messiah, adopted as son by God and worthy of worship. By the end of the first century, and likely much earlier, they came to see him as divine and to formulate doctrine about him which culminated in the doctrine of the Trinity.
The trinitarian doctrine is not found in the Bible or the first century, but the divinity of Jesus was.
How did Kuhn get it so wrong?
If the current consensus of scholars is correct, Kuhn was quite mistaken in his views. How did this occur? I can only guess, but here’s some thoughts:
- Kuhn grew up in a period when John’s gospel was commonly dated to late second century, and could virtually ignore its clear references to Jesus’ divinity. But in about 1936 the dating of a fragment of John, found in Egypt, to about 125 CE showed that it must have been written much earlier, probably late first century.
- New Testament scholars in the first half of the 20th century used methods of historical analysis that are now seen as inappropriate, and lacked important information (e.g. the Dead Sea Scrolls and the results of modern archaeology). Beginning with EP Sanders about 30 years ago, New Testament scholarship has been largely re-vitalised, with much greater emphasis on the first century Jewish culture and the Aramaic language.
- Kuhn also believed that much of the Jesus story was derived from pagan, especially Egyptian, myths. However this view is now almost completely discredited as it isn’t supported by the evidence (see Was Jesus a copy of pagan gods?).
Thus Kuhn’s view can be seen as a product of his time and assumptions, and is no longer tenable today.