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Was the divinity of Jesus a third century invention of the church?

September 30th, 2013

Jesus

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).

Conclusions

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.

Photo: MorgueFile.

16 Comments

  1. I guess there is really no need to comment here. It’s your blog unkleE, and you are the Judge and Jury . You have already totally dismissed all evidence contradictory to your belief .

    Of course, since you don’t jump to conclusions, I’m sure you read Dr Kuhn’s books, “Shadow of the 3rd Century, a revaluation of Christianity” and “Who is the King of Glory” before you dismissed missed all of his works.

  2. Hi Ken. Not having read Kuhn’s book, I don’t want to reject all of it, but to the point his scholarship has been abandoned by modern academia, I don’t think he would make a great authority. After all, we are right to accept current chemistry over an obsolete but valid earlier theory like phlogistonism. So I think there’s little wrong with UnkleE opting for the now active scholars.

  3. “After all, we are right to accept current chemistry over an obsolete but valid earlier theory like phlogistonism. ”

    “Thus Kuhn’s view can be seen as a product of his time and assumptions, and is no longer tenable today.”

    @Ignorantia , I couldn’t agree more with the statement you made and the one unkleE made. Your 2 statements fit perfectly when describing the Bible and Jesus’ divinity.

    You both nailed this right on the head ! If your logic applies to a very recent author in the 20th century, it certainly would have to apply to authors from 2000 years ago ! Thank you both for confirming this to us.

  4. Just because it is written/interpreted in scripture does not make it truth.
    Christians are obliged to accept the notion of divinity based solely on faith, and there are other erroneous claims where false/misunderstood biblical interpretation has resulted in such becoming official doctrine. The Virgin Birth is a perfect example.

    If this was a clear-cut case then there would never have been the variety of schisms, hence the need for the ecunemical councils and the edicts promulgating this doctrine into law and the subsequent go ahead for the wars on heresy.

    The disciples didn’t think he was divine.

  5. That’s not what either of us said, though. We were referring specifically to academic opinions, consensuses and authorities. The point is that an appeal to Kuhn’s scholarly authority (regardless of other merits he might have) isn’t very convincing if scholarship has abandoned those claims.

    However neither UnkleE nor I claim that Christianity’s truth claims are scientific or scholarly, so it doesn’t have much bearing on what we said. In fact, we have both distanced ourselves from appeals to the Bible in matters of science of scholarship. Of course, the Bible is still a primary source, or rather its constituent books are – but it is not a source to go for a modern academic consensus on, for instance, geosciences.

  6. Yes, IgnorantiaNescia, you are right on both comments.

    Ken, we are talking about evidence (or lack of it) not age.

    FarKing, we are talking about the historical evidence for the beliefs of the early christians (which is a factual, historical question), not whether those beliefs are true (which is an opinion).

    The scholars I referenced are among the most respected in their fields, and the evidence is clear enough, with some doubts about the details.

  7. 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.

    1.How do you arrive at the figure of ”within a decade”?
    2.Some may have considered he was divine, but not all, hence the controversies. It was obvious from the word go then why would there have been doubt?
    But because there was doubt the church was forced to introduce the wholly man-made Trinity doctrine.

  8. 1. The sources I referenced mentioned several scholars who followed each of the views (early vs late ‘high christology’). Maurice Casey is one of the late school, and in his ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ book he vehemently opposes the idea that a good Jew could claim or believe a human being could also be God.

    Yet James Crossley (one of his proteges) writes (p76) “According to Maurice Casey, Jesus was seen as a divine figure very shortly after his death.” He then goes on to discuss how a divine figure was not necessarily equated with the God of Israel, but could be seen as another supernatural figure. That much there is pretty much agreement on, the question is how quickly they went from there to the fully equal with God.

    “Son of God” doesn’t mean what it does today, and the king or messiah could be described as a son of God. The adopted bit comes from Acts 2, and shows a step along the path. The Larry Hurtado reference gives some of the details of how Jesus began to be worshiped very soon after his death.

    2. Yes, there were no doubt various views for a while (and right up until today for that matter). All the experts talk about how unusual and difficult it would be for a good first century Jew to believe a person was God incarnate, so it would have taken some longer than others.

    There was no doubt about the belief that Jesus was divine and equal with God by the end of the first century, the only thing the Trinity did was try to explain how that could be. I don’t think christians are required to believe that formulation, though I can’t think of a better one.

    I have done nothing about moderation, WordPress sometimes seems to have a mind of its own.

  9. There was no doubt about the belief that Jesus was divine and equal with God by the end of the first century,

    Based on what evidence, unkleE?

    the only thing the Trinity did was try to explain how that could be.

    In other words, they made it up.They had to, otherwise christianity would be based on more than one god and would not be monotheistic. It is that simple. This is why there was so much division regarding Arius etc…

    I don’t think christians are required to believe that formulation, though I can’t think of a better one.

    It is still considered mainstream , but if you say it is not ‘required’ then I am unfamiliar with any formal doctrine removing it. Although Nontrinitarianism is practiced by a minority of Christians.

    The fact that it had to written into law should have had the klaxons sounding . But then, I guess rationality, truth and faith are uneasy bedfellows?

  10. Based on what evidence, unkleE?

    I’m not sure why you’re asking, I’ve already outlined it. It’s in the two summaries I referenced, in the writings of the time, including the quotes from John’s Gospel, and other writings by both friend and foe. Do you not accept that?

    I don’t have much to say about the Trinity. They didn’t just make it up, there are many passages in the Bible that make Jesus equal with the Father, and this is a logical idea based on them. But everyone knows it’s not explicitly in the Bible and I don’t think many christians would say it was essential to hold that particular formulation. I’m not sure what you are referring to about being written into law, but I don’t have any sense that anything Constantine did was well motivated.

    I guess rationality, truth and faith are uneasy bedfellows?

    Lol!! Preach it brother! Comedians don’t keep repeating their lines, but it seems some atheists do! 🙂 If you seriously think that after all this time talking with me and reading this blog, you might as well move along now, nothing to see here.

  11. It’s in the two summaries I referenced, in the writings of the time, including the quotes from John’s Gospel, and other writings by both friend and foe. Do you not accept that?

    No. Not at all. And what you have provided can be dismissed with little or no consideration.
    The bible is mere hearsay, and cannot be considered an historical reference, certainly not regarding this point of doctrinal belief.
    I wouldn’t accept anything on face value the likes of Hurtado and his ilk claimed as he already starts with an agenda.

    There is a very good reason why Mark’s gospel has no birth legend and no resurrection, and a very good reason why these aspects were later additions to the Jesus story.
    Does blind faith trump honesty and integrity all the time?

    They didn’t just make it up, there are many passages in the Bible that make Jesus equal with the Father, and this is a logical idea based on them.

    Well, naturally you will deny this assertion as if you did not you would be like Arius or any other ”pseudo-christian” of the time and could be considered a heretic. But, yes, they made it up, and it is only through clever interpretation and redaction – and later inculcation – that Christians are able to arrive at the rather silly notion of the equal standing between the character of Jesus and God. And you sidestep the issue of the Virgin Birth; a fallacious interpretation of supposed prophecy, yet considered crucial to Christian doctrine/divinity.
    The Jews do/did not believe it, the Disciples did not believe it and Jesus himself blatantly refuted it. (and for the record, the majority of the people on planet Earth do not believe it either, so the evidence should be considered a tad shakey and therefore reliant on faith, wouldn’t you say? Or are we expected to assume the majority of earth’s literate population are remedial and simply unable to grasp the subtleties of Christian doctrine?)
    Only a Christian could dance around the evidence; and they are quite good at that, are they not?

    I’m not sure what you are referring to about being written into law, but I don’t have any sense that anything Constantine did was well motivated.

    Perhaps you should re-read the details of the ecunemical councils?

    Comedians don’t keep repeating their lines, but it seems some atheists do!

    That you are unable to recognise the irony is even funnier.

  12. And what you have provided can be dismissed with little or no consideration. …… I wouldn’t accept anything on face value the likes of Hurtado and his ilk claimed as he already starts with an agenda.

    Vermes is a Jew, Casey is an atheist, I could quote Ehrman on the same subject and he is “an atheist-leaning agnostic”, so whatever agenda they start with, it isn’t mine.

    You don’t accept the evidence of the world’s best scholars, so I see no point in saying any more except: “Does (your) blind faith trump honesty and integrity (and evidence) all the time?”

  13. Vermes and Casey may have believed that the early christians considered he was the adopted son of god, I don’t see anywhere where they suggest when christians considered he was divine.
    Casey has suggested an Aramaic source of Mark – and it seems he is pretty much on his own on this score and he still holds out for Q, so why should he be given serious consideration?

    My dismissal referred largely to christians like Hurtado and his ilk.

    This is the paragraph that needs to be addressed.

    By the end of the first century, and likely much earlier,

    Much earlier? You are attempting to mislead once again. This is supposition and can be dismissed out of hand.

    they came to see him as divine and to formulate doctrine about him which culminated in the doctrine of the Trinity.

    I reiterate: some Christians may have believed this, but by no means all and it took Constantine and later Theodosius to write it into church and state law, thus clearing the way for the persecution of heretics.

  14. This was an interesting post, UnkleE. Nice job. 🙂 It’s not a subject I’ve spent a lot of time researching, so I appreciate that you mention where some of the specific scholars sit on this issue, in case I want to dig into it further.

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