A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

How could the early church come to see Jesus as God?

It is often times viewed with skepticism the idea that Jesus could have had been attributed the idea of being God by the early church, that the formulation was in fact a later invention. However, I think there is a much more plausible way in which Jesus began to be viewed as being God in the early church, by the apostle’s themselves, without having to make the demands that Jesus made such explicit claims. In other words, the very early church could have potentially through reflection come to legitimately believe in Jesus’ divinity.

By the fact that Jesus himself proclaimed himself as Messiah, he was making a claim to kingship, at the very least of the Jews. But the idea of king in other places was often times associated with claims of divinity. At that time, it was Caesar, king of the Roman Empire. It wasn’t uncommon either, as the Egyptian Pharaoh made such a claim, as did some Japanese emperors. Furthermore, Elohim (“God” in Hebrew) was also associated with leaders, such as Moses (Exodus 7:1) and in Psalm 82.

But just because Jesus had royal claims isn’t sufficient in and of itself. It is necessary to see Jesus himself as being contrasted with and viewed greater than the Caesar who claimed divinity himself. And the Messianic expectations of the Old Testament fulfill that role, especially the book of Daniel. It speaks of a kingdom that does not cease that covers all the nations, which the Son of Man reigns over. That is a similar but much higher claim to that which Caesar could boast. In other words, if Caesar could claim to be divine, how much more so could the Messiah make that claim.

But even that by itself isn’t sufficient for such reflection to develop. There were many other people who claimed to be the Messiah, but they were never worshiped as God. Jewish monotheism would fight heavily against the idea, unless there was a earth shattering, paradigm shifting revelation.

The resurrection of Jesus takes upon such a role. It was also earth shattering because through that, it vindicated the very claim to Messiahship that would be capable of combating with Caesar’s claim. If such a thing that only God could do, raise the dead, happened to the man who was claimed to by God’s Messiah, then certainly this man was sent by God.

But it was also earth shattering in the sense that while a resurrection was believed to happen, it wasn’t believed one man who would be resurrected before the others. I would argue that such a “premature” resurrection could have pointed towards divinity. Isaiah 57:15, amongst other passages, speaks of the immortality of YHWH. And if Jesus himself wasn’t contained by death, then certainly that would also lend credence to the idea that he was “immortal” (in a sense, though he could taste death), and thus something that points towards him being God. However, this is not a very clear claim by itself.

So even that, by itself, I do not think could overcome Jewish monotheism. There has to be something that can link Jesus more credibly in the minds the people more so than what I have mentioned so far.

It is at this point that I think NT Wright makes a great point in Jesus and the Victory of God. He argues that the things that are attributed to YHWH throughout the Old Testament, Jesus is making a claim to do himself in his proclamation and his actions. Basically, Jesus was doing that what God does. And a perfect example of that is where Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic and the response from the skeptics is that only God can forgive sin, and Jesus responds by healing the man and vindicates his claim to offering forgiveness. Jesus was doing that what God does.

So imagine, for instance, the disciples seeing all these things happening to them before their very eyes. This man is doing what throughout the Old Testament is attributed to YHWH. Certainly, the similarity would have been recognizable to Jews who followed him around and knew the Old Testament. Perhaps the question was even asked in their mind, but their Jewish monotheism would have lead them to reject the notion. But the question could have been asked.

So, once the resurrection occurred, vindicating Jesus and attributing immortality to him, it allows the disciples to ask the question that they would have rejected previously because of their monotheism. The question was asked but rejected because of Jewish monotheism, but the vindication allowed one to seriously entertain and even affirm the idea that Jesus is the fleshly embodiment of God. Jesus’ acts alone couldn’t affirm the question for many, and Jesus’ resurrection alone couldn’t fully develop the idea, nor could the comparison between the kingly claims of Jesus to Caesar. But united together, it could lead to the conclusion that Jesus was indeed God. The resurrection would have been the “AH HA!” moment.

This theory would explain the narrative of John 20:24-29 very well then. The disciple Thomas was skeptical of the risen Jesus when other people told him about it. But then once he sees the opens wounds of Jesus, his immediate response is “My Lord and my God!” After realizing Jesus was indeed raised from the dead, it suddenly clicked in his mind and immediately affirmed the notion that Jesus was God in the flesh. And then Jesus response could take upon the meaning of “You had to see my proof of my resurrection to come to believe I am your Lord and God. Blessed are those who believed beforehand without seeing that.” Thus alluding to the the idea that Jesus works showed him to be God (or the Son of God, a title with connotations of divinity, as John 20:30-31 speaks about), but also the fact that the resurrection confirms it for those who would have otherwise rejected the notion. Furthermore, Romans 1:4 goes to say state that Jesus was declared the Son of God because of the resurrection, further strengthening the idea that the resurrection was the key that unlocked the door for many people.

So, in the end, the reflection could have arisen so early, that it could have started as Jesus was in the middle of his ministry. So while Jesus never explicitly stated before than he was God (stating such would have gotten him called either crazy and/or stoned right then are there), his actions as his disciples reflected upon them opened up the potential question, and the resurrection gave vindication to the idea.

The explanation that can then be given to the rest of the New Testament not bestowing the title of “God” upon Jesus (unless we take Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1 to be genuine and actually attributing the title of God to Jesus) is because it could lead to confusion. So instead Paul and others determined to call Jesus Lord, which was a critique of Caesar, spoke of Jesus authority, but also allusion to the name of God, where YHWH, was substituted with “Lord” (adonai in Hebrew and kyrios in Greek). The first statement of Thomas became the standard title for Jesus, whereas the latter was diminished to avoid confusion or hints of the denial of Jewish monotheism (albeit a modified form).

This makes the best sense of the material we have at hand, all while keeping true to the Jewish context and being relatively simple (only three strands, contrast with Caesar, resurrection, and his works, pulled together). It also makes sense of why Paul’s epistles attribute such things seemingly reserved for God to Jesus and yet never really attributes to Jesus the title of God (unless, again, Titus 2:13 is genuinely Pauline and is referring to only one being).

Furthermore, since its simplicity but yet explanatory power of a variety of evidence (of which I have only touched upon) is such a strong argument for it, it also gives further credence that Jesus indeed was resurrected. Such a belief could not have powerfully come into play otherwise (as Romans 1:4 might also imply).

In addition, one could not say that Jesus’ divinity was an invention of the very early church, because the Jewish monotheism would not easily allow such a concept to be developed. It would have to be powerfully and definitively revealed. So while the resurrection is given credibility, so also are the works attributed to Jesus through the gospels.

The first reasonable recourse is to appeal to a later tradition, but if the material about the powerful works weren’t around then (or even if they were, since by that time it was for a primarily non-Jewish audience who would not be as quick to see Jesus performing the works of YHWH in the Old Testament), nor resurrection genuine.

The next recourse would be to potentially appeal to Jesus’ claims of royalty and having the rule of all the world and that over time (as opposed to the rather quick comparison I argued for), he would be compared with the supposedly divine Caesar and would have been consider divine over and against Caesar. But this couldn’t happen early when the church was more heavily influenced by Jews without the powerful works and resurrection. And it really isn’t feasible for a later development, unless a belief in resurrection spring up and made the Jesus cult retain its staying power.

Another argument would then have to come up was that the resurrection was an early invention of the early church. But that then flies right into the face of the simple hypothesis that explains a lot of the evidence at hand. One must appeal then to a more complicated hypothesis that the New Testament as a whole is unreliable and has been tampered with. And that is where many might go, but at their own risk and peril.

(Great amounts of credit must be given to NT Wright, who a lot of my thinking is based upon along with the ability to put different threads together. Peace be upon his name!)


October 3, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment