While reading through Pope Benedict XVI’s fantastic book Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, I came across a discussion about the two natures of Christ: divine and human, mysteriously subsumed in the person of Jesus. I was reminded, perhaps ironically, of a Stephen Colbert episode way back in 2009 in which Stephen’s guest, Bible critic Bart Ehrman, claimed that the earliest Christians did not recognize or believe Jesus to be divine.
He argued that John (in his Gospel, in Revelation, and in his letters, all written near the end of the first century)1 is the only New Testament writer who decisively states that Jesus is God. The other New Testament books and letters, because they were written earlier, provide a better glimpse into early Christian beliefs—and none of them, Ehrman insists, directly claim Jesus to be divine. Since this is an attack on Christology and our understanding of the nature of the Resurrection, I decided to research the matter.
This is by no means the first time someone has denied that Christ was fully divine; some of you may recognize this as the heresy of Arianism, which was refuted and condemned in the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. Yet Bart Ehrman isn’t satisfied by what Christians believed three centuries after Jesus. He is convinced that due to the lack of references to Christ’s divinity in early Christian writings, Christianity did not recognize Jesus as God until the belief evolved at the end of the first century (e.g. John’s writings).
Other scholars support this claim thinking that the idea of granting Jesus Godhood originated in Gentile and Hellenistic communities, where deifying heroes was somewhat commonplace.2 Then when Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70, Jewish Christian views of the Messiah-man gave way to Gentile perceptions of the Messiah-God. But the evidence from early Christian documents suggests the opposite.
Evidence 1: Jesus as “Son of God”
How can Bart Ehrman make such a claim when the phrase “Son of God” is used multiple times in reference to Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)? His response: the Messiah, even if he calls himself Son of God, does not necessitate a divine status. For, he says, there are many “sons of God” in the Old Testament (e.g. Gen. 6:2,4; Job 1:6, 2:1), and King Solomon was adopted by God as a “son” (cf. 1 Ch. 22:10, 28:6).
However, the specific phrase “Son of God” never appears in the Old Testament, whereas it does on many occasions in the Synoptic Gospels. I readily agree that the sparse references to “sons of God” in the Hebrew bible certainly imply that such persons simply have an intimate relationship with God, in the same way that a “son of strength” is a great warrior or a “son of wickedness” is an evil man. Yet there is reason to believe that Jesus’ title of “Son of God” is of much greater significance.
Let us try and interpret the phrase “Son of God” when applied to Jesus as simply meaning “favored one of God”, as it does in the Old Testament. Note, then, that Jesus’ status as “son of God” is no longer unique—many others have been called a son of God. Therefore, Jesus can no longer be called the Son of God, but simply a son of God. Is this how the Synoptic writers refer to Jesus?
To determine this, we must examine the Greek text to see whether or not the phrase is preceded by the definite article “the”. It turns out that such cases do occur in the Synoptic Gospels where the definite article is missing. For example, when Jesus is on the cross, the bystanders jeer at him saying: “If you are [a] son of God, come down from the cross!” (Mt. 27:40). But crucially, the Synoptic writers also refer to Jesus as the Son of God, specifying the definite article—and they are specific in the most defining of moments. When Jesus asks the disciples who they say that He is, Peter replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16, emphasis mine). The gospel writer is explicit that Jesus is uniquely God’s own Son, not simply a righteous man like the Old Testament heroes. Other passages also make this position clear, including Mt. 11:27, 26:63, and Mk. 1:24.
Peter was not the only one of the disciples to see Jesus’ divinity. After Jesus walks on water, those in the boat “did him homage, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God’” (Mt. 14:33). It might have been possible to translate this as “Truly, you are a son of God” if it weren’t for the fact that the disciples “did him homage” as they would to God.
In fact, even the demons witness to Jesus’ divine nature. In Mark 1:24, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he cures a demoniac, the unclean spirit cries out,
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: the Holy One of God!”
The evil spirit recognizes that Jesus is “the Holy One of God” (definite article specified), a divine being with the power to “destroy” demons. (See also Mt. 8:29 and Lk. 8:28.)
Certain parables of Jesus also dispel the notion that Jesus is anything less than the begotten Son of God. In the parable of the wicked tenants (Mt. 21:33-41), the landowner sends servants into the vineyard to obtain the produce, but the tenants kill each one of them. So the owner sends his son, expecting the tenants to respect the son. Clearly we see that the son in this parable is distinct from the servants because he is the offspring and heir of the landowner. Similarly, Jesus is the Son and heir of the Father, unlike the prophets and “sons of God” of the Old Testament. A similar note can be made for the parable of the wedding feast in Mt. 22:1-14.
If that isn’t convincing enough, take a closer look at the narrative of the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary. When she questions by what means she will have a son, since she has had no relations with a man, Gabriel responds:
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” (Lk. 1:35)
Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit, the power of the Most High—God will be the father of her child. Because the power of the Most High will be the father, therefore Jesus will be called the Son of God, says the angel. Not because Jesus will be a righteous man favored in God’s sight, but because He is literally the Son of God. This is why Matthew tells us “‘they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’” (Mt. 1:23, cf. Is. 7:14).3
Evidence 2: Jesus says “I am”
But even aside from the phrase “Son of God,” we can still glean from the Synoptic Gospels references to Jesus’ divinity. During Jesus’ passion, as he stands before the Sanhedrin, the high priest asks him: “Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?” After Jesus responds, the high priest “tore his garments and said, ‘What further need have we of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy’” (Mk. 14:61-64).
What was it that Jesus said? “I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Jesus uttered the Tetragrammaton, Yahweh, “I am,” the name of God, the pronunciation of which was reserved for God alone (with the exception of the high priest once a year). If Jesus were not God, then the high priest and Sanhedrin would be correct in accusing him of blasphemy, the punishment of which was death by stoning according to the Mishnah (Jewish law). Surely this was not the message Mark and the Synoptic writers were implying; rather, they must have been fully aware that Jesus was totally in the right to utter the Holy Name—they must have been aware that Jesus was God.
Evidence 3: Jesus Forgives Sins
In Luke 5:17-26 we read about the healing of a paralytic who, because of the crowds, had to be lowered through the roof to get to Jesus. In this episode, before he heals the man Jesus forgives his sins. The scribes and Pharisees ask themselves wondering, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who but God alone can forgive sins?”
They are correct: it is blasphemous to claim the authority to forgive sins—unless you’re God. Moreover, isn’t it curious that Luke should deliberately specify that Jesus didn’t overhear their wonderings, but that instead he knew what they were thinking in their hearts (Lk. 5:22)? Knowing and seeing the minds and hearts of men is a trademark ability of God (cf. Prov. 15:11; Jer. 20:12; Lk. 16:15; Acts 15:8).
What then shall we say of John 20:23 in which Jesus tells the disciples: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained”? Are the disciples committing blasphemy by forgiving the sins of others? The difference between the disciples forgiving sins and Jesus forgiving sins is that the disciples do so in the name of Jesus—incidentally, a further demonstration of Jesus’ divine authority. There are many verses that emphasize Jesus as the source of healing and forgiveness, including Lk. 10:17, 24:47, Acts 2:38. The following passage is from Acts 4:7-10:
[The members of the Sanhedrin] brought them into their presence and questioned them, “By what power or by what name have you done this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, answered them, “Leaders of the people and elders: If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a cripple, namely, by what means he was saved, then all of you and all the people of Israel should now that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead; in his name this man stands before you healed.
Evidence 4: The Letter to the Hebrews
The Synoptic Gospels were likely written A.D. 60-70 if not earlier. The Letter to the Hebrews was probably written around the same time, likely dated at A.D. 63-64. The first chapter of this letter speaks very highly of the Son of God, referring to His preexistence and participation in the creation of the universe:
[God] spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe,
Who is the refulgence of his glory,
The very imprint of his being,
And who sustains all things
By his mighty word
The passage continues by asserting the Son’s superiority over the angels:
Let all the angels of God worship him.
If the early Christians understood that the angels of God worship Jesus, surely they themselves also worshipped Him? A few lines later, God also says of the Son:
At the beginning, O Lord,
You established the earth,
And the heavens are the works of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
You are the same,
And your years will have no end.
The entire first chapter strongly suggests a preexistent, divine Son of God whom even the angels worship.
Evidence 5: Paul’s Letters
Paul’s letters are an even deeper insight into early Christian beliefs and practices, written sometime between the late 40s to early 60s. I set forth here just a handful of Paul’s references to the Son’s preexistence and Godliness. What is perhaps most significant about the following passages is that their formulaic style indicates that they were almost certainly early Christian liturgical hymns, ones that Paul felt free to quote since he knew his audience was familiar with them.4 This means that the ideas and perceptions toward Christ presented in these verses were already well known and accepted by A.D. 50s, implying that the earliest Christians in the 30s and 40s acknowledged and believed in them.
Though he was in the form of God
Did not regard equality with God
Something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
Taking the form of a slave,
Coming in human likeness;
And found human in appearance,
He humbled himself,
Becoming obedient to death,
Even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
And bestowed on him the name
That is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus
Every knee should bend,
Of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue confess
That Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.
This is perhaps Paul’s most explicit reference to Jesus’ divinity. The hymn begins by describing Jesus as one who is in the “form of God”, who acknowledges his “equality with God”, and who proceeds to “[empty] himself” before “coming in human likeness”. The passage continues by saying that God “bestowed on him the name that is above every name.” What name? The next few lines reveal the answer. They are a deliberate reference to Isaiah 45:23, which reads:
By myself I [God] swear,
Uttering my just decree,
A word that will not return:
“To me every knee shall bend;
By me every tongue shall swear.”
Every knee shall bow to God alone, and every tongue shall confess God alone. But now in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we find that the early Christians are bending their knee to Jesus and confessing Jesus. Why? Because God has conferred his name on Jesus, the name that is above every other name: Yahweh. So that at the name of Jesus, all who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth shall pay homage to Jesus as they would to God, because “Jesus Christ is Yahweh (Lord; see Evidence 6 below)”.
But if I should be delayed, you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth. Undeniably great is the mystery of devotion,
Who was manifested in the flesh,
Vindicated in the spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed to the Gentiles,
Believed in throughout the world,
Taken up in glory.
1 Timothy 3:15-16
Here, Paul reminds Timothy the importance of proper behavior in church, namely, to be aware of the greatness of the mystery of Christ. He then includes a hymn that Timothy is presumably familiar with as Paul’s way of saying how to behave (i.e. worship) in church—and the hymn is addressed to Jesus. Paul is emphasizing a hymn to Jesus as the model behavior of someone worshipping in God’s house (the place for worshipping God), meaning that the early Christians must have understood that Jesus was God. Moreover, the wording of the first line implies that Jesus preexisted before being “manifested in the flesh.”
He is the image of the invisible God,
The firstborn of all creation.
For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth,
The visible and the invisible,
Whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;
All things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things,
And in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church.
He is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead,
That in all things he himself might be preeminent.
For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell,
And through him to reconcile all things for him,
Making peace by the blood of his cross,
Whether those on earth or those in heaven.
Again, here we see references to Jesus’ Godliness (“He is the image of the invisible God”) and to His preexistence (“He is before all things”).
Yet for us there is:
One God, the Father,
From whom all things are
And for whom we exist,
And one Lord, Jesus Christ,
Through whom all things are
And for whom we exist.
1 Corinthians 8:6
Paul describes Jesus in parallel with God: all things that exist were created through Him.
Evidence 6: Jesus as “Lord”
The title “Lord” (κύριος, in Greek) was used both for the respectful “Master” and for the unutterable “Yahweh”. There is strong reason to believe that the acclamation “Lord” extended much further than simply meaning “Master” in many instances of the New Testament documents.
The early Christians were often exhorted to “call upon the name of the Lord” (e.g. Acts 2:21, Rom. 10:13, 1 Cor. 1:2). All of these exhortations (and the one from Acts directly) refer to a passage from Joel 2:32 which says (in Hebrew) that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord [Yahweh] will be saved.” Is it not significant that a verse originally appropriated to God should now be applied to Jesus? Surely, given the context of Joel, the Greek word κύριος should be translated as the Lord (Yahweh) as opposed to the Lord (Master)?
Similar uses of the word “Lord” are scattered throughout the New Testament. Examples include: Romans 10:9, 1 Cor. 12:3, and Phil. 2:11 (see above) which ask us to confess that Jesus is Lord, Acts 7:59 in which Stephen with his dying breath prays for the Lord Jesus to receive his spirit (mimicking Jesus’ cry to the Father on the cross in Lk. 23:46), Lk. 1:43 when Elizabeth greets Mary as “the mother of my Lord”, and 2 Thess. 2:1-2 which talks about the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ on “the day of the Lord” (cf. Amos 5:18).
Speaking of the second coming, one of the oldest Christian prayers of which we are aware is the Aramaic “Marana tha”, meaning “[our] Lord come!” (1 Cor. 16:22, Didache 10:6) Given that the second coming can also be called, as it is in Amos, “the day of the Lord [Yahweh]”, the address of Jesus as the “Lord” who is coming is highly suggestive of divinity.
If at this point you the reader are still not convinced by the above arguments, consider this: the sans-John New Testament most certainly does not state that Jesus was not divine. Given the enormous tradition that Jesus is God, the onus is on nay-sayers to prove the contrary—otherwise, the Christology of Jesus remains intact. Ehrman has not proven, he has only suggested given the supposed literary silence, that the earliest disciples did not believe in a divine Christ.
If Bart Ehrman wants definitive proof that the early Christians understood Jesus’ divinity, he will never be satisfied. Yet overwhelming material exists to convince anyone of faith that the man Jesus has always been recognized as the divine Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity, who through his Cross and Resurrection set us free from the bonds of death.
Hurtado, Larry W. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. 2003.
Hurtado, Larry W. How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? 2005.
Longenecker, Richard N. Contours of Christology in the New Testament. 2005.
Overman, Dean L. A Case for the Divinity of Jesus. 2009.
- Even this is debated, with some scholars dating John’s writings at around or just before the time of the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 65-70) or even earlier. But since the majority of scholars maintain a late first century date, I will abide by that position.
- Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become God, 16
- Other suggestive passages regarding Jesus as “Son of God” include: twelve-year-old Jesus calls the Temple his Father’s house (Lk. 2:49); the voice of God calls Jesus His beloved Son (Mt. 3:17, 17:5; Mk. 1:11, 9:7; Lk. 3:22, 9:35).
- Overman, A Case for the Divinity of Jesus, 28f