One of the most common objections to Christianity is that the divinity of Jesus was “created” by later Christians long after the first century. No one in primitive Christianity believed Jesus was divine, we are told. He was just a man and it was later believers, at the council of Nicea, that declared him to be a God.
A classic example of this in popular literature can be found in the book The Da Vinci Code:
“My dear,” Teabing declared, “until that moment in history [council of Nicea], Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet… a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal.” “Not the Son of God?” “Right,” Teabing said. “Jesus’ establishment as ‘the Son of God” was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea.” “Hold on. You’re saying Jesus’ divinity was the result of a vote?” “A relatively close vote at that,” Teabing added.
Of course, there have been more sophisticated objections to the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus. Bart Ehrman’s book, How Jesus Became God, argues that “It will become clear in the following chapters that Jesus was not originally considered to be God in any sense at all” (44).
Needless to say, there have been many responses to this claim by Ehrman (and The Da Vinci Code). A good place to start is the rebuttal volume to Ehrman, How God Became Jesus. And you can see my review of Ehrman’s book here.
But, it would still be helpful to revisit the question about when Christians began to conceive of Jesus as God. Was this belief “originally” (Ehrman’s word) part of early Christianity?
There are many ways to approach this question, but for the purposes of this short post, we will simply consider the teachings of the apostle Paul on this question. Why start with Paul? Larry Hurtado explains it best: “Pauline Christianity is the earliest form of the Christian movement to which we have direct access from undisputed firsthand sources” (Lord Jesus Christ, 85).
As we shall see, Paul didn’t simply believe Jesus was God in some marginal, semi-divine sort of way. Rather he viewed him as the one God of Israel, the pre-existent creator of the universe.
Let us consider just two examples that show that the highest of Christologies was present in our earliest sources. First, consider Paul’s language in 1 Cor 8:5-6:
For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
At heart of this statement—given in the context of food offered to idols—is Paul’s concern to uphold monotheism. There is only one God who is worthy to receive cultic worship, as opposed to the many false gods present in pagan worship.