Evolution of Jesus in Early Christianity – Notes

Bart Ehrman’s presentation on his thesis

Arius believed Christ was God, but how could Christ be God and God be God? And how could Christ be All-Mighty and God also be All-Mighty? Only one could be All-Mighty. So Arius said that in eternity past, God existed but wasn’t the father yet, so then he begot a son, a secondary level being, not equal to God. There was a time before which Christ did not exist. He came into being at a certain point in time as a secondary divinity. Christ then created the universe, through the power of the Father. This view was popular though it had been around for a long time and was formulated much earlier.

Alexander opposed him. H believed there was never a time that Christ did not exist, he always existed, and he was not secondary to God, but equal to the Father completely, forever. This led to the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Alexander won the debate and his ideas were recorded in the Nicene Creed.

The affirmations of the Nicene Creed:

  1. Jesus is the only Son of God
  2. Eternally begotten of the Father
  3. God from God, Light from Light
  4. True God from True God
  5. Begotten, not made
  6. Of one Being with the Father

But do the gospels have a similar view? Mark is the earliest one, and the author seems to believe Jesus is the Son of God. But who in the narrative knows this? Nobody in the narrative can figure out who he is. No one in the actual story knows he is the Son of God. In Mark chapter 3, his brothers and family think he went crazy and take him out of public view. The townspeople can’t figure out how he can deliver such teachings, isn’t he the carpenter? How does he know this? The Jewish leaders think he’s possessed.

20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” 22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”

Mark 3

Even his own disciples in chapter 6 and 8 cannot understand nor figure out who he is. In chapter 8 he asks them who the people think he is, and they reply that some say he’s John the Baptist back from the dead. Others say he’s Elijah or one of the other prophets. He asks Peter and he says he thinks Jesus is the Messiah.

Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” 15 Others said, “He is Elijah.” And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.” 16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”

Mark 6

He then says he must go to Jerusalem to be rejected and die. Peter says, “no that can’t happen to you!” Jesus says, “get behind me Satan, you’re thinking of the things of men.” Peter thinks he is the Messiah in how the Jews thought he was, a king. But he is the suffering Messiah.

27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” 28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” 30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. Jesus Predicts His Death 31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Mark 8

This is a long way from the Council of Nicaea. How do you get from point A to point B? From Mark’s understanding as the Messiah who has to suffer, to Alexander’s understanding as a co-equal with God?

Ehrman’s Thesis

  1. During Jesus’ lifetime, his disciples did not believe he was God. This should not be controversial, because in Mark they can’t even figure out what kind of Messiah he is, let alone whether he’s God or not. The issue, “are you God your not?” doesn’t come up in the Gospel of Mark. His followers had no inkling that he was God.
  2. After his lifetime, Ehrman says they did believe he was God. What changed their mind?
  3. They came to believe in the resurrection. Why? Not because of the empty tomb story. If you came to an empty tomb, you would just conclude that someone stole their body, or you’re at the wrong tomb, or grave robbers took it. Rather, some people claimed that Jesus appeared to them afterwards, alive. Paul claims that Peter was the first to see Jesus, and then he was the last to see Jesus (1 Corinthians 15). Mary is claimed to have see him raised from the dead in John 20:16 and Matthew 28. In Luke 24 it also says Peter saw Jesus first. It even says two disciples saw him, but didn’t recognize him (until he later broke bread with them). Jesus asks them what they are discussing, and one replies: “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

In antiquity, in the 1st century, people thought that if someone was exalted to Heaven they had become begotten by God. We have numerous indications of this. The Romans believed that founder of the city of Rome, Romulus (8th century BCE), had been taken up to heaven after his death. The story says he was sitting with his senators, with the army marching in front of him, when a thunderstorm appears and it gets dark and foggy. When the fog lifts, Romulus is gone. They said he was taken up to heaven, and they started worshiping him, and he became the god Quirinus. In Plutarch’s “Life of Romulus,” he writes that shortly after Romulus mysteriously disappeared, a noble name Proculus Julius reported that Romulus came to him while he was traveling and told him to tell his countrymen that he, Romulus, was Quirinus. By the end of the 1st century BCE, Quirinus would be conisdered the deified Romulus.

There were also Jewish thinkers who thought Moses had been taken up to Heaven after his death and that he became a god. Philo (died c. 50 CE), who taught in Alexandria, Egypt, writes this in his book.

So what would people think back then if Jesus was raised up to Heaven? That he became a god. In Acts 13:32-3, the earliest view of this is that at the resurrection, God made Jesus a divine being. “You are my son; today I have begotten you,” as it says in the Psalms 2:7. The earliest followers believed that he was a prophet, then God made Jesus into a divine being at the resurrection. This is called a “low” or “adoptionistic Christology,” the idea that God adopted Jesus to be his son. This is in contrast to a “high” or “incarnation Christology,” the view that Jesus was a pre-existent divine being who became a human, did the Father’s will on earth, and then was taken back up into heaven whence he had originally come.

In ancient Rome, the adopted son was more important, like an heir. Caesar Augustus was named in Julius Caesar’s will as his adopted son and heir, and later became the first emperor of Rome. So these early Christians thought God made Jesus his heir and gave him His power.

Raymond Brown’s theory is on progression. As the early Christian’s thought more and more about how Christ had been adopted, they pushed his exaltation backwards. They thought, if he could perform miracles, surely he was begotten not at his rise to Heaven but during his entire ministry. So they told stories about his baptism. In Luke’s gospel (Luke 3:22) it says at the baptism, “you are my son, today I have begotten you.” So this makes him the son of God during his entire ministry.

Then they figured, he must’ve been the son his whole life, so they pushed it back to his birth. There’s no birth of Jesus story in Mark. But in Matthew and Luke, they have it, and in Luke 1 it says the one who is born will be called the son of God. They thought more about it, and by the gospel of John you’ve got the idea that he was God from eternity past: incarnation. Incarnation is the view that Christ came into the world having existed before. This is not the view of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, but it is the view of John.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made…14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Note: Why does it say “one and only son?” Perhaps because earlier people believed in the concept beforehand, and this is a negation of other “sons” of God, like Romulus.

John 1

The Subsequent Debates

Once Christians started thinking that Jesus was a pre-existent divine being, they started thinking: “in what sense was he a divine being? If he was a divine being, how was he a human being? Or was he a human being? And if he’s a divine being and God’s a divine being, don’t you have two gods? Or do you have only one God? No, we have only one God. Is Jesus God? Yes. Is God the Father God? Yes. You’ve got two gods. No, we’ve got only one God.”

There were people who thought that Christ was God because he was fully God: God who appeared to be a human being. But God and humans are two different things. So a view called Docetism arose: the idea that Christ was God and he only appeared to be a human.

This view lost out, because Christian theologians said if Christ wasn’t human, he couldn’t have died for the sins of the world. If he didn’t really have blood, he couldn’t shed his blood. Salvation requires that he not only be divine, but also be human. So this Docetic view lost out.

Other Christians wanted to say in the 2nd-3rd centuries that Christ is both human and divine via Separationism. At some point in Jesus’ life as a human being, say his baptism, a divine being called Christ entered into the man, Jesus. So he has a human and divine part. And then when the man Jesus died, the Christ went up to heaven. This was declared a heresy because if Jesus isn’t completely human and completely god at one and the same time, then you’re not dealing with one person, you’ve got two persons. But Jesus is one person, not two. God is one and Christ is one, they said.

Modalism, for a long time, was the standard view in Christianity. Even the leaders of the Church of Rome held this view at the end of the 2nd century. It says that God exists in three modes. For example, I am the son to my father, the brother to my sister, and the father to my children. I am a son, a father, and a brother at the same time, and they said God is like that: that God is father, son, and spirit, but there’s only one of Him, not three of Him, just like I am only one person. This view was called modalism because they said God exists in three modes of existence. This view ended up losing out because surely the Father, Son, and Spirit are different from one another. If you’re the father of a son, you can’t be the son that you’re the father of. They have to be different. When Jesus was on Earth, he sometimes would pray to God the Father–he wasn’t just talking to himself.

In the context of arguing about Modalism, a man named Tertullian devised the term Trinity. The Trinity refers to the three persons who are separate, individual persons, who are all God. Arius held to this doctrine, believing that the Son and Holy Spirit were inferior to God the Father, because you can’t have two things that are All-Mighty. If two things are All-Mighty, they share might, so only one can be All-Mighty. This is also Tertullian’s view, that the Son is subordinate to the Father. But this view was superseded by the view that there was a Trinity of three beings, all are equally God, equally All-Powerful, equally All-Knowledgeable, equally eternal, all existed forever. And yet there is only one God, manifest in three persons.

“But if you’ve got three of them, you’ve got three gods, right?
No, there’s only one.
OK, if there’s one, then there’s not three, right?
No, there are three.
Well, that doesn’t make any sense!
Right! If it made any sense, it wouldn’t be a mystery! The Trinity is a mystery, which means you cannot understand it, and if you think you understand it, you misunderstand it.” This became the traditional view of Christianity after the Council of Nicaea. All four of these views: Docetism, Separationism, Modalism, and the Trinity, are logical outworkings of the view that Christ is God while God is God. They have different logic driving them, but just one became the orthodox view: that there are three persons, all of whom are God.

Ehrman’s point is, the early Christians did not think this. You will not find this doctrine in the New Testament. It’s a later doctrine that developed out of earlier views. The earliest Christians came to believe that Jesus had been exalted to God’s right hand at his resurrection, and therefore God had made him a divine being. 300 years later, they were saying that Jesus had always existed, that he was co-eternal, co-omniscient with the Father, and that he in fact was God All-Mighty Himself, the Creator of all things.

After studying the evolution of Christology, the verse in the Qur’an warning the People of the Book not to exaggerate in their religion stands out to me:

﴾ O People of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion nor speak about God save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of God, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a soul from Him. So believe in God and His messengers, and say not “Three” – Cease! (it is) better for you! – God is only One God. Far is it removed from His Transcendent Majesty that He should have a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and the Earth. And God is sufficient as a Disposer of affairs.﴿

Quran 4:171

Note: By “His word,” this refers to God’s creative power in saying “Be!” (کُن ) and it is. The prophet Jesus (عليه السلام) was created without a father, as was the prophet Adam (عليه السلام) , by God’s command, yet both are still created beings and are not divine. The term soul, or ruh (روح), is in reference to the prophet Jesus’ (عليه السلام) pristine purity. “From Him” shows his high esteem and its created element. All souls, including Jesus’, are created from Him. In Islam, the prophet Jesus (عليه السلام) is a prophet of God, and a deep study of the New Testament and early Christianity indicates that this is what he said about himself.


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