In today’s post, we’ll look at just when the early Christians thought Jesus became Divine. Was he already Divine while he was alive? Or did he become Divine after he was resurrected? Or something else entirely? We admit that this borders on a debate about the number of angels on the head of a pin, but we’ll try to make it interesting.
- Didn’t everyone who followed Jesus think he was the son of God? Maybe some did. But many merely thought that Jesus was a very good teacher, and a good man. But they did not think he was a direct incarnation of God.
- What does Jesus say about himself in the Gospels? This is kinda complicated because the Gospels were not eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, and were written several decades after Jesus’ death. We acknowledge that certain passages in the Gospels indicate that Jesus identified himself as one with God, or maybe even Divine. But Biblical scholars such as Bart Ehrman say it is not clear whether Jesus actually made these statements. Dr. Ehrman posits that Jesus probably thought he was a regular guy during his lifetime, but he was going to return at the end of times (which was supposed to be really really soon) as the Divine Messiah.
- What did the disciples think? When Jesus was crucified, his disciples were totally shocked. This was not how it was supposed to turn out. But at some point (and this is where things get really murky), the early followers regained hope when some of them claimed they had seen Jesus and that he was alive again. Word spread. And some (all?) of his followers believed it. According to Dr. Ehrman, the story of the resurrection meant that Jesus had really been favored by God after all.
- But why was he not there to talk to people about it (except for the random visions)? More murkiness. The story evolved over time that it was because Jesus had gone to heaven to be with God.
Soooo, it looks like in the period right after Jesus’ death, most of his followers had the idea that a) Jesus was human while he was living here on earth, but b) became a Divine being after his death and resurrection. This way of thinking evolved over the centuries, amid years of Roman persecution, a split from Judaism, and in-fighting among various Christian sects. Eventually we get to the Council in Nicaea in 325 CE, where the majority vote was that Jesus had always been the Divine Son of God, even during his life on earth. Period. No further debate. Moving on.
Let’s talk conspiracy theory this week. In the Gospel of John (written 70 years after Jesus’ death) there are four references to an unnamed disciple. This disciple was at the Last Supper, the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and on the Sea of Galilee in one of Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection. The gospel writer calls him “the most Beloved Disciple.” Who was this?
- Mary Magdalene? This one is the most fun to talk about. Certain novelists sell a lot of books based on this theory. And DaVinci’s Last Supper painting does show a very feminine-looking disciple at the table. But most Biblical scholars think the use of the male pronoun in the text limits the gender to male. Plus Mary Magdalene is mentioned separately as being present at the tomb along with the Beloved Disciple.
- One of Jesus’ brothers? The Beloved Disciple is also likely someone not named elsewhere in the Gospel of John. The only disciples not named in the Gospel of John are the “other” James, the “other” Jude, and the “other” Simon, and Matthew. These four (some scholars think even Matthew was a brother) were all part of the Jesus family.
- Brother James. According to arguments presented by scholar James Tabor, Jesus’ brother James is the most likely candidate for the Beloved Disciple. He may have been one of the original 12 (i.e. the “other James”), and therefore was likely a part of Jesus’ inner circle. Plus, at the scene of the cross, Jesus gives the care of his mother Mary over to this Most Beloved disciple. Jewish tradition would have logically made that the next oldest brother.
There’s lots more, but we’ve only got three bullets per week.
We bet the headline today got your attention. This week we ran across some fun things recorded in a 3rd century apocryphal text called the Acts of Thomas. This is a different book from The Gospel of Thomas that we have mentioned in other posts. This one is just fun to think about:
- Thomas the Twin. In The Acts of Thomas, the author claims that Jesus and Thomas were twins. How’s that happen when one of the twins is supposed to be conceived by God? Well, the author is silent on the how, but this type of biological arrangement is not unknown in the ancient world. Specifically, in Roman legends the god Hercules had a mortal twin brother from the same mother.
- It gets better. After Jesus’ death, the apostles draw straws to determine where they each get to go for their missionary work. Thomas draws the India straw. He is not happy about that. Possibly because there is another story telling how he spent some of his earlier years in India (with Jesus?). And you know how young people can sometimes be … maybe … a little rowdy. The book implies that Thomas may have gotten into some trouble during his first go ‘round.
- A wedding ceremony. While in India, Thomas is asked to preside over a wedding ceremony. He reluctantly agrees, and then spends time alone with the bride after the ceremony (noooo, not doing that). He convinces her that sexual abstention is the only way to achieve connection to God (a popular, albeit short-lived, position of certain early Christian sects). And she bought in! The groom wasn’t happy. Her father the King wasn’t happy. Thomas left town immediately.