When Did Jesus Become a Deity?

Back in Mrs. Wilson’s 5th grade Sunday School class, we were taught that Jesus was the Son of God. And when Jesus kneeled down to pray, that’s who he was praying to. By the time we got to high school, Mr. Wilson (spouse) taught us the Gospel of John, where Jesus and God were described as the same thing. Hmmm.

  • OK, so there’s gotta be a story here. Yep. Jesus himself never really said he was a god … or THE God. The disciples did not think Jesus was a god.  Paul never said Jesus was a god in any of his letters. And the very first Christians did not think Jesus was a god — at least while he was here on Earth.
  • You left some wriggle room there. Agreed. As time went on, the followers developed a belief system where Jesus became a god when he was taken up to heaven after his resurrection. As the number of followers increased approaching the 2nd century (i.e. more cooks in the kitchen), the deification of Jesus kept getting earlier and earlier. We can see this in the Gospels themselves. The first Gospel Mark says nothing of note about Jesus being a deity (maybe with his baptism). Luke and Matthew added a virgin birth story to their narratives as an indication that Jesus must have been a deity when he arrived on Earth. John takes it back even further, clearly saying Jesus was around with God from the beginning. 
  • This makes it sound like the early followers may have made Jesus a deity. We will not stray into theological territory here. But Professor Bart Ehrman speculates that if Jesus had not been declared God, the Christian group would have remained a small Jewish sect and may have even died out. By making Jesus a deity, the Christians attracted a large number of Gentiles into the group. And by the time we get to Constantine’s conversion 300 years later, the Christians have recruited a size-able critical mass of followers, which made his conversion politically palatable. And the rest is history.

But you still did not address how the Christians addressed the conundrum of Jesus being the Son versus Jesus being equal to God. We’ll do that next week. We’ve exhausted our three bullets this week.

Early Christianity and Paul

  • Before Paul, early ‘Christianity’ was pretty much an offshoot of traditional Jewish practices, complete with circumcision requirements and dietary laws. These small groups added an apocalyptic twist by insisting that a man named Yeshua (i.e. Jesus) had died and come back to life. And then came Paul, a tent-maker from Syria who began telling people (very insistently at times) that he had seen the risen Jesus in a vision.
  • Paul expanded the appeal by reinventing Christianity around a theology based on faith rather than through good Jewish works. This was excellent marketing, because it expanded Christianity into an international religion. Paul probably already had a bias toward mixing of various religious sects, because he came from Syria, which was much more cosmopolitan in allowing both Jews and Gentiles to worship under the same roof.
  • The key event that sealed the deal for Paul’s version of Christianity was when the Temple was destroyed around 70 CE. At that point the identity of the Jewish Christian churches disappeared. This left only Paul’s churches outside of Jerusalem to carry on the Christian religion. And since the winners write the history, this explains why we don’t hear much about the non-Paul leaders in the early Christian development.

Fun fact:  Paul never quotes Jesus.

Interesting Speculation:  Was Paul’s vision some kind of epileptic seizure caused by little sleep, frequent danger, and stress? And did it result in damaged eyesight, that might be indicated by Paul himself in Galatians 6:11, “SEE WHAT LARGE LETTERS I WRITE WITH MY OWN HAND.”

Editor note:  Much of today’s post comes from Neil Carter’s blog entitled Godless in Dixie

Paul’s Belief System

This week we do a little more on Paul.

  • Major premise. One of Paul’s beliefs, which was common at the time, was that the end of times was near. This was reinforced by his epiphany that Jesus himself came back from the dead, which Paul thought must be a further sign that the end is near. So when Paul says that Jesus will return soon, he meant it literally.
  • What was Paul’s major theme? Paul focused almost solely on the death and resurrection of Jesus. His theology (written mostly in Romans) was that the Jewish God (similar to the Roman and pagan gods at the time) required some form of sacrifice. Sacrifice was a common theme, even in the Jewish temples. According to Paul, Jesus’ death was also a sacrifice, but on a much larger scale.
  • What did the traditional Jewish leaders think? They were not appreciative. James (Jesus’ brother) and Paul had several go-rounds back in the day. The traditional Jewish leaders, even if they were following Jesus’ teachings, were all about following the Law and doing the ‘right’ thing. What was the ‘right’ thing? Getting circumcised, eating Kosher, and honoring the Sabbath and other Jewish laws. Paul was having none of that. 

Fun Facts:  Paul did not found the largest early Christian church, which was in Rome. This ‘large’ church had about 26 members, six of whom Paul addressed as Jewish.

Did Paul actually write about the Road to Damascus?

We have not talked about the letters of Paul for awhile. 

  • Forgeries? Six of the thirteen New Testament letters that name him as the author are probably not from his pen, but were written by later followers. Why? Well, it always sounds more convincing if you say you’re the Apostle Paul than if you say you’re not Paul. Which are the authentic ones? Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.
  • Church issues. And the letters were always to some church having problems. We only know one side of the issue — Paul’s side. But because he’s trying to patch things up at these churches (which may have been only 12 people at the time), it is rare that we really see a comprehensive outline of Paul’s theological viewpoint on things.
  • The Road to Damascus. Paul says nothing in his letters about being “blinded by the light” on the road to Damascus. This account is recorded 3x in Acts, which was likely written by the same author as Luke. What Paul says is that Jesus “appeared” to him and that “God revealed his son” to him. That may or may not be more dramatic.

Whatever visionary experience Paul had, it changed everything for him — what he thought about Christ, God, salvation, the role of Jews in the plan of God, and many other things. We’ll talk about some of these next week.