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.
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.
This week we discovered some fun stuff about the Gospel of Mark, which is the first gospel written around 60-70 CE.
There are some things we have talked about before: Mark makes no mention of Joseph by name. And Mark has no virgin birth story.
But then things get interesting.
- Mark has no appearances of Jesus after the women discover the empty tomb. Upon arriving at the tomb on the third day, they find the stone at the entrance of the tomb removed and a young man (not an angel) tells them:
“Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing (Mark 16:6-8)
And there the gospel simply ends! Or that was how it originally ended. Here’s what James Tabor and other Biblical historians have discovered: The last 11 verses of Mark (Mark 16:9-19) were likely pencilled in centuries later.
- Why did they do that? Well, the other three gospels all contained accounts of Jesus appearances after the resurrection. And over the years, the appearances had become an integral part of the Christian theology. So church leaders decided to made some additions to Mark. Pretty much all the Christian Bibles in use today contain those … how should we say it … enhancements.
- How do the scholars know this? First, this ending is not found in the earliestGreek copies of Mark. None of the third century manuscripts contain these last verses. And in the latter Greek versions that begin to contain these verses, the language and style of the Greek is clearly not from the same author as the original Mark.
Here is the ending of Mark as we generally see it. The high-lighted words are lifted directly from Matthew, Luke, and John:
Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.
This is so bizarre.