Who did the Earliest Christians think Jesus was?

Did the earliest Christians view Jesus in the same manner that Christians do today?

NT scholar Bart Ehrman explains his view of Early Christology (as of 2013):

“I’m ready now to get back to the issues involved with early Christology and the question of How Jesus Became God. In this post I’ll quickly review what I’ve covered up till now and indicate a major change in my thinking that has happened over the past six months.

In these posts I have been arguing that there were two separate streams of early Christology (this too has been a major shift in my thinking, and is closely related to the one I will be discussing momentarily). The first Christologies were almost certainly based on the idea of “exaltation.” Christ, as a human being, came to be exalted to the right hand of God, where he was made to share in God’s status as a reward for his faithfulness. The earliest Christians – the earthly disciples themselves (or at least some of them: we have no way of knowing if they all “converted” to believe this about Jesus) –thought that this happened at Jesus’ resurrection, where God “made him” the Son of God (and thus the Lord, the messiah to come, the Son of Man, and so on). Later there were Christians who thought this exaltation occurred at his baptism, so that he was the Son of God for his entire ministry.

The other type of Christology came a bit later. It was an “incarnation” Christology which indicated that Jesus was a pre-existent divine being – for example, an angel – who became a human being for the purpose of salvation. This was the view of Paul, at least insofar as the Christ-poem of Philippians 2 represents not just an earlier point of view but his own view as well. But this poem, and possibly Paul himself, represent a kind of transitional Christological view, because even though Christ was a pre-existent being who became human, at the resurrection God exalted him even higher than before. So this perspective combines elements of both an incarnational and an exaltation Christology. But by the time we get to the Gospel of John, we have an incarnation theology pure and simple, where there is no higher exaltation. How *could* there be a higher exaltation? Before the Word became flesh (i.e., before it was incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ), it was *already* “God” as much as God was God.

And there is one other kind of hybrid Christology, although I haven’t called it this yet. That is the view that Jesus came into being at his birth (so that he was not the incarnation of a pre-existent divine being) but by virtue of the fact that God was the one who made the virgin Mary pregnant, Christ was son of God when he came into existence. In this view, he is not “exalted” to be Son of God after earlier being a mere mortal; but he is also not an incarnation of a divine being. So this is an “in-between” Christology that developed out of the exaltation views: he wasn’t son of God just at the resurrection, or just at the baptism, but for his entire life.

So far as I can tell, ALL of the authors of the New Testament have one or other of these Christological views. And here is where I’ve changed my mind in a VERY BIG way over the past six months. I have realized that when thinking about whether Jesus was considered God by the NT authors that I was imposing the wrong metric on the question and the idea.

This is a little hard to explain, but I’ll try (for the first time!). Every New Testament scholar worth his or her salt will tell you that it is completely inappropriate to impose a Nicene Christology onto the writings of the New Testament. I will later talk about Nicene Christology: for now it is enough to say that it is a view that got hammered out in the early fourth century that portrayed Christ as both fully divine and fully human (not half and half, for instance), and yet one being instead of two. By the early fourth century, theologians were starting to get highly nuanced in their language and their ways of conceptualizing Christological categories, and it is completely inappropriate to pretend that the NT authors had in mind what the later theologians did (as many fundamentalists do indeed pretend).

But what most NT scholars have failed to realize – including me, until just recently – is that in a DIFFERENT way they typically *do* impose a Nicene view onto the early evidence. And this is in thinking that when one asks “Is Jesus God” for a NT author, one is asking whether Jesus has crossed that enormous and unbridgeable chasm between the human and the divine. In this way of thinking, the human is one kind of thing, the divine is another kind of thing, and being one or the other is a HUGE and INSURMOUNTABLE difference. God is separated from humanity by an enormous gulf.

That is what we who are heirs of Nicea have come to think. And it’s not what ancient Jews and pagans thought, at all. Both Jews and pagans INSTEAD thought that divinity was a kind of spectrum, that there were different levels of divinity, that some humans had a share of divinity. In a later post I’ll explain how I have always typically illustrated the point. For now I’ll point out that even though I have realized this idea of a spectrum for years, I’ve oddly never applied it to Christology – as, in fact, the vast majority of my colleagues in the field have not done either. We have assumed (and most scholars continue to assume) that if we ask, “Did a NT author think of Jesus as God” we meant – “as being of the same essence as the one true God.” But in fact, it was possible to be God in a variety of ways and on a variety of levels.

 … For now I’ll simply summarize my relatively recent realization by saying that if you ask “is Jesus God?” what you really need to ask, in the back of your mind, is “in what *sense* is Jesus God?” That makes all the difference, as I’ll continue to try to show.”


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