The Quest for the Historical Jesus Part 3 - Was Jesus Considered to Be Divine?

This is part three in a crucial series of articles on "The Quest for The Historical Jesus." It is a condensed version of an article by BJ published in the Journal of Biblical Apologetics.

Is it true that no one claimed Jesus was divine until the Council of Nicea in the fourth century? Another allegation made is the idea Jesus was never recognized by his followers as divine until the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. Liberal scholars claim the concept of Jesus' divinity developed over time and was not the official teaching of Jesus and His followers. In light of this allegation, the main question before us then is did Jesus and His followers affirm His deity prior to the Council of Nicea? If there is evidence that confirms Jesus was recognized as divine prior to the Council of Nicea, then this will deal a decisive blow to this allegation. As we examine the evidence, we do find sources that affirm Jesus' deity prior to the Council of Nicea. Consider the following four examples:

1. The Canonical Gospels (A.D. 50-100):

In the canonical Gospels, we find a vast amount of material that portrays Jesus as being a divine figure. For instance, the Gospels record Jesus as acknowledging His own deity. One way Jesus does this is by applying titles to Himself that were titles used in reference to Yahweh in the Old Testament. For instance, Jesus used the title "I AM" as declaration of who He was.

As Dr. Robert Morey notes, "If all Jesus wanted to say was that He existed before Abraham, all He had to do was to use the imperfect tense "I was." But this would not have caused a riot and an assassination attempt. It is His use of the present tense and the way He said it that made them riot."

2. Pauline Epistles (A.D. 50- 70): Another pre-Nicene source that confirms the deity of Jesus is the Pauline epistles. One clear example is from Paul's epistle to the church at Colosse. One of the main reasons why Paul writes this letter was to respond to a heresy known as Gnosticism which was infiltrating the church.

Gnosticism taught that the physical body was evil, and therefore, God could not be incarnate in a human body. In response, Paul acknowledges the fullness of God does dwell in Jesus (Colossians 2:9).

3. Early Church Fathers: A third pre-Nicene source that affirms Jesus was viewed as divine is the writings of the early church fathers. Consider the following three examples:

a. Ignatius (A.D. 30-107): "We have also as a Physician the Lord our God, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began..."

b. Justin Martyr (A.D. 100- 165): "... who [Jesus] also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God."

c. Irenaeus (A.D. 120-202): "Proofs from the apostolic writings, that Jesus Christ was one and the same, the only begotten Son of God, perfect God and perfect man."

4. Non-Christian source: We also have an example of a non-Christian source that confirms that Jesus was perceived as divine by His followers prior to the Council of Nicea. The source is a letter that Pliny the Younger, who served as governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, wrote to Emperor Trajan about how to deal with Christians who were in his realm of jurisdiction.

In this letter, which has been dated by scholars to be written around A.D. 112, Pliny makes the following comment about the early Christian worship of Christ: "They [the Christians] were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god...."

The next article by BJ in this series on "The Quest for The Historical Jesus" will be a challenge to the Church to equip believers to defend the faith.