Friday, March 27, 2009

The Myth: The Early Church did not Believe Christ to be Divine

This is one of those myths riding the legacy of The Da Vinci Code. Historically, it is one of little value - however, among many critics of Christianity it is played up as a historically accurate and viable criticism. In actual fact, the earliest witness of Christianity testify to the divinity of Christ whether they be Biblical, pre-scriptural hymns and creeds or non-Christian hostile witness.

One example I like to use occurs in Philippians 2 where Paul makes reference to what scholars believe to be a pre-Philippian creed and hymn.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This exert of Philippians 2:5-11 is very clear in who Jesus is. It affirms the Apostle Thomas' understanding of Christ as "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28).

While responding to this claim I shared an exert by a scholar I am a fan of - Professor Darell L. Bock. Professor Bock, who has a blog here, is highly respected and renowned in his field and currently serves as Research Professor of New Testament Studies and Professor of Spiritual Development and Culture at Dallas Theological Seminary. He authored a New York Times Bestseller which addresses this claim (as presented in the Da Vinci Code) rather well. I have provided an exert from Breaking the Da Vinci Code:

1. The First-Century Evidence from Paul and Early Traditional Materials

Our investigative search takes us not only to the Gospels but also to the apostle Paul, a Jew who in his own words had persecuted Christians and approved of their arrest and execution until he saw the risen Jesus (Gal. 1:11–24). This event produced a personal revolution in his theological view. The writings from Paul date between A.D. 50 and 68, almost three hundred years before Nicea. Paul used traditional materials showing that others shared and confessed his core theological beliefs. No one knew who Constantine was when Paul wrote. Two key classes of texts permit us to see Paul's theology and the theology of others who shared his views: those that involve a confessional statement of the church, and places where he referred to Jesus using language from the Old Testament that pertained to God.

The first class of texts involves confessional statements like 1 Corinthians 8:5–6 (RSV). Paul noted that while those in the world around him worshiped many gods, he and the Christians worshiped one God and one Lord Jesus Christ: "Although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many `gods' and many `lords'—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist."

The title "Lord" often referred to God. In the Greek Bible of the Jews, a work known as the Septuagint, the title "Lord" often substituted for "God." To call Jesus Christ Lord was to refer to His deity, especially in a passage that mentioned other gods of the religious faith of others. According to Paul, Jesus was involved in the Creation as Creator. For a person of Jewish background, that would be the declaration of an activity of God the Creator. Centuries before Nicea, a major Christian leader was affirming the divinity of Jesus not by the mere use of a title, but by a description of activity.

A second class of texts in Paul involves substitution texts like Philippians 2:9–11 (RSV). Without embarrassment, Paul applied to Jesus language that the prophet Isaiah applied to God in the Hebrew Bible. This text reads, "God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." In this passage, Jesus is the object of worship as every knee bows before Him, even as He bears the title of Lord. The language comes from Isaiah 45:23 where the prophet cited God as speaking ("By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: `To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear"' [RSV] ). Jesus is placed in the same position as God. Jesus receives homage as God does. These are not the only texts where this occurs in Paul. And it occurs in other writings from other authors of what became the New Testament (for example, Ps. 102:25–27 in Heb. 1:1—13). Jesus is not a mere prophet in these texts. He shares equal glory and honor with God.

Darell L. Bock, 'Breaking the Da Vinci Code', p.49

2. The first-Century Evidence from the Rest of the New Testament

Paul was not alone. The gospel of John, probably written in the nineties of the first century, contains an unambiguous statement of Jesus' divinity in its first chapter (RSV):

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and all that God was, the Word was [NET; alternatively, and the Word was God, RSV]. (v. 1)

He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him. (vv. 2—3)

And the Word became flesh. (v. 14)

John made it clear in this opening to his gospel that the Word became flesh is Jesus, the actual and full incarnation of deity. Once again, participation in the Creation pointed to deity, just as Paul argued.

Some suggest that what Paul and John affirmed about Jesus stands in contrast to the other three gospels. This would be misleading. Mark, Matthew, and Luke were written, probably in this order, sometime between the sixties and eighties. These dates are debated among scholars, and I use the least conservative range. These are also first-century documents, and they tell the story of Jesus in a more restrained manner than is found in John, by which I mean they are less overt in attributing deity to Jesus. They tell Jesus' story "from the earth up." I document this point in my study of Jesus called Jesus According to Scripture, where I examine every passage on Jesus in Matthew through John. In other words, the first three gospels tell the story like a narrative or even a mystery working up to their final confession of who Jesus is. But make no mistake, all three ultimately declare Jesus to be God.

In these gospels, when Jesus is taken to be crucified, He is put to death for being blasphemous. Jesus claimed that God would indicate that Jesus was Son of man, One who was seated at the right hand of God and rode the clouds (something only deity does in the Bible). This is the same divine honor and glory shared with God that Paul and John referred to in their writings. All of these writings agree that Jesus is divine.

In the background of this Son of man statement were two ideas, both of which suggested a unique status for Jesus. One was the imagery of the Son of man, a human figure in Daniel 7:9–13 who will be given divine authority to judge at the end and will be brought into God's presence. The other was that this figure will sit with God in heaven, not just visit God in heaven. These ideas pointed to a unique vindication of Jesus.

The Jews who heard this utterance believed that Jesus blasphemed, which meant He insulted the unique dignity of God by His claim. To understand the Jewish background of the scene is to appreciate the exalted self-claim that Jesus was making.

The details of this view of Jesus and its background are treated in a full study of two hundred pages I wrote years ago while doing research at the University of Tubingen in Germany. In Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism and the Final Examination of Jesus I consider the Jewish view of who gets to sit with God in heaven and under what circumstances. At the examination before the Jewish leaders Jesus' claims were either a unique and legitimate exaltation or remarks that offended the unique glory of God.

The Gospels recorded the event to make clear their view. In light of Jesus' subsequent resurrection, Jesus is a divine figure worthy to sit in God's presence because He is capable of sharing God's unique glory. We shall come back to this later. For now, understand that these Gospels and Paul's writings, first-century documents, portrayed Jesus as a fully human figure and as One who uniquely bears the full marks and honor of deity. These beliefs were widespread in Christianity almost three full centuries before Nicea.

I am not alone in holding this view and in arguing for it in detail. Larry Hurtado, professor of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, has produced a recent study that traces the history of this understanding of Jesus through the early centuries, even beyond the period of the earliest texts. It reinforces what is argued here. His book, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (2003), raises questions about aspects of this "new" reading of the history that argues Jesus was not believed to be divine until the fourth century.

Darell L. Bock, 'Breaking the Da Vinci Code', pp. 50-51

I hope these texts are useful.
Please note, if you wish to copy the quotations from above or are interested in the text I exhort you to purchase the book if it is a financial reality. Professor Bock has put work into his books and he is one of the great scholars out there who brings scholarship to the lay person responsibly and honestly.

With this in mind, I plan to do a little Professor Bock promo and adverstise some of his book and their uses.

Some of his notable texts:

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