- How did the earliest Christians view Jesus? Was he divine, the messiah, a prophet, a mere human - or any combination?
- How is this expressed in our earliest witnesses (generally, the New Testament.)?
Before beginning with my take on the evidence, I will spend some time on the alternate theories.
The Hellenisation Thesis (the Old New School)
In the 19th century New Testament and Christian origins scholarship was flooded by the 'History of Religion' School (or in German Religionsgeschichtliche Schule). This school of thought (propagated by both scholars and layman to the extreme of 'Christ Myth') believed in a sort of Hellenization process that took part in Christianity. That is, the Jesus movement of first century Palestine was thrown into a 'pagan' world and was syncretistically mixed with Graeco-Roman philisophy and religion to birth a 'divine Jesus'.
The thesis, as championed by Wilhelm Bousset in Kyrios Christos (1913), placed two schools of thought in the pre-Pauline period. There was the Palestinian Jesus movement and a Hellenistic Gentile movement. As the famed Rudolph Bultmann states, "the earliest church did not cultically worship Jesus...the Kyrios-cult originated on Hellenistic soil." (Theology of the New Testament). Although this school was abandoned in most forms, the concept of a Hellenistic development has continued - as championed in the more recent works of Burton Mack (A Myth of Innocence (1988) and Maurice Casey (Jewish Prophet to Gentile God (1991)). Casey, specifically, argues that first both Jews and Gentiles, ensrhined in Jewish monotheism, did not permit for Jesus to develop as divine. However, as Christainity became more of a gentile religion, with conversion to Judaism being bypassed, Jesus eventually became to be worshipped.
The New-New School
However, these theories have began to lose support in recent scholarship. Some notable examples would be the work of Martin Hengel (The Son of God (1975); Richard Bauckham (God Crucified (1998); Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament's Christology of Divine Identity) and the mass amount of work by Larry Hurtado on the topic (One God, One Lord; Lord Jesus Christ (2003); How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God (2005).
So, why isn't the old 'new school' convincing anymore? Or, more subtly, why wasn't it ever really convincing?
The first reason - the rapid nature by which Christain devotion to Jesus arose among the various Christain communities cannot be explained by a later progressive syncretism. If we go to our earliest sources, what do we find? We find a high Christology. In Paul's letters we have evidence that Jesus is being thought of and worshipped in a similar way to YHWH-God himself. But we know this did not beging with Paul. In Philippians 2:6-11 (hover cursor to read it)we have a famous Christain hymn which many scholars claimes to be pre-Pauline. Of particular note in this hymn is"he [Jesus Christ] existed in the form of God" (Phil 2:6). Also of note is something of which I have earlier contended. The source of the high Christology in the prologue of John (although in my opinion an exegesis of Genesis 1 in light of the incarnation) echoes the Christology of this hymn as well as Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:6. As Richard Bauckham summarises, "The earliest Christology was already the highest Christology." (God Crucified, p.viii).
Furthermore, the issue with claiming thata Paul was an overtly Hellenised Jew out of touch with the ealy Jesus movement makes very little sense. Firstly, it is multiply attested to the fact that Paul had meetings with the Jerusalem Church, particularly, the Apostle Peter and James the Brother of the Lord. (Gal. 1 and Acts). If there was such a divide over the very nature of the divinity of God, we would surely find some sort of explicit statement or at least an apologetic. Evidently, we do not. Also, even if we do go to the Pauline mission we find that many of Paul's own disciples were Jews of the Second Temple Jewish mileu.
Finally, to claim that the followers of Jesus openly took on pagan beliefs and incorporated Jesus into such is inconsistent with the image we have of the early church. Why would a Church dedicated to pure monotheism; expressly rejecting pagan polytheism (1 Corinthians 8:5-6) turn Jesus into a seperate God other than the true God of Israel?
As Larry Hurtado summarises the pagan-influence thesis:
Both the chronological and the demographic data make it extremely dubious to attribute the level of devotion to Jesus that characterised earliest Christianity to syncrestic influences from the pagan religious context. Devotion to Jesus appeared too early, and originated among circles of the early Jesus movement that were comprised of - or certainly dominated by - Jews, and they seem no more likely than other deviout Jews of the time to appropriate pagan religious influences. (Earliest Devotion to Jesus, p. 42)Therefore, it is evidently clear that the alternate theses are inadequate to explain the evidence regarding the early devotion to Jesus as if he were YHWH-God. One must conclude that, as the earliest devotion was of a somehow divine Jesus, it is more than fair to say that the early 'orthodoxy' was in line with today's orthodoxy - Jesus was exalted, worshipped and more than a man.
A Bibliography of Relevant Books:
- Hengel, Martin (1995), Studies in Early Christology
- Bauckham, Richard, "Monotheism and Christology in the Gospel of John" in The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple
- Hurtado, Larry, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?
- Witherington, Ben, The Many Faces of the Christ