Did later Christians change what Jesus’ earliest followers believed about him?

Did later Christians change what Jesus’ earliest followers believed about him? March 8, 2016


Why do an overwhelming number of Christians believe (or say they believe) things about Jesus that were not believed by his earliest followers in Jerusalem, led by his brother James?


This important question results from the previous Q and A item, which summarized central teaching about Jesus Christ that has united most Christians since it was finalized by 5th Century ecumenical councils. It holds that the one true God exists in a Trinity of three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that Jesus the Son has two natures, fully human yet fully divine. Myriad worshippers over centuries have professed each week that Jesus Christ is of one “being” or “substance” with God the Father.

However, in modern times the traditional teaching has been challenged in differing ways by secular thinkers, Protestant liberals, Unitarians, Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”), Jehovah’s Witnesses, certain Pentecostalists, and of course by religions totally outside the Christian orbit like Judaism and Islam.

The Religion Guy confesses he has not read the hefty books that discuss this and relies upon secondary materials from the experts. This answer bypasses numerous technicalities; if interested, you can research why early church councils rejected the teaching of the Apollinarians, Arians, Docetists, Ebionites, Eutychians, Gnostics, Sabellians, and the rest. Note that the question raises only the divinity of Jesus the Son, not of the Holy Spirit, and only what the earliest Christians believed, not how Jesus thought of himself.

About James. He was one of Jesus’ four brothers (Mark 6:3) and a skeptic turned believer who, yes, led the original church in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin accused James of violating Jewish law and he was executed in A.D. 62. He’s traditionally seen as the writer of the New Testament’s letter of James, though other options have been proposed.

With that ground cleared, on to Norman’s theme. Obviously the councils used terms like “Trinity” not found as such in the New Testament as they sought to put into words a concept beyond comprehension — Jesus as both human and divine. So, did the councils change original Christianity? Or were they faithful to what 1st Century Christians believed and only defined the full implications?

Norman echoes the liberal outlook proclaimed especially by Germany’s Wilhelm Bousset (1865-1920) in his influential 1913 tome “Kyrios Christos,” a high point of his religionsgeschichtliche schule (“history of religions school”). In essence, Bousset contended that Palestinian Jews would have believed so strictly in the one God that they couldn’t have viewed the human Jesus as divine. Therefore, such belief must have infiltrated from pagan Greek culture. A good academic rundown: www.religion.emory.edu/faculty/robbins/Pdfs/BoussetOutline.pdf

More recently, a group of scholars led by Larry W. Hurtado of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, is challenging Bousset. Hurtado’s quarter-century of research culminated in his tour de force “Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity” (2003). He boils down major points for non-academic readers in “How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus” (2005) and in this 2010 paper: https://larryhurtado.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/early-devotion-to-jesus2.pdf

Bousset admitted the evident fact that Jesus became the object of intense devotion remarkably early and rapidly. Hurtado considers it possible this occurred among devout Jews even before the apostle Paul’s dramatic conversion in A.D. 36 some three years after Jesus was crucified (dates per Jack Finegan, Pacific School of Religion). Hurtado’s special contribution assesses non-biblical materials and what’s known about the original Christians’ “unprecedented devotional practices” that signified he was worthy of the worship due God alone.

But inevitably the best 1st Century sources are in the New Testament, Paul’s letters from A.D. 51 onward, followed by the other letters and the four Gospels. There was “no small dissension” between Paul and Jewish Christians (Acts 15:2) but it involved demands that new Gentile converts fully observe Torah laws. A council in A.D. 49 resolved this in Paul’s favor with support from James. Hurtado says that “nothing in Paul’s letters signals any difference between him and the Jerusalem congregation over Jesus devotion.”

This debate over Jesus’ status centers on dozens of New Testament passages. Some examples (quoting from the Revised Standard Version):

Jesus is repeatedly addressed as “Lord,” which is sometimes generic but more often expresses the Old Testament’s reverence toward God as in the letter of James. Jesus is seen as “in the form” or “nature” of God (Philippians 2:6) and as “the image of the invisible God” in whom “are hid all the treasures of wisdom” (Colossians 1:15, 2:3). We’re told “he reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power” (Hebrews 1:3).

Exercising divine prerogatives, Jesus claims the right and power to forgive sins (e.g. Mark 2:5-7) and is depicted as the final judge of all humanity (2 Corinthians 5:10, Acts 17:31). Jesus blesses Peter’s profession that he is “the son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus accepts worship of his person (e.g. Luke 5:8, Matthew 14:33) and is the object of worship elsewhere (1 Corinthians 1:2, Revelation 19:10).

Late in the 1st Century the famous prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18) declares that Jesus was “in the beginning with God,” that “all things were made through him,” that he bears “glory as of the only Son from the Father” and so forth. In this book Jesus states that “I and the Father are one” (10:30) and often uses the “I am” formulation by which God revealed himself to Moses. And after the resurrection Jesus affirms Thomas’s profession of faith, “My Lord and my God!” (20:28).

Stepping back, the broad scholarly debate about the New Testament amounts to conservatives who consider the accounts about Jesus to be historically reliable, opposed by liberals who say the scriptures reflect the faith of the early Christian community more than the actual events. Either way, and however we understand later councils’ wordings, remarkably intense and high devotion toward Jesus as a divine figure existed as far back as we can trace the available evidence. And it’s interesting that later heretics were  likely to doubt Jesus’ full humanity as much as his full divinity.


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