The divinity of Christ divided Christians from the earliest days. The fallout lasted over 500 years. Christians wondered if Jesus was God or merely similar to God? Was he both God and Man?
It seems trivial to us, but to them it was paramount. If Jesus was God, he did not suffer on the cross and his sacrifice to redeem our sins meant nothing. To suffer he had to be a man. Eventually they decided he had two separate natures; making him both God and man. Unfortunately this solution caused more problems than it solved.
An early gospel ascribed to St Peter only survived in quotes until a fragment about the crucifixion and resurrection was dug up in Egypt in the last century. It may be the earliest written account of the crucifixion: the one all others are based on.
In it Jesus feels no pain and does not die on the cross because he is God. His mortal body is only an illusion. Other gnostic gospels say much the same. Some even claim someone was substituted for Jesus on the cross. Although it might seem like heresy, such traditions are very early.
The idea Jesus did not suffer on the cross is echoed in the gospels of John and Luke. Some scholars refer to his ‘passionless passion’, and claim the passage in Luke where Jesus sweated tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, was put in by a later scribe to make him seem more human.
To discover how these beliefs originated, we need to look at the first century after the crucifixion, when a theological framework was being put in place around the recollected words, deeds, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The gospels call Jesus ‘the Son of God’. The term was understood in two very different ways by the Jews and the gentile Christians. It is not the only example in the gospels of how things got confused as Christianity took root in a pagan Roman world ignorant of Jewish tradition.
The Jews believed just or pious men, and the Kings of Israel, were ‘Sons of God’. In the gospels, Jesus is referred to the King of the Jews. The radical theologian Barbara Theiring believes he was exactly that: the legitimate heir to the Jewish throne. Unfortunately, going into details of her claims would only bog us down.
The pagans believed Zeus physically sired sons on mortal women. They were the Greek heroes, Heracles, Perseus, the twins Castor and Pollux, and Dionysus, the god of wine. It was nothing for them to believe God had physical sons, but it was blasphemy to the Jews.
In the gospels, Jesus’ Virgin Birth is described almost word for word from a prophecy by Isiah. The word Isiah uses for virgin only means ‘unwed woman’. This led critics like Celsus (in 177AD) to claim Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier named Pantera, which infuriated early Christians. The doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity also comes from the gnostic gospels; despite the official gospels mentioning Jesus’ four brothers and two of his sisters.
Neither was Jesus’ father, Joseph, a carpenter. A. N. Wilson’s biography of Jesus says the word meant scholar as well as craftsman. It makes more sense for Jesus ‘the carpenter’ to have originally been ‘the Scholar’, especially as he is called Rabbi (teacher).
The Jewish historian Joesphus writing shortly after Jesus does not mention Nazareth in his list of Galilean towns. It is first mentioned in 200AD. Neither does he mention the Slaughter of the Innocents by King Herod.
The term translated as ‘Nazarene’ might be confused with the Jewish word Nazarite which was someone consecrated to God from birth, such as John the Baptist. No one but Jesus is called ‘Nazarene’ in the gospels. Early Christians said Jesus’ brother James the Just was a Nazarite, and some modern scholars claim St Paul took Nazarite vows.
Epiphanius (360AD) said the Nazareans were a group existing before Christ, who did not know Christ. They were one of many Jewish groups believing God would send a King (Messiah) to free Israel from Roman occupation.
Given these were all misunderstandings as the faith moved into the Roman world, how did people view Jesus as God, or at least the Son of God?
The Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit grew up during the first centuries as Christian theologians tried to incorporate Greek Philosophy and terms used by the Apostles from the Old Testament into the increasingly complex framework they were constructing around the life of Jesus.
Two terms from the Gospels, the Word and the Holy Spirit, have a long history in Jewish thought. They are in Psalms of David.
‘By the word (logos) of the Lord the heavens were made and by the breath (pneuma) of his mouth’
The ‘Word’ was ‘God’s Reason’; existing from the beginning of time. It came down to earth to occupy the body of Jesus the Man. As stated in John’s Gospel…
In the beginning was the Word
And the Word was with God
And the Word was God…
And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
In Greek the Holy Spirit is Hagia Pneuma. Hagia, or Holy, means Perfect. If someone was holy they were filled with perfection (God). Pneuma means breath. The Holy Spirit is literally God’s prefect breath.
Ancient peoples believed the breath held the soul. The Greek and Roman world, which pretty well tolerated anything, was horrified by the idea of oral sex. It profaned the mouth, from where Words, the outpouring of Reason, came. Words and Reason separated us from the animals and make us like gods.
The Jews believed God made Adam a Golem, a soulless, dead clay thing. Adam only got a soul when God breathed life into him. This is what the phrase ‘God made man in his image’ means. When Jesus was filled with the spirit (breath) of God, he became a Prophet (someone who speaks the words of God), because his words were carried on the breath God gave him.
There are three theories found in the Gospels about how Jesus became divine.
Probably the earliest has the Holy Spirit filling Jesus when God brings him back from the dead after the crucifixion by breathing life into him.
In John’s Gospel Mary Magdelene is weeping by Christ’ empty tomb in the Garden. When Jesus asks why she is weeping, Mary does not recognise him. She thinks he is ‘the gardener’. All Jews understood Adam was the gardener of the Garden of Eden. Jesus is the ‘new Adam.’
The other popular theory has Jesus made divine during his baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, when the Holy Spirit descends in the shape of a dove.
In the last scenario, the ‘Holy Spirit’ took root in his mother’s womb. When this became church dogma it made Jesus the Son of God in the same way Greek heroes were the sons of Zeus.
Zeus took different shapes to father his children. He impregnated Leda in the shape of a swan, and Perseus’ mum Danaë as a shower of gold. God did nothing so clumsy.
God breathed the ‘Word’ to the Angel Gabriel, who carried the ‘Word of God’ to the Virgin Mary and whispered in her ear. The church declared the Virgin Mary was impregnated through her ear. Although probably a lot older, St Ephram first wrote down the idea in around 350AD: ‘through her ear the Word entered and dwelt secretly in her womb.’
So with it being Christmas and all, and you probably having one or two more white wines than are good for you at the old office party, I would suggest you be extremely cautious when a tall handsome stranger wants to whisper in your ear… even if he doesn’t have a pair of thumping great wings sicking out of the back of his figure-hugging tee-shirt.