Good day. I like your writings but I have a question.
Many of the atheists I speak with claim that Jesus’s divinity is a late belief. This they often point out would suggest that the belief in his divinity is no more than myth and legend. How should we respond?
Bjorn, I am grateful for your question since this remains a very common challenge. It is worth noting that many critics view at least some of our gospel/New Testament materials as unhistorical, in other words the author probably made events/words up. However, even if we take the bait, that such unhistorical details do exist within our New Testament (NT), we can still work out how early Jesus was being worshiped as divine. Any reference we make to Jesus’ resurrection, miracle working, and radical self-proclamations in our earliest sources shall be classified as “divine.”
The Gospels Are Early.
The time that our gospels, and much of our NT, were penned the time-gap between the events described and when they allegedly took place is quite short. One can see this when he compares them to other sources of ancient history. Scholarly consensus puts our earliest gospel Mark at 65 – 70 AD, Matthew & Luke around 80 – 85 AD and John at 90 – 95 AD (1). Our earliest NT writing is that of 1 Thessalonians, an undisputed Pauline epistle, at 52 AD (2). For our purposes bear in mind that consensus puts Jesus’ death at 30 AD.
To sketch a comparison let’s consider Alexander the Great. Our earliest report that we have for him comes from Arrian and Plutarch some 400 years after Alexander’s death (in 323 BC) (3). Even granted that Arrian and Plutarch received their information from earlier sources they still remain late if we compare them to what we have for Jesus. For the Buddha our earliest biography (the Buddhacarita) we have for him is some 500 years removed from his life. For Confucius our earliest data comes from Mencius who penned his account over a century after Confucius lived. When it comes to the historical Jesus our earliest source (excluding our pre-NT hypothetical sources) is Paul’s epistle that comes in only 20 years post Jesus’ death. Our latest gospel, John, comes in 60 years afterwards. We are dealing with sources that are giving us valuable 1st century witness to Jesus. According to Professor Craig Keener “Gospel materials written within four decades of Jesus’ execution therefore provide a remarkably special opportunity for early insight into Jesus’ ministry. (4)”
Scholar Mike Bird also agrees since “Paul’s letters are written about 20-30 years after Jesus’ death, and the Gospels about 50-70 years after his death. Our oldest piece of papyrus with a fragment of John 18 is P25 and is dated to about 125-150 CE. Authors like Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, and Tacitus from the late first and early second century wrote about Jesus too. That sounds pretty early to me, at least in comparison to other historical figures.” (5)
A. N. Sherwin-White, a scholar of ancient Roman and Greek history at Oxford, has studied the rate at which legend accumulated in the ancient world with reference to the writings of Herodotus as a test case. He argues that even a span of two generations is not sufficient for legend to wipe out a solid core of historical facts. Philosopher J.P. Moreland affirms that “The picture of Jesus in the New Testament was established well within that length of time” (6).
One generation is around 30 years (13), so two generations is roughly 60 years. If that is what our criterion would be for judging the accumulation of myth in ancient sources then our entire NT with the exception of John & Revelation, falls within that time frame. Our other gospels fall well within that time frame. Remember, White argued that two generations was not enough time for myth to accumulate and impugn the historical data. If so, then it is probably the case that our entire NT is immune. However, this considered I am not at all arguing that because our gospels & Pauline epistles are early, therefore, they are telling the truth. That is a different question and one we would need settle on other grounds.
The strongest piece of evidence that would dispute the challenge that Jesus’ divinity was merely a later myth would be in the form of our creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. This creed is perhaps one of the most valuable pieces of data that we have on the historical Jesus especially since it has been widely dated to within two to five years of Jesus’ death. As atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann explains, “the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years…the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in 1 Cor. 15:3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 C.E” (7).
This piece of data is most significant because it evidences Jesus’ resurrection appearances to Paul, James, Cephas (Peter) and 500 others. Scholar Christ Price notes that “In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul passes on to the church in Corinth an early Christian creed that he, himself, picked up while visiting Peter (the leader of the disciples) and James (Jesus’ brother) in Jerusalem (Galatians 1). We know Paul did not produce this creed based on his use of the traditional rabbinic formula for passing on received tradition (‘what I received I passed on to you’), the syntax found therein (non-Pauline phrases), and the formulaic manner of the writing. Historians across the board believe this creed to be genuine and date it to within 2 to 5 years of Jesus’ crucifixion. To have a historical source so close to the events it reports is a piece of data that historians are prone to drool over” (8).
With this creed we are dealing with a very primitive and early piece of evidence supporting an early view on Jesus’ deity.
Inheritance of the Pauline Creed.
Since Paul inherited this creed it must date to even early than when he received it, and possibly earlier than just two or three year after Jesus’ death. Now, we don’t know how Paul inherited it, or who gave it to him, but what we do know is that it must have gone back extremely early. Scholar Brown informs us that “What is significant in this formula is that for the first time a reference is made to the appearances of the risen Jesus” (2).
Q is a source that the majority of scholars posit must have once at some point existed. How do they know that? There exists a word-for-word (near) exactness of many narratives that the authors of Luke and Matthew include. Since Matthew and Luke did not consult each other, then how do they write the exact same words and events of Jesus near verbatim? They must have had a common source that they both consulted which predated both of their gospels. Scholar James Dunn argues that Q predates our entire NT and dates it to somewhere within the 40s or 50s AD, and that it possibly started forming in the 30s (9). That is maybe just 10 or so years after Jesus was killed making it very early, especially as a witness to his divinity. Some Christians do not believe in Q and argue instead that the Holy Spirit inspired the authors to write the exact same message. Although no one could deem that impossible, I am certain that no skeptic will be happy with that explanation. Nevertheless, I hold to the existence of Q source myself and what is important is what we find in Q.
What we do find is some very early attestation to Jesus as a miracle worker and demon exorcist (Matthew 8:5-13/Luke 7:1-10; Matthew 11:2-6/Luke 7:18-23; Matthew 9:32-34/Luke 11:14-23; Matthew 12:43-45/Luke 11:24-26, also see Jesus’ early miracles in Q document.) which negates any accusation that Jesus’ miracles are late legends. It is also clear that Jesus claimed to be on a God ordained mission (Matthew 11:27, Luke 10:22), which obviously suggests that he had a high view when it came to his relationship with God the Fater.
Paul’s hymn in Philippians 2:5-11.
This Pauline hymn is incredibly dense with claims to Jesus’ divinity. Now, Philippians is dated to around 60-61 AD which means that it was still within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses and other newly converted early Christians who would have known Jesus. The hymn contains a very high Christology worshiping Jesus as the divine saviour sent by God. Now, this is in the form of a hymn certainly suggests that Jesus’ divinity was common knowledge. After all the early congregations were singing such hymns and Paul obviously expects his audience to recognize it. Other NT texts show that hymns were commonly sung in the early churches (1 Cor. 14:26, Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16, Rev. 5:9, 14:3, 15:3). According to scholar Johnson this early hymn shows an interest in the memory of Jesus as our later gospels describe him (11). The hymn is also dated prior to the epistle of Philippians as exegete Tim McGrew explains that “an analysis of the language and structure of Phil 2:6-11 suggests that it is a pre-Pauline creed” (12). So, we get back even earlier than 30 years after Jesus’ death with this piece of information.
Earliest Christian Preaching.
Another piece of early evidence is the early Christian preaching recorded in the book of Acts. Acts was written by Luke’s author around 65 – 75 AD. However, the resurrection of Jesus is the central message proclaimed by the early church in Acts 1:21-22; 2:22, 24, 32; 10:39-41, 43a; 13:30-31, 34a, 37; 17:2-3, 30-31; 24:21; 26:22-23. This preaching took place sooner than a single year after Jesus had been crucified. Moreover, Acts 2 informs us that Peter and Paul were preaching on the day of Pentecost (15). Now, Pentecost is the feast that starts 7 weeks after Passover ends, and Passover is when Jesus was crucified. Again, the resurrection and deity of Jesus is being attested to by our earliest Christian preachers.
We have seen several persuasive reasons that strongly oppose the challenge that Jesus’ divinity was a later mythological belief. We have also seen that Sherwin White argues that two generations is too shorter period for myth to impugn the historical core of the texts. If that is true, then that it good for our NT since most of it fall within two generations. Secondly, we saw that some of our earliest evidence in the form of a creed clearly suggests that Jesus’ divinity & resurrection was acknowledged at the earliest of times (less than three years). We also saw that early congregations were singing hymns with a high Christology as in the case of Philippians 2. Further, hypothetical Q evidences Jesus’ radical self-concept as being sent by God and knowing God intimately. Q source also evidences Jesus’ miracles thus affirming that they were known at the earliest of times post crucifixion. Lastly, we had a glimpse at early Christian preaching in the book of Acts that can be dated to less than a year after Jesus’ death. This preaching had Jesus’ resurrection as the central message.
All these lines of evidence considered we have a persuasive case suggesting that Jesus’ divinity was known, and that he was worshiped, at the earliest times.
1. Collated by Robert Stegmann. New Testament Foundations. p. 31.
2.Brown, R. 1997. An Introduction to the New Testament. p. 456 – 466.
3. Shaw, B. 2010. Jesus’ Resurrection: A Historical Investigation. p. 9.
4. Keener, C. 2010. Will the Real Historical Jesus Please Stand Up? The Gospels as Sources for Historical Information about Jesus. Available.
5. Bird, M. 2014. Yes, Jesus Existed. Available.
6. Moreland, J. Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity.
7. Ludemann, G. 1994. The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. p. 38.
8. Price, C. 2015. Resurrection: Making Sense of Historical Data. Available.
9. Dunn, J. 2003. Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making Volume. p. 159.
10. Carson, D. 2013. New Testament Commentary Survey. p. 2062.
11. Johnson, T. 1999. The writings of the New Testament : An interpretation. p. 134.
12. 1973. The Virginal conception and bodily resurrection of Jesus. p. 84.
13. Personal Correspondence with Tim McGrew.
14. Personal Correspondence with Tim McGrew.
15. Personal Correspondence with Tim McGrew.