The Divinity of Jesus: Original or Evolution?
© Dirk Anderson, May 10, 2020
Skeptics like Bart Ehrman have proposed that belief in the divinity of Christ evolved over time just as many legends do. This is called the legend theory. Over time, the legend of Jesus grew until he was finally viewed as a god. According to the legend theory, Christians started out with a “low Christology” which means they thought of Jesus as a man with some unique powers. Gradually, over time, the legend of Jesus evolved into a higher Christology, where Jesus was thought of as a god. Ehrman claims the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), which were written within a few decades of Christ’s death, offer a low Christology. He claims that in those books, Jesus made no “explicit divine claims about himself,” and they “portray Jesus as a human but not as God.” In contrast, Ehrman insists the Gospel of John, which was written about thirty years later than the synoptics, advocates a high Christology. In John, Jesus makes “divine claims” and portrays himself “as God.” In Ehrman’s words, “Mark understands Jesus…as a human who came to be made divine,” while “John understands him…as a divine being who became human.” The biblical record supports the latter part of Ehrman’s statement. John does understand Jesus as a divine being who became human. However, do the other books of the New Testament which were written earlier understand Jesus to be a lower being? Do they conflict with John’s gospel? Did a legend of Jesus evolve over time from man to God? Contrary to the legend theory, the totality of New Testament evidence is weighted heavily against this this view. While John wrote with a style that is more proclamatory of Jesus’ divinity, the Christology of John is not different from the earlier-written New Testament books in any substantive way.
Paul’s testimony on Christology is crucial because his writings are the oldest in the New Testament. Ehrman appears dismissive of Paul’s testimony, writing Paul “didn’t actually know Jesus personally.” However, Paul’s writings should not be ignored. The testimony of Paul greatly weakens Ehrman’s case because Paul’s Christology is essentially as high as John’s Christology. Andrew Loke contradicts Ehrman’s low opinion of Paul’s testimony, noting the “evidence in the Pauline epistles is highly significant, as they reflect the Christological convictions present among the earliest Christians.” Even Ehrman is forced to admit the “preliterary traditions” found in the writings of Paul contain the “oldest Christology” available to us. Therefore, since Paul’s writings are the earliest Christian writings on record, they carry considerable weight in evaluating the legend theory.
There are good reasons to trust Paul’s witness. First, Paul was preaching the same gospel as the other apostles, not “another Jesus…or another gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4). There is no evidence he espoused a different Christology. If he had promulgated divergent views on Christ’s divinity then he would likely have been rejected. Furthermore, Paul associated with many early church leaders. After conversion, Paul spent “days with the disciples” at Damascus, presumably learning the doctrine of Jesus (Acts 9:19). Later, Paul went to Jerusalem and “abode with” Peter “fifteen days” (Galatians 1:18). Surely the subject of Christ’s divinity was discussed during this visit. Even if not, Paul received revelations from Jesus (Galatians 1:12). It is possible Jesus instructed Paul regarding his divinity during these revelations. Therefore, it is probable the writings of Paul on Christology represent an accurate reflection of the teachings of the apostles and early church.
Paul wrote one of the earliest and strongest statements regarding the divinity of Jesus to the Corinthians in 53-57 A.D. This was nearly forty years before John was written, and about 10-15 years before the first Gospel (Mark) was written. Paul wrote, “there is but one God…and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things” (1 Corinthians 8:6). The “one God” is reminiscent of the Shema which every good Jew was familiar with and recited daily. The Shema says, “The LORD (Yahweh) our God, the LORD (Yahweh) is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Paul is affirming there is one God, and he is including Jesus, the “Lord,” in the divine identity. The Loke writes that the “only possible way to understand Paul, given his monotheistic stance, is that he regards Jesus and God the Father to be within the unique being of the one LORD and one God affirmed by the Shema.” To prove that Paul is including Jesus in the identity of God, one need only look at Paul’s subsequent words. Paul demonstrates a high Christology by attributing the creation to Jesus, “by whom are all things.” The Old Testament is clear that God alone is the creator. “In the beginning God created the heaven and earth” (Genesis 1:1). Yahweh said, “I have made the earth, and created man upon it” (Isaiah 45:12). Malachi asked, “Hath not God created us?” (Malachi 2:1). The Old Testament record is absolutely clear on this subject. Yahweh alone created all things. Therefore, for Paul to claim that the Lord Jesus created “all things” is the same as claiming that Jesus is God. For Paul, Jesus shares the identity of God. It is possible Paul was not the originator of this thought, but it may have been a very early oral saying in the Church of God. The noncanonical Gospel of Thomas, although corrupted, contains what some scholars believe to be the earliest sayings of Jesus. In saying 77, Jesus says: “From me did the all come forth.” Both Thomas and Paul point to Jesus as the creator of all. To be the creator is to be God. This evidence points to a very early belief in the divinity of Christ. This severely damages the claim that the divinity of Jesus evolved over time.
God alone is the creator and God alone is worthy of worship. An Pauline statement of Jesus receiving worship is found in Philippians, which was written 54-55 A.D. Paul writes, “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11). Paul is quoting from Isaiah where Yahweh says, “I am God, and there is none else…unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (Isaiah 45:23). Paul is demonstrating that Jesus shares the identity of Yahweh because he receives the worship of “every knee.”
Not only does Jesus receive worship, but Philippians 2:9 says he has a special name. Regarding that name, Richard Bauckham concludes, “this can only refer to the divine name” The author of Hebrews would appear to agree, saying Jesus has a name “more excellent” than the angels (Hebrews 1:4). The Apostles baptized in the “name of Jesus” (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 19:5; 1 Corinthians 6:11). Since the disciples were instructed by Jesus to baptize in the “name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” this could only be possible if Jesus shared the same name as the Father (Matthew 28:19). Further support is found in Ephesians, where Jesus is “far above…every name” (Ephesians 1:21). Only the divine name is “far above” every other name. Thus, early Christians recognized Jesus shared the same name and identity as the Father.
Paul also makes early statements regarding the pre-existence of Christ. Paul writes Jesus existed “in the form of God” prior to taking human form (Philippians 2:6). Paul wrote that during the Exodus the Israelites drank “of that spiritual rock” and “that Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4). He claims the second Adam “is the Lord from heaven,” clearly indicating Christ’s pre-existence (1 Corinthians 15:47). A similar statement is found in Colossians, where Paul calls Christ the “image of the invisible God” who created “all things” and preexisted “before all things” (Colossians 1:15-17). These passages demonstrate a h high Christology and prove Paul understood Jesus was preexistent.
Another evidence of Paul’s high Christology is that he often took Old Testament passages referring to Yahweh and applied them to Jesus. David Capes aptly writes that Paul “posits Christ in roles reserved in Scripture only for God.” Isaiah said Yahweh is a “stone of stumbling” for Israel (Isaiah 8:13-14). Paul said lack of faith in Jesus is a “stumblingstone” (Romans 9:32). Isaiah said of Yahweh, “he that believes on him shall by no means be ashamed.” Paul, quoting from the same verse in the Septuagint, said of Jesus, “whoever believes on him will not be put to shame” (Romans 10:11). Joel said, “whoever calls on the name of the LORD (Yahweh) shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). Paul, encouraged believers to “confess with their mouth the Lord Jesus,” and “whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:9,13). Thus, Paul’s repeated association of Old Testament “Yahweh passages” to Jesus indicates he regarded them as of the same divine substance.
The writings of Paul utterly refute the theory that the divinity of Christ grew over time like a legend. Paul’s writings are the earliest Christian writings and they show irrefutably that Paul regarded Jesus as sharing the divine identity. But what about the synoptic Gospels, which were written much earlier than John? Ehrman argues the “memories of Jesus recorded” in John “differ radically from those found in Mark.” Is the difference really that radical? Or is the difference more of style rather than substance?
One verse used to advocate a low Christology in the synoptics is Mark 10:18, where Jesus responds to a man calling him “good master” by saying, “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.” While this appears problematic, Craig Keener points out that Jesus is not “denying that he himself is good.” The Cambridge Bible suggests the emphasis here is on the word “why,” and Jesus does not deny the “good” but “repels it only in the superficial sense of the questioner, who regarded Him merely as a ‘good Rabbi.’” Loke views Jesus’ statement as a “temporary rhetorical strategy, and…Jesus is in fact making a subtle, implicit claim to solidarity with God and his goodness.” Cleary, this verse can be understood in ways that do not deny that Jesus is God.
Secondly, at his death, Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Was he forsaken because he was not good or not divine? A more likely answer is the humanity of Jesus felt the pain of rejection as he assumed the role of sin-bearer for humanity (1 Peter 2:24). Jesus had “emptied himself” when he took human form, implying he voluntarily laid aside his divine power and could of his “own self do nothing.” Thus, his humanity felt the separation and he cried out with a broken heart. Loke adds, “this can be understood in accordance with Jesus’ role as a human, which does not necessarily imply a denial that he was divine.”
Ehrman argues that in the Gospel of Mark, “Jesus never refers to himself as a divine being, as someone who preexisted.” While the writing style of Mark and the other synoptic authors is not as proclamatory of Jesus’ divinity as John, the synoptics clearly portray Jesus as divine. The evidence below will focus particularly on the Gospel of Mark, which is thought to be the earliest written Gospel (65-73 A.D.). Mark’s high Christology is potently demonstrated in the very third verse of Mark, which heralds John the Baptist as one crying out, “prepare ye the way of the Lord” (Mark 1:3). John’s mission was to prepare the way for the Messiah. Mark is quoting a passage in Isaiah which says, “prepare ye the way of the LORD (Yahweh)” (Isaiah 40:3). In effect, John was preparing the way for Yahweh. This would be a blasphemous association if Jesus was not divine. Thus, at the very beginning of his book, Mark establishes an association in identity between Jesus and Yahweh.
In Mark chapter two, Jesus claimed the “power on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). The Jews were apparently outraged by this claim of divine prerogative. They spoke among themselves saying, “Who is this that forgiveth sins also?” (Luke 7:49). Only the divine can forgive sins. Michael Bird et al., writes, “The offense that Jesus’ words provoke is by his presumption to speak with a divine prerogative.” Thus, for a second time in as many chapters, Mark alludes to the divinity of Christ.
In Mark 2:17 (and elsewhere in the synoptics) Jesus said “I came,” indicating an existence elsewhere prior to his appearance on earth. This hearkens back to the Messianic prophecy wonderfully fulfilled by Jesus: “Lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the LORD (Yahweh)” (Zechariah 2:10). New Testament authors affirmed Yahweh came to dwell on this earth through the person of Jesus: “God was in Christ reconciling the world,” and Jesus was “God with us” (2 Corinthians 5:19, Matthew 1:23). Paul writes similarly: “This is a trustworthy saying…Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Charles Ellicott notes Paul’s “saying” was likely common in the early churches and is “an unmistakable allusion to the pre-existence of Christ.” Thus, the “I came” statements reaffirm early recognition of the pre-existence of Christ.
Also, in Mark chapter two, Jesus proclaims himself, “Lord also of the sabbath,” which in this context refers to his power to decide what is right and wrong to do upon the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). In the Fourth Commandment Yahweh said the seventh day was the “sabbath of the LORD (Yahweh) thy God” (Exodus 20:10). This clearly states that the Sabbath was Yahweh’s. How could anyone else but Yahweh be Lord of the Sabbath? The Geneva Bible notes that Jesus has “the sabbath day in his power, and may rule it as him listeth.” Only God is Lord of the Sabbath. Thus, at the very beginning of his book, in the first two chapters, Mark makes four astonishing claims about the divinity of Jesus. He is “Yahweh” that John was preparing for. He had authority on earth to forgive sins. He was preexistent. He was the Lord of Yahweh’s Sabbath. These combine to astound the reader with a sense of the exalted, divine nature of Christ as portrayed in Mark.
In the synoptics, Jesus has divine authority. The demons obey his word as do the holy angels, who are called “his [Jesus’] angels.” Jesus demonstrated his divinity repeatedly, by resurrecting dead people to life and by performing other mighty miracles. Some of his miracles appear expressly designed to reveal his divinity. For example, Mark reports Jesus walked on water. Job said God alone “treadeth upon the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8). In Matthew 5, Jesus demonstrates authority over the law. For example, the Torah allowed oaths in Yahweh’s name, but Jesus forbid all oaths (Deuteronomy 6:13; Matthew 5:33-37). Only God has the authority to modify his laws.
The synoptics repeatedly associate the identity of Jesus with that of Yahweh in the Old Testament. In Matthew, Jesus divides the good from the evil like a “shepherd” and has a “reward” for everyone (Matthew 16:27; 25:32). In Isaiah, Yahweh is the “shepherd” of his people and has a “reward” for them (Isaiah 40:10-11).
In the synoptics, people continually worship Jesus and he never forbade it. To receive worship would be blasphemy if Jesus was not divine. Bauckham verifies only God “is worthy of worship because he is the sole creator of all things and sole ruler of all things.”
Ehrman contends, “Jesus never makes explicit divine claims about himself” in the synoptics The last three verses of Matthew refute that. First, Jesus claims: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18). A being with “all power” is omnipotent. Only God is omnipotent. Secondly, Jesus said baptisms were to be performed in the name (ὄνομα - singular) of the “Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19). It is apparent Jesus shares the same name as God. Third, Jesus’ last words, “I am with you always,” insinuate omnipresence (Matthew 28:20). Only God is omnipresent. Thus, Jesus’ own words regarding his omnipotence, oneness with the Father, and omnipresence are undeniable, explicit divine claims!
The Gospel of Mark closes with as much exaltation of Jesus as it began with. Jesus quotes Psalm 110 to show David called Christ “Lord” (Mark 12:35-37). The disciples would have realized Jesus was speaking of himself because earlier, Peter acknowledged Jesus was “the Christ” (Mark 8:29). Thus, when Jesus said Christ was “Lord,” the disciples would understand this to mean Jesus was Lord. This is the second time in Mark Jesus refers to himself as “Lord.” The early church picked up this nomenclature, as Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen notes: “The early Christian confession was ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11).” He adds, “this attributes to Jesus the same name that in the Old Testament was applied to God: kyrios, ‘Lord.’”
Ehrman argues that “only in John” does Jesus make “bold and astounding claims about himself as a divine being.” On the contrary, in addition to naming himself Lord of the Sabbath and David’s Lord, Jesus made a bold and astounding claim about himself during his trial. When asked by the chief priest if he was “Christ, the Son of the Blessed,” Jesus did not answer “yes” or “no” (Mark 14:61). Instead, he answered, “I am” (Mark 14:62). In the Greek, this is ἐγώ εἰμι, which is the same wording used in the Septuagint when translating God’s announcement to Moses that his name was “I AM.” If that was not plain enough, Jesus adds the high priest would see Jesus returning “on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). This refers to the “son of man” in Daniel who would come “with the clouds of heaven” and receive an “everlasting dominion” (Daniel 7:13,14). The high priest, evidently shocked at this bold and astounding claim, violently ripped his clothing, an act normally reserved for cases of blasphemy. The high priest declared Jesus guilty of “blasphemy” (Mark 14:64). Jesus’s final statement at his trial was so blatantly blasphemous, that the Sanhedrin moved to unanimously condemn him to the punishment of a blasphemer—death (Mark 14:64; Leviticus 24:16). Thus, Mark closes out the way it began, with powerful affirmations of the divinity of Jesus. The final clincher is when the heathen centurion confesses, “truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).
Other Historical Evidence
The identify of Jesus as one with God is etched into the very history of the early church. Bauckham writes, “the inclusion of Jesus in the unique divine identity was central to the faith of the early church even before any of the New Testament writings were written, since it occurs in all of them.” Even in Revelation, Christ is depicted as receiving worship throughout the book. Alan Segal notes Jesus “is depicted in Revelation…as the glory of YHWH, the visible manifestation of YHWH.” Larry Hurtado writes, “within the first two decades of Christianity, Jewish Christians gathered in Jesus’ name for worship, prayed to him and sang hymns to him, regarded him as exalted.” Alan Spence concurs, noting the letter of Roman governor Pliny declared Christians met and recited a hymn “to Christ, as to a god.” This non-Biblical historical document, written by a governor who was not admirable of Christianity, demonstrates that early Christians held a high view of Jesus’ divinity.
There is a difference in style between John’s Christology and that of earlier writings in the New Testament. However, there is no difference in substance. Style should never be confused with substance. John is more overt; Mark is more subtle. That is style. However, the substance is the same. Both view Jesus as the divine Son of God who shares the identity of Yahweh. The idea that belief in Jesus as a god gradually developed over the first century has been shown to be pure fiction. The evidence shows John’s high Christology is not substantially different from the Christology in the earlier books of the New Testament.
Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament's Christology of Divine Identity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.
Bird, Michael F, Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, and Chris Tilling. How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus' Divine Nature—A Response to Bart Ehrman. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014.
Ehrman, Bart. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperCollins, 2014.
Ehrman, Bart. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible & Why We Don't Know About Them. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009.
Hurtado, Larry. One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism. London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2015.
Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. Christology: A Global Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016.
Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Loke, Andrew Ter Ern. The Origin of Divine Christology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Segal, Alan, Larry W. Hurtado and David B. Capes. Israel's God and Rebecca's Children: Christology and Community in Early Judaism and Christianity. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007.
Spence, Alan. Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2013.
 Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 3.
 Ibid., 3-4.
 John 1:1,14,18; 8:58; 9:38; 10:30; 14:9; 17:24-25; 20:28.
 Ibid., 50.
 Andrew Ter Ern Loke, The Origin of Divine Christology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 24-25. The “genuine letters of Paul” were written 25-30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.
 Ehrman, How Jesus, 201.
 Unless otherwise noted, Bible passages are from the King James Version (Blue Letter Bible).
 James was also there (Galatians 1:19). Later, Peter was at Antioch with Paul (Galatians 2:11).
 Loke, The Origin, 27.
 Bart Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), 317. Ehrman suggests some sayings in Thomas may originate from “hypothetical Q,” a collection of Jesus’ sayings predating the synoptics.
 B. Layton, ed., Nag Hammadi Codex II, 2-7 Vol. 1, trans. Thomas O. Lambdin (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1989), 52-93.
 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 25.
 David B. Capes, Israel's God and Rebecca's Children: Christology and Community in Early Judaism and Christianity (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 153.
 Also 1 Peter 2:8.
 Isaiah 28:16, Brenton Septuagint Translation.
 Bart Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), 317.
 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 162.
 J.J. Stewart Perowne, ed., The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1884), Mark 10:18.
 Loke, 154.
 Philippians 2:7 ESV; John 5:30.
 Loke, 154-155.
 Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible & Why We Don't Know About Them (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009), 79.
 Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, and Chris Tilling, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus' Divine Nature—A Response to Bart Ehrman (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 58.
 Mark 2:17. Also, Matthew 5:17; 9:13; 10:34-35; 20:28; Mark 10:45; Luke 5:32; 12:49,51.
 Charles John Ellicott, ed., Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible Volume VIII (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1897), 182.
 Geneva Bible (1599).
 Matthew 13:41; 16:27; 24:31; Mark 13:27.
 Mark 6:48-49. Also, Matthew 14:25-26.
 Matthew 2:11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 18:26; 28:9,17; Mark 5:6; Luke 24:52.
 Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, 9.
 Ehrman, How Jesus, 5.
 The same early baptismal formula is found in Didache 7:1. Paul writes the early Corinthians were “washed” in Jesus’ name (1 Corinthians 6:11).
 Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Christology: A Global Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 21.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ehrman, Jesus Before, 270.
 Exodus 3:14, LXX. ἐγώ εἰμι is also used in Deuteronomy 14:39, Isaiah 41:4, and John 8:58.
 Keener, IVP Bible Background, 178.
 Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, 19.
 Alan Segal, Larry W. Hurtado and David B. Capes, Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children: Christology and Community in Early Judaism and Christianity (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 234.
 Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2015), 47.
 Alan Spence, Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2013), 15. Per Spence, it was written around 112 A.D.