If there’s anything we typically assume is “fundamental” about Christianity, it’s the belief that Jesus was infinitely more than a mortal man. Many people would define Christianity as the belief that Jesus is a superhuman hero who saved the planet from evil. Although Jesus reportedly described his God as “our father,” according to church orthodoxy, he was actually the only child of God ever to grace this earth.
I suppose it’s evident by now that I’m a disbeliever, in that I assume Jesus was a human being. The deification of Jesus reminds me of the way some Taoist priests claimed that Lao Tzu was a superhuman lord of the cosmos. It was reasonable in a way, because China’s emperors commonly claimed divine status for themselves, and it seemed disrespectful to give Lao Tzu any lesser status. Many Taoists, however, considered this deification unhelpful. As Ge Hong reasoned, “If one says that Lao Tzu was a man who realized the Tao, then people will be encouraged in their efforts to emulate his example. However, if one depicts him as a supernatural and wonderful being of a superhuman kind, then there is nothing to be learned” (Kohn, p. 58).
Naturally, I wonder how a Jew ever got turned into a deity. And I’m greatly encouraged to see how much research by Christian and Jewish scholars has gone into separating the wheat from the chaff on that question. What follows is a brief summary of such research, for those who feel it’s relevant to their lives.
Changing Jesus from a Jewish Prophet to a Gentile-style Deity
We can trace the rising theme of Jesus’ superhuman status through the New Testament, from the earliest writing to the latest. During the 50s, Paul wrote simply that Jesus was “born of a woman of Judaea” (Galatians 4:4). This is the first known reference to Mary, and it mentions nothing of her being a virgin. About twenty years after that, the earliest gospel of Mark gives Jesus’ story with no mention of his birth at all. To these first writers, it didn’t seem to matter. Concerning these accounts, Joseph Campbell says, “It is reasonably certain that in the earliest strictly Jewish stage of the development of this legend, the completely un-Jewish idea of the begetting of a hero by a god can have played no role, and that the episode of the initiatory baptism in the Jordan must have marked the opening of the Messianic career” (Occidental Mythology, p. 350).
Our four canon gospels appeared over the thirty or forty-year period following Israel’s destruction by the Roman army. The book of Mark was probably written during the war, around the year 70. And likely the destruction of Jewish Christian communities across Palestine helped spur the author to make a written record, since the bearers of oral accounts might not survive. The book of Matthew probably came around 80 CE, then Luke in the 90s, and John a bit after that. These were the decades when the Jesus movement was transformed from a mainly Jewish sect within Palestine, to a mainly Greco-Roman or Egyptian sect outside the war ravaged Jewish homeland. Each successive gospel account shows a greater influence of non-Jewish culture. The accounts progressively shift from describing Jesus as a Jewish prophet, toward presenting him as a Gentile-style deity.
The first stories of a virgin birth appear in Matthew and Luke. But even here, with Jesus’ so literally called “Son of God,” both books give him a human patrilineage. Luke traces his forefathers back to Adam, and then lists Adam’s father as “God” (3:38).
In the gospel accounts before John, Jesus was usually addressed as “teacher” or “rabbi.” Peter called him the Messiah, but all Jews believed the Messiah was a holy human being. The disciples said he was God’s son, but the Hebrew Bible said the same thing of Adam, King David, and all the people of Israel, as when Hosea claimed to quote God: “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (11:1). In Exodus, Moses was reportedly instructed to tell the Pharaoh “Israel is my firstborn son” (4:22). And Psalm 82 seemed to expand divine parentage to all humanity: “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most high” (82:6). But after Mark, this Jewish context progressively fades from view. It’s replaced by claims that Jesus’ was infinitely superior to all others, and true divinity belonged to him alone. These claims were offensive and idolatrous to Jews or Jewish Christians, but they were much in demand among Greco-Roman converts. If Romans already addressed Augustus Caesar as “Lord,” “Redeemer,” “Savior of the World,” “Son of God” and “God from God,” then for many Gentile Christians, it seemed impious to call Jesus anything less.
Comparing the earliest gospel of Mark with the latest one of John, Louis Ruprecht finds a remarkable shift in tone and meaning. In Mark, Jesus never says he is the Messiah. Peter calls him that once, but Jesus tells him not to repeat it, and the disciples obey (8:30). A few decades later in the book of John, Jesus is portrayed constantly announcing that he is the Son of God, as if this is his main message to the world. In Mark, Jesus is a painfully human figure. When facing arrest on his last night, “Horror and dismay came over him, and he said to them, ‘My heart is ready to break with grief’” (14:34). He prays in anguish, “take this cup away from me” (14:36). His last words on the cross are a shriek of naked despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). But in John, there is no horror, no grief, no doubt or tragedy. Jesus faces his death boasting of total self-control: “Now my soul is in turmoil, and what am I to say? ‘Father save me from this hour?’ No, for this is the purpose I have come to this hour” (12:27). Rather than praying to be spared suffering, he asks, “The cup that the Father has given me—shall I not drink it?” (18:11). When he dies, he doesn’t cry out in pain or despair; he boldly announces, “It is accomplished!” (19:30).
Augustine found the difference between John and the other gospels obvious: “For the other three evangelists were walking as it were along the ground with their human Lord, and they said little about his divinity. But this one [John], as scorning to walk along the ground, at the outset launched himself, with a lightning flash, not only above the ground but above the encompassing air and heaven” (Interpreting John’s Gospel, 36:1). In John, Jesus doesn’t share in human weakness. He is the incarnation of superhuman perfection. When Jesus is asked, “What should we do to satisfy God?” he doesn’t say, “love God and neighbor” or “follow the Ten Commandments” as he does in earlier gospels. John has him reply, “This is the work that God requires: believe in the one whom God sent” (John 6:28–29). His message seems to be similar to that of the emperor: “fear and worship me, or face my wrath.”
By the time John’s gospel appeared, after 100 CE, a clear majority of Christians were non-Jews, and the new religion shifted to meet their demands and expectations. Already, the heroic teacher had changed to a divine being. For Gentile converts, the tales of Jesus’ amazing powers were proof that he was an omnipotent deity, able to grant them supernatural help. Jewish Christians pointed out that rabbi Jesus expected his students to do the same miracles that he did. When he sent out 72 disciples in pairs, he expected them to heal sick people, not just bring them to be treated by the master. Peter reportedly joined Jesus walking on water, and even matched him in raising people from the dead, because Acts says that Peter raised a female disciple named Tabitha from the grave (Acts 9:36–43). For Jewish Christians, these stories suggested that Jesus wanted colleagues in his work, not just fawning devotees. Like any good teacher, he reportedly said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but every one when he is fully taught will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40; Matthew 10:24–25). And at first, this optimism was typical of Christian preaching. As Paul put it,
“So shall we all at last attain to the unity inherent in our faith … to mature manhood, measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:10, 13)
Only much later would ecclesiastical courts rule that claiming such a goal was a capital offense.
Around the year 100, Ignatius, the Gentile bishop of Antioch, corrected the old Jewish attitude toward Jesus. He said that real Christians accepted Jesus “not as Son of Man, but as Son of God.” Apparently, Ignatius assumed there was a universe of difference between the two. Like most Greco-Romans, he believed that there were two main orders of beings in the universe, namely 1) human and mortal, or 2) divine and immortal. Since Jesus reportedly rose from the dead, he had to be an immortal deity. If he wasn’t an immortal deity, then reverence for him would bring no benefit.
Such arguments may sound obvious or simply orthodox to our ears. But many traditional Jews believed that all souls were eternal, and everyone would be resurrected in the body. As Paul said, “I believe all that is written in the Law and the prophets, and in reliance on God I hold the hope … that there is to be a resurrection of good and wicked alike” (Acts 24:15). Of course Paul’s hearers were also familiar with the story from Ezekiel: “Come, O wind, come from every quarter and breathe into these slain, that they may come to life! I began to prophesy as he had bidden me: breath came into them; they came to life and rose to their feet, a mighty host. He said to me, ‘Man, these bones are the whole people of Israel’” (37:9–11).
So if Jesus died, rose, and ascended into heaven, how in the Jewish sense was that so different from other souls? The Jewish-Christian “Ebionites” believed that Jesus was a human prophet who rose from the dead, which they took as a confirmation of traditional Jewish beliefs. They thought all just and good people would be resurrected, and the greatest prophets would rise first. When Jesus reportedly told Lazarus’ sister “Your brother will rise again,” she replied like many Jews, “I realize that he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day” (John: 23–24). But most Gentile Christians saw the resurrection as a miracle unique in history. This reported miracle showed that he was the hoped-for deity, who had the power to raise both himself and his devotees from the grave. And this was what most Romans, Greeks, or Egyptians wanted from a religion. Most people didn’t want a challenging path of learning to live with compassion and justice. They wanted salvation as an escape from the pain of life, and from mortality itself. Obviously, only an immortal deity could grant this wish.
So if Jesus was just a human prophet, as the Jewish Christians believed, then he couldn’t be a true savoir at all. If Jesus was just a human being, then eternal life would not be his to give. So the popular demand for immortality fit together with faith in Jesus’ divinity, in a bond strong as the desire to live.
If this was what most Gentiles wanted in an avatar, then to them, the Jewish Christian view of Jesus seemed totally uninspiring. These Jews had missed the whole point of who Jesus was and what hope he offered. For Epiphanius of Salamis, the position of Jewish Christians was utterly ridiculous: “How do they define the savior a mere man from the seed of a man?” (The Panarion of Epiphanius, 30.20.5). The church historian Eusebius dismissed Jewish Christians in a chapter called “The Heresy of the Ebionites”: “These were properly called Ebionites by the ancients as those who cherished low and mean opinions of Christ … They regard [Christ] as plain and ordinary, a man esteemed as righteous through growth of character and nothing more, the child of a normal union between a man and Mary” (Ecclesiastical History, Book III, chapter 27).
In twentieth-century America, Jerry Falwell was still refuting such unbelief among modern Christians: “It is important to recognize that Mary was a virgin. If Christ had had a human father and if His mother had been an illicit woman, then He by nature would have inherited the fallen nature of His earthly father and would have needed someone to save Him. He certainly could not have been the Savior of the world” (Finding Inner Peace and Strength, p. 47).
With the rise of that doctrine late in the first century, Jewish rabbis increasingly ruled that Jesus worshippers were apostates from Judaism. It was the first big split in the Jesus movement, and the most basic of all divisions to come.
The Great Nature-of-Christ Debates
Over the next 250 years, belief in the “deity of Christ” rose to become the centerpiece of Gentile Christian orthodoxy. Although several other views of Jesus remained among Gentile believers, a series of pro or con decisions by the bishops’ councils eventually rejected all views of Jesus but one.
After rejecting the Jewish belief that Jesus was a human being, the next heresy to be attacked was “docetism.” This was the seemingly opposite belief that Jesus was God himself, and that he only appeared to take human form in order to play a role on history’s stage. This view of Jesus seemed to make him a supernatural entity without any real relation to humanity. And at this early stage of church history, the traditional Jewish horror of deifying any human being remained somewhat influential. A series of church councils from the 140s on expelled teachers of docetism from their churches. Later, in the 300s, the state church criminalized possession of either Jewish Christian or “docetic” books, and both views were basically purged from the written record, till some of those manuscripts were rediscovered in modern times.
Next, around 260 CE, bishop Paul of Samasota raised a dispute by claiming that Mark’s gospel was basically right—Jesus had started off as a mortal Jew, whose birth and youth were not worth mentioning, till the day God’s spirit filled him at his baptism and he was chosen, or adopted, as God’s son. This view had a plausible basis in scripture. But it seemed to imply that other mortals might also be filled with God’s spirit and adopted in a similar way. A council of bishops discussed this in 268, and the majority voted to denounce the idea as a heresy of “adoptionism.” The council also voted to sack Paul from his job. From now on, a cleric could be fired for suggesting that Jesus had ever been a human being.
Then came the “Arian heresy” of the 300s, in which an Egyptian priest named Arius unfortunately reasoned that if Jesus was God’s son, then God existed before him, and Jesus was basically part of God’s creation. The dispute this generated resembled the Islamic debate as to whether the Quran was created, or if it existed before the universe began. Some church leaders felt that Aruis’s theory was just meaningless speculation, but the argument soon threatened to split the newly state-backed church. Different regional councils of bishops voted to back one side or the other, and pronounced excommunications on those of the opposite opinion. Emperor Constantine decided that only a council of all major churchmen in the empire could settle it, and he summoned the great Council of Nicea in 325.
In these early councils, most of the bishops were Middle Eastern or North African men, often of Greek descent. Their conceptual worlds were mixtures of Near Eastern traditionalism and Platonic philosophy. In their worldview, an assumption prevailed that the heavenly and mundane realms were composed of different substances. As Bishop John Spong put it, they “assumed a dualistic world divided between nature and super-nature, body and soul, humanity and divinity” (Jesus for the Non-Religious, xii). All this made the question of Jesus’ nature start to resemble a chemistry problem. If Jesus was both divine and human, how did those two obviously incompatible natures co-exist in him? Were they mixed in equal portions? Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria insisted there could be no middle term between “God” and “not God.” And somewhere in this argument over what substance Jesus was, the issue of what he taught about life faded into the background.
The arguments in these church councils often resembled winner-take-all theological wrestling matches. The losers in each debate were often expelled from the church, fined, and exiled to foreign lands. Since careers were at stake as well as doctrines, no one seemed willing to back down or admit a mistake. As the debates at Nicea wore on, many bishops hoped to explain that Jesus was a special soul in a normal body. Therefore, he suffered physically, but was too perfect to sin. But what formula for expressing this could satisfy the whole contentious church? To break the logjam, Emperor Constantine himself spoke up with a suggestion. Why not use the term homoousios, or “of one substance”? Why not just say that Jesus and God were of one substance?
The majority of bishops felt suddenly moved to endorse the emperor’s insight. After all, he was now the state church’s paymaster. A correct creed was soon drafted, which read in part, “We believe in one God, Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, Very God from Very God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father . . .”
Concerning this statement, historian Frances Young points out that it mentions nothing about Jesus’ way of living or what he taught (p. 210). It’s just an assertion of his superhuman status. According to this creed, Jesus was never created, and was perfect from before the beginning. When the creed said he was “begotten, not made,” it meant he was not made like any other creature in the universe. In that case, he never had to grow up from childishness to wisdom, though Luke said, “As Jesus grew up he advanced in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). Where Jesus reportedly said, “my Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28), and “I can of my own self do nothing” (John 5:30), the Gentile bishops ruled him an omnipotent Lord of the universe. Though Jesus was said to predict that his followers “will do what I am doing; and . . . will do greater things still . . .” (John 14:12), the new creed implied this was impossible. Yet for most churches of the future, this creed served as the litmus test of belief in Jesus. On this basis, conservative writer Rod Dreher rejected Barack Obama’s claim to be a Christian, saying “As a statement of minimal Christian orthodoxy—that is, what it is necessary to believe to be a Christian, the Nicean Creed is as basic as it comes.” By this standard, Obama’s claim to be inspired by Jesus were not enough. For Dreher, the most important thing was that Obama had failed declare Jesus “begotten not made” (Raschenbush, Nov. 17, 2008).
As in other religions, these claims of infallible perfection for the prophet served to buttress claims to ultimate authority for the prophet’s representatives. So in later Shia Islam, some clerics taught that “the executor of God’s will, the Imam is . . . infallible and sinless, for ‘sin would destroy the validity of the call’” (Aslan, p. 182). Some of the more self-righteous mullahs claimed that the rightly-guided Imams were not created from dust like other people, but from eternal light. It seemed very pious. But as Jewish scholar Barrie Wilson points out, “The price tag of seeing Jesus as divine [and ourselves as not] is that we cannot identify with him, nor he with us, for we do not share the same situation, the same lot in life” (How Jesus Became Christian, 259).
Later, this Gentile demand to deify Jesus involved “correcting” previous church history, including many early manuscripts of the New Testament. Textual analysts like Bart Ehrman find a host of such “corruptions,” which often passed as inerrant scripture until scholars discerned which manuscripts were most original. And most of these changes were made to make Jesus look more like an omnipotent deity. Examining the Codex Alexandrinus, Johann Wettstein found the text of 1 Timothy 3:16 had been changed by a later hand. Where the original writing spoke of Jesus “who was made manifest in the flesh and justified in the Spirit,” later marks in a different ink altered the word for “who” to the abbreviation for “God,” so that Jesus was described as “God made manifest in the flesh” (Misquoting Jesus, pp. 112–113). Ehrman finds that in manuscript 2766, the words of Luke 8:28 were changed from “Jesus Son of the Highest God” to “Jesus, the Highest God.” A third-century text changed 2 Peter 1:2 from “May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and our Lord Jesus Christ.” The modified text omitted the word “and,” to make it read “in the knowledge of God, our Lord Jesus” (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, p. 85).
I always heard that the founding fathers of Christian doctrine followed a golden mean. They held some kind of tension between the extremes of calling Jesus a mere man or worshipping him like a Gentile deity. But if the middle way was to call him both human and God, while insisting that he was absolutely unique in having such a dual nature, then this was the same as saying that he was infinitely more divine than any mortal being.
The doctrine that prevailed as Christian orthodoxy was very close to the earlier rejected “heresy of docetism.” This former heresy is generally accepted as the real Christianity in North America. As Billy Graham put it, “Jesus is God in human flesh” (March 26, 1998). American believers generally see Jesus as a supernatural hero who single-handedly saved the world. And according to Robert Capon, “The true paradigm of the ordinary American view of Jesus, is Superman.”
“Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It’s Superman! Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way” (Borg, 15–16).
Akers, Kieth, The Lost Religion of Jesus, p. 235, citing Epiphanius of Salamis, The Panarion of, 30.20.5.
Aslan, Reza, No god but God, p. 182.
Augustine, “Interpreting John’s Gospel,” 36:1, cited by Wills, Garry, What the Gospels Meant, p. 156.
Borg, Marcus J., Jesus, Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, pp. 15–16.
Campbell, Joseph, Occidental Mythology, p. 350.
Christie-Murray, David, A History of Heresy, pp. 48–49.
Crossan, John Dominic, God & Empire, p. 28,
Crossan, John Dominic, The Birth of Christianity, pp. 336–337.
Ehrman, Bart D., Misquoting Jesus, pp. 96, 112–113.
Ehrman, Bart D., The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, p. 85.
Eliade, Mircea, and Couliano, Ioan P., The Eliade Guide to World Religion, p. 81.
Eusebius, Eccesiastical History, Book III, chapter 27, cited by Ehrman, Bart D., The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, p. 51.
Falwell, Jerry, Finding Inner Peace and Strength, p. 47.
Graham, Billy, cited in the Herald Tribune, p. D14, March 26, 1998.
Kohn, Livia, “Laozi: Ancient Philosopher, Master of Immortality and God.” In Lopez, Donald S., Jr., editor, Religions of China in Practice, p. 58.
Raschenbush, Paul, “Christian Gate-Keepers Declare Obama Not Christian,” Progressive Revival blog, Nov. 17, 2008, beliefnet.com.
Rossner, John, In Search of the Primordial Tradition and the Cosmic Christ, p. 116.
Ruprecht, Louis A. Jr., This Tragic Gospel, pp. 69–70, 94–95, 152.
Spong, John Shelby, Jesus for the Non-Religious, xii.
Warner, Marina, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, p. 3.
Wilson, Barrie, How Jesus Became Christian, pp. 100, 259
Young, Frances, “The gospels and the development of doctrine,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Gospels, 210.
Article Written by Brian Griffith
Brian Griffith is an independent historian who’s interested in culture wars and cultural creativity. So far he’s written four books. The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History examines how environmental degradation has affected society across the center of the Old World from ancient times forward. Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story and Different Visions of Love: Partnership and Dominator Cultures in Christian History reflect on the culture wars that have raged within Christianity from the religion’s beginning down to the present. A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization explores the alternative traditions and religions of Chinese women, which offer the world a powerful vision for partnership, health, and spirituality. He lives in a multicultural marriage in the multicultural hub of Toronto.