EASTER ESSAY - 2001

Part 3

Author: Robert D. Brinsmead

 

THE DIVINITY OF JESUS

 HISTORICAL FACT OR RELIGIOUS MYTH?

 

In the Christian Creeds of the fourth century, Jesus is said to be "God of very God," the second Person of the Blessed Trinity.  As far as orthodox Christianity is concerned, the babe in the Bethlehem manger was the Creator of the universe.

 

The divinity of Jesus Christ has been the sine quo non of the Christian faith. Any so-called church or sect that falls short of confessing that Jesus is God in the highest sense has not qualified to be called "Christian" or "evangelical." For centuries, the Arian heretics who denied that Jesus was co-eternal with the Father were condemned, persecuted and even put to death at the instigation of the great Church. 

 

In the view of mainline Christian society through most of its history, no one who denied that Jesus was God could be saved or was even fit to live.

 

When the brilliant physician, Michael Servetus, was brought before the judges of Calvin's Geneva, he was asked to confess that Jesus was "the eternal son of God."  Servetus replied that he could only confess that Jesus was "the son of the eternal God." This was not good enough for the Geneva Reformers. Servetus was sentenced by the civil authorities to be burnt at the stake. It must be said in favour of Calvin that he wanted the sentence reduced to execution by the sword. The pious Farel was present at the execution to offer the official prayer for Servetus's soul before he was given up to horribly die in a slow, green fire.

 

The Protestant Reformers, along with the Catholic theologians of the church going right back to the fathers of the ecumenical Creeds of the fourth century, recognized that the entire edifice of the Christian religion stood or fell on the divinity of Jesus.  As the Jesuit historian/theologian, Ian Guthrie, puts it, "Indeed, if one asked how much of all that Christians have held most dear would be left intact if we abandoned the traditional idea that Jesus Christ was God, surely the answer must be very little, since both the divinity of Christ and the divine inspiration of the whole of Scripture are almost the twin foundation stones on which the whole structure of Christianity has been built up and supported over the past 1,500 years or so."  (The Rise and Decline of the Christian Empire, p.344)

 

The doctrine of Jesus' Godhood did not suddenly dawn on the church. Scholars in all branches of the church, whether conservative or liberal, now generally acknowledge that it took about 400 years to fully develop.  As Karen Armstrong puts it, "The doctrine that Jesus had been God in human form was not finalised until the fourth century. The development of Christian belief in the Incarnation was a gradual, complex process." ( A History of God, p. 98) It then took another 400 years before it was fully established throughout Christendom. As Guthrie comments, "the divinity of Christ was not universally accepted until well into the 8th century." (Ibid. p. 340)

 

"The odyssey of Jesus of Nazareth from crucified prophet to divine ruler of the cosmos is an extraordinary event in Western intellectual history," writes Thomas Sheehan, "and, given the current state of Biblical scholarship, one of the best documented."  (The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity)

                                                                                                                                                     

As we proposed in Part 1 of this series of Essays, one of the best ways to evaluate any interpretation about Jesus of Nazareth is to trace how that particular interpretation developed. This is what we now propose to do with the doctrine of Jesus' divinity.

 

Jesus in the Intra-Jewish Movement

 

The original Jesus movement was an intra-Jewish movement. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew. And all of his apostles were Jews. The first church in Jerusalem, presided over by James, the brother of Jesus, was composed entirely of Palestinian Jews.

 

It is clear from the NT book of Acts that these first "Christians" continued to worship with their fellow Jews at the synagogues. They kept the Jewish Sabbath, ate Kosher, and circumcised their children like all practicing Jews. James was highly regarded by the broader Jewish community even though he was the recognized leader of the first church at Jerusalem. And as James reminded Paul on Paul's last visit to Jerusalem about thirty years after Jesus' death, the great body of the Jesus converts in Palestine were "all staunch upholders of the Law" - that is, the sacred customs of the Jews. (See Acts 212-18-22

 

Fundamental to Jewish belief and worship was their strict monotheism. Every act of worship in every synagogue was founded on their sacred shema: "Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is one." (Deuteronomy 6:4) Geza Vermes is absolutely correct when he says that "the identification of a contemporary historical figure with God would have been inconceivable to a first-century AD Palestinian Jew. It could not have been expressed in public, in the presence of men conditioned by centuries of biblical monotheistic religion." (Jesus the Jew, p. 212)

 

When we put the matter into historical context, it becomes impossible to imagine that the Jesus party could have continued to worship in the synagogue with their fellow Jews for the next 50 years if they had been teaching either that Jesus was God or a second divinity.  No concord in synagogue worship would have been possible if the Jesus party was seen to be putting the ancient shema at risk.

 

As a contemporary Catholic author, Michael Morwood, puts it,

 

"It would have been unthinkable for the early Jewish-Christians to identify even the exalted post-resurrection Jesus with God…Christianity did not begin with the belief that Jesus was identified with God in the way later trinitarian thought would come to understand him. In its beginnings the Christian movement did not see itself as separate from Judaism. This is significant for Judaism could not in any way accept the idea of a human person being identified with God…[In the Creeds of the fourth century which speak of Jesus as God] we are a long way removed from the initial Christian thinking about Jesus here. It is a model of thinking about God that Jesus, as a Jew, would never have dreamed of, and most likely, because he was Jewish, would not have given credence to."  (Tomorrow's Catholic, pp. 60 -63)

 

That the first Christians did not proclaim that Jesus was God is not just a conclusion drawn from the historical background. It is also supported by a lot of direct evidence drawn from the NT documents themselves.

 

Peter was the first apostle to proclaim the Christian faith about the resurrection of Jesus. According to the record in the book of Acts, Peter said that Jesus "was a man, commended to you by God by the miracles and portents and signs that God worked through him among you." He accused some of his fellow Jews of being a party to his condemnation and death. In raising him to life again, Peter declared that God not only reversed the human verdict, but "made this man Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah." (Acts 2: 22-36)

 

There are a couple of very crucial points to be noticed from these passages from the book of Acts.  First, to cite the words of Karen Armstrong,  "Peter did not claim that Jesus was God." (Ibid. 107)  Second, Peter expressed the earliest Christian view that Jesus became the Messiah when God raised him from the dead. According to Acts 13:32, this was also Paul's view of things. He preached to the Jews that Jesus was "begotten" or was installed as God's son - that is, he became the Messiah - on the day of his resurrection and exaltation to God's right hand.

 

In the earliest Christian faith and preaching, therefore, Jesus was believed to be a martyred prophet whom God appointed to be the Messiah by resurrecting him from the dead. There is nothing in this early Christian proclamation that suggests either that Jesus was the incognito Creator or that his death was an expiatory sacrifice for the sins of the world. The road from Peter's first preaching about Jesus on the Day of Pentecost to the Creeds of the Church declaring that Jesus was God was a long 400 year journey. It is certainly not legitimate to read the Christianity of the Creeds back into the teaching of the first apostles!

 

Jesus was called the son of God throughout the NT era, but when and how he became son of God was subject to a lot of development. Paul was the first NT writer. His letters were written from twenty to thirty years after Jesus' death. In his greatest letter, to the Roman Christians, Paul said that Jesus was "declared to be the son of God by the resurrection from the dead." ( l:3; See also Acts 13:32) About twenty years later, the gospel of Mark said that he was declared to be the son of God at the moment of his baptism in the Jordan river. About fifteen to twenty years after Mark was written, Matthew and Luke said that Jesus became son of God at the time of his supernatural birth. Then last of all, the gospel of John, written about the end of the century, grounds Jesus sonship in the Word which existed with God before time began. All these steps in the thinking of early Christianity represents a development over a period of about 70 years, but as we will see, even John falls well short of the deified Jesus developed over 400 years and expressed in the Creeds.

 

Jesus in the Synoptics and Acts

 

The so-called Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) never speak in a way that blurs the clear distinction God and Jesus. Christians today are too prone to read these Gospels through the lens of the Fourth Gospel and through the lens of the later Creeds and traditions of the church, but as Vermes rightly argues in Jesus the Jew, any fair reading of these three Gospels on their own terms cannot find any evidence that they teach that Jesus was God. A man of God like Moses or Elisha? Yes!  But a God-man? No!

 

Further than this, there is not even the slightest suggestion in these New Testament Gospels that Jesus pre-existed prior to his supernatural birth. According to Luke's account of things, Jesus became the son of God as a result of his supernatural birth. (Luke 1:34,35). As the well known NT scholar, B.F. Wescott, puts it, "In the Synoptics there is no direct statement of the preeexistence of Christ…They do not anywhere declare his preexistence." (The Gospel of John, lxxxiv,lxxxvii)  Well known Catholic theologian, Raymond Brown, also acknowledges that in Mathew and Luke's virgin birth stories "there is no suggestion of an incarnation whereby a figure who was previously with God takes on human flesh." "…Matthew and Luke show no knowledge of preexistence; seemingly for them the conception was the becoming or begetting of the Son of God." (The Birth of the Messiah, pp. 141, 31,fn.7)

                                                                                                                                                         

 

So also in the book of Acts, there is no hint of a pre-existent Christ except in the foreknowledge and counsel of God.

 

Jesus in Paul

 

On all sides it is acknowledged that Paul and John of the Fourth Gospel teach a higher or at least a more advanced Christology. But do even these New Testament authors teach that Jesus was God? And in what sense do they talk about his pre-existence?

 

Paul was a Jew of the Diaspora, a Hellenist who knew how to communicate the message about Jesus to a world permeated with Greek culture, religion and language. Yet for all this, Paul never departed from his strict Jewish monotheism. To his Corinthian converts he wrote, "There is one God, the Father."  (1 Corinthians 8:6) In his great epistle to the Romans he refers to the person of God more than 150 times, but never in all this does he once blur the distinction between God and his son Jesus Christ. Karen Armstrong is therefore quite correct when she says, ":Paul never called Jesus 'God'. He called him 'the Son of God' in its Jewish sense: he certainly did not believe that Jesus had been the incarnation of God himself…Paul was too Jewish to accept the idea of Christ existing as a second divine being beside YHWH from all eternity." (A History of God, pp. 99,106)

 

Frances Young concurs with Armstrong when she says, "Paul neither calls [Jesus] God, nor identifies him anywhere with God. It is true he does God's work; he is certainly God's supernatural agent who acts because of God's initiative." (The Myth of God Incarnate, p. 21)

 

As a Jew, Paul would have been familiar with the well-known Rabbinic tradition which said that from the beginning, the Messiah had been concealed in heaven before he would appear on this earth. Even his name was known to God before the beginning of time. But when we press this Jewish thought further, we find that the Messiah's pre-existence was notional rather than actual. (See Vermes, Ibid. pp. 129-156) He was said to have existed in the predestined will and foreknowledge of God. In Jewish thought, whatever existed in God's predestined plans and purposes, could be spoken of as already existing in heaven. As Paul said, "God calls things that are not as though they were." (Romans 4:17)  In the same way, perhaps the most Jewish of all NT books, can speak of Jesus being "crucified before the foundation of the world." (Revelation 13:8. For an excellent treatment of this very Jewish meaning of "pre-existence, see Anthony F. Buzzard and Charles F. Hunting, The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound, pp.171- 214)

 

So Karen Armstrong says, "When Paul and John speak about Jesus as though he had some kind of pre-existent life, they were not suggesting that he was a second divine 'person' in the later Trinitarian sense. They were indicating that Jesus had transcended temporal and individual modes of existence. Because the 'power' and 'wisdom' that he re-presented were activities that derived from God, he had in some way expressed 'what was there from the beginning.'." (A History of God, p. 106)

 

We need to remember that the New Testament, no less than the Old Testament, is a very Jewish book. It is steeped in very Jewish expressions and thought forms. The authors of every part, with the possible exception of Luke, are all Jewish. Their ideas about predestination, foreordination and pre-existence are comprehensible enough if read in a proper Jewish and OT context.

 

But a huge problem arose when later Christians from a very non-Jewish background began to interpret these things in a very un-Jewish way. The problem became even greater when the great Church, composed entirely of Gentiles, became rabidly anti-Semetic and hostile to all things Jewish, including even Jewish-Christianity.

 

The Church lost contact with the Jewish thought forms of its own NT. It began to interpret these documents through its own Greco-Latin eyes and its own Greco-Latin thought forms. Christianity lost contact with its Semetic roots in Palestinian soil. It became an alien Greco-Roman religion. It not only became hostile to the Jews in general, but to Jewish Christians in particular. Although Jesus and the apostles were all Jews, although the NT authors were Jews and although the message about Jesus began as an intra-Jewish movement, Jewish Christians were condemned, driven out of the Church and persecuted from the beginning of the second century.

 

All this raises the disturbing question whether Greco-Latin Christianity was the great cuckoo in the nest of the original Jesus movement. The Church lost contact with the Jewish thought forms of its own New Testament, and then proceeded to take many of the sayings of the NT out of their true Jewish context! How could a Church infected with the rabies of anti-Semitism possibly understand a very Jewish book like the NT?

 

Following the lead of scholars such as J.A.T. Robinson and James Dunn, more and more Christian scholars are now beginning to question whether Paul taught an actual pre-existence of Jesus. Even the late F.F. Bruce, regarded by many as the prince of conservative evangelical scholars, made this amazing statement before his death: "On the preexistence question, one can at least accept the preexistence of the eternal word or wisdom of God which (who?) became incarnate in Jesus. But whether any New Testament writer believed in his separate conscious preexistence as a 'second Divine Person' is not so clear…I am not so sure Paul so believed." (From Correspondence cited by Anthony F. Buzzard and Charles F. Hunting in The Doctrine of the Trinity, p.190)

 

We will not here take the time to examine every Pauline statement that is appealed to as "proof" that the apostle taught an actual pre-existence of Jesus. It is not hard to read these passages in another light when Jewish thought about predestination and pre-existence is understood.  After examining all these Pauline texts, even the Trinitarian James Dunn is convinced that outside John's Gospel, there is no doctrine of a literal pre-existence of Jesus in the NT.  (Christology in the Making, p. 24)

 

What settles the matter, however, is the historical context of these contentious Pauline texts. We know that Paul's refusal to impose the keeping of the Jewish Law on Gentile converts brought him into a protracted and bitter dispute with some of the Jerusalem Christians. We now know from second-century Jewish Christian documents, some unearthed at Nag Hammadi in 1945-6, that this passionate controversy about whether the OT Jewish Law should be observed followed Paul long after he was dead.  But whilst these Jewish Christian documents vehemently denounce Paul as an enemy of the Law, not a word is said about his departure from a strict Jewish monotheism. If Paul had been teaching that Jesus was God or a second divine person, his opponents would surely have highlighted this as a blasphemous repudiation of the Jewish shema. 

 

Looking further ahead to the history of the Church in the third and fourth centuries, we see that Christianity was plunged into a long and sometimes violent controversy on the question of Jesus' divinity and pre-existence. The battle raged on for hundreds of years. There was political intrigue, clerical manipulations, shameful power-plays, riots and at times outright bloody mayhem before the doctrine of Christ's absolute divinity was universally imposed on pain of death throughout Christendom.

 

And whilst all this conflict over the divinity of Christ was going on in the great Church, the banished Jewish believers, who were called Nazoreans or Ebionites, never entertained the idea that Jesus was some sort of second divine person. Right down to the fourth century we find the Ebionties clinging to the book of Matthew as the only valid NT document. They claimed for themselves a direct line of descent from the apostles and the original church at Jerusalem.

 

The point we want to emphasise here is that the whole history of Jewish-Christianity, from its beginnings with the apostles in the Jerusalem church to its final disappearance in the desert sands of the Middle East in about the fifth century, is a stark testimony to the fact that this important stream of the Jesus movement never did accept that Jesus was God.

 

Jesus in John

  

When we keep pressing the NT for an unambiguous witness to the pre-existence and divinity of Jesus, the only candidate left standing for consideration is the Gospel of John. But even here we must ask the question, Has this NT book also been misunderstood by reading it through the lens of the Christian Creeds of the fourth century?

 

The Gospel of John is widely recognized to be the most virulent, anti-Jewish book of the NT. It reflects the bitter break between Jewish synagogue and the intra-Jewish church which took place about 85-90 AD. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in 70 AD, the priesthood and temple cult, so central to Jewish life and worship for centuries, was also swept away. In this new post-temple era, Judaism faced a crisis of identity and survival. Would Judaism find its future in a newly emerging Rabbinic Judaism or in the growing Jesus movement within Judaism?. The new Rabbinic Judaism replaced the temple cult by making the Torah - the Jewish Law - the central thing in Jewish identity and in the worship of the synagogue. The Jesus party obviously contended that Jesus had replaced the Torah as the principle revelation of God. That was the essence of the conflict between the rival parties. Rabbinic Judaism got the upper hand and began expelling the Jesus party from the synagogue. The book of John suggests that this break between synagogue and church was very recent and very bitter. Yet for all its anti-Jewish hostility, the theology of the book of John is steeped in very Jewish thought forms.

 

The Fourth Gospel stands in some considerable tension with the three Synoptic Gospels.

 

John has no virgin birth story and seems to assume that Jesus is the biological son of Joseph. On a theological level, John has no need for a virgin birth since he grounds Jesus' special relationship to God in the Word which existed with God before time began. Whereas Mark, Matthew and Luke see the Last Supper in terms of a Jewish Passover meal, John's Last Supper is no Passover meal since the Jewish Passover was on the Friday evening following the crucifixion. The Synoptic Gospels indicate that Jesus' public ministry lasted only about 12 months. In John, Jesus' public ministry lasts at least three years. The Synoptics have Jesus driving the money-changers from the temple precincts only hours before his arrest and crucifixion. John puts this temple incident three years earlier - at the commencement of Jesus' public ministry. Mark and Matthew clearly locate the first resurrection appearance to the disciples in Galilee, which is about 10 days journey from Jerusalem. John has the resurrection appearances taking place in an around Jerusalem on the day of the resurrection. John has Jesus giving the apostles the Holy Spirit on the day of his resurrection, while Luke/Acts has it taking place on the Day of Pentecost 50 days later. Luke/Acts has Jesus ascending to heaven 40 days after his resurrection, while John has the resurrection and the ascension taking place on the same day. Anyone can verify these discrepancies for himself from the NT documents in a few short hours of reading.

 

The above differences between John and the Synoptics ( and the list is by no means complete) are only superficial and inconsequential compared with the more serious issues about the man at the centre of it all. John's portrait of Jesus is so vastly different from the portraits of the man in Mark, Matthew and Luke that it almost seems they could be talking about a different person. For instance, in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is presented as a sage who hardly says anything except in parables and short, witty aphorisms. But John's Jesus does not utter one single parable. In the Synoptics, Jesus refuses to give any sign of his authority. But John says that Jesus frequently gives signs of his authority. But most importantly at all, the Jesus of the Synoptics is a self-effacing man who steadfastly refuses all titles of honour. He does not even want people to call him Rabbi, and certainly not Messiah. He even rebukes a man who addresses him as "Good master," saying, "Why do you call me 'Good'. There is none good but one, and that is God." (Matthew 19:17) He unpretentiously calls himself "the son of man" - the human one, the son of Adam - which Vermes has shown from Jesus' own native Aramaic tongue could never be construed as a title. Yet John has Jesus giving long monologues about himself, and claiming the most breathtaking titles - "I am the Bread of life," "I am the Light of the world," "I am the good Shepherd," and many more.

 

More and more Christian scholars today, both Catholic and Protestant, recognize that the Synoptic Gospels give us a more historical account of Jesus than the Fourth Gospel. John's presentation is a theological reflection rather than an historical account of Jesus. As The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church puts it, "The differences in historical value between St. John's Gospel and the Synoptics have been recognized. The Fourth Gospel is probably not the report of an eye-witness (John, the son of Zebedee) nor is its author to be identified with the writer of Revelation…[these] conclusions are now so widely accepted by those qualified to judge as to be reckoned virtually assured." (p.168)

 

"The weight of modern Biblical scholarship," says Guthrie, "tends to question the traditional idea that Christ ever claimed to be God." ( The Rise and Decline of the Christian Empire, p. 337)   Jesus did not go around telling people that he was God or even think that he was God or even the Messiah. There would be good reason to question the mental health of any man who made such claims about himself. Marcus Borg suggests a simple law that goes like this: "Any one who thinks he is the Messiah is not the Messiah."

 

The book of John is now being seen as a confession of a community's faith. This community of John (whoever he was, we don't really know) had come to see that Jesus' life and teaching revealed God to them like nothing else had ever done. They believed that God's Word, Wisdom, Grace, and Truth had been uniquely enfleshed in this person - just as Paul had said some years before, "God was in Christ." This revelation of God in the Galilean teacher was to them the Light of the world, the Bread of life and all those other wonderful figures of speech used in the book of John.

 

All the things that the Jews had traditionally ascribed to their Torah, - Light, Bread, Water, Shepherd, Word, Truth, even agent though which God made the world - this community now ascribed to God's new revelation in Jesus. They believed that this revelation of God was greater than the revelation of God given in the Torah. No wonder Rabbinic Judaism expelled them from the synagogue!

 

The book of John should not be read as if Jesus actually went around giving long monologues about himself in the language of John's Gospel. The author of this Gospel would probably be quite amazed that anyone would take his theological reflection about Jesus so literally. Lapide, a contemporary Jewish scholar, suggests that John's writing is like a Jewish midrash - a form of literature that creates imaginative speech not altogether unlike poetic licence, parabolic story and drama. But midrash, being a Jewish literary art and mode of teaching, became completely foreign and unintelligible to Greco-Latin Christianity. It preferred to read the book of John off literally as if it was some legal Latin document.

 

With these preliminary remarks, we are now ready to put the question, Does the Fourth Gospel really teach that Jesus was God? Does this Gospel tell us that Jesus eternally pre-existed with the Father? 

 

More and more Christian scholars are coming to the same conclusion of J.A.T. Robinson, who said, "The clear evidence of John is that Jesus refused the claim to be God." (Cited in Buzzard and Hunting's Doctrine of the Trinity, p.173) Even the late F.F. Bruce conceded shortly before his death that it is "not clear" whether any NT writer really taught the pre-existence and Deity of Jesus.  What an amazing concession from a man so widely regarded as the dean of conservative evangelical scholars!

 

If we quit reading the Gospel of John through the lens of the fourth century Creeds, and start reading this creative NT book with some degree of sensitivity to its Jewish thought forms, we will see that the book does not teach what Gentile Christianity read into it for centuries.

 

The Fourth Gospel begins with a lengthy prologue about the Word which existed with God from eternity. John does not say, "In the beginning was Jesus" or "in the beginning was the Son," but "In the beginning was the Word." John does not say that the Word was Jesus, or that the Word was the son of God, but rather that the Word came to tabernacle in Jesus. 

 

The Greek word Logos has a much richer meaning than is conveyed to us by the expression "Word." Logos means not only Word, but Reason, Thought, Will, Purpose, Counsel, Plan, and Wisdom, etc. Although there was a lot of speculation about the divine Logos in contemporary Greek philosophy, John's prologue makes much better sense when it is read against the background of the OT and Jewish thought about the Torah. In this it was said that the Torah existed with God from the beginning. John's prologue, moreover, reflects the OT's personification of Wisdom as a "she" who existed with God from the beginning. (See Proverbs 8)

 

The point of John's prologue is that everything starts in the divine Logos - the Word, Plan, Purpose, Counsel, Reason and Wisdom of God. In the fullness of time, the "glory" and "truth" of this Logos was given a fleshly or human expression in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. John's Gospel does not say that Jesus actually and consciously pre-existed as a son with the Father. What pre-existed in the divine Will-Wisdom-Plan-Thought was given visible and audible expression in human flesh, that is, in the life of a real human being.

 

Yet in a deeper, very Jewish sense, God's chosen Messiah did pre-exist in that he existed in God's thought and purpose from the beginning. As we pointed out earlier in our discussion on Paul's thought about pre-existence, this was a well established Biblical and Jewish way of thinking. For whatever God predestines and foreordains can be said to already exist. In this sense, there never was a time when Jesus was not close to God, loved by God and chosen by God. In this we encounter the mystery of eternal Love which is without beginning as much as it is without end. He whom God loves, that is to say, he whom God predestines and foreknows, has always existed and will never cease to exist as far as God is concerned. So Jesus could be represented as saying, "before Abraham was, I am," or praying that after his death, God would grant him the glory that he had with the Father before the world was. (John 8: 17:3)

                                                                                                                                                           

The astonishing thing in John's theological reflection is that he wants the believing community to understand that they too have pre-existed in the glory of God's life and eternal love. So Jesus is represented as declaring in his prayer to the one whom he called "the only true God (how true to Jewish monotheism!), "The glory which you gave me I have given them, that they may be one, as we are one." (John 17: 22)  This is God's gift of eternal love and life which has no beginning or end. As far as God is concerned, those who are loved by him have always existed and will never cease to exist. But this can be understood only in the framework of a strict Jewish monotheism. It has nothing of the meaning of an Eastern re-incarnation.

 

Summary of Jesus in the NT Era

 

In summary, on the evidence from the NT, we have to say that none of the NT authors blur the fundamental distinction between God and Jesus the man. This point is well put by Geza Vermes:

 

"None of the Synoptic gospels try to do this. Paul, the Jew from Tarsus at home in the Greco-Roman world, shies away from it. Even the theologising author of the Fourth Gospel, writing a couple of generations later, shows understandable diffidence. One well-known contemporary, by no means radical, New Testament scholar is of the opinion that when 'God' is occasionally used apropos of Jesus in some of the epistles of the New Testament, this usage never exceeds the notion of exalted Lord and revelation incarnate.

 

"It was not until Gentiles began to preach the Jewish Gospel to the Hellenised peoples of the Roman Empire that the hesitation disappeared, and the linguistic brake was lifted. Paul, and that true Hellenist, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, are satisfied with phrases such as the 'image of God, and the 'effulgence of God's splendour and the stamp of God's very being'. They would without doubt have recoiled from language such as that used by the Syrian Ignatius of Antioch in the first decade of the second century AD. who found no difficulty in alluding to Jesus as 'our God', and as 'the God who bestowed such wisdom upon you.'

 

Whether Jesus himself would have reacted with stupefaction, anger or grief, can never be known. One thing however is sure. When Christianity later set out to define the meaning of son of God in its Creed, the paraphrase it produced - 'God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, consubstantial with the Father' - drew its inspiration, not from the pure language and teaching of the Galilean Jesus, nor even from Paul the Diaspora Jew, but from the Gentile-Christian interpretation of the Gospel adapted to the mind of the totally alien world of pagan Hellenism. (Jesus the Jew, pp. 212,213)

 

 

 

JESUS IN THE GENTILE ENVIRONMENT

 

The doctrine that Jesus was God in the highest sense could only have developed in the environment of Gentile Christianity. So we will now look at the cultural and religious environment of the Gentile world to see how it provided the soil so favourable to ideas so completely at odds with OT and Jewish monotheism.

 

To start with, the NT designation of Jesus as son of God tended to take on a whole new meaning on the lips and in the thinking of Gentiles.

 

In the OT and in Jewish thinking God had neither wife or son who shared his essence in an ontological sense. There was always one God and God was one. The term son of God was, however, used throughout the OT and in the speech of Judaism in an adoptive or metaphorical sense. A classical example of this is when David was declared to be God's son on the day that he was anointed king of Israel: " 'You are my son', [God] said, "this day I became your father." (Psalm 2:7)  In a pesha interpretation of this Psalm, Paul applied it to how Jesus also became son of God when God raised him from the dead and anointed him the new king of Israel. (See Acts 13:32)

 

On the Jewish meaning of son of God, Vermes says, "Whereas every Jew was called son of God, the title came to be given preferably to the just man, and in a very special sense to the most righteous of all just men, the Messiah son of David." (Jesus the Jew, p. 195)

 

Karen Amstrong too is right on the ball when she says: "The Psalms sometimes called David or the Messiah 'the Son of God' but that was simply a way of expressing his intimacy with Yahweh. Nobody since the return from Babylon had imagined that Yahweh actually had a son, like the abominable deities of the goyim." (A History of God, p. 96)

 

Son of God in the Gentile World

 

When we turn to the Gentile world into which the message of Jesus spread, son of God meant something very different.

 

In the first place, the kings of the ancient world were often worshipped as divinised sons of God.  The Egyptian Pharaoh was said to be the son of Helios, the god of the sun, not in a mere adoptive or metaphorical sense, but in a real ontological sense. This meant that Pharaoh was an incarnation of the god Helios.

 

After the Egyptian empire crumbled and the Pharaoh's disappeared from history, the cult of Helios was kept alive at Alexandria. When Alexander the Great swept into Egypt he was hailed by this cult as the new son of God in the tradition of the ancient Pharaohs. This divine title was embellished with the legend of his virgin birth.

 

Alexander's Greek successors founded the Seleucid dynasty in Syria where they carried on this tradition of divine royalty. Antiochus 1 assumed the title of Antiochus Soter (Saviour). Antiochus 11 became Antiochus Theos(God), Antiouchus 111 called himself Antiochus Magnus(Great). And finally, that great scourge of the Jews, Antiochus 1V, claimed for himself the name of Antiochus Epiphanes (the manifestation of God). So in about 170 BC one of history's greatest butchers of the Jews was said to be the manifestation of God himself. Here was a Greek version of the Incarnation centuries before Christians claimed a similar thing for Jesus Christ.

 

The divine title, son of God, was passed on to the Roman rulers. The legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were reputed to be virgin born 'sons of God.' So were Rome's great Caesars, Julius and Augustus. On the very coins that Jesus and his disciples handled was an image of Caesar under which was the inscription, divi filius (son of God). Letters addressed to the Caesars often bore the introductory salutation, "My Lord and my God…"

 

When Jesus began to be proclaimed as the son of God or anointed king (Messiah) throughout the Greco-Roman world, it would have been difficult, if not almost impossible, not to begin to bend the meaning of this to fit the deeply entrenched Gentile culture. The point should not be missed from Luke's nativity story, written near the end of the first century, that Jesus is not just born during the reign of Rome's greatest Caesar , but Luke skilfully suggests that this babe in the manger is the rival king of another Empire - the Empire of God. The expectation for him to be to be virgin born would have been overwhelming.

                                                                                                                                                      

 

The Dying and Rising Gods

 

Then there is the matter of other sons of God thought to be the progeny of the gods.  The gods of this ancient world often came down to impregnate some chosen woman. The father of the Greek gods, Zeus, for instance, sired about one hundred sons through a variety of women, most of whom were said to be virgins. The most famous of these virgin-born godmen were Archilles, Demeter, Heracles, Apollo, Dionysus, Asclepius.  Legends about them had been influenced by the older legends of Osiris of Egypt, Attis of Syria, Mithra of Persia, and Tammuz of Babylon.  This great pantheon of divine men, most of them virgin born, were also what many scholars call the "dying and rising gods" of ancient mythology. They were always getting killed. Most of them either suffered and died like Heracles, or in some way disappeared for a time, only to reappear again or be raised from death to become some kind of divinity in the world above.

 

These dying and rising divinities of Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Syria and Greece spawned a variety of "mystery religions" that flourished all over the Greek speaking world in the era of St. Paul. Every city had its patron divinity and mystery religion. In the classical mystery religion, the worshipper entered into some kind of mystical union with his chosen divinity - Dionysus, Heracles, Sandon, Mithra etc. -  by eating a sacred meal and by undergoing some kind of baptism. Through this mystical union the worshipper would share in the suffering, death and the exaltation of their hero. (The Greek gods were called heroes, from the Greek word eros, meaning love)

 

When Celcus, the pagan critic of Christianity in the second century, complained that Christians had obviously copied and duplicated these pagan rites, Justin, the greatest Christian apologist of the age, freely acknowledged that some kind of mimicry was going on. One explanation given by Justin was that the Devil got in first and began in mimic and pre-empt the Christian religion before it dawned on the world. At other times, he acknowledged that it was right that the best in pagan revelation should have been borrowed and taken up in the Christian revelation.

 

 

 

Turning Men into Gods

 

There is one more feature of the Gentile world that is very relevant to the development of Jesus' divinity. The age in which these ideas developed was an age of amazing religious credulity. Men who appeared to be unusually gifted, whether as a ruler like Augustus, a healer like Asclepius, or philosopher like Plato, were thought to have been endowed with their gifts by a supernatural birth. Whereas the Jews had been conditioned by centuries of monotheism never to worship any man as God, the Gentiles seemed only too ready to acclaim that some ruler, warrior, healer or athlete was a god. Here are three incidents recorded in the NT's book of Acts that illustrate this Gentile proclivity.

 

1.  "So, on an appointed day, attired in his royal robes and seated on his rostrum, Herod harangued them; and the populace shouted back, 'It is a god speaking, not a man!'" (Acts 12:21)

 

2.  "When the crowds [at Lystra] saw what Paul had done [in healing a lame man] they shouted, in their native Lycaonian, 'The gods have come down to us in human form.' And they called Barnabas Jupiter, and Paul they called Mercury, because he was the spokesman. The priest of Jupiter, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, and he and all the people were about to offer sacrifice [to Barnabas and Paul]." (Acts 14:11-13)

                                                                                                                                                         

3.  "The rough Islanders [at Malta] treated us with uncommon kindness; because it was cold and had started to rain, they lit a bonfire and made us all welcome. Paul had got together an armful of sticks and put them on the fire, when a viper, driven out from the heat, fastened on his hand. The islanders, seeing the snake hanging on to his hand, said to one another, 'The man must be a murderer; he may have escaped from the sea, but divine justice has not let him live.'  Paul, however, shook off the snake into the fire and was none the worse. They still expected that any moment he would swell up or drop down dead, but after waiting a long time without seeing anything extra-ordinary happen to him, they changed their minds and now said, 'He is a god'." (Acts 28: 1-6)

 

(For a more detailed and very fascinating account of this Gentile world of Greek heroes and virgin-born gods, and how these things were influential in the development of Christianity, see Gregory J. Riley's One Jesus, Many Christs)

 

In summary, the foregoing historical evidence indicates that the Gentile soil into which Christianity was transplanted from its original Jewish soil, was wholly favourable and even biased toward the transformation of Jesus from humble Galilean teacher into some kind of divinity. All brakes that held back this development were lifted when all traces of Jewish-Christianity was expelled or purged from a purely Gentile Church.

 

 

The Triumph of Athanasius

 

In the second century, Justin the Apologist and Tertullian the father of Latin Christianity, began to teach an actual conscious pre-existence of Jesus. Yet even then, their Christ was a created divinity along the lines of what later became the Arian model. In the third century we find the Bishop of Antioch, Paul Samosata, putting up some resistance to the popular trend. He said that Jesus was simply a man in whom the Word and Wisdom of God dwelt as in a temple. But the stream was already moving too swiftly toward making Jesus God, so Paul Samosata's theology was condemned by a synod at Antioch in 246 AD. In the fourth century, the final barrier was crossed when a created divinity according to the teaching of Arius, was rejected in favour of the fully divine Christ of Athanasius. The bitter theological war did not end with these two protagonists, however, because the orthodoxy of Athanasius was not universally accepted throughout Christendom until well into the 8th century.

 

The debate on the divinity of Jesus was really won when Athanasius appealed to one central premise that was accepted by all parties. Redemption was defined in terms of undoing the consequences of Adam's Fall.  Athanasius reasoned that only God himself could make an atonement for Adam's sin against an infinite majesty, and only God could   bridge the infinite gulf between man and God. If Christ was one step removed from being God in the highest sense - as in the competing theology of Arius - Athanasius reasoned that this would leave us without an effective redemption. He therefore fought for his position, by fair means and sometimes by foul, as if the integrity of the Christian message and the salvation of the entire world depended on it.

 

The victory of orthodoxy was not achieved by reasoned debate alone. The Church was never a democratic institution, or even one in which the laity played a significant role. The definition of orthodoxy and heresy was worked and decided by the power-holding elite. The bishops fought over the body of Jesus like quarrelsome geese, and issues were often settled by the big stick of political power. Orthodoxy did not emerge from this conflict without some blood on its hands and the smell of political corruption on its garments.

                                                                                                                                                        

(Richard E.Rubensteins' very riveting account of these things, in a new publication called When Jesus Became God - The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome is recommended for further reading.)

 

If we today accept the same religious and mythological premises about the Fall of man as the churchmen in the Athanasian era did, then the Anthanasian Creed may still be convincing. On this basis we can proceed to dismiss anything that departs from orthodoxy as Arianism - or  Sebbellianism, Nestorianism, Adoptionism, Modalism or whatever other term the ancient Councils used to dismiss any views that challenged orthodoxy. But according to a modern, scientific worldview, this whole premise on which Athanasius built his divine Christ has become untenable.

 

By making the Fall the starting point or premise of its thinking about Christ, the Church has saddled humanity with the blame for bringing all human suffering and death into this world - plus an appalling misogyny on the premise that it all started with Eve tempting Adam in the garden. Anyway, all temporal suffering and death was seen as some sort of divine judgment for Adam' sin, and this as a mere down-payment on eternal damnation. What an awful blasphemy against humanity, to say nothing of its appalling representation of God. Yet, as we have pointed out, this was the worldview on which Athanasius and the Christian Church built its final, clinching argument for the absolute divinity of Christ.

 

 

 

THE HISTORICAL JESUS

 

The most decisive evidence against the divinity of Christ rests on the teachings of the historical Jesus himself.  All that he taught was summed up in what he kept calling "the kingdom of God." This was the theme of his parables and aphorisms -those memorable one-liners. The kingdom of God, always on his lips, was his obsession and passion, his pearl of great price or treasure hid in the field for the joy of which he was willing to give everything he had, including his life.

 

His own family thought he was "outside himself," the scribes thought he was "possessed," and other declared him "mad."…The kingdom was his madness. He celebrated it with anyone who would join him at table, declared everyone free in its name, broke all rules that stood in its way, and finally gave up his life for it - or rather, gave up his life to save the only thing he lived for. ( Thomas Sheehan, The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity. Under the chapter The Kingdom of God)

 

Later Christian preaching made Jesus himself the message. But it is quite astonishing that in all Jesus' teaching about the kingdom of God (which sums up everything he taught) there is nothing, absolutely nothing said to make himself the theme of his teaching. He does not claim any titles for himself, nor does he put himself forward as the object of faith. In all his teaching about the kingdom of God he does not even rate as a secondary issue alongside the main theme. This is why the scholarly consensus today is that Jesus did not think of himself as God, much less did he go around saying he was God. When the matter is put into historical context, the very suggestion that he could have made such claims is without any credibility.

 

Jesus' teaching about the kingdom of God was really quite unique. It was distinct from the teaching of any of his contemporaries. It sounded nothing at all like the subsequent teaching of his followers. They made the messenger the message and turned the iconoclast into the icon.

                                                                                                                                                           

The Creeds of the Church have absolutely nothing to say about Jesus' core teaching of the kingdom of God. If you had the nose of a Labrador, you could not find the faintest scent of his "kingdom of God" theme in any of the Creeds. All that the Creeds say about the historical Jesus could be written on a postage stamp with a large piece of chalk. This indicates that the Christ of the Creeds has become a mythical construct that has no real basis in the Jesus of history. Worse, the mythical construct and the historical man are mutually exclusive - totally incompatible!

 

This raises some very disturbing questions about the possible identity of the Antichrist - if any reality is to be given to this mythical figure. Apparently Peter was the first apostle to positively and publicly identify Jesus as being the Messiah. It was on the Day of Pentecost that he made the startling announcement that God made Jesus his Messiah when he raised him from the dead. (Acts 2: )  Two NT authors warn the early Christians about the real danger of embracing "another Jesus" who is called "Antichrist." In one place it is said he would be a man who "takes his seat in the temple of God claiming to be God himself." (2 Thessalonians 2:4)

 

 A Kingdom Already Present

 

In Jesus' teaching, the kingdom of God was something that had already arrived. It was said to be "in you," "among you," and "spread out upon the face of earth." (Luke 17:20-21; ll:20; and the Gospel of Thomas 113:1-4 that was discovered in 1945) Not everybody could see it, however, for it was like a treasure hid in a field, seed sown abroad or yeast hidden in the dough.(Matthew 13: 33,44; Luke 8:5) 

 

In Jesus view of things, the arrival and presence of the kingdom of God in the midst of the human situation was something to be celebrated with anyone who would join him at table. He refused to fast according to the religious custom of his day, and acquired the reputation, at least in some quarters, of being "a glutton and a drunk."

 

Jesus' teaching about a silent, hidden kingdom that had already arrived was totally at odds with the Apocalyptic mood and worldview of contemporary Judaism. In the first place, Apocalyptic thought of the kingdom of God in terms of a sudden, violent inbreaking into history of a "heavenly " kingdom. In one mighty act of omnipotent coercion, the world would come to a fiery end. The righteous ("us") would be rescued and the wicked ("them") would be destroyed. Everybody in that era was standing on tip-toe, watching for signs and portents indicating that this kingdom was about to arrive.

 

Apocalyptic teaching was based on the view that God related to this world in a very episodic and miraculous type of way. For instance, the Creation/Fall myth was taken very literally and played a foundational role in Apocalyptic. Just as God will end the world and solve all human problems suddenly as if by the wave of his miraculous wand, so Apocalyptic thought that at the beginning of history, God had instantly and miraculously created a perfect man and woman, and then put them into an equally perfect paradise.

 

Apocalyptic had no appreciation of how the development of a human language, culture and character would take an enormous amount of time if the end product was to be truly human. Even God could not build Rome in a day!  If there is going to be a human community, even God cannot hurry, interfere and short-cut the process!

 

Apocalyptic depicted Israel as re-enacting the Fall of Adam. When she disobeyed the Law she was expelled from Palestine just as Adam was expelled from paradise. In response to Adam's sin and Israel's repeated failure to obey the Law, God fled the earth, withdrew to his high heaven like an aloof Sovereign, and shut the gates. The Gentile nations were left to ravage and tread down the earth like wild beasts (See Daniel 7). In Apocalyptic, God was essentially absent from the world. As a very distant and aloof Sovereign he would mediate his presence to earth only through the Law, angels and religious observances. In very limited episodes, however, it was thought he might reveal himself - although that was mostly in past history or in the age to come. In the face of this historical despair, the only real hope was an Apocalyptic end of history.

 

This Apocalyptic background only served to make the contrast of Jesus' "good news of the kingdom" even more startling. Jesus insisted that the arrival of God's kingdom in the midst of the human situation was not accompanied by any signs or outward show. This kind of teaching would have been a scandal in Jewish circles - like someone today telling   Christians in our day there is no Second Coming!

 

(The best work in recovering this non-Apocalyptic Jesus is found in the publications of - Robert Funk, Roy Hoover, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Robert Miller, Stephen Patterson and other scholars of the Jesus Seminar. But Thomas Sheehan's chapter on the Kingdom of God in The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity stands out as a brilliant jewel.)

 

The Kingdom of God as the Presence of the Abba Father

 

Some scholars interpret the term "kingdom of God" as meaning the "rule of God." Linguistically speaking, that may be correct, but it is prone to be misleading. For in his teaching, Jesus portrays God as the Abba (daddy, papa) Father rather than an aloof Sovereign. He did not speak of God in terms of the old monarchal model. Instead, Jesus had this audacious, almost blasphemous way of speaking of God in terms of the most intimate, familial endearment. He gave God a very human face.

 

So instead of interpreting the kingdom of God as the rule of God as in the rule of a celestial monarch, we should understand that Jesus means the presence of  his supremely human Abba Father.

 

It is not correct, however, to say that Jesus' teaching was wholly new. Unlike Jewish Apocalyptic, the great OT prophets also believed that God's kingdom was a present reality and that history was the scene of God's presence rather than his absence. There are even passages that eloquently speak of God's fatherly or even motherly care for humanity, especially for the oppressed. The prophets had no theology of the Fall and God's withdrawal from the world. In the spirit of the OT prophets, Jesus clothed their teaching of God's essential presence in the world and his fatherly care for humanity with freshness and power.

 

In his teaching of the kingdom - the loving presence of the Abba Father - Jesus also had nothing to say about the Fall, much less a teaching about an offended God withdrawing from the earth to his high heaven and shutting the gate. And unlike the Christian Creeds and theologians, Jesus had nothing to say about some great gulf between humanity and the Abba Father that needed to be bridged. Not a bit of it! As far as Jesus was concerned, God never left, and he never needed anyone to unlock heaven's gate to give the human family free access to his presence.

 

As Thomas Sheehan brilliantly sums up the meaning of Jesus' kingdom of God,

 

God, as God, had identified himself without remainder with his people. The reign of God means the incarnation of God. This entirely human orientation of the Father - the loving, incarnate presence of the heretofore distant Sovereign - marked the radical newness of Jesus' message of God's reign. The kingdom was not something separate from God, like a spiritual welfare state that a benign heavenly monarch might set up for his faithful subjects. Nor was it any form of religion. The kingdom of God was the Father himself given over to his people. It was a new order of things in which God threw in his lot irrevocably with human beings and chose relatedness to them as the only definition of himself. From now on, God was one with mankind…(Ibid)

 

This is the reason why Jesus always spoke of the kingdom of God in very mundane, rather than in religious terms. He depicted the kingdom or presence of the Abba Father in stories or sayings about very ordinary people doing very ordinary things - a Samaritan helping a wounded man on the side of the road, a father welcoming home the son who was a waster as if he had never done anything wrong, a kind heart giving a cup of cold water, a creditor generously forgiving a debt, a giver who hopes for nothing back, in short, in ordinary people doing very human things for very ordinary people. That is where God's presence is manifested - in people being truly human to one another, helping people and allowing themselves to be helped by people in very mundane ways.

 

Jesus called himself the son of man. This was not a title. It simply meant son of Adam, the human one, this man, just human, etc. On the face of it, this appeared to be a self-effacing, even demeaning name to give to oneself. His was an age when each group of people wanted to sacralize their identity as special and above the common crowd of humanity. But Jesus knew there was a dignity and an authority about being truly human that was greater than any title that any religious or political system could conjure up.

 

To be human is "the image and likeness of God." (Genesis 2:28: Psalm 8:5-8) "God is a spirit," said Jesus, and even as the spirit of the Abba Father, he has no hands or voice or face. The human hands, voice or face are the only hands, voice or face that God will ever have in this world; and the neighbour, whether sick or well, poor or rich, hungry or well fed, happy or sad, is the only presence that God has in this world. Hence, to paraphrase the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, "You are the light of the world, a city set upon a hill…You are the salt of the earth…Let men see your good works [your simple acts of being human] in such a way that they will come to see what your Abba Father is like."

 

God Revealed Only In and Through Humanity

 

This means that every quest or claim to know God-in-himself is a religious delusion. For God-in-himself is unsearchable, unimaginable, incomprehensible, unthinkable, unfathomable, unknowable, and as the Hebrews used to say about his name, unpronounceable.

 

The religious burden of trying to conjure up love for God-in-himself is a crushing burden that humanity has never been able to carry. Devotion to this unknowable, abstract God out there or up there has driven people crazy enough to resent, neglect, abuse, hate, persecute and slaughter millions of people. There is no violence on earth so bad as religious violence.

 

When Jesus replaced devotion to a God-in-himself with devotion to a God-with-humanity, he conflated the two great commandments of the Law - love of God and love of neighbour - into one. There is now no higher commandment than love of fellow man. The so-called golden rule "is the Law and prophets." 

 

This explains the mysterious absence of any emphasis on the so-called "higher" or "first" great commandment in the teachings of Jesus. Rather than repeat the tired old religious clichés about putting God first, Jesus even said that we ought to put reconciliation with our brother before the worship of God. As Sheehan puts it:

 

Henceforth, according to the prophet from Galilee, the Father was not to be found in a distant heaven but was entirely identified with the cause of men and women. Jesus' doctrine of the kingdom meant that God had become incarnate: He had poured himself out, had disappeared into mankind and could be found nowhere else but there…The doctrine of the kingdom meant that henceforth and forever God was present only in and as one's neighbour. Jesus dissolved the fanciful speculations of apocalyptic eschatology into the call to justice and charity. (Ibid.)

 

The idea that there is some sort of vertical authority out there or up that takes precedence over love of neighbour has caused more divisions, hatreds and blood-letting than anything else in the history of mankind. This is what drove Saul of Tarsus to persecute the early Christians. It caused the Church to banish or burn Jews and heretics. It drove Calvin to execute Servetus and the Puritans to flog the Quakers. It still drives the religious extremists in our day to burn, bomb, or shoot up others out of devotion to a God who takes precedence over humanity. But by conflating the two great commandments into one, Jesus laid the axe at the root of all religiously inspired acts of inhumanity.

 

An Unbrokered Access to God

 

In Jesus teaching of the kingdom of God, everyone without distinction may have an unbrokered access to the Abba Father. There is no need for priests, gurus, fathers, sacrifices, rituals or even Jesus himself to bridge some gulf between God and his people. No gulf ever existed and no mediator is ever needed.

 

It is true, of course, that the Church put Jesus in the centre of things as the essential link between God and man, but in doing this it altogether lost Jesus' vision of the kingdom and set up religion again with its brokered access to God. But Jesus did not even talk about salvation in the Christian sense. In his view of things, humanity has never existed outside of God's saving embrace. "Fear not," "don't be anxious about anything," "fear not him who can kill the body," he was always saying, because the Abba Father is with you and in you - in your working, loving, playing, eating, drinking, success, failure, suffering and dying. He is nearer to you than your hands and feet or even closer than your own breathe and heartbeat. His care for us goes back beyond the dawn of the first human consciousness itself to the depth of an eternal love that planned for this emerging humanity in the eternal counsels of God. There never was a time when we did not exist or will ever cease to exist in the heart of the Abba Father.

 

It was this stark, clear vision of the kingdom that made this bare-foot Galilean itinerant appear so eccentric, possessed, and out of his tree even to his own family, including his own mother. How else could we explain some of his more outrageous one-liners which seemed to express such a reckless disregard for family ties or prudent financial planning - statements like "Let the dead bury their dead," "Hate father and mother and your own life also," "Sell what you have and give it away," "Go barefoot and take no clothing  or purse for your journey," "Give to everyone who asks and don't expect to get it back," etc. As one very perceptive writer observed, it is far easier just to make him into a worshipped divinity than trying to take his rugged perspective on living too seriously. That's what the followers of Zoaraster and the Budda did too! 

 

 

The End of Religion

 

All of these features of Jesus' teaching are summed up in what may be called the end and abolition of religion. It is the greatest irony that the greatest religious iconoclast of them all is said to be the founder of a new religion! Or that he became an object of religious devotion! This is like making Adam Smith the patron saint of the Communist state. As Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, says:

 

When the name of Jesus is mentioned, "religion" is assumed to be the subject. But, in fact, the Jesus of whom we catch glimpses in the gospels may be said to have been irreligious, irreverent, and impious. The first word he said, as Paul Tillich once remarked, was a word against religion in its habituated form; because he was indifferent to the formal practice of religion, he is said to have profaned the temple, the sabbath, and breached the purity regulations of his own legacy; most important of all, he spoke of the kingdom of God in profane terms - that is, nonreligiously…The inauguration of a priesthood and clergy therefore appears to inimical to Jesus wishes." (Honest to Jesus, p.302) 

 

Sheehan, another scholar in the Jesus Seminar, says,

 

His proclamation marked the death of religion and religion's God, and heralded the beginning of the post-religious experience: the abdication of "God" in favour of his hidden presence among human beings…And when God arrives on the scene, Jesus seemed to say, all go-betweens, including religion itself, are shattered. Who needs them? The Father is here! (Ibid. chapter on The Kingdom of God)

 

 

 

JESUS' VISION OF THE KINGDOM  LOST: RELIGION RE-ESTABLISHED

 

The break between Jesus' teaching about the kingdom of God and the preaching of even his immediate followers is as clear as it is astonishing.

 

Jesus' gospel of the kingdom was about God-with man, God incarnated in the whole of humanity, God in and with my neighbour on this earth here and now!  This means God present in what looks like the mess, the confusion and the sinfulness of an emerging humanity in this historical process. It means God as the ubiquitous spirit and as the "still small voice" - prompting and inspiring a developing humanity into the likeness and image of God - not in coercion, not in grand episodes of intervention, but as the spirit of suasion, leavening this human ferment toward being truly human as man was meant to be.

 

The Christian Church also proclaimed a message of God-with-man. This was God incarnated in just one man at his own right hand in heaven. God was with man only in heaven! He was with this man for a fleeting moment on this earth, but it was a man born of a virgin (Catholicism says an immaculately conceived virgin), and a man whose absolute sinless perfection was equal to God's infinite righteousness. This man is no longer on this earth, but he has been withdrawn to heaven.

 

Here we confront again this withdrawn-from-this-earth-to his high-heaven-God of Apocalyptic. When this is combined with the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, this is a God who is so elevated and separated from this earth that he could not even touch sinful humanity with a disinfected pole. He is with a man in heaven, this mythical man of the Creeds who has been shorn of historical content and divested of his teaching about the kingdom of God. This mythical man is said to be God himself. Any real humanity is consumed and swallowed up by his divinity. So this Christian theology of God-with-man in heaven is God-with-himself in heaven.

 

This aloof, withdrawn-to-his-high-heaven, shutting-the gate-God of Apocalyptic is said to mediate his presence to this earth only through the divine Jesus, plus the intercession of Mary and the saints (in the Catholic tradition) and through the sacraments and priestly or clerical  ministrations of the Church - out of which, according to Christian orthodoxy, no one can be saved. What we have therefore in the teaching of the Church is a return to religion and Apocalyptic. To cite Sheehan again,

 

Jesus had freed himself from religion and apocalypse by transforming hope into charity and by recasting eschatology as present liberation. But his disciples redirected their attention into a fantastic future and thus reinstated Jesus into the religion he had left behind. They remade God's presence-among-men into God's presence-yet-to-come and eventually into Jesus himself. Henceforth one's relation to God (who Jesus had said was already present) was determined by one's relation to Jesus (who the disciples now said was temporarily absent). (Ibid. chapter on The Apocalyptic Judge)

 

Sheehan also makes the point that the more the followers of Jesus elevated his status, the further they got away from his teaching about the kingdom.

 

The return to religion is illustrated by the Church's return to the practice of fasting. Early in the second century fasting became a rigorous and dreary exercise that put Jewish fasting in the shade for its morbid flagellation of the body. Jesus had refused to fast, for as he said, "The children of the bridechamber cannot fast when the bridegroom is with them."  In this parable, Jesus was not referring to himself. He used a familiar OT figure of speech in which God was said to be the husband of Israel. What Jesus plainly meant was this: How can we fast when the presence of the Abba Father is here!  But the NT authors not only turned Jesus into the figurative bridegroom, but they put the following words into his mouth in order to justify their return to religion: "The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away. In that day will the children fast." (Matthew 9:15) Fasting was an act of mourning for a real absence! 

 

Religion and Apocalyptic are human attempts to deal with the historical despair caused by the absence rather than the presence of God. The Christian Apocalypse makes this telling admission when it says that in the future, no temple for the practice of religion will be needed when God finally comes to dwell among his fully restored and sinless people. (See Revelation 2l:3,22). But this religionless existence is all transposed from the present, as in Jesus' teaching, to the future, as in the Christian Apocalypse.

 

In Jesus' teaching, God dwells with imperfect, emerging humanity in the here and now. But according to Christian teaching, God will dwell with the saved only after all their human filth has all been washed away. This reflects an aloof father who will kiss and cuddle the child only after the nanny has changed the nappies, washed the runny nose and made it acceptable with perfume. In Christian theology, no mortal humanity could dare approach the awful presence of God's infinite majesty apart from all the mediatorial provisions of the Christian religion. The absolute centre-piece of this religious mediation is the divinity of Jesus.

 

 

 

THE FRUITS OF JESUS' DIVINITY

 

Having traced the history of how the doctrine of Jesus' divinity developed, we need to look at the fruits of this doctrine. James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the American nation, was not too flattering about the fruits of the Christian religion. He wrote,

 

During almost fifteen centuries the legal establishment known as Christianity has been on trial and what have been the fruits, more or less, in all places? These are the fruits: pride, indolence, ignorance and arrogance in the clergy. Ignorance, arrogance and servility in the laity, and in both clergy and laity, superstition, bigotry and persecution."

 

Christianity has been guilty of systematic and sustained crimes of enormous proportions against humanity. When this painful evidence is reviewed, it is sometimes suggested that these crimes against humanity were the result of lapses from true Christianity. But on the contrary, we need to see that these evils were the expression of authentic Christianity, the heart of which was the myth of Jesus' divinity.

 

Once the Church took the position that the whole of the inexhaustible reality of God had been manifested in just one human being, Christianity became the most exclusive cult of salvation that this world has ever seen. The Church became the sole custodian of the heavenly treasures. Every other religion outside of Christianity had to be counted as darkness, superstition and ignorance.

 

In our modern Global Village, churchmen are trying to re-interpret this historic Christian exclusiveness to make it sound less arrogant and less offensive to non-Christians; but it is not really possible to exorcise this exclusive element from the Christian tradition as long as the central pillar of Jesus' divinity remains. When the Church elevated Jesus to the status of God, it became impaled on the stake of its own special status. This Christian exclusiveness - no saving truth outside of Christianity - is a burden that many thinking Christians would like to be rid of. It smacks of being a bad neighbour. It is essentially inhuman. Rosemary Ruether calls it "an outrageous and absurd religious chauvinism." And it is totally at odds with both the spirit and teaching of the historical Jesus.

 

By claiming that the total revelation of God was found only in one man, the Church could not avoid becoming the most totalitarian system of religion that the world has ever seen.  In order to be true to its own confession, the Church had to claim for its religion total truth and total allegiance.

 

The next step was to enforce these claims with a reign of crushing religious intolerance and persecution. If the Church was in possession of the exclusive and total revelation of God in its divine Man, why should it tolerate any rival insights into the mysteries of God or the human condition?

 

Instead of carrying on Jesus' message of the kingdom, the Church turned the messenger into the message. Whilst those who believed its ever expanding claims made about Jesus were promised salvation to life eternal, those who did not make the right noises about Jesus' status were said to be damned and deserving of divine punishments. Even St. Paul got carried away in his Apocalyptic thought when he said that his Jesus would come in flaming fire to wreck vengeance on those who do not obey his gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:8) This statement is tame, however, compared with the blood thirsty woes, plagues and torments that the Book of Revelation heaps on everyone outside the little Christian cult.

 

The OT story of Jonah seems to illustrate the law that those who start out declaring that certain people are going to be punished, will end up hoping or even demanding that they should be punished. The Book of Revelation, which depicts the Christian cult as rejoicing in the divine punishments meted out to their opponents, is an excellent example of this law at work. The most objectionable feature of the Christian message right from the beginning was its tendency to cajole and threaten people into believing its claims about Jesus. The logical end to this kind of intellectual blackmail was physical thuggery to enforce the faith. The intellectual thumb-screws were eventually followed by the real thumb-screws of the Inquisition.

 

The doctrine that Jesus is God is not just one Christian doctrine among many.  It is so much the heart and essence of Christianity that everything else is only a corollary of that central issue. We have already seen that this central Christian teaching was not fully established until it was championed by Athanasius in the 4th Century. The battle for the divinity of Jesus was not won without enormous conflict, political intrigue and even  some bloodshed. But even then, many of the Barbarian kingdoms which settled on the Western Roman Empire remained Arian and resisted the orthodox Creed. It is beyond the scope of this present outline to trace the on-going conflict until the divinity of Jesus was universally accepted in the 8th Century. This victory of Christian orthodoxy was won by the edge of the sword more than it was won by intellectual persuasion. In many cases, the orthodox Bishop would convert a Princess or a Queen, the women would then win over the ruler of a Barbarian kingdom, and then the ruler would enforce allegiance to the divinity of Jesus by the edge of the sword

 

Having obtained the support of the political power, the Church set about to systematically destroy the literature, learning, art, medicine, science and culture of the pagan world, all of which was judged as demonic. There is also reason to suspect that the Church was anxious to bury the evidence of how extensively it had borrowed much of its thought and practices from the pagan world.

 

It was this Christian exclusiveness, totalitarianism and religious intolerance that played a significant role in the onset of the Dark Ages. Whilst the Islamic world kept learning alive, created universities and hospitals, and even granted a great measure of religious freedom to Jews and Christians in countries under its jurisdiction, Christian Europe clung to its divine Jesus and ruthlessly suppressed the human spirit.

 

The Catholic author Walbert Buhlmann  (God's Chosen Peoples) laments that the Christian religion has shed more blood than any rival religion. The chief issue in all this blood-letting, whether of Jews, Muslims or dissenters from within its own ranks, was the divinity of Jesus. The systematic persecution of the Jews was the official policy of the Church, but on the authority of Augustine, it always stopped short of genocide. He said that the suffering of the Jewish people was to stand as a testimony to their rejection of Jesus' divinity. As for dissenters who questioned the absolute divinity of Jesus from within Christendom, it was the official policy of the Church for centuries to banish or burn them.

 

Even the Reformers did not abandon this policy, as Calvin proved when he had Servetus burned at the stake. Over in England, a young student by the name of Lambert raised some questions about the doctrine of the Trinity. Archbishop Cranmer, one of the fathers of the English Reformation, signed the decree that he should be burned at the stake. The young man repented, but he was considered to be beyond mercy, at least in this life. In response to misgivings about burning a young student at the stake, Cranmer proffered the opinion that being burned at the stake was not such a bad way to die. It was not long after this that the Catholic party regained power in England under the short reign of "Bloody" Mary. Cranmer had a taste his own medicine when he too was burned alive at the stake.

 

When the Christian Crusaders invaded the Holy Lands, they were stunned to discover a Paradise on earth. Under the rule of Islam, Jews, Christians, and Muslims were permitted religious freedom and were allowed to live happily together in a region that prospered beyond Christian Europe's wildest dreams. Yet fired by the religious madness of loyalty to their divine Jesus, Christians sacked towns, slaughtering Muslims, Jews, and Christians who were often indistinguishable. But as the Christian Crusaders said, "God will tell the difference!"

 

Neither Catholics or Protestants seemed to recognize that their centuries of brutal religious intolerance was desperately inhuman. The triumph for religious tolerance was largely the fruit of the Enlightenment, the age of science and the triumph of  liberal democracies. In many cases, the modern secular powers stepped in to prevent religious conflicts boiling over into persecution and blood-letting. But above all, it was an emerging human consciousness that judged religious intolerance to be totally inhuman and totally unacceptable.

 

We observed earlier that the notion of a God-in-himself, out there or up there, combined with the idea that devotion to this kind of God must take precedence over any human considerations, is the most dangerous and destructive idea that has ever been let loose on this planet. Fired with religious devotion for this abstract God, there is nothing humans will not do to dehumanise and crush one another. Christianity has proved that it is no exception when it comes to religiously inspired violence. In Indonesia right now Christians and Muslims are hacking one another to death in the name of their God.

 

In little Christian sects, even the pacifist ones who will not participate in any form of military bloodshed, members who step out of line are shunned, emotionally battered and subjected to all kinds of inhuman treatment, especially if the divinity of Jesus is called into question. The popes in these little Christian sects are far more despotic than the big pope in Rome. Religious sects tend to be pig-pens for the suppression and control of the human spirit. Conditions are tolerable, however, when the members don't take their religion too seriously. As the Protestant historian Marty Marty once quipped: "The committed Christians are not civil and the civil Christians are not committed."

 

This inhuman treatment of dissenters in the name of the divine Jesus extends to the world of Christian scholarship. A case in point is the vitriolic abuse that is currently heaped on the scholars of the Jesus Seminar whose only crime is that they are using their best endeavours to recover the historical Jesus. As one Seminar fellow said in a recent publication,

 

"…some critics of the Seminar denounce  it in language that is rancorous and sometimes venomous. The polemical rhetoric of these critics is the ugliest I have ever encountered in scholarly writing. The operative assumption of these  scholars and of the editorial committees who approve their writing for publication is that it is proper not only to attack opponent's ideas but also to insult them personally, to impugn their intellectual honesty, and even their religious commitments. Perhaps I am saddened more than others by this verbal abuse because I belong to the group at which it is aimed." ( Robert J. Miller, The Jesus Seminar and its Critics, pp. 76-77)

 

The point that cries out for attention here is that Christianity has shed rivers of blood and bruised multitudes of people for the sake of Jesus' status, but never for his teaching. No one could ever be motived to persecute or injure his fellow man by following what the historical Jesus said or did. No one could possibly do these brutal things to his fellow men if he believed the teaching of the historical Jesus about God being present only in and with the neighbour - and it makes no difference whether that neighbour is a Jew, a Muslim, a heretic, an Atheist or any kind of "sinner."  The God of the historical Jesus was equally present in all and to all of humanity without distinction.

 

It would be remiss of us if we did not freely acknowledge that the spirit of the historical Jesus was often given expression within the Christian movement. For in spite of its theology, the Church did carry a witness to the historical Jesus in its NT, and this has always inspired a vast amount of humanitarian work carried on within the Church. We gladly salute the expression of this human spirit in the lives of people like St. Francis, Abelard, John Milton, William Wilberforce, Mother Teresa and countless others dedicated in giving expression to a true human spirit.

 

Besides the spirit of exclusiveness, totalitarianism, intolerance and persecution which has marked so much of Christian history, there are a great number of inhuman practices which were not only sanctioned by the Church, but which were vigorously advocated for centuries. We refer to the Church's support for the institution of slavery until very modern times, an attitude to women which ranged all the way from their subordination to the downright misogyny of the Church fathers, the suppression of civil rights, support for the divine rights of kings over against democratic freedoms, European supremacy and crass racism, state patronage of the institutions of the Church and the enforcement of Christian teaching on the rest of society, opposition to scientific knowledge and resistance to the age of Enlightenment and modern Biblical scholarship - just to name a few inhuman things. (See John Hick's Non-Absoluteness of Christianity, pp. 17-30)

 

If the divinity of Jesus was the bright Light shining in a dark place, as the Christian religion has always maintained, how was it that all these inhuman practices thrived in the presence of this great Light? Or was this Light so heavenly that it was of no earthly use?

 

The Christian movement can't even claim that it was the first to pioneer human liberation in any of the above areas. Very often the Church resisted progress  and dragged its feet in the name of some kind of loyalty to its divine Jesus and the Bible. It was generally the influence of the Enlightenment, the age of science, or liberal humanism that blazed the trail in these human reforms. Or perhaps we could say it was an emerging human consciousness working throughout the world in general that caused even the Church to adjust its practices to be more in line with an advancing human consciousness. The impetus for change certainly didn't come from the Church's theology.

 

The question needs to be asked whether there was a relationship between the Church's theology centred in the divinity of Jesus and these inhuman practices. Of course there was a connection! The inhuman practices were the fruit of its inhuman theology. If the Christian movement thinks it can change its practices in so many areas without changing its theology, it is cutting down the tops of the tree but leaving the roots.

 

At the end of the day, the divinity of Jesus has to be judged by its history and its fruits.

 

 

 

A POSTLOGUE ON THE MODERN WORLDVIEW

 

Jesus' teaching about the kingdom of God sits very comfortably with a modern, scientific worldview. In the modern worldview we have an emerging humanity, a developing human consciousness in a universe of awesome space/time dimensions. All branches of human knowledge, whether in the physical, human or historical sciences, point us in the direction of an emerging humanity rather than a sudden fiat creation. We now know that millions of years before the first man walked the earth, there was enough life and death going on here to create rivers of fossil fuel for our needs today. Death has always played a vital role in the development of all living species.

 

In the teaching of Jesus, the kingdom of God was said to be working in the world like yeast hidden in the dough or like a mustard weed whose seed is so ubiquitous that it cannot be eradicated. This imagery also suggests a process of an emerging humanity.

 

The religious imagination about aFall of man and an offended God withdrawing to heaven is completely out of place in a modern cosmology. (Does even a heaven up there make any sense in the context of a scientific cosmology?) It is also completely out of place in Jesus' vision of the kingdom. Unlike his contemporaries, he did not think that people got sick or died as a result of anyone's sin either now or in the past. His God never held this world to ransom over some human mistake in the past or in the present. What was important to him was not the sins people had committed - he never even called upon them to repent on that account - but whether they accepted the scandalous generosity of the Abba Father's forgiving presence among them.

 

People with an enlightened modern worldview will no longer accept the proposition that God only talks to one group of people in the entire world - at first the Jews and then the Church. The claim that the Christian religion is the one and only true religion that God can work through, or that the Church alone holds the keys to the kingdom of God is dismissed nowadays as a piece of narrow-minded sectarian nonsense. And rightly so, for this is an age in which there has been a lot of progress in important human issues such as non-discrimination in regard to race, gender equality, religious tolerance, human rights, environmental awareness, and justice for the disadvantaged. This emerging human consciousness is not confined to the Church or to any one group of people, but is spread over the face of the earth like Jesus' kingdom of God.

 

The Church should stop trying to make people feel guilty about not being religious. Becoming religious and becoming human are not the same thing.  The prophets of the OT were no great fans of the religious scene in their day, and Jesus carried on where they left off. He removed all distinctions between the sacred world and the secular world. Everything, even the kingdom of God, was made to be secular. Yet at the same time he saw everything in the world as "saturated with the presence of divinity." (Morwood)  The Jesus of history sits quite comfortably with the modern, post-religious worldview.

 

In the light of Jesus' teaching about God-with-man on this earth in the here and now, we need to redefine the meaning of a true "believer." Since Jesus never put himself forward as an object of faith, much less did he want to become the substance of the gospel, we can think about dropping the Church's teaching about "faith in Jesus." This may be the Church's idea of the gospel, even in NT times, but it was not Jesus' idea about the content of the gospel. And if we are also to abandon faith in the God-in-himself up there or out there, we must also conclude that God is not going to be upset with anyone who concludes that this God of religion is unbelievable. If the God we are left with is the God who is in and with our neighbour, then faith in humanity and love for the neighbour is the only encounter with God that is possible, no matter what handle one tries to place on that stupendous reality. No one could say it better than this NT passage: "He who lives in love, lives in God and God lives in him." ( 1 John 4:16 )