As a non-believer, I suspected the stories about Jesus grew more elaborate and grandiose over time. That’s why it was so important to me to read through the earliest documents related to Jesus; I expected the initial accounts to portray Jesus as a wise teacher, but little more. I certainly didn’t expect Jesus to be represented as God until much later in history. But I discovered just the opposite to be true. The earliest eyewitnesses described Jesus as Divine and clearly worshiped him as God. This depiction of Jesus consistently appears in the writings of each successive student and faithful Christian leader through the earliest years of Christian history. Here’s a very short survey of early descriptions of Jesus:
Barnabas, companion of Paul (c. 70-130AD)
“He is Lord of all the world, to whom God said at the foundation of the world, ‘Let us make man after our image, and after our likeness.’”
Ignatius, Bishop of the Church at Antioch (c. 110AD)
“God Himself was manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life”
Clement of Rome, Bishop of the Church at Rome (c. 120AD)
“Brethren, it is fitting that you should think of Jesus Christ as of God – as the Judge of the living and the dead.”
Irenaeus, Bishop of the Church at Lyons, Modern Day France (c. 180AD)
“Thus He indicates in clear terms that He is God, and that His advent was in Bethlehem… God , then, was made man, and the Lord did Himself save us.”
“He is God, for the name Immanuel indicates this.”
“How can they be saved unless it was God who worked out their salvation upon earth? Or how shall man pass into God, unless God has first passed into man?”
Clement of Alexandria, Renowned Christian Teacher in Egypt (c. 195AD)
“O the Great God! O the Perfect Child! The Son in the Father and the Father in the Son… God the Word, who became man for our sakes.”
“Nothing, then, is hated by God, nor yet by the Word. For both are one – that is, God. For He has said, “In the beginning the Word was in God, and the Word was God.”
“The Word itself, that is the Son of God, is one with the Father by equality of substance. He is eternal and uncreated.”
Hippolytus, Leading Presbyter at the Church in Rome (c. 205AD)
“Although He endured the cross, yet as God He returned to life, having trampled upon death.”
Tertullian, Passionate Christian Apologist in Carthage, North Africa (c. 207AD)
“We who believe that God really lived on earth, and took upon him the low estate of human form, for the purpose of man’s salvation, are very far from thinking as those do who refuse to believe that God cares for anything… Fortunately, however, it is a part of the creed of Christians even to believe that God did die, and yet that He is alive forevermore.”
Origen, Famous Pupil of Clement of Alexandria (c. 225AD)
“No one should be offended that the Savior is also God, seeing God is the Father. Likewise, since the Father is called Omnipotent, no one should be offended that the Son of God is also called Omnipotent. For in this way, the words will be true that He says to the Father: ‘All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.’”
“The Son is not different from the Father in substance.”
Notice the description of Jesus didn’t change over time. Jesus didn’t become more Divine as the years passed. Jesus was God from the earliest accounts and He was worshiped as God from the very beginning. Even the non-believers of the first century observed that Jesus was being worshipped as God from the earliest days. Pliny the Younger (61-112AD), the governor of Bithynia (AD 112) and a Roman senator, wrote to emperor Trajan asking for guidance on how he should treat the Christians in his province. He said that Christians were “meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to do wicked deeds, never commit fraud, theft, adultery, not to lie nor to deny a trust…” It’s clear from even this pagan reference that the first believers worshiped Jesus as God.
William Lane Craig, in his book, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, writes, “Studies by NT scholars such as Martin Hengel of Tubingen University, C.F.D. Moule of Cambridge, and others have proved that within twenty years of the crucifixion a full-blown Christology proclaiming Jesus as God incarnate existed…the oldest Christian sermon, the oldest account of a Christian martyr, the oldest pagan report of the Church, and the oldest liturgical prayer (1 Corinthians 16:22) all refer to Christ as Lord and God.” That’s pretty powerful. The Deity of Jesus is not a late creation or a legendary attribution. The earliest believers, in the earliest chapters of Christian history, proclaimed that Jesus is God.
For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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