Did Christianity invent the idea that Jesus is God? Or does the idea that Jesus is God go all the way back to the beginning of Christianity?
To answer this question we need to focus our attention on the question of how early Jesus was being worshiped as God.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians (which critical scholars accept as authentic) affirms that Jesus was being worshiped as God within twenty-five years of his public crucifixion.
We can see that belief in action within early Christian singing (hymns) as they would gather (the most famous is Philippians 2:5-11). But it also can be found in early Christian doctrinal summaries that were recited in public worship, memorized, and passed down. The earliest written form of one of these summaries occurs in the apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians (c.a. AD 53):
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Corinthians 8:4–6, italics added)
Paul has done something unthinkable; he has taken the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4—the most sacred Jewish expression of exclusive allegiance to the one God—and included Jesus “in the unique divine identity.” The belief that Jesus was God was very early, and the most natural explanation for this core belief was that he had been in fact raised from the dead.
And to show how public the worship of Jesus had become in earliest Christianity, see the comments of the Roman governor, Pliny the younger, as he wrestles with what to do about the Christians:
They [the Christians] were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word.
In his magisterial (and massive!) work, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, Larry Hurtado directly challenges Bart Ehrman’s claim that exalted beliefs, proclamation, and even worship of Jesus emerged gradually over time:
Devotion to Jesus as divine erupted suddenly and quickly, not gradually and late, among first-century followers. More specifically, the origins lie in Jewish Christian circles of the earliest years. Only a certain wishful thinking continues to attribute the reverence of Jesus as divine decisively to the influence of pagan religion and the influx of Gentile converts, characterizing it as developing late and incrementally.
A careful look at the earliest and best eyewitness sources establishes what the earliest Christians believed about Jesus. They believed he was God in the same sense that YHWH was God.
If you found this post helpful, you would enjoy Was Jesus Invented And Borrowed From Pagan Mythology?
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