It wasn’t until the year 325 C.E. that the Galilean Jewish man named Jesus was also officially called God. Why did it take so long? And why did it continue to be debated? I mean, come on. John’s gospel says Jesus created the world. What more do you need?
The Emperor Constantine needed more. He wanted an official creed to impose upon his conquered nations that would bind them to him. The Christian church had split into so many denominations, with so many different theories about Jesus, that it made his head spin. So, in 325 C.E., he locked up 318 bishops in the Greek town of Nicaea and kept them there until they wrote what we now call the Nicene Creed, which proclaimed the divinity of Jesus. I guess that satisfied him.
But it didn’t satisfy us, I’m afraid. Trying to explain this mystery has taken centuries of theological magic. Magic, because our western minds find it very difficult to put these two contradictory concepts — God and man — together in one person. We find it hard enough to imagine an all-powerful, infinite entity called God, but then to insert this unknowable one into a frail, finite, human being called man really stretches our imaginations.
However, other cultures seemed to do it easily. Several Roman emperors became god — like Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. The Greeks had male and female gods. The Egyptian pharaohs of ancient Egypt as well as the Chinese leaders in the Qin Dynasty were all deified. And if you’re old enough to remember World War II, you will recall the divine Emperor Hirohito. So why not Jesus?
Well, this one gets a bit more complicated.
First of all, Jesus was a Jew and their God was Yahweh. All through the ancient Hebrew texts, Yahweh maintained his uniqueness; there were no other gods. For Jesus, and any of his Jewish followers, to call anyone Yahweh would be blasphemy of the very worst kind. They did use the term “son of God” for King David and some of the angels. We also see it applied to the descendants of Seth and the kings of Israel, and, of course, to Jesus, too, but this was a term of respect, not of divinity.
This is why any Jew could read the three Jewish gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and not be offended. These gospels were written by Jews for Jews, and nowhere is Jesus called Yahweh. Jesus does all the messianic “miracles” they would expect of their messiah, like healing the sick, walking on water, feeding the thousands and raising the dead — just like Moses and the prophets did. A Messiah — not a god. If Jesus had actually said he was Yahweh, these three gospels would certainly have recorded it.
Then comes John’s gospel. It’s about the year 110 C.E. It’s been over 30 years since the Christian religion split into two completely different sects: one Jewish and the other non-Jewish. James, the Jewish brother of Jesus, was murdered in Jerusalem in the year 69 C.E. and all of his Jesus-Jews have been killed or scattered. The dominant sect now is the Greco/Roman one, sponsored and spread by Paul and his non-Jewish followers all over the Mediterranean islands. John’s gospel is their gospel.
It starts: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with Yahweh and the Word was Yahweh.” Jesus had become Yahweh. Greco/Roman Christians didn’t have a problem with these words because Paul had been using them for years (Phil.2:6) but no Jew could read them without wincing. For a Jew, this was blasphemy of the worst kind. It was declaring that Jesus was not just the Messiah, not just the son of God like David, but actually God — Yahweh — himself.
The eyewitness Jewish followers of Jesus could never say this, either. Even if they watched him perform outstanding “miracles” and make “heavenly statements,” they would never say he was Yahweh. Holy, perhaps, or saintly. But not Yahweh; not God himself. And today, Christians who know nothing about Judaism, can say the words: “true God and true man,” but they still cannot understand the mystery.
I found a book last year, written by one of my favorite scripture scholars, Dr. Bart D. Ehrman. It’s called: “How Jesus Became God.” Bart doesn’t pretend to know whether or not Jesus was actually divine — that’s a matter of belief; he simply outlines the historical process that produced this perception after Jesus died. There is no doubt now that this Galilean Jesus eventually became God for the Christians.
The question Bart addresses is: How did that happen?
Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His blog is www.progressiveheretic.com.