Test your Bible knowledge and see if you can work out when it was Jesus became God:
a) After he died?
Paul thought this was when God decided to adopt Jesus. The Almighty noticed what a good man Jesus was and decided to resurrect him. In so doing, he made him his Son:
his Son… was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead. (Romans 1. 3-4, my emphasis)
Paul doesn’t say Jesus was God. In fact, he strongly suggests he wasn’t, both in the phrase ‘descended from David’ and in his assertion that he became God’s Son – not God – only at the resurrection. So, Jesus wasn’t God when Paul wrote Romans, round about 57CE. If, as Bart Ehrman suggests in How Jesus Became God (p224), Paul is quoting an earlier creed, it’s not what the first Christians believed either.* Paul does edge closer to a divine Jesus in other letters – Philippians 2, for example – but that’s not what ‘God revealed’ to him originally.
b) When he was baptised?
In the earliest gospel, Mark says it was when he was baptised that Jesus became God’s son:
(Jesus) saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1.10-11)
So in Mark, God adopts Jesus earlier in his career than in Paul’s Romans scenario. All the same, while he gets to be God’s beloved son, this doesn’t make him divine; God has many sons in the Bible and a Son of God, with or without capitals, is not the same as ‘God the Son’. Jesus himself makes this clear in Mark 10.18, where he actually denies he’s God.
c) When he was born?
Well, this is more like it. According to Matthew, Jesus is the Messiah from the time he was born. We’ve got even further back now – from Paul’s post-mortem elevation of Jesus, to his baptism, to his birth. Of course all of these can’t right. If Jesus was divine from birth – or even before – there’d be no need for him to be promoted after his death. But Matthew doesn’t actually say he’s divine; he suggests that Jesus fulfils all the prophecies of the Messiah (of course he doesn’t, but that’s what Matthew wants us to believe.) However, the Messiah, according to the very ‘prophecies’ Matthew quotes, is not divine; he’s a human warrior king. Oops.
d) When he was conceived?
Luke is determined to push it back further still. For Luke, it’s when God magically makes Mary pregnant that Jesus becomes truly and literally God’s son (Luke 1.35). Except, of course, Mary appears to have no recollection of this event later in the gospel narratives when she can’t work out why her son behaves in bizarre ways. Could Luke have made up the entire conception story? You bet.
e) Back at the beginning of time?
John’s gospel appears to say so:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1.1-5)
Or does it? John says the Word (Logos) has always existed and is part of God – but does this mean Jesus? This question vexed the church for the best part of it first four hundred years. Was the Logos the same as God and was Jesus the Logos? The council of Nicaea in 325 attempted to clear the matter up but not all bishops agreed with its conclusion – that the Son was ‘begotten not made’ (whatever that means) – and the controversy raged for another few decades.
f) When the church decided he was?
Yup, this is it. A different group of bishops decided, finally, that Jesus was God at the Council of Constantinople in 381. They re-jigged the statement made at Nicaea fifty-six years earlier, which then became the ‘Nicene creed’ that’s still said in some churches today.
So, Jesus didn’t become wholly and officially divine until 381, a mere 350 years after he lived and 300 after Paul and the gospel writers. How scriptural is that?
Jesus wasn’t divine, wasn’t God incarnate, wasn’t the Son of God with capital letters, wasn’t the Messiah, wasn’t and isn’t the saviour of the world. He was a first-century preacher and prophet whose prophecies were a disaster, whose mission to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth failed and who died and was buried. He was resurrected only in the ideas of other men, who tried and eventually succeeded in making him into something he wasn’t.
* I’ve not referred extensively to Ehrman’s writing in this post but undoubtedly his many books, especially How Jesus Became God, have influenced me, as has Barrie Wilson’s How Jesus Became Christian. Jonathan Hill’s Christianity: The First 400 Years, published by Christian company, Lion, was also useful.