In my previous post I indicated that by the early fourth century, the debates over Christ’s divine nature had become extraordinarily sophisticated and complex (though not as sophisticated and complex as in the two centuries to follow!). At the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE the question was over whether Christ, the God who created the world, was a subordinate divinity to God the Father, one who came into being at some point in time, or if, instead, he was just as eternal, just as powerful, and just as glorious as the Father, completely “one” with him, even in his essence. It was this latter view that won the day.
One of the things that I contend in my book How Jesus Became God, and in the debate I had in New Orleans with Michael Bird (as many of you will know by now) was that these issues were not at *all* what the earliest Christians were debating and arguing about, either with one another or with non-believers. Michael Bird’s most popular books are The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians, and Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message.
Our earliest Gospel is Mark, and a large part of its message concerns who Jesus is. In fact one could argue this is its overarching message. The Gospel begins with the words “The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Much of the Gospel is meant to explain just how Jesus can be the Christ. There was a clear and straightforward reason why this was an issue. Everyone who knew anything about Jesus knew full well that he had been crucified as a criminal by the Romans. And so how could he possibly be the messiah? Mark’s Gospel is meant to answer that question.
I should stress – as if stress is necessary – Mark is not concerned to show whether Christ is co-eternal with the Father, equal with him, of the same essence as him. These questions never once occurred to the Christians of the first century; or if they did occur to them, they never bothered to mention them. Mark was dealing with a far more fundamental issue. If Jesus was crucified (as everyone knew he was) how could he be the Christ?
This question never occurs to most Christians today for a very simple reason. Christians simply assume that the messiah was *supposed* to be crucified. Isn’t that what’s predicted in the Old Testament? Won’t you find that taught explicitly in such messianic passages as Isaiah 53 (“He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him; and by his wounds we were healed) and Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) and … well, and lots of other places? If the messiah had to suffer for the sins of others, and Jesus suffered for the sins of the other, then he’s the messiah, right? Why don’t Jews see that? Why don’t they just read their own texts? Can’t they read? Are they stupid?
So, the reality – which Mark knew full well – is that…
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