In yesterday’s post I pointed out that if one asks about an early Christian text: “Does it portray Jesus as God,” then almost always if the answer is Yes (which it usually is), it has to be qualified: “Yes, in *some sense*. “ And the question is always, in *what* sense? The reason I stress this point is that for many years – until I dug deep into research for my book How Jesus Became God – I was quite vehement, in person and in print, that the Synoptic Gospels did not portray Jesus as divine, but only the Gospel of John did.
It’s true – I still think and, I suspect, always will think – that in the Gospel of John there is little doubt about the divinity of Jesus. As we have seen, the Gospel opens with the amazing poem: “ In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and apart from him nothing came into being that came into being. In him was life, and his life was the light of humans…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us….” This Word-become-flesh was the man Jesus. That’s why Jesus in this Gospel can say “Before Abraham was, I am” (8:58; using the name of God, from Exodus 3, for himself, and indicating that he existed before Abraham, who in fact lived 1800 years earlier); and why he can say “I and the Father are one” (10:30); and why he can tell Philip “The one who has seen me you has seen the Father” (14:6). Jesus’ Jewish listeners regularly understand what he is saying about himself in this Gospel; on several occasions they pick up stones to execute him for committing blasphemy. At a climactic seen at the end, doubting Thomas comes to believe in who Jesus is, and calls him “My Lord and My God” (20:28).
At the same time, it is important to stress that even though Jesus is, in some sense, God in John’s Gospel, he is NOT *identical* with God (since he prays to the Father, and is not the same as the Father). Instead of being identical with God, he is *equal* with God.
There is nothing like these self-declarations of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. He does not go around talking about his divine character and pre-existent origin. In the older, traditional, terminology, the Synoptics present a “lower” Christology then the “high” Christology of John. And so, for many years, I argued that they did not see Jesus as God.
It still think it is true that the Synoptic Gospels do not portray Jesus as a pre-existent being who has become incarnate and is and always has been “equal” with God the way John does. They do not have an incarnational Christology lurking somewhere behind them. What they do have, however, is an exaltation Christology, in which either (a) Jesus was understood to have been exalted to a divine status at his baptism, as in Mark and the original form of Luke (which began with ch. 3, before chs. 1-2 were tacked on in a second edition); or (b) Jesus came into existence as the Son of God because God was the one who made his mother pregnant, as in the second edition of Luke that started with chs. 1-2 and probably in the Gospel of Matthew.
Being adopted or born as the Son of God was a different way of being divine from being a pre-existent divine being made flesh. But it was still a highly exalted state of existence, above the human. And Jesus *is* that in the Synoptics. For years I had difficulty explaining features of the Synoptics that could be taken to point to his divinity in some sense. I certainly had explanations, but I was never completely satisfied with them. In these Gospels, for example, Jesus has the power to forgive sins, and he receives “worship.” These *can* be explained without thinking of Jesus as in any way divine, but it’s a little bit tricky, and at the end of the day, I think it’s easier to simply to say that these things are said of Jesus because the authors do think of him as in some sense and exalted divine being. It is not that he is equal with God (as in John), but that God has made him an exalted being, above a human character, divine.
It helps to remember, as I stressed yesterday, that ancient people thought of divinity as a continuum. Most humans are not divine; but they are more divine (i.e., more like the ultimate God) than rocks. And some humans are even more divine than other humans. Some are divinely powerful (miracle workers; great warriors, generals, emperors). Some are divinely intelligent (great philosophers). Some are divinely born (demi-gods). Some are raised to the heavenly realm at their deaths (emperors; divine men). Some are divine in several or all these ways.
Jesus is a Jewish version of this divine man in the Synoptic Gospels. The exaltation that he experienced at his resurrection in the belief of his earliest post-death followers – who had visions that convinced them that he was alive, and therefore raised from the dead by God, and so exalted to heaven to live there with God at his right hand – this exaltation of Jesus at the end of his life came to be read back into his life, so that stories were told about him in which he appeared to be divine in some sense already before he died. That led to claims that he became divine at his baptism (Mark). And then his birth (Luke). And then in a pre-existent state (John). And then in the very remote past (Arius). And then for all time, as he was the begotten of God eternally, and there never was a time before which he existed (Athanasius and the Council of Nicea).
More on how Jesus could be “slotted into” already existing notions of the divine in posts to come.