In my previous post I talked about Jewish Christians of the early centuries who held to an “adoptionistic” view of Christ, the view that he was not by nature divine but was a human being who at some point came to be adopted to be God’s son.  This view was held by other groups as well (and still is); one that we know of from ancient sources comes not from Jewish but gentile circles.   This was a group known as the Theodotians, named after their founder,  a shoemaker who happened also to be an amateur theologian, named Theodotus.   Since they were centered in Rome, scholars sometimes refer to this group as the Roman Adoptionists.

The followers of Theodotus did think that Christ was unlike other humans in that he was born of a virgin mother (and so they may have accepted either the Gospel of Matthew or the Gospel of Luke as Scripture).  But other than that, as the church father and heresy-hunter (i.e., “heresiologist”) Hippolytus, tells us, for them “Jesus was a (mere) man” (Refutation, 23).   Since Jesus was unusually righteous, at his baptism something special happened: the Spirit of God came upon him, giving him the power to do his great miraculous deeds.   As Hippolytus presents it, the Theodotians were split among themselves concerning Jesus’ relationship to God: some of them maintained that Jesus himself was a “mere man” who was empowered by the Spirit he received at the baptism; others apparently believed that at that point Jesus himself became divine; yet others maintain that “he was made God after the resurrection from the dead” (Refutation, 23).

The lengthiest refutation of the Theodotians’ perspective comes in the writings of Eusebius, whom we have often met as the “Father of Church History.”.   As happens so frequently throughout his ten-volume work on the history of the church, Eusebius quotes at length an earlier writing that attacks a heretical view, without, however, indicating who the author was.   A later Church Father called the writing in question, “The Little Labyrinth” and indicated that it was produced by the great theologian Origen, whose own Christological views we will discuss later in this chapter.   As it turns out, some modern scholars have argued that it was instead written by the same Hippolytus I have been referring to already.  In either event, this source appears to have been written in the early third century, and it is directed against the adoptionists who maintained that “the Savior was merely human.”

The author of the Little Labyrinth indicates that Theodotus the shoemaker had a follower who was a banker and who was also called, remarkably enough, Theodotus.   Another member of the group was a man named Natalius, who was induced to become the bishop of the group when he was told that he would receive 150 denarii a month for his troubles (it’s a sizeable amount of money).   But then in an interesting anecdote we are told that Natalius was driven from the sect by an act of God, who sent him some very graphic nightmares, in which he “was whipped all night long by holy angels and suffered severely, so that he got up early, put on sackcloth, sprinkled himself with ashes, and without a moment’s delay prostrated himself in tears before the Roman bishop Zephyrinus” (Eusebius, Church History, 5. 28).[1]

The author of the Little Labyrinth indicates that the Theodotians maintained that their view — that Jesus was completely human, and not divine, but that he was adopted to be the Son of God – had been the doctrine taught by the apostles themselves and by most of the church in Rome until the time of bishop Victor, at the end of the second century.   Historically, as we have seen, the Theodotians may well have a point: some such understanding does indeed appear to have been among the earliest Christian beliefs.  Whether it was the view held by most Roman Christians until near their own time is not as clear.   The author of the Little Labyrinth refutes the claim by pointing out that renowned Christian authors from the time of Justin Martyr, who was writing in Rome around 150 CE,  held a different view:  “in every one of these Christ is spoken of as God.”

It is worth observing — and of particular interest to many members of the blog — that the Little Labyrinth accuses the Theodotians of altering the texts of the New Testament they were copying in order to insert their own adoptionistic views into them.   It is an interesting passage and worth quoting at length (again, this is as it was quoted in Eusebius)

They laid hands unblushingly on the Holy Scriptures, claiming to have corrected them.  In saying this I am not slandering them, as anybody who wishes can soon find out.  If anyone will take the trouble to collect their several copies and compare them, he will discover frequent divergencies; for example, Asclepiades’ copies do not agree with Theodotus’.  A large number are obtainable, thanks to the emulous energy with which disciples copied the ‘emendations’ or rather perversions of the text by their respective masters.  Nor do these agree with Hermophilus’ copies.  As for Apolloniades, his cannot even be harmonized with each other; it is possible to collate the ones which his disciples made first with those that have undergone further manipulation, and to find endless discrepancies.  … They cannot deny that the impertinence is their own, seeing that the copies are in their own handwriting, that they did not receive the Scriptures in such a condition from their first teachers, and that they cannot produce any originals to justify their copies. (Eusebius, Church History, 5. 28)

This became a standard charge among the orthodox heresy-hunters of the early Christian centuries, that the heretics altered their text of Scripture in order to make it say what they wanted it to say.   But two points need to be stressed when evaluating these claims.   The first is that many texts of Scripture actually did support such heretical views, as we saw in chapter 6 when we talked about exaltation Christologies (e.g., Rom. 1:3-4; Acts 13:33).   The second is that even though the orthodox claimed that this kind of manipulation of the text was a heretical activity, in the manuscripts of the New Testament that survive today almost all the evidence points in the other direction, showing that it was precisely orthodox scribes who modified their texts in order to make them conform more closely with orthodox theological interests.   Certain heterodox scribes may have done the same, but among our surviving manuscripts there is almost no evidence to demonstrate that they did so.[2]

In any event, these “adoptionist” views were rejected by the orthodox theologians of the second and third centuries, whose views had firmly moved into the camp of incarnational Christologies, in which Christ was understood by nature to be a pre-existent divine being who had become human.


[1] Translation of G. A. Williamson, Eusebius: The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine (London: Penguin, 1965).

[2] This is the thesis of my book Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, cited in note xxx on p. xxx.