Jesus Christ – who was he? That’s something of a different question to skeptics like myself as it is to Christians. And it’s a very different question in the context of the New Testament writers. What did Paul think Jesus was, as opposed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God is a brilliant book. Part of the discussion concerns exactly what existence Jesus has in terms of divinity and humanity.
I will briefly sketch out his thesis with which I broadly agree. Paul, as the earliest source for Jesus, sees him as an angel who dies and is then exalted in heaven, sitting with God as a different entity. This pulls on preliterary traditions:
These particular preliterary traditions are consistent in their view: Christ is said to have been exalted to heaven at his resurrection and to have been made the Son of God at that stage of his existence. In this view, Jesus was not the Son of God who was sent from heaven to earth; he was the human who was exalted at the end of his earthly life to become the Son of God and was made, then and there, into a divine being. (p.218)
This is a very different understanding as to what modern Christians believe of Jesus in the Holy Trinity, as part of the Godhead. Some people term this as a low Christology. Ehrman continues:
So far I have not given a descriptive name to this very early form of Christological belief in which God raised Jesus from the dead – not in order to give him a longer life here on earth, but in order to exalt him as his own Son up to the heavenly realm, where he could sit beside God at his right hand, ruling together with the Lord God Almighty himself. Traditionally in discussions of theology this understanding of Christ has been called a low Christology because it understands that Jesus started off as a human being who was like other humans. He may have been more righteous than others; he may have earned God’s special favor more than others. But he started out as a human and nothing more. You will notice that in the preliterary traditions I have discussed there is no talk about Jesus being born of a virgin and certainly no talk of him being divine during his lifetime. He is a human figure, possibly a messiah. But then at a critical point of his existence, he is elevated from his previously lowly existence down here with us, the other mere mortals, to sit at God’s right hand in a position of honor, power, and authority…
Sometimes this view is also referred to as an adoptionist Christology, because in it Christ is not thought to be a divine being “by nature.” That is, he did not preexist before he was born in the world, he was not a divine being who came to earth, he was not of the same kind of “essence” as God himself. He was instead a human being who has been “adopted” by God to a divine status. Thus he was not God by virtue of who was, but by virtue of the fact that the Creator and Lord of all things chose to elevate into a position of prominence, even though he began as a lowly human. (p. 230-31)
This can be labelled as exaltation Christology. On the other hand, the Gospel writers had a different view. John, in particular, had a much higher form of Christology.
Scholars have long held that the view of Christ in the Gospel of John was a later development in the Christian tradition. It was not something that Jesus himself actually taught, and it is not something that can be found in the other Gospels. In John, Jesus is a preexistent divine being who is equal with God. The earliest Christians – Jesus’s disciples, for example – did not believe this. And there are clear historical reasons for thinking they did not. The earliest Christians help exaltation Christology is in which the human being Jesus was made the Son of God – for example, at his resurrection or at his baptism – as we examined in the previous chapter. John has a different Christology. In his view, Christ was a divine being who became human. I call this an incarnation Christology. (p. 248-49)
Here, we start seeing the proper foundations of the Holy Trinity.
The synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are different again. There is no pre-existing Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, and no mention of a virgin birth. It seems that Jesus becomes the Son of God at his baptism, and given the authority to forgive sins. Ehrman states:
If one always has to ask “in what sense” is Jesus divine, for Mark, Jesus is divine in the sense that he is the one who has been adopted to be this Son of God at his baptism, not later at his resurrection. (p. 239)
This is certainly not the incarnated God figure that forms part of the Holy Trinity.
Luke and Matthew build on this. Bart Ehrman admits that things can be quite difficult in trying to decipher what these writers truly believed because we just don’t have access to their earliest manuscripts. What we have are potentially edited texts with a good deal of interpolation in order to fit theological contexts. Some textual analysis needs to be carefully carried out in order to work out what Luke and Matthew really believed of Jesus:
Luke himself – whoever he was – does not think Jesus was a preexistent Son of God. As it turns out, he does not think Jesus became the Son at the baptism either, as we will see…. Luke is fond of incorporating a variety of preliterary traditions that he had heard, even if they differ from his own views. And so in a speech of Acts he can include a tradition that says Jesus became the Son of God at his resurrection (13:33); in his Gospel he can include one that says Jesus became the Son of God at his baptism (3:22); and he incorporates another tradition that says he became the Son of God at his birth (1:35). Maybe Luke simply wanted to stress that Jesus was the Son of God at all the significant points of his existence: birth, baptism, and resurrection. (p. 240)
The virgin birth plays an important is role:
He will be called the Son of God because he will in fact be the Son of God. It is God, not Joseph, who will make Mary pregnant, so the child she bears will be God’s offspring. Here, Jesus becomes the Son of God not at his resurrection or his baptism, but already at his conception.
This is more of a messianic understanding of who Jesus was.
Matthew follows this train of thought. However, he has a different understanding of the birth, which fulfils prophecy as opposed to representing the moment and method that Jesus became Son of God. I have written myself a great deal about the nativity accounts of Jesus (please grab my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination [UK]). Ehrman observes:
Whether or not Matthews tradition originally coincided with Luke’s view that Jesus was conceived by a virgin without sexual intercourse so that he was literally the Son of God, this view, as most pronounced in Luke, is a kind of “exaltation” Christology that has been pushed back just about as far as such a view can go. If an exaltation Christology maintains that a human has been elevated to a divine status, then there is no point for that to happen earlier than the moment of conception itself. Jesus is now the Son of God for his entire life, beginning with…his beginning. One could argue, in fact, that this has pushed the moment of exaltation so far back that here we no longer even have an exaltation Christology, a Christology from “down below.” For here, Jesus is not portrayed in any sense is beginning life as a normal human who because of his great virtual deep obedience to the will of God is exalted to a divine status. He starts out as divine, from the point of his conception.
Of course, divine here does not mean part of the Godhead as understood in the Holy Trinity. This is not a pre-existing god being incarnated into human form and being born, this is a messianic figure who has divine properties as an exalted being from the point of his birth.
And there we have it. A great range of beliefs about who Jesus was from the four writers from whence Christianity developed. Take your pick. Or leave them all.
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