Did Jesus Christ really claim to be divine, or were these claims added by the church long after the fact?
The argument that the supernatural content in the Gospel accounts is a product of later legendary embellishment is one that still makes the rounds in atheistic writings today. If examined closely, however, the arguments often used to support the thesis have little substance aside from “because it’s supernatural.” The criteria usually used by historians to determine whether something is unoriginal to a certain text (such as the inclusion of anachronisms, the character of the author, etc.) is not commonly used by critics of Christianity.
Some make the argument that the divine claims of Jesus Christ are not original to the speaker or the author but were invented later on. If we look at John’s Gospel, for example, we can see an evolution in Christology when we compare it to the Synoptics. In other words, the argument rests on the position that the divine claims of Jesus became more and more explicit with time.
The first note we can make in response to this is the dating of John’s Gospel. The scholarly consensus dates John’s Gospel from as early as 50-65 A.D. (see John A. T. Robinson’s Redating the New Testament) to as late as the end of the first century. If we were to assume the earliest date for John’s Gospel it would place it roughly within the period the Synoptics were written. If we were to assume the latest date it would place us one or two decades after, not even close to a minimum requirement of time for a significant legend to develop and replace the truth. Many of the eyewitnesses and people who knew what was true would have picked up on the invention immediately and John’s Gospel would have met the same fate as other heretical, pseudographical Gospels, including the Gospels of Peter, Thomas, or Judas. In response to Ehrman’s take on legendary development, New Testament scholar Michael Bird writes,
The later Logos Christology of the John the Evangelist at the end of the first century and Justin Martyr in the mid-second century represent a genuine development that attempts to flesh out Jesus’ divine functions and to explain them in terms relatable to Greek metaphysics. Yet these developments are based on a logical fusion of Jesus’ preexistent sonship with Jewish wisdom traditions, and so they are not derived from an interface with pagan sources.
Bird, Michael F.. How God Became Jesus (p. 14). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.
Legendary development also assumes that the Synoptics were mostly quiet on this subject. As I established in the last article (link 1 below) this is simply not so. Jesus made many of the same claims in the Synoptics as He did in John’s account and just as many of those were unambiguous to their readers and hearers.
We can go even further back and see the same claims in many of Paul’s epistles which date even earlier than the Synoptics. The oldest liturgical prayer on record, which refers to Jesus as Lord, is found in 1 Corinthians 16:22 which is dated at around 55 A.D. Paul’s letters have been dated by scholars and historians between 49-55 A.D. Within many of these letters Paul cites creeds, hymns, and sayings of Jesus that reveal the same fully formed Christology as that found in John’s Gospel (Rom. 1:3-4; 1 Cor. 11:23; Col. 1:15-16; Phil. 2:6-11; 1 Tim. 3:16; 2 Tim. 2:8.). When we note that these creeds and hymns were already well established oral traditions within the church prior to Paul’s writings this allows us to trace them back to between 33-48 A.D. And in verses such as 1 Thess 1:1, 3, and 5:23, 28, Paul mention Jesus as “Lord” and “Christ” and never once thinks to make the claim more explicit to his readers. He felt no need in any of his writings to clarify that Jesus is the Christ whom Israel expected, the knowledge was already widely well-known and assumed, which indicates that knowledge of Jesus as Lord was already deeply embedded into Christian tradition.
This evidence is more than enough to conclude that Christ’s stated identity as divine is no later invention. The concept existed well within a decade following Christ’s death. I must stress once again that this does not mean that Christ really was divine or that what He claimed was true. The only thing we are establishing here is that Jesus really did claim to be divine and that these claims are no product of legendary embellishment.
We can anticipate another objection here that deserves a look. Maybe, due to their gratitude towards Jesus and His ministry, in His death, the disciples invented the divine claims as a way to honor their teacher. Maybe Christianity is nothing but a eulogy blown out of proportion.
This objection carries with it problems so vast and unavoidable that it borders on a conspiracy theory akin to my home country of Australia being called a myth! A crucified messiah who claimed to be the God of Israel was incredibly offensive to first century Jews and would have been squashed right out of the gate (and squashed violently, mind you). In order to avoid this, then, the disciples would have needed to invent a way out of this, such as a physical resurrection, which in itself would cause a lot of trouble for them. They had to steal a body, hide it somewhere it couldn’t be found by their enemies, and cause a mass hallucination so they had some backup. Even ignoring the conversions of James and Paul, they would have had to face the problem of persecution and, as history tells us, they couldn’t avoid that one.
What history doesn’t tell us is that any of the disciples and followers of Jesus at some point revealed the truth. “It was nothing but a creative eulogy!” Thus, out of mere gratitude, the disciples choose to invent claims for a man that would give them nothing in return but persecution, shame, and ostracization. And Christ’s teachings (other than His claims to divinity) weren’t terribly revolutionary or radical to first-century Jews either. Maybe He was a great moral teacher, but in that case, He was affirming ethics that were already widely held and generally agreed with. Jesus based His teachings on a true understanding of the OT, after all.
This also assumes that legends are easily developed. Indeed, a legendary claim can be made within a handful of years after the fact, but there are three stages a legend must go through before it can be treated as gospel truth and replace the actual truth altogether. Apologist J.P. Holding explains them thusly,
Initial acceptance. This is where everyone gets excited and picks up on the new movement, for whatever reason. In this stage, the movement thrives and grows.
Critical analysis. AKA Disillusionment, Crash and Burn, etc. Call this the place where things get rough. It is where folks discover that the movement is based on false premises, and it all goes downhill from there.
Alteration for survival. In order to survive, the movement must change dramatically. This usually leads to a slow death and possibly total extermination. It is also the stage (very late) when legends are produced that cannot be countermanded by accessible methods of verification, precisely because they have been developed so late.
Would the disciple’s invention pass stage two if it wasn’t what really happened?
If the claims really were a product of a creative eulogy we would surely expect the enemies and opponents of the Christian movement to speak up as soon as things got out of hand. Surely the skeptics and anti-Christians of the time would reveal to the public that it was all a lie? The truth is, there is no written record contemporary to Jesus and the beginning of the Christian movement (first century A.D.) that ever claimed this. The opponents of the Christian movement did make arguments against Jesus’ divinity, but the argument that He never claimed to be divine in the first place was not one of them.
Celsus, for example, made the argument that Jesus was wrong to call Himself the Son of God. Porphyry made the argument that the prophecies in the book of Daniel weren’t authentic in order to conclude that Jesus bore witness to an imposter. No one, not even the greatest skeptics of the time, denied the claims, rather, they attempted to state that Christ was wrong to make the claims or they tried to downgrade the significance of the claims themselves. If one did try to disprove Christ in a lost work by denying the divine claims during the first century it was so easily dismissed and refuted that it was used by none of the best opponents of Christianity.
In conclusion, there is no evidence of a text in the first century or the century after that denied the divine claims of Jesus altogether. The best opponents of the time had no choice but to base their arguments around a fact that was widely known: Jesus claimed to be the divine Son of God. Any denials of the fact came much, much later. The argument that the divine claims of Jesus are products of legendary embellishment is wholly unsupportable and goes completely against the historical evidence.