Christology: Definition & History of Belief in Jesus' Divinity


Marko Marina Author Bart Ehrman

Written by Marko Marina, Ph.D.

Author |  Historian

Author |  Historian |  BE Contributor

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Date written: June 20th, 2024

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

There is no doubt in my mind: The historical Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who believed God would soon intervene in history, overthrow the forces of evil, and set up a new Kingdom on Earth. This was the message he proclaimed in Galilee and Judea.

In Jerusalem, he faced serious opposition and was eventually arrested and killed for claiming to be the future king of the Jews. He died around 30. C.E. in a most humiliating way, just like thousands of other victims of Roman crucifixion.

However, a few centuries later, millions remembered a different Jesus. 

Not Jesus as a failed prophet, but Jesus who was and still is a divine being, none other than the God who created the universe, the one who would come to judge all of heaven and Earth.

This transformation in the perception of Jesus from a mortal prophet to a divine figure is at the heart of Christology — the field of study concerned with the nature and role of Christ. In this article, we aim to explore the development of Christology and how early Christians came to believe in the deity of Christ.

We’ll delve into the earliest Christological beliefs held by Jesus' first followers and trace the development of these beliefs over the first few centuries. 

We’ll also examine how the initial perception of Jesus evolved, leading to the sophisticated theological doctrines that emerged in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, culminating in the view of Jesus as both fully human and fully divine.

Join us as we journey through the historical and theological developments that shaped one of the most important beliefs in the history of the Western world.

For a deeper dive into the origins of Christianity, consider enrolling in Dr. Bart D. Ehrman's online course, “Jesus the Secret Messiah - Revealing the Mysteries of the Gospel of Mark.” Discover how the narrative of Mark's Gospel contains clever subtleties and numerous surprises that make it one of the most intriguing pieces of literature from the early years of Christianity. 

Christology

Christology: Definition

Before we delve into the development of the belief in the divinity of Jesus, it’s essential to clarify some key terms. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Christology is “the part of theology that is concerned with the nature and work of Jesus, including such matters as the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and his human and divine natures and their relationship.”

Similarly, in Origins of New Testament Christology, Stanley E. Porter and Bryan R. Dyer note: "Christology, or the doctrine of Christ, is the name given to the theological inquiry into the identity of Jesus. (Affiliate Disclaimer: We may earn commissions on products you purchase through this page at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting our site!) Christology is defined differently depending on the theologian and the questions they are asking, but it typically concerns the person of Christ."

Within this field of inquiry, most scholars distinguish between "Low Christology" and "High Christology." Low Christology views Jesus primarily as a human being chosen by God for a particular mission, thus emphasizing his humanity above all.

High Christology, on the other hand, ascribes to Jesus a pre-existent divine nature. It focuses on his divinity and eternal existence. Edward L. Krasevac explains that High Christology "represents the position in which the divinity of Christ is stressed," while Low Christology is a position "in which his humanity is emphasized."

An excellent illustration of High Christology is found in the famous prologue of John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This passage highlights the pre-existent divine nature of Jesus and asserts his identity as the Word (“Logos”) who was with God from the beginning. 

In contrast, the Gospel of Mark offers verses that are typical examples of Low Christology. For instance, Mark 13:32 states: "But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." Here, Jesus acknowledges his limitations in knowing the exact timing of Judgment Day — a clear indication of his human nature. 

However, it's important to note that a strong distinction between those two categories only sometimes offers a nuanced picture of the early beliefs in Jesus. As Bart D. Ehrman explains in his book How Jesus Became God, scholars typically answer the question of high or low Christology based on the paradigm according to which the divine and human realms are categorically distinct, with a great chasm separating the two. 

He asserts: "The problem is that most ancient people — whether Christian, Jewish, or pagan — didn’t have this paradigm. For them, the human realm wasn’t an absolute category separated from the divine realm by an enormous and unbridgeable crevasse."

So, while we keep using terms such as “High” and “Low” Christology, we must be aware of their limitations when applied to the ancient world, where the distinction between human and divine wasn’t as clear as it is today.

Nevertheless, Christology, in its various forms, offers a window into the evolving beliefs of early Christian communities and the complex interplay between Jesus' humanity and divinity. To this, we now turn — starting with the earliest beliefs about Jesus’ nature. 

The Beginnings of Christology: Earliest Beliefs About Jesus

Belief in the resurrection of Jesus is undoubtedly the backbone of the entire Christian religion. If its followers had not believed that God raised Jesus from the dead, Christianity would probably have remained a small sect within Judaism, known only to the scholars of the ancient world, and you probably wouldn’t read this amazing article! What a game-changer, right? 

In other words, the belief in the resurrection was a transformative event for the early Christian movement. As Luke T. Johnson explains in his book Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity, the “Christ-cult began when Jesus' followers claimed to have experienced Jesus more powerfully after his death than before, indeed, to have encountered him and received from him a commission to proclaim the good news to the nations."

Once the disciples believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead, they began to reinterpret everything he had said and done in a new, exalted light. To put it simply, the historical Jesus — the apocalyptic prophet — was re-envisioned through layers of Christology. The historical figure became obscured by the divine Christ of faith.

This raises an important question: When did Jesus become divine? If we consult the earliest sources, the answer might surprise us.

This question brings us to the so-called pre-literary traditions found in New Testament documents. These are excerpts quoted by later authors that predated those writings. For those interested in how scholars identify these pre-literary traditions, Bart Ehrman's book How Jesus Became God is an excellent starting point.

One notable example of a pre-literary tradition is found in Romans 1:3-4, where Paul speaks of Jesus as a Son "who... was a descendant of David and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord."

This short creedal statement clearly teaches that Jesus was a man who was made the Son of God at his resurrection. Similarly, Acts 2:36 reveals that Jesus was made divine at the point of his resurrection which (again) suggests that he didn’t possess a divine nature before this event.

To understand how this form of Christology functioned, we should turn to the valuable insights of Michael Peppard in his book The Son of God in the Roman World. Peppard demonstrated that adopted sons in the Roman world held all the privileges, prestige, and power of their adoptive fathers and were often considered superior to natural sons.

Contrary to previous scholarly thought, the idea of God adopting Jesus at his resurrection represented a significant identity upgrade, making him worthy of worship. And Larry W. Hurtado, in his classic study Lord Jesus Christ, showed that Jesus of Nazareth is the only Jewish historical figure who was worshiped by his followers as a divine being. 

Bart Ehrman summarizes the significance of this early Christology: "It entailed the most fantastic claims about Jesus that these people could imagine: As the Son of God he was the heir to all that was God’s. He was also the Son of Man, the one whom God had entrusted to be the future judge of the entire world. He was the heavenly messiah who was ruling — now — over the kingdom of his Father, the King of kings. And in that capacity as the heavenly ruler, he was the Lord, the master, and sovereign over all the earth.” 

As time progressed, Christians found it insufficient to pinpoint Jesus' divine nature solely to the resurrection event. They felt the need to trace the origin of Christology further back

However, we must be cautious in our analysis. The development of Christology wasn’t a straightforward, linear progression that continually, always, and everywhere pushed the origin of Jesus' divinity further back in time.

It’s important to note that the apostle Paul clearly believed in Jesus as a divine being who existed before his birth. Yet, an examination of the four New Testament Gospels does reveal what Raymond Brown, in his book The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, described as a backward development of Christology.

Divinity of Jesus

Jesus Becoming More and More Divine: The Development of Christology in the Gospels

As noted in our earlier article, the Gospel of Mark was the first of the four New Testament Gospels to be written, around 70 C.E. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke followed 10-15 years later, and the Gospel of John was composed around 95 C.E. 

It's important to remember that these texts were originally anonymous. The titles ascribing them to two of Jesus' disciples (Matthew and John) and two companions of the apostles (Mark/Peter and Luke/Paul) were later additions, probably created in the middle of the 2nd century.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is presented as the adopted Son of God, but this adoption occurs at his baptism rather than his resurrection. Mark's Gospel begins with Jesus as an adult being baptized by John, at which point God declares Jesus to be his Son (Mark 1:11). 

This moment marks the beginning of Jesus' ministry, where he performs miracles and delivers profound teachings. 

Furthermore, Mark doesn’t include a narrative of Jesus' miraculous birth from a virgin, nor does the Gospel suggest the author knew of such a tradition. In fact, some scholars, like Bart Ehrman in his excellent blog, suggest there are implicit rejections of the virgin birth within Mark’s narrative.

Matthew and Luke, both written after Mark, used his Gospel as a source but also incorporated other sources. They were primarily oral traditions, which included accounts of Jesus' birth from a virgin. These birth narratives are historically problematic due to numerous discrepancies and improbabilities, yet they emphasize the divine nature of Jesus from conception.

In other words, according to both Matthew and Luke, Jesus' divine identity is established not at his baptism but at his conception.

In Luke's Gospel, for instance, the angel Gabriel tells Mary she will conceive by the Holy Spirit, and her child will be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35). This conception narrative parallels the ancient notion of divine beings being born from unions between gods and mortals. But, unlike most pagan examples, Luke specifies that Mary's pregnancy is caused by the Holy Spirit, not through physical union with a deity.

About the possible similarities, Raymond Brown argued that there is no clear parallel to the virgin birth in pagan religions that could have inspired early Christians. 

However, David M. Litwa, in his book Iesus Deus points out similarities between Luke’s account and the story of Plato’s miraculous birth as told by Plutarch. These similarities suggest that early Christian narratives could have been influenced by broader cultural ideas about miraculous births. Litwa’s book is a must-read! 

In any case, it’s crucial to note that in the Synoptic Gospels, there is no suggestion that Jesus preexisted his birth as a divine being. The depiction of Jesus’ divinity evolves in these texts, but it remains within the framework of his earthly life. 

When we turn to the Gospel of John, we encounter a markedly high Christology. John portrays Jesus as the divine Word (“Logos”), a preexistent being who was with God from the beginning and through whom all things were made (John 1:1-3). 

In John's Gospel, Jesus isn’t merely a human who becomes divine; he is depicted as a divine being who took on human flesh, thus presenting a fully developed doctrine of the preexistent Christ who is co-equal with God.

This evolution — from the earliest Christological views found in Mark to the High Christology of John — reflects a significant theological development within early Christianity. It underscores how early Christians reinterpreted the nature of Jesus in increasingly divine terms, moving from an apocalyptic preacher executed by the Romans to the preexistent divine “Logos” who created the universe.

With the Gospel of John, we reach a pivotal point where Christians portray Jesus as a preexistent divine being who is equal to God and the creator of the entire universe. This depiction stands in stark contrast to the starting point of the historical Jesus — an apocalyptic (human) preacher who was executed by the Romans for alleged crimes against the state. That’s quite a progression, isn’t it?

To make it even better, we crafted a table illustrating the chronological development of Christology as reflected in the four canonical Gospels. I know, we are awesome! 

Gospel

Date (C.E.)

Christology

Mark

70

Adopted Son of God at Baptism

Matthew

80-85

Son of God at Conception (Virgin birth)

Luke

80-85

Son of God at Conception (Virgin birth)

John

95

Preexistent Divine Being

However, that wasn’t enough! The early Church still had to find precise terminology to express Jesus’ identity without “endangering” either his human or his divine side.

Jesus on the Road to Orthodoxy: Fully Developed Christology

During the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Christianity was a diverse phenomenon encompassing various communities that often held different beliefs about God, salvation, and, of course, the nature of Jesus. To learn more about it, check out Bart Ehrman’s bestseller Lost Christianities!

Among the many groups, the Docetists, for instance, argued that Jesus was never fully human. In their opinion, his humanity was merely an illusion, and Jesus’ true nature was entirely divine. This view was one of many competing Christological perspectives within early Christianity.

Amid this diversity, one stream of Christianity eventually gained an upper hand — a stream that scholars typically call “proto-orthodoxy”.

Influential theologians and bishops, such as Irenaeus and Hippolytus of Rome, led this movement. They emphasized a balanced understanding of Jesus' nature to counter the various "heretical" movements that often marginalized one aspect of Jesus' identity over the other.

These proto-orthodox leaders asserted that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, a belief that became foundational for mainstream Christian doctrine.

The challenge of maintaining this dual nature of Christ was significant. In the centuries that followed, various heretical movements, such as Arianism, which denied the full divinity of Christ, and Apollinarianism, which denied his full humanity, threatened the proto-orthodox position.

To address these theological disputes and unify Christian doctrine, church leaders convened councils to articulate a clear and “orthodox” understanding of Christ's nature.

The culmination of these efforts occurred at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E. The Chalcedonian Definition, or formula, was a landmark statement that affirmed the belief in Jesus Christ as one person in two natures: "Without confusion, without change, without division, without separation." 

This Christology definition addressed and rejected the extremes of Docetism, Arianism, Apollinarianism, and other movements, by providing a “middle ground” and asserting Jesus’ dual identity. 

This doctrinal development significantly influenced the future of Christian theology and ecclesiastical structure. It provided a theological foundation that helped unify the diverse beliefs within early and late antique Christianity and set the stage for the development of medieval and modern Christian thought.

Today, the vast majority of Christians accept the Chalcedonian formula and profess the belief in a Jesus who was fully human and divine. How could a person have a fully human and a fully divine identity? In my opinion, that’s beyond the possibility of a rational explanation. For most Christians, it’s a mystery they choose to believe in. For others, a logical fallacy. 

Conclusion

To summarize, the journey through the development of Christology reveals the profound change in how early Christians perceived Jesus. Starting from an apocalyptic preacher in Galilee, whose death seemed to mark the end of his mission, Jesus was gradually reinterpreted by his followers.

This reinterpretation, fueled by their belief in his resurrection, led to increasingly sophisticated theological doctrines. Early Christology saw Jesus as a divine being who transcended human limitations and evolved from a man chosen by God to a preexistent divine figure co-equal with God.

The progression of Christology underscores the dynamic nature of early Christian belief and the significant shifts in theological thinking over the first few centuries. It also highlights how these early beliefs have profoundly shaped the historical, cultural, and religious landscape of the Western world.

As Bart Ehrman eloquently states in Jesus Before the Gospels: “It's easy to make the argument that the historical Jesus didn’t transform the world. There are two billion people today who are committed to the memory of Jesus. How many of those two billion have what I, as a historian, would consider to be a historically accurate recollection of the basic facts of Jesus' real life and ministry? Some thousands? It's a tiny fraction. The historical Jesus didn’t make or transform history. The 'Remembered Jesus' did."

Marko Marina

About the author

Marko Marina is a historian with a Ph.D. in ancient history from the University of Zagreb (Croatia). He is the author of dozens of articles about early Christianity's history. He works as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Zagreb where he teaches courses on the history of Christianity and the Roman Empire. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball and spending quality time with his family and friends.

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