Skeptics sometimes argue that the Christianity in its early years looked different than modern-day Christianity. Specifically, they question whether Jesus claimed to be God or if he was deified by a band of disappointed followers after his crucifixion. Christianity is grounded on the view that the claims of the New Testament are true,]. The gospels describe historical events, accurately recorded. The Apostle Paul wrote, “if Christ is not [truly] raised… our preaching is in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Did Christianity “evolve” as skeptics claim?
If the truth of Jesus of Nazareth has been radically changed; if his message has been altered, and the truth of the Resurrection changed, Christianity itself would collapse even by its own standard. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman suggested the claims of Christianity had changed over time in a 2014 interview with NPR, stating:
“During his lifetime, Jesus himself didn’t call himself God and didn’t consider himself God, and… none of his disciples had any inkling at all that he was God.”
But early Christian literature written after the death of Jesus tells another story: that Jesus was considered God from the earliest days of the Christian faith.
The Apostle Paul, an early convert to Christianity, wrote some of the earliest texts of Christianity. Paul was martyred in the early-to-mid 60s A.D.and is traditionally thought to be the author of 13 New Testament books. Skeptics such as Ehrman question the authenticity of some of these writings; however, nearly all scholars agree that Paul authored at least 7 of these books. Using just these 7 letters, written between the late-40 and early 60s A.D., we can capture a glimpse of Christianity just 15 to 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.
In these letters, Paul described Jesus as the “Lord Jesus Christ,” states Jesus died to provide salvation, claims Jesus was resurrected, and includes explicit language regarding Jesus’ deity. In Philippians 2:6-7, Paul wrote:
“as He [Jesus] already existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself by taking the form of a bond-servant and being born in the likeness of men.”
Paul was converted well after the other apostles and began his mission after the other apostles had been preaching and teaching. As a result, Paul’s letters did not contain new teachings, but instead conformed to the pre-existing teachings of the other Apostles.
Some skeptics are quick to reject or minimize the whole of New Testament scripture, including even these early letters of Paul, insisting that the earliest Christian believers did not interpret Paul’s writings in the same way that modern orthodox Christian theologians typically interpret them. Luckily, the historical record between the New Testament and modern-day Christianity is not silent. Did Christianity Evolve? Click To Tweet
Numerous Christian believers wrote about their faith, even as early as the first and second centuries. These believers cited many theological truths, as they quoted or referenced many passages from the New Testament. In fact, much of the New Testament could be reconstructed from these early Christian writings.
Despite claims that a high Christology (that is, a belief that Jesus Christ was God) emerged late in history, the early writings of the apostolic fathers (the Christians that came after Jesus’ direct followers), tell a different story. For example, Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the late-first to early-second century, clearly believed Jesus was God. In a letter to the church in Ephesus, Ignatius begins with a greeting:
“Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which is at Ephesus, in Asia… being united and elected through the true passion by the will of the Father, and Jesus Christ, our God.”
Even at this early time, the deity of Christ was already accepted by Christians and being taught in churches.
Clement, who began as a companion to Paul, wrote concurrent to Ignatius and taught about Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, writing:
“Let us look steadfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world.”
Early Christian authors repeatedly reiterated the claims of the gospel authors, affirming the theological truths modern Christians accept today. Simply put, Jesus’ claim to deity, His death, crucifixion, resurrection, and offer of salvation emerged quickly after Jesus’ lifetime. These claims didn’t slowly develop over time.
In the Patristic period (the era following the eyewitnesses of Jesus), the “students of the eyewitness students” continued to write about their experiences and their perspective on Christianity. Writings which survive from this period are robust and contain extensive descriptions of Christianity. Justin Martyr, for example, wrote in the mid-second century and described the Christian position on Jesus as follows:
“In the books of the Prophets, indeed, we found Jesus our Christ foretold as coming to us born of a virgin, reaching manhood, curing every disease and ailment, raising the dead to life, being hated, unrecognized, and crucified, dying, rising from the dead, ascending into Heaven, and being called and actually being the Son of God.”
Justin Martyr also described Jesus as the “Word” (or Logos) mentioned by John:
“The Logos is the pre-existent, absolute, personal Reason, and Christ is the embodiment of it, the Logos incarnate.”
This account of Jesus describes him as possessing all the attributes of deity: infinite in nature, all-powerful, and all-knowing.
Even Bart Ehrman tacitly admits that the early church, the Christians who immediately followed the life of the Apostles, accepted Jesus as God. In his book, Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman writes that the deity of Jesus was not an invention of later Christians, but was instead a claim offered by the New Testament writers. When describing the New Testament authors’ description of Christian salvation, Ehrman states:
“Later Christians – including most notably Paul … but also the writers of the Gospels – maintained that it was belief in Jesus that would bring a person into the coming kingdom. But… these people didn’t even know him.”
Although Ehrman claims Jesus never envisioned himself a God capable of a salvific act, he admits that the earliest Christians claimed Jesus was God (and was, in fact, capable of saving them). Why would they believe such a thing? The most reasonable inference is that the real Jesus of history acted and existed in such a way that His followers could reasonably infer His Deity.
Christians proclaimed the deity of Jesus exceedingly early in history. Why? Because Jesus proclaimed this truth and demonstrated His deity repeatedly. Christianity hasn’t evolved. Instead, it has consistently proclaimed the deity of Christ.