Is Jesus also God?
So far in our discussion of the "great questions" we have discussed theism: the idea of an entity that is all powerful, all knowing, and supremely good. In the world's religious traditions, this matches up with Christianity, Judaeism, Islam, Mormonism, and perhaps a few others. Of course, such a theistic being may or may not have revealed itself and become known to us through one of these traditions. You can accept theism and stop here, marveling at the mystery of it all, but believing that such a being would dwell forever beyond our experience.
Religions all claim to have knowledge and shared experience of the Beyond, and the theistic religions proclaim God as described by theism. Christianity takes the idea of knowing God a step further than all the other religions. Christians uniquely and startlingly proclaim that this grand being not only has interacted with humanity, but has taken on human form. As St. John the Apostle put it in the prologue to his gospel:
"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." (John 1:14, Holy Bible, King James Version).
This is an astounding claim. If Jesus were a Caesar of Rome, with a massive conquered empire, most the polytheistic peoples of the Mediterranean region might put him in their pantheon. But Jesus was accepted as God by a monotheistic Jewish community, to whom this kind of claim would seem like sheer blasphemy! They would be the last people on earth to embrace the idea a man as being also a god. For several reasons.
Their foundational scriptures, which they took to be the very words of the eternal God, left them little room for maneuvering on the God issue.
For example, Deuteronomy 4:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. "And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you— for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of the Lordyour God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.(Deuteronomy 6:4-15, Holy Bible, English Standard Version).
And from the "Ten Commandments":
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, (Exodus 20:3-5, Holy Bible, English Standard Version).
The entire communal experience of the Jewish people had cured them of alternative notions. They understood that the vagaries of their past, particularly their conquest and exile at the hands of the Babylonians, had been divine punishment for wandering astray from God's law. And yet, God had miraculously preserved "a remnant" of the people and shepherded their return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple. These would not be a people disposed to inventing or accepting new gods.
They would especially not invent or accept a new god-man who was executed on a cross. The Jews had some beliefs about blessing and curse. God blessed and prospered those whose hearts were good. If things were going particularly bad, then to some extent this meant that you must have done something wrong because God was not on your side. Jesus had some very bad things happen to him. He was arrested, tried in both Jewish and Roman tribunals, executed, and his body was hung on a pole. According to the ancient book of Deuteronomy: "... he that is hanged is accursed of God". Later one of the Christian evangelists, known to history as St. Paul, made reference to "Christ crucified--a stumbling block to the Jews..." The idea of a messiah who was killed and hung on a pole would have made little sense to Jesus' contemporaries.
Yet the notion of Jesus as the messiah caught on. Why?
1. People saw something!
The explanation that seems most likely is that there were indeed witnesses to a shocking event that changed peoples' minds, namely the bodily resurrection of Jesus. A story this outlandish, to be swallowed by a large chunk of a populace predisposed against the idea of a god-man, to whom anyone hanging on a pole is cursed of God, practically demands that it be true--he was seen alive, as claimed. Otherwise this story just wouldn't catch on.
Clearly, Jesus' immediate disciples at least believed that they had seen him alive after he had died--This fact is not widely disputed. From a dejected and disheartened band cowering in fear behind closed doors they were suddenly transformed into bold proclaimers of a seemingly crazy story, for which they were willing to be tortured and killed. Maybe they were fooled somehow, and people have theorized all sorts of ways this might have happened--maybe a twin, or look-alike appeared to them. Maybe Jesus didn't die on the cross but was merely unconscious and somehow revived inside the tomb. Maybe the disciples had a shared hallucination brought on by their grief and stress. These are weak theories, but so is the theory that his followers perpetuated a massive hoax. They would be unlikely to embrace torture and death for a mere hoax.
Saint Paul the Apostle had his own separate encounter with the risen Jesus, and this experience similarly transformed him. He went from persecutor of Christians to their greatest evangelist in one of history's most stunning 180's. Writing a little over 20 years after the Crucifixion, Paul makes reference to an even older tradition, as stated in his first letter to the Corinthians:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (I Cor 15:3-8, Holy Bible, English Standard Version)
Jesus' brother James became a leader in the early church. However, at an earlier time, when Jesus was still alive, his brothers did not believe in him:
He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” (Mark 6, Holy Bible, English Standard Version)
Even more succinctly, John stated For even His brothers did not believe in Him.John 7:5, Holy Bible, English Standard Version)
It appears that James was converted because he was an eyewitness of the resurrected Jesus. As I reflect on this, this becomes a very powerful bit of evidence. If my own brother started claiming divinity, I'd think he had lost his marbles. I would be very reluctant to accept his claim, because after all, I know him; he's just my little brother.
2. Prophecies were fulfilled!
Looking back on it, the people saw how all of the strands of messianic expectation--some quite contradictory or odd--were astoundingly fulfilled in one person. How, for example, could one be born in Bethlehem, a lowly town (Micah 5), and yet be of the kingly line of David (Isaiah 9)—signifying a restoration of the glory of the kings of Israel. How would one be entering the city of Jerusalem in triumph (Zechariah), and yet also be a sacrificial victim, by whose stripes we may be healed (Isaiah 53)?
Perhaps I will go into greater detail in a future essay or edit of this one, but I’ll close with this suggestion. Perhaps the best way to catch this idea is to listen, as I did recently, to the great oratorio by Georg Friedrich Handel, “The Messiah”, which is most often performed at Christmas time. Scraps of prophecy from all over the Old Testament make up two thirds of the text of this piece. It is amazing how much these words, written thousands of years before the events of the New Testament, sound like reportage on the life of Jesus.