Some sceptics claim that the earliest Christians did not think Jesus was God. They teach that those early followers thought Jesus was a good man, a good teacher, but that this godhood thing was something that the over-zealous or, more likely, the power-hungry foisted upon him long after his death.
Usually, it is the Council of Nicea in 325 AD that is credited with this upgrade of Jesus’ status from mere man to God. Many will suggest that it was at this time that the Canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) were embellished so that these accepted histories would contain a divine Jesus.
However, the evidence indicates this is not the case and that Jesus was worshipped as God long before Constantine drew breath. While I think a very strong case can be made by looking at the contents and reliability of New Testament alone, here I am actually looking at a few extra-biblical sources.
The first comes from a Roman by the name of Pliny the Younger (62-c.112 AD). In 103 AD Pliny was appointed the governor of the provinces of Bithynia and Pontus; he held the highest rank and position possible for a Roman governor. A number of Pliny’s letters have been preserved, but the one I am going to look at comes from this time in office and was written to the Emperor, Trajan. In part, he writes:
… as to those persons who have been charged before me with being Christians, I have observed the following method. I asked them whether they were Christians; if they admitted it I repeated the question twice, and threatened them with punishment; if they persisted I ordered them to be at once punished. I could not doubt that whatever might be the nature of their opinions, such inflexible obstinacy deserved punishment.
They [those who said they were no longer Christians] declared that their offence or crime was summed up in this, that they met on a stated day before daybreak, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for any wicked purpose, but never to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, never to break their word, or to deny a trust when called on to deliver it up: after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble and to eat together a harmless meal.
While there are certainly a number of insights that can be gained from this letter, there is one I want to focus on. This is a report of Christians worshipping Christ as God (praying to him “as to a divinity”) which dates the the very early second century.
Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of John the Apostle, was a contemporary of Pliny’s and, due to his faith in Christ, was sentenced by the Emperor Trajan to be “bound by soldiers, and carried to the great [city] Rome, there to be devoured by the beasts, for the gratification of the people.”
During this journey to Rome, Ignatius wrote several letters to various churches. In these letters, he repeatedly teaches that Jesus is God; here are a couple excerpts from his Epistle to the Ephesians:
There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first passible and then impassible … (VII)
For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost. (XVIII)
As a final example from a little later in the second century, Justin Martyr wrote the following regarding Jesus in response to Jewish opposition to Christianity’s teachings:
For if you had understood what has been written by the prophets, you would not have denied that He was God, Son of the only, unbegotten, unutterable God. (Dialogue with Trypho, CXXVI)
In fact, there are at least eleven early Christians whose writings we still have today that teach Jesus is God which were penned prior to the Council of Nicea.
All this to simply say, Jesus was regarded as God by the earliest Christians. His divinity was not something invented and subsequently imposed upon Christianity in the 4th Century.