Here’s the full challenge: Sure, Jesus was a real historical figure. He was a homeless teacher who was a generally good man. His early followers really, really wanted for him to be the Messiah. They attempted to impose this on him but he rejected it. Their desire was so great however, that over time the church itself began teaching Jesus’ divinity. This ultimately culminated in Constantine gathering all church leaders together in 325AD to vote on the matter. After this historic session, Jesus’ deity was firmly established, and taught as Christian truth by royal edict from that point on.
There is one glaring problem with this view: it is patently false. “Jesus the God-man” was not a fabrication of Nicaea, but rather this version of the Council at Nicaea is a fabrication of Dan Brown. Ever since his hit book ‘The DaVinci Code”, this version of Nicaea has been prevalent. Though the book was entertaining as a story, it was a failure as history. In this post I don’t want to get too far afield on DaVinci or the minutiae of Nicaea. I want to focus on the critical aspect of the claim, and that is this: No one believed that Jesus was God prior to Nicaea. If that point is true, we have cause for concern. If it is false, the entire story falls apart.
So, can we see evidence that Jesus was believed to be God before 325AD? Absolutely!
For a few examples:
- Jesus himself believed he was God. Jesus forgave people for their sins – behaving as if he really was the person chiefly offended (Mark 2). Jesus claimed to have always existed (John 8:58). Jesus spoke of his intention to judge the world (Olivet Discourse). There really is no confusion on this issue. The Jewish leaders believed that Jesus was claiming to be God, and picked up stones to kill him on at least two occasions – John 8 and John 10.
- The disciples and many who followed could have avoided death had they recanted. Sure, people form conspiracies to lie all the time. But in each case there is something to be gained. The disciples had nothing to gain. In holding this view, they lost credibility and ultimately their lives – but for what? If they did not believe Jesus truly was God, there is no plausible reason for them to lie.
- The Bible is chock full of Jesus’ divinity. The gospels record Jesus speaking as God. Acts records people acting upon this belief. The various letters of the New Testament operate under this assumption. Jesus died in the 30s AD. Paul died in the 60s AD. To say that such a belief did not arise until nearly 250 years later is ludicrous.
- Non-Christians knew what Christians believed. Josephus, Suetonius, Pliny and more disbelieved that Jesus was God, but recorded in the 1st and 2nd centuries that there were a growing number who held this belief.
- The early church fathers believed. We have many writings from leaders such as Polycarp, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Clement, Tertullian, and Origen illustrating the fundamental belief that Jesus was God.
- Archaeology bears this out as well. Early Christian symbols were loaded with meaning. The “ichthys”, for one example, was formed by the Greek word for fish, spelled ΙΧΘΥΣ. Fish figured prominently in the lives and teachings of Jesus and the disciples. The letters in this word also served as an acronym for “Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ”, (Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr), which translates into English as “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior”. We find these symbols all over the place, dating back to the 1st and 2nd centuries.
So, whether or not you believe the claim that Jesus was God’s son, you cannot hold to the notion that it was a late invention by a grand conspiracy at Nicaea.