HOW DID JESUS become defined as ‘God’? Beginning with this installment, we travel back to the 4th century of the Christian Era (ce) and observe the proceedings of Christian authorities.
These events account for a bellwether stage in the historical legacy left to our Christian contemporaries and the predicament of their unwieldy, convoluted belief system today. There are numerous lessons for us Muslims all along the way in this narrative, both positive and negative. And we seek Allah’s refuge from ascribing a “son” to Him—metaphorical or literal—and from ascribing of deity to any but Allah, the One God.
Revisiting Parts 1-7
In the previous segments of this series, we looked at the reasoning pursued by a prolific modern biblical scholar (James D. G. Dunn, author of Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?) who wanted to make sense of those earliest “Christians” who practiced their distinctive worship of God in, by, and through Jesus (prophet ʿÎsa)—not apart from him—and who wanted to reconcile this kind of worship with the strict monotheism recorded concerning the very words of Jesus in the Gospel narrative books of Christian scripture.
Following not Jesus, but the self-proclaimed “apostle” Paul, in his doctrine of the raised-from-the-dead and exalted-to-heaven “Christ,” those so-called “Christians”—of the New Testament of the Christian Bible—are to be termed “Christological monotheists” in the words of Dunn.
Paul was the “outsider” spokesman for “Christians,” or, more precisely, as Dunn tells us, the spokesman for “those who call upon (Jesus) Christ.” (Why not simply “call upon” Almighty God!) We concluded, however, that Dunn failed to consider that Paul was the central motivating force—if not the cause—of steering would-be followers of Jesus away from Jesus’ own teaching. Paul, in effect, contradicted the straightforward teaching of Jesus, or, at the very least, Paul diluted and transformed the teaching of Jesus by bringing in foreign elements from the surrounding pagan society.
Reading along with Dunn, we noted how the language about Jesus in the New Testament moved from portraying him as monotheistic prophet/reformer of Bani Isrâ’îl (that is, Jesus according to himself in the first three Gospel books), to representing Jesus as a divine agent, then divine associate (that is, in parts of the Gospel of John, in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the Letters of Paul) clear through to language that presents Jesus as co-deity with God (by the time the reader reaches the final book of the NT, the Revelation to John). All of these documents are among those comprising the New Testament.
We have looked into the New Testament writings—composed roughly between the years 50 and 100 of the Common Era/Christian Era (ce). These were writings not “canonized” (that is, not officially accepted as holy scripture by religious authorities) until the mid-fourth century, ce.
We now proceed in this segment to that same, fourth Christian century to pick up the on-going theological power struggles in the wake of what we may regard, in effect, as the corruption of monotheism set in motion by the Pauline “Christological” doctrines.
In the intervening centuries, Christology had begun with Paul’s teaching about the “Christ,” a title given to Jesus, meaning one chosen by God for a particular mission— a “messiah,” in the terminology of Jesus’ community. With the ascription of this title—and its understood implications within Greek language and mythology—Jesus is thereby to be considered the divine “Son of God.”
Paul’s “Gospel Of Jesus Christ”
In Paul’s teaching, Jesus’ [presumed] “death” by Roman State execution paid the penalty for mankind’s sin and Jesus’ [presumed] “rising from the dead” was claimed to be God’s attestation for Paul’s teaching:
Bible, Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 1:17 Christ … sent me to tell the Good News … in order to make sure that Christ’s death on the cross is not robbed of its power.
Bible, Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 15:12-14, 20, 42: Now, since our message is that Christ has been raised from death, how can some of you say that the dead will not be raised to life? If that is true, it means that Christ was not raised; and if Christ has not been raised from death, then we have nothing to preach and you have nothing to believe. … But the truth is that Christ has been raised from death, as the guarantee that those who sleep in death will also be raised. … When the body is buried, it is mortal; when raised, it will be immortal.
The attraction of Pauline Christianity in the pagan world was likely related to its promise of immortality, which was to take effect, according to Paul, by means of one’s personal resurrection from the dead, following the archetype of Jesus’ submission to wrongful suffering and supposed death, his supposed return to life (“resurrection”), and his exaltation to heaven as a supposed intercessory “Christ.” The Christian’s suffering due to the insecurity of earthly life would be compensated for—if only in the next life.
While the purported ancient Roman gods were privileged immortal beings, the ancient Greek philosophers had only imagined the human soul as immortal, and Jews had then merely hinted at inheriting a “world to come.” Jesus, however, was a God-sent teacher with a satisfying spiritual message for his followers, and the Church promised “eternal life”—understood as immortality by the adherents of Paul’s Christ (pp. 14-17).
Muslims, too, believe in another existence of the human soul beyond one’s earthly life, but such an Afterlife of individuals is not something that has been brought about by the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ Jesus (Paul’s teaching)—or by any other determining event in human history! Rather, a person’s next-world life is simply part of the Creator’s program for human beings as originally planned. Allah created man in the first instance and He will re-create each one anew at the time of his Accounting.
That He did create in pairs—male and female, from a sperm drop when lodged (in its place); that He has promised a Second Creation (raising of the dead)… [Sûrat Al-Najm 53:45-47]
That is, all are destined to return to Him, to give comprehensive account for their intents and acts and to be rewarded in proportion to the quality of his choices and efforts. All who trust in the one God and follow His prophetic guidance can be assured of being generously compensated for choosing good in this life. For Muslims, forgiveness of one’s wrongdoings comes not through a punishment of suffering and death inflicted upon another, fully righteous person— whether human or divine—but forgiveness is mediated through one’s personal repentance and asking God to wipe out that blot on his record.
4th Century Christian Controversy And Its World
We trace this historical process and its political underpinnings with the aid of researcher/ writer Robert E. Rubenstein—a specialist in conflict resolution at George Mason University—and his 1999 best-seller, When Jesus Became God—the Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome. (References and quotes cited with page numbers refer to this book.)
In the 4th century the contest raged over whether the man Jesus was “God”—in his supposed “resurrected-from-the-dead” and “exalted-to-heaven” state (that is, as “Christ”); and if not, was he, in any case, something more than an ordinary man?
This controversy came to a head, not in declining Latin-speaking Rome, but in the emerging eastern, Greek-speaking empire, in the three cities where prosperity and culture were most celebrated: Constantinople (Turkey), Antioch (Syria), and Alexandria (Egypt) (p.4).
Recall that what is now presented to us as the New Testament, whatever was its original form and language, has come down to us in the then-current international language, Greek, not in the very different Aramaic language spoken by Jesus and his original followers. (Aramaic, of course, is a Semitic language, a “sister-language” to Arabic.)
Christianity had grown slowly in its first two centuries, but by 250 ce this religious group had enjoyed an expansion with numbers soon to surpass that of the Bani Isrâ’îl/ “Children of Israel” population of the time. What was originally intended as a Jewish reform movement two centuries previously had become a predominantly Gentile (non-Jewish) religious group with no more than historical roots in Judaism.
As a still-shadowy minority movement—without the public acceptance enjoyed by the long-established Jewish community, Christians were blamed more than once for the misfortunes of the Roman Empire. Because of their distinctive refusal to show homage to the power structure of the Roman state by “sacrificing” to their “gods,” Christians had been set up to suffer under the Great Persecution administered by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the first decade of the 300’s ce.
The bitter conflicts among Christians did nothing to bring back the glory of declining Rome. Perhaps Rome’s power could be rehabilitated if Emperor Diocletian were able to restore the old gods. But over to the east, in enlightened Alexandria—a quarter of whose residents were Jews—popular participation was in high gear with another contest for hearts and minds: that of settling the Church’s philosophical conundrums. Their collective decision and internal harmony might be an alternative, capable of saving Roman civilization (pp. 5, 18-21).
People today often misunderstand the intramural disputes among Christians, thinking that they happened based on ideological grounds alone, but in fact there were enabling, or complicating, historical factors just as crucial as the competing belief statements:
- There was the pagan Roman world with an emperor who naturally wanted stability and peace among his subjects, who was thus eager to take an active part in refereeing Church Councils and in pushing to regularize Church doctrine.
- There were Church power structures developing during those times with competing personalities.
- The primacy of the western Roman (“Catholic”) Church was still to emerge, and only in the 11th century would the “schism” with eastern Christians be made permanent, separating western Roman dominance from the eastern Greek (“Orthodox”) Church.
Jesus’ Usage: “Son Of God”
Rome and Constantinople were the main cities vying for fading Roman power. Yet it was the intellectual melting pot of Alexandria (Egypt) that would host the ensuing battle over how “correctly” to perceive the relationship of Jesus to God (p. 5).
In order to see how the question could even arise, we need first to understand how Jesus spoke of himself. Jesus used terminology meaningful to his Jewish constituency in politically volatile times—as we find implicit in the accounts narrated in the Gospel books of Christian scripture, the New Testament. He had employed coded messianic language, referring to God as his “Father” and to himself as “Son.”
The Roman rulers of Palestine in those days were repeatedly being threatened by claims of this and that revolutionary in the guise of Bani Isrâ’îl’s “messiah” or spiritual-political king—thus challenging Roman rule. But the same ruler would give hardly a second thought to a humble Jewish teacher like Jesus using a family-oriented metaphor—calling the metaphysical God his “Father” and referring to himself as God’s “Son” After all, Roman “gods” were said, not uncommonly, to have (half-)human “sons.”
By contrast, though, in the context of Jesus’ Palestine, the term “son of God” was a Hebrew (Jewish) phrase meaning a “godly” person—righteous in terms of the intent of the Law of Moses.
David, Solomon, And Jesus
Promised in Jewish scripture—the Hebrew Bible, or “Old Testament” of the Bible—was someone chosen by God, a “messiah” who would come to restore to Bani Isrâ’îl, the Jewish people, the glory of the previously ruling House of (King) David.
To us Muslims, David is Prophet Dâwûd—and with David is associated a collection of “Psalms” (Al-Zabûr—Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:163), renowned for its inspired poetic songs of praise to God. Some of these psalms are possibly preserved in the Old Testament book of the same name.
The new successor to the “king” figure would be a godly person, fit to represent the descendants of Abraham/Ibrâhîm and Moses/Mûsa. This godly personage, the Hebrew messiah, would be heir to the promise made by the LORD God Almighty, according to the Hebrew Bible:
Bible, 2 kings 7:4-5, 12-17: [The Hebrew prophet Nathan was with King David:] But that night the LORD said to Nathan, “Go and tell my servant David that I say to him… When you die and are buried with your ancestors, I will make one of your sons king and will keep his kingdom strong… I will be his father, and he will be my son…I will not withdraw my support from him… Nathan told David everything that God had revealed to him.
That son, of course, was Solomon / Suleiman—lauded in the Quran for his wisdom and devotion to his Lord. For Prophet Jesus, that is, ʿÎsa, to acknowledge the Hebrew idiom “son of God”—meaning a godly person—would have been quite naturally appropriate since prophets of the One God must of course be “godly,”—meaning obedient to God’s revealed guidance and demonstrating the best of character.
Jesus, The “Son Of David,” And God’s “Kingdom”
But in Jesus’ context it meant more: The title “Son of God”—like “Son of David”—was also an insider code name for the expected Messianic Prophet. As spiritual heir to King David, Jesus spoke of the “Kingdom of God” (or, euphemistically, as the “Kingdom of Heaven”—since Jews did not pronounce the holy name of God). When Jesus referred to the Kingdom of God, he meant that society of God-fearing individuals who submit to what God requires of them. Those ruled by God—those who yearn to please God and live by His revealed Law—are members of God’s Kingdom.
By the way, aren’t we Muslims, by definition, intended to be a society of God-fearing individuals who submit to what God requires of us?! Prophet Muhammad ﷺ—as Jesus’ promised successor—has given us a renewal of God’s Law with regulations for bringing about a godly society.
“The Kingdom of God” was Jesus’ code name used liberally in his reform message. Jesus referred to his message as the “Good News [Gospel] of the Kingdom of God.” God’s “kingdom” was to be that social unit in which people encourage one another to consciously submit to God’s “Law” and to live righteous lives of dependence upon God—as their “king,” so to speak. Here are a couple of samples of Jesus’ teaching, found in the “Gospel” (Arabic: Injîl) books of the New Testament.
Bible, Gospel of Matthew 5:1, 6, 10. Jesus saw the crowds and went up a hill, where he sat down. His disciples gathered around him, and he began to teach them: …”Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires; God will satisfy them fully!…Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them!…”
Bible, Gospel of Mark 4:30-33. “What shall we say the Kingdom of God is like?” asked Jesus. “What parable shall we use to explain it? It is like this. A man takes a mustard seed, the smallest seed in the world, and plants it in the ground. After a while it grows up and becomes the biggest of all plants. It puts out such large branches that the birds come and make their nests in its shade.” Jesus preached his message to the people, using many other parables like these. He told them as much as they could understand. He would not speak to them without using parables, but when he was alone with his disciples he would explain everything to them.
There are scores of references to the “Kingdom of God” on the lips of Jesus recorded in the Gospel books of the New Testament. Jesus referred to his teaching using the code-name “Kingdom of God”: the “reign” of God in the believer’s consciousness will. As a pedagogical instrument, he spoke many parables explaining its practical implication: The reign of a monarch has to do with that king’s government; the revealed rules and regulations of God, the King, are what is mandated to govern His people’s choices in life.
Jesus taught his followers to keep the Law of Moses, with the intention to please God, not as a legalistic ritual compliance while looking for loopholes in the letter of the law. We can equate Jesus’ teaching of the Kingdom of God to the combination of two Qur’anic terms, islam and taqwa: submitting to the rule, or governance, of God and being conscious of Him and of what He requires of would-be believers.
Such believers would be corrected by God and blessed when they obeyed Him. Thus, in Jesus’ world, the Father-Son metaphor—that is, God in relationship to His promised messianic prophet Jesus had nothing to do with the later, Pauline concept of a “first-born” or “begotten” “son” of the Creator. Unfortunately, the Church would pick up the Pauline concept and leave behind Jesus’ use of these Hebrew prophetic metaphors.
The Pagan “Son Of God”
The later, predominantly Gentile (non-Jewish) converts, following Paul and conversant with the various mystery religion cults of their day, had no hesitation to bring with them into the new, “Christian” faith such pagan sensibilities. What had been code-words for Jesus, using standardized, metaphorical Hebrew language-culture concepts, took on a literal, descended-from-the-gods understanding in the minds of pagan converts. Jesus as godly prophet of Abraham’s God became transformed into a Greco-Roman divine being, a god-man, needing to be defined by the Church.
So when Paul, by means of his Gentile-friendly doctrines, had discouraged Jewish participation in the Jesus reform movement, the Greek-speaking Church kept the terminology but lost their Hebrew meanings as originally used by Jesus. “Father” and “Son” in the Hebrew Bible had meant God in relation to His godly king, David—our Prophet Dâwûd. And later it was used of God in relationship to His chosen messianic prophet Jesus, who spoke of God as Bani Isrâ’îl’s “King.”
With Paul’s prolific input to the nascent movement and with the simultaneous loss of the original Jewish followers of Jesus, the pagan Greek meaning of such terms would win out: Jesus would be understood as “God’s son” in the same sense that half-human Apollo (Hercules) was the begotten son of the supreme pagan god Zeus in Greek mythology.
The Logos As God’s Partner
Paul had written as if Jesus were God’s partner in creation in the same sense that the Greek philosophical Logos, or “Word,” was “with” God at the creation and “was” God—whatever that might mean! (Parts 4 and 7 have discussions on Logos.) Once that Greek sense was securely fixed in place as the “correct” Christian conception, all the other philosophical adjustments would have to be worked in—if this new religion were to command the respect of the Greek-educated intelligentsia of the Roman Empire of the time.
The technical term “Christ” was another malleable expression that Paul co-opted and filled with his own meaning:
Bible, Gospel of John 1:17-18: God gave the Law through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. The only Son, who is the same as God and is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
The Hebrew term messiah (“one anointed,” that is, “chosen [by God] for leadership”) became in Greek translation the title Christ, with the conveniently added implications of the spiritual power of a pagan mystery cult personality, like that of Serapis or Mithra or Isis. Such secretive cults were associated with rites of initiation into sacred mysteries, complete with benefits into the Afterlife.
If Jesus was to be a “son” of “a god” (or even the one “Son” of the one true God of the Jews), that is, an offspring of an immortal deity—and do not miss the demotion of the Creator to “god” status, the chief among many gods—then was Jesus to be understood as a human at all? Or was he exclusively “divine”? Or was he human and divine, both at the same time?
And, by the way, what would it mean to be “divine”—more than being a “godly” person in his submission to God and to his exemplary lifestyle? In particular, what would it mean for a godly human being to be “divine”?
Would it mean he embodied the same essence as that of God? These are questions the Church was forced to grapple with once the transformation of the term “son of God” had been made from the Hebrew sense (godly) to the Greek-Roman sense (god-man).
Refusing The Foray Into Philosophical Speculation
Even as late as the 4th Christian century there were still followers of Jesus who insisted that he was a human prophet, like the previous Hebrew prophets. Yet while Jesus was not “a god,” or the One “God,” or even “divine”—for this would violate monotheism—he was clearly more than a normal human being in the Greek mind. Didn’t the Greek-language New Testament say as much, that he was more than a mere human, for he spoke from God and performed miracles!
Of course, a Muslim reader of the New Testament Gospel narratives would feel completely comfortable in categorizing that “more than a mere human” Jesus as a “prophet” in the Islamic sense. But the Greeks did not have the Hebrew concept of “prophet”—and that is the departure point from which the corruption of understanding grew into a raging controversy and eventually an established doctrine with a pagan orientation.
The 4th century Alexandrians would simply draw on the current trends in Greek philosophy to interpret biblical texts and Church doctrine (p. 5). And thus the stage was set for this irreversible foray into theological speculation.
Herein is one patent lesson for us as Muslims: We must take to heart the dangers of engaging in theological speculation if we are to avoid making the same mistakes as did those who had revelation before us:
…And in time Allah will cause them to understand what they have contrived…Indeed the truth deny they who say: ”Behold, God is the Christ, son of Mary…” [Sûrat Al-Mâ’idah, 5:14-19]
To those who are bent on ascribing divinity to aught beside Allah…You follow but [other peoples‘] ‘conjectures,’ and you yourself do nothing but ‘guess.’ [Sûrat Al-Anʿâm, 6:148]
To be continued, inshâ’ Allah, in Part 9…