A History Lesson from C. S.
Missionaries allege that their belief in the divinity of Jesus is rooted in Jewish Scriptures. Some missionaries take this argument one preposterous step forward. They contend that the veneration of Jesus as a god can be traced to Jewish thinking that predated Jesus.
Let us step back and examine this claim from a historical perspective.
There are certain aspects of history which are difficult for us to ascertain from where we stand today. However, there are other aspects of history which are well known and easily verifiable.
The verifiable elements of early Christian history are; that the early followers of Jesus were Jews, that Paul was the one who brought a Christian message to the Gentile world, and that when the Council of Nicea was convened there was a strong contingent of followers of Jesus who believed that he was not divine.
The question we must ask is; where did this concept of the “non-divinity” of Jesus get inserted into the Christian thought process? How did such a concept gain so much popularity amongst Gentile Christians? According to the aforementioned missionaries, the Jewish followers of Jesus all believed that he was divine in a “smooth progression” from Jewish teachings. So was it the pagan converts to Christianity who resisted the message of “divine man”? Which pagan group would have had a problem with a “man-god” or with a “virgin birth”? Which pagan nation would have made such a fuss about the claims for the divinity of Jesus that the Council of Nicea needed to deal with those claims with such seriousness?
According to these missionaries we would need to imagine that the original followers of Jesus believed in his divinity while the pagans who joined the movement were the ones who resisted this message.
I propose that the far more plausible scenario is that the Jewish followers of Jesus never heard of the claim for his divinity and that it was the pagans, who were so familiar with the concept of a “man-god,” who inserted this concept into the Christian thought process.
The writings of the early Church Fathers lend validity to this version of history. Irenaus, Eusebius, Epiphanius and Origen all describe the Jewish followers of Jesus as people who rejected the belief in the divinity of Jesus.
“They use the gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the Law. . . . they practice circumcision, persevere in those customs which are enjoined by the Law, and are so Judaic in their style of life that they even adore Jerusalem as if it were the house of God. ” [Refutation of All Heresies, 1.26.2]
“God, then, was made man, and the Lord did Himself save us, giving us the token of the Virgin. But not as some allege, among those now presuming to expound the Scripture, [thus:] “Behold, a young woman shall conceive, and bring forth a son,” [Isa. 7. 14] as Theodotion the Ephesian has interpreted, and Aquila of Pontus. Both Jewish proselytes. The Ebionites, following these, assert that He was begotten by Joseph; thus destroying, as far as in them lies, such a marvellous dispensation of God, and setting aside the testimony of the prophets which proceeded from God.”
(Philip Schaff, Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martin and Irenaeus (Edited Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson) Vol. 1 Ch. 21 http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.xxii.html .)
Eusebius in 325 CE wrote of the Ebionites, in Ecclesiastical History 3.27:
Chapter XXVII. The Heresy of the Ebionites.
1 The evil demon, however, being unable to tear certain others from their allegiance to the Christ of God, yet found them susceptible in a different direction, and so brought them over to his own purposes. The ancients quite properly called these men Ebionites, because they held poor and mean opinions concerning Christ.
2 For they considered him a plain and common man, who was justified only because of his superior virtue, and who was the fruit of the intercourse of a man with Mary. In their opinion the observance of the ceremonial law was altogether necessary, on the ground that they could not be saved by faith in Christ alone and by a corresponding life.
3 There were others, however, besides them, that were of the same name, but avoided the strange and absurd beliefs of the former, and did not deny that the Lord was born of a virgin and of the Holy Spirit. But nevertheless, inasmuch as they also refused to acknowledge that he pre-existed, being God, Word, and Wisdom, they turned aside into the impiety of the former, especially when they, like them, endeavoured to observe strictly the bodily worship of the law.
4 These men, moreover, thought that it was necessary to reject all the epistles of the apostle, whom they called an apostate from the law; and they used only the so-called Gospel according to the Hebrews and made small account of the rest.
5 The Sabbath and the rest of the discipline of the Jews they observed just like them, but at the same time, like us, they celebrated the Lord’s days as a memorial of the resurrection of the Saviour.
6 Wherefore, in consequence of such a course they received the name of Ebionites, which signified the poverty of their understanding. For this is the name by which a poor man is called among the Hebrews.
Epiphanius, who lived in the third century, writes of the Ebionites:
“They declare that he (Paul) was a Greek… He went up to Jerusalem, they say, and when he had spent some time there, he was seized with a passion to marry the daughter of the priest. For this reason he became a proselyte and was circumcised. Then, when he failed to get the girl, he flew into a rage and wrote against circumcision and against the sabbath and the Law.” (Epiphanius, Panarion, 30.16. 6- 9.)
Origen had this to say about these groups who he condemns as heretics:
“Let it be admitted, moreover, that there are some who accept Jesus and who boast on their account of being Christians, and yet would regulate their lives, like the Jewish multitude, in accordance with the Jewish law, and these are the twofold sect of the Ebionites, who either acknowledge with us that Jesus was born of a Virgin, or deny this, and maintain that He was begotten like other human beings.” (Contra Celsum 5:6)
“For there are certain heretical sects which do not receive the Epistles of the Apostle Paul, as the two sects of Ebionites, and those who are termed Encritites” (Contra Celsum 5:65)
What emerges from the writings of these early Churchmen is that those followers of Jesus who considered themselves Jewish did not believe in the divinity of Jesus. Some of them did not believe in the “virgin birth”.
On the other hand, there is no record of any early followers of Jesus who identified themselves as Jews who clearly subscribed to the belief in his alleged divinity.
It is obvious and natural that the pagan followers of Jesus would have had no problem seeing him as a god. The fact that the Arian position was so popular in early Christianity can only be attributed to the monotheism of the Jewish followers of Jesus, who despite their small numbers had the stamp of authenticity on their side.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal