Yesterday was Pentecost, the day we commemorate the Holy Spirit’s coming upon Jesus’s disciples. According to the Book of Acts, after that momentous event, Peter addressed the crowd with a stirring speech proclaiming Jesus as Messiah; he attracted some 3,000 converts who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2.41–42, emphasis added.) This is a familiar phrase to Episcopalians; we hear its echoes at every baptism, when the priest asks the congregants: Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? We answer: I will, with God’s help.
A couple of years ago I started wondering: What exactly was the teaching of the apostles at that time? What said these men —
who had listened to Jesus’s preaching, day in and day out, for three years;
who regarded themselves as as Jesus’s lieutenants and chief confidants;
who, after Jesus’s crucifixion, felt called to lifelong ministries — which, for many of them, ended in violent death.
Before the break from Judaism — before the spread of competing doctrines such as gnosticism — before the great christological controversies that came to rack the church: What said these men about Jesus?
With these questions in mind, I re-read much of the New Testament, especially the Book of Acts. I was a bit surprised by what I found; or more accurately, by what I didn’t find.
The apostles clearly seem to have taught that Jesus was a man. A special man, to be sure: an anointed one (messiah or christos), designated by God for an earthshaking mission. A man whose most impressive credential was God’s having raised him from the dead in anticipation of that mission.
What the apostles didn’t seem to have taught was that Jesus was God himself.
Examining the Documents
I’ll state at the outset that I’m not a trained biblical scholar. (Although, to paraphrase a previous post, it seems to me that biblical scholarship is too important to be left entirely to the trained biblical scholars.)
I do claim a certain professional competence in analyzing written accounts of past events. I also claim that those skills can be useful in studying the New Testament documents.
As explained in this post and this one, I have professional reservations about the reliability of the New Testament documents. Those reservations encompass the Book of Acts no less than the Gospels, Epistles, and Revelation.
But on this particular issue, my reservations don’t affect the analysis. That’s because the church claims that its doctrines derive from the apostles’ teachings. If the church can’t find support for that claim in the Book of Acts, it’s not likely to find better support anywhere else. So we can profitably look into what Acts has to say about the apostles’ teaching.
The Apostles Argued That Jesus Was the Messiah, Not God
According to Acts, the apostles spoke of Jesus as the “Messiah” practically from Day One. We’re so accustomed to the doctrine that Jesus was God, that it’s easy to think of the word messiah as simply another name for God. But that doesn’t seem to be the way the apostles used the term.
The Changing Jewish Views of the Expected “Anointed One”
In Hebrew, the word transliterated as messiah means “anointed one” (in Greek, christos). The Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly refer to various Israelite kings, and others appointed by the LORD for particular tasks, as having been “anointed” or “the LORD’s anointed,”  but these were simply men.
By the time of Jesus, the nation of Israel had suffered centuries of oppression. It had been conquered in turn by Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and most recently, Romans. By then, the word messiah had come to signify a kingly figure to come — a hero who, some thought, would deliver the nation from oppression and usher in the reign of the God of Israel. As summarized in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia:
The earlier prophecies to Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 18:17-19; 26:4-5) speak merely of the salvation that shall come through their seed.
Later the royal dignity of the promised deliverer becomes the prominent feature. He is described as a king of the line of Jacob (Numbers 24:19), of Juda (Genesis 49:10: "The sceptre shall not pass from Juda until he comes to whom it belongs"), and of David (II Kings 7:11-16).
It is sufficiently established that this last passage refers at least typically to the Messiah. His kingdom shall be eternal (II Kings 7:13), His sway boundless (Psalm 71:8); all nations shall serve Him (Psalm 71:11).
In the type of prophecy we are considering, the emphasis is on His position as a national hero. It is to Israel and Juda that He will bring salvation (Jeremiah 23:6), triumphing over their enemies by force of arms (cf. the warrior-king of Psalm 45).
Even in the latter part of Isaias there are passages (e.g. 61:5-8) in which other nations are regarded as sharing in the kingdom rather as servants than as heirs, while the function of the Messiah is to lift up Jerusalem to its glory and lay the foundations of an Israelitic theocracy.
(Extra paragraphing added.)
Apparently, the precise nature of the coming hero-king was the subject of a range of opinions among first-century Jews. This survey of Jewish sources, which seems to be reasonably careful to avoid overstatement, says that:
[N]ot only was there a messianic expectation, but [it] varied from group to group. That is, that some considered the Messiah to be a purely natural in-history political leader (albeit more powerful than the Romans), some considered the Messiah to be super-natural/super-angelic, some considered him to be an after-history universal King/Son of God, etc.--and some did not expect one at all.
The Apostles Claimed that the “Anointed One” Had Already Arrived
According to Acts, the apostles sought to convince their fellow Jews that the expected messiah was none other than their late leader, Jesus. Peter argued that God had appointed the man Jesus to this role, and had confirmed his appointment by empowering him to do wondrous deeds, but more importantly, by raising him from the dead and taking him to heaven, where he awaited the time when he would return to earth to restore all the world to God’s reign. For example (all emphasis mine):
Peter proclaimed: "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know” (2.22).
Peter continued that “God has made him both Lord [kyrios] and Messiah [christos], this Jesus whom you crucified” (2.36).
He exhorted the crowds to “[r]epent therefore, and turn to God … [so] that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago” (3.19–21).
In addressing Cornelius’s household, Peter taught “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (10.38) and how Jesus “is the one ordained by God as the judge of the living and the dead” (10.42).
(Incidentally, Peter seems to have anticipated a sin not uncommon to lawyers, that of mischaracterizing an authority in the hope of furthering his argument and convincing his audience. According to Acts, Peter argued that in Psalm 16.8–11, David supposedly foretold God’s rescue of the Messiah from the grave — and since God had just raised Jesus from the dead, it stood to reason that Jesus must have been the one about whom David spoke (2.25–28). Unfortunately, Peter’s argument appears to be a complete fabrication. The psalm clearly is not a prediction of a future event, but an expression of confidence that God will protect the psalmist himself.)
The apostle Phillip, says Acts, “went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah [christos] to them” (8.5); the crowds listened and believed him, “who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.”
And Paul the self-proclaimed apostle, in the days after his conversion, “confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah” (9.22, emphasis added). Later, Paul proclaimed Jesus as Messiah in Thesselonica (17.3) and in Corinth, where he “testif[ied] to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus” (18.5, emphasis added).
(Unless we think Paul spoke in Yoda-like syntax, the latter phrasing seems to suggest that in his mind, the eventual coming of the Messiah was a given, and that what he sought to prove to the crowds was that Jesus was he.)
In Athens, Paul echoed Peter’s earlier credentialing of Jesus, whom he referred to as “a man whom [God] has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (17.31, emphasis added).
Likewise, Apollos crossed over to Achaia, where “he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus” (18.28, emphasis added).
The Apostles Didn’t Teach That Jesus Was God Incarnate
Nowhere does the Book of Acts suggests that the apostles taught of Jesus as God incarnate. It seems pretty clear that they didn’t believe this to be true, as shown by several different facets of the stories told in Acts.
The Apostles Continued to Worship God, Not Jesus
The Book of Acts repeatedly refers to the apostles and their followers as worshipping God, not Jesus. For example (all emphasis mine):
- The first converts “spent much time together in the temple, … praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2.46–47);
- When Peter was imprisoned by King Herod, “the church prayed fervently to God for him” (12.1–5);
- The Holy Spirit directed the church at Antioch to set apart Barnabas and Saul while the church was “worshipping the Lord” (13.1–3); while this reference to “the Lord” is ambiguous standing alone, it seems to refer to the LORD God, inasmuch as the same chapter quotes a passage from Isaiah as the commandment of “the Lord” (13.47);
- Paul and Silas, imprisoned in Philippi after their encounter with the owners of the slave girl, “were praying and singing hymns to God” (16.25);
- In Corinth, “the Jews made a united attack on Paul …. [and] said, ‘This man is persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law’” (18.12–13);
- In Ephesus, Paul “testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus” (20.21), and stated his desire to finish “the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus to testify to the good news of God’s grace” (20.24);
- When Paul visited the church in Jerusalem, he followed the advice of the Christians there, submitting himself to a purification rite in the temple to prove that he was not teaching Jews to foresake the Law (21.17–26).
Many Jewish Priests Became Converts
It’s worth noting that, according to Acts, “a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (6.7). It’s hard to imagine this happening if the apostles had preached that Jesus was God in human form.
When the Apostles Were Persecuted,
It Wasn't for Preaching Jesus’s Divinity
According to Acts, “the Jews” persecuted the apostles, sometimes violently and even fatally. Why? Acts suggests that the persecutions happened, not because the apostles taught that Jesus was God incarnate, but for other offenses against politically-correct belief and the established order. If they had in fact proclaimed that Jesus was God, it's hard to see how they would have lived to tell the tale.
Persecutions for Proclaiming the Resurrection of the Dead
The earliest persecutions arose in response to the apostles’ teaching of the resurrection of the dead. That teaching apparently angered the priestly Sadducee hierarchy, which did not believe in resurrection (23.8). The priests and captains of the temple took offense at Peter and John’s proclamation “that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So they arrested them ….” (4.1–3) The priests eventually released the two apostles (4.23), but they were soon to see Peter again.
The high priest and his jealous Sadducee retinue later rearrested Peter and the other apostles because they had healed the sick and cast out unclean spirits (5.12–17). Peter, brought before the council, risked death by defiantly pressing his resurrection claim. He insisted to the council that “the God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree [and] exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (5.30–31). His listeners “were enraged and wanted to kill them,” but council member Gamaliel — who as a Pharisee presumably did believe in resurrection (23.8) — talked them out of it, convincing them instead to wait and see how things played out (5.33–39).
Persecutions for Challenging the Established Order
The apostles suffered other acts of violence because of their challenges to the existing political and economic order. For example:
Stephen was killed for being too “in your face” with the council. The chain of events started when false witnesses told the council that “[t]his man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us” (6.13–14). Stephen himself enraged the council when he excoriated them for opposing the Holy Spirit and killing Jesus, just as their ancestors had persecuted the LORD’s prophets (7.51–53).
Paul and Silas upset an unsavory business arrangement in Philippi when they cast out a spirit of divination from a slave girl. The girls’s owners had been making good money from her fortune-telling, but no longer. Angry that their meal ticket was gone, they dragged the apostles before the magistrates and accused them of “disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe” (16.16–21).
The same two apostles later provoked a political uproar in Thessalonica, where “the Jews” accused them of “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (17.7).
And economics raised its head again in Ephesus, where Paul’s teachings caused the silversmiths who made shrines to Artemis to lose business; those worthies rioted (19.23–28).
Persecutions for Welcoming Gentiles
Some apostles were persecuted by “the Jews” because of their willingness to consort with Gentiles. The first time that Paul and Barnabas preached in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia, they were well-received and encouraged to return the following week (13.42). But when the following sabbath arrived, “almost the whole town gathered” — presumably including Gentiles. That quickly led to trouble: “[W]hen the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul” (13.45). So Paul and Barnabas then turned their attention to the Gentiles, apparently enjoying notable success (13.46–49). This prompted even more incitement by “the Jews,” which in turn caused Paul and Barnabas to leave town; “they shook the dust off their feet in protest” (13.50–51).
During Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem, “the Jews from Asia” stirred up the crowd against him, “[t]his is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place[,]” and claiming that “more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place” (21.27–28).
Preaching that Jesus Was God Would Have Been Fatal
The foregoing passages suggest that the apostles were not men to shrink fearfully from proclaiming their message. They risked violence and even death to do so.
Those passages also suggest that the apostles’ opponents were quick to take violent offense when they didn’t like what they heard.
So if the apostles had preached that Jesus was God himself — which first-century Jews probably would have deemed the ultimate blasphemy — in all likelihood they would have been immediately killed.
This strongly suggests that the apostles didn’t preach the divinity of Jesus, at least not in the days recorded by Acts.
And given their willingness to preach what they believed to be the truth, it stands to reason that the apostles didn’t believe Jesus to be God.
Conclusion: Christology as Adiaphora?
I'm not sure exactly where or when the early church developed the idea that Jesus was God incarnate. I’ve read speculation that the idea arose as a hybrid of Jewish- and Hellenistic Christian beliefs.
But it seems pretty clear: The first apostles — the men who presumably knew Jesus best during his lifetime, the men who reportedly were commissioned by him to carry on his work — did not teach that he was God.
This is especially noteworthy given that Peter, along with James and John the sons of Zebedee, are reported to have witnessed the Transfiguration. If anyone was likely to have believed that Jesus was God himself in the flesh, it would have been they.
True, the author of the Gospel of John wrote a prologue that seemingly equated Jesus with God. But scholars aren't uniformly convinced that John the son of Zebedee was that author. Moreover, scholars believe the Fourth Gospel was written decades after the events we are considering here, whereas I'm interested in what the apostles are reported to have said then.
So when we renew our baptismal vows, and promise to continue in the apostles' teaching, we're not promising to profess or believe in the divinity of Jesus. That doctrine can legitimately said to be adiaphora, an inessential of the faith.
(FOOTNOTE: As regular readers know, my choice for what's "essential" in the faith is simply the Great Commandment and Summary of the Law, of which Jesus himself is reported to have said, "do this and you will live [eternally].")
Jesus was what he was — or if you prefer, he is what he is. If he was indeed God incarnate, we can hope that eventually we will be shown persuasive proof of it.
If Jesus wasn’t God, it doesn’t matter; we can still discern God’s hand at work in Jesus’s life, in the movement he started, and in the church he catalyzed.
God might not have been working in precisely the way that Nicene Christians have long thought. But that’s OK; our task is not to tell God how he must have done what he did — that would be a bit presumptuous, to say the least — but instead:
- to try to discern, humbly, what God in fact has done, using the senses and reason that he gave us and the real-world evidence graciously revealed to us;
- to try to figure out how and why God did what he did, as best we can, so that we can work to align our own actions with his will — mindful that we don't know everything, and that what we think we know could be wrong;
- to recognize that God seems to have a plan, and to trust that everything is going to work out unimaginably well in his good time; and
- to thank him with grateful hearts for all of his blessings.
# # #
 Examples of the use of “anointed one” in the Hebrew Scriptures include (all emphasis is mine):
- King Saul — see, e.g., 1 Sam. 10.1, 12.1–5, 15.17, 24.6, 26.9, 11, 16; 2 Sam. 1.14–16
- King David — see 1 Sam. 16.12–13; 2 Sam. 2.4–7, 3.39, 12.7, 19.21, 22.51, 23.1; Ps. 89.20 and passim
- King Solomon — see 1 Kings 1.39, 2 Chron. 6.42
- Jehu son of Nimshi, “whom the LORD had anointed to destroy the house of Ahab” — 2 Chron. 22.7
- Cyrus, king of Persia, "whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut" — Is. 45.1
- the author of Isaiah 61.1, announcing that “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” — Is. 61.1