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Does the Bible Identify Jesus as God?

by Kermit Zarley

Early Jewish Christianity

Kermit ZarleyThe post-apostolic, institutional church has always proclaimed that Jesus was both man and God, and this is still the situation to this day.  This church asserts that Jesus preexisted as God, being one of three co-equal and co-eternal members of a Trinity: the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit.  In the fourth century the Catholic Church proclaimed in its Nicene Creed that Jesus was fully God and anathematized (cursed) anyone who believed otherwise, thus deeming them non-Christian. The later Protestant Church accepted this determination. Thus, the institutional church has assessed that anyone who does not believe Jesus is God is not a Christian.  But this was not the case with the apostolic church of the first century CE.

The Book of Acts reveals that the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews who preached that He was the Messiah and the Son of God; but they did not claim he was God (e.g., Ac 2:36; 3:18, 20; 4:26; 9:20, 22). Later, when this Jesus Movement spread into neighboring lands to produce Gentile Christianity, these Christians asserted that Jesus was the Messiah and God. It happened because Gentile church fathers had become somewhat anti-Semitic, supersessionistic (church replaces Israel), and influenced by Greek metaphysics. In proclaiming that Jesus is God, these Gentile Christians departed from biblical, apostolic Christianity.

The book of Acts also relates that this early Jesus Movement was first called "the Way" (Ac 9:2; 24:14,  22). It is an innocuous term that seems to have not been applied to these early followers of Jesus by their opponents, as is sometimes the case with religious sects, but one chosen by them perhaps due to Jesus calling himself  "the way" (Jn 14:6). Later, the Apostle Paul's Jewish opponents - the temple high priest and some elders at Jerusalem - identified him as "a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes" (Ac 24:5).

This term Nazarenes originated because Jesus, during His earthly sojourn, was called "Jesus the Nazarene" by His disciples, enemies, and angels (Mt 2:23; Mk 10:47; 14:67; 16:6; Lk 24:19; Jn 8:5, 7; Ac 2:22; cf. 3:6; 4:10; 6:14). It was because His parents had resided in the village of Nazareth in Galilee, and that's where Jesus grew up and lived until He departed from there soon after He began His public ministry (Mat 2:23; 4:13). Furthermore, this identification as Nazarene was nailed to His cross (Jn 19:19). Moreover, the heavenly Jesus, speaking in a vision to Saul (Paul), identified Himself as "Jesus the Nazarene" (Ac 22:8). Similarly, Jesus was identified as "Jesus of Nazareth," even by demons (Mk 1:24; Lk 4:24). Paul later testified, "I thought to myself that I had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth" (Ac 26:9).

Walter Bauer, the great German NT lexicographer of the early 20th century, wrote an important book entitled Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.[1] In it, he convincingly demonstrates that the penchant of church fathers as heresy hunters was often misguided, misrepresenting the historical situation. George Strecker wrote a 45-page appendix added to this ET volume.  He explains that Bauer concluded "that for broad areas the heresies [so deemed by church fathers] were 'primary,'" meaning they were the true apostolic teachings.  Strecker continues, "Jewish Christianity, according to the witness of the New Testament, stands at the beginning of the development of church history, so that it is not the gentile Christian "ecclesiastical doctrine' that represents what is primary but rather a Jewish Christian theology. Consequently, knowing early Jewish Christianity is of utmost importance in establishing Christian origins.

In the early post-apostolic centuries, as Christianity was being established in Gentile lands, some church fathers tell in their writings about two groups of Jewish people called Nazarenes and Ebionites.  These Jews, often referred to in modern times as Jewish Christians, believed Jesus was Israel's Messiah and that God had vindicated Him by raising Him from the dead.  The Ebionites seem to have been so named due to the Hebrew word 'ebyon, which means "poor." It is well known that most of the Ebionites did not accept Jesus' virgin birth, and all of them detested the Apostle Paul and his writings; whereas the Nazarenes accepted all of these. Both groups were Law Observant, keeping the Jewish Sabbath as well as the Christian Eucharist. The Nazarenes, however, did not demand that Gentile Christians keep the Law, whereas the Ebionites generally did.  Moreover, both groups clearly rejected that Jesus was God, although there seems to have been some later Ebionites who also believed that Jesus had preexisted.

The Book of Acts informs that "it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called "Christians'" (Ac 11:26). And according to Acts 24:5 and church fathers Tertullian and Epiphanius, in the beginning of Christianity all Christians were also called Nazarenes (=Nazoraeans). Some notable, modern scholars believe the post-apostolic Nazarene Jewish Christians were called Nazarenes since they were the successors of apostolic Christianity, having had a historical connection to the early Jerusalem church.[3] If so, these Nazarenes rejecting that Jesus was God is strong evidence that the apostolic church at Jerusalem did too.

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