Monday, November 16, 2009

Jesus, the Gospels, Gnosticism and Historical Revisionism (Part 1)

Because Constantine upgraded Jesus' status almost four centuries after Jesus' death, thousands of documents already existed chronicling His life as a mortal man. To rewrite the history books, Constantine knew he would need a bold stroke. From this sprang the most profound moment in Christian history... Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ's human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned.
(Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. Doubleday, 2003. p. 234)

The above quote, taken from the popular (and controversial) Da Vinci Code, echoes a popular sentiment that has been oft-stated by conspiracy theorists, skeptics, certain liberal theologians and even Muslims (the Islamic propaganda video The Divine Book quotes the above passage nearly verbatim, as though Dan Brown was somehow a scholarly source). Yet pretty much every single statement that has been packed within that single paragraph is fraught with historical errors, and almost none of it is factually accurate.

First off, Constantine lived three centuries after Jesus walked this earth. He did not "upgrade Jesus' status." In fact, Constantine didn't even care what the results of the council of Nicaea would be to begin with. He just wanted the clergy to agree. As Philip Schaff notes,

In the year 325, as patron of the church, he summoned the council of Nice, and himself attended it; banished the Arians, though he afterwards recalled them; and, in his monarchical spirit of uniformity, showed great zeal for the settlement of all theological disputes, while he was blind to their deep significance.

Also, the deity of Christ did not originate with Constantine, or with Nicaea. It has always been affirmed by the early church. For example, within the epistles of the apostle Paul, one may find multiple affirmations of Christ's deity:

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.
(Colossians 2:9, ESV)

...waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ...
(Titus 2:13, ESV)

Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
(Philippians 2:6-8, ESV)

And lest anybody object to the citing of Paul, it must be remembered that Paul was actually in contact with the other apostles. The apostle Peter, for one, approved of Paul's writings (2peter 3:15-16), and even made his own affirmation of the deity of Christ:

To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.
(2 Peter 1:1, ESV)

Also keep in mind that Paul wasn't really adding any innovations, but was rather repeating what had already been handed down to him by the Jewish Christians he met in Antioch and Jerusalem. In fact, it has been recognized that Philippians 2:5-11, also known as the Carmen Christi, is actually from a tradition that predates Paul's conversion. It is most likely an early Christian hymn. If so, this is strong evidence that Jesus was acknowledged as God in human flesh from the very beginning. (For more information on this one, I strongly recommend getting a copy of The Forgotten Trinity by Dr. James White.)

Aside from the New Testament epistles, the writings of the early church fathers also provide strong evidence for the antiquity of the belief in deity of Christ. For example, there is the testimony of Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 35-108 or 117 AD). In his epistles, he writes:

There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first passible and then impassible,— even Jesus Christ our Lord.
(Ignatius of Antioch. Epistle to the Ephesians. ch. 7.)

Hence every kind of magic was destroyed, and every bond of wickedness disappeared; ignorance was removed, and the old kingdom abolished, God Himself being manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life.
(Ignatius of Antioch. Epistle to the Ephesians. ch. 19.)
If any one says there is one God, and also confesses Christ Jesus, but thinks the Lord to be a mere man, and not the only-begotten God, and Wisdom, and the Word of God, and deems Him to consist merely of a soul and body, such an one is a serpent, that preaches deceit and error for the destruction of men.
(Ignatius of Antioch. Epistle to the Philadelphians. ch. 6.)

For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. For our God, Jesus Christ, now that He is with the Father, is all the more revealed [in His glory].
(Ignatius of Antioch. Epistle to the Romans. ch. 3.)

(Important note: There are quite a few forged epistles floating around that are alleged to have been written by Ignatius of Antioch. For this reason, I have taken care to quote only from those epistles which are considered to be his real writings.)

And then there is ante-Nicene epistle known as 2 Clement. Admittedly, this is not regarded as a genuine epistle of Clement, as Clement died around the end of the first century, whereas 2 Clement was written until around 140-160 AD. Nevertheless, this epistle is still early enough to be considered a valid witness to the faith of the Apostolic church. In it, the author writes,

Brethren, we ought so to think of our Lord Jesus Christ as of God, as of the judge of quick and dead, and we ought not to think meanly concerning our salvation.
(2nd Clement. 1:2.)

And then there is the witness of Justin Martyr (Ca. 100-165 AD), who is considered to be one of the first of the great Christian apologists. In his First Apology, he writes,

Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ, who also was born for this purpose, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judæa, in the times of Tiberius Cæsar; and that we reasonably worship Him, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third, we will prove.
(Justin Martyr. First Apology. ch. 13.)

It is interesting to note that the quotation above is an early expression of the Holy Trinity. Although the structure of the doctrine did not fully develop until the fourth century, we can see that primitive strands of Trinitarian thought already existed in the earliest days of the church.

And finally, we have Melito of Sardis (? -180 AD). Much of his work has been lost, though we have been able to locate one of his sermons, which is now known as the Peri Pascha. This sermon is quite significant, as it displays an elevated Christology:

The one who hung the earth in space, is himself hanged; the one who fixed the heavens in place, is himself impaled; the one who firmly fixed all things, is himself firmly fixed to the tree. The Lord is insulted, God has been murdered, the King of Israel has been destroyed by the right hand of Israel.
(Melito of Sardis. Peri Pascha. v. 96.)

He continues,

This is the one who made the heavens and the earth, and who in the beginning created man, who was proclaimed through the law and prophets, who became human via the virgin, who was hanged upon a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from the dead, and who ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has authority to judge and to save everything, through whom the Father created everything from the beginning of the world to the end of the age.

This is the alpha and the omega. This is the beginning and the end–an indescribable beginning and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who rose up from the dead. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. He bears the Father and is borne by the Father, to whom be the glory and the power forever. Amen.
(Melito of Sardis. Peri Pascha. vv. 104-105.)

Thus, we can see that the proof is irrefutable that Christ has always been acknowledged as God. This was not an invention of the 3rd or 4th centuries, but is the apostolic witness, and is thus part and parcel of the faith which has been delivered to the saints.

So much for the "thousands of documents already exist[ing] chronicling His life as a mortal man."

(Continue to Part Two)

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