Jesus' Divinity in Early Christianity: Some Raw Data

In an earlier post, BK noted just how erroneous is Dan Brown's assertion that the early Christians did not believe Jesus was divine until the Council of Nicea. Just to drive the point home, I thought I would provide a sampling of some pre-Nicene writings that prove up that fact. I have already noted many statements affirming Jesus' divinity in the New Testament, here. I will proceed in this post to discuss early non-New Testament writings that do so too.

The first reference is actually from a pagan. Pliny the Younger was a Roman governor who wrote to the Emperor for advice on how to hande the "Christian problem." The letter was written around 111 AD, or more than 200 years before the Council of Nicea. In the letter, Pliny notes the following:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god,....

Thus, even the pagans new, hundreds of years before Constantine's reign and the Council of Nicea, that Christians worshipped Jesus as a divine being.

Next I list a number of quotations taken from early Christian writings. For more background on any particular writer, check out Peter Kirby's ever-helpful site,

● Barnabas (70-130 AD):

“He is Lord of all the world, to whom God said at the foundation of the world, ‘Let us make man after our image, and after our likeness.’”

● Ignatius (110-15 AD):

“God himself was manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life.”

“Continue in intimate union with Jesus Christ, our God.”

“I pray for your happiness forever in our God, Jesus Christ.”

● Aristedes of Athens (140 CE):

“The Christians trace the beginning of their religion to Jesus the Messiah. He is called the Son of the Most High God. It is said that God came down from heaven. He assumed flesh and clothed Himself with it from a Hebrew virgin. And the Son of God lived in a daughter of man.”

● The Martyrdom of Polycarp (155 CE):

“I do glorify you through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Child: through whom the glory to you with Him and with the Holy Spirit, both now and through ages yet to come. Amen."

● Justin Martyr (140-55 AD):

"For we have learned that [Jesus] is the Son of the True God Himself, that He holds a second place, and the Spirit of Prophecy a third."

“The Father of the universe has a Son. And He, being the First-Begotten Word of God, is even God.”

“He deserves to be worshipped as God and as Christ.”

● Melito, Bishop of Sardes in Lydia (170/190 AD):

“God was put to death, the King of Israel slain.”

● Irenaeus (180 AD):

“But Jesus is Himself in His own right, beyond all men who ever lived, God, King, eternal, and the Incarnate World. He is the Holy Lord, the Wonderful, the Counselor, the Beautiful in appearance, and the Mighty God.”

“Christ Himself, therefore, together with the Father, is the God of the living….”

“He received from the Father the power of remission of sins. He was man, and He was God. This was so that since as man He suffered for us, so as God He might have compassion on us.”

“He is God, for the name Emmanuel indicates this.”

“Thus He indicates in clear terms that He is God, and that His advent was in Bethlehem…. God, then, was made man, and the Lord did Himself save us.”

● Tertullian (197 AD):

"That which proceeds from God is God and Son of God, and both are one."

“Nor do we differ from the Jews concerning God. We must make, therefore, a remark or two as to Christ’s divinity.”

“To all He is equal, to all King, to all Judge, to all God and Lord.”

“This opens the ears of Christ our God.”

● Clement of Alexandria (195 AD):

“He is God in the form of man.”

“The Son in the Father and the Father in the Son…. God the Word, who became man for our sakes.”

“Nothing, then, is hated by God, nor by yet by the Word. For both are one—that is, God. For He has said, ‘In the beginning the Word was in God, and the Word was God.”

● Hippolytus (222 CE):

"For Christ is God over all, who was arranged to wash away sin from mankind."

Although only a sampling, the above demonstrates just how widely affirmed was the divinity of Jesus. There simply is no dispute here. Indeed, the makers of the movie seemed to realize this because they change the script to have Professor Langdon's character challenge Professor Teabing on this point, noting that "some" Christians believed Jesus was divine before Nicea. Actually, the fact is that most Christians who wrote about Jesus expressed belief in his divinity. The only challengers to that belief seems to have been a small sect of Jewish Christians known as the Ebionites. The evidence, therefore, is that belief in Jesus' divinity was widely held by the majority of Christians very early on.


Jeff Burton said…
"only challengers to that belief seems to have been...the Ebionites."

In the time frame under discusion (pre-Nicene writings), you could also include the Adoptionists (beginning late 2nd century). Ironically, they emphasized Jesus' humanity as a reaction against the Gnostics, whom Brown holds in such high esteem.
Anonymous said…
I'm interested that you saw fit to cite the single most notorious anti-Jewish early Christian writer, Melito of Sardis, along with Justin Martyr and the Epistle of Barnabas--- in preference to Paul and the canonical gospels, which are earlier.

"My Lord and my God."

Ring a bell?

You don't need to go beyond canonical scripture to establish the antiquity of the belief in the divinity of Jesus. Isn't that screamingly obvious?
Layman said…

First, I agree that you do not need to go beyond the canonical scripture to establish the antiquity of he belief in the divinity of Jesus. But it helps with those who may be skeptical about 1) the antiquity of the NT or 2) the references in it being understood as establishing Jesus' humanity.

Second, the goal was not just to establish the anituiquity of the belief in the divinity of Jesus, but to establish how widespread it was prior to the Council of Nicea.

Third, do not be a coward. If you want to claim I am anti-semitic then do so. Of course, such an accusation is absurd. I do not cite to any anti-semitic or anti-Jewish comments from them. I cite to prove the existence of an idea. Are historians barred from referring to works that you deem politically incorrect? That is absurd. You are not interested in history, but in cheap shots. Even if they were horrible people then the fact still stands that they attest to the widespread belief in Jesus' divinity. And citing them to prove the extent to which that belief had spread is good history, not an endorsement of anything bad they may have said.

Should historians be banned from reading Hitler's Mein Kampf to better understand Hiter? Should we ignore Caesar's Gallic Wars because he slaughtered so many people and deposed a democractic government? Should we refuse to read Tacitus' Annals because he is obviously anti-Christian?

Your obviously letting your hatred of Christianity (perhaps conservative Christianity) get the better of your reasoning abilities.

Finally, to say these authors are
"anti-Jewish" is a clever slight of hand. They may have been against Judaism to the extent they believed it was the wrong religion. But most Jews then and now believe that Christianity got it wrong. You seem to suggest that there is some Nazi-like agenda in their writings, which is ridiculous. Christians were a persecuted minority during this time and on some occasions Jewish leaders were doing the persecuting. So yeah, Jews and Christians and pagans wrote against each other and wrote about the "errors" of each others' faith.

I can't believe how much time I just wasted responding to such an absurd comment.
Anonymous said…
Yes, it is worthwhile to cite Apostolic fathers and other post-canonical writers. I just thought that Melito was a particularly unfortunate choice. As to Barnabas, in the introduction to the letter in the Loeb edition of The Apostolic Fathers vol II, Bart Ehrman (translator) wrote:

"The history of Jewish-Christian relations might have been quite different had the Epistle of Barnabas been finally admitted to the canon. Among our early Christian writings it is the most virulently anti-Jewish in it's message, arguing that it is Christians, not Jews who are the heirs to the covenantal promises made to the patriarchs of Israel, that the 'Old Testament' (the Jewish Bible) is a Christian not a Jewish book, and that, as a result, the Jews have always adhered to a false religion" (Into,3).

In courses and texts on the rise of Christian anti-Semitism, Barnabas, Justin Martyr, and Melito always figure prominently. Rosemary Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism. John Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism.

Furthermore, while the Epistle of Barnabas may well affirm the divinity of Jesus, its Christological orthodoxy is suspect. The following is excerpted from Walter Bauer’s monumental Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934):

“ When K. Müller deals with the Epistle of Barnabas prior to his discussion of gnosticism, perhaps he views it as a representative of some sort of orthodoxy in Alexandria. But quite apart from the fact that its origin in Egypt is no more than a possibility, its orthodoxy must also be viewed as suspect. The basic thesis of the Epistle, that Judaism is an aberration with which Christianity can have nothing to do, but which deserves only rejection, remains gnostic -- even if, by means of a thoroughly grotesque allegorization, which turns the Old Testament topsy-turvy with respect to its literal meaning, a condemnation of Jewish scripture ostensibly still is avoided. Actually, the Valentinian Ptolemy has retained more of the Old Testament than has Barnabas.”

And it goes on in this vein at length, tending to show in the end that Gnostic Christianity was widespread.

Prof Ehrman explains that how Gnosticism for the most part shaded into a kind of Adoptionism:

For in fact, most Gnostics did not maintain that Jesus was fully God and not human (the docetic view); they instead claimed that Jesus Christ was two separate beings, one human (the man Jesus) and the other divine (the heavenly Christ). As the heretic-fighter Irenaeus explains, these Gnostics maintained that when Jesus was baptized, the Christ descended upon him as a dove and entered into him, empowering him for his ministry. Then, at some point prior to his death, the Christ, who could not suffer, departed from him. That's why, according to some Gnostics, Jesus cried out on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you left me behind?" For them, that's exactly what had happened, when the divine Christ made his exit. For these gnostic Christians, Jesus literally did die "apart from God." Christ made his exit. For these gnostic Christians, Jesus literally did die "apart from God." (1997 Lecture at Duke Divinity School, notes at

So it seems to me that your point—that the idea that Jesus was divine was widespread — is easy to establish. But the fact is, many who affirmed this were Gnostics, or Marcionites, or some sort of docetist.

Why you are so defensive, prone to name-calling, and given to jumping to conclusions about motivations, is beyond me. You’ll just have to work that out on your own without my help. I’ll tell you for free that it’s very unattractive
Layman said…
I see, so please let me know who is politically correct enough to cite when I'm trying to prove something historically.

And there is nothing anti-Semitic about saying Christianity is right and Judaism is wrong. That's the name of the game when it comes to religion and even atheists, by definition, play it.

And I did not say that all the writers shared the Nicean view orthodoxy, I said they all thought Jesus was God. Which they do.

And yes, gnostics thought Jesus was divine too. Which is one of my criticisms of the Dan Brown school of thought. He gets it backwards. Gnostics did not stress Jesus' humanity, they stressed his spiritualness.

"Why you are so defensive, prone to name-calling, and given to jumping to conclusions about motivations, is beyond me. You’ll just have to work that out on your own without my help. I’ll tell you for free that it’s very unattractive."

When you come out of the box accusing me of anti-semitism, I take your shock at my being 'defensive', as well as your new-found aversion to "name-calling," to be quite disingenuous.
Layman said…
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