Written in support of the new book How Jesus Became God : The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.
Jesus was a lower-class preacher from Galilee, who, in good apocalyptic fashion, proclaimed that the end of history as he knew it was going to come to a crashing end, within his own generation. God was soon to intervene in the course of worldly affairs to overthrow the forces of evil and set up a utopian kingdom on earth. And he would be the king.
It didn't happen. Instead of being involved with the destruction of God's enemies, Jesus was unceremoniously crushed by them: arrested, tried, humiliated, tortured, and publicly executed.
And yet, remarkably, soon afterwards his followers began to say that -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- Jesus really was the messiah sent from God. More than that, he was actually a divine being, not a mere human. And not just any divine being. He was the Creator of the universe. After long debates among themselves they decided that he was not secondary to the one God of Israel, the Lord God Almighty himself. On the contrary, he was fully equal with God; he had always existed for eternity with God; he was of the same essence as God; he was a member of the Trinity.
How did that happen? How did we get from a Jewish apocalyptic preacher -- who ended up on the wrong side of the law and was crucified for his efforts -- to the Creator of all things and All-powerful Lord? How did Jesus become God?
That's the question I address in my book, and I think it's an inordinately important one, not just for Christians who personally believe that Jesus really is God, but for all of us, whether believers or non-believers, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists: all of us who are interested (as well we ought to be) in the history of Western Civilization. It is not hard to make the argument that if Jesus had never been declared God, our form of civilization would have been unalterably and indescribably different.
Here is why. If Jesus had never been pronounced a divine being, his followers would have remained a sect within Judaism, a small group of Jews who thought that Jesus had delivered the correct interpretation of the Jewish law. Gentiles would not have converted to follow Jesus any more than they converted to any other form of Judaism. If the religion had not become predominantly Gentile it would not have seen such a steady and remarkable growth, almost entirely with Gentile converts, over the next three hundred years, when it came to encompass something like five per cent of the Empire. If Christianity were not a large and viable religion by the beginning of the fourth century, the emperor Constantine would almost certainly not have converted to it. If Constantine had not converted, masses of former pagans would not have accepted the faith in his wake. The empire would not have become predominantly Christian. The Christian religion would not have been made the official religion of the state. The Christian church would never have become the dominant religious, cultural, social, political, and economic force of the West. We never would have had the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, or Modernity as we know it. And most of us would still be pagans.
All these developments hinged on the declaration that Jesus was God. So what happened that transformed the crucified peasant, Jesus, into the Lord who created heaven and earth? The answers are not obvious or straightforward, and my book will contain surprises for believers and non-believers alike.
Many believers - at least very conservative evangelical Christians and others who have not had much contact with biblical scholarship - will be surprised to learn that Jesus did not spend his preaching ministry in Galilee proclaiming that he was the second member of the Trinity. In fact, as I argue in the book, the followers of Jesus had no inkling that he was divine until after his death. What changed their views was the belief, which blind-sided them at first, that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And why did they come to believe that? Here another surprise is in store. It had nothing to do with the discovery of an empty tomb three days after his death. The disciples probably didn't discover an empty tomb. There probably wasn't a tomb.
The followers of Jesus came to think he had been raised because some of them (probably not all of them) had visions of him afterwards. Both Christian and non-Christian historians can agree that it was visions of Jesus that made some of Jesus' followers convinced that he was no longer dead. Christians would say that the disciples had these visions because Jesus really appeared to them. Non-Christians would say that (several of ) the disciples had hallucinations. Hallucinations happen all the time. Especially of deceased loved ones (your grandmother who turns up in your bedroom) and of significant religious figures (the Blessed Virgin Mary, who appears regularly in extraordinarily well-documented events). Jesus was both a lost loved one and an important religious leader. As bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers, the disciples were prime candidates for such visionary experiences.
Once the disciples claimed Jesus was alive again but was (obviously) no longer here with them, they came to think that he had been taken up to heaven (where else could he be?). In ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish thinking, a person exalted to the heavenly realm was divinized - himself made divine. That's what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus. After that a set of evolutionary forces took over, in which the followers of Jesus began saying more and more exalted things about him - that he had been made the son of God at his resurrection; no, it was at his baptism; no, it was at his birth; no, it was before he came into the world; no - he had never been made the son of God, he had always been the Son of God; in fact, he had always been God; more than that, he had created the world; and yet more, he was an eternal being equal with God Almighty.
It's a fascinating set of developments. It is highly important. And it matters not just for those who believe that the followers of Jesus got it right, but for anyone who cares about the factors that shaped the world we live in today.