You have to love urban myths. Our favourite is about parasites which lay their eggs on the edge of first class stamps. If you get a paper cut licking the stamp the eggs get implanted in your tongue. Then, after several weeks gestation, a small bug chews its way out! Of course, the story is sheer nonsense; but the image is so wonderfully vile, we almost want it to be true. Like all good urban legends, once this tale is retold, its survival is guaranteed.
So it isn’t that surprising to find another urban myth resurfacing each Christmas: that Christians did not believe that Jesus was God the Son until the council of Nicaea invented this doctrine in 325AD. We wouldn’t expect sceptics to accept the deity of Christ; but we worry when “free-thinkers” take Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code seriously. The doctrine of the incarnation precedes the council of Nicea by centuries; furthermore, it is clearly assumed by the Gospel writers. They recognised that only God could match what was expected of Israel’s Messiah; as Jesus was the Messiah, therefore Jesus was God himself.
Granted, Jesus prayed to His Father in heaven, and taught his disciples to do the same. Jesus was an orthodox Jew, who held that the Lord his God was one God without equal, who would tolerate no rival. Despite all this, the Gospels, written within a generation of Jesus’ crucifixion, and undoubtedly using sources that go back to Jesus himself, clearly identify Jesus with God. It is easy to miss the point if you are unfamiliar with Israel’s scriptures – but time and again Jesus does what only God can do, or says what only God can say.
We can give a few quick examples here. Jesus says that he has “come to seek and save those who are lost” (Luke 19 verse 10). In Ezekiel 34v 16 God says that he will come to seek and save those who are lost. In Ezekiel 34 God describes himself as a good shepherd; this is a role that Jesus assumes in the Gospels. In the same passage God says that he will judge between the sheep and the goats. Jesus reserves that right for himself in Matthew 25. In Matthew 25 Jesus describes himself as a bridegroom coming to claim his bride; this was a common Old Testament image for God’s relationship to Israel.
Jesus calms the storm on his own authority, and walks on the waves. Psalm 89 asks “O LORD God Almighty, who is like you? …You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.” Psalms 65, 93 and 107 declare that God, uniquely, is mightier than the storm. Job 9 teaches that “[God] alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea. The New Testament is clear about the identity of Jesus, if you are prepared to read it with knowledge of the Old Testament – and this is always how it was meant to be read!
It is plain that the Jesus of the Gospels has the rights and prerogatives of God. Every Gospel contains passages that strongly imply that Jesus is, somehow, identical with the God of Israel. This is hardly the sort of teaching Jesus’ Jewish disciples would create if they wanted to make their Rabbi popular with other Jews. Greek and Roman culture is not the source of this doctrine either; as we have noted, it is expressed with Jewish thoughts, in terms that would only make sense to Jewish readers.
So how did orthodox first century Jews, with their firm belief in the uniqueness of God and his superiority to all creation (especially human beings) come to believe that a crucified and shamed man was not only Messiah, but equal to and identical with God? We will leave that question for the reader to decide. However, those who knew Jesus, who memorised his teachings and passed on his story, were in no doubt. They believed with all their hearts that in Jesus Christ God had come down to be fully human, and to take his place as Israel’s true king.