Did Constantine invent the divinity of Christ? (Part 2)

Sculpture of the Emperor Constantine. Source: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sculpture_of_constantine.jpg
Sculpture of the Emperor Constantine. Source: Wikimedia Commons

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3]

In the first instalment of this short series of posts, we showed that Sir Leigh Teabing’s conspiracy theory version of early Christian history, as presented in The da Vinci Code, simply doesn’t stand up to a moment’s serious consideration. In this second part, we shall examine a number of New Testament texts, all taken from the Gospels, and ask whether in them the man Jesus of Nazareth is presented (a) as God, and (b) as human.

Dan Brown’s über-successful 2003 novel The da Vinci Code is, of course, a rip-roaring tale of suspense, enigmas and intrigue. But in a key section of the book, it takes up the conspiracy theory about the beginnings of Christianity popularized by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln’s 1982 book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and re-presents it to the reader in the person of one of its characters, the ‘expert’ Sir Leigh Teabing.

“[Constantine] 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.”

Dan Brown, The da Vinci Code, p.317

One of the key accusations Sir Teabing makes, in chapter 55, is that the divinity of Jesus was an invention of the Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, which he enforced at the Council of Nicaea he convened in A.D. 325. Prior to this astute political manœuvre — according to Sir Teabing’s version of events — everybody had believed Jesus of Nazareth to be merely a man.[1]

To bolster the new status of Jesus which Constantine was imposing on the Christian Church, he allegedly redefined the canon of New Testament books. As Leigh Teabing puts it, he “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.”[2]

We will come back to the humanity of Christ later, and ask whether the Gospels which we do have in our New Testament really do deny the humanity of Christ, as alleged above.

But before that, let’s consider the divinity of Christ in the Gospels of the New Testament.

1.) Is Jesus God in the New Testament Gospels?

When we considered whether Dan Brown’s/Sir Leigh Teabing’s theory was credible in the previous instalment in our series, one point we didn’t draw attention to was an inconsistency in their argument.

Consider the quotation above, from p.317 of The da Vinci Code. According to Sir Teabing, Constantine “omitted the gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made him godlike” [über-emphasis mine].

“For if, until [the time of Constantine], nobody believed Jesus to be anything more than a man, by what turn of events came there to be ‘gospels that made him godlike’?”

This immediately appears to contradict Teabing’s earlier assertion (on p.315) that until the Council of Nicaea nobody believed Jesus was anything other than a mere man.

For if, until that time, nobody believed Jesus to be anything more than a man, by what turn of events came there to be “gospels that made him godlike”?

Moreover, one is bound to ask why Constantine needed to select gospels for his New Testament, and embellish gospels?

For if he had had gospels to hand which already proclaimed the divinity of Christ, what need to embellish them?

But if, on the other hand, he embellished gospels to make Jesus appear divine, what need to reject those which did not?

So that one is bound to say, “Which is it? — did he select, or did he embellish?”

However, let us turn to those Gospels which he apparently did select — embellished or otherwise — and see whether they do indeed present to us a Jesus who is God.

Exhibit A. The Gospel According to Mark, 10:17-31

In Mark 10:17-31 we read these words:—

17And as [Jesus] was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honour your father and mother.’” 20And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

23And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” 28Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

Here is a man who believes that he has lived a life worthy of inheriting eternal life.

Hoping for affirmation from Jesus, he addresses him, “Good Teacher.”

“Jesus’ response is fascinating: ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’ On the face of it, Jesus at first seems to be denying he is anything more than a man.”

Jesus’ response is fascinating: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

On the face of it, Jesus at first seems to be denying he is anything more than a man: “No one is good except God alone.”

Yet look deeper. This man who has run up to Jesus has just knelt before him, an act of great veneration. Jesus did not refuse the man’s veneration.

Compare this with the reaction of the apostle Peter — who was a mere man — when a Gentile superstitiously bowed before him:

When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshipped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.”
Acts of the Apostles 10:25-26[3]

Jesus accepts this man’s veneration, but challenges him: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

“Jesus, in other words, is challenging this man — and challenging you, the reader — to think of him as who he really is: Lord, and God.”

What is going on here, is Jesus is challenging this man’s view of who he — Jesus — is. He is saying, in effect: “Give careful thought, sir, to who you think I am. Don’t treat me merely as a ‘Good Teacher.’ If I really am good — as you say — then what does that tell you about who I am?”

Jesus, in other words, is challenging this man — and challenging you, the reader — to think of him as who he really is: Lord, and God. “No one is good except God alone.”

The writer C.S. Lewis put it this way: When we think about who Jesus is, only three options are open to us. Either we must think of him as a wicked liar, for claiming to be something he was not; or we must think of him as extremely deluded; or else, we must think of him as God. We cannot think of him merely as a ‘good teacher’: he hasn’t allowed us to do so.[4]

Exhibit B. The Gospel According to Mark, 10:45

In Mark 10:45, Jesus tells his disciples,

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The thing to notice here is that he says he (the Son of Man) came. Not ‘appeared.’ Not ‘went public.’ Not ‘was called by God.’ Came.

“The thing to notice here is that [Jesus] says he (the Son of Man) came. Not ‘appeared.’ Not ‘went public.’ Not ‘was called by God.’ Came.

Mark’s is probably the earliest Gospel in our New Testament; indeed it may possibly be the earliest Gospel ever to have been written. Many scholars assign it a date of composition around A.D. 65.[5]

It is probably not Mark’s principal concern to show the reader that Jesus of Nazareth is God — it is not something he majors on, and the divinity of Jesus is much more obviously a pressing concern in the Gospel of John.

Mark seems to be primarily concerned with showing the reader that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God — note that in the Old Testament this was a title given to Israel’s kings, who were considered to have a unique relationship to God[6] — and that he is the promised Messiah, come to save the world through his sacrificial death and his resurrection. If Mark can persuade you, the reader, that Jesus really is the one the Jewish people have been waiting for for centuries, and the one who can save you— well, then, understanding his divine nature can come later. That, at least, is how I see the raison d’être of his Gospel.

“The implication must be, that Jesus came from God: before he was born the man Jesus, he was with God. He chose to be born among us.”

Nonetheless, Jesus’ divine nature still shines through in places. We have already seen his challenge to the man who ran up to him: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

Here, Jesus tells his disciples that he came. In our contemporary culture, having so much of Christianity in our cultural background and having heard passages from the Gospels floating on the air so frequently, it’s easy to miss this: but he came. The implication must be, that Jesus came from God: before he was born the man Jesus, he was with God. He chose to be born among us.

And this is in the earliest of the Gospels!

Exhibit C. The Gospel According to John, 1:1-4,14,17-18

Well, if Mark was chiefly concerned to demonstrate to you, the reader, that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Son of God; the Gospel according to John is very, very concerned to show that Jesus is divine, he is God in human form.

So, speaking about Jesus before he was born a man, and referring to him as the Word of God (a prevalent concept from the Old Testament), John writes:—

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4In him was life, and the life was the light of men. […]

14And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. […] 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
The Gospel According to John, 1:1-4,14,17-18

You could hardly have a higher statement of who Jesus is. He is, according to John, “the only God, who is at the Father’s side.”

Clearly, then, if these passages are genuine — and I will demonstrate in our next instalment that these are not Constantinian interpolations — then it was the belief of Christians from the first generations, that Jesus of Nazareth is God.

2.) Is Jesus human in the New Testament Gospels?

It is worth taking a moment, however, to consider whether the Gospels in our New Testament also portray Jesus as human.

“Is this claim true [that Constantine omitted those gospels which spoke of Christ’s human traits]? If it were, then we would expect the Gospels in our New Testament to be all about the divinity of Jesus, and to deny his real humanity. Is this what we find? Certainly not!”

For according to the statement from the mouth of Leigh Teabing which we quoted earlier, the Emperor Constantine not only selected for his New Testament those Gospels which presented Christ as divine, but also “omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits.”[7]

Is this claim true?

If it were, then we would expect the Gospels in our New Testament to be all about the divinity of Jesus, and to deny his real humanity. Is this what we find?

Certainly not! No, the Gospels in our New Testament frequently describe Christ as human.

Firstly, they describe him very clearly as having been born:—

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
The Gospel According to Matthew, 1:24-25[8]

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The Gospel According to Luke, 2:7[9]

It is worth mentioning in this regard, that the second-century heretic Marcion, who, for his own philosophical reasons refused to accept that Jesus was really human,[10] rejected the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John as Scripture, and expurgated passages such as the above from his version of Luke in order to deny the humanity of Jesus.[11]

In other passages of the Gospels we find Jesus hungry:—

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry.
The Gospel According to Mark, 11:12[12]

We find him tired:—

Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.
The Gospel According to John, 4:6[13]

We even find him unaware of things:—

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee.
The Gospel According to John, 4:1-3[14]

And, of course, towards the end of all the Gospels, we find him literally dying:—

Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.
The Gospel According to Luke, 23:46[15]

Therefore how is it that Constantine “omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits,” when the very Gospels in our New Testament speak of his human traits?

Jesus — human and divine

The truth is, that Dan Brown’s version of events, as given in chapter 55 of The da Vinci Code, is neither correct in saying that Constantine invented the divinity of Christ; nor correct in claiming that Constantine suppressed the gospels which spoke of Christ as human.

“The truth is, that Dan Brown’s version of events […] is neither correct in saying that Constantine invented the divinity of Christ; nor correct in claiming that Constantine suppressed the gospels which spoke of Christ as human. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

Quite the opposite, in fact.

The four Gospels in our New Testament all teach that Jesus of Nazareth is both fully human and fully divine. He is both Man and God.

And this duality — Man and God — is what the orthodox Christian Church has always taught. We will demonstrate this in our next instalment with some passages from the early Christian writers. The truth is, that long before Constantine the orthodox Church had already rejected many gospels which had surfaced towards the end of the first century or during the second, because:—

  • These gospels were of later composition than those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and hence did not carry apostolic authority.[16]
  • These gospels either denied the divinity of Christ,[17] or (more often) denied his real humanity.[18]

Speaking personally, I find it of immense value to know that my Saviour is both Man and God. As God, he has direct access to the Father and is mighty to save. As Man, he knows our weaknesses, he knows our sufferings, he knows our anxieties, and can therefore in all sincerity intercede with the Father on our behalf.

In the final instalment of our series, we shall examine some of the early Christian texts written after the New Testament, and see that these likewise proclaim a Jesus who is both human and divine.

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Dan Brown, The da Vinci Code. Corgi Books, London, 2004: pp.313-5.

[2] Ibid., p.317

[3] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+10%3A25-26&version=ESVUK

[4] This is sometimes referred to as C.S. Lewis’ Trilemma. See https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/6979-i-am-trying-here-to-prevent-anyone-saying-the-really and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis%27s_trilemma.

[5] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Mark which suggests A.D. 66—70; and https://www.blueletterbible.org/study/intros/mark.cfm which suggests a somewhat earlier date.

[6] See particularly Psalm 2, a coronation psalm, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+2&version=ESVUK.

[7] The da Vinci Code, p.317

[8] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+1%3A24-25&version=ESVUK

[9] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+2%3A7&version=ESVUK

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcion_of_Sinope#Teachings

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Development_of_the_New_Testament_canon#Marcion_of_Sinope

[12] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+11%3A12&version=ESVUK

[13] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+4%3A6&version=ESVUK

[14] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+4%3A1-3&version=ESVUK

[15] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+23%3A46&version=ESVUK

[16] See, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irenaeus#Scripture and http://www.titusinstitute.com/jesuspassages/whyacceptntgospels.php.

[17] There was an early Christian group known as the Ebionites, now very obscure, who may have used some such gospel. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebionites.

[18] Such as many of the Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi, e.g., The Gospel of Truth and The Gospel of the Egyptians.

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