In our previous instalment, we saw that the Gospels testify very clearly both to the divinity and humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. In this final instalment in our short series, we will see whether the same can be said of the Christian writers outside the New Testament in the centuries before Constantine.
Amongst the wild and exotic claims made in chapter 55 of Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code, his character Sir Leigh Teabing claims that until the Emperor Constantine came along in the fourth century, nobody believed Jesus to be anything more than a man.
“If we are able to find Christian writers of the first, second and third centuries who believe Jesus to be divine, then the hypothesis presented in chapter 55 of The da Vinci Code will be shown to be historical nonsense.”
Sir Teabing, however, would also have us believe that, to bolster his claims to a ‘divine’ Jesus, Constantine not only selected such gospels as suited his purpose, but modified the gospels he found so as to make them portray Jesus as God.
But if that were the case — and if it were really true that until the fourth century nobody believed Jesus to be divine — then there would be no trace of such a belief in the Christian writers from the end of the first century (by which time the New Testament had been written) to the start of the fourth century. (Yes, we do have writings of Christians from this period — plenty of them!)
Conversely, if we are able to find Christian writers of the first, second and third centuries who believe Jesus to be divine, then the hypothesis presented in chapter 55 of The da Vinci Code will be shown to be historical nonsense.
Orthodox Christians today believe that Jesus of Nazareth was both man and God. And it turns out, that there are plenty of Christian writings from the early centuries of Christianity which say exactly these two things — that Jesus is both human and divine.
We will examine here fourteen passages from such writings, from four different Christian writers.
Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (died probably A.D. 107)
“Ignatius was condemned as a Christian and was taken in chains to Rome where he died facing wild beasts in the arena, probably in A.D. 107. It is likely he knew the Apostle John personally.”
We have in our possession seven genuine letters, of the early Christian martyr Ignatius, bishop (or overseer) of the church at Antioch. Ignatius was condemned as a Christian and was taken in chains to Rome where he died facing wild beasts in the arena, probably in A.D. 107. It is likely he knew the Apostle John personally, and may have been converted by him.
Besides these seven genuine letters, there are also eight spurious letters bearing his name. These are certainly later productions by other hands, and I will not take further notice of them here. If anything, their existence should merely be taken as an indication of the high esteem in which Ignatius was held in the early Christian Church.
From the seven letters I could adduce many passages to show that Ignatius (and the churches to whom he wrote) firmly believed in the divinity and humanity of Christ. However, let these two suffice, from his Letter to the Ephesians:—
Exhibits A & B. Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians
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 possible and then impossible,]— even Jesus Christ our Lord.
Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, ch. VII
For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Spirit. He was born and baptized, that by his passion he might purify the water.
Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, ch. XVIII
In both these passages, Ignatius very clearly says that Jesus Christ is both God, and truly human: he is “both of Mary and of God”; he is “our God, Jesus Christ… conceived in the womb by Mary.”
How far removed is what we see here from the assertions of Sir Leigh Teabing, that until the fourth century nobody believed Jesus to be anything other than a man!
Clement of Rome (c. 97 A.D.)
“Clement was a companion of the Apostle Paul, and, towards the end of the first century, the bishop (or overseer) of the church at Rome. His name is actually mentioned in the pages of Scripture.”
Clement was a companion of the Apostle Paul, and, towards the end of the first century, the bishop (or overseer) of the church at Rome. His name is actually mentioned in the pages of Scripture. We have one letter of his, written from Rome to the church at Corinth, to which we may assign a date around A.D. 97, and which, therefore, may well be the earliest Christian writing we have outside the New Testament itself.
Like Mark’s Gospel, it is not Clement’s primary purpose in writing to set forth the divinity of Christ. His purpose in writing to the Corinthians is to urge the church to restore their former presbyters who had been unjustly ousted from their position by a seditious party within the church.
Nevertheless, a number of passages in his letter demonstrate Clement’s belief in Jesus as divine.
Exhibit C. Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians, ch. XVI
For Christ is of those who are humble-minded, and not of those who exalt themselves over his flock. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Sceptre of the majesty of God, did not come in the pomp of pride or arrogance, although he might have done so, but in a lowly condition, as the Holy Spirit had declared regarding him.
Notice in this passage, Clement describes Christ as “the Sceptre of the majesty of God,” and says that he came humbly, in a lowly condition — implying, of course, that he came from heaven and became human.
Exhibit D. Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians, ch. XXII
Now the faith which is in Christ confirms all these admonitions. For he himself by the Holy Spirit thus addresses us: [There follows a long quotation from Psalm 34, followed by a shorter one from Psalm 32.]
The important thing to notice here is where the scripture passages quoted come from. Psalms 34 & 32 are in the Old Testament, written long before the birth of Jesus.
Yet he says that Christ himself addresses us by the Holy Spirit in these psalms.
In other words, what he is saying here is that Christ caused these words to be written during the Old Testament period. This necessarily implies his existence as the Son of God, before he was born as the man Jesus of Nazareth — implying, of course, his divinity.
Exhibit E. Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians, ch. XXXII
Whosoever will candidly consider each particular, will recognise the greatness of the gifts which were given by him [God?]. For from him [Jacob] have sprung the priests and all the Levites who minister at the altar of God. From him also was descended our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.
Here Clement clearly implies both Christ’s divinity and humanity.
His humanity, because from Jacob “was descended our Lord Jesus Christ.” He was a real, flesh-and-blood human.
“The phrase ‘according to the flesh’ is redundant, unless the writer [Clement] believes that Christ already existed before his human conception.”
And his divinity, because from Jacob “was descended our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.” Probably in Clement’s mind here is the Apostle Paul’s statement in Romans 1:3 that Christ Jesus “was descended from David according to the flesh.” In both cases the phrase “according to the flesh” is redundant, unless the writer believes that Christ already existed before his human conception. He is descended from David ‘according to the flesh,’ because he is also descended from God according to the spirit.
Hence, both for Paul and for Clement, “according to the flesh” implies Christ’s divinity.
Exhibit F. Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians, ch. XXXVI
By him [Jesus Christ] the Lord has willed that we should taste of immortal knowledge, “who, being the brightness of his majesty, is by so much greater than the angels, as he has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they have.” For it is thus written, “Who makes his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.” But concerning his Son the Lord spoke thus: “You are my Son, today have I begotten you. Ask of me, and I will give you the heathen for your inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for your possession.” And again he says to him, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” But who are his enemies? All the wicked, and those who set themselves to oppose the will of God.
In this passage Clement clearly has in mind chapter 1 of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, and quotes from it extensively — which is in itself an interesting fact.
But the very passage from which Clement is quoting contains some of the New Testament’s most exalted statements about the Person of Jesus:—
He [the Son] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. Letter to the Hebrews, 1:3-4
By quoting this passage affirmatively, Clement is endorsing its view of Christ — namely, that he “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” — the one who “upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
Clearly, therefore, Clement believed Jesus to be divine.
Exhibit G. Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians, ch. LVIII
For, as God lives, and as the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit live — both the faith and hope of the elect, he who in lowliness of mind, with instant gentleness, and without repentance has observed the ordinances and appointments given by God — the same one shall obtain a place and name in the number of those who are being saved through Jesus Christ…
Note the clear Trinitarian statement here: God — the Lord Jesus Christ — the Holy Spirit.
Nobody would argue that the Holy Spirit is a human being: clearly he is divine. Hence the mention of the Lord Jesus Christ between God (the Father) and the Holy Spirit obviously puts him on a level with the Father and the Holy Spirit — i.e., divine.
From the passages here cited, there can be no doubt that Clement believed Jesus of Nazareth to be both man and God.
Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (died c. A.D. 155)
Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, was a disciple of the Apostle John. For an account of his life and his martyrdom for Christ at the age of eighty-six, see here.
Exhibit H. Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians, ch. VII
“For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist;” and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is of the devil; and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan.
Here Polycarp quotes 1 John 4:2-3, one of the letters of the Apostle John in the New Testament.
“Polycarp is warning his readers in Philippi to beware of the peddlers of one of the earliest Christian heresies, Docetism. [His] quotation of [1 John 4:2-3] implies both the humanity of Jesus and his divinity.”
Polycarp is warning his readers in Philippi to beware of the peddlers of one of the earliest Christian heresies, Docetism. The name Docetism comes from the Greek word δοκέω, dokeō, meaning ‘I seem,’ for this heresy taught that Christ was not truly human, but only appeared to be so. In other words, Docetism considers Christ to be divine but not human.
Polycarp’s quotation of these verses from 1 John implies both the humanity of Jesus and his divinity.
His humanity, because “whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist.”
And his divinity, because “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” — that is, has come from the heavenly realms. He was the divine Son of God before he became the man Jesus Christ.
Exhibit I. Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians, ch. XII
But may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ himself, who is the Son of God, and our everlasting High Priest, build you up in faith and truth, and in all meekness, gentleness, patience, long-suffering, forbearance, and purity; …
He calls Jesus Christ “the Son of God,” as well as our everlasting High Priest.
‘Mathetes’ (c. A.D. 130)
We have an early, anonymous Christian letter written to one Diognetus. Its writer describes himself as “a disciple of the Apostles,” and from this he has traditionally been referred to as Mathetes, this being the Greek word for a ‘disciple.’ It is generally dated to around A.D. 130.
Exhibits J & K. Mathetes’ Epistle to Diognetus, ch. VII
For, as I said, this was no mere earthly invention which was delivered to them, nor is it a mere human system of opinion, which they judge it right to preserve so carefully, nor has a dispensation of mere human mysteries been committed to them, but truly God himself, who is almighty, the Creator of all things, and invisible, has sent from heaven, and placed among men, him who is the truth, and the holy and incomprehensible Word, and has firmly established him in their hearts. He did not, as one might have imagined, send to men any servant, or angel, or ruler, or any one of those who bear sway over earthly things, or one of those to whom the government of things in the heavens has been entrusted, but the very Creator and Fashioner of all things — by whom he made the heavens — by whom he enclosed the sea within its proper bounds — whose ordinances all the stars faithfully observe — from whom the sun has received the measure of his daily course to be observed — whom the moon obeys, being commanded to shine in the night, and whom the stars also obey, following the moon in her course; by whom all things have been arranged, and placed within their proper limits, and to whom all are subject…
As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so he [God] sent him; as God he sent him; as to men he sent him; as a Saviour he sent him, and as seeking to persuade, not to compel us; for violence has no place in the character of God.
According to ‘Mathetes’ in the first passage, God sent into the world “him who is the truth, and the holy and incomprehensible Word,” “the very Creator and Fashioner of all things.”
“According to ‘Mathetes’… Jesus Christ created all things that exist!”
This is, of course, his description of Jesus Christ, and it could hardly be a more exalted description: according to him, Jesus Christ created all things that exist!
The second passage tells us that God the Father sent this Word into the world “as God” — meaning that the one sent is God.
Exhibit L. Mathetes’ Epistle to Diognetus, ch. VIII
Yes, he [God] was always of such a character, and still is, and will ever be: kind and good, and free from wrath, and true, and the only one who is absolutely good. And he formed in his mind a great and unspeakable conception, which he communicated to his Son alone. As long, then, as he held and preserved his own wise counsel in concealment, he appeared to neglect us, and to have no care over us. But after he revealed and laid open, through his beloved Son, the things which had been prepared from the beginning, he conferred every blessing all at once upon us…
According to this passage, God communicated his plan for the salvation of the world to his Son alone, and this from time immemorial — long before that plan was revealed to mankind through the Son. He is referring, of course, to Jesus Christ, and expressing his divinity and his eternal nature.
Exhibit M. Mathetes’ Epistle to Diognetus, ch. IX
… He [God] took on himself the burden of our iniquities, he gave his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than his righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God?
This passage presents to us both the divinity and humanity of Jesus.
For firstly, ‘Mathetes’ here describes Jesus as God’s own Son — “the incorruptible One,” as opposed to us corruptible human beings — “the immortal One,” as opposed to us mortals.
But then also, he writes that this immortal One was given “as a ransom for us.” This implies his humanity — if he were not human, he could not have suffered on our behalf.
Exhibit N. Mathetes’ Epistle to Diognetus, ch. XI
For which reason he [God] sent the Word, that he might be manifested to the world; and he, being despised by the people of the Jews, was, when preached by the Apostles, believed on by the Gentiles. This is he who was from the beginning, who appeared as if new, and was found old, and yet who is ever born afresh in the hearts of the saints. This is he who, being from everlasting, is today called the Son; through whom the Church is enriched, and grace, widely spread, increases in the saints…
In this passage ‘Mathetes’ says that Jesus is God’s Word manifested. In other words, the one who appeared and was despised by his own people, was God’s eternal Word in human flesh. “This is he who was from the beginning, who appeared as if new, and was found old.” “This is he who, being from everlasting, is today called the Son.”
Without even having to go beyond the middle of the second century, we have seen fourteen passages, from four different early Christian writers, clearly showing Jesus both as divine and as human.
This, I think, is more than adequate to prove the absurdity of the claim made in The da Vinci Code, that until Constantine in the fourth century nobody believed Jesus to be anything more than a man.
“The truth is, the beginnings of Christianity are not half so shadowy and mysterious as the conspiracy theorists and writers would like us to believe. The widespread and early belief in a Jesus who was not only a great and inspiring man, but who was God on earth, is well attested both in the New Testament itself and in the earliest Christian writings.”
The truth is, the beginnings of Christianity are not half so shadowy and mysterious as the conspiracy theorists and writers would like us to believe. The widespread and early belief in a Jesus who was not only a great and inspiring man, but who was God on earth, is well attested both in the New Testament itself and in the earliest Christian writings we possess from after the New Testament was written. And there is no good reason to doubt that the texts before us are what their writers actually wrote.
For me personally, the more I look into the earliest Christian writings — such as the ones we have examined here — the more it convinces me that the Jesus we read about in the pages of the Bible really is God’s salvation plan revealed to mankind.
Why not read some of the New Testament yourself, beginning today — perhaps one of the Gospels, or perhaps some of the Apostle Paul’s or the Apostle John’s letters — and discover whether you believe Jesus is God’s salvation plan for you?
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 All of the texts cited in this article are taken from The Ante-Nicene Fathers (10 vols.). T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1996. Henceforth referred to as ANF.
 Of each of these seven letters there exists in Greek a shorter and a longer version. See ANF Vol. I, pp.49-96, where these versions are printed side by side. Although there is some difference of opinion as to which versions are the genuine ones, scholarly opinion has generally favoured the shorter versions. See ibid., pp.46-48. I agree with this view, and therefore will refer here only to the shorter versions of these letters.
ANF Vol. X, p.246. Note, at the time of publication of ANF Vol. I, the only known surviving copy of Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians had a considerable lacuna towards the end. This lacuna was supplied by the subsequent discovery of a complete copy of Clement’s letter, and the letter was therefore re-printed, in full, in ANF Vol. X. This passage is taken from the portion of the letter previously unknown.
Graham is an evangelical Christian believer living in Sussex, UK. He is passionate about helping people to understand what the Bible really says, and about explaining what the Christians of the early centuries believed and taught.