The deity of Christ is one of the central claims of Christianity. We believe it because it is firmly established in Scripture. The prophets foretold that the Messiah would be God.1 Jesus claimed to be divine.2 The New Testament authors directly called Jesus God and identified Him as "Yahweh" of the Old Testament. We accept, therefore, the unified biblical testimony on this matter. It can be additionally helpful, however, to note that the earliest Christians outside the New Testament also understood and believed this. When they read the Scriptures and contemplated the words of Jesus and the inspired writers, they came to the same conclusions from them that we do. The generation of Christian writers just after the Apostles, often known as the "Apostolic Fathers," unanimously affirmed that Jesus is the one true God.
Ignatius of Antioch
Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch who died a Christian martyr around 107/108 AD, wrote numerous letters to various churches shortly before his death. In these letters, Ignatius repeatedly refers to Jesus in phrases like:
- Jesus Christ, our God (Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 1, Letter to the Romans, Chapter 1).
- Christ our God (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 10).
- Our God, Jesus Christ (Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 18, Letter to Polycarp, Chapter 8).
- God, even Jesus Christ (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 10).
- God Himself being manifested in human form (Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 19).
- God existing in Flesh (Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 7).
He testified to Jesus in powerful words like:
"we ought to bear all things for the sake of God, that He also may bear with us. Be ever becoming more zealous than what thou art. Weigh carefully the times. Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes; impalpable and impassible, yet who became passible on our account; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes," (Letter to Polycarp, Chapter 3).
As any biblical Christian would, he regularly distinguished between the Father and the Son, yet he made it abundantly clear that both were the one, true God.
Polycarp was born around 69 AD and died a martyr in the mid-second century. He was, according to early sources, a disciple of the Apostle John and he served as bishop of Smyrna. In the one letter from Polycarp that has survived, he writes:
"Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal High-priest Himself the Son of God Jesus Christ, build you up in faith and truth, and in all gentleness and in all avoidance of wrath and in forbearance and long suffering and in patient endurance and in purity; and may He grant unto you a lot and portion among His saints, and to us with you, and to all that are under heaven, who shall believe on our Lord and God Jesus Christ and on His Father that raised him from the dead," (Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians, Chapter 12).
Now, I must note that the Roberts-Donaldson translation in the popular "Ante Nicene Fathers" collection renders the relevant phrase as simply "our Lord Jesus Christ" based on a minority of Latin manuscripts. In the majority of manuscripts, as well as the earliest and best of the manuscripts for this chapter, Polycarp refers to Jesus as both Lord and God. The classic translations of Lightfoot and Lake both affirm the reading "our Lord and God, Jesus Christ," as do the more recent critical translations of Ehrman (2003), Holmes (2006), and Brannan (2010). The consensus of scholars is that the correct reading of Polycarp's letter is "our Lord and God, Jesus Christ."
According to the early reports of Polycarp's martyrdom, he also prayed on the day of his death:
"Wherefore also I praise Thee for all things, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, with whom, to Thee, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen," (The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna Concerning the Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp, Chapter 14).
Interestingly, there are also other lines of evidence beyond Polycarp's own words. We also see in the letter from Ignatius of Antioch to Polycarp (cited above) multiple references to their common belief in Jesus as God. A later second-century church leader, Irenaeus of Lyons, claimed to have studied under Polycarp. Irenaeus likewise affirmed the deity of Christ.3 Thus, in addition to his own words, we have circumstantial evidence in the words of Polycarp's associates that the deity of Christ was not only his own belief but the common belief of those around him.
A Christian in Athens named Aristides, writing around 125 AD, described the Christian faith as follows:
"The Christians, then, trace the beginning of their religion from Jesus the Messiah; and he is named the Son of God Most High. And it is said that God came down from heaven, and from a Hebrew virgin assumed and clothed himself with flesh; and the Son of God lived in a daughter of man. This is taught in the gospel, as it is called, which a short time was preached among them; and you also if you will read therein, may perceive the power which belongs to it. This Jesus, then, was born of the race of the Hebrews; and he had twelve disciples in order that the purpose of his incarnation might in time be accomplished. But he himself was pierced by the Jews, and he died and was buried; and they say that after three days he rose and ascended to heaven. Thereupon these twelve disciples went forth throughout the known parts of the world, and kept showing his greatness with all modesty and uprightness. And hence also those of the present day who believe that preaching are called Christians," (Apology of Aristides, Chapter 2).
Not only does Aristides claim that God came down in the form of a man, but he plainly tells us that this understanding came from reading the gospels and was the common faith of the Christian community!
Epistle to Diognetus
An anonymous Christian writer from the early/mid-second century likewise explicitly explains Jesus deity yet distinction from the Father:
"God Himself, who is almighty, the Creator of all things, and invisible, has sent from heaven, and placed among men 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—the heavens and the things that are therein, the earth and the things that are therein, the sea and the things that are therein—fire, air, and the abyss—the things which are in the heights, the things which are in the depths, and the things which lie between. This He sent to them. Was it then, as one might conceive, for the purpose of exercising tyranny, or of inspiring fear and terror? By no means, but under the influence of clemency and meekness. As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so sent He Him; as God He sent Him; as to men He sent Him; as a Savior He sent Him, and as seeking to persuade, not to compel us; for violence has no place in the character of God," (Epistle to Diognetus, Chapter 7).
One of the earliest writings we have is a document that came to be known as "the Epistle of Barnabas." The document itself never claims to have been written by Barnabas and no modern scholar believes that the biblical Barnabas was the author, but the document was popular in the early church and clearly reflected the beliefs of many early Christians. It is difficult to date precisely, but based on the content, scholars agree that it was written sometime after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD and before the imperial edicts of 135 AD, so it is definitely late first century or early second. The work provides numerous references to Jesus' deity. For example:
"the Lord endured to suffer for our soul, He being 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,'” (Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 5).
Such a statement, at the very least, makes Jesus a pre-existent person who was alongside God the Father in creation. The writer goes on to explain:
"The prophets, having obtained grace from Him, prophesied concerning Him. And He (since it behooved Him to appear in flesh), that He might abolish death, and reveal the resurrection from the dead, endured [what and as He did], in order that He might fulfill the promise made unto the fathers, and by preparing a new people for Himself, might show, while He dwelt on earth, that He, when He has raised mankind, will also judge them. Moreover, teaching Israel, and doing so great miracles and signs, He preached [the truth] to him, and greatly loved him. But when He chose His own apostles who were to preach His Gospel, [He did so from among those] who were sinners above all sin, that He might show He came “not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Then He manifested Himself to be the Son of God. For if He had not come in the flesh, how could men have been saved by beholding Him? Since looking upon the sun which is to cease to exist, and is the work of His hands, their eyes are not able to bear his rays. The Son of God therefore came in the flesh with this view, that He might bring to a head the sum of their sins who had persecuted His prophets," (Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 5).
Thus the prophets are said to have obtained grace from Jesus and are even called "His prophets." The sun is the work of His hands, and He is preparing a people for Himself. There are numerous similar references, such as:
"Since, therefore, having renewed us by the remission of our sins, He hath made us after another pattern, [it is His purpose] that we should possess the soul of children, inasmuch as He has created us anew by His Spirit. For the Scripture says concerning us, while He speaks to the Son, 'Let Us make man after Our image, and after Our likeness; and let them have dominion over the beasts of the earth, and the fowls of heaven, and the fishes of the sea.' And the Lord said, on beholding the fair creature man, 'Increase, and multiply, and replenish the earth.' These things [were spoken] to the Son," (Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 6).
The author also directly identifies Jesus as Yahweh of the Old Testament in passages such as:
"Behold, therefore, we have been refashioned, as again He says in another prophet, 'Behold, saith the Lord, I will take away from these, that is, from those whom the Spirit of the Lord foresaw, their stony hearts, and I will put hearts of flesh within them,' because He was to be manifested in flesh, and to sojourn among us. For, my brethren, the habitation of our heart is a holy temple to the Lord," (Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 6).
He likewise interprets certain laws and traditions of the Old Covenant sacrificial system to be as if God was saying to the priests:
"Since you are going to give me, when I am about to offer my flesh for the sins of my new people, gall with vinegar to drink, you alone must eat, while the people fast and lament in sackcloth and ashes," (Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 7).
Thus the LORD (Yahweh/Jehovah) who gave the laws to the people was the same Lord who was to offer His flesh for the sins of the people. Barnabas thus sees the Son of God, though distinct from the Father, as yet being Jehovah God along with the Father. Indeed, the author goes on to point to the words that the LORD spoke through Isaiah:
"I have spread out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, Who walk in the way which is not good, following their own thoughts," (Isaiah 65:2).
He claims that the LORD spoke of "spreading out My hands" in reference to the cross of Christ, (Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 12)! When Jesus was nailed to the cross, God Himself was stretching out His hands for a rebellious people. Thus, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas and the many early Christians whose views he represents all agreed that Jesus is the one true God.
Another popular early work was a book called "The Shepherd" by a man named Hermas. The book is primarily a treatise on repentance and does not focus a great deal on the person of Jesus, but it does make it very clear that there is only one God who alone is creator:
"First of all, believe that there is one God who created and finished all things, and made all things out of nothing. He alone is able to contain the whole, but Himself cannot be contained," (26:1, or Commandment 1).
And yet that the Father and Son were partners in creation:
"The Son of God is older than all His creation, so that He was a fellow-councilor with the Father in His work of creation," (89:2, or Parable 9, Section 12).
Thus, Hermas affirms along with the others that Jesus is the one true God, though He is also distinct from the Father.
The deity of Christ is not a late development in church history. It is the unanimous testimony of the earliest Christian writers. The reason this belief is so widespread among the earliest Christian writers, of course, is that it is so widespread throughout the scriptures themselves! The Bible makes it abundantly clear that Jesus is God, and Christians in every age have looked to God's word and seen that glorious truth. This has been so from the very beginning.