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FIRST-PERSON: Was Jesus’ divinity an afterthought?

Editor’s note: This column is the second in a five-part series examining the claims of “The Da Vinci Code,” which hits theaters Friday, May 19.

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–One of the more important claims in “The Da Vinci Code” is the position that Jesus was regarded by the early Christians as a mortal man who was a great prophet, but nothing more.

In fact, the book and movie claim that the belief that Jesus is the Son of God was not held by Christians until the early fourth century. Shortly afterward it was brought up and voted on at the Council of Nicea. The “new belief” that Jesus is the Son of God supposedly was adopted at Nicea, having passed by a narrow margin. At least, this is what Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown tells us.

But history is quite clear on the matter, and it weighs heavily against Brown’s view. The Gospel of John was written in the first century and very clearly presents Jesus as the divine Son of God, even God himself (John 1:1, 18; 8:58; 20:28). The Synoptic Gospels, which include Matthew, Mark and Luke, do not state this as clearly to the modern reader. Nevertheless, the first-century Jewish reader would have recognized Jesus’ claims to divinity in the Synoptic Gospels.

Jesus’ favorite manner of referring to Himself was as the Son of Man. This term had three meanings in first-century Judaism. It could be a synonym for “human.” It could be a manner of referring to oneself. And it also could refer to a figure known to first-century Jews as the future Son of Man. This figure is described in Daniel 7:13-14 as one who will come on the clouds of heaven, be given an everlasting kingdom, and all will serve Him. Although a number of Greek words are translated as “serve,” this particular use of “serve” is used more than 130 times in the Old and New Testaments. With only one exception, it always refers to an act that is done to or for a deity. Jesus was aware that God is the only one who should be served in this manner (Matthew 4:10; Luke 4:8). Thus, it is noteworthy that although Jesus used the term “Son of Man” in all three senses, he especially saw Himself as this future Son of Man.

In His trial confession Jesus tells all present that he is not only the Messiah and the Son of God, but also the Son of Man described by Daniel (Mark 14:61-64). Those present knew exactly what He was saying. When asked if He was the Messiah and Son of God, Jesus said, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” It becomes very clear why Jesus was charged by the Jewish leaders with blaspheming God. He was claiming divinity.

Jesus claimed to be the future Son of Man in all four Gospels, including Mark, which may be the earliest Gospel and composed around A.D. 70 or even earlier. But we can go back to an even earlier time when Jesus was thought of as divine. Most scholars believe that Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian writings available to us. He presents the divinity of Jesus more clearly than anyone. In his letter to the Philippians (2:6-11), he says that Jesus had the nature and role of God prior to taking the nature and role of a slave. However, after His crucifixion, God exalted Jesus back to the place He held before. Then he cites a passage where God asserts that to the only God every knee will bow and every tongue confess (Isaiah 45), and applies it to Jesus. And what they will confess is that “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Although the title “Lord” could be used merely as an honorific title, it almost always refers to YHWH in early Christian confessions such as we have here. For example, we find an early confessional formula in Romans 10:9, which states that anyone who confesses that “Jesus is Lord” and believes that God raised him from the dead will be saved. Just four verses later, Paul quotes Joel 2:32, which states that whoever calls on the name of YHWH will be saved. Therefore, the confessional formula in Romans 10:9 is saying that one must confess that Jesus is YHWH in order to receive salvation. In Philippians 2:11, the name or title given (or rather returned) to Jesus to which every tongue will confess is that Jesus Christ is YHWH!

We have seen that Brown’s claim that Christians did not regard Jesus as the Son of God prior to the fourth-century is easily debunked. All four New Testament Gospels were penned in the first-century and all refer to Jesus as divine In addition, Paul is clear in his letters that Jesus is divine and these date to A.D. 60 or even earlier.
Licona is director of apologetics and interfaith evangelism at the North American Mission Board.

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  • Mike Licona