What did the early Christians believe about Jesus Christ?
Did they believe Jesus of Nazareth was God?
There are many handwritten portions of the New Testament written in the first few centuries after Jesus was crucified. They were often written on an ancient type of paper called papyrus. As the original language of the New Testament was Greek, then these manuscripts can be referred to as Greek papyrus texts. They are often labelled with a Gregory-Aland number (e.g. P52) and a LDAB ID number (e.g 2774 for P52).
Echoes of Jesus: Does the New Testament Reflect What He Said? (Second edition) describes many of the important early Greek papyrus manuscripts, and focuses on those that contain all or part of the four Gospels. Chapter 8 contains a table that provides valuable information about a selection of Greek manuscripts from the first four centuries. For example it notes that P104 which contains a portion of chapter 21 of The Gospel of Matthew was written sometime between 100 AD and 200 AD.
Although Echoes of Jesus does not dwell on them, there are many Greek manuscripts from other New Testament books, not just the Gospels. A good example is P32 which contains part of the New Testament letter called Titus. This small fragment contains some of Titus 1:11–15 and Titus 2:3–8. Like P104, it was probably written in the 100s AD, that is the second century. Not only is it more than 1,800 years old, it may have been published only 50 years after Titus was first penned by Paul.
Letter to Titus
This New Testament letter was written by the apostle Paul to his colleague Titus in about 66 AD, and the early Christian communities regarded it as important. One Christian leader, Irenaeus who was based in France, referred to the text of Titus in one of his own letters composed in about 180 AD. Another early Christian scholar, Tertullian from the north of Africa, referred to a part of Titus in his own book composed between 200 AD and 220 AD.
The letter of Titus has a special part to play in understanding what the first few generations of Christians thought about Jesus of Nazareth. This is because of the following words found in Titus 2:13–14 and 3:3–7:
...we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness...(2:13–14).
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life (3:3–7).
God's Kindness and Love
The context of these words indicates that the appearance of kindness and love referred to is the appearance of Jesus Christ on earth. It seems on the surface that this could be understood to mean that God our Saviour did bring about an appearance of his kindness and love through the life of Jesus Christ on earth. But could it mean that the kindness and love that appeared was in reality God our Saviour? Paul's thoughts become even more intriguing as in the next few lines Paul refers to Jesus Christ as our Saviour (3:6–7), while only several sentences earlier in both 2:10 and 3:4 he referred to God as our Saviour. So did Paul believe in two different Saviours, one being God and one being Jesus Christ, or only one Saviour who was both God and Jesus Christ? Titus 2:13 indicates that Paul not only looked back to when God’s love and kindness appeared, but he also looked forward to a new appearance, as he wrote to Titus about waiting for ‘the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.’ However, given that the original Greek language did not use a comma, is it possible that Paul was actually saying 'our great God, and Savior Jesus Christ' as opposed to 'our great God and Savior who is Jesus Christ'?
God and Saviour as One Person
One way of seeing that 'God and Saviour' in Titus 2:13 refers to the one person of Jesus Christ is by studying other places where Paul wrote about just one person yet described them with two nouns separated by the Greek word used for ‘and’, namely kai. Here are two examples, both referring to 'God and Father' yet at the same time referring to the one person:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (Galatians 1:3–4)
We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 1:3)
In both of these writings it can be seen that Paul is only referring to one person when he refers to them by two different nouns (namely God and Father) separated by the Greek word for ‘and’ (kai). However this simple understanding of the Greek language does not always result in a correct understanding of how two nouns relate to each other. A technical analysis of the Greek language does indicate that Titus 2:13 refers to only one person as being God and Saviour, not two (for example, refer to the article by JR White: Granville Sharp's Rule: Titus 2:13, 2 Peter 1:1). For those wanting to go deeper, the Greek grammatical rule that describes this situation is often quoted this way:
When the copulative kai connects two nouns of the same case [viz. nouns (either substantive or adjective, or participles) of personal description, respecting office, dignity, affinity, or connexion, and attributes, properties, or qualities, good or ill,] if the article ho, or any of its cases, precedes the first of the said nouns or participles, and is not repeated before the second noun or participle, the latter always relates to the same person that is expressed or described by the first noun or participle: i.e., it denotes a farther description of the first named person. (JR White citing: Granville Sharp. Remarks on the Uses of the Definitive Article in the Greek Text of the New Testament: Containing Many New Proofs of the Divinity of Christ, From Passages Which are Wrongly Translated in the Common English Version, (Philadelphia: B.B. Hopkins and Co., 1807), p. 3.
In more recent times Granville Sharp’s rule has been rephrased by Dr DB Wallace from Dallas Theological Seminary as:
In native Greek constructions (i.e., not translation Greek), when a single article modifies two substantives connected by καί (thus, article-substantive-καί-substantive), when both substantives are (1) singular (both grammatically and semantically), (2) personal, (3) and common nouns (not proper names or ordinals), they have the same referent.
An example of how Sharp’s rule clarifies the meaning of the original Greek in a similar fashion to Titus 2:13 can be seen in the following verse:
… consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession (Hebrews 3:1, NASB)
If the reader of the Greek applies Sharp’s rule then they can see that Jesus is both the apostle and the high priest, rather than think that Jesus the apostle is a different person to the high priest.
There are other lines of evidence that point to Paul using the phrase ‘the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ’ as a way of conveying that Jesus Christ is God.
God in human flesh
So archaeology and papyrology (the study of ancient papyrus manuscripts) have uncovered evidence that the first few generations of Christians thought Jesus of Nazareth, who they also referred to as Jesus Christ, was in fact God. Further evidence of this can be seen within the pages of Echoes of Jesus: Does the New Testament Reflect What He Said? (Second edition). This matter is discussed in a section that reveals that not only did the apostle Paul teach that Jesus Christ was God, but so did Peter who was a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jonathan Clerke, Echoes of Jesus: Does the New Testament Reflect What He Said? (Second edition), ch. 12 Boundaries of divergence between ancient manuscripts and an English New Testament. Echoes of Jesus also includes background information about Irenaeus and Tertullian in Chapter 7, Who actually wrote the four Gospels?
Emily J Gathergood, Papyrus 32 (Titus) as a Multi-text Codex: A New Reconstruction. New Testament Studies 59(04), 2013
Irenaeus, Against Heresies (Adv. Haer.), book 1, ch. 16, para. 3; book 3, ch. 3, para. 4
Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, ch. 6 & ch. 16
Daniel B Wallace, Sharp Redivivus: A Reexamination of the Granville Sharp Rule, June 2004, accessed 9/06/2020
James R White, Granville Sharp's Rule: Titus 2:13, 2 Peter 1:1, accessed 9/06/2020
What Jonathan Clerke says here about Jesus being God, is both biblically and historically accurate. More could be said (e.g. John 1:1; John 20:28, Hebrews 1:8-9 and other verses), but the unmistakable New Testament teaching is that Jesus Christ of Nazareth was God come to earth.
A very helpful article. I have found it's not uncommon for people to assume that the divinity of Jesus is a doctrine that evolved hundreds of years after His life. Thanks, Jonathan, for these clearly explained and specific insights in response to this.