Where does the process begin that turns Jesus from a man into God? What was there about this first-century lower-class Galilean man that set him apart from others? We know very little about him and his situation in life in the early years of the first century. Jesus was born under the ideology of the Israelite religion, and became a lower-class artisan by trade. At one point he became a follower of John the Baptizer, who preached a message of Israelite renewal, repentance, and baptism in the face of the coming Judgment of God (Mark 1:4-8). About his early life little more is known, for the sources report virtually nothing historically reliable about the period from his birth to the beginning of his own public career, following the arrest of John.
The early Christian gospels are of little help, other than perhaps providing us hints about the earlier period, since Jesus is already portrayed in the gospels bigger-than-life as the Messiah and Son of God—basically a God who appears to be a man. In their reports the process is well advanced on the way to the declaration of Chalcedon in 451: that Jesus is "fully God and fully human." We must search for hints that might take us backwards toward the early beginning of the process.
It is possible that the process of turning Jesus into God happened during the Hellenistic phase of the early history of the church. With the influx of gentiles into the early community gatherings, Eastern religious traditions meet Western religious traditions. The right conditions for accelerating the process are provided by the Greek tendency to ascribe divinity to people of unusual abilities and by the pervasive influence of the mystery religions in the Greco-Roman world. To judge from the Pauline letters by the early 50s the process of elevating Jesus to divinity was well advanced, a situation likely due to the fact that gentiles associated themselves with Jesus gatherings shortly after the crucifixion (Acts 6:1-6).
What unusual ability might Jesus have that prompted his elevation from laborer to divinity? Josephus (JA 18.3.3) provides one suggestion. In the well-known Testimonium Flavianum Josephus refers to him as a wise man (σοφὸς ἀνήρ), although the entire statement in Josephus (first century) suggests that he is more than simply man. Because it conflicts with the statement as a whole, the view that Jesus was a "wise man" may be an authentic earlier memory. Another hint appears in a remarkable statement made by Justin Martyr (second century) who attests a similar view of Jesus: "Now the son of God, called Jesus, even if only an ordinary man, is on account of his wisdom (σοφία) worthy to be called son of God." (First Apology, 22). Justin tells the reader nothing about what he regards as the content of Jesus' wisdom.
The association of Jesus with wisdom is more pointedly made in the New Testament by the author of the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 23:34-36) in revising an earlier Q tradition, represented by Luke (11:49-51). Q attributes the oracle of doom on the people of "this generation" to Jesus, who says "I will send you prophets, wise men (σοφούς) and scribes." In Matthew, on the other hand, the oracle of doom is attributed to "the Wisdom of God," who "will send prophets and apostles." In other words Matthew has identified Jesus as personified Wisdom, and attributed Wisdom's oracle to Jesus. Before the earth was formed (personified) Wisdom worked alongside God in the creation of the heavens and the earth (Proverbs 8:27-30). But more to the point "in every generation she (Wisdom) passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God and prophets" (Wisdom 7:27). Again Matthew has revised an earlier Q tradition; Q identifies John the baptizer and Jesus as emissaries (i.e., children) of Lady Wisdom in spite of their different lifestyles (Luke 7:31-35), while Matthew by revising Q makes Jesus the embodiment of Lady Wisdom herself (Matthew 11:16-19) by virtue of the deeds Jesus performs (Matthew 11:19).
There is no trace of Jesus' reputation as savant or sage in any of the early Christian creeds, and only traces of it can be found in the early Christian gospels. His reputation as a Galilean sage virtually disappears from the tradition, along with the suppression of his public career by the creeds.
Only these few hints remain to suggest what may have been the case in Galilee and Judea only twenty years or so before Paul: Jesus was a man of unusual but native abilities with a quick mind who was remembered for his memorable sayings. Although he was an unlettered savant or a rustic sage, he became celebrated for his wisdom; eventually coming to be regarded by his associates as a "friend of God" and one of his generation's "holy souls" sent by Lady Wisdom (Wisdom 7:27). His unusual natural abilities gave him a position of special prominence and respect among his peers in Galilee.
Being regarded as an emissary of Lady Wisdom and a "wise man," however, would not inevitably lead to divinity, for "wise men" were ubiquitous in the ancient world. Nevertheless, the right conditions might spark the beginning of the process. Those "right" conditions are provided by the influence of non-Israelites in the early gatherings of his later followers; they could well have begun the process resulting in divine honors for him. Consider the early pre-Pauline Hellenistic confession that Jesus was a man chosen by God to be his son by virtue of his resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:3-4). Such a conjecture about the status of Jesus among his peers plausibly tracks the beginnings of Christology to circumstances in the life of the Israelite man, Jesus, in Roman Palestine.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University