From time to time scholars suggest the divinity of Jesus is a later invention of the Church. Jesus, they claim, did not believe himself to be God, nor did he claim to be. His first followers, and the early church, likewise did not believe he was God but rather thought of him as a good teacher and moral example. The Da Vinci Code echoes such sentiments by declaring that “Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet . . . a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal.” He was not considered to be God until the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325.
The problem with this view, however, is that the NT records clearly and repeatedly state otherwise. Paul, writing in the A.D. 50s, said Jesus is the “Christ, who is God over all, forever praised” (Rom. 9:5). Equally clear is his statement, penned in the early A.D. 60s, that “Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6). Similarly, he noted that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). Elsewhere, he spoke of “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Tit. 2:13).
The Gospels uniformly attest to Jesus’ claim to be God and to his followers’ belief that he was God. Peter confessed that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Mark wrote “the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Before the Jewish high priest at his trial, when charged under oath by the living God to state whether he was the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus responded, “Yes, it is as you say. But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One . . .” (Matt. 26:63–64).
Perhaps the clearest affirmations of Jesus as God in any of the Gospels are found in the Gospel of John. In the opening verse, John identifies “the Word” (i.e. Jesus) as God (John 1:1). Jesus’ claim to be God was clearly understood by his opponents during his earthly ministry, as is made clear in John 5:18: “For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”
In John 8:58, Jesus claims, “before Abraham was born, I am,” using the OT name of God. Again, this implicit claim to deity was clearly understood by Jesus’ Jewish opponents, who picked up stones to stone him for blasphemy. Later, Jesus is recorded as saying, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), and Thomas confesses him as his Lord and God (John 20:28). Finally, in his first epistle John wrote, “And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.”
We could go on and cite additional NT evidence (such as Heb. 1:3, 8 or 2 Pet. 1:1), but the above examples show that there is ample biblical support for the belief that Jesus knew himself to be God and claimed to be God during his earthly ministry and that his first followers—as well as his opponents—clearly understood him to claim divinity for himself. In fact, all but one of the Twelve and many other early Christians suffered martyrdom for this belief.
For further study, see my booklet on The Da Vinci Code. See also Murray J. Harris, Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus (Baker, 1992). See also my book (co-authored with Scott Swain) Father, Son, and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel (NSBT; InterVarsity, 2008), in which I deal with Jesus’ deity in light of first-century Jewish monotheism (chap. 1).