Jesus the man of God
For the Jewish monotheists who made up the majority of Christians in the first couple of centuries C.E. (i.e. Jews & gentile God-fearers), Jesus came into the world as the human envoy of a familiar deity: YHWH the lord god of Israel. Jesus was, in this way, the anointed son of a known god. He came not on his own accord, but at the beckoning of the god who long ago spoke to Israel’s fathers.
At these earliest stages then, Jesus was viewed not as YHWH himself (or as some other god), but as the man through whom Israel’s patron deity was about to carry out his purposes in the last days. In other words, Jesus was the expected Messiah, the Davidic king raised up by Israel’s god in accordance with his longstanding promises (Luke 1:32-33).
So given their monotheistic roots, the early Christians (the writers of the NT included) had little reason to dismantle or reconsider the long-established boundary between the one true God and God’s human representative(s) (cf. John 17:3, Mark 10:18). They had little interest in conflating Christ and God—and their texts, I think, bear this out. The origins of the Triune God rest somewhere else.
Jesus the god of man
To the pagan nations that were suddenly and unexpectedly overthrown by the Christian cult when emperor Constantine converted, however, Christ appeared in a different light. He came to them not as the human dignitary of Israel’s god—as YHWH’s prophet of the last days—but rather as the divine judge from heaven, the smasher of their beloved idols.
Since these pagan peoples had no monotheistic foundation upon which to build their understanding of Jesus’ powerful parousia into and over the inhabited world (i.e. the empire), Jesus appeared to them as the true God, as the heavenly slayer of Jupiter and Juno and Minerva. As their world of gods and idols was toppled, pagans were forced to reckon with this strange and unstoppable new god: Jesus Christ.
As such, it was Christ’s second “coming”—culminating with the conversion of the empire—not his first coming to Israel, that defined the pagan vision of who Jesus was. Jesus was, for them, the god above all their gods.
The apocalypse of the Christ-god
When these two divergent experiences of Jesus are juxtaposed—the one monotheistic and the other pagan—the Christological trajectory that culminated in the Trinitarian confession at Nicaea becomes easier to understand. I would suggest, in fact, that the pagan experience of Jesus just described—Jesus as heavenly conqueror of the Greco-Roman oikoumene—was integral to the development and triumph of orthodox Christology. It was in this pagan experience, not in the New Testament texts themselves, that Jesus’ identity as the true god crystallized. In the conversion of the empire pagans experienced Christ as they would one of their gods and from this experience the Triune God began to take shape.
This is not to say that the ascendancy of Trinitarian Christology during and following the collapse of paganism in the Roman world has no scriptural warrant. Rather, it seems to me that the seeds of the Trinitarian dogma lie dormant in early Christian apocalyptic thinking, especially when viewed from the perspective of pagans who lived through the rapid transformation of their world.
Consider, for instance, how the early Christians characterized Jesus at the eschaton.
- In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus judges “the nations” as the king seated upon a single throne (Matthew 25:31-33). Though he makes reference to his father in their presence, for all intents and purposes Jesus is, to the awestruck pagan nations, god most high. He alone commandeers history and renders judgement against the world (cf. John 5:22, Revelation 5:5).
- In Paul, Jesus is “revealed from heaven” with a retinue of lesser divine warriors through whom he inflicts evildoers who “do not know [Israel’s] God” (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, cf. Revelation 14:14-20, Matthew 13:36-43). Jesus alone comes to save his people from their oppressors (1 Thessalonians 1:10, 5:9).
- Jesus appears to the unwitting nations wrapped in the glory of the one God (Mark 8:38). He extinguishes the heavenly lights, shaking both heaven and earth and gathering his people to himself (Mark 13:24-27).
What these passages indicate is that while the first Christians recognized the subordination of Christ to the one God (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:27-28), they expected Jesus to function as God (or to the pagans, as a god) in the eschatological context. While monotheists such as the early Christians were able to distinguish between God and God’s godlike agent, pagans would have understood Jesus as a new and more powerful god.
Moreover, and perhaps most telling, God disappears off-stage in Christian depictions of the apocalypse. While Jesus assumes the leading role at the eschaton, the God who authorizes him to carry out judgement and redemption exists only on the margins of the texts. It is Jesus, not God, who appears in glory, condemns idolaters, raises the faithful, saves his people, and rules the nations with a rod of iron. It is thus Jesus, not God, who takes on the role of deity for the pagan peoples. Jesus comes to them not as a human being, or rather, not merely as a human being, but as the one true God who reigns over and against all other gods, the life-giver and the life-taker, the one to whom exclusive obeisance is now due.
In short, there seems to be a convergence here—the pagan experience of religious-political catastrophe and replacement by the cult of Christ corresponds with early Christian depictions of the eschaton. Just as Christ functions as God in New Testament apocalyptic, so too did Christ manifest as supreme deity to the pagans who were abruptly and forcefully pressed to abandon their ancestral religious-political practices and identities by their Christian regents.
When the apocalyptic flood had at last been dried up and the nations woke up in a new world, only the cult of the Christ-god remained. The question for these ex-pagans was not, as it had been for the church previously, How do we understand the relationship between the man Jesus and the god of Israel? but rather How do we understand the relationship between the god Christ and his father. The apocalyptic narrative (i.e. the exaltation of Jesus by God for the purpose of eschatological judgement) then, I would argue, came to fruition in Trinitarian Christology. Authorized to act as God in subjugating the nations, Jesus became as God to those peoples he assimilated.