“IN THE BEGINNING was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God” (John 1:1).
These are the first words of the Gospel of John. And from the moment they were written nearly two thousand years ago, they have formed the principal dividing line between Christianity and the Jewish religion from which it arose.
The Gospel of John is unlike the three other gospels in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called Synoptic Gospels because they derive mostly from the same source material and thus tell more or less the same story about an itinerant Jewish preacher and peasant from Nazareth named Yeshua (Jesus in Greek) who performed miracles and healed the sick, who preached about the Kingdom of God, who was declared to be the Messiah and savior of the world, and who, as a result of that declaration, was arrested and executed by the Roman authorities before rising from the dead three days later.
John’s gospel relies on a separate set of traditions; it relates its own unique stories and offers a completely different timeline of Jesus’s activities, including the day of his death and resurrection. The Synoptics begin the story of Jesus either with the launch of his ministry or with his miraculous birth. The Gospel of John begins Jesus’s story at the beginning of time.
However, the most significant difference between John and the Synoptics is that while Matthew, Mark, and Luke offer a host of ideas about who Jesus was—a Jewish rabbi (Mark 9:5)? A king in the line of David (Luke 19:38)? A prophet and lawgiver like Moses (Matthew 2:16–18)?—only in the Gospel of John is Jesus unambiguously recognized as the incarnate God.1
The claim is there in the first words of the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Logos…” The word logos is often translated in English Bibles as “word,” but that is not what “Logos” means here. Logos is a technical term in Greek philosophy meaning “reason” or “logic,” though even those definitions fall short of its true sense. For the Greeks, Logos was the underlying rational force of the universe. It is, in other words, divine reason—the mind behind creation. The Logos is what Xenophanes, Pythagoras, and Plato meant when they talked about the “one god” as the singular, unified principle steering all creation.2
Whoever wrote the Gospel of John (it was not the disciple John; he was long dead by the time the Gospel was written some time around 100 C.E.) was himself a Greek-speaking Roman citizen steeped in Hellenistic philosophy. His readers were also Greek-speaking Roman citizens living in a Hellenistic world. And so, when John uses the word Logos to launch his gospel, he very likely means it the way the Greeks did: as the primal force of creation through which all things came to be.
But then John does something completely unexpected. He argues that this primal force is actually a man. Indeed, the entire purpose of John’s gospel is to demonstrate how the abstract, eternal, divine essence of creation, which is both separate from God and one with God, was made manifest on earth in the form of Jesus Christ: “And the Logos became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).
To be clear, John is claiming that the maker of heaven and earth spent thirty years in the backwoods of Galilee, living as a Jewish peasant; that the one and only God entered the womb of a woman and was born from her; that the omniscient Lord of the universe suckled at his mother’s breast, ate and slept and shat as a helpless infant while the universe simply proceeded without him; that the creator of men was reared by men and then, at the end of his life on earth, was murdered by men.
“I and the Father are one,” Jesus declares in John. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 10:30; 14:9).
The concept of a “god-man” was not new in the Ancient Near East. The Romans routinely deified their emperors after death, and sometimes, as in the case of Julius Caesar, during their reigns. Of the sixty emperors who ruled the Roman Empire between the first and fourth centuries C.E., thirty-six of them were deified, as were another twenty-seven of their family members. Altars and temples were constructed to house their images, priesthoods established to offer them sacrifices, and religious ceremonies devised for people to worship them as gods.3
The Romans were likely influenced by the Greeks, who had a long history of deifying human beings. Greek theology never made a firm distinction between human and divine; the great myths of Greece teem with demigods and heroes who achieve divine status as a reward for their service to the gods. Alexander the Great was considered a god during his reign (336–323 B.C.E.), as was his father, Philip of Macedon (359–336 B.C.E.), who went so far as to erect a statue of himself standing alongside the twelve Olympian gods of the Greek pantheon.4
Coin of Augustus Caesar reading CAESAR DIVI F, or “Caesar, Son of God” Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., www.cngcoins.com
The Greeks themselves probably picked up the practice from the Egyptians, who viewed their pharaohs as divine. Although the pharaoh could be the living embodiment of any deity in the Egyptian pantheon, he was most closely associated with the falcon-headed god Horus. More specifically, Horus inhabited the pharaoh’s body while he sat upon the throne. By taking part in the activities of what was considered his divine office, especially the religious rituals and public ceremonies, the pharaoh’s human nature became suffused with divinity. Then, upon his death, he would shed his humanity and take his place among the stars as a god worthy of worship.5
And it is very likely that the Egyptians were influenced by Mesopotamian rulers. Indeed, the concept of a divine king originated in Mesopotamia and is often credited to Sargon the Great, the Akkadian ruler who briefly united nearly all of Mesopotamia under his control between 2340 and 2284 B.C.E. The fourth king of Sargon’s Akkadian Dynasty, Naram-Sin, created a wholly new ideology of kingship when he declared himself divine by prefixing his name (Naram) to that of the powerful moon goddess (Sin).6
As previously mentioned, the god-man is arguably the single most successful minimally counterintuitive concept in religious history. In fact, practically the only religion in the Near East without a firm tradition of deifying human beings was the religion of Jesus himself: Judaism.
We have seen how the impulse to humanize the divine is embedded in our cognitive processes. But what would compel a society to divinize a human: to worship a man as a god, to imbue him with divine speech, divine knowledge, and divine energy, to pray to him, to seek his aid in this life and the next?
It should not be surprising to learn that the humanization of the divine and the divinization of the human are two sides of the same coin. Over the first few thousand years of organized religion’s history, from Göbekli Tepe to Greece, as the gods steadily took on each of our attributes, it was only natural that they would take on our most distinctly human impulse: the desire for power, the need to dominate and control others. The more this motivation was attributed to the gods, the more their relationship with humanity changed, so that the divine was no longer seen as the vital essence of the natural world: nature deified. Now the divine was king. No longer did the gods merely dispense light or rain or any of the other forces of nature that sustain us. Now the gods dispensed justice. With their mouths they made their will known. With their eyes they saw all of our actions. With their hands they smote those who challenged them.
Of course, the gods have no mouths with which to speak, no eyes with which to see, no hands with which to smite. These are human, not divine, features. So it was left to the gods’ representatives on earth to speak for them, to dispense justice on their behalf, to smite their enemies, to bear in their human hands the power that the gods demand for themselves.
The role of human mediator to the gods naturally fell to the gods’ counterparts on earth—primarily kings, pharaohs, and emperors, but also priests and prophets, mystics and messiahs. We saw how this process took shape in ancient Mesopotamia, with the consolidation of power into the hands of an autocratic few who wielded the power of the divine. And, as in Mesopotamia, once the need for a human mediator is accepted, it is a short step to deifying the mediator. After all, it makes a certain amount of sense to expect the person acting as the bridge between humans and the divine to also be divine (or at least semidivine).
Nevertheless, there was something uniquely disruptive about the deification of Jesus. It wasn’t that Jesus came from a religion with no history of deifying humans. Nor was it the fact that Jesus was a peasant while most other god-men of the Ancient Near East were kings and emperors.7
What made Jesus’s deification different had less to do with him than it did with the divinity he was said to embody. For while all the other god-men of the Ancient Near East were thought to be one of many human manifestations of one of many gods, Jesus was considered the sole human manifestation of the only God in the universe.
For a great many Christians in the first few centuries of Christianity, this was a difficult idea to accept. Within the early Church, a dividing line on John’s perception of Jesus as the Logos quickly formed: Either John was mistaken and Jesus was just a man and not God, or John was right and Jesus was indeed a god—just not the one and only God of the universe. No less a figure than the preeminent Christian apologist and theologian Justin Martyr (100–165 C.E.) was forced to admit that if Jesus was the divine Logos, as John claimed, then he must have been a different god, one who was “other than the God who made all.” Paul of Samosata (200–275 C.E.), the bishop of Antioch, a Christian community that was second only to Rome in its power and influence, argued that John must have meant the Logos dwelt within Jesus, not that it was Jesus; the Logos was given to him by the one and only God as a reward for his “life of virtue.” The influential Church father Arius of Antioch (256–336 C.E.) went one step further: There is only one God, Arius claimed. This God must be, by definition, indivisible, uncreated, and existing from all time. So it is simply impossible to think of Jesus as the Logos. Otherwise, it would mean there are two Gods in the universe, and that, for Arius, was simply unthinkable.8
Yet not everyone agreed that the concept of two gods was so absurd. In fact, in the polarized debate over whether Jesus was a man or a second god, and in the absence of a compromise between these two positions, which would not be reached until the middle of the fourth century C.E., a great many in the early Church accepted the view that not only were there two gods in the universe—one god named Yahweh and another god named Jesus—but these two gods were enemies.
THE MOST FAMOUS proponent of the two-gods theory of Christianity—known as ditheism—was a learned young scholar from Asia Minor named Marcion. Born just around the time that the Gospel of John was being written, Marcion was among the first generation of non-Jews to be raised in the newly formed Christian faith. His father was the bishop of Sinope, a city on the coast of the Black Sea, where the family owned a lucrative shipbuilding business.
Marcion’s wealth accorded him the freedom to pursue a life of leisure and learning. He immersed himself in Greek philosophy and Christian thought, and he seems to have had a deep familiarity with the Hebrew scriptures. Yet it was precisely this depth of knowledge in both the ancient Jewish religion and the brand-new and not yet unified Christian sect that had so recently arisen from it that caused Marcion such consternation. For no matter how he tried, Marcion could not reconcile the God he encountered in the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh, with the God that Jesus called Father.
The Yahweh of the Bible is a blood-soaked “Man of War” (Exodus 15:3; Isaiah 63:3)—a jealous deity who gleefully calls for the slaughter of anyone who fails to worship him (Exodus 22:20). This is a God who once had forty-two children mauled to death by bears simply because they had teased one of his prophets for being bald (2 Kings 2:23–24). How could the one and only God of the universe be so petty and parochial, so possessive and rapacious? And, more to the point, what could this God have to do with the God revealed by Jesus: a God of love and forgiveness, peace and mercy?
Marcion accepted Jesus’s divinity; he fully agreed with John’s position that the Logos was God. When he spoke of “the God revealed by Jesus,” he meant the God revealed in the form of Jesus. At the same time, Marcion recognized Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew Bible, as the creator of the world. In fact, he seems to have read the book of Genesis literally. But his reading only made Jesus and Yahweh seem more dissimilar. What kind of God, he wondered, would make such a wretched world—a world of want and destruction, of enmity and hate? Did not Jesus say that “you shall know them by their fruits?” (Matthew 7:16). If that was true, then the fruits of this God appeared to be rotten to the core.9
The only answer that made sense to Marcion was that there must be two gods: the cruel creator God of the Hebrew Bible known as Yahweh, the God of Israel, and the loving, merciful God, who had always existed as the Logos but who was revealed to the world for the first time in the form of Jesus the Christ.
Marcion was by no means alone among early Christians in coming to this conclusion. A large number of Greek-speaking Christians, whom we today refer to loosely as Gnostics (from the Greek word gnosis, or “knowledge”), also differentiated between the God of the Hebrew Bible and the God of Jesus, though, unlike Marcion, most Gnostics refused to acknowledge Yahweh as the creator of the world. They believed creation was the work of a lesser god called the Demiurge, or “fashioner,” a deformed and imperfect deity who foolishly believed himself to be the only god in the universe.
“And he is impious in his arrogance,” writes the Gnostic author of The Secret Gospel of John. “For he said, ‘I am God and there is no other God beside me,’ for he is ignorant of his strength, the place from which he had come.”10
It was the Demiurge who had laid waste to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Demiurge who had murdered most of humankind in a catastrophic flood, the Demiurge who had expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
“But of what sort is this God?” complained the Gnostic author of The Testimony of Truth. “First [he] maliciously refused Adam from eating of the tree of knowledge. And secondly he said, ‘Adam, where are you?…Surely he has shown himself to be a malicious grudger.”11
By placing the creation of the universe into the hands of a lesser deity—whether that be Yahweh or the Demiurge—both Marcion and the Gnostics were not only endeavoring to explain a flawed and sinful world at odds with the notion of a flawless and sinless Creator; they were seeking to absolve Jesus of the heinous acts with which Yahweh is credited in the Hebrew Bible.
But there was something else, too. In arguing for the existence of two gods, these Christians were trying to pull Christianity free of its Jewish roots, to declare it a wholly new religion, with a new revelation, and a new God.12
In 139 C.E., Marcion left his family home on the Baltic Sea and traveled to Rome to share his ideas with what was the largest and most influential Christian community of the time. He began by ingratiating himself with the Roman Church, offering it a massive donation of 200,000 Roman sesterces, an amount that would be equivalent to millions of U.S. dollars in today’s currency. The donation allowed Marcion to stay in the city as a revered guest of the Church.
It was in Rome that Marcion began collecting his teachings into two manuscripts, one of which outlined his theology (it is lost to history but we know at least some of what it said through the Church elders who repudiated it), and the other which became the very first attempt at putting together a New Testament. Marcion’s canon consisted of an edited version of the Gospel of Luke and ten letters from the Apostle Paul, whose writings on the Christ as a cosmic being that existed before time fit perfectly with Marcion’s own views.
After five years of meticulously sketching out his argument, Marcion gathered the leaders of the Church in Rome and presented them with his theology of two gods. He began by arguing that Jesus was God incarnate, a position held by many—though not all—of the Church leaders in the room. But then Marcion went on to claim that Jesus was not the God they all knew as Yahweh. Rather, he was a completely different, and hitherto unknown, God who had only just been revealed to humanity. The very purpose of Christ’s descent to earth, he told them, was to set humanity free from the evil creator God of the Bible. This meant the religion formed in Jesus’s name, Christianity, could no longer be linked to the Judaism out of which it emerged. The Hebrew scriptures were obsolete; what was needed was a new Bible. And, as luck would have it, he happened to have brought one with him.13
John the Apostle and Marcion of Sinope (the latter’s face has been intentionally disfigured) from an image in an Italian Gospel codex written in Greek (MS M.748, fol. 150v, eleventh century)
The Morgan Library & Museum / Janny Chiu / Art Resource, NY
The Church leaders were not pleased. They returned what was left of Marcion’s substantial contribution and promptly threw him out of Rome. Marcion, however, was undaunted. He returned home and began successfully preaching across Asia Minor, where he found an audience receptive to his doctrine of two gods. In fact, the ditheistic church that Marcion founded became one of the largest in all of Christianity. It thrived in large parts of Turkey and Syria right up until the fifth century C.E.
It’s fair to ask why the elders of the Church in Rome were so adamant about maintaining Jewish monotheism. Even at this early stage of its history, Christianity didn’t bear much resemblance to Judaism. It had declared a wholly new faith, demonized the Jews as the killers of Christ, begun composing its sacred texts in Greek rather than Hebrew, and imposed upon Jesus a divinity that contradicted Judaism’s very definition of God as singular and indivisible.
The truth is that the early Church’s desire to maintain fealty to the Jewish belief in one God may have been as much for political reasons as it was for theological ones. For when Marcion and the Gnostics feuded with these Christian leaders over the nature of God, they were also arguing about the nature of authority in the nascent Church. As the acclaimed scholar of religions Elaine Pagels notes, by insisting upon belief in one God, the early church was validating the system of its governance under one bishop—that is, the bishop of Rome. “As God reigns in heaven as master, lord, commander, judge, and king,” Pagels writes, “so on earth he delegates his will to members of the church hierarchy, who serve as generals who command an army of subordinates; kings who rule over ‘the people’; judges who preside in God’s place.”14
This was politicomorphism, plain and simple: “the divinization of earthly politics.” The influential Church elder Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35–108 C.E.) framed this position into a succinct slogan: “One God, One Bishop.” Any violation of the former would necessarily diminish the authority of the latter. The Christian’s duty, in the words of Ignatius, was to obey the bishop “as if he were God.” As Clement I (d. 101 C.E.), the first bishop of Rome and thus the first pope, warned, anyone who failed to “bow the neck” to his authority as bishop was guilty of rebelling against God and should be put to death.
The Church hierarchy’s insistence on maintaining One God, One Bishop made little impact either on the followers of Marcion or on the many Gnostic sects that flourished in the early years of Christianity. What it did do, however, was lodge a contradiction in the heart of the burgeoning faith. Because if the Church was going to insist upon accepting the Jewish definition of God that arose out of the Babylonian Exile—God as singular and indivisible—then they needed to come up with a way to explain how a Jewish peasant from the low hills of Galilee could also be God. It was an issue that threatened to tear the Church apart and put an end to Christianity just as it was about to achieve its greatest success.
BY THE END of the second century C.E., Christianity had spread so far and wide throughout the Roman Empire that it was no longer possible for the authorities to ignore it. Some high-ranking members of the imperial court had even converted to the new religion. In 202 C.E., Rome issued an edict forbidding all further conversions, and by the middle of that century, the Empire’s Christian subjects were being persecuted on a massive scale. Many Romans blamed the political and economic instability that plagued the Empire during this era on the people’s turning their backs on the old gods, and naturally much of this anger was directed toward Christians, who, if nothing else, were conspicuous in their refusal to offer sacrifices to Roman deities.
After a lowborn Roman citizen named Diocletian, who had risen rapidly through the ranks of the military, was named emperor in 284 C.E., he made it his personal mission to rid the Empire of Christianity in all its forms. Churches were burned down, sacred texts were confiscated, and both the Christian laity and the leadership were slaughtered for sport in what became known as the Great Persecution.
When, a few years later, Diocletian abruptly retired as emperor, he made the fateful decision to divide the Empire into a tetrarchy ruled by two sets of junior and senior emperors, one in the east and one in the west. It was an untenable situation that quickly devolved into civil war between rival claimants to the throne. In 312 C.E., one of these claimants rode with his army to the River Tiber in an attempt to reinstitute the rule of a single emperor. His name was Constantine, and he would alter the course of both Rome and Christianity forever.
According to legend, on the eve of the battle at the Tiber, Constantine had a dream in which he saw a cross of light in the heavens and the words CONQUER BY THIS. The next day he had his troops emblazon an unknown symbol upon their shields: the Chi Rho—a cross made from the first two Greek letters of the name Christ. His victory in that battle paved the way for Constantine to declare himself the sole, undisputed emperor of Rome.
Attributing his success to the Christian God, Constantine put an end to the persecution of Christians in Rome and legalized Christianity upon his ascension to the throne. However, the new emperor had very little understanding of his adopted faith; he seems to have thought the religion was a kind of sun cult. What mattered most was that, as far as he understood, Christians believed in one God. The man who had fought so many battles to reinstate the rule of a single emperor over Rome seems to have instinctively recognized the political advantage of adopting a monotheistic religion system, though Constantine’s slogan was a bit different from the one favored by Ignatius and the Church leadership. He preferred “One God, One Emperor.”15
One can only imagine Constantine’s surprise when he discovered that not only did many of his fellow Christians not believe in the existence of only one God, but there was no consensus in the Church over the relationship between this God and Jesus Christ. The Gnostics and the Church in Alexandria stressed Jesus’s divinity, with some Gnostics going so far as to deny any humanity in Jesus (Docetism). The Ebionites and the Church in Antioch stressed Jesus’s humanity, with the Ebionites (Jewish Christians who represent the earliest form of Christianity) viewing Jesus as a prophet and miracle worker who spoke with the power of the divine but was not himself divine.
Some Christian sects split the difference, arguing that Jesus was born a human being but became divine only after his resurrection (this view is called Dynamism). Others claimed that Jesus was a man who was “adopted” by God as his Son and given divine status when he was baptized by the Holy Spirit in the River Jordan (this view is called Adoptionism).
Constantine was a soldier, not a theologian, and so had little patience for these disagreements. He demanded a firm answer to the question of Jesus’s nature and the relationship of the Son to the Father. If he were to present himself to a divided population as the one true leader of the Empire, he needed agreement about the essence of the one true leader of heaven.16
In 325 C.E., the emperor summoned the elders of the Church to a council in the city of Nicea to settle the issue once and for all. To emphasize the gravity of the occasion, Constantine decided to preside over the council himself, bedecked in royal garb and flanked by Imperial guards. The one thing that the assembled old men knew for certain was that the emperor had no tolerance for any outcome that would violate the oneness of God. That immediately excluded the position of the Gnostics, the followers of Marcion, and any other Christian sect that accepted ditheism. At the same time, the elders of the Church were unwilling to accept any position that denied the divinity of Christ, which ruled out the positions held by the Ebionites, the followers of Arius, and much of the Church in Antioch.
But how to reconcile these two demands? What kind of doctrinal gymnastics could possibly overcome the unalterable fact that a singular, indivisible God who exists in multiple forms is, by definition, not a singular, indivisible God?
The compromise that came out of Nicea was to declare that Jesus Christ, the Son, was “of one substance” with God, the Father. The idea was based on the writings of one of the most prominent of all early Christian theologians, Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160–220 C.E.). Tertullian channeled the Greek philosophers of the past by arguing that God was a “substance.” However, unlike those Greeks, Tertullian believed this substance had taken form as three separate beings: the Father (Yahweh), the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Ghost (the divine spirit of God in the world). To help explain his theory, Tertullian relied on analogy. “When a ray is shot forth from the sun,” he wrote, “a part is taken from the whole; but there will be sun in the ray because it is a sun ray; its nature is not separated, but extended….Thus, too, what proceeds from God is God and the Son of God, and both are one.” Tertullian coined a new word to describe this innovative theology: He called it trinitas, or Trinity.17
The Nicean compromise satisfied the emperor, but it left nearly everyone else in the Church with even more questions. Do the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share the divine substance in equal amounts? After all, while a ray of light from the sun contains the substance of the sun, it does not contain the same amount of substance as the sun. And who among the three beings had the divine substance first? The sun and the ray may be made of the same substance, but the sun is the sole source of that substance; the ray is utterly dependent upon the sun. Is the same true for the Father and the Son? Is the Father the originator of the substance and the Son dependent upon the Father? If that is the case, then how could an indivisible God create Jesus out of himself? Wouldn’t that violate God’s Oneness? Wouldn’t it make Jesus part of the created order, hence contradicting the Gospel of John’s claim that Jesus was with God “from the beginning”? Alternatively, if the Father and Son contained the divine substance simultaneously, then does that not mean there were two separate yet equal divine beings at the beginning of creation?18
Some Church elders, following the teachings of the theologian Athanasius of Alexandria (298–373 C.E.), tried to address the confusion by suggesting the Father and Son were not made of “the same substance” but rather of a “similar substance.” But that only further confused matters.
In the end, it was Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.), the man who, more than any other figure, would shape Christian theology in the Western world, who had the final word. God is One, Augustine declared in his masterwork, On the Trinity. God is eternal and unchanging. But while that may be true, God nevertheless exists in three forms: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. No one of these forms is subordinate to another. All three share the same measure of divinity. All three existed at the beginning of time. And if this idea causes confusion, if it defies logic and reason, if it seems to contradict the very definition of God, then it is simply the task of the believer to accept it as a mystery and move on.19
When, a few years after Augustine’s death, the Church at the Council of Chalcedon (451 C.E.) affirmed its position that Jesus Christ, while truly God, was also truly human—“the same essence with the father as to his Godhead, and the same essence with us as to his manhood”—Christianity not only effectively annulled the postexilic Jewish conception of God as singular and indivisible, it surrendered itself completely to humanity’s oldest and most deeply embedded impulse. It made the God of heaven and earth fully human. In doing so, it set the religion on a collision course with a new monotheistic faith that, a little more than a century after Chalcedon, would arise out of the deserts of Arabia to confront Christianity’s conception of the humanized God.20