This post is going to be a bit different than most here, because it isn't really about Christian 'spirituality' at all, at least not in the conventional sense of ethics or 'practical' theology. Two days ago, a Christian apologetics and interfaith dialogue group I founded at my alma mater hosted a five-person panel discussion on the deity of Jesus. Via the wonders of technology (a.k.a. Skype), I was able to be one of the panelists, and so I give two mini-presentations defending the traditional Christian belief that Jesus really is God. (I had to keep them quite short in order to ensure that I could deliver them in the time permitted, so there's much more that could have been said.) Another of the panelists took my view, while another took what could maybe be understood as a qualified Arian stance of sorts, and the other two panelists were a Conservative Jew and a deist. What follows is the text I prepared to answer the two questions around which the panel presentations revolved:
Does the New Testament teach that Jesus is God?
To tackle this question, we need to know how Jewish thinkers of the time talked about the unique identity of the God they worshipped. Jews during the Second Temple Period said that their God was the unique Creator of all things, and that everything else was made by him. They said that their God was the only true King over all things. One way they symbolized this was that God's throne was usually the only one in the highest heaven, far above the angels, and only God sat on that throne. They also said that only their God had always existed and always would, that their God had a unique name that picked him out from everything else, and that only this God should be worshipped.
In Jewish writings of that time, every other being is clearly distinguished from God because God has these traits and they don't. However, those Jewish writings could also talk about God's Wisdom and God's Word sharing these traits with him. For instance, both Wisdom and Word are said to be involved in creation. Wisdom is also shown sitting on God's throne with him and sharing in his rule over the universe. So there's strong Jewish precedent for distinctions within God's own identity.
With this in mind, I think it's clear that the New Testament says that Jesus shares all of these traits - and if that's the case, then the statement they must be making is that he shares the very identity of the God of Israel. Only God created all things and did so completely without any outside help, but Hebrews 1:2 says that the Father made the whole universe through the Son, and John 1:3 says that absolutely nothing was created except through God's Word - which the Gospel of John identifies with Jesus. (Just two verses earlier, John explicitly refers to the Word as "God".) Hebrews 1:10 quotes the Hebrew Bible to say that "in the beginning [Jesus] laid the foundations of the earth".
Only God rules over all things from his heavenly throne, but Ephesians 1:20-21 says that Jesus is sitting on God's throne at the Father's right hand and that from there, Jesus is ruling over all things. Hebrews 1:3 also says that the Son sustains everything in existence and is seated at the right hand of the Father. And at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, right after the resurrected Jesus accepts worship from his followers, Jesus claims that he has total authority over everything in heaven and on earth. Jesus is also portrayed as having an eternal indestructible life in Hebrews 7:16, and Hebrews 13:8 famously announced that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever".
Jesus is also portrayed as bearing God's unique name in several passages, such as when Philippians 2:9 says that Jesus has "the name that is above every name", which can only be God's name. In addition to that, the New Testament frequently quotes passages from the Hebrew Bible about Israel's God and applies them directly to Jesus, including passages in which God's sacred name appears in the Hebrew text. Finally, when it comes to worship, I already mentioned that Jesus is worshipped in the Gospel of Matthew, but Hebrews 1:6 portrays God the Father as ordering all the angels to worship Jesus.
So to look back at the ways Jews in the Second Temple Period identified the one and only true God, we find that the New Testament applies them all to Jesus. We could probably find at least some of these in nearly every book of the New Testament. In other words, the New Testament does teach that Jesus is included in God's identity - which means that it's accurate, though maybe imprecise, to say that Jesus is God.
Was the historical Jesus really God?
There's no way to conclusively prove this from historical argument alone. Our first question is, did Jesus include himself in the divine identity? The earliest layer of tradition behind the Gospels, commonly known as "Q", seems to suggest that he did. In Matthew 11:19, Jesus says that "Wisdom" - by which he means himself - "will be vindicated by its deeds". In Matthew 12:42, Jesus describes himself as "one greater than Solomon", which because of the way Solomon was understood in Jewish tradition implies that Jesus is again claiming to be God's Wisdom. In Matthew 8:20, Jesus alludes to the portrayal of God's Wisdom in Sirach 24:7 and onward, which shaped his mission; and where Sirach 6 urges readers to take up Wisdom's yoke, Jesus urges his followers to take up his own yoke. All this but that last one is considered Q-material, whereas the part about Jesus' yoke is probably independent. For that matter, we know that the earliest Christians proclaimed Jesus as Lord and invoked his name in baptism and other religious rituals, frequently in language that identified him as divine. It's extremely likely that Jesus' presentation of himself as Wisdom goes beyond even the different Gospel sources and comes originally from the historical Jesus himself. Considering how Jewish tradition of that time understood God's Wisdom, the odds are quite good that Jesus understood himself as included in God's own identity somehow.
But if so, was he right? Or was Jesus just misguided? It seems pretty tough for a man to honestly believe that he helped God create all things, that he descended to earth from heaven, and that he's guaranteed to one day rule over the entire universe from God's own throne. Unless that person happens to be right, it seems fair to question his grip on reality. Since millions and even billions of people ever since have seen great insight and outstanding teaching in Jesus' words and actions, the latter seems rather unlikely. More importantly than that, though, Jesus vindicated what he was saying by rising from the dead. While the resurrection is an issue all its own, I'd like to just quickly note that the same disciples who abandoned Jesus before the crucifixion came to strongly believe shortly afterwards that Jesus had bodily risen from the dead - and believed it so strongly that most of them gave their lives for it. Even some people who originally rejected Jesus, such as Paul and Jesus' own brother James, came to believe strongly that he was the risen Lord and Messiah because - as they said - he had appeared to them after his resurrection and set them straight; they, too, died for the gospel they preached. In addition, we have no evidence at all that the Jewish and Roman authorities even tried to deny that Jesus' burial place no longer contained his body, and the earliest alternative stories already assume that Jesus' tomb was empty shortly after his body was placed there. To this day, nearly two thousand years later, no one has ever presented a convincing rival explanation other than the Christian one: that God raised Jesus from the dead. The evidence even persuaded a prominent Jewish theologian named Pinchas Lapide that Jesus rose from the dead; he just gives it a much different meaning. But in light of what Jesus taught about himself, Lapide's version seems much less likely than the one that Christians have been spreading throughout the entire world ever since it happened: God raised Jesus from the dead because Jesus really is the promised Messiah, really is the world's rightful Lord, and really is intrinsic to God's own identity - just like Jesus claimed, just like the earliest Christians claimed about him, and just like Christians have been claiming ever since.
Several days later, I accepted a challenge to debate a Muslim fellow on essentially the same topic on one of the Internet's more successful theology discussion forums. Because here I had a bit more space and freedom, I was able to flesh out my case a bit more in my opening statement, which I here repost in a slightly modified form:
Was Jesus God, according to the Bible?
To approach what a text means to assert about a topic, it's always good to know how that topic was understood by the culture in which the text was first written and first heard, especially if we value authorial intent. In Second Temple Judaism, which was the Judaism (or Judaisms, in some respects) as thought and practiced in Jesus' day and earlier, Jews distinguished their God from all other reality by means of a few identifying characteristics that drew a clear-cut line between God on the one hand and the entire creation on the other. First, God was the unaided Creator of all other things. Isaiah 44:24, for instance, identifies Israel's God as the one "who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens" and who alone "spread out the earth". The late first century work of 2 Enoch says, in both alternative recensions, that God had "no advisor/counselor and no successor" (33:4), while 4 Ezra 3:4 clearly states that Israel's God "formed the earth [...] without help".
Second, the God of Israel was the only one with rightful authority over absolutely everything created. This authority, moreover, was symbolized by the fact that God's throne in the highest heaven was above all the angels (Isaiah 6:1; 1 Enoch 14:18-22; 2 Enoch 20:3J). Whereas God sits enthroned in the position of a ruler in that heaven, even the highest angels - such as Raphel (Tobit 12:15), Gabriel (Luke 1:19), and Michael (Testament of Abraham 7:11) - are consistently portrayed as standing in his presence, which was the posture of servants of the king.
Third, the God of Israel had always existed and always would. He is "God who lives forever" (Tobit 13:1), "him who lives forever" (1 Enoch 5:1), "the Eternal" (Sirach 18:1), "the Eternal One" (Testament of Moses 10:7), and the one who is "almighty and eternal, Israel's savior from all evil" (2 Maccabees 1:25).
Fourth, and very importantly, the God of Israel had a very unique name: YHWH. (This name's original pronounciation is no longer known, but today is usually vocalized as either 'Jehovah' or 'Yahweh'.) This name is clearly not actually shared by any other being who isn't God; to actually possess the name of YHWH as one's own is to obviously be God.
Fifth, these Jewish writers consistently said that only Israel's God deserves to be worshipped by created beings. Any other being who isn't God, no matter how exalted, does not deserve to be worshipped, for that is idolatry. So routinely in this literature, we see humans tempted to worship angels, for instance, and being rebuffed with exhortations to worship God instead (Tobit 12:16; Revelation 19:10 and 22:8-9; Ascension of Isaiah 7:21; Apocalypse of Zephaniah 6:14-15).
So those are five lines that distinguish between God on the one hand and everything else that isn't God on the other. But already within this literature of the Second Temple Period, we see qualifications being made in the literary tradition: while none of these angels or exalted humans are within the divine identity, certain attributes of God can themselves be ascribed these traits, and thus be included in God's own identity; they are not created beings (that is, there never was a point at which they did not exist, nor does their existence seem to be contingent on an act of divine will in the way that the existence of the angels or the universe is), but are in some sense the uncreated God. Needless to say, God's Wisdom and God's Word are prime examples, since both are ascribed a role in creation (see, among many other passages, Wisdom 7:22 with regard to God's Wisdom and 2 Baruch 14:7 with regard to God's Word). Furthermore, God's Wisdom has a unique association with the throne of God in a couple Second Temple Jewish works (see Wisdom 9:4; 1 Enoch 84:2-3), such that as New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham observes, "Wisdom is depicted sitting on the great divine throne beside God, participating in the exercise of sovereignty by playing the role of advisor or counsellor to the king" (Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament's Christology of Divine Identity, p. 17).
So when it comes to the New Testament, if the authors there had wanted to place Jesus within the divine identity without claiming that he exhausted the divine identity, there are a few ways they could do that aside from directly calling him "God" from time to time. First, they could describe him as the Wisdom of God or the Word of God, either directly or indirectly. Second, they could attribute to Jesus all the key traits that to Second Temple Jewish ears would have made God unique in his identity, thereby ascribing to Jesus the identity of the God of Israel. And third - though this could arguably in some ways be subsumed under the second - they could apply texts from the Hebrew Bible about the God of Israel directly to Jesus, thereby placing him in God's shoes, as it were.
With regard to the first, clearly this is done on several occasions. Description of Jesus as God's Word is quite evident, since in the famed Johannine Prologue (John 1:1-18), John opens by declaring that "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with the God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1) and goes on to announce that this same Word "became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14) in the person of Jesus. Similarly, Revelation 19:13 names Christ "the Word of God" rather explicitly. It's for this reason that later traditions, such as found in Islam, likewise refer to Christ as God's Word (e.g., Surah 4:171), albeit without maintaining a Second Temple Jewish awareness of the implications of that claim. Finding clear references to Jesus as God's Wisdom is a bit trickier. However, Sirach 24:7ff. speaks of Wisdom as being unable to find a resting place until it arrives in Jerusalem, and this has clear echoes in Matthew 8:20, as well as the entire geographical shape of Jesus' mission. In Matthew 12:42, after making a clear reference to Solomon's wisdom, Jesus claims that he is "one greater than Solomon". As New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III rightly says:
One must ask, for a person like Jesus who spoke in the Wisdom tradition, a tradition which continued to attribute a wide variety of works to Solomon right up to the turn of the era, who or what could be greater than Solomon? Surely the implication is the presence of Wisdom herself. (Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom, p. 202)
Similarly, Jesus refers to himself as Wisdom in Matthew 11:19, and in Matthew 11:29-30, Jesus takes up the language of Sirach 6:24-29 about Wisdom's yoke and casts himself in Wisdom's role. Also, Hebrews 1:3 refers to Jesus as the apaugasma of God's glory, using an exceptionally rare Greek word borrowed from Wisdom 7:26 and its description of Wisdom.
The second available means of displaying the deity of Christ - that is, by ascribing to Jesus the distinctive identifying traits of God - also happens quite clearly. First, where creation is said to have been God's solo job, without any aid, advisor, or instrument, we know that the New Testament declared that "in these last days [the Father] spoke to us through a Son [Jesus], whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the cosmos" (Hebrews 1:3), and that "all things came to be through him, and without him nothing was made that has been made" (John 1:3), and that "all things were created through [Jesus] and for [Jesus]" (Colossians 1:16; the same verse describes even various angelic ranks as having been created by Jesus). The language of John 1:3 in particular seems reminiscent of the way in which YHWH's supreme role in the act of creation is depicted in the Dead Sea Scrolls: "He establishes all things by his design, and without him nothing is done" (1QS 11:11). Quoting from the Old Testament, Hebrews 1:10 states that "in the beginning [Jesus] laid the foundations of the earth". Clearly, no one outside of God's identity had a role in creation; yet Jesus had a role in creation; and therefore Jesus is intrinsic to God's own identity.
Moreover, Jesus is routinely depicted as occupying a place at God's throne which not even the highest angels (who were, in Second Temple Judaism, the highest created beings and thus served as a boundary marker between God and creation) could reach. Hebrews 1:3, a verse already mentioned, declares that after providing "purification for sins", Jesus as heavenly high priest "took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high". Later in the same discourse, the author declares that Jesus "sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven" (Hebrews 8:1); and, again, that Jesus "sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2). Ephesians 1:20-21 likewise says that the Father "seated [Jesus] at the Father's right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come". As if this were not enough, both Revelation 22:1 and 22:3 both speak very explicitly of "the throne of God and of the Lamb" - that is, one throne shared by both the Father and the Son. Earlier, Revelation 7:17 describes Jesus as being "at the center of the throne", and in Revelation 3:21, Jesus himself says quite unambiguously, "I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne". Moving away from the throne imagery, in Matthew 28:18 the risen Jesus claims to have "all authority in heaven and on earth". No one outside God's identity reigns with this authority from the highest throne of heaven; yet Jesus reigns with this authority and sits on that throne; and therefore Jesus is intrinsic to God's own identity.
Beyond this, Jesus is portrayed as the eternal, everlasting one, just as God is. In Hebrews 7:16, for example, we read about Christ's innate "indestructible life" by virtue of which he holds the everlasting priesthood. The language used for Melchizedek (e.g., "without mother, without father, without genealogy") in Hebrews - the point of which is to actually apply it to Jesus as its true fulfillment, rather than to make a statement about the historical Melchizedek - is what New Testament scholar Jerome H. Neyrey refers to as "Hellenistic god-talk", language developed by Greeks to speak of divinity but also used by Jews to describe their God, since these alpha-privative Greek words would often have seemed quite inappropriate for any other being in a Second Temple Jewish worldview. Thus, Neyrey states:
I must conclude that the author of Hebrews acclaims Jesus as a "true god" because of his full eternity in the past and imperishability in the future. [...] ...Jesus is called "God" because he enjoys the primary characteristics of a true deity: he is (1) uncreated and ungenerated in the past, without mother or father or genealogy; and (2) imperishable, without end, and eternal. Since these temporal characteristics are unique to true deities, we learn that the author of Hebrews consciously knows what he is doing; the designation of Jesus as "God" has substance. (Render to God: New Testament Understandings of the Divine, pp. 237, 242)
Moreover - in another passage also cited by Neyrey and others to much the same effect - Hebrews 13:8 ascribes eternity to Christ in acclaiming him "the same yesterday, today, and forever". No one outside of God's identity is eternal and imperishable; yet Jesus is eternal and imperishable; and therefore Jesus is intrinsic to God's own identity.
Additionally, Jesus is shown to bear God's unique name. For instance, Philippians 2:9 identifies Jesus as having "the name that is above every name". Similar phrasing is used in Hebrews 1:4 in giving to Jesus a name superior to any name possessed by any of the angels. Of passages like these, and in particular of Philippians 2:9, New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham writes that "it is inconceivable that any Jewish writer could use this phrase for a name other than God's own unique name" (Jesus and the God of Israel, p. 199). The conclusion is clear that Jesus bears YHWH's name, and thus plausibly Philippians 2:11 should be read as bearing the sense that "every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is YHWH, to the glory of God the Father". This is not an idiosyncratic reading by any means. Another New Testament scholar, Gordon Fee, wrote in his magisterial tome on Paul's view of Jesus that this name "can hardly be anything other than a reference to the Divine Name in the [Old Testament]" (Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study, p. 397), while New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III concurs that this must be "the name of God in the Old Testament, i.e., LORD, which is the LXX equivalent to Yahweh" (Jesus the Sage, p. 265). No one outside of God's identity possesses this sacred name as his or her own; yet Jesus bears this name, and someday all of creation will confess it; and therefore Jesus is intrinsic to God's own identity.
So far as these identifying traits of God are concerned, Jesus is portrayed in the New Testament as a proper recipient of worship, which is another clear prerogative exclusively reserved for YHWH the God of Israel. In Second Temple Jewish literature, exalted beings like angels are portrayed as rebuffing attempts to worship them; Jesus, however, never does this. On the contrary, in Matthew 28:17, the risen Jesus receives and accepts worship from his devotees. In Hebrews 1:6, the Father proclaims the Son as his "firstborn", his heir, and then demands that all the angels actually worship Jesus. Is God ordering idolatry here? By no means! Rather, Jesus is a proper object of worship; worshipping Jesus is portrayed in the New Testament as wholly right, and we know historically that this practice dates back to the earliest roots of the Christian movement. Yet, in Richard Bauckham's terms, "worship is acknowledgement of God's sole deity" (Jesus and the God of Israel, p. 234). And there are numerous occasions on which Jesus receives worship, and so I rest content with these two. No one outside of God's identity is rightly worshipped; yet Jesus is rightly worshipped; and therefore Jesus is intrinsic to God's own identity.
Thus, as far as the first two ways in which the New Testament authors could have included Jesus in God's identity, it seems quite clear that they have. The third, however, may in fact be no less prevalent in the New Testament, and that is quoting Old Testament passages about YHWH and declaring that Jesus is their referent, thus effectively declaring him to be (in some sense) YHWH. Beginning in an unusual place, 1 Peter 2:3-4 says that Christians "have tasted that the Lord is good" and are "com[ing] to him, the Living Stone rejected by men but chosen by God". Clearly, the "Lord" (Gk. kurios) in 1 Peter 2:3 is Jesus; but the language is taken from the Greek rendering of Psalm 34:8, which urges the Israelites to "taste and see that YHWH [= 'LORD'] is good". Similarly, 1 Peter 3:14-15 quotes from Isaiah 8:12 and then calls readers to "in your heart set apart [or, sanctify/regard as holy] Christ as Lord"; yet the attentive reader's mind would have been called to the next phrase found in Isaiah 8:13, which says that the one we are to set apart, sanctify, and regard as holy is none other than YHWH. The next verse, Isaiah 8:14, says that YHWH "will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall", while 1 Peter 2:8 applies these words to Jesus as the "stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall". Moving away from that one epistle, we find the same phenomenon elsewhere. In 1 Thessalonians 3:13, Paul blesses the letter's recipients with a wish that they be "blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones", alluding to a prophetic declaration that "YHWH my God will come, and all the holy ones with him" (Zechariah 14:5). Likewise, where Isaiah beheld the glory of God himself (Isaiah 6:1-10), the Gospel of John quotes from the same chapter and explains that Isaiah made these statements upon seeing Jesus' glory (John 12:41). And where Psalm 102:25-27 was clearly addressed to YHWH as to the only one who "laid the foundations of the earth" and can remain after the heavens are rolled up like a scroll, Hebrews 1:10-12 has no qualms about applying these words directly to Jesus as the one who laid the foundations of the earth and could easily endure after the heavens are rolled up like a scroll - for Jesus is included in the very identity of YHWH, the eternal creator. And where Psalm 68:18 speaks of YHWH ascending on high and leading captivity captive - thus doing wonderful things on behalf of his people - Paul exegetes this very christologically in Ephesians 4:7-10, indicating that Christ was the YHWH of whom the psalmist sang.
Quite clearly, then, the New Testament depicts Jesus as God's Word and God's Wisdom, two figures in Jewish literature of the time who were clearly uncreated and included in God's identity. In the same manner, the New Testament independently depicts Jesus as being included in God's identity by ascribing to Jesus all the major identifying traits that set God apart from everything that isn't God. Likewise, the New Testament takes passages from the Hebrew Bible that clearly referred to only YHWH and applies them to Jesus, thus identifying him as the YHWH of those texts. These three factors all give strong reason to conclude that the New Testament includes Jesus within the unique identity of the God of Israel - and this is what it means to say, "Jesus is God". Indeed, the doctrine of the Trinity, when stripped of philosophical terms like ousia and hypostasis, is simply the claim that there is one and only one God, YHWH, and that there are three distinct persons/individuals - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit - who each have the identity of this one God.
That being said, there are also a few instances in which the New Testament does directly refer to Jesus using the Greek word theos, 'god'. Most prominent, of course, is John 1:1, which declares that "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with the God, and the Word was God". As is now widely recognized, the 'ho theos' of John 1:1b indicates the Father, while the 'theos' of John 1:1c is what Philip Harner referred to as a "qualitative anarthrous predicate noun"; and, in that same classic 1973 article on the subject, he surveyed clauses that John could have written in that place and concluded that, given these options, the meaning of what was actually written must be that "the logos had the nature of theos (rather than something else)" (p. 85); he went on to reiterate that "John evidently wished to say that the logos was no less than theos, just as ho theos (by implication) had the nature of theos" (p. 86 n. 30) before finally concluding that the sense of the passage is that "the Word had the same nature of God" (p. 87). And because God's nature, in this sense, is unique to the Creator and is not shared by any created being (and nor are there a multiplicity of gods, ontologically speaking), this must be taken with the force that the Word is indeed God, in the sense in which we are here using such locutions.
Finally, I'll conclude with a relatively brief mention of John 20:28, in which Thomas, one of Jesus' disciples, finally encounters the risen Jesus and exclaims in reference to him, "My Lord and my God!" (or, in Greek, 'ho kurios mou kai ho theos mou'). This cannot be understood as a split reference to Jesus at first and the Father a few words later, nor can this be construed as simply an impious exclamation, since such would have been blasphemy that Jesus would not have tolerated. Rather, as Ben Witherington III rightly notes:
The confession "My Lord and my God!" recapitulates some of the claims about God's Son/Wisdom made in the prologue in John 1. Jesus is not just the believer's Lord but also the believer's God, and so an appropriate object of worship, even before the ascension. (John's Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel, p. 344)
This verse, it should be noted, is very close to the Greek translation of Psalm 35:23, where YHWH is acclaimed by the psalmist as "my God and my Lord" ('ho theos mou kai ho kurios mou'), and also bears a resemblance to Revelation 4:11 in which the elders acclaim the Father as "our Lord and God" ('ho kurios kai ho theos hemon'). My conclusion, then, is that in the sense relevant to this debate, the Bible does indeed portray Jesus as God - meaning, as specified previously, that it depicts Jesus as included within the divine identity that was regarded as unique to the God of Israel.