Date: Sat, 2 May 1998 13:37:12 -0400
Subject: Adoptionism: the earliest faith?

did Jesus become the Son of God?

by Yuri Kuchinsky

What was the earliest Christian faith? What did the earliest
Christians really believe in? Did they really see Jesus as God, as
the Son of God, or perhaps even as a mere mortal man? 

Of course our present orthodox creed, formulated in 325 AD at
Nicea, insists that Jesus was both man and God at the same time,
and in equal measure. But was this really the original belief? This
doesn't seem so.

It is very likely, on the other hand, that while the earliest Christians
may have seen Jesus as a great teacher and healer, extraordinarily
righteous and wise, and possessed of certain very special gifts and
powers, they still saw him primarily as a flesh and blood human being. 
And they seemed to consider him as such until a certain 
crucial moment in his life when God adopted him as His Son. Such
a view was seen as heretical by the Church Fathers of the second
century and later, and it is known as "Adoptionism". 

Who were the early Adoptionists? Quite a wide variety of Adoptionist
Christians are attested in the early Christian times from various sources. 
Among them were both the Jewish-Christian groups such as the Ebionites,
and the Gentile Christians, such as the followers of the "heretical
teacher" Theodotus who was active in Rome at the end of the second
century. So the Adoptionists' beliefs were clearly far from uniform. 


In general, two types of Adoptionism are found in our earliest sources:
the Resurrection-Adoptionism, and the Baptism-Adoptionism.
Resurrection-Adoptionist Christians believed that Jesus became the Son of
God only at the moment of his Resurrection, whereas, on the other hand,
the Baptism-Adoptionists saw the moment of the Baptism of Jesus as a big
turning point. Both these types of Adoptionism are well attested in the
NT, and this should indicate that the roots of Adoptionism may indeed go
back to the most primitive layers of the Christian tradition. 

I will consider here the material for the very early Adoptionism as
adduced by Bart Ehrman in his book THE ORTHODOX CORRUPTION OF SCRIPTURE. 

early Christological controversies on the text of the NT; New York;
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.]

In this book as a whole, Ehrman sets as his goal to determine
which passages of the NT are likely to be "the orthodox corruptions
of the Scripture", i.e. added by the later orthodox editors in order to
counter various beliefs that they charged were "later heresies".
And he finds quite a few of these. I agree with Ehrman for the
most part. Many such corruptions are to be found in the NT, or so
it seems.

Of course, one may naturally assume that these "later heresies"
that the later orthodox (or "proto-orthodox", as Ehrman styles them)
editors tried to eradicate may have in fact been actually the
_genuine earliest traditions_ that they were trying hard to
suppress. This, indeed, seems quite likely to me. So, in other
words, the later "proto-orthodox" editors may have been trying to
impose on the Christian believers views that were, in themselves,
later corruptions of the original faith. 

Ehrman focuses on the large number of key NT passages the
readings of which are in doubt, and the mss evidence for which is
often quite contradictory. His procedure is to try to determine the
earliest readings of these important passages. He finds and
discusses many such questionable passages that, according to
him, the later orthodox editors and commentators tried, on their
own authority, and often without much real validity, to impose as
the authoritative Scriptural texts.

Of course, today's conservative commentators will tend to reject outright
any idea that the early orthodox editors of the NT would do such a thing
as try to tamper with the Scriptures. But such a view is rather naive. We
have quite a lot of evidence demonstrating that the earliest doctrinal
struggles in various early churches were very common and also very bitter. 
And we also know that all sides in these disputes accused each other of
altering the texts of the Scriptures. In particular, the doctrinal
struggles at the time of Marcion (in Rome ca. 140 AD) are a very important
case in point, because this was precisely the time when the basic canon of
the NT was being finalized. This was the time when the four canonical
gospels were first assembled together, so a lot of editing was surely
being done at that time. 

It is useful to remember that no special reverence was accorded to
the texts of the gospels previous to that time, since none of them
were "canonical" previous to the time of Marcion, whose idea it
was in the first place to compile the first Christian canon.


Ehrman deals in some detail with the early Adoptionists in Chapter
2 of his book, and he outlines carefully the two types of Adoptionist
beliefs as mentioned above. As he makes clear, the roots of
Adoptionism may indeed go back even to the foundational layers
of the Christian tradition,

     ... adoptionistic Christologies can be traced to sources that
     predate the books of the New Testament. (p. 48)

According to Ehrman, the earliest such tradition can be found in
Paul's letter to the Romans. And this tradition is clearly
Resurrection-Adoptionist, i.e. it maintains that Jesus was adopted
by God, His Father, at the moment of his Resurrection from the

     [Christ Jesus ...] who came from the seed of David according
     to the flesh, who was appointed Son of God _in power_
     according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the
     dead. (Rom 1:3-4)

According to Ehrman (p. 48), the words "in power", (underlined
above) are a late addition; this is just one of the many examples of
the later "orthodox corruptions" of the original Pauline text, a
corruption that was meant to lessen this text's Adoptionist
implications. Of course this addition merely lessens the Adoptionist
meaning of this passage, and doesn't quite eliminate it completely.

If we take this quite Adoptionistic statement of Rom 1:3-4 as
originally written by Paul, and there's no reason we should doubt
it, this would place this sort of a belief very early indeed.

Further support for the view that Jesus became the Son of God
only at the moment of Resurrection can be found also in Acts
13:32-33. Ehrman considers that the speech of Paul in Chapter 13
contains some valuable preliterary sources embedded in the Book
of Acts:

     ... a form-critical analysis of Paul's speech in Acts 13 reveals
     traditional material that has been incorporated in a
     surprisingly unedited form. Here Paul makes the following

          What God promised to the [Jewish] fathers he has
          fulfilled to us their children, by raising Jesus from the
          dead -- as it is written in the second Psalm, "You are my
          Son, today I have begotten you". (Acts 13:32-33)

And Ehrman adds,

     The force of the final clause should not be minimized: it is on
     the day of his resurrection that Jesus receives his sonship. (p.

Ehrman also analyses a number of other similar passages, such as Acts
2:36, 10:42, and 17:31, where the Sonship is most likely associated with
the Resurrection.


Of the two types of very early Adoptionism, the tradition that God adopted
Jesus as his son at the moment of his Resurrection seems like the more
ancient one. This tradition may have been the earliest form of Christian
belief. Indeed, it may be the original tradition that formed in the first
days and weeks post-Easter under the influence of Peter (or perhaps under
the influence of Mary Magdalene). 

I should add that there is also substantial evidence elsewhere to
indicate that the earliest Christian tradition was that Jesus was
assumed into the Heavens right at the moment of his death on the
Cross. See for example Lk 23:43, where Jesus tells one of the criminals
who were crucified along with him,

"Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise".

Clearly these words imply the Resurrection on the same day as Crucifixion,
and they are in contradiction with the 3 days in the Tomb story.
Also, similar conclusions can be reached from a careful analysis of the last
chapters of the gospel of Mark. What was the original ending of this gospel?
This matter is still disputed. But there are good indications that
"the 3 days in the Tomb" was a later addition to this gospel. It also seems
like various rather confused traditions of "the 3 days in the Tomb" in
other gospels also were later additions to the Christian faith.

(This matter is quite complex since these Tomb burial traditions, with
their various chronologies of the amount of time spent in the Tomb, are
quite confused, and betray rather abundant signs of later editorial work. 
Loisy has dealt with all these matters in some detail. The problem is that
various canonical accounts would indicate variously either 3, or 2, or
even less than 2 days in the Tomb.) 

The view that the earliest post-Easter movement may have been
Resurrection-Adoptionist was formulated as far back as in 1901 by the
German scholar William Wrede in his book THE MESSIANIC SECRET. According
to Wrede, Mk's famous doctrine of the Messianic Secret was really
primarily an attempt by Mk to hide and to disguise this fact. I.e. Mk was
attempting to explain away why the belief that Jesus was the Messiah, so
widespread later when Mk was composed, was not well known from early on. 
On this theory, Mk is really suggesting that, when Jesus was still alive,
nobody could really understand that he was the Messiah; the disciples
understood finally only _after_ Jesus was already crucified. So,
accordingly, Mk's was a bold attempt to pre-date the Messianic status of
Jesus back into his earthly ministry, an attempt that on the whole
succeeded quite brilliantly.


Since the last example of Adoptionist theology as analysed by
Ehrman was in the Book of Acts, composed by the author of Luke,
can the author of Luke therefore really be said to have been an
Adoptionist? Not so, according to Ehrman, since our canonical text
of Lk also contains other passages that are explicitly 
anti-Adoptionist. So what we have here on the whole is the generally
orthodox Lukan text where some remnants of ancient Adoptionist
doctrine are buried. And Ehrman is helping us to discern these
semi-submerged bits and pieces of the older traditions. 

Thus, the canonical texts of the "writings of Luke", as a whole, will
certainly not give us an obvious Adoptionist reading, because, as
Ehrman suggests, the thrust of these Adoptionist passages in
strongly countered by 

     ... their incorporation into the wider context of Luke-Acts,
     where Jesus is the Son of God already at his birth (Lk 1:35).
     (p. 49)

Nevertheless, perhaps we can go here even further than Ehrman goes in his

The question may be asked if the text of Lk as we have it was really the
original text of Lk. It is entirely possible, and, as seems to me, even
probable that there originally was an earlier and shorter (basically
Adoptionist) gospel of Lk that was later substantially re-edited and
expanded. (And the same theory also applies to the text of Acts.) These
views were proposed many years ago by Alfred Loisy. According to this
theory, in the course of this secondary reworking and expansion, there
would have been added to Lk e.g. the Infancy Narrative, the first 2
Chapters, with their explicit anti-Adoptionist theology. 

So I think it is possible to make a case that the earliest version of Lk
was Adoptionist after all. Further examples of Adoptionist theology
contained in Lk, as adduced below, can add strength to this hypothesis.


As mentioned above, the second type of early Adoptionist theology
was associated with the belief that Jesus became the Son of God
at the moment of his baptism. According to Ehrman, in comparison
with the Resurrection-Adoptionist belief discussed above, the
existence of such a Baptism-Adoptionist belief seems to be
attested far wider in our NT sources. This may be the case
perhaps because the belief that Jesus was adopted as a Son of
God at baptism supplanted the earlier Resurrection-Adoptionist
belief at a very early stage.

According to Ehrman, Lk preserves our earliest textual witness for
the belief that Jesus was adopted by God at his Baptism. When
Jesus was baptised, the voice from heaven was heard:

     You are my Son, today I have begotten you. (Lk 3:22)

Some mss also preserve an alternative reading of this passage
(which is a harmonisation with Mk 1:11),

     You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased.

Ehrman argues strongly in his book that "today I have begotten
you" was original to Lk, a view that some commentators tended to
dispute. He shows that the orthodox editors of the second century,
or even later perhaps, consciously altered the meaning of this
sentence to introduce "in you I am well pleased". And so, this
harmonizing variant reading would have been introduced because
the orthodox editors would have been uncomfortable with the
Adoptionistic character of the original verse.

Also, Ehrman cites many other such passages where the idea of
adoption at baptism is evident as an early tradition (p. 67ff; e.g. Lk
9:35, 23:35, Acts 10:38, Jn 1:34, 1 John 5:18). 

And he also cites other texts where, according to him, the idea that
Jesus was the Son of God already _before_ his baptism was
introduced by the same people and for the same purpose. Such
orthodox corruptions would have been Mk 1:1, Lk 2:43, Lk 3:21, Mt
1:18, and Eph 4:9.


It is clear that the debates between the Adoptionist and the 
proto-orthodox commentators were going strong for many generations in
the early centuries of Christianity. Both sides in these debates
were offering scriptural passages that seemed to support their
views. Since we possess such a large number of variant readings
for certain key passages, it is clear that for great long time these
scriptural passages were not fixed permanently, but remained
rather fluid on the whole. Editors and scribes of all persuasions did
tinker with the text -- that much is clear:

     ...the wording of these passages was by no means etched in
     stone. To the contrary, scribes who transmitted the texts
     occasionally changed them to make them "say" what they
     were already known to "mean". (p. 97)

Ehrman demonstrates in his book that the orthodox editors were
far from averse to altering some key scriptural passages in order to
enhance the theological positions they favoured. And since the
orthodox side eventually prevailed in these controversies, it is not
so surprising that many texts with such evident "emendations", or
"corruptions" of the scriptures are well preserved. 

Scholars generally agree that the stories of Miraculous Birth
became accepted as standard Christian belief rather late along the
trajectory of the historical evolution of the dogma. An important
question to ask here is, Were these stories, found in Mt, and in Lk,
really a part of the earliest versions of Mt and of Lk? The general
belief among scholars at this time is that this is the case. But,
according to Alfred Loisy, and some others, these stories may
have actually been added to Mt and to Lk at a rather late stage in
the redactional history of these gospels. 

The assumption of the "basic textual unity of the gospels" is very
common in the NT field at this time, and this both among the
liberal and among the conservative commentators. And so, such an
assumption would clearly tend to stand in the way of seeing that,
for instance, the Infancy Narratives of Lk, including Lk's version of
the miraculous birth, seem, for a number of reasons, quite out of
place when compared with the rest of Lk. Mk and Jn lack the
Nativity Stories altogether, of course.

This is where Bart Ehrman perhaps didn't go far enough in his analysis. In
this case, the matter goes far beyond merely changing the meaning of a few
words here and there. Here we are talking about "proto-orthodox editors"
adding whole chapters to the gospels. And the evidence for this is quite


It is clear that the baptism and the resurrection were seen by the
early Christians as the key events in the earthly career of Jesus.
This is certainly how Paul sees the earthly career of Jesus. In his
writings, we don't get to see much about what else happened to
Jesus the man in his life, how he grew up, and how he became the
man he became. Neither do we get from Paul much about what
Jesus said, about his sayings and teachings. We certainly don't
get from Paul too many details about what other things he
accomplished in his earthly career besides getting to be crucified. 

In spite of the fact that baptism was so important in the Pauline
theology, we don't even learn from Paul if Jesus had been
baptized by John the Baptist. And certainly we don't get to learn if
Jesus, himself, baptised, and/or taught baptism to his disciples,
certainly a very curious omission. 

Paul's baptism seems to be "the Baptism of the Cross", in any case, "to
die and to be resurrected with Jesus". This is quite a special view of the
Christian baptism since the water functions here as a symbol of death,
rather than as a symbol of life, which is more common in Christian
theology. (As Morton Smith remarked, this Pauline doctrine seems to be
notoriously absent from our second century orthodox sources. [e.g. M.
Smith, CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, p. 264,] So Paul's views were probably not
typical for the second century, and they certainly were not very
influential at that time.)

General secrecy that early Christians seemed to associate with the baptism
may be one explanation for some of Paul's curious omissions in this area.
Also, the role of John the Baptist was probably simply not yet introduced
as an item of faith by the time of Paul. Another possibility, and this
would also explain the above peculiarities of the Pauline interpretation
of baptism, may be that much of the baptismal theology as generally
attributed to Paul may have been in fact added to his genuine writings at
later periods of time. But this subject needs much additional
investiagation in any case. 

If we would judge only according to the witness of Paul, this
Baptism/Resurrection perspective seems like a very narrow filter through
which the earliest Christians saw their Saviour.

To come back to our general question of How the earliest Christians saw
the Historical Jesus, the belief that Jesus was God already in his
lifetime was still questioned even as late as in the fourth century.
Indeed, Julian, writing ca. 361-3 CE, still claimed that: 

     Neither Paul, nor Matthew, nor Luke, nor Mark had the
     audacity to say that Jesus is God. (_The Apostate_, ix. 326)

According to Julian, it was Jn who first introduced this idea into the
canon. So, it seems, the resistance to this idea that Jesus was God was
very strong and very widespread in the early centuries of Christianity.
Those who usually tend to see Christian history through the rather
ahistorical lens of the Nicean creed may do well to consider all the
evidence that Bart Ehrman presents in his book for the earliest Christian
beliefs being quite otherwise from what we usually assume them to be. 

Best wishes,

Yuri Kuchinsky || Toronto ||
The goal proposed by Cynic philosophy is apathy, which is
equivalent to becoming God -=O=- Julian                  

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