In recent letters to The Sun, several writers have carried on an intense and fascinating debate over Jesus and whether or not he was God or even an historical figure at all. I think that Jesus was quite likely an historical character but most of our information comes from Christian writings, including quite a few with very different views about who Jesus was and which were left out of the official canon of the New Testament. And, there is at least one non-Christian reference to him by the Roman historian Tacitus.
But, while Jesus probably really existed, there has long been a debate in Christianity over "who Jesus was". There were different factions in the early Church. A major debate in the early Church was over Christology, or the nature of Jesus.
For three centuries the debate raged. Some of the original Jewish Christians saw him as prophet or perhaps the Jewish Messiah or perhaps just a great Rabbi. In Judaism, rabbis, prophets, and the Messiah are human, not divine figures. At the other extreme were the Gnostics who saw Jesus as totally divine and that he had only taken on a human appearance. The Gnostics were declared heretical and, especially after Rome became official Christian, were suppressed.
By the time of the Apostle's Creed in the Second Century, Christians were saying that Jesus was the "Son of God". But, what exactly did Son of God mean? Was it meant figuratively in the sense that anyone who loves and obeys God is in a way His child?
Or, did God actually father a son? This was similar to a lot of Greco-Roman mythology where Olympian gods fathered kids with humans. Or was Jesus simply "adopted" as the Son of God at the time of his Baptism in the Jordan River? This "adoptionist" view would have been in keeping with a Roman practice where if an emperor did not have a competent son to inherit his crown, he might legally adopt a more fitting heir.
By the early Fourth Century, when the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, the "Christological Controversy" had boiled down to two major factions. These were the Trinitarians who believed that Jesus was not only the son of God but "very God" himself and part of a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. On the other side were the Arians who were followers of Arius, a presbyter or priest from Alexandria, Egypt, an early center of Christian and Jewish learning. Arius believed that Jesus was the Son of God but that he could not be God at the same time. To Arius, Jesus was a being created by the Father and could not be eternal.
The controversy had strong political overtones. The Trinitarians often came from the Roman middle and upper classes while the Germanic "barbarians" had converted to Arianism. In fact, Arian Christianity survived into the early Middle Ages. The Emperor Constantine who made Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire, probably did not care either way but for political reasons, he wanted the Christian Church to be unified.
So,in 325 C.E., Constantine invited bishops from all over the empire to meet, at the emperor's expense, in a council in Nicaea near Constantinople. They were to resolve the "Arian Controversy" and a few other matters. The council's decision was enshrined in the Nicene Creed, recited in many churches today. Even if they don't, most Christian denominations would have no problem with its Trinitarian doctrines. Even today, many Christians who do not recognize as "Christian" such modern-day "Arians" as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarians, and Mormons.
Arius defended his position but was outvoted by the Trinitarians and declared a heretic. He was exiled to what is now Albania. There is a legend that at some point during the debate, Arius was either slapped or punched by Trinitarian Bishop Nicholas of Myra What historians cannot tell us is what Arius got for Christmas that year.
(Scott Cracraft is a resident of Gilford.)
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