Christian Adoptionism and the Baptism of Jesus Christ
Centuries of Belief Before the Trinity

By Vexen Crabtree 2011 Jan 18

The very first Christians, the Ebionites, Nazorenes, Gnostic Christians and others, were all adoptionists. In accordance with the first hundred years of Christian belief and with the oldest manuscripts of the Bible, Jesus was born in a normal way like the rest of us, to his parents, Joseph and Mary, from the line of David as prophesized (Matt. 1:1,9:27, Lk. 1:32, Jn. 7:41-3, Acts 13:23, 2 Tim. 2:8, Rev. 5:5 and 22:16). Jesus kept God's laws so well that on his baptism, God adopted him as his son, and sent him to the cross as a truly innocent, perfect sacrifice, to atone for the sins of all mankind, to fulfil promises made in the Jewish scriptures. God signalled to the world that this sacrifice had been accepted by raising Jesus from the dead and raising him up directly into heaven. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth, so popular amongst Roman mystery religions and paganism at the time, was never accepted by adoptionists1. It was only hundreds of years later when the concept of the Trinity was codified by the Pauline/Cappadocian Christians that adoptionist beliefs became condemned; yet, it represented the truer and original form of Christian belief.2


1. Jesus Becoming God

In typical pagan and Greek myths, the son of god has a miraculous or eventful birth. After that, almost no stories are told of their early life, their infancy or adolescence. In such myths, people only really tell tales about their hero later life when he is a capable adult. Likewise with Jesus: For some reason, the stories about Jesus follow the same pattern of revelation as other god-man myths: Almost nothing is written of Jesus as a child. Some say that this is because the history of Jesus was a purposeful rewriting of older pagan myths, merely being retold in a different language with a new, almost-contemporary hero.

Young Jesus led a normal and uneventful life. Nobody wrote anything about him or about his birth, critics and historians of the era did not include Jesus in their lists of magicians, wonder-workers and charlatans. The Romans did not notice him. No cult or band of early believers formed around the young Jesus. Yet as an adult, stories were told about Jesus as a prophet, a seer, a mystic. Early Christians did not find this a problem or a puzzle, because all the very first Christians, including all those who first put their beliefs on paper, believed that Jesus started out as a normal person and that he was adopted by God as his Son. Upon that adoption, the holy Jesus of Christianity emerged, and that's where the stories start. The testimony of scripture is that Jesus was born as a normal human child in a normal human way: The Old Testament - the Jewish Scriptures - prophesize that the Messiah will be born of the male line of King David. Multiple New Testament authors go out of their way to point out that this was indeed the case.

  1. The Genealogies: The Jewish authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both list genealogies in order to prove that Jesus was descended from David via Joseph (Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38). Matthew's is introduced with the words 'Jesus Christ, a descendant of David, a descendant of Abraham'. This only makes sense if Joseph really is the father of Jesus.

  2. Jesus as the Son of Joseph: In the Gospel of Luke a Jew called Simeon praises the child of Joseph and Mary; Luke 2:33 and Luke 2:48 both call Jesus the ordinary, flesh-and-blood son of Joseph and Mary (or rather, they did so in the original versions, but later edited versions did not say so!).

  3. Jesus was 'of the seed of David' as prophesized: Acts 2:30 says "God hath sworn with an oath to [David] that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne". Romans 1:3 says with much clarity: "Jesus Christ our Lord which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh". Jesus is called the son and the seed of David in Matthew 1:1, Matthew 9:27, Luke 1:32, John 7:41-3, Acts 13:23, 2 Timothy 2:8, Revelations 5:5 and Revelations 22:16.

It is at his baptism that God adopts Jesus and transforms him from the son of Joseph and Mary into the divine Son of God. Matthew 3:16 says that at the baptism, Jesus "saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him". Mark 1:9-10 and Luke 3:22 say the same. John 1:32-34 adds that the dove remains on him, and finally that "I testify that this is God´s Chosen One". Chosen, by god, at that moment, and adopted as the son. Luke 3:22, in the older manuscripts, quotes Psalm 2:7: "You are my Son, today I have begotten you". The most ancient written source that Christians used in the beginning was the Gospel of the Hebrews, used by the Ebionites, written by Matthew, and also says that Jesus was begotten on that day. Paul wrote that the Son came, not with a real body of its own but 'in the likeness of flesh' (Rom. 8:3). None of this makes sense if Joseph wasn't Jesus' bodily father; if God was Jesus' father, he couldn't 'beget' him, and he couldn't be a male descendent of David. It is only after this adoption that anything special happens with Jesus because before that moment, he was a normal human being. That is why no-one noticed Jesus before then and no-one wrote stories about him as a child. After receiving the divine Christ, Jesus is now the son of god, and starts his ministry. This adoption story is the original Christian doctrine on the nature of Jesus; a doctrine that was later overwritten and then declared heretical by Pauline/Cappadocian Christians, who changed Christianity into something palatable by the Roman state, where like other pagan god-man myths, the son of God was always of god!

2. Pauline Christians Edited the Gospels to Make Adoptionists Look Wrong

Early scribes were not beyond editing the text in order to prove their own views or to disprove the views of others. When the later Pauline Christians went in search of their own history and discovered the Ebionites, they found that their Jewish and adoptionist beliefs were different to their own. They could not accept that they were the ones who had deviated from the truth. So, first, they set out to discredit and disprove the Ebionites in literature. Secondly, they burnt all the Ebionites' books.

Luke was edited in three places. Luke 2:33 and Luke 2:48 both contain verses that state that Joseph was Jesus' father. At least, that is what is said in the oldest manuscripts. Verses such as Luke 2:33 supported Ebionite Christians' belief in adoptionism. Strangely, in some later manuscripts Luke 2:33 and Luke 2:48 both had the word 'father' edited out although over half of our bibles today have thankfully reverted to the original version. Luke 3:22 where God clearly says that he is adopting Jesus was also edited so that it did not say so. "This is one proto-orthodox alteration that proved remarkably successful. Even though the potentially dangerous ("heretical") form of the text is found in virtually all our oldest witnesses [...] it is the altered form of the text that is found in the majority of surviving manuscripts and reproduced in most of our English translations"3

Later editors 'mistranslated' Isaiah 7:14 in the Septuagant and handily turned the prophecy that a young woman would have a child, to a prophecy that a virgin would have a child. This was used heavily in the debate against the Ebionites and other adoptionists by later Christians.

"1st Century Christian Ebionites: The Original Christians?: 4. Pauline Christians Edited the Gospels to Make the Ebionites Look Wrong" by Vexen Crabtree (2012)

3. The Crucifixion: Dying, Forsaken and Apart from God

The Christ remains during the ministry of Jesus until the time of his crucifixion. Because the divine Christ is perfect and pure spirit, it cannot suffer, so it leaves Jesus.

Book CoverMost Gnostics [believed] that Christ was a divine emissary from above, totally spirit, and that he entered the man Jesus temporarily in order to convey the knowledge that can liberate sparks from their material imprisonment. [...] At the baptism, Christ entered into Jesus (in the form of a dove, as in the New Testament Gospels); and at the end he left him to suffer his death alone. That is why Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (literally, "Why have you left me behind?") [...] According to one of the myths reported by Irenaeus, once Jesus had died, the Christ then came back and raised him from the dead (Against Heresies 1.30.13).

"Lost Christianities" by Bart Ehrman (2003)4

Prof. Ehrman examines the idea of Jesus dying apart from God in the light of the earliest known Christian manuscripts:

In a very interesting passage in this letter [Hebrews], the author indicates that Jesus died for all people 'by the grace of God' (Heb. 2:9). Or is that what the author said? In several manuscripts, the text instead says that Jesus died "apart from God". [...] In Hebrews, in fact, the statement makes perfect sense, since elsewhere as well it emphasizes that Jesus experienced his suffering as a full human being without any divine succour that might have been his as God's son. He suffered just like the rest of us. [cf Heb. 5:7, 12:2-3] [...]

But at a later time, in the second and third centuries, this kind of statement could be highly problematic, since Gnostics were saying that Jesus literally died "apart from God," in that the divine element within him had left him. Evidently, for that reason, scribes in the period modified the text to the more familiar phrase [...] that Jesus died by the "grace of God." Their change in this instance was remarkably successful; it is the wording you will find still in most English translations.

"Lost Christianities" by Bart Ehrman (2003)5

Revert back to the pre-orthodox (pre-Nicene) translation, in accordance with original manuscripts, and you revert to the phrasing that adoptionist Christians used, but which was suppressed and hidden by later literalist Christians.

4. Adoptionists from the 1st Century to the 14th

Aside from the Ebionites and other Jewish Christians of the first century, adoptionism found form in various other times and places. In the second century it was famously espoused by Theodotus of Byzantium6. It has a propensity to be re-invented from time to time even though established, Pauline, Christian Churches continually condemn it.

In The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture Bart D. Ehrman argues that the adoptionist view may date back almost to the time of Jesus. One of the early known exponents of Adoptionism was Theodotus of Byzantium [2nd Century]. Also during the second century, Paul of Samosata and the followers of Monarchianism expressed similar views. The belief was declared heretical by Pope Victor I [Pope 189-199]. The second movement of adoptionism, called Hispanicus error, in the late 8th century maintained by Elipandus, bishop of Toledo in the Caliphate of Cordoba and by Felix, bishop of Urgell in the foothills of the Pyrenees [...]

A third wave was the revived form ("Neo-Adoptionism") of Abelard in the 12th century. Later, various modified and qualified Adoptionist tenets of some theologians from the 14th century. Duns Scotus (1300) and Durandus of Saint-Pourçain (1320) admit the term Filius adoptivus in a qualified sense. The defeat of Adoptionism was a check upon the dyophysitic and dyotheletic feature in the Chalcedon Christology, and put off indefinitely the development of the human side in Christ´s Person. In more recent times the Jesuit Vasquez, and the Lutheran divines G. Calixtus and Walch, have defended the Adoptionists as essentially orthodox.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adoptionism
Accessed on 2006 Aug 09

5. What Happened to the Adoptionists?

With the formulation of the trinity by the Cappadocian Christians, who had it entrenched in the Christian doctrine that was enforced with the might of the Roman Empire, adoptionists such as the Ebionites and Gnostics were all but wiped out. Their books were burned, their churches destroyed, and those who continue to proclaim adoptionism were imprisoned, silenced, tortured and murdered. From "Types of Christianity in History: Who Were the First Christians?" by Vexen Crabtree (2003):

Religions compete for believers. They compete for influence because the more influence and exposure they have, the more believers they will get. This competition doesn't have to be conscious, or on purpose, it just happens to be that popular religions that are happy with power will prosper, accidentally inhibiting competing religions. There is interplay not only with believers, but with non-believers who have power. Religions that fall foul of politics are very frequently eradicated or ridiculed into extinction, whereas religions that appear to rulers to support the status quo can prosper.

It is not surprising that the dominant motif in the world's major religions has been a hierarchical one - the ruling powers of most societies understandably promote authoritarian religious ideologies and suppress the egalitarian beliefs. Early Chinese culture, for example, had two competing traditions: that of K'ung-Fu-tzu, which emphasized the need for strict social hierarchy and respect for elders and political authorities, and that of Mo Ti, who promoted an egalitarian ideology and ridiculed the followers of K'ung-Fu-tzu for their "exaggerated" emphasis on authority. The first tradition was institutionalized as Confucianism and became the official state religion of the emperors, whereas the second precipitated a relatively unstable popular movement that was almost lost over the centuries.

"Gods in the Global Village" by Lester R. Kurtz (2007)7

So it came to be that the literalist, nastier forms of Christianity survived the first few hundred years of Christian history, because it appealed to a wider number of people. It didn't require such things as circumcision or strict dietary laws. Literalist Christianity held power in Rome and it is no coincidence that it happened to preach a strict hierarchy, instructing slaves to serve their masters, instructing for taxes to be paid ("give to Caesar what is Caesar's" - Matthew 22:21) and instructing that people subject themselves to their governors (Romans 13:1). This form of Christianity, as we have seen, was oppressive, combatitive and organised, wiping out its nearest competitors, which was other forms of Christianity, with help from the institutions and Emperors of the Roman Empire. This conflict became legendary; pagan leaders, historians and competing religions all commented on the propensity for Christians to be found mostly engaged in battles with other Christians. Qur'an 5:14-15 asserts that enmity and hatred between Christians is a punishment from God for their "abandoning parts of God's message".8

"Types of Christianity in History: Who Were the First Christians?: 5. The Evolution of Religions: The Bad Boys Survive at the Expense of the Nice" by Vexen Crabtree (2003)

Read / Write Comments

By Vexen Crabtree 2011 Jan 18
Last Updated: 2012 Dec 28
http://www.vexen.co.uk/religion/christianity_adoptionism.html

References: (What's this?)

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The Koran. Translation by N. J. Dawood. Penguin Classics edition published by Penguin Group Ltd, London, UK. First published 1956, quotes taken from 1999 edition.

The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]

Crabtree, Vexen
"Types of Christianity in History: Who Were the First Christians?" (2003). Accessed 2013 Nov 03.
"1st Century Christian Ebionites: The Original Christians?" (2012). Accessed 2013 Nov 03.
"Gnosticism (1st-7th Century): The Birth of Christianity" (2013). Accessed 2013 Nov 03.

Ehrman, Bart
Lost Christianities (2003). Hardback. Oxford University Press, New York, USA.

Eliade, Mircea
The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987, Ed.). 16 volumes. Eliade is editor-in-chief. Published by Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, USA.

Kurtz, Lester R.
Gods in the Global Village (2007). 2nd edition. Published by Pine Forge Press, California, USA. Was previously Director of Religious Studies at Texas and holds a master's in Religion from Yale Divinity School and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Chicago. Kurtz is Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, USA.

Reynolds, Alfred
Jesus Versus Christianity (1993). Originally published 1988. Cambridge International Publishers, London UK.

Footnotes

  1. Eliade (1987) Volume 4 entry "Eastern Christianity". Added to this page on 2012 Dec 28.^
  2. Ehrman (2003) p99-102. A masterful summary of the case for Ebionite adoptionism.^
  3. Ehrman (2003) p222.^
  4. Ehrman (2003) p125.^
  5. Ehrman (2003) p225.^
  6. Reynolds (1993) p81-3.^
  7. Kurtz (2007) p141. Added to this page 2010 Jun 13.^
  8. 20120905: Added comment on Quran 5:14-15 to the text.^

© 2013 Vexen Crabtree. All rights reserved.

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