How the Jesus Wars Tore the Christian World Apart

Just what was at issue in the Jesus Wars? What differences could have been so vast as to ruin a great empire? Actually, the controversy goes back to the New Testament itself, in which Jesus asked his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” They answered that all sorts of stories were circulating – that he was a prophet, perhaps Elijah or John the Baptist come back to earth. “But you,” he asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Over the past two thousand years, Christians have formulated many different answers to this question.

This essay adapted from Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years (Harper One, 2010).

By Philip Jenkins
Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of the Humanities,
Pennsylvania State University
April 2010

During the seventh century, Muslim forces conquered and overwhelmed the ancient centers of Middle Eastern Christianity, which hitherto had been ruled by the Eastern Roman Empire. Within just a few decades, Muslim rulers controlled Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia, and were pushing through North Africa, and even into Spain. Looking at such an astonishing triumph, we often forget that the rise of Islam depended on exploiting divisions among Christians themselves, many of whom actively celebrated the collapse of Roman Christian authority. However strange this may seem today, even centuries after the conquest, Christian leaders in Egypt and elsewhere still reported the Muslim conquest as a kind of liberation. Only gradually did they realize the growing threat they faced from swelling Muslim numbers, which would transform the Christian Middle East into an overwhelmingly Islamic society.

But just why were Eastern Christians so disaffected from Roman rule – so embittered in fact that they were prepared to forsake the protection of a Christian regime? The answer lies in the struggles over theology and biblical interpretation that had divided the Christian world from the fifth century onwards, and which detonated a series of increasingly violent conflicts that I have termed the Jesus Wars. Beginning with the great Council of Ephesus in 431, the church struggled to reach a satisfactory definition of the nature of Christ. How did Christ’s human and divine natures relate to each other? Ephesus resulted in the defeat of Constantinople’s archbishop Nestorius, who was accused of holding that the two Natures coexisted in a union that was less than perfect, in effect, of dividing the humanity and divinity.

But far from ending the controversy, Ephesus only provoked more battles, as some argued that the divine element so predominated as to overshadow Christ’s humanity. This faction became known as Monophysites (from the Greek for “One Nature”). The term is unfair, and does not do justice to the subtlety of their views, but it has been so widely used by historians that it would be difficult to abandon the term now.

The Monophysites were decisively defeated at a great council held in 451 at Chalcedon (near modern Istanbul), when the church formulated the statement that eventually became the official theology of the Roman Empire. This acknowledges Christ in two Natures, which joined together in one Person. Two Natures existed:

Without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person.

Whatever else we might say, then, we cannot speak of Christ without declaring his full human nature, which was not even slightly diluted or abolished by the presence of divinity.

That Chalcedonian definition today stands as the official formula for the vast majority of Christians, whether they are Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox – although how many of those believers could explain, the definition clearly is open to debate. And as we are often told, Chalcedon settled any controversy about the identity of Christ, so that henceforward, any controversial passages in the Bible or early tradition had to be read in the spirit of those powerful words.

But Chalcedon was not the only possible solution, nor was it an obvious or, perhaps, a logical one. Only the political victory of Chalcedon’s supporters allowed that council’s ideas to become the inevitable lens through which later generations interpret the Christian message. From 451 until the mid-seventh century, rival Christological views remained very common throughout the East, in the most ancient centers of Christian belief and evangelism. Monophysites dominated Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. Christians in Mesopotamia and Persia were Nestorian, and they launched bold missions into Central Asia and even China. Both Nestorians and Monophysites founded free-standing independent churches which spanned continents. In the Christian East, followers of Chalcedon – what we would call Orthodox and Catholic Christians – were a tiny minority who survived only under the protection of imperial forces.

Whoever won at the great councils, there is no doubt that what we today call orthodoxy lost the Christian East. Not all the power of the Roman Empire, not all the persecutions and massacres, the burnings and beheadings, could dragoon the ancient churches into accepting the official theology that won at Chalcedon. When a rival religious power appeared on the scene, memories of persecution ensured that Eastern Christians had virtually no interest in defending the borders against an Islam that promised toleration -– and which initially held true to its word. The Catholic/Orthodox Christian church successfully defended its belief that Christ was both fully God and fully human – but at the cost of losing half the world.


Just what was at issue in the Jesus Wars? What differences could have been so vast as to ruin a great empire? Actually, the controversy goes back to the New Testament itself, in which Jesus asked his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” They answered that all sorts of stories were circulating – that he was a prophet, perhaps Elijah or John the Baptist come back to earth. “But you,” he asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Over the past two thousand years, Christians have formulated many different answers to this question. Yes, most believe, Jesus was a human being, but at the same time, he was also God, one of the three persons of the Trinity. He was both God and man.

But when we have said that, we have raised more questions than we have answered, as the basic belief in Jesus Christ demands combining two utterly different categories of being. Such were the transgressions of boundaries, puzzles, and shocks in believers of other faiths, especially strict monotheists such as Muslims and Jews. But even those Christians who accept the basic concept probably could not explain it with anything like the precision demanded by early church councils. By those rigorous standards, virtually all modern non-specialists (including many clergy) would soon lapse into grave heresy.

It actually remains quite possible to read the New Testament and to find Christologies very different from what became the Catholic/Orthodox position. Moreover, these ancient views arose from churches very close to Jesus' time, and to his thought-world. In particular, we easily find passages that suggest that the man Jesus achieved Godhood at a specific moment during his life, or indeed after his earthly death.

The Bible is anything but clear on the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures, and arguably, it is just not possible to reconcile its various statements on this matter. In the New Testament, Jesus says quite explicitly that he is identical with God: “I and the Father are one,” he declares (John 10.29-30). “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14.8-). John’s Gospel reports Jesus telling the crowd that “You are from below; I am from above: you are of this world; I am not of this world” (John 8.23). He goes on, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8.58). His listeners are appalled, and not just because this seems to be an outrageous boast of extreme old age. The words that Jesus uses for “I am” – in Greek, ego eimi – recall the declaration that God made to Moses from the burning bush. We might better translate it as I AM. Jesus appears to be saying that he is the same eternal God that brought Israel out of Egypt, not to mention creating the world. Not surprisingly, the crowd tries to stone him for blasphemy. For later readers of the Gospels, then, Father and Son must be one and the same.

But just as we are absorbing that amazing fact, we read on to find Jesus stating that he is distinct from God the Father. “The Father is greater than I,” he says (John 14.28). When Jesus foretells the end of the world, he admits that the exact timing is unknown either to the Son or to the angels, and only the Father knows the exact timing (Mark 13.32). If the Son knows less than the Father, the two must be different.

What does it mean to say that Christ was at once God and Man? Certainly the Jesus of the Gospels seems utterly human – he bleeds, he loves, he gets angry, he dies in grotesque agony. Yet somehow we have to reconcile that fact with the doctrine of incarnation. The opening words of the Gospel of John identify Christ with the Logos, God’s Reason or creative Word:

In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. .… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1.1-14)

The Word was made flesh, God became man. But how does that Word relate to the man called Jesus? What does the letter to the Colossians mean when it proclaims that all the fullness of God lives in Christ, in bodily form? (Colossians 2: 9)

Problems and paradoxes abound. When Jesus arrived in Bethany to find that his old friend Lazarus has died, he mourns: he groaned in the spirit, we are told, and he was troubled. Jesus suffered all too human grief, and, as is reported in one of the most famous verses of the whole Bible, “Jesus wept” (John 11.35). Incidentally, the source of that verse is John’s Gospel, the same text that reports Jesus speaking the hair-raising language of I AM. But think that text through. Jesus wept, so Christ the anointed wept – and therefore, are we to believe that God, the creator and source of all being, really wept? More sensationally, how in fact had Christ suffered on the Cross - had God really died? These paradoxes were not concocted by much later Christian theologians, working long after the supposedly straightforward beliefs of the apostolic age. As early as 110, while the New Testament was still under construction, the great martyr-bishop Ignatius of Antioch proclaimed Christ as “God come in the flesh." Ignatius addressed believers, whose hearts were kindled in “the blood of God." God weeping is one thing, but bleeding? Even faithful Catholics who accept that the communion wafer is Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ, dare not make the leap that would proclaim it the Body of God. God and Christ are different.1

Through the early centuries of Christianity, believers tried many ways of resolving these problems of scripture and logic. Different churches – leading thinkers and scholars – varied in the stress they placed on Jesus' humanity or his divinity, and without exercising too much ingenuity or text-twisting, they found Biblical passages that supported all these opinions. Some early Christians thought that Christ was so overwhelmed by Godhood that his human nature was eclipsed. In that sense, we should think of Christ as a manifestation of God walking the earth, clothed in human form as a convenient disguise. The Word took flesh as I might put on an overcoat. In that case, are we to believe that Christ’s sufferings, all the tears and blood, were a kind of play-acting or illusion? Others saw Jesus as a great man overwhelmed by God-consciousness. Somehow, the Spirit of God had descended on him, with his baptism in the Jordan as the likely moment of transformation - but the two Natures always remained separate. Christ, from that perspective, remained chiefly human. Some thought the Two Natures were merged, indissolubly and eternally; others thought the connection was only partial or temporary.

So was Jesus a Man-Bearing God, or a God-Bearing man? Between those extreme poles lay any number of other answers, which competed furiously through the first Christian centuries. By 400, most Christians agreed that Jesus Christ was in some sense divine, and that he had both a human Nature (Greek, physis) and a divine Nature. But that belief allowed for a wide variety of interpretations, and if events had developed differently – if the fifth century councils had decided other than they actually did - any one of these various approaches might have established itself as orthodoxy. In the context of the time, the cultural and political pressures were pushing strongly towards the idea of Christ-as-God, so that only with real difficulty could the memory of the human Jesus be maintained. Historically, it is very remarkable that mainstream orthodoxy came out so strongly in favor of asserting Christ’s full humanity.

However remote these conflicts may appear, they involved all the vital themes that would so often rend the Christian world in later eras, from the Reformation through the Victorian conflicts between faith and learning, and on to our own day. Great councils like Chalcedon were debating such core issues as the quest for authority in religion; the relationship between church and state; the proper ways of reading and interpreting scripture; the ethics and conduct demanded of Christians; and the means of salvation.

Pivotal to these ancient Jesus Wars were the four great questions that, to different degrees, have shaped all subsequent debates within Christianity. Foremost is the deceptively simple question posed by Jesus himself: who do you say that I am? And building on this are the three follow-ups: What is the church? By what authority do you do this? And, what must I do to be saved? More perhaps than in any subsequent conflict within Christianity, these debates over Christ’s Nature involved the most fundamental realities of faith and practice.

1 Ignatius, Ephesians 1.1, in Bart Ehrman, ed., Apostolic Fathers, two vols. (Harvard University Press, 2003), vol. i, 219

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