Since Christianity's earliest inception, there have been divisions in philosophical and theological beliefs regarding the nature of Jesus and God. These greater religious disputes have created varied interpretations of the Bible. Some schools of thought have used Gnostic Gospels to provide evidence that the Holy Spirit was feminine or that Jesus had a twin, while others use only the texts of the canonical Bible to provide differing theologies like Adoptionism.
What is Adoptionism? Adoptionism is one of the earliest schools of thought regarding the relationship between Jesus and God. Rather than viewing God and Jesus as separate manifestations of the same divine entity, Adoptionists believed Jesus was born a man and then adopted by God.
Adoptionism appeared multiple times throughout late antiquity and the medieval era, but the orthodoxy was always quick to hush up the theory and declare it heretical.
Adoptionism was one of the many controversies and heresies of Early Christianity. Like many other heresies, Adoptionism arose from the early theological problem of the nature of Jesus Christ and God. Was Jesus simultaneously God and man? Was he born a man? Did he become divine later? These questions were abundant throughout the Christian Mediterranean, but every school of thought had a different answer.
Adoptionists believe Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph not as the son of God, but as a mortal. He lived life perfectly in accordance with God’s law and was thus selected to become divine upon his baptism.
The orthodoxy, which believed Jesus and God were a unified divine being, deemed this ideology a heresy at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.
The most important tenet of Adoptionism is that Jesus was not born the son of God, but instead was selected by God. Adoptionists point to Jesus’s baptism as the point where Jesus and God became one, and use the Gospels of the New Testament as evidence. In Mark 1:9-11, the Holy Spirit comes to Jesus during his baptism. A voice from heaven tells him, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you, I am well pleased.” They claim this was the point in time where God decided Jesus would be his son.
The Gospels also make no mention of Jesus's life between the ages of 12 and 29. Adoptionism may help explain why there's such a shortage of stories from that time. Simply put, if Jesus became God during his baptism, he wasn't that special beforehand.
Scholars have come to believe Adoptionism originated as one of the earliest forms of Christian thought, dating back to the time of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles. This theory, however, has been highly disputed by both modern historians and ecclesiastical historians from the early middle ages.
The theory argues that in their Gospels, Matthew and Luke both allude to Jesus’s birth to his human parents, Mary and Joseph. Due to translational discrepancies and intentional changes made by early church fathers, the texts of the New Testament read as if Jesus had a virgin birth.
Two critics of Adoptionism, Eusebius and Irenaeus, said one of the pro-Adoptionist schools from late antiquity understood the term “virgin” to mean “young woman.” Another church father, Epiphanius, denied the validity of this translation. He claimed the Adoptionist theory and everything derived from it was false.
Modern New Testament scholars, however, think Epiphanius and other church scholars intentionally changed the Bible to erase any support for Adoptionism. According to New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, every reference to Jesus’s “parents” in the Gospel of Luke was changed to “Joseph and his mother.” Another scholar, John Knox, believes the Book of Acts gives evidence that Jesus was not born divine, but was instead granted divinity by God.
One theological criticism of Adoptionism is that a child adopted by God is not truly his son. However, this criticism has been refuted. In ancient Roman times, adoption was common. Adopted children and birth children were seen as equals by their parents and the broader community. Moreover, the titles held by adoptive fathers carried over to their adopted sons. For example, when emperor Julius Caesar was deified and given the title Divus Iulius, his adopted son Octavian (later Augustus) was called Divi filius, the son of god.
Similarly, Jesus received the name “Son of God” after being adopted by God, thus nullifying any criticism.