[This is an article I made for an apologetics forum. I decided I might as well post it here as well.]
An argument frequently made by those who deny orthodox Christianity is that Jesus was not believed to be God until a very long time after His death. Among those who have the Internet but nothing else to their credit, this development supposedly came as late as the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, or at least the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Not everything is this absurdly extreme, of course. Among the more reasonable and learned of skeptics, Jesus’ deity is acknowledged to reach back to at least some time in the first century. The best example of this is probably Bart Ehrman, who believes that some kind of belief in a divine Jesus existed by the time John was written.
I do not intend to argue particularly against Ehrman’s account of belief in Jesus’ deity here. I merely intend to lay out some of the basic evidences from the New Testament that Jesus’ deity was already at least partially present, or perhaps strongly so, in Christian doctrine within a generation of Jesus’ death.
Paul’s epistles (mostly AD 50-60) do not often make any explicit statements about Jesus’ deity, though there are verses in the contested Pauline letters which make such a statement (Titus 2:13, 2 Pet. 1:1). However, in all of Paul’s letters Old Testament verses which spoke of Yahweh in the original context are applied to Christ, with YHWH appearing in the Greek citation as adonai, “Lord.” Examples include Romans 10:13 (cf. Joel 2:32, probably the strongest), 1 Corinthians 2:16 (cf. Isa. 40:13), and 2 Corinthians 10:17 (cf. Jer. 9:24).
Also in Paul we have the early Christian hymn in Philippians 2, which is difficult to interpret in ways which do not ascribe to Jesus in some way a preexistent divine nature. In 1 Corinthians 8:6, Paul reworks the Shema, which was the defining declaration of Jewish monotheism, around the Father and His Son Jesus in a way which applies the lordship, oneness, and role as creator to both of them (of particular interest would be the new developments on this by Crispin Fletcher-Louis).
The anonymous letter of Hebrews, most likely written sometime before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, has an undeniably high Christology. While an exact and explicit identification of Jesus as deity is not present, the entire first chapter demonstrates a strong belief that Jesus shared a relationship with God that far surpasses the royal sonship in the psalms which he cites. He clearly sees in Jesus a nature as the Son of God. This appears to cross the line into affirming true deity when he cites Psalms 45 and 102. There he not only says that the Son is addressed by God as God (and in the context of his argument he seems to take this beyond the original sense of royal adoption), but even speaks of the Son as the Lord (YHWH in the cited verse’s Hebrew text) who created the universe and is eternal before and after it.
John and Revelation
Remaining to mention are John and Revelation, both supposedly the work of the apostle John, who tradition says died around the close of the first century. Both of these books are usually dated to the 90s, which is a little later than the rest of the New Testament evidence, though still just within a lifetime of Jesus’ death. Of particular interest, though, is the theory increasingly considered by even secular and liberal scholars that John was actually written in part before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. This is argued mostly on the basis of John’s portrayal of the Temple authorities, along with a peculiar feature of John 5:2.
John opens up with what is arguably the highest Christological declaration in the New Testament: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Since, by the end of the passage, this Word is clearly identified as Jesus, there is no possible way of understanding this except to say that Jesus had, at least in some way, a preexistent divine nature. Even Ehrman admits this, though is careful not to anachronistically assume this takes a post-Nicene shape. Adding interest, most scholars think John’s prologue is came from earlier traditions. If this is the case and it were the case that John was written before the Temple fell, then we have an extremely strong statement of Jesus’ deity dating very early.
Revelation, although without doubt later than all of the other books in the New Testament, with consensus placing it during Domitian’s rule (AD 81-96), is nonetheless an interesting case. By this time there can be no doubt that, even if no one else agreed, the author held a view which somehow identified Jesus as God. The entire books operates on that assumption, repeatedly attributing to Jesus divine attributes and actions, especially in allusion to Yahweh’s roles in the Old Testament. Citing verses would be a tedious task here, but enough evidence can be found simply by reading the book with a good list of cross-references. A clear theme is that the Lamb who was slain shares in every way the life, names, character, and roles of God Himself.