When it comes to the beginning of christology, first century memories, interpretations, experiences, and presentations of Jesus were far from monolithic. Even among those who considered Jesus a “divine” being, there was considerable divergence as to how they articulated his agency and identity in relation God the Father. No-one was walking around with a proto-type of the Nicene Creed resident in their mind six minutes after the day of Pentecost.
So rather than referring to a single and uniform “early Christology” of the early church, I prefer to speak of “early christologizing,” with various expressions of Jesus’s identity gradually clustering together, becoming fused through the sharing of texts, the development of a common lexicon, shared hermeneutical strategies, and common rituals. The upshot was that there gradually emerged a cohesive mode of discourse and mutually recognized patterns of worship. Concurrently, seemingly incongruent beliefs and practices began to be pushed to the margins when they did not meet with consensus or find reciprocation in the burgeoning church communities.
Within this messy matrix of early christologizing, some commentators argue that one of the most primitive accounts of Jesus was articulated in terms of an adoptionist christology. In adoptionism there was a time when Jesus was not the Son of God. Divine sonship is not something that Jesus possessed for all time, but something he attained at this resurrection, or his baptism, or at his birth. In other words, Jesus the man became the divine Son of God at some point; whereas a theology of incarnation, of “eternal begottenness,” developed much later.
John Knox, the American scholar not the Scottish Reformer, contended that adoptionism corresponded more closely than any later belief with the actual experience of the early church who knew Jesus to be a man subsequently designated as Lord and Messiah. He declared: “That [Christology] began with ‘adoptionism’ and ended with ‘incarnationism’ is hardly open to doubt.” James Dunn is similar, noting how the Ebionites held to an adoptionist Christology, and yet that “heretical Jewish Christianity would appear to be not so very different from the faith of the first Jewish believers.” More recently Bart Ehrman has suggested that if one of Jesus’s followers had written a Gospel a year or so after his resurrection, one would find an “exaltation Christology,” which described how Jesus “became the Son of God when God worked his greatest miracle on him, raising him from the dead and adopting him as his Son by exalting him to his right hand and bestowing upon him his very own power, prestige, and status.”
But when one surveys the texts that are supposedly adoptionistic, I’m not so sure this is true. Now maybe some Christians, particularly those familiar with Greco-Roman ideas of imperial adoptions and deification of human heroes, might have regarded Jesus as a human figure adopted to divine sonship, it cannot be ruled out. However, as far as the evidence goes, I do not think we can confidently identify a group with an adoptionist christology until we meet a chapter of the Theodotians in Rome in the late second century.
Let me illustrate.
First, let’s briefly look at Rom 1:3-4, a text which is normally regarded as pre-Pauline and containing vestige of an early adoptionist christology:
“The gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spiritof holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Does the transition from Davidic descendent to Son of God mean Jesus became the divine Son at his resurrection? I don’t think so.
In this passage the resurrection marks a transition from Jesus’s messianic mode and earthly abode of divine sonship, to a new display of divine sonship defined by a regal function exercised from his heavenly position as God’s vice-regent. Jesus the Son of David is raised up by the Spirit and so becomes the first son of the resurrection, arrayed in glorious immortality combined with heavenly royalty, the true meaning of “Son of God in power.” By entering into this state Jesus thereafter makes it possible for his followers to be fully and finally incorporated into his own sonship at the general resurrection (see Romans 8). To be even more concise about it, Jesus’s divine sonship is transposed rather than triggered by resurrection, as he transitions from being a Davidic Son of God to the Son of God in power who reigns on the Father’s behalf and intercedes for his followers. There is indeed an adoption to divine sonship at the resurrection, but as Romans 8 makes clear, this is for believers who transfer from a spiritual sonship to an eschatological sonship.
Second, what about the Ebionites, a Jewish Christian group of the early second century, surely they were adoptionists? To be honest, I’m astounded how widely this is assumed, but again, the sources suggest differently.
The earliest summary of their teaching comes to us from Irenaeus who may have been relying on either Justin’s Syntagma or perhaps an updated version of it:
Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law. As to the prophetical writings, they endeavour to expound them in a somewhat singular manner: they practise circumcision, persevere in the observance of those customs which are enjoined by the law, and are so Judaic in their style of life, that they even adore Jerusalem as if it were the house of God.
Irenaeus does not associate the Ebionites with adoptionism, but with the “possession christology” of Carpocrates and Cerinthus. That is the belief that a separate power, person, Christ, angel, spirit, or aeon entered into the man Jesus. While Irenaeus does not explicitly mention the Ebionites as holding to a possession Christology, it resonates with what is attributed to them in other patristic accounts. If this is the case, then the best label to describe the Ebionites is not adoptionism, but a possession Christology: a heavenly power or angel entered into the man Jesus.
Now maybe there was an adoptionist christology somewhere in the diverse effusion of Christian groups in the first and second centuries. But Rom 1:3-4 is no smoking gun for it and neither do the Ebionites appear to have maintained such a position. One will have to look elsewhere.
Rev. Dr. Michael F. Bird is Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. He operates the biblical studies blog Euangelion and can be followed @mbird12. He is the author of Jesus the Eternal Son: Answering Adoptionist Christology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, forthcoming July 2017).
 John Knox, The Church and the Reality of Christ (London: Collins, 1963), 95; see further John Knox, The Humanity and Divinity of Christ: A Study of Pattern in Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 5–8, 95–97.
 James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity, 3rd ed. (London: SCM, 2006), 242; see further James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, 2nd ed. (London: SCM, 1986), 33–36.
 Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 246.
 Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 1.26.2 (Roberts and Rambaut, ANF). On the authenticity of Irenaeus’s description, see Michael D. Goulder, “A Poor Man’s Christology,” NTS 45 (1999): 335–37 and James Carleton Paget, “Jewish Christianity,” in Cambridge History of Judaism, ed. William Horbury, W. D. Davies, and John Sturdy, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 757.
 Tertullian, Carn. Chr. 14; Ps-Tertullian, Haer. 3; Hippolytus, Ref. 7.22; 10.18; Epiphanius, Pan. 30.1.3; 30.3.4–6; 30.14.4; 30.34.6.