Who Did Jesus Think He Was? A Historical Approach

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

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Liberal scholars of the New Testament claim that Jesus’ opinion of himself and the early church’s opinion of Jesus are two very different things. They claim that Jesus never said he was the divine, unique son of God; that such a claim was just an early church invention.

This is problematic from a historical perspective. For one, in a monotheistic nation such as Israel, such a claim would be considered blasphemy. Yet this is what the early church proclaimed from what we read in the book of Acts. Historians date Acts around 60-64 AD, 27 years after the crucifixion. In it, we find sermons  that contain oral summaries in the text that can be traced to the earliest traditions of the church. Luke ascribes these sermons to the apostles themselves, but even most skeptical scholars would grant that such sermons were standard messages preached during the very earliest times of the church.

In these sermon summaries we find proclamations of Jesus’ resurrection, and the disciples calling Jesus the Messiah, Lord, the Son of God, and claiming that salvation was found exclusively through Christ. Such teachings dated so closely to the life of Christ show that these teachings were grounded in Christ’s own teachings. We also have the epistles of Paul, the earliest on record is 1st Thessalonians, which most scholars believe is an authentic letter of Paul, and is dated to 52 AD.

This dates back 19 years from the crucifixion and in it is written:

10And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:10, King James Version)

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he states he met with Peter and some other church fathers three years after his conversion (which most believe happened 34-37 AD) and then 14 years after, and both times they confirmed his message as accurate. This is extremely early source data, leaving precious little time for legend to grow.

Moreover, we also have Jesus’ very own words. Even the most skeptical of scholars like the Jesus Seminar attribute Mark 12 to Jesus, since it is also found in their personal cheese-ball source, the (gnostic *cough*) Gospel of Thomas. Here is the text:

1And he began to speak unto them by parables. A certain man planted a vineyard, and set an hedge about it, and digged a place for the winefat, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country.

2And at the season he sent to the husbandmen a servant, that he might receive from the husbandmen of the fruit of the vineyard.

3And they caught him, and beat him, and sent him away empty.

4And again he sent unto them another servant; and at him they cast stones, and wounded him in the head, and sent him away shamefully handled.

5And again he sent another; and him they killed, and many others; beating some, and killing some.

6Having yet therefore one son, his wellbeloved, he sent him also last unto them, saying, They will reverence my son.

7But those husbandmen said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance shall be ours.’

8And they took him, and killed him, and cast him out of the vineyard.

9What shall therefore the lord of the vineyard do? he will come and destroy the husbandmen, and will give the vineyard unto others.

10And have ye not read this scripture; The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner:

11This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?

12And they sought to lay hold on him, but feared the people: for they knew that he had spoken the parable against them: and they left him, and went their way.

(Mark 12:1-12)

The meaning of parable is clear.

  • The vineyard = Israel
  • God = the owner
  • Tenants  = Jewish religious leaders
  • The prophets = servants
  • Jesus = the one son

Jesus that he viewed himself distinct from all the other prophets, God’s special son and last prophet, and heir of the Kingdom of Israel. There he also predicts his rejection while calling himself the cornerstone of the nation. Radical stuff.

If that isn’t enough, we have Jesus favorite title for himself, the Son of Man. Even the most skeptical of scholars accept this as Jesus’ favorite designation for himself based on the historical criterion of dissimilarity. In every Gospel Jesus referred to himself with this title, while it only appears three times in other sources in the New Testament, making such a title to be an unlikely invention of the church. Such a title held great significance in ancient Jewish tradition. A key passage about this title is found in the Old Testament Book of Daniel:

13I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.

14And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14, King James Version)

Now consider this passage and how it corresponds to Jesus’ response to the high priest during his trial before he was crucified.

61But he held his peace, and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him, and said unto him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?

62And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. (Mark 14:61-62)

If this isn’t explicit enough, we see that Jesus did directly refer to himself as the Son of God.

22All things are delivered to me of my Father: and no man knoweth who the Son is, but the Father; and who the Father is, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him. (Luke 10:22, Matthew 11:27)

There are good reasons to attribute this saying to the historical Jesus.

  1. It appears to be taken from an old source which was shared by Matthew and Luke, which scholars call the Q source.
  2. It doesn’t seem to be a product of early church theology, which teaches us that we can know the son. (A little thoughtful exegesis can account for the discrepancy)

So here we see that Jesus is claiming that he is God’s only son and the only one with exclusive knowledge of the Father.

Most critical scholars will also grant Mark 13:32, based on the criterion of embarrassment.

32But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. (Mark 13:32, King James Version)

One would think the early church would never ascribe limited knowledge to those who they worship as Lord. This cannot be part of some sort of evolving theology.

So even from a historical approach we have very good reasons to believe that Jesus had a very radical view of his own importance, and yet he called himself humble and meek. We would hardly call someone humble who made such claims unless that person was being truthful. This hearkens us back to revisit C.S. Lewis’ famous “trilemma” found in Mere Christianity.

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was and is the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.

I could go on, what with the Sermon of the Mount and Jesus quoting the Law, and then following with a “but I say unto you”; where he would raise the bar. We also see him forgiving sins as if he was the chief party wronged. A social critic and cynic philosopher Jesus never would have been crucified, but someone like this radical Jesus would have certainly created a stir.

To close, Jesus asked Peter two questions according to the Gospel of Matthew – 1.) Who do men say that I am? 2.) Who do you say that I am? There are endless different opinions on the person of Jesus, but what did Jesus himself claim? And what are we going do with with such a claim?