Friday 6 January 2012

A Defense of the Historicity of Jesus' Divine Self-Understanding

A key part of the investigation into the reliability of the New Testament (and the transformative message which it conveys) lies in establishing what Jesus considered Himself to be, and the mission that he thought it was his role to fulfil. While a discernment of Jesus’ self-understanding is only a necessary (but non-sufficient) condition in establishing the truth of the Bible, it can nonetheless fit into a robust consilience of evidence which best makes sense only in light of the truth of the Christian message. If it can be determined historically — with a reasonable degree of confidence — that Jesus really did believe Himself to be the eternal and divine Son of God, the Saviour of all mankind, we can investigate the three candidate hypotheses offered by C.S. Lewis’ famous Trilemma: Was Jesus a Liar, a Lunatic or Lord? Once we have established what Jesus claimed about Himself, we can turn our investigation to which of these three candidate hypotheses best explains the available evidence.

Argument #1: The reported ignorance of Jesus regarding his second coming
In Mark 13, in the context of his second coming, Jesus is reported to have said, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Is this statement authentic? We can establish with a high degree of confidence that the early Christian movement believed Jesus to be divine from an extremely early date. For example, the Carmen Christi, quoted by Paul in Philippians 2:6-11 (and widely believed to date to the 30’s AD), clearly ascribes deity to Jesus. In such a case, it is very difficult to discern why the gospel writers would have falsely attributed a saying to Jesus which ascribed to him limited knowledge and ignorance. Indeed, this statement was so awkward to the early Christian movement that the parallel passage, in Matthew 24:36, the phrase “nor the Son” is omitted in some of the manuscripts.

This is what historians call “the criterion of embarassment.” The principle goes something like this: If the ancient writers record facts which are awkward, embarassing, or otherwise counter-productive, the fact is likely to be genuinely historical. Given that we are likely here dealing with an authentically historical statement of Jesus, let us consider what this statement reveals regarding Jesus self-claims. It creates an ascending ladder from man, to the angels to the Son to the Father: a scale on which Jesus claims clear superiority to every human and angelic being, while being sub-ordinate only to the Father.

Argument #2: The reported statement that the Son is unknowable
In Matthew 11:27, Jesus is reported to have said, “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

This statement is likely to be historically authentic for at least two reasons. First, the passage is paralleled almost identically in Luke 10:22 but is absent from Mark’s gospel, implicating that this statement is found in the hypothetical but early Q document. Second, it strains credulity to think that the early Christian movement would have fabricated and falsely attributed a statement to Jesus insinuating that the Son is unknowable (after all, their whole message was that the Son is knowable!).

But what does this statement reveal about Jesus’ identity? It reveals that Jesus claimed to be the unique and only revelation of God the Father to mankind, and the only means by which one can come into a relationship with Him.

Argument #3: The “Son of Man” title and the criterion of dissimilarity
Jesus’ favourite self-designation, by a long shot, is the title “Son of Man”, a clear reference to Daniel’s vision recounted in Daniel 7:13-14. This self-designation is regarded, even by many skeptical scholars, as historically authentic, because it is not likely to have been an invention by the early church. Why? While the “Son of Man” title is clearly Jesus’ favourite self-designation in the gospel accounts, the title is nowhere to be found in the epistles — nor, for that matter, in any of the extra-Biblical Christian writings during the first 120 years following the life of Jesus. In fact, this term is only employed twice in any kind of Messianic sense in the entire Bible — once in Jewish tradition (Daniel 7:13-14) and once in Christian tradition (Acts 7:56). The point is simply this: How likely is it, exactly, that the early Christian movement would invent the “Son of Man” title as Jesus’ favourite self-designation when the church itself never referred to him in that manner?

The passage in Daniel, upon which this title is based, pictures a divine-human heavenly figure, of whom it is written:
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
In fact, the high priest Caiaphas, at Jesus’ interrogation, knew exactly what Jesus meant by his use of the term “Son of Man”, whom, we read in Matthew 26:65, “tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy.”

Argument #4: The counter-Judaic nature of a divine-human Messiah
As with the concept of resurrection, it is of huge importance that we investigate the Jewish messianic expectations and how Jesus’ radical self-claims fit into that context.The key point is that God had spent centuries drumming it into the heads of the Israelites that there was only one of Him and no-one shared His glory. For example, Isaiah 42:8 reads, “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols.”

C.S. Lewis summed this up so brilliantly in Mere Christianity:
“Then comes the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world, who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.”
The radical character of Jesus’ self-claims here is brought to light by the Jewish reaction to Jesus’ statements and actions as reported in the gospels. For example, in John 10:31-32, we read,
“Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?’
‘We are not stoning you for any good work,’ they replied, ‘but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.’”
We also read in John 5:18 that “[the Jews] tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”

It is thus exceptionally unlikely that the early church would have ascribed deity to Jesus had Jesus not made these claims himself.

In addition, the Christian concept of the Trinity is a radical innovation which was foreign to the Jewish understanding of God. The doctrine of the Trinity is unlikely to be an early-church invention. Rather, it appears that they were forced to that formulation by the fact that, while there is only one God, according to Jesus’ teachings, the Father, Son and Spirit all exercise the capacity of deity.

Argument #5: Implicit Christology
As previously mentioned, it is very clear that the Biblical authors regarded Jesus as God (they state so emphatically throughout the New Testament epistles). Why is it, then, that Jesus’ deity is often taught only implicitly by Jesus, with very few explicit statements? Jesus implicitly claims deity by the titles he ascribes to Himself and the deeds that he performs. Had the disciples felt at liberty to fabricate these sayings out of whole cloth, one might expect the references to be a little more explicit. In contrast, many of Jesus self-claims and actions which are reported in the gospels are only properly understood as claims to deity given a robust knowledge of the Jewish (Old Testament) Scriptures. For example, Jesus states in John 8:58 that “‘Very truly I tell you’, Jesus answered, ‘before Abraham was born, I am!’” The Jews understood perfectly well what he meant, because we read in the very next verse that “At this, they picked up stones to stone him.” What is the significance of what Jesus claimed here? The statement makes sense as a claim to deity only in light of the Old Testament (e.g. Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 43:10) where Yahweh calls himself the “I AM”.

Moreover, Jesus’ authority over nature (demonstrated when he calms the wind and the waves) makes sense in light of Psalm 89:9 and 107:29-30. Jesus’ claim to be the fountain of living water (John 4:10-11 and 7:38) makes sense in light of Jeremiah 2:13 and 7:13. Jesus’ first miracle, the turning of water into wine at the wedding (John 2) makes sense in light of his role as Creator of the world, who fashioned the world from water (see Genesis 1:2). C.S. Lewis further notes,
“One part of the claim tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to. I mean the claim to forgive sins: any sins. Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself. You tread on my toe and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned; the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.”
Argument #6: The disciples were willing to face persecution and martyrdom for the claim that Jesus was God
While many are willing to suffer and die for something about which they are mistaken, no-one is willing to die for something which they know to be a downright lie. The suffering and martyrdom of those who claimed to have interacted with Jesus Himself is very difficult to reconcile with the core claims of their message being a deliberate fabrication (either they were honestly mistaken, or they were telling the truth about what Jesus had said and done). We also know that the claims of Jesus being divine are extremely early: For one thing, the Carmen Christi -- believed by many to date very closely to the death of Jesus (possibly within a decade) describes Jesus as "being in very nature God."

Summary & Conclusion
In summary, this article has looked at six good reasons to think that the gospel accounts are accurate when they report Jesus’ divine self-understanding. There are many other reasons, not discussed here, for further corroborating this view. When these facts are considered in the context of other historiographical evidence, I think one has a very compelling case for the truth of the core claims of Christianity. I will close with the words (yet again) of C.S. Lewis:
“Yet (and this is the strange, significant thing) even His enemies, when they read the Gospels, do not usually get the impression of silliness and conceit. Still less do unprejudiced readers. Christ says that He is ‘humble and meek’ and we believe Him; not noticing that, if He were merely a man, humility and meekness are the very last characteristics we could attribute to some of His sayings.

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. 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 a 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. He did not intend to.”


  1. Thank you for this post...Well written.
    Praise God...

  2. I read this and it was hard for me to remember that you "Jonathan Mclatchie" belive in millions of years in creation. This was a great article. I just can't reconcile your beliefs. It doesn't make sense.


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