Jesus as God

By Ben Witherington, III

The discussion of whether Jesus saw Himself as God is often plagued by anachronism, the reading back into the discussion of later ideas. It is safe to say that no Jew before the time of Jesus viewed God as a Trinity, or three persons sharing one divine nature. The term “god” wherever it occurs in the Old Testament refers to Yahweh, or to some false pagan god. In the New Testament as well, the term “theos” refers almost always only to God the Father, though there are some seven places in the New Testament where this Greek term is used of Jesus (see Rom. 9:5). Two of these places are in the Gospel of John (see John 1 and John 20). John 20:28 is especially important as it is very clear in that text that the acclamation is being applied to the human being known as Jesus, whereas this is less clear in John 1.

If we try to think as Jesus thought, in His own environment, it becomes clear why Jesus did not parade around Galilee saying, “Hi, I’m God.” The reason is obvious—this would have been understood to mean ” I am Yahweh” or as Christians would put it, “I am the Heavenly Father” and would have led to His being stoned on the spot. Jesus of course never claims to be the Father, much less to be Yahweh. Even the Johannine phrase “I and the Father are one” (John 10:31, NIV) does not mean “I and the Father are identical” or “I and the Father are one person.”  Jesus chooses different ways, less prone to misunderstanding, to reveal His special and divine identity, ways that would work in his Jewish culture and setting.

One of these ways is clear enough in Mark 12:35-40. Jesus in this discussion suggests that Messiah will be David’s Lord. He of course chooses the method of indirection, so the audience will have to tease their minds into active thought to figure out what He means, but the implication is there nevertheless.  But this implication is in fact clearer by the frequent, if not constant way, Jesus uses the phrase “Son of Man” with its allusions to Daniel 7:13-14, the discussion of a person who is to be worshipped and who will rule over all forever. Oddly enough, the title with the most divine overtones is “Son of Man” rather than “Son of God.”

But there are other indirect ways that Jesus signals who He is. For example, uniquely Jesus chooses to precede His own pronouncements with the term “amen,” a term normally used by the congregation to affirm the truthfulness of what someone else says after they say it. Not so with Jesus. He vouches for the truthfulness of His own words in advance of offering them! He does not need others to bear witness to him in order to validate the truthfulness of his words.  Notice as well that Jesus never ever uses the prophetic formula, “thus sayeth the Lord.” Why is this?  It is because Jesus when He makes dramatic pronouncements, is not merely speaking for God; He is speaking as one who has the same divine authority. This tells us a lot about Jesus’ self understanding indirectly as does the fact that Jesus speaks on his own authority-the phrase “you have heard it said, but I say to you” (see Matt. 5:21-22) speaks volumes in a culture where everybody cited earlier authorities to validate their points.  Then there is the further fact that Jesus feels free to:

1) Say that some of the Mosaic Law is obsolete (e.g. its teaching on working on the Sabbath, or on clean and unclean in Mark 7:15, or on divorce in Matt. 19);
2) Intensify the requirements of the Law (what it says about adultery in Matt. 5); or
3) Offer up new teaching that not merely went beyond the Law but went against it and in a wholly different direction (e.g. His teaching on non-retaliation as opposed to measured or equivalent response—an eye for an eye.) One has to ask—what kind of person could approach his own words and God’s Word with this sort of sovereign freedom and authority?

The modern discussion of the difference between functional and ontological terminology for God when applied to Jesus is both anachronistic and not very helpful as it is not the way early Jews thought about such issues. If someone actually functioned as God that person must have the character or nature to do so. As Jesus Himself put it, “each tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:44, HCSB). Put another way, it was believed that what one did or how one behaved revealed one’s character. This being the case, if someone acted like God come to earth, he had either better be God or be gone, because otherwise it would be a clear case of dealing with a fraud or a delusional person subject to stoning in the former case or being cast out from normal society in the latter.

Some of Jesus’ parables reveal just how unique Jesus thought He was. For example, in Mark 12:1-12 He is depicted as the last emissary of God the Father to earth, His only and beloved Son. Or in Matt. 25:31-46, the Son of Man is depicted as the one who will come and judge the earth as only God can or should. One has to ask—what sort of person believes that he will return from heaven to judge the world, something also clearly suggested by Mark 14.62? Or again, what sort of person feels free to cleanse the outer precincts of the Temple, or better said, perform a prophetic sign of the coming judgment on the Temple as Mark 11 says He did?

It is certainly true that the full formulation of Trinitarian doctrine came after New Testament times, but it is equally clear that Jesus set in motion the Christological reformulation of monotheism, by predicating of Himself words, deeds, and character that had previously only been predicated of Yahweh. It was not Paul who invented the idea that Jesus should be prayed to in the Aramaic phrase “marana tha” which means “Come O Lord” (see 1 Cor. 16:22). This was already the prayer of Jesus’ earliest disciples in Jerusalem who spoke Aramaic and longed for His return. Early Jews knew better than to pray to a deceased rabbi to come or come back from beyond the grave. Only God should be prayed to. Likewise, the earliest Christians sung hymns of praise to Jesus as divine as both the logos hymn in John 1 and the Christological servant hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 show. These ideas were not the invention of Paul or other early Christians. They went back to the “intimations of immortality” and the impressions of divinity Jesus left on His disciples. Most importantly, the reconfirmations of these impressions came through the personal encounters with the risen Jesus who came to be confessed (in the earliest such confession) as “the risen Lord” (see 1 Cor. 12:3) throughout the early church. This was in part because of who Jesus revealed Himself to be during His ministry, and more because of who He revealed Himself to be after the crucifixion.

As E. Schweizer said a long time ago, “Jesus was the man who fit no one formula, title, or pigeonhole. He chose to reveal His identity in his own way, without trying to conform to the preconceived notions of others.” He revealed his divine identity—in ways that suited his early Jewish context, not the much later Christological council discussions in the Fourth century A.D. and thereafter. Our problem today, is that we need to read New Testament texts through early Jewish eyes, not through the later eyes of polemical Christian discussions and formulations. When we do so, we will come to the conclusion that Jesus, unique amongst His contemporaries chose to reveal the divine nature He bore in His own way, in His own words, in His own good time, and for good measure He came back on Easter Sunday morning to reconfirm these truths to His frightened and flawed disciples.  For more on this see my Jesus the Seer, Hendrickson Press, 2000.


Published March 30, 2016