Who was Jesus? One popular idea of Jesus is that he was only a good teacher or a rabbi. Some believe he was a prophet, like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Still others claim that he is the Son of God or God himself. The Gospel writers, St. Paul and the writers of the other letters of the New Testament seem to agree. The Nicene Creed (written at the Council of Nicaea in AD325) declares: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. Light of light, true God from true God. Begotten not made, consubstantial to the Father, by whom all things were made”. So it seems that the early church believed that Jesus was indeed, true God from true God and not just a good teacher or a prophet. Some critics say that Jesus himself did not claim to be God but that his followers invented this idea after his death. Let us look at the evidence.
Reliability of the Manuscripts
In investigating whether or not Jesus claimed to be God, we have no choice but to accept the four gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as faithful records of what Jesus himself said and did. There is no definitive proof that the records are either true or not true but in any search of historical persons we have to accept the record that has been left behind unless there is good reason for not doing so. For example, if we wanted to find out what Julius Caesar was like we would have to examine the writings left behind about him by those who knew him. We don’t know how accurate they are either, but we have no choice except to use the records available to us. As far as the New Testament, the documents are amazingly trustworthy. In most ancient manuscripts, for example, the classical texts, there may be only one existing manuscript available. If there are more there is a great advantage in knowing what was originally written because they can be compared. In the case of the New Testament books there are nearly five thousand manuscripts in Greek, as well as quotations from the manuscripts by later authors. Furthermore, although many of the classical texts date as late as the Middle Ages, there are manuscripts of the New Testament Scriptures that date as far back as the end of the 2nd century. Helmut Koester, Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, said, “Thus it seems that NT textual criticism possesses a base which is far more advantageous than that for the textual criticism of classical authors.” Furthermore, to think that anyone tampered with five thousand manuscripts spread over the entire Roman Empire (as some have suggested) requires quite a stretch of the imagination! By looking at the Gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John we see accounts and viewpoints which differ slightly but do not conflict with one another.
Jesus was born into a Jewish family and Jewish culture. Although, at that time, the Romans ruled most of the known world and there were still Greek influences, for the most part Jesus’ audience was made up of his fellow Jews. These Jews were familiar with the Jewish Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament. Although we, in the modern age, may not always see the relationship between Jesus’ words and what was written in the Jewish Scriptures, the connection would have been clear to his audience. We will examine several instances when it was clear to his audience that Jesus claimed to be God.
When Moses met God in the burning bush (thought to be circa 1300 BC) he asked God, “If they [ the Hebrews in Egypt] ask me what your name is, what shall I tell them?” God answered, “I Am has sent me to you.” Moses is to say to the people, “YWH, the God of your fathers, has appeared to me, the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob.” (from Exodus 3:13-16) Over a thousand years later, Jesus, when arguing with some Jewish leaders about Abraham, says, “I tell you most solemnly, before Abraham was, I Am.” The response of the Jewish leaders to this remarkable statement was incredulity that someone standing before them would say they existed before Abraham. They picked up stones to throw at him for death by stoning was the punishment for blasphemy. This was clearly blasphemy for Jesus had claimed to be God and there is no other reason for this extreme reaction on their part.
The Good Shepherd
Shepherds are often mentioned in the Jewish Scriptures especially by the Prophets. Sheep were raised for their meat and their wool in Middle Eastern countries and still are. David was a shepherd before he became a King of Israel and so he obviously knew much about being a shepherd. He declares in one of his Psalms, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing.” The Scriptures often compared the leaders at the time to either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ shepherds and the people were said to be like sheep (Jeremiah 12:10). The prophet Isaiah writes about God’s tender care of His people: “He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and leading to their rest the mother ewes.” God even declares that He, Himself will be their shepherd. The prophet Ezekiel writes: “For the Lord YWH says this: I am going to look after my flock myself and keep all of it in view. As a shepherd keeps all his flock in view when he stands up in the middle of his scattered sheep, so shall I keep my sheep in view. I shall rescue them from wherever they have been scattered during the mist and darkness. I shall bring them out from the countries where they are; I shall gather them together from foreign countries, and bring them to their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. I shall pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in every inhabited place in the land. I shall feed them in good pasturage; the high mountains of Israel will be their grazing ground. There they will rest in good grazing land, and will browse in rich pastures on the mountains of Israel. I myself will pasture my sheep, I will show them where to rest, it is the LORD Yahweh who speaks. I shall look for the lost, bring back the strays, bandage the wounded and make the weak strong. I will watch over the fat and the healthy. I shall be a true shepherd to them.” Ezekiel 34:11-17
Approximately seven hundred and fifty years later, the Apostle John reports that Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep.” Jesus’ discourse about the shepherd and the sheep again caused an uproar and disagreement among the Jewish listeners: “Many said, ‘He is possessed, he is raving, why bother to listen to him?’ Others said, ‘These are not the words of a man possessed by the devil; could a devil open the eyes of the blind?”’ Could it be that those who heard Jesus that day remembered that YWH had also said He would be their shepherd? Was Jesus claiming to be God? If he was not God yet claimed to be God, Jesus was both a blasphemer and a liar. As C.S. Lewis wrote. “Would a good man say he was God if he were not?”
The Charge Against Jesus
It is obvious that those who heard Jesus speak understood him to be claiming to be God. In fact, this charge of blasphemy was why the Jewish leaders plotted to have him killed and eventually brought him before the Roman authorities. In John 10:30-37 , “The Jews fetched stones to stone him, so Jesus said to them, ‘I have done many good works for you to see, works from my Father, for which of these are you stoning me?’ The Jews answered him, ‘We are not stoning you for doing a good work but for blasphemy; you are only man and you claim to be God.’ Jesus answered: ‘Is it not written in your Law: I said, you are gods?’ So the Law uses the word gods of those to whom the word of God was addressed, and scripture cannot be rejected. Yet you say to someone the Father has consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because he says, ‘I am the Son of God.’ If I am not doing my Father’s work, there is no need to believe me; but if I am not doing it, then even if you refuse to believe in me, at least believe in the work I do; then you will know for sure that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.’ They wanted to arrest him then, but he eluded them.” Later, when the Jews brought Jesus before the Roman authorities they said, “We have a Law and according to that Law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”
Although there are many other times that Jesus claimed to be God these are just a few examples. These should be sufficient to see that to claim that Jesus was ‘true God from true God’ was not an addition to Christianity but something which Jesus himself claimed. And indeed, although the crucifixion and resurrection were God’s plan to rescue humanity from sin, from a human standpoint, Jesus’ claim to be God was the reason he was put to death.
Cavins, Jeff, Sarah Christmyer, and Dr. Tim Gray. The Bible Timeline. Ascension Press. 2008
Koestler, Helmut. History and Literature of Early Christianity. Vol 2. New York: Walter de Gruyter. 1980.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. London: Fontana Books (Collins) 1965
The Jerusalem Bible. New York: Doubleday and Company. 1967.