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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
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.
2) Intensify the requirements of the Law (what it says about adultery in Matt.
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.
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