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‘But Jesus Never Said He Was God’

Is it true that Jesus never claimed he was God in the Synoptic Gospels?

There’s a popular myth that Jesus never claimed to be God and wasn’t originally thought of as divine by his followers. For instance, in his book How Jesus Became God, the atheist New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman claims that “Jesus was not originally considered to be God in any sense at all, and . . . he eventually became divine for his followers in some sense before he came to be thought of as equal with God Almighty in an absolute sense.”

Part of his argument is that in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, “Jesus never makes explicit divine claims about himself” and that these divine-sounding claims appear only in the last of the four Gospels, the Gospel of John. And certainly, by the time we get to the Gospel of John, it’s clear that Jesus’ followers consider him divine. John begins his Gospel by declaring Jesus “the Word” and says that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

One problem with the idea that belief in Jesus’ divinity emerged slowly among Christians is that St. Paul, considered the first to write, clearly believes that Jesus is divine. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul quotes a hymn that says of Jesus that “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (2:6-7).

Ehrman admits the problem, asking, “Didn’t a ‘low’ Christology” develop into “a ‘high’ Christology over time? And if so, shouldn’t the views of the Synoptic Gospels be ‘higher’ than the views of Paul? But they’re not!” His solution, on the basis of a misreading of Galatians 4:14, is to advance the bizarre argument that, in fact, “Paul understood Christ to be an angel who became a human.”

Such a view seriously misunderstands the Old Testament background to Paul’s theology. In the prophet Isaiah, the God of Israel (YHWH) declares, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear’” (45:22-23). Yet Paul applies these words to Jesus, saying “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11). That’s presenting Jesus not simply as an angel, but as the one God.

There’s also the problem of what Jesus claims about himself, even in the Synoptic Gospels. It’s true that Jesus never simply says, “Hello, I’m the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, true God and true man,” and so if that’s what you’re looking for, you won’t find it. But he does say of himself that “something greater than the Temple is here,” and then he calls himself “guiltless,” and then says that “the Son of man is lord of the sabbath” (Matt. 12:6-8; cf. Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5).

To see the gravity of these words, you need to know their Old Testament background. The Temple in Jerusalem was “the most holy temple in all the world” (2 Macc. 5:15), and the Holy of Holies within was “the most holy place” (1 Kings 7:50). Why? Because “the Lord is in his holy temple” (Hab. 2:20). For Jesus to declare himself greater than that is to make what’s clearly a divine claim.

Likewise, the Lord of the Sabbath is God himself. In the Ten Commandments, God declares, “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.” This is explicitly a day set aside to the one God who created all things, since “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exod. 20:8-11).

It’s worth remembering that Israel had, by this time, a rich tradition of prophets speaking on behalf of God. And none of them spoke like this, presenting himself as greater than the Temple or the Sabbath.

In John’s Gospel, we’re told that “the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). But John’s just explaining explicitly something we see in the other three Gospels. For instance, in Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus describes himself as the Lord, as the judge of all the world, and as the unique Son of the Father:

Not every one who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.”

It’s true: he doesn’t explicitly say that in calling God his Father, he’s making himself equal to God. But he doesn’t need to say it. His listeners understand this, and ultimately, they arrest him for blasphemy. It is now time for Jesus to speak plainly. On trial, the high priest demands, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” And Jesus replies, “You have said so. But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The high priest is outraged, tearing his robes, and saying to the others, “He has uttered blasphemy. Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy” (Matt. 26:63-65).

This is the pivotal moment in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 14:64; Luke 22:71): that Jesus was turned over to the Romans for execution because he was found guilty of “blasphemy” for presenting himself as the Son of God. And this is presented not as a misunderstanding, but as the scribes and Pharisees having “rejected the purpose of God for themselves” (see Luke 7:30), thereby fulfilling another of Jesus’ grand predictions: that “as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation” (Luke 17:24-25).

Jesus was killed for making statements about himself that clearly implied that he was not only a divine being of some kind, but the one God of Israel. If you miss this, then you miss the whole point of each of the four Gospels, as well as the message of St. Paul and the other New Testament authors.

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