Let’s say you’re talking to a skeptic, and he makes the claim, “Jesus never said he was God. That’s something his disciples later ascribed to him—like it was to the Buddha.” What would your response be? I bet you would turn to Jesus’ “I Am” statement in John 8:58 and say, “You see, Jesus ascribes the divine name, ‘I Am,’ to himself, and we know he was using it for himself because the Jews immediately attempted to kill him, thinking he was blaspheming.”
This, of course, would be a correct response. Unfortunately, some skeptics do not accept John’s accounts of Jesus’ divine claims. One such skeptic, Bart Ehrman—a popular New Testament textual critic who was once a Fundamentalist Christian and is now an agnostic—says:
If Jesus went around Galilee proclaiming himself to be a divine being sent from God . . . could anything else that he might say be so breathtaking and thunderously important? And yet none of these earlier sources [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] says any such thing about him. Did they (all of them!) just decide not to mention the one thing that was most significant about Jesus? Almost certainly the divine self-claims in John are not historical” (How Jesus Became God, 125).
Is Ehrman’s assessment correct? Are Jesus’ claims to divinity absent from the Synoptic Gospels? Perhaps Ehrman should have looked a little closer.
Rather than examining all three Synoptics, I will look only at Mark’s Gospel, since most New Testament scholars believe it was written first (be on the lookout for a forthcoming blog on Jesus’ divinity according to Matthew and Luke).
The healing of the paralytic
Consider the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12, which is also recorded in Matthew and Luke (Matthew 9:1-8, Luke 5:17-26). Although details differ in each version, all of them agree in three essential points that pertain to Jesus’ claim to be God:
- Jesus says he has the power to “forgive sins.”
- The scribes charge him with blasphemy in the secret of their hearts, and Jesus is aware of it.
- Jesus identifies himself as the “Son of Man.”
Why do the scribes charge Jesus with blasphemy? He claimed to do what only God can do—namely, forgive sins. This is why the scribes question in their hearts, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:6). I would venture to say that Old Testament passages like Isaiah 43:25 were running through their minds: “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
It’s interesting to note that while Jesus is claiming to have the same power as God in forgiving sins, he’s manifesting another divine power, namely, the power to read hearts (see Jeremiah 17:10, 1 Kings 8:39).
Jesus doesn’t back down from the charge of blasphemy. Instead he affirms the scribes’ thoughts concerning his divine claim by saying “that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . rise take up your pallet and go home.” Jesus’ response is significant not only because he validates his claim with a miracle, but he refers to himself as “the Son of Man.” This is yet another clue in the narrative that suggests Jesus’ claim to be God.
The “Son of Man” is an allusion to the figure in Daniel 7 that is described as “one like a son of man” who comes “with the clouds of heaven” (v. 13). This figure is commonly seen as the messianic king, but, as New Testament scholar Brant Pitre argues in his book The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, this king is not just a human king—he’s a divine one (143-145).
Pitre highlights two details that suggest the figure’s divinity. First, Daniel describes him as “coming on the clouds.” According to the Old Testament, this is something only God does (see Jeremiah 4:13). Second, Daniel doesn’t say, “He is a son of man,” but he is “like a son of man.” Dr. Pitre writes, “He appears to be a merely human figure but is in fact a heavenly being” (The Case for Jesus, 144; emphasis in original).
The contemporary Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin describes this figure as a “second divine figure” (the first being the ancient of days) and “a God who looks like a human being” (The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, 32-33).
So, let’s recap. (1) Jesus claims to forgive sins and merits the charge of blasphemy. (2) He reads the hearts of the scribes, which is a power that belongs to God. (3) He claims to be the “Son of Man,” which is a reference to the divine figure of Daniel 7.
Twenty-first-century Americans may complain that Jesus could have made it clearer by saying, “Hey, I’m God.” But for first-century Jews, that’s exactly what they heard when Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man with power to forgive sins.
Walking on water
Another event in Mark’s Gospel that supports Jesus’ claim to be God is his walking on water (see Mark 6:45-51), which is also recorded by Matthew and John (see Matthew 14:22-23, John 6:16-21).
There are three things significant about this event that suggests Jesus’ divinity. First—which is common to all three accounts—Jesus says, “It is I, be not afraid.” The second detail, also common to all three accounts, is that Jesus walks on the sea and the winds subside when he enters the boat. Third, which is unique to Mark, Jesus meant to “pass them by.”
Let’s take the first detail. What’s the big deal with Jesus saying, “It is I?” Isn’t he just letting the apostles know it’s him and not a ghost? The Greek is ego eimi, which literally translates “I Am.”
Now, if you know anything about the Old Testament, you know that “I Am” is the divine name (see Exodus 3:14; Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 41:4, 43:10-11). However, ego eimi can also be used in a way to identify oneself, which is the reason why the modern translations render it “It is I.” For example, in Luke 24:39, after the Resurrection, the disciples do not recognize Jesus, so he says, “It is myself” (Greek, ego eimi autos)—that is to say, “Hey guys, it’s me.”
Since the phrase by itself doesn’t convey the meaning, we must look to the context. Should ego eimi in Mark 6:50 be interpreted in the divine sense or as self-identification? I concur with Pitre and favor the former option.
Consider how Jesus says ego eimi within the context of manifesting his power over the wind and sea. This is significant in two ways. First, in the Old Testament, God is the one with power over the wind and sea (see Job 26:11-12, Psalms 104:1-7; 106:8-9; 107:23-30). Second, Jesus’ use of “I Am” within the context of walking on water parallels God’s use of “I Am” when talking to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3:14-15. Both involve the display of power over nature. Indeed, Jesus meant to identify who he was to the disciples when he said ego eimi. He was telling them, “I’m God!”
Another divine detail is Mark’s comment, “he meant to pass by them” (6:48). As Pitre explains (The Case for Jesus, 129-130), this expression is used to describe what God does when he appears to human beings (see Exodus 33:19, 22; 34:6; 1 Kings 19:11).
In fact, when God “passes by” Moses in Exodus 34:6, God proclaims his divine name: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious.” In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures), “LORD” here is used in place of the divine name “I Am.”So, just as Yahweh passed by Moses and proclaimed his divine name, so to Jesus passes by the apostles and proclaims the divine name. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Mark is portraying Jesus as Yahweh.
We’ll always have in our quiver the “I Am” statements in John for those that deny Jesus’ divinity and yet accept John’s Gospel. For those that do not accept John’s Gospel, or reject it as historically unreliable, we have in our quiver Mark 2:1-12 and Mark 6:45-51. Whether we’re looking at Jesus’ divinity according to John’s Gospel or Mark’s Gospel, we can reasonably conclude that divinity was not something later ascribed to Jesus by his disciples, like it was for the Buddha and other religious figures. It was there from the start, coming straight from Jesus.