The Self Understanding Of Jesus



Screenshot from The Passion Of The Christ

Who did Jesus think He was? Did He think He was God? I’m not asking if The Bible teaches whether Jesus is God. Obviously it does. Most powerfully in John 1. In John 1, the apostle John calls Jesus (i.e “the Word”) the creator of the entire universe, a role ascribed to God in the Old Testament (see Genesis 1:1). What I’m asking is did Jesus Himself believe that He was God. Moreover, can we prove this historically? That is to say, can we give historical evidence apart from presupposing the inspiration or even the inerrancy of The Bible? I think we can.

I’ll be examining 2 titles used of Jesus in the gospel accounts. These titles are his claim to be The Son Of Man, and his claim to be The Son Of God.Yes, you heard me, I said the gospel accounts. However, I won’t be quoting these documents as divinely inspired scripture. I’m not quoting The Bible to prove The Bible. Rather, I’ll be applying historical tests of authenticity. When historians are examining historical documents and are trying to figure out whether what they say is true, they will apply certain “tests”, “principles”, or “criteria” and apply them to the historical documents they’re reading. By doing this, they can come to a conclusion with some degree of certainty that what they’re reading about actually happened. Principles like multiple attestation, embarrassment, early attestation, enemy attestation, etc. I will be applying these to the gospels to see what kind of data we can extract about what Jesus thought of Himself.

Son Of Man

Over and over and over and over and over again, Jesus refers to Himself as the “Son Of Man” in the gospels. He calls Himself the Son Of Man so often that scholars and theologians have dubbed it Jesus’ Favorite Self-Title. If you do a study of the term "Son of Man" in the Gospels you'll see that he refers to himself as the Son Of Man far more often than He calls Himself the Son Of God. For example, He said things like, in Mark 10:45, "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many." And “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but The Son Of Man has no place to lay His head.” (Matthew 8:20). In fact, according to GotQuestions.org, Jesus refers to Himself as the Son Of Man 88 times in The New Testament!

On the other hand, although Jesus refers to Himself as The Son Of Man over and over throughout the gospels, Jesus is hardly ever referred to as the Son Of Man outside of the gospels in ancient history. The New Testament epistles rarely call Jesus The Son Of Man. And hardly any of the writings of The Early Church Fathers (e.g Ireneaus, Polycarp, Tertullian, Ignatius,) refer to Jesus as the Son Of Man.

If The Son Of Man saying were an invention of the early church, retroactively put in the mouth of the historical Jesus, we would expect for the early church to refer to Jesus as The Son Of Man a lot more often than they do. But we don’t find it. Therefore, it is highly likely that the Son Of Man saying originated with the historical Jesus and wasn’t a term put into His mouth at a later date. Thus, by the historian’s principle of dissimilarity, we have good reason to believe that Jesus referred to Himself as The Son Of Man. By the way, any scene that includes Jesus saying that He’s The Son Of Man is also a likely historical occurrence. You’ll see in a moment why this is important for establishing the divine self understanding of Jesus.

Now, what is The Principle Of Dissimilarity? The Principle Of Dissimilarity says that if you find something about Jesus that can not be drawn from the Christian church that proceeded Him, then it’s very likely to be a historical fact.

So, Jesus referred to Himself as The Son Of Man. We’ve established this historically. Now, what did Jesus mean when he referred to Himself as the Son Of Man? Most scholars agree that Jesus was saying that He was the divine Son Of Man figure mentioned in Daniel’s Old Testament prophesy…in Daniel 7.

Daniel 7:13-14 says “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

So, Jesus was saying that He was the same person mentioned in Daniel 7. What’s striking about this is how Daniel describes this Son Of Man figure. Daniel says that He is given authority, power, and sovereign power over all peoples and nations. Moreover, that people all over the world worship him. Daniel says that the Son Of Man is given an everlasting dominion, a dominion that will not pass away. This is a pretty exalted figure that Daniel is describing.

In this context, Caiaphas’ reaction at Jesus’ trial makes perfect sense. In Mark 14:61-64, Caiaphas asks Jesus “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” and Jesus responded “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."  Caiaphas then tore his clothes and said “Why do we need any more witnesses!? You have all heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?" and they all condemned Him worthy of death.

Jesus’ response was considered blasphemous because Jesus was claiming to be God. He was claiming to be this divine Son Of Man figure in Daniel 7:13-14 who would be sovereign over all creation, and who would be worshipped by every nation, and who would be given an everlasting dominion. Moreover, by saying that He would “be seated at the right hand of the Father”, He was putting Himself on the same level of authority with God The Father. Of course, this is only blasphemous if it isn’t true. If Jesus rose from the dead, then God put His stamp of approval on Jesus’ teaching. I’ll post an article on the evidence for the resurrection tomorrow.

But I think it’s safe to say that Jesus did refer to Himself as the Son Of Man (principle of dissimilarity) and what Jesus meant by it was that He was divine.

Now, it’s true that other men throughout history have been called a son of man. For example, the prophet Ezekiel was called a son of man. However, in the case of Jesus, Jesus said that He was THE Son Of Man, not merely A son of man. This is what set Jesus apart. Moreover, by replying to Caiaphas “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." , it’s pretty evident that the son of man Jesus is referring to is the Daniel 7 figure, who, as we said, is an exalted figure.

Moreover, Jesus claimed some pretty lofty things in connection to His title “Son Of Man”. Jesus claimed to be able to forgive sins. And remember, the principle of dissimilarity has established that the Son Of Man saying is a saying that can be traced to the historical Jesus. Not only is the saying itself historical in general, but any instance in which Jesus uses that title is historical. Including the instance where He claimed to forgive sins.

In Luke 5:17-26, a paralyzed man is lowered down to Jesus from above the roof. The guy’s friends did this because the house Jesus was in was so crowded that they couldn’t get through the door. So they climbed on top of the roof, punched a hole in the roof, and lowered the paralyzed man down to Jesus. Jesus saw how much faith they had in Him, so He said to the paralytic “Your sins are forgiven” The Pharisees’ reaction was quite proper. They said “That’s blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone!?” So Jesus responded “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”

The Pharisees were right in pointing out that only God alone has the authority to forgive sins. Look, if you do something wrong to me, I have the right to forgive you. But if you do something wrong to me, and some third party comes along and says “I forgive you.” What kind of cheek is that? The only third party who has the right to do that is God Himself. And yet Jesus said that The Son Of Man has the authority to forgive sins.

Since The Son Of Man title is authentic (shown by the principle of dissimilarity), then this instance is also historical. But of course, this particular instance has Jesus doing something that only God has the right to do.

Son Of God

Jesus also claimed to be the Son Of God. Now, skeptics will argue that there’s nothing divine about the title Son Of God since others have been called a son of God. Certain holy men were called sons of God. Even in The Bible, in the old testament, angels were called sons of God (see Genesis 6, Job 1:6)  and in Christian theology, all Christian males are sons of God (e.g John 1:12). So Jesus calling himself a son of God is no big deal.

The problem is that Jesus connected some pretty lofty statements to His title as Son Of God. For example, in Mark 13:32, Jesus says, in regards to His second coming “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

The majority of even non-Christian historians consider this to be an authentic statement of the historical Jesus? Why? They consider it to be an actual utterance of the historical Jesus because of the principle of embarrassment. If the gospels are evolved theology, fabricated to make Jesus look divine, they certainly wouldn’t have made up a statement that makes Jesus look less than omniscient. This statement makes Jesus appear ignorant of His second coming. That’s uncomfortable to explain if you’re trying to make Jesus look divine. Therefore, these scholars conclude, on the basis of the historian’s principle of embarrassment, that Jesus must have made this statement.

Jesus calls himself the son of God in Mark 13:32. This passage employs a figure of speech known as anabasis, which is an ascending scale with increasing emphasis. An example of anabasis would be if I said “I wouldn’t do such and such for a hundred dollars, I wouldn’t do it a thousand dollars, I wouldn’t even do it for a million dollars!” Here, you see an ascending scale (i.e the amount of money) with an increasing emphasis that I would not do such a thing. We see that same figure of speech in Mark 13:32. Jesus says that no one knows the day of His second coming, not even the angels in Heaven (who are higher than humans), not even the Son (who is higher than the angels), but only the Father in Heaven. So Jesus is higher than the angels who are higher than humans, and is only a little lower than the Father. What does this say about what Jesus thought of himself? By the way, for those of you wondering, I think a good explanation for why Jesus was ignorant of His second coming can be given. I addressed this in my blog post “A Biblical And Logically Coherent Model Of The Incarnation”.

Moreover, Jesus’ use of the term “abba” according to Gary Habermas in his book “The Historical Jesus”, is unprecedented in ancient Jewish thought. He used “abba” to refer to God The Father. This was such a casual term to be used of God. It’s the Hebrew equivalent of “Daddy”. But Jew’s considered God’s name to be so holy that often times they wouldn’t even call Him by His name. They would sometimes say “The Blessed One” or “The Lord”. Jesus taught his followers to use this same term when referring to God. So Jesus is claiming to be initiating a new phase, as it were, in peoples’ relationship with God. Who but God has the authority to do that?

In conclusion

Much more could be said about the historical Jesus’ belief that He was God incarnate. If you want to go into more depth, check out William Lane Craig’s chapter on this in his book “On Guard” and also get the book “How God Became Jesus”. But I think that enough has been said to conclude that Jesus did believe that He was God.

Now the question is, why should we believe Him? C.S Lewis, The Oxford mideaval literature scholar and Christian Apologist wrote in his book Mere Christianity:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son Of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God”

C.S Lewis says that in the face of Jesus’ radical claims, we cannot merely claim to accept Him a good moral teacher. Jesus claimed to be God. He either wasn’t God and knew He wasn’t God (which would make Him a liar), or he wasn’t God but believed that He was anyway (which would mean he was a lunatic), or He really is who He claimed to be. Which of these is the best explanation?

Jesus obviously believed His own claims. He did not recant under threat of crucifixion. Liars make poor martyrs. So the fact that Jesus never denied these former claims at his trial or while He was being flogged is evidence that He sincerely believed his own claims. So we can rule out liar. But was He insane then? Was He in the same category of a man who believes is a poached egg? How do we know? If God raised Jesus from the dead, we can rule out lunatic. Because God would never raise a heretic and a blasphemer. If Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, then that is pretty good evidence that He was telling the truth.

This is the issue I look at in the blog post “The Minimal Facts Case For Jesus’ Resurrection PART 1”