Who is Jesus of Nazareth? Christianity asserts that He is God incarnate–fully God and fully man. This belief is founded in the claims of Christ Himself, found in the Bible. But there are many people today who believe that Jesus never claimed to be God because they do not believe that we can trust the record of Jesus’ words found in the gospels. They claim that these claims of Jesus were developed later by the Christian Church and written back into Jesus’ mouth. Unfortunately, this seems to be the opinion of many modern scholars.
But can Christianity be written off so simply, or can it be defended against these intellectual assaults? There are actually many different ways to firmly demonstrate that Christianity is true. For one thing, it can be demonstrated that the New Testament as a whole is historically reliable and a trustworthy document. And if this can be shown, then it is reasonable to believe that Jesus really said the things that the gospels claim He said.
But we will not take that approach here. Instead, we will venture to see that even if one accepts some of the most skeptical standards of historical investigation, it can still be shown that Jesus did in fact claim to be God. In other words, we will play by the rules of the skeptical scholars who deny Jesus’ divinity. This means that we will not assume the New Testament to be divinely inspired, or even very trustworthy, to establish our case, but only use data which most critical scholars accept.
Christian apologist William Lane Craig has done an excellent job of using this method to demonstrate the solid historical evidence that Jesus claimed to be God. Therefore, I wish to briefly summarize and review his discussion of this issue from his book Reasonable Faith, pp. 242-253. Craig’s discussion is excellent and would be hard to improve. I offer the organization below as a means of briefly summarizing and evaluating his discussion. A review of his discussion of this issue will not only reveal the high quality of his work, but also thereby reveal to us that there is solid scholarship on the side of historic Christianity and that the case of the skeptical scholars ultimately backfires. At one point in our review, I will also bring in some corresponding insight from author Philip Yancey’s research.
Once we are done with our review, I think that we will see why Craig has said “It is to me intellectually gratifying to see how modern New Testament criticism has actually served to support rather than undermine a high view of Christ.”
The established historical facts
Craig points out that New Testament scholar Ben Witherington lists thirteen established features of the historical Jesus according to critical scholarship. We will take six of them, along with other accepted facts Craig brings out, to establish that Jesus thought that He was God. That Jesus thought that He was the unique Son of God will be demonstrated by the established fact that (1) Jesus addressed God with the intimate expression “abba,” along with various verses which critical scholars acknowledge to be authentic. That Jesus claimed to speak and act with divine authority will be shown by the established facts of (2) His independent approach to the Law, (3) the unique divine authority He gave His words by declaring “Truly, truly I say to you,” and (4) His proclamation of the kingdom of God as present and inbreaking in His ministry. Then we will see how (5) His interpretation of His miracles further shows His claim to act with divine authority. Last, we will briefly examine the established fact that (6) Jesus claimed that one’s standing with God depended on their response to His ministry. These facts all support the conclusion that Jesus had a unique self-concept, unlike any of the Old Testament prophets which came before Him–He believed that He was on an equal level with the Father. He believed that He was God. But first, we will look at the question of how the belief in Jesus as God could have originated.
1. The beliefs of the early church
To deny that Jesus claimed to be God raises a very severe problem: How did the worship of Jesus as Lord and God come about in the first place? Saying that Jesus’ claims to deity were written back into His mouth by the early church does not address the issue; the problem is the origin of those beliefs in the first place. How can one explain zealously monotheistic Jews worshiping Jesus as God incarnate if He did not claim this for Himself?
There is little doubt that the early Christians believed that Jesus is God. Craig writes, “Studies by NT scholars such as Martin Hengel of Tubingen University, C.F.D. Moule of Cambridge, and others have proved that within twenty years of the crucifixion a full-blown Christology proclaiming Jesus as God incarnate existed…the oldest Christian sermon, the oldest account of a Christian martyr, the oldest pagan report of the Church, and the oldest liturgical prayer (1 Cor. 16:22) all re fer to Christ as Lord and God.” If Jesus never claimed to be God, the early Christian’s belief cannot be explained.
2. Jesus thought that He was the unique Son of God
This is expressed in His parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard (Mark 12:1-9). Even skeptical scholars are persuaded as to the reliability of this parable because there is a non-allegorical version of it in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas 65. In this parable, the owner of the vineyard, after sending some tenants to collect the harvest, sends his son. Because the tenants recognize the son as the heir, they murder him. Since the parable is accepted as authentic, one cannot delete the figure of the son as a later addition, because then the parable would lack any point.
Craig summarizes the self-understanding of Jesus expressed in this parable: “But Jesus’ use of such a parable discloses that he thought of himself as God’s special Son, distinct from previous envoys to Israel, God’s final messenger, and even the rightful heir to Israel.”
Jesus’ prayer life also expressed His belief that He was the unique son of God. It is an established fact about Jesus that He addressed God as “abba,” which was almost like calling God “daddy.” To the Jew’s of that day, the name of God was so sacred that no one would dare pray to God in such a familiar way. While Jesus did in turn teach His disciples to pray to God with “abba,” He never prayed with them “Our Father,” but only referred to God as “My Father.”
Jesus’ sense of divine Sonship is also expressed in Mark 13:32: “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” It would be very difficult to say that this saying was invented by later Christian theology which then wrote it back into Jesus’ mouth. This verse meets the criteria of embarrassment in the tests for historical authenticity–because it ascribes ignorance to the Son–and so can be considered authentic.
As Craig writes, “The saying discloses not only Jesus’ sense of divine Sonship, but also presents us with an ascending scale of status from men to angels to the Son to the Father. Thus, amazingly, Jesus’ sense of being God’s son involved a sense of proximity to the Father which transcended that of any mortal man (such as a king or a prophet) or any angelic being.”
There is good evidence that Matthew 11:27 is genuine, even by critical standards of investigation, because it is thought (by critical scholars) to come from the Q source that is shared by Matthew and Luke and because of indications that it originated in a Semitic-speaking environment (because the idea of the mutual knowledge of the Father and Son is a Jewish idea). Also, the early church did not work out the Father-Son relationship, refuting the possibility that this verse is the later product of Christian theology. Since this verse was not invented by later Christian theology, and shows all the signs of originating in the environment of Jesus’ day, it can be considered authentic.
The verse reads: “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son, except the Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.” Here Jesus claimed that his relationship to God is unique–He claims to be the only one who can reveal the Father to men. This demonstrates that Jesus thought of Himself as the Son of God in an exclusive and absolute sense. “In other words, Jesus claims to be the absolute revelation of God. Think of it! The historical Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the absolute revelation of God himself…On the basis of the authenticity of this saying, we may conclude that Jesus thought of himself as God’s Son in an absolute and unique sense and as having been invested with the exclusive authority to reveal His Father God to men.”
3. Jesus claimed to speak and act with divine authority
First, the content and style of Jesus’ preaching expresses His divine authority. This is especially evident in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus equated his own authority with the authority of the divinely inspired Torah. Christian author Philip Yancey shows the significance of this in a way very parallel to Craig’s. Jesus first quoted the Mosaic Law, and then continued with His own teaching “But I say to you.” This was exactly opposite to the practice of the day: “The Scribes endeavored to offer no personal opinions, rather basing their remarks on the Scriptures and approved commentaries. Jesus had many personal opinions and used Scripture as the commentary. ‘You have heard that it was said…but I tell you…’ was His commanding refrain. He was the source, and as He spoke He made no distinction between His own words and God’s. His listeners understood the implications clearly, even in rejecting it. ‘This fellow is blaspheming!’ they said.” Matthew puts it well in His gospel: “[Jesus] taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the Law.”
Yancey points out that Jacob Newusner, the worlds’ preeminent scholar on Judaism of the early Christian era, says: “At issue is the figure of Jesus, not the teachings at all…In the end the master, Jesus, makes a demand that only God makes.” And as Robert Hutchinson puts it, “Newsner wants to ask Jesus, ‘Who do you think you are–God?”
Returning to Craig, he cites Horst Geor Pohlmann, who affirms that Jesus’ claim to speak with divine authority demonstrates that He understood Himself to be God: “This unheard of claim to authority, as it comes to expression in the antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount, for example, is implicit Christology, since it presupposes a unity of Jesus with God that is deeper than that of all men, namely a unity of essence. This…claim to authority is explicable only from the side of his deity. This authority only God himself can claim.” As Craig says, “If Jesus’ opposition of his personal teaching to the Torah is an authentic facet of the historical Jesus–as even the skeptical scholars of the Jesus Seminar concede–then it seems that Jesus did arrogate to himself the authority of God.” 
Second, Jesus’ use of “amen” to preface His teaching (the expression “Truly, truly, I say to you”) demonstrates His divine authority. This expression is unique in history and virtually all scholars recognize that Jesus used it to preface His teaching. Jesus said “Truly, truly I say to you”‘ the prophets, however, made the proclamation “Thus saith the Lord.” As Ben Witherington explains: “Jesus is not merely speaking for Yahweh, but for himself and on his own authority…This strongly suggests that he considered himself to be a person of authority above and beyond what prophets claimed to be…Here was someone who thought he possessed not only divine inspiration..but also divine authority and the power of direct divine utterance.”
Third, Jesus’ role as exorcist expressed His divine authority. “It may be an embarrassment of many modern theologians, but it is historically certain that Jesus believed he had the power to cast out demons. This was a sign to people of his divine authority. He declared, ‘But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (Luke 11:20).” Craig goes on to point out that in this saying, which is recognized by New Testament scholarship as genuine, Jesus is essentially saying “My ability to rule the spiritual forces of darkness shows that in me the kingdom of God is already present among you.” In other words, Jesus believed that the kingdom of God had come in Himself, and His divine authority over the spiritual forces of evil gives evidence of this.
The significance becomes clear when we realize that, in the minds of the audience that Jesus was speaking to, the advent of God’s kingdom could not be separated from the advent of God Himself. In Jewish thinking, the kingdom of God would come at the end of history, at which point the Lord would reign over the world. Craig summarizes the implications: “In claiming that in himself the kingdom of God had already arrived, as visibly demonstrated by his exorcisms, Jesus was in effect, saying that in himself God had drawn near, thus putting himself in God’s place.”
Fourth, Jesus claim to forgive sins expresses His divine authority. Many parables, which are universally acknowledged by critical scholars to be authentic to the historical Jesus, show that Jesus believed Himself to be able to forgive sins against God. While a person can forgive sins committed against themselves, only God can forgive sins committed against God, and this is what Jesus claimed to do.
Royce Gruenler makes the implications clear when he says that Jesus “is consciously speaking as the voice of God on matters that belong only to God…The evidence clearly leads us to affirm that Jesus implicitly claims to do what only God can do, to forgive sins..The religious authorities correctly understood his claim to divine authority to forgive sinners, but they interpreted his claims as blasphemous and sought his execution.”
Craig sums up these four lines of evidence: “Thus, most NT critics acknowledge that the historical Jesus acted and spoke with a self-consciousness of divine authority and that furthermore, he saw in his own person the coming of the long-awaited kingdom of God and invited people into its fellowship.”
4. Jesus believed Himself able to perform miracles
“Whatever the ‘facts’ were, Jesus evidently believed that he had cured cases of blindness, lameness, and deafness–indeed there is no reason to doubt that he believed lepers had been cured under his ministry and dead restored to life,” says D.G. Dunn, a British New Testament scholar. Wolfgang Trilling, a German New Testament scholar, says that the consensus of New Testament scholarship agrees that Jesus did perform miracles. One reason for this is that the miracles stories permeate all aspects of the gospel traditions, making it virtually impossible not to regard them as rooted in the life of Jesus. Also, Matthew 11:4-5 is a verse widely accepted as authentic by critical scholars. In this verse, Jesus says “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
The significance of the miracles, when taken together with Jesus’ prophetic ministry, messianic claims, and divine authority in teaching, is that they were taken as signs of the kingdom of God, reiterating the implications that we saw for the exorcisms. But there an even more astounding implication.
For Old Testament Judaism, God was the one who heals Israel’s diseases. Jesus, by not using any medical means, is therefore taking God’s place as the healer of Israel. Jesus heals as God heals, thus putting Himself in the place of God in the Old Testament. His miracles were therefore an implicit claim to divinity.
5. Jesus claimed to determine people’s eternal destiny
This is considered an established fact of the historical Jesus by Ben Witherington. In Luke 12:8-9 Jesus says, “I tell you, every one who acknowledges me before men, the Son of man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but he who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.” Jesus says that people will be judged based on their response to Him. If He were not God incarnate, this would be “the most narrow and objectionable dogmatism. For Jesus is saying that people’s salvation depends on their confession to Jesus Himself.” We will stop here with our discussion of Jesus’ personal claims, after first listing the thirteen established features of the historical Jesus according to critical scholarship (which Craig lists from Witherington, p. 268). Anyone answering the question “Who is Jesus?” must adequately take these thirteen facts into consideration. We have already seen how six of these facts (as well as other critically accepted facts) clearly show that, if nothing else, Jesus at least believed that He was God.
- His independent approach to the law
- His feeding of the 5,000
- His interpretation of his miracles
- His proclamation of the kingdom of God as present and inbreaking in his ministry
- His choosing of 12 disciples
- His use of “the Son of Man”
- His use of “amen” (Truly, truly, I say to you)
- His use of “abba”
- His distinguishing himself from his contemporaries, including John the Baptist, the Pharisees, Jewish revolutionaries, and the disciples
- His belief that one’s future standing with God hinged on how one reacted to His ministry
- His understanding that his death was necessary to rectify matters between God and His people
- His sense of mission to the whole of Israel, especially to sinners and outcasts, which led to table fellowship with such people
- His raising messianic expectations in a repeated pattern of controversy with his contemporaries.
In summary, we have seen that William Lane Craig is highly successful in establishing, by means of some of the most skeptical standards of investigation, that historical evidence indicates that Jesus thought of Himself as the unique Son of God, that Jesus claimed to be able to speak with divine authority, that Jesus’ miracles and exorcisms demonstrate this divine authority He claimed, and that Jesus believed that people’s eternal destiny depended upon their response to Him. In other words, Jesus put Himself in God’s place, thus making clear, implicit claims to be God. Further, the legend theory and the theory that these claims were “written back into Jesus mouth” cannot explain these conclusions, because we have established that Jesus Himself said these things without assuming the New Testament to be inspired, but only establishing our points from data which even most skeptical New Testament scholars accept.
In light of this, we have only a few options–either Jesus was right in His claims to deity, or He was wrong. If He was right, then He is God. If He was wrong, He either knew He was wrong or did not know He was wrong. If He knew He was wrong, He was a liar. If He did not know He was wrong, then He was radically deluded. What is your conclusion?
1. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton, Illinois: Moody Press, 1984), p. 253.
2. Witherington, The Christology of Jesus (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1990), p. 268. Cited in Craig.
3. Craig, p. 243
4. Craig, p. 245.
5. Craig, p. 255.
6. Craig, p. 246.
7. Philip Yancy, The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 96.
8. Cited in Yancy, p. 96.
9. Robert J. Hutchinson, “What the Rabbi Taught Me About Jesus,” Christianity Today, September 13, 1993, p. 28. Cited in Yancey, I believe.
10. Horst Geor Pohlmann, Abriss Der Dogmatik, 3rd rev. ed. (Dusseldorf: Patmos Verlag, 1966), p. 230.
11. Craig, p. 247.
12. Witherington, p. 65. Cited in Craig.
13. Craig, p. 248.
14. Royce Gofdon Gruenler, New Approaches to Jesus and the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1982), pp. 46, 59, 49. Cited in Craig.
15. Craig, p. 249.
16. James D.G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit (London: SCM Press, 1975), p. 60. Cited in Craig.
17. Craig, p. 251.
Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation, though some Scripture quotations are from Craig’s book as well.