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Did Jesus Claim He Was God? — An Excerpt from "How God Became Jesus"

Categories Theology New Testament Book Excerpts

9780310519591In How Jesus Became God Bart Ehrman shares about a period of personal theological doubt. Among other questions, he asked, “Did [Jesus] claim to be the one who came down from heaven who could lead people back to the Father? Did he claim that he preexisted? Did he claim that he was equal with God?” (HJBG, 87)

"Did Jesus think He was God?" is an important question. Because if Jesus was merely a man, he couldn’t have done what the Christian faith claims he did: Pay our price in our place.

Michael Bird addresses this question head-on in the excerpt below from the response book How God Became Jesus. “My objective,” Bird writes, “is to show that Jesus identified himself as a divine agent with a unique authority and a unique relationship with Israel’s God.” (46)

We trust it will inform as much as it will encourage your continued belief in Jesus’ divine nature.

-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)


Confessing that Jesus is Lord is one thing, but believing that Jesus believed himself to be the Lord is quite another. Whatever faults there are in Ehrman’s study of Jesus, at least he’s forcing us to ask some good and honest questions about faith, history, and Jesus. Who is Jesus, and who did he think he was?

It is worth noting that the question of “Who is Jesus?” began in the pre-Easter period, where followers and critics of Jesus alike were all confronted with the question as to who Jesus was and, more importantly, who he thought he was. Indeed, the question continued to be asked steadily thereafter in the nascent church and even into the period of the church fathers. Christians spent the best part of four hundred years trying to find the best language, imagery, categories, and scriptural texts to answer Jesus’ question to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29). When the dust finally settled, the church’s final verdict was that Jesus was “God from God, Light from Light, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father,” as stated in the Nicene Creed.

What everyone wants to know, however, is to what extent Jesus shared that evaluation of himself. Did the disciples think that Jesus was their God? Did Jesus himself know he was God? Did Jesus ever explicitly say he was God? Ehrman gives a negative answer on all fronts. According to him, Jesus “thought he was a prophet predicting the end of the current evil age and the future king of Israel in the age to come.” Jesus saw himself as the Messiah, but also looked forward to the “imminent arrival of the Son of Man, who would judge the earth and bring in God’s good kingdom.” Although the gospel of John claims that Jesus is equal with God (John 8:58; 10:30; 14:9; 17:24), Ehrman contends that such claims are late and secondary, so that “the divine self-claims in John are not historical.” Ehrman reaches this conclusion: “What we can know with relative certainty about Jesus is that his public ministry and proclamation were not focused on his divinity; in fact, they were not about his divinity at all.”

In response to Ehrman, my objective is to show that Jesus identified himself as a divine agent with a unique authority and a unique relationship with Israel’s God. In addition, he spoke as one who spoke for God in an immediate sense and believed himself to be embodying the very person of God in his mission to renew and restore Israel. While the early church may have said more than that, they certainly never said less. The point to note is that Jesus’ presentation of himself to his followers was arguably the singular most important factor in shaping their subsequent devotion to him and the way that it developed…

Jesus’ aims should be located within the context of Jewish restoration hopes for the future, and chief among those hopes was the return of YHWH to Zion. Jesus believed that in his own person this return was happening, God was becoming king, and the day of judgment and salvation was at hand. Jesus’ belief on this point can be correlated with several actions and activities he undertook that suggest he not only spoke with an unmediated divine authority, but that he acted in such a way as to identify himself with God’s own activity in the world...

Contra Ehrman, Jesus most definitely did refer to himself as the Son of Man. The sayings about a future Son of Man still make the best sense if Jesus is speaking of himself as the principal subject (e.g., Matt 19:28/Luke 22:30). If Jesus spoke Aramaic, then bar enash was used by Jesus in a definite sense to refer to himself as the person spoken about. Furthermore, at Jesus’ trial, he most likely spoke to the effect that he believed that he was the figure of Dan 7:13 – 14 and that he was rightfully enthroned beside God...

The evidence of the gospel of John contributes much to our understanding of Jesus, albeit obliquely. The Johannine Evangelist interprets the Jesus tradition in a specific theological trajectory, but he shares with the other Evangelists a conception of Jesus as the Messiah and one-of-kind Son of God, in whom God is definitively revealed.

If I am right, if this argument has cogency and substance, I think the summation of Craig Evans is a perfectly apt way of putting it: “The New Testament’s deification of Jesus Christ, as seen especially in the theologies of Paul and the fourth evangelist, has its roots in the words and activities of the historical Jesus.” (pgs. 45-46, 70) 

How God Became Jesus

By Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, Chris Tilling

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