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Is Jesus God?

June 27, 2011

Some time ago I was asked by a friend to explain some of the Biblical proofs of the Trinity, especially as it relates to Jesus’ divinity. The problem, I explained to him, was that many of these claims are implicit. We would have to cover both the explicit claims and the implicit ones. However, the entire issue of implicit claims is rather complicated and covering both the idea of implicit claims and the claims themselves would require its own article. This is that article.

Before we go further I’d like to make two comments related to the Trinitarian matters I’m not addressing. First, I’m not commenting on the Spirit’s divinity. I’m not doing so because I’ve never heard anyone challenge this. If you don’t hold a Trinitarian position on the Spirit then the most obvious place to land is the position that the Spirit is not a separate entity at all. As I’ve discussed in my article on spirits, the Holy Spirit is identifiable with the Spirit of God which is not obviously a separate entity from God. Perhaps I’ll address the question of separability at another point but it seems to be a much less pressing issue. Second, I’m not covering any of the explicit claims that Jesus makes about his divinity (despite the fact that this is in some ways the first part of the argument). Instead, I’m going to refer you to an article written by our blog-friend Jos for that material.

We also need to cover some terminology. The title “Messiah” or “Christ” (the same word in different languages) means “anointed one” and refers to the figure who would fulfill a number of different prophecies in the Old Testament. It does not refer to God – that is, saying that Jesus is the Christ does not say that Jesus is God. It requires an additional set of arguments to establish that Jesus is God (at which point we realize that the Christ is God and the terms can get muddled again). Nor is it sufficient to prove that Jesus is the Son of God without demonstrating that this just isn’t a way to say “Messiah”. (This warning is especially important when we consider that a similar term, “Son of Man”, is probably a reference to Daniel 7:13-14 and therefore means “Messiah” and not “man”.) We are specifically interested in demonstrating that Jesus is God and so it’s important to bear in mind what other titles one might encounter may mean.

However, the first example I’d like to bring up is actually about Jesus being the Christ. I’ll explain why in a minute. What I’d like to reference is the triumphal entry. In Matthew’s version (21:1-11) Matthew points out that Jesus’ action fulfills a specific prophecy from Zechariah 9:9, something that I suspect you’re supposed to recognize without being told in the other gospels. Zechariah 9:9 refers to a coming king and so it fits within the Messianic prophecies. When Jesus enacts Zechariah 9:9 by riding a donkey colt into Jerusalem he is then making a public claim: he’s the Messiah. It’s important to note that this is a public claim – it’s a deliberate action that Jesus takes, not simply a random occurrence. Jesus does not simply wake up, feel a bit sore, and hop on a donkey rather than walking to complete his journey. He enacts a prophecy. One of the ways we can tell that he does this is that everyone notices. The crowds get excited and scream “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and since the line of David is the monarchical line, it’s pretty clear what they mean by that. It’s very, very difficult to imagine that Jesus just happened to undertake actions that caused that kind of stir. He knew the Scriptures as well as anyone, and he knew what it would mean to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey colt during the celebration of the Passover, God’s great act to free His people from pagan rule.

The point of this is that it’s a clear implicit claim. Yes, Matthew spells it out for us a bit but the claim was there without Matthew pointing it out (something neither Mark nor Luke do). What’s more, it’s an implicit claim of something that Jesus doesn’t normally say explicitly. For instance, in Matthew 26:63 Jesus refuses to answer a direct question about whether he is the Christ. One of the reasons commonly floated around to explain this is that to most Jews of Jesus’ day “Christ” meant something very different than what Jesus was doing. There appear to be multiple people who claimed to be the Christ within the first century and most of them engaged in armed conflict to set up earthly kingdoms. It is very likely that Jesus did not want to say “I am the Christ” to people for whom that would mean “I am your king and I will lead you in battle against the Romans”. This is where we bridge back to the claims about being God. These claims would also mean something incorrect but clear in a first-century Palestinian context. By the time Jesus began his ministry the Roman Emperors were demanding worship and it was normal for the Senate to declare that an Emperor had ascended to godhood on the occasion of his death. The Egyptian royalty had been making even stronger claims for centuries, claiming to be gods while still alive. In fact, this seems to have been common around the Middle East. When we look at Aramean Syria we see a lot of Hadads and Ben-Hadads (son of Hadad) in the Old Testament. Hadad appears to have been a major Aramean deity. The kings are claiming to be gods and the sons of gods. This is a rather natural feature of these polytheisms where gods are very human-like. Sometimes gods come down and hang out with humans. Sometimes gods impregnate human women with offspring who are, depending on the mythology and accepted reproductive physiology, gods or demi-gods. Making the claim in the first century that you are a god, especially when you’re claiming to be the true king of Israel, would not have conveyed anything like the orthodox understanding of Jesus’ nature to one’s audience. This removes at least one objection to the implicit claims – why bother with them and not just make explicit claims? Because the explicit ones would be misunderstood while the implicit ones, working slower, might be heard properly.

With all this in mind let us turn to John 10. John 10 includes the well-known good shepherd discourse. This may actually be the first implicit claim within this chapter. There is another long discussion of sheep and shepherds and good shepherds versus bad shepherds in the Bible. It’s in Ezekiel 34. This passage is an interesting one because both God and David fill the same role at different points in the metaphor and, of course, the orthodox view of Jesus assigns him both divinity and the kingly throne of David. However, if it’s a reference it’s pretty subtle and so we probably can’t lean on it too hard. Verses 17 and 18 of John 10 do contain rather clear implicit claims, though. Jesus claims to have received from the Father power over life and death. This is not the only time Jesus does this – John 5:24-29 claims first that Jesus is the Son (of, if you back up far enough, God and Man) and then that the Son is running the Resurrection of the Dead. John 11:25-26 puts it more bluntly: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Now, we could dance around this a bit but the power of life and death in this manner (i.e., the power to bring to life and the power to revoke death) are powers that until the gospel of John we would have said belonged only to God. Jesus has claimed that God has granted Jesus some of God’s own powers. It’s fair to ask how this can be.. These powers are normally considered to be properties of God’s nature and not incidental superpowers to be handed over.

Of course, the gospel of John is a rather easy place to find this stuff. John’s gospel has sometimes been charged with inventing the divinity of Jesus (for what purpose?) and the layout of the material in John certainly brings Jesus’ divine nature front and center. However, there are hints scattered about elsewhere. In the trial scenes in all three synoptic gospels (the three that aren’t John) at least one of two claims appear (see Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22). One is that Jesus has claimed, “I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.” This claim is echoed in some of the crucifixion narratives and John states clearly that Jesus did actually say this (John 2:19) therefore it seems hard to argue that this is one of the lies of the false witnesses. Now, obviously, this claim is really about Jesus. Jesus is claiming to be the Temple. Elsewhere he seems to claim to be greater than the Temple (Matthew 12:6). What makes the Temple the Temple and not some rather large ornate building is (at least in theory) the Shekinah, the specially-present glory of God. For Jesus to claim to be the Temple or to one up it is to claim that God’s presence and glory rest in him.

The second claim that appears in the trial narratives is that Jesus has uttered blasphemy. The high priest clearly thinks that something Jesus has said has overstepped the bounds and insulted God, and yet what Jesus is recorded saying to spark this is a set of statements about the Messiah (while making it clear that he is the Messiah). It’s hard to imagine that the high priest doesn’t think that something Jesus just claimed for himself is God’s prerogative. Of course, the irony of the crimes of which Jesus is accused of is that they all really are true in some sense. Jesus is the King of the Jews, just not the sort of king Rome can depose by killing him. What’s more, the attempt to punish Jesus for these claims fails because God comes in and reverses the verdict. To continue with the kingship example, Caesar and Jesus have a dispute about who is really king and God sides with Jesus. Are the religious crimes Jesus is charged with of the same sort?

The Synoptics also record Jesus’ interesting attitude towards the Torah. While Jesus affirms the value of the Torah in some places (Matthew 5:17, Luke 16:17) he also is willing to modify the Torah apparently on his own authority. Early in Matthew 5 Jesus says that he has not come to abolish Torah but fulfill it. He then says, multiple times, “You have heard that it was said,” quotes from the Torah, says, “But I say to you,” and modifies the command. Now, it’s probably important to note that the modifications Jesus make all appear to be in the direction in which the Torah was already traveling – this is why he is fulfilling Torah. (I hope to write extensively on this issue someday, but it won’t happen soon.) However, Jesus is also basing these statements on his own authority. There is no prophetic, “The word of the Lord came to me,” or a rabbinical argument. The people seem to notice this. In Matthew 7:29 the crowds are astonished specifically because Jesus was teaching “as one who had authority”. No doubt it is astonishing to hear someone say, effectively, “God said this to you and I’m now updating it.”

There’s more material scattered across the gospels. Jesus claims (in Luke 19:44) that Jerusalem has not known “the time of your visitation” without specifying who was visiting. This phrase, “the time of visitation”, is how the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament that was in circulation during Jesus’ day) renders some of the Old Testament language about the day of judgment when God comes by (his visitation in the Greek) to set things right. Then there’s the incident with the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12) where Jesus is accused of claiming God’s authority when he forgives a man of his sins. Jesus’ response is to demonstrate even more incredible powers. However, I’d like this article to end sometime and it’s worth examining one more source of implicit claims before it does: the Epistles.

One of the first notable things about the Epistles is how frequently they speak of Jesus as Lord. This word, κυριος, means “lord” or “master”. It’s also the term used to translate both Yahweh and Adonai in the Old Testament. While we might imagine that this was an accident of language, we also run across instances in which attributes we might expect God to have are attributed to Jesus. For instance, in Romans 16:20 Paul’s benediction includes promises of what God will do and speaks of “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”. In fact, in the opening of 1 Corinthians (1:1-3) we see this mixed with even more mixing of roles. Not only do grace and peace come jointly from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, but the saints are calling upon the name of Jesus, specified again as “Our Lord Jesus Christ”! Why allow for what appears to be worship of Jesus if he is not God? Elsewhere Paul speaks against the worship of angels (Colossians 2:18) so it is a little difficult to imagine that he has simply become lax about worship. This continues on – in 1 Corinthians 2:14-16 Paul appears to argue that we have God’s mind because we have the mind of Christ. These are only a few examples from three rather broad categories: the assignment of names normally reserved for God to Jesus, the assignment of attributes (or, in some cases, actions) of God to Jesus, and the assignment of worship to Jesus.

Frequently the opponents of Trinitarianism will attack it as if it was dependent on only a few verses, mostly in John. In reality, it’s likely that what really motivated the early Church to declare a Trinitarian doctrine was the fact that separating God from Christ was very difficult. Even Arius’ attempt depended on Jesus being an archangel or other such being to whom most of God’s power and work had been handed off. However, Trinitarianism certainly bears the distinct imprint of Jewish monotheism (the easy route would have been to declare Jesus a second god as the Mormons have done). At what point have enough powers been handed off to an archangel to make him, in reality, a second deity?

This brings us to our last point: there is little reason for Trinitarianism to arise out of Jewish monotheism without evidence. The people who were closest to Jesus and his context were, at the very least, far less concerned with keeping Jesus and God separate than we might expect. Indeed, they produced several documents that explicitly identify Jesus as God within the New Testament. Perhaps one reason they did this was that they paid attention to the implicit clues about Jesus’ nature as well as the explicit statements. These implicit clues, which form a much larger body than the explicit ones, are still worth our attention.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. antonio permalink
    June 27, 2011 11:12 am

    I would have liked to pick your brains on the meaning of the references in Isaiah 9:6, but you referred me to another article (and author) for those kinda questions.

  2. Eric permalink
    June 27, 2011 12:41 pm

    Actually, I’m not even sure I did. Isaiah 9:6 is a sort of secondary implicit claim. Once it is associated with the Christ (something that takes some rabbinical work in the intertestamental period) we can analyze its wording in relation to the claims about who the Christ is. Anyway, what’s your question about it?

  3. antonio permalink
    June 27, 2011 12:50 pm

    Well, I was just curious if/how the verse might be used to prove the deity of Christ? One argument against such use is the translation of the text; some translators inset an ‘a’ before the Mighty God and others compare the ‘father’ used here to the ‘father’ used to decribe Abraham. But my knowledge on how to decide on these translational issues is almost non-existent at present. I am, however, aware that the simplest route – interpret the verse as it reads (in most translations) and opt for the most obvious meaning, may not always be the best path to true understanding.

  4. Eric permalink
    June 27, 2011 2:22 pm

    “Mighty God” would be the sticky issue. Hebrew has no indefinite article – “house” and “a house” are the same. In deciding on an English translation a translator must use context to decide whether or not to add an “a”. The phrase in question is “אל גבור”, “el gibor” and not “elohim gibor” which is part of the issue – “el” is less frequently used for God than elohim. Ezekiel 32:21 (“the elim among the mighty ones”), Micah 2:1 (“the el of their hands”), Job 41:25 (“the elim fear”), and Psalm 29:1 (“the sons of the elim”) use ‘el or its plural, ‘elim, to mean “mighty” or “mighty ones”. This means that we cannot conclusively say that “el gibor” is “mighty god” and not, say, “strong and mighty one”. The LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament from before the time of Jesus, appears to use αγγελος, angel/messenger to translate this word. (I question my reading here first because my Greek is pretty poor and second because it seems to say “I am an angel” which doesn’t make much sense – on the other hand, I can’t see another phrase that makes better sense as the translation of el gibor.)

    Given this, I wouldn’t use Isaiah 9:6 as a proof. Given the other proof I’d go back and read it as “Mighty God” but on its own it isn’t very conclusive.

    Incidentally, Jos, whose article I suggested people read, is actually much better at ancient languages than I am. It might be worth getting his opinion as well.

  5. antonio permalink
    June 27, 2011 6:58 pm

    Thanks for trying.

    Will do.

  6. Eric permalink
    June 27, 2011 10:36 pm

    No problem. My Greek may be terrible but it won’t get any better if I don’t use it.


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