The New Testament ascribes various titles to Jesus: Son of Man, Son of God, Holy One, "I Am," Lord, Messiah (Christ), Prophet, and so on. Jesus used some of these titles of himself, whereas others were used only later by the church. The primary question, however, is whether any of these titles, especially the ones likening Jesus to God, represent Jesus' self-understanding.

Modern liberal scholarship operates on the assumption that messianic and divine status, especially as represented in titles, does not go back to the historical Jesus. The deity of Jesus is regarded as a later, secondary development that arose either as a result of the early church's encounter with Greek "divine men" and "sons of God" in the Gentile mission, or as a projection back onto the gospel accounts out of the early church's desire to endow the historical Jesus with an honor commensurate with his postresurrection lordship.

This hypothesis has been around a long time, and its longevity has imparted to it an air of facticity. As a hypothesis, however, it is not inherently convincing, and there is some very hard evidence against it.

The first evangelists to the Gentiles were, of course, Jewish Christians. The elevation of Jesus to divine status, and the projection onto him of sayings and titles in accord with that status, was surely no minor compromise to the monotheism of these Jews. "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord" (Deut. 6:4) was the ace in the hand of Jews against Gentile polytheism. The hypothesis that Jewish Christians would be willing to surrender their trump card of monotheism in exchange for acceptance of the gospel by "Gentile sinners" (Gal. 2:15) and idolaters (Rom. 1:23), as Paul called them, is a very questionable hypothesis.

Think of it this way: Is the divine authority ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament more likely to be the result of the early church's desire to court the Gentile world (which it by and large disdained), or to be the result of its actual experience of Jesus--despite the problems that raised for its monotheism? The most satisfying answer is the latter. It is easier to start with the messianic self-consciousness of Jesus and explain the gospel accounts than it is to start with the assumption that Jesus was simply a Jewish teacher or charismatic healer, for example, and imagine how his followers came to regard him as divine--and fabricated the Gospels accordingly. Jesus' self-consciousness was transmitted by Jesus to his followers; it was not a product of the early church projected back onto the gospel accounts of Jesus.

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Indeed, the New Testament is reluctant to call Jesus "God," which is understandable given the influence of Jewish monotheism on its authors. But the New Testament ascribes divinelike titles to Jesus, such as Lord, "I Am," Son of God, and it comes perilously close to calling Jesus "God" (John 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13).

There is a tension in the New Testament, perhaps a conflict even, between Jewish monotheism and the person of Jesus, who consistently spoke and acted as God would. It is hard to imagine the early church knowingly creating such a tension by elevating Jesus to divine status--unless that status was inherent in who Jesus was. If Jesus was simply a first-century Jew about whom little is known and who was uncertain (if not confused) about his identity, why was he recast as the unique revealer of God (Matt. 11:25-30) whose death was the once-for-all remedy for sin (Rom. 3:21-26)? The tension is really only explainable as the result of the early church's confounding experience of Jesus, who appeared to be God in human form.


A second assumption of liberal scholarship is that the early church had little or no interest in transmitting information about Jesus per se, but that it remembered and even invented Jesus material to reflect its needs and experiences. Suffice it to say that there are a number of "quality controls" in the New Testament that argue strongly against such fanciful inventiveness. The gospel writers did not wildly invent material about Jesus, but they were quite careful with the Jesus tradition. This is shown by the following:

  • Many eyewitnesses of Jesus were still alive when the Gospels were written. These witnesses functioned as gatekeepers and custodians of "the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3). The wild inventiveness supposed by the radical critics is not found in the New Testament, but rather in certain second-century documents (e.g., the Infancy Narratives of Jesus, the Protoevangelium of James) that were produced later where Jesus traditions circulated in communities separated from the apostolic church.
  • The rabbinic method of teaching by rote favored accurate and careful transmission of Jesus traditions as opposed to novel interpretation.
  • The presence of embarrassing and even problematic material in the Gospels (Mark 9:1; 14:71) speaks against the inventiveness of the early church, even when the church might have profited by it.
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  • The absence of parables in Acts and the Epistles (and other early Christian literature) is the strongest possible argument that the parables in the synoptic Gospels were not projected onto Jesus from the early church, but rather derived from Jesus.
  • A comparison of the Epistles with the Gospels reveals that neither Paul's words nor those of other New Testament writers have been projected back onto the mouth of Jesus. No passage from Paul (or any of the other New Testament letters) can be found in the Gospels or on the lips of Jesus. No Pauline concept, such as the "body of Christ," "righteousness by faith," "under the law," or "flesh" is attributed to Jesus. This is a strong argument against the assertion that the Gospels are the early churches' stories projected onto Jesus: If the early church were avidly and indiscriminately putting words into the mouth of Jesus, we should expect to find at least some of the material from the Epistles in the Gospels or on the lips of Jesus. Since we do not, we ought to conclude that the gospel material is not extrapolated from the early church then and projected onto Jesus.
  • Paul is careful to differentiate between instructions from the Lord and his own opinions (1 Cor. 7:10, 12, 25). Surely Paul was not an exception in this matter, but typical of the church as a whole. Paul could scarcely have won acceptance from the Twelve and the Jerusalem leaders had he been known to play loose with the Jesus tradition.
  • In the New Testament itself we find that the transmitting of written sources is characterized by care and integrity. This is shown, for example, by the generally faithful handling of Markan material by Matthew and Luke. Is it not reasonable to assume the same care was taken in the transmitting of oral tradition? One characteristic of children, primitive peoples, and religious groups is that they do not like to see their traditions changed. The early church was certainly no exception to this rule.
  • Finally, the supposed inventiveness of the early church meets a final stumbling block in the Gentile question. According to Acts and the Epistles, the preaching of the gospel to Gentiles and their admission into the church was the burning question of the early church. This issue, however, is virtually absent from the Gospels. Had the church actively engaged in framing "Jesus material" according to its needs and interests, surely it would have developed sayings on the Gentile question. The fact that such sayings are virtually absent in the Gospels argues in favor of the historical reliability of the material that is there.
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Liberal scholarship has generally regarded Jesus' elevated self-concept--his forgiving of sins, or presuming to speak and act with God's authority, for example--as unthinkable in first-century Jewish monotheism. Anything smacking of divine awareness could not have come from Jesus, it is asserted, but only from subsequent tradition ascribed to him by Hellenistic Christianity.

Recent comparative studies have largely dismantled this stereotype, however, and produced a fuller picture of Jewish rabbis and sages. The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal that the founder of the Qumran sect, the Teacher of Righteousness, stood in a class by himself: "Through me Thou hast illumined the faces of the Congregation and hast shown Thine infinite power. For Thou hast given me knowledge through Thy marvelous mysteries" (1QH 7; G. Vermes translation).

Likewise, Rabbi Hillel, who died less than a decade before Jesus was crucified, said of himself: "If I am here, everything is here; if I am not here, what is here?" (b. Sukk. 53a). Moreover, Hillel often applied to himself biblical quotations that referred to God--much to the consternation of later rabbinic tradition.

These examples warn against categorically discounting sayings of preeminence attributed to Jesus. Jesus' self-consciousness, however, far surpassed even that of the Teacher of Righteousness or Rabbi Hillel. A preeminent Jewish authority, David Flusser, notes "a great difference between Hillel and Jesus. Hillel's self-understanding was not limited to his own person, but was an archetype for each individual person. Jesus' understanding of his surpassing status . . . was linked to the knowledge that his person was not interchangeable with anyone else. He understood himself to be 'the Son,' and as such to have a central status and commission in the economy of God" (Entdeckungen im Neuen Testament. Band I: Jesusworte und Ihre Uberlieferung [Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1987] 215 [my translation]).

Jesus' consciousness of standing in a unique and sovereign relationship with God is the key that makes the gospel accounts intelligible. Without this understanding, the Gospels are perplexing and problematic. It should not surprise us that Jesus never flatly stated that he was divine, for that would have signed his death warrant in a rigorously monotheistic environment. There are, however, many implicit clues to Jesus' consciousness of divine sonship and messianic authority in the Gospels. Consider three simple but important ones.

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One is in the way he called his disciples. Jewish rabbis actually did not call disciples. Rabbis were rather chosen by disciples, much like a student today chooses a professor under whom to study. A rabbi, moreover, was important not in himself, but only as a vehicle of the commandments of God in Torah. Jesus, however, personally called his disciples, not to Torah, but to himself. Jewish rabbis assumed that gifted disciples might equal or surpass their understanding of Torah and eventually succeed them. Jesus' disciples, however, can never equal him, much less succeed him: "It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master" (Matt. 10:25). Nor is the number of disciples Jesus called inconsequential. The calling of 12 is a clue that in them Jesus presumes to reconstitute Israel! The undisguised prominence of Jesus in the call of the disciples leads to a single conclusion: their response to Jesus is their response to the kingdom of God itself.

A second clue to Jesus' divine self-consciousness is his use of amen. The Old Testament prophet prefaced his pronouncements with "Thus says the Lord" as a guarantee of Yahweh's authority. Jesus, however, assumes that authority himself, solemnly pronouncing, "Truly [amen] I say to you." Amen was customarily used in Judaism as a concluding prayer response. Jesus, however, uses it as an introductory formula, and this is without parallel in the rest of the New Testament or in the whole of Jewish literature. Jesus' prominent and unusual use of amen clearly intends to attribute to his words divine authority and is a provocative clue that his pronouncements are the very pronouncements of God.

A third clue into Jesus' divine sonship comes from his calling God abba. Evidence from Jewish Palestine is extremely rare that abba, an intimate and endearing address for "father," was used of God. Jesus, however, habitually addressed God as abba (Mark 14:36), and his confidence of standing in a unique and filial relationship with God dominates his ministry from baptism to crucifixion. Jesus' understanding of his singular placement and empowerment by God is the unique source of his authority to speak and act on behalf of God. The inescapable conclusion of these and many other implicit clues of Jesus' self-understanding in the Gospels is simply this: In his self-presentation, words, and acts, Jesus presumes to be God's "stand-in"!

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The most uncontested fact of Jesus' life is that he was crucified. The impression left by the Gospels is that the Jerusalem religious leaders instigated a procedure against Jesus that the Roman authorities affirmed, and that was finally executed by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. It is worth considering, however, exactly why Jesus was crucified.

Jews, after all, did not normally go around killing people, even over theological disagreements. The Mishnah, an 800-page Jewish sequel to Torah that spans the time from roughly the birth of Jesus until A.D. 200, preserves thousands of differences of opinions among rabbis without one of them leading to a plot of death and execution. The fate of Jesus, in other words, was categorically different from that of other Jewish rabbis. A "designer" Jesus who champions our causes and espouses our ideologies would have scarcely gotten himself crucified.

There was, however, one ground for which Jews did impose the death sentence, and that would account for Jesus' execution: the charge of blasphemy. This, of course, is the very charge that the earliest Gospel preserves, after Jesus affirmed that he was the Son of God who would come on the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:61-64).

All the gospel accounts agree that Jesus threatened the Jerusalem authorities the most with his attack on the temple institution. What might have caused Jesus to presume to challenge the most sacred site of Judaism? Mark 11 clearly indicates that Jesus understood his person to supersede the temple itself, and that makes sense only if Jesus understood himself to be divinely appointed and empowered. The Jerusalem authorities, of course, took both the deed and the word justifying it as a blasphemous presumption on Jesus' part, justly punishable by death. But the charge of blasphemy remains an unmistakable testimony--even if from his opponents--revealing Jesus' true mission and purpose.


Statistics can prove anything--and so can critical theories about the Bible, depending on the disposition of scholars who use them. The higher critical method is a double-edged sword that can either discredit or validate the gospel record. Some of the very theories and methods employed by the Jesus Seminar to undermine the New Testament portrait of Jesus actually underscore the veracity of the account when reasonably applied.

We may affirm with confidence that the Gospels preserve a diverse and significant body of evidence of the actual truth about Jesus. Nowhere is the continuity between the memory of the early church and the self-understanding of Jesus more discernible than in the many witnesses to Jesus' bearing, his consciousness of standing in an absolutely unique relationship to God as his Father, and his authority to speak and act on behalf of God. Martin Hengel, the eminent Christian historian, is correct in saying that "Jesus' claim to authority goes far beyond anything [from] the Old Testament and from the New Testament period. [Jesus] confounds every attempt to fit him into the categories suggested by the phenomenology or sociology of religion."

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The most reasonable answer to the question why the Gospels present Jesus as they do is because that is essentially who Jesus was. The Gospels faithfully preserve the memory that he left on his followers, that he was divinely legitimated and empowered to be God's Son and Servant.

James R. Edwards is professor of religion and chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Jamestown College, Jamestown, North Dakota. His doctoral work was on the Gospels, and he has published articles on the Gospels in leading journals.

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