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Stories of Jesus and the Character of God

Chapter 3. Who did Jesus think he was?

After Jesus' career on earth ended, his followers had to think seriously about who he was. From the very beginning of this process there have been not just one view but several views. Each of the four gospels represents a different one. Within three or four centuries, for the most part but not entirely, the community of Christians had settled on enough common ground that they were able to produce definitive statements of belief that are still accepted by all major Christian denominations. The Council of Nicea (in 325) established the Nicene Creed, depicting God as Trinity, three persons, Father, Son (Jesus), and Spirit, in one divine nature or substance. The council at Chalcedon (451) defined the double nature (divine and human) of the one person Jesus.

What Jesus thought about himself was not considered a separate issue until late in the Church's history, when it became possible to submit the scriptures to historical criticism. Along with most Christians of a few decades ago, I thought that whatever the Church taught, with guidance from above presumably, Jesus would have known from the beginning and would have revealed to his followers; and they would have preserved the correct teaching. The concept of Church with which I grew up was Church as conserver of the faith, a faith that didn’t change. It wasn’t that simple, though, in the pluralist, intellectually daring Church of the early centuries.

Jesus’ self-knowledge in the synoptic gospels

For me one of the first things that shook the absolutist quality of my faith, back in the 60's, was the question, Did Jesus know he was God? The fact that this question could be asked at all exposed for me the humanity of Jesus, which I had always known, of course, but not taken seriously.

In the last two chapters I tried to put a firmer ground under the doctrine that Jesus was truly a man. Chapter One concluded that no testimony of angels, wisemen, prophets in the Temple, or a direct connection with God gave Jesus supernatural relief from the burden of figuring out who he was, what he was supposed to do, and what his future would be. He had to work at discovering these things, or wait for them to happen, just like the rest of us. Chapter Two pressed the claim that Jesus' miracles, whatever their status with respect to the laws of nature, never tempted him to see divine power within himself but did foster his conviction that God was at work, bringing about the "Kingdom of God" in the world. Both chapters emphasize that Jesus experienced a human life basically the same way we do. He couldn't say to himself, "I must be God because the angel gave me the name Emanuel” (which means 'God with us"). He didn't look at his own miracles and say, "I must be God because I can do such impossible things."  

If, instead of assuming that Jesus must have known he was God (because he was God and God would naturally know everything) we look for evidence for what Jesus probably did think about himself and if we follow the historical trail as well as we can, an interesting fact arises: Jesus thought very little about himself. His attention was focused on God, on his mission, and on people he was with from day to day. Jesus doesn’t say much about himself, at least not in the first three gospels to be written, the “synoptic” gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Only behind his words and the way he acted can we sense his awareness of his place in God’s plan.

What about the Gospel of John?

Reading the Gospel according to John, one gets the impression of a Jesus who has a lot to say about himself. Here are some of the things John has Jesus say:

  • I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
  • I and the Father are one.
  • Before Abraham came to be, I AM. (John 8:58)
  • I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live. (John 11:25)
  • I am the vine, and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit…. (John 15:5)
  • I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd las down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11)

These are some of the many "I AM" statements in which John's Jesus seems to claim for himself the divine name revealed to Moses in the Exodus "Burning Bush" story:

Tell the Israelites, “I AM sent me to you." (Exodus 3:14)

Did Jesus actually say these words? Scholars notice a striking difference between both the style and the content of Jesus' sayings in John and what Jesus has to say in the other three gospels. Since the other three are earlier and include a variety of sources that are earlier still, it's very likely that Jesus spoke more like what Matthew, Mark, and Luke say. Most scholars think that the “I am” statements are the fourth gospel writer’s interpretation of Jesus.

How Jesus responded to what others said about him 

Though Jesus didn’t talk much about himself, others were keen to speculate about who he might have been. They tended to apply titles found in their traditions and scripture. These included Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man. We get an idea about what Jesus thought about himself from the way he responded to others' ideas about him. My guide for this section is Catholic author Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to New Testament Christology (pages 71-102).

Messiah. We’re so used to thinking of Jesus as the Messiah that it seems natural that Jesus would have thought of himself that way too. What we can be pretty sure about is that the question whether Jesus was the one Jews hoped for as Messiah must have come up during Jesus’ lifetime. It’s probably what got him executed by the Romans. To see why all you need to know is that “Messiah” is a political as well as a religious term. “Messiah” means anointed. The kings of old were anointed. Jews, not all of them but enough, were longing for a new anointed one, a ruler in the line of David, who would throw off the yoke of the oppressive and hated Romans. It was a dangerous game to play.

Whether Jesus accepted the title Messiah is another story. He probably did not deny it. That would have made it hard to understand why early Christians over and over do refer to Jesus as Messiah. But Jesus seems to have been uncomfortable with being called Messiah. After Peter's "You are the Messiah" in Mark's Gospel, Jesus immediately speaks of the need for suffering, something that didn't fit at all with Peter's and everybody else's ideas of Messiah. At Jesus' trial his answer to the high priest's question, "Are you the Messiah?" is reported differently in the different gospels. Mark indicates total acceptance. Jesus responds, "I am" (14:62). In Matthew Jesus is less than happy with the interpretation in the questioner's mind: "That's what you say" (26:64). Luke's Jesus is even more ambiguous. Jesus responds, "If I tell you, you will not believe, and if I ask you, you will not answer." (22:67-68)

Paula Fredriksen, who is a Jew (and former Catholic), has a theory that I think makes it even more likely that Jesus was at least ambivalent about the title "Messiah." She thinks that overly enthusiastic crowds at the Passover Feast were responsible for giving Jesus that title, that he never claimed it for himself, and that his closer followers hadn't used it either. This would, she thinks, explain why Pilate executed only Jesus and none of his followers. If Pilate, who was ruthless at the slightest provocation, had even suspected that Jesus was the head of a group of Messiah followers, he wouldn't have stopped with Jesus. He would have dispatched with the whole movement. (Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews, pp. 242ff.)

Still, Messiah means "anointed one," someone with a special role in God’s plan. Jesus might not have liked what other people made of the title, but he probably could not have rejected it outright. With a bit of reinterpreting and purifying the early Church was able to apply the term unhesitatingly to Jesus and even to make it, in its Greek translation, "Christ," almost a part of Jesus' name and their own name, too: "Christian."

Son of God. Jesus clearly had some notion of being a son of God because he often addressed God as Father. The question is, How unique did Jesus imagine his sonship to be? In the Older Testament, angels, Kings of Judah, the whole nation of Israel, and the just person are all called sons of God. That the gospel writers saw Jesus’ sonship as unique is clear from the stories of Jesus' conception by Mary ("The power of the Most High will overshadow you") and a couple stories (Jesus’ Baptism and the Transfiguration) in which God himself calls Jesus his Son.

For the adult Jesus, however, the manner of his conception doesn’t seem to have played any role in his thoughts about who he was. Though Jesus’ Baptism is a historical event, the voice from heaven (Mark 1:11) seems to have been added by the evangelist. If it was real, it’s strange that no one during Jesus’ lifetime seems to know that he is the Son of God. A similar problem concerns the voice at the transfiguration (Mark 9:7), and the event itself is questioned by many scholars.

Words Jesus used – “Father” for God and “Son of Man” for himself

In the final analysis we have to see what we can make of the fact that Jesus calls God his Father. It’s a usage that wasn’t completely original with Jesus, but in Jesus’ mouth it seems to have a special intimacy.

Jesus addresses God as father so often with such directness that you could not imagine that he meant it as a mere metaphor. In Jesus’ mind his sonship was unique in comparison to anything that came before. But Jesus also refers to God as father to other people, especially those who were often with him. Brown concludes that Jesus may have thought of himself as the first of a special group of "sons of God," which included all who followed him. For Jesus being "Son of God" in some special sense still didn't imply what Christians think of as "God the Son."

Son of Man. When Jesus does identify himself in the synoptic gospels it’s with the phrase “Son of Man.” Sorting out the duplicates among the three gospels, we get about 50 different times Jesus so designates himself. Oddly, “Son of Man” was not one of the ways I was taught to think of Jesus in my early seminary training. I guess it sounded too human, not nearly as exciting or reverent as “Son of God.” In the early Church, however, for the Gospel writers this term meant a lot more than human being. From the first century—but later than Jesus—we have Jewish texts (which the first Christians would have known) that made a big deal of a dream by the prophet Daniel. He saw

One like a Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven. (Daniel 7:13)

Some New Testament texts have Jesus referring to himself as this Son of Man, coming from his throne at God’s right hand to judge the peoples of the earth.

It’s not certain whether this use of “Son of Man” as a special title was current in Jesus’ time or present in Jesus’ mind. The phrase “son of man” had another common use. It meant simply a person and was often used as a modest or safe way of referring to oneself, something like when we say, “yours truly.” The Jewish scholar Geza Vermes (of whom the Catholic Herald says, “Perhaps no one alive since the first century AD can claim to know more about Jesus Christ the man than Geza Vermes”) believes that Jesus uses “son of man” in this second sense; and when the phrase is used in the more glorious sense, it’s the early Church setting its beliefs back into the words of Jesus. (The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, p. 263)

The Catholic scholar Brown is inclined to think Jesus may indeed have seen himself as this glorious Son of Man, or that it may have been “close to the mindset and style of Jesus himself.” (p. 99) I’m inclined to go with Vermes on this one, if for no other reason than that he’s writing almost a decade later than Brown (published in 2003). Both authors, however, propose that Jesus saw himself as having a special role in a coming Kingdom of God. Vermes imagines an authentic saying of Jesus to the effect that “those who reject him during his ministry will be automatically condemned at the advent of the Kingdom of God.” (252) He thinks some saying like this may have been reinterpreted by the evangelists with the image of the Son of Man coming in judgment on clouds of glory.

The human Jesus

The possibility remains that Jesus saw himself as the future glorious “Son of Man.” This does not imply any supernatural knowledge on Jesus’ part. If others could read a future judge of the world into the prophecy of Daniel, there’s no reason why Jesus couldn’t do the same and apply it to himself. If he was going to go public with such a notion, I suppose the time to do it would have been at his trial, as Mark reports--"You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:62) At that point Jesus' end was clearly upon him, no matter what he said in his defense.

The picture of a human Jesus, one who made perceptive use and sometimes reinterpretations of the concepts available to him, who probably changed his ideas about himself as his ministry met with either success or failure (and disaster at the end), whose trust in God never faltered even though he could not see clearly what lay beyond the cross—this picture, I think, is well represented by Paul when he quotes one of his community’s hymns about Jesus...

Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with god something to be grasped.

Rather, he emptied himself,

Taking the form of a slave,

Coming in human likeness;

And found human in appearance,

He humbled himself,

Becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

What we see in Jesus is also what we know best about God. If Paul is really getting at the essence of Jesus in this passage, it calls for some rethinking. How might the idea of self-emptying, self-abasing apply to the “almighty” God of Christian traditions? What might it have to say about the relation of God to the world?

The next and last chapter of this essay looks at how the human life of Jesus unfolded in historical events that were meaningful enough to be remembered, interpreted and reinterpreted, and finally written down. Scholars agree that it is impossible at this date to write a biography of Jesus. But we can tell stories, based on what we read in the gospels, that can reveal the real Jesus to us. At the same time we're getting as close as we can to God's own self-revelation.

On to Chapter 4, The Stories Before Easter, Introduction