When Jesus asked, “Who Do People Say I Am?” No One Said He Was God.

Jesus performed several roles: a seer-prophet, a reformer, a wisdom sage, a healer, an itinerant preacher, and a Torah teacher. About in the middle of his public ministry, according to the Gospel of Mark Jesus asked his male disciples, “Who do people say I am?” (Mk 8.27 NIV). Large crowds were gathering to hear Jesus pronounce his parabolic pearls of wisdom and perform his mighty deeds of healing and even nature miracles, and they were awestruck. That’s why they began to ask who he was and if he was the Christ (e.g., Jn 4.29; 6.14; 7.26; 8.25; 10.24).

When reading or studying a synoptic gospel (first three in NT), it is often wise to compare it with the other two synoptics. For, in this case, Matthew records that Jesus asked, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Mt 16.13). Matthew probably relates the ipsissima verba (exact/very words), in contrast to Mark’s ipsissima vox (very voice). Jesus was always calling himself “the Son of Man.”

The disciples answered that various people thought Jesus was someone come back from the dead, such as John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another of the biblical prophets (Mt 16.14; Mk 8.28). Notice that none of the disciples reported that anyone said he was God. They surely would have added that if anyone did indeed say it, since it would have been so provocative for a Jew to make such a claim about a man. Why? Jews believed God is numerically one (e.g., Deuteronomy 6.4). Jesus thought of God as someone separate from himself, calling him “the/my Father.” And scripture states, “God is not a man,… nor a son of man” (Num 23.19).

According to both Matthew and Mark, Jesus again asked, “But who do you say I am?” If Matthew reports the ipsissima verba for Jesus’ first question, then in this second question Jesus obviously identifies himself as the Son of Man. According to Mark, Peter spoke up and answered, “You are the Christ” (Mk 8.29), and that’s all. But Matthew again is more definitive, recording that Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16.16). Notice that Peter did not state expressly, “You are God.” But did Peter indirectly identify Jesus as God by saying he was the Son of God?

That’s what I was taught by my theological teachers early in my spiritual journey. The Bible’s identification of Jesus as the Son of God was the main reason I believed he was and is God. Ask the average Christian who believes Jesus is God what his or her main reason is for believing that, and you’ll probably get that same response I would have given. Now, if Matthew’s account is correct, and Peter meant that Jesus was God by calling him the Son of God, that would have been quite a literary blunder for Mark to have omitted such an important identification of Jesus. For, it is far more important to identify a man as God than only as the Christ.

Now, let’s fast forward to Jesus’ hearing before the Sanhedrin the night before he was crucified. The purpose of that interrogation was to find Jesus guilty of having taught against the Torah, charge him with blasphemy, and punish him with death. According to the Gospel of John, on two different occasions when Jesus taught in the temple at Jerusalem, he was accused of “making himself equal with God” and “claim[ing] to be God” (Jn 5.18; 10.33). But both times Jesus responded by denying these charges. And this is so apparent because none of the witnesses who testified against him at his hearing brought forth either of these charges. Those religious leaders were frustrated that they could not obtain any testimony to charge Jesus with teaching or doing anything contrary to Torah. Moreover, the witnesses gave “false” and “inconsistent” testimonies (Mt 26.59-60; Mk 14.55-59).

Finally, according to Matthew, Caiaphas the high priest said to Jesus, “Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Mt 26.63). Mark relates, “the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One'” (Mk 14.61). Mark says Jesus answered, “I am” (Mk 14.62). But Matthew probably provides the ipsissima verba in relating that Jesus answered, “You have said so” (Mt 26.64 NRSV). Did the high priest mean “Son of God” as synonymous with being God? Certainly not! He knew that his Bible called men and angels “son(s) of God.” And he likely knew also that it never used that language in identifying God. And neither did Jesus mean that he was God by answering affirmatively.

Oh, how things change. Less than a century later, Gentile church fathers started identifying Jesus as God. And in 325 AD they drafted the Nicene Creed which says Jesus is “very God of very God.” Moreover, this creed goes on to declare that if anyone does not believe that Jesus is God, it pronounces several anathemas on that person, which means they are condemned to hell.

One of the primary reasons church fathers set forth for their belief that Jesus was and is God was that the New Testament identifies Jesus as “the Son of God,” which they thought meant that he was God. But nowadays, most distinguished Trinitarian scholars are correct in conceding that the New Testament calling Jesus “the Son of God” does not mean he is God. And many of them admit that those Bible texts which join the titles “the Christ” and “the Son of God” together–as both Peter and Caiaphas did–mean that they were being used interchangeably, so that those two titles are either synonymous or nearly so.

(For more information on this subject, see our website christiansforonegod.com and get my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ.)

(To see a titled list of over fifty, two-three page posts (easily accessible) about the Bible not saying Jesus is God, click here.)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Mex Seiko

    In the Greek versions of the Bible, it says Jesus told the Jews: “Before Abraham was EGO EIMI.” That was cause for the Jews to take up stones to execute Him on the spot. Stoning is the penalty for “blaspheming.” He escapes. On closer consideration, this conversation took place in the Temple and it was in Hebrew, not Greek. Jesus played with words and while saying “I exist before Abraham.” He must’ve said: “Before Abraham existed, HAYAH, HAYAH,” which is the exact same expression Moses heard from the burning bush. I AM THAT I AM, or I AM WHO EXISTS. These are the words which became known as God’s name and converted to the code YHWH. Actually, God doesn’t have a proper name, because there was no one to before to name Him. But you can rest assured, Jesus is the burning bush, The Angel of The Lord, The First and The Last, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace, The Alpha and The Omega. Amen.

  • kzarley

    The New Testament (NT) tells us some reasons why the religious authorities at Jerusalem were trying to have Jesus put to death, and none of them include the notion that Jesus claimed to be God.
    First, Mark tells us that when Jesus cleansed the temple during Passion Week, by angrily overturning the tables and chairs of the money changers, “the chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking how to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him” (Mk 11.17; quotations from the NASB). So, they feared Jesus.
    Second, after that Jesus told a multitude in the temple a parable about a man who planted a vineyard. Matthew says he concluded, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it” (Mt 21.43). Matthew explains, “when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them” (v. 45), so “they sought to seize Him” (v. 47). Why? They obviously were angry at his accusation.
    Third, Matthew informs that due to a custom Governor Pilate said to the religious leaders, “‘Whom do you want me to release for you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’ For he knew that because of envy they had delivered Him up” (Mt 27.17-18). So, they envied Jesus. Why? Because “the multitudes,… held Him to be a prophet” (Mt 21.46).
    So, there’s three reasons: fear, envy, and anger directed toward Jesus.
    The Jewish leaders certainly didn’t think Jesus ever claimed to be God’s equal, or be God, or they would have made this allegation at his interrogation before the Sanhedrin. Although some Jews so accused him earlier, recorded in Jn 5.18 and 10.33, both times he denied it, in Jn 5.19-46 and 10.34-38. Of the latter charge, Jesus explained the “I and the Father are one” meant “the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Jesus’ antagonists in both cases must have so understood that he denied he was claiming to be God because they never brought forth either of these charges at his Sanhedrin interrogation.
    I don’t think you’re being clear about what you mean–“Christ’s claim[s] were exactly what Christians have understood for 2000 years.” I assume you mean Christians have believed for 2000 years that Jesus claimed to be God. You’re wrong on both counts.
    First, the earliest written evidence we have that any Christians believed Jesus claimed to be God are the seven letters of Ignatius, written in 110 or 117. I don’t think Christians in the first century believed that, and the existence of the Nazarenes and Ebionites support what I’m saying. So, we can on the basis of written evidence that some Christians have believed for just over 1900 years that Jesus claimed to be God. But only in the 4th century did Christians begin believing that Jesus was God absolutely, that is, equal to the Father. For all Christian apologists of the 2nd and 3rd centuries believed Jesus was divine/deity, but that it was derived from the Father, so that Jesus was not equally God compared to the Father.
    Second, I don’t believe there is anything in the gospel sayings of Jesus in which he claimed to be God. To see what I say on the critical NT texts on this subject, read my blog posts on Christology by searching Categories, or read the fifty articles on my ServetusTheEvangelical.com website, or, better yet, read my 600 pp. RJC.

  • DMurphy

    If Jesus is not the God-man, he is unqualified to die for the sins of the world, but is simply a peasant carpenter from Nazareth dying for one man…Barabbas. Because He came into this world born of a virgin, His father is literally the Holy Spirit, and He is in a unique position of being born into Adam, yet without the sin nature associated with Adam. If He’s only a man, He’s just like the rest of us, born into Adam with no escape. For crying out loud guys, read the rest of your new testament, including John, where Jesus’ entire ministry screams out who He is in His power over all of creation.

  • Afzal

    One of the attributes of GOD is, God has no beginning and end, but Jesus do have beginning and end, God is one which possess all attributes at all time, but as human being Jesus Possess only some of attributes of the many attributes available in this world, Hence Jesus cannot be God.

  • Evg Anderson

    Jesus said when you see me you see the father. I and my father are one..John says in the beginning was the word and the word was God ..then it says the word dwelt among us and we beheld his Glory..still hold true he came to his own and they knew him not..My God they still don’t know but JESUS is GOD manifested in the flesh

    • kzarley

      On my blog click Categories and Christology. There you will find over 40 posts on Jesus not being God. I posted about Jn 10.30 on October 9, 2013 and on August 1, 2013. I posted about Jn 1.1c on July 17, 2013. When Jesus said, “whoever has seen me has seen Father” (Jn 14.9), he meant “the Father is in me” (vv. 10-11), which he said twice. He was speaking of what scholars call the Mutual Indwelling, which he had already taught in Jn 10.38 as the explanation for his saying in v. 30–“I and the Father are one.” Thus, Jesus never says he is God or the Father, but that God the Father indwells him. But get my RJC book–600 pp. about Jesus being everything the church has said about him except that he is not God.