Many Christians, especially Evangelicals, speak of “the claims of Christ.” They mean Jesus claimed things about his identity that are recorded in the New Testament (NT) gospels. Most of these people, called “traditionalists,” assert that the greatest claim Jesus ever made about himself was that he was God. But NT evidence reveals that this is their claim, not that of Jesus. Strong traditionalist Brian Hebblethwaite well concedes, “it is no longer possible to defend the divinity of Jesus by reference to the claims of Jesus.”
Indeed, NT support for Jesus claiming to be God is extremely thin. In fact, there isn’t anything in the four NT gospels in which Jesus states expressly that he is God, such as, “I am God” or the like. And the main verse that traditionalists cite for it is John 10.30, in which Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” These folks interpret “one” to mean one in essence, so that the Father and the Son are two Persons but essentially one God.
Not so! The context shows that Jesus meant no more than that he and the Father were united in relationship and purpose. This is confirmed in his prayer in John 17. In it, five times he uses the word “one,” which is hen in the Greek nt. He asked the Father about his disciples, “that they may (all) be one, even/just as We are one” (vv. 11, 22, cf. 21). If Jesus meant in John 10.30 that he and the Father were essentially one, then he must have meant the same here, that he and his disciples were organically one, which is ludicrous. Besides, Jesus explained he meant “that they may be perfected in unity” (v. 23).
Jesus’ antagonists who heard him also misunderstood his word “one.” They accused him of “blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (John 10.33). Jesus denied this allegation, admitting he only proclaimed, “I am the Son of God” (10.36; cf. 19.7; no article “the” in Greek text). Jews never interpreted this title as “God;” rather, they distinguished God and his Son as in Psalm 2.2, 7, 12, and so did Jesus. These Jews accused Jesus of blasphemy due to his claiming an intimate relationship with God.
Ernst Haenchen rightly alleges concerning the error made of Jesus’ listeners, “The Jews are therefore completely mistaken when they accuse him of blasphemy; he makes himself equal to God. He actually stands in the place of God as the one sent by him.”
Like all good Jews, Jesus was a strict monotheist. He proved it by citing and thus affirming the Shema. That has profound relevance to Jesus’ claims about his identity. Once a scribe asked him, “‘What commandment is the foremost of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The foremost is, Hear, O Israel! the Lord our God is one Lord’” (Mark 12.28-29; cf. Deuteronomy 6.4). The scribe said, “You have truly stated that he is one, and there is no one else besides him” (v. 32). Like all Jews, the man understood “one” in the Shema numerically. Jesus did too because he expressed his approval of what the man said, saying to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12.34).
Traditionalist scholars admit that most biblical support they cite for their belief that Jesus claimed to be God is no more than implication. An example is Jesus claiming certain prerogatives which these traditionalists, and Jews in Jesus’ time, believed belong only to God, such as, the authority to raise the dead and forgive and judge sin. Yet Jesus made it clear that such prerogatives did not belong to him inherently by nature but that God gave them to him (Matthew 9.8; 28.18; John 5.21-27). So, by Jesus affirming such authority he indicated that he was dependent upon God. Yet classical theism, which traditionalists accept, requires that God, being self-subsistent, depends upon no one.
What did Jesus claim about his identity? His favorite title he applied to himself was “the Son of Man.” It alludes to “One like a Son of Man” in Daniel 7.13. Contrary to some modern scholars, this text does not depict a divine or angelic figure but a literal man who receives a kingdom in heaven which will consist of human beings from every language and nation (v. 14). Thus, he is the man for all peoples. Jesus integrated this figure with others in the Old Testament (OT), such as the Servant (Isaiah 42—53) and the Messiah. Once, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Mt 16.13).
Jesus, however, did not go about proclaiming that he was the Messiah. Jews were right; that role will include overthrowing Israel’s enemies and making it the chief nation on earth. Jesus explained that he must suffer first (Luke 24.6-7, 44-46). So, he imposed a messianic secret, telling people and demons not to divulge his messiahship, sometimes saying they could only do so after his resurrection (Matthew 16.20; 17.9).
Occasionally, Jesus’ disciples told him privately that he was the Messiah, and a few times they included the title “the Son of God” (Matthew 16.16; John 1.49; 11.27). Jesus accepted both designations. Most Christians have been taught that Jesus being the Son of God means he is God, but nothing in the NT verifies this. Instead, Jews believed, and the OT affirms, that the Son of God referred to a very pious man greatly favored by God. This seems to be verified by the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration which said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3.17; 17.5).
Jesus also accepted that his disciples called him “Lord.” They only meant by it that he was their Master because they had placed themselves under his authority (John 11.28; 13.13). But some Christian scholars have asserted that Jesus being Lord indicates he is God since Jews substituted “Lord” (kurios) for God’s name—YHWH—in the Septuagint (lxx)—the 3rd century BCE Greek translation of the Jewish Bible. But it is now confirmed that such extant lxx copies were not produced by Jews but by Christians. Regardless, using such means of circumlocution for God’s name proves nothing.
Some Christians insist that Jesus’ “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John, especially those without a predicate, allude to Yahweh’s “I AM” saying that he uttered to Moses at the burning bush incident, recorded in Exodus 3.14, so that it represents a claim to be Yahweh. Not at all! When Jesus said “I am,” he said he meant what he had “been saying … from the beginning,” that he was the Son of Man (John 8.24-25, 28; cf. 3.13-14).
In sum, Jesus never claimed to be God; rather, he distinguished himself from God.