It’s Probably True, Even If Jesus Didn’t Say It [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

This week, Andrew asked us to consider the claims of divinity that are attributed to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel:

In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes many confident self-proclamations (conservative Evangelical’s favorite verses which seemingly demonstrates the exclusivity of Jesus). Now, I’m sure that claiming to be God in 1st century Judiasm is a really big deal; however, how is it that none of these self-proclamations make it into any of the synoptic gospels? Is it possible that Jesus never made these self-proclamations? If not, how does this effect our understanding of Trinitarian theology in the gospel accounts?

There’s been a very robust conversation about this post, and I encourage you to read it. In the 1,000 words I afford myself on these responses, I simply cannot reprise all of those arguments.

First, in case you are new to this kind of question, here’s the background. Most reputable scholars think this about the four Gospels:

  • Mark came first, probably in the late 50s or early 60s.
  • Matthew and Luke were both written in the mid- to late-60s. They both use Mark as a source, a source that scholars refer to as “Q,” and their own source material.
  • John comes much later — probably in the mid-90s — and uses mostly unique material.

Here’s how the four Gospels look in somewhat twisted mind of Paul Soupiset, as I asked him to make a Venn Diagram of the overlaps for the next Animate course:

It’s generally acknowledged that John, coming so late and having so much unique material, reflects the theology of a more evolved church than do the three synoptic Gospels. And the theology in the Fourth Gospel supports this conclusion. Whereas the Synoptics portray a more earthy Jesus — more of a peripatetic rabbi — the Fourth Gospel gives us a cosmic Christ, more interested in teaching than healing. In fact, almost half the John’s Gospel takes place on a single day, with Jesus giving his most esoteric teachings.

Among skeptical scholars, like Bart Ehrman, the assumption is always the same: the later the writing, the less accurate it is. But let’s think about that for a minute. It’s estimated that about 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln. Are you willing to say that a book written by Doris Kearns Goodwin in 2005 is less accurate than the magisterial 1917 biography of Lincoln by Lord Charnwood?

Is older always more accurate? Obviously, the answer is no. So, while we need to acknowledge the relative lateness of the Gospel of John, that in no way sentences it as a compendium of inaccuracies and theologizing.

But, for the sake of Andrew’s question, let’s assume that the claims of divinity that come out of Jesus’ mouth in the Fourth Gospel were put there by the late-first-century church, but were never actually iterated by Jesus of Nazareth.

As a case study on this kind of thing, we can look at the post-resurrection appearances in the Gospel of Mark, or the story of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery in John. Both of these are missing from the oldest extant manuscripts. That could mean that they were missed upon transcription and that, if we were to find older manuscripts, they be in them. But it seems more likely that they’re later additions, which is what most scholars assume. Then you’re left with the dilemma that someone added them to make the book more theologically palatable to a later reader — or that they were original stories that were somehow missed by the original compilers.

Again, you see that we’ve got dilemma on top of dilemma. At each fork in the road, you can pretty much guess which way a guy like Bart Ehrman is going to turn, just like you can pretty much guess what road a professor at an evangelical seminary is going choose.

The point at hand in Andrew’s question is that in the Synoptics, Jesus primarily refers to himself as the “Son of Man,” a title that did not imply divinity. In John, he’s more likely to call himself the “Son of God,” which, at least to modern ears, sounds like a claim of divinity — scholars debate this point, noting that it’s a title that’s used in the Hebrew Bible (for example, Genesis 6:2); in other words, it’s not unique to Jesus.

There are other instances in the Fourth Gospel that leads to its higher Christology. It’s in John where Jesus refers to himself as:

  • “the bread of life”
  • “the light of the world”
  • “the gate of the sheep”
  • “the good shepherd”
  • “the resurrection and the life”
  • “the way, the truth, and the life”
  • “the real vine”

Each of these, and other statements, implies that Jesus has a special relationship with God. But it’s hard for us to get our mind around first century notions of divinity. (For those who want further reading on this topic by NT Wright, see here. HT: Andrew Mason.)

Anyway, that’s a lot of talk about the historicity of the Fourth Gospel. The fact is that anyone who’s a Christian and considers the Bible authoritative has to put a lot of faith in God’s providential hand. The canon wasn’t closed until three centuries after Jesus — that’s 18 generations of people after Jesus. That’s a lot of people to mess with things, edit stories, and update theology. If you consider the Bible a sacred text and authoritative in your life and the life of the church, you don’t necessarily need to overlook the complicated history of the canon, but you’ve probably got to put some trust in God for directing canonization in spite of its messiness.

Finally, this. The prologue to John’s Gospel is not only one of the most lyrically beautiful pieces of theology in the Bible, it’s one of the best ever written. And it’s from that prologue that we get the core of our belief in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, and the resulting and admittedly later doctrine of the Trinity. As I’ve argued here before, I appreciate the aesthetics of theology — I think that if something is beautiful, it’s more likely to be true. Thus, the prologue of John, universally acclaimed as a beautiful hymn to the divinity of Christ, has a particular claim on truth. (This is just the opposite from Ehrman, who argues that if something seems in keeping with later theology, it is less likely to be true.)

And I do not think that something that is later is less likely to be true. In fact, I think that something later is probably more likely to be true. Therefore, I have no problem with Jesus’ claims of divinity in the Fourth Gospel, whether or not he ever said them.

See all of the past questions and answers here, and submit your own here.

  • James-Michael Smith

    This is one of your best posts, IMO. Great discussion. Only two things stuck out in my mind which I might challenge:

    “If something is beautiful it is more likely to be true.” I think I see your underlying point in saying this, but it also raises the question of “satan himself appears as an angel of light” scenarios, does it not?

    And I’m confused at why you claim the title “Son of Man” is not one of divinity, given Dan.7′s use of it and Jesus’ referencing that passage multiple times with regard to himself and his identity. “Son of God” was, as you note, a term for human kings of Israel and not necessarily divinity…but by the 1st century, it seems “Son of Man” was just the opposite–it might reference humanity (i.e. Ezekiel’s title), but “THE” Son of Man more often alludes to Daniel’s divine figure that is given all power and is worshiped.

    • NateW

      I would say that calling Satan a “messenger” of light is sort of like what we mean when we say that something is “too good to be true.” Something looks good, beautiful, and perfect, like it is able to make us happy, fulfilled, and content forever… but the truth is that nothing exists that can do this for us. When you look at John portraying the shamed and crucified Jesus as the true divine manifestation, the complete unveiling of who God eternally is — and who’s cross we are called to bear — wouldn’t you be more likely to say that this is “too undesirable to be true”? It’s the fact that something so ugly as crucifixion and naked death has been turned on its head and become beautiful that speaks to its truth. I think we tend to lose sight of the ugliness of the cross and the scandal of the fact that we serve a God who’s ultimate manifestation of his eternal nature reveals Him to be a God who’s power is most fully active in Love’s death for others.

      As for “Son of Man,” my view on this has been that Jesus chose these words precisely because he DID NOT want to be worshipped as God. He is humbly identifying himself as a man even while demonstrating through his actions the entire unity of divine and man manifested within Him. Christ breaks down the barrier that man perceives to exist (and thus makes to exist) between himself and God, to display once and for all that the heart of God is eternally united with the heart of man and made real (incarnated) when man, through faith, aligns himself with the form (i.e. takes into/onto himself the way/life/spirit/body/blood) of Christ. In other words, to say forthrightly “I am God” would be simultaneously to say “I am not man.” To those who are looking for god to step in and save them from their suffering, Christ would set himself up as an idol (as odd as that sounds) by stating directly that he is God. The dividing wall between god and man would remain as men look to god “up there” to bring peace “down here” instead of being torn down in Christ’s revelation of good news that peace and unity with God are not in delivery from suffering, but in Love within it’s midst.

    • Andrew Mason

      I posted some about this during the discussion:

      “In Daniel 7, the “son of man” does not come from heaven down to earth, but to the Ancient of Days (YHWH) and is presented before him. The clouds are merely the vessel that take the son of man to YHWH. Additionally, the context of this passage is the persecution of God’s chosen people; therefore, the “son of man” is a reference to the saints of the Most High receiving the kingdom (Dan. 7:18). It is the saints of the Most High (“son of man”) who will rule over the nations (which is fully supported in other passages in the Bible: i.e. Deut. 15:6).”

      I’m not sure that in studying Daniel 7 that one could actually say that the son of man is a divine figure for the reasons I’ve given above. The point that I try to make many times in the discussion (and in the same way that N.T. Wright says that our 21st century mind misunderstands a 1st century understanding of “god.”) is that through our Western lens of Judeo-Christian thought, we have assumed that terms like “son of man” or “son of God” denote divinity. I believe that there is enough biblical evidence to show that those terms do not. Jesus is (not merely) looking back at the OT scriptures and drawing on messianic language to explain who he was (***but I think it’s important to note that even that is an interpretation***). He could just as easily be referring to the saints of the Most High inheriting YHWH’s kingdom through Jesus’ own message and work. This could make sense given all the references to inheriting or entering the kingdom of God in the synoptics (the kingdom of God was the entire thrust of Jesus’ message in the synoptics, and yet, there is very little talk of “God’s kingdom” in John’s gospel).

  • http://www.rjaypearson.com/ R. Jay Pearson

    Toward the end, after you make what’s really a terrifically watery analysis, you write, “you’ve probably got to put some trust in God for directing canonization in spite of its messiness.” Really? Based on what? And why? You offer remarkable generalizations, wrap them in presumptions, and then package them in a big box of supposition. And the bow on top is a ribbon of “probably” and “true”?

    • NateW

      So in order to have faith in something or someone, you would demand proof that it is warranted? You would need a time machine (or at least an ironclad pre-nup) before promising yourself in marriage? To deny the truth of anything that falls outside the walls of our own understanding is exactly what it means to have ears that don’t hear and eyes that don’t see. You have to WANT to see from another perspective before you’re able too, and you have to risk facing the fact that your own knowledge is incomplete before that can happen. Tony is absolutely right in saying that, faith (in who/what holds you secure) must precede knowledge in the same way that stepping through your front door precedes exploring your neighborhood.

      A constant demand for proof grows out of fear of the consequences of being wrong. I know because I’ve been there. Finally though, I’m learning that whether I’m right or wrong isn’t the point. It’s not what I know or don’t know (doctrine, theology, philosophy, etc.) that matters, it’s who I am known by and whether my daily life proves that I rest not on my own being or understanding, but in His love.

      • http://www.rjaypearson.com/ R. Jay Pearson

        NateW, you wrote: So in order to have faith in something or someone, you would demand proof that it is warranted?

        Absolutely. It’d be very unwise — and even outright stupid — to invest faith in something without having first concluded that it warrants any faith at all.

        Now, when it comes to “believing in” the historicity of a certain story, a similar rule of warrantedness ought apply, particularly if you are basing your investment of faith upon your choice to believe in that story and then making the claim that it is “truth” (or probable truth, as Tony put it today).

        NateW, you wrote: A constant demand for proof grows out of fear of the consequences of being wrong.

        In what universe? No. A constant demand for proof grows out of an understanding that “just believe” simply doesn’t cut it anymore. A constant demand for proof grows out of an evolved sense of Reason, so that we can actually love “with our whole mind” (see Mark 12:30) rather than just a portion of it (as many Christian Traditionalists, including a number of so-called “Progressives,” still insist on).

        NateW, you wrote: it’s who I am known by and whether my daily life proves that I rest . . . in His love.

        Theological poetics aside, who is this “he” whose love you say you “rest” in?

        • NateW

          Hi R. Jay – Thanks for the pushback. In another of your responses you say,

          “whether the stories are historically true does not mean the tales do not impart truth. To embrace the truth in the stories is far different — and far better, I would argue — than insisting on the trueness of the stories.”

          I agree with this 100%. I argued as I did because it seemed to me like you were saying that you would have to be convinced that John was objective “fact” before you would accept it as spiritually “true.” I think most differences of opinion can be traced to subtly different definitions of words and this is no exception. When I say that something is “true” I mean something like “timelessly foundational and applicable,” rather than “historically factual.”

          I completely agree that when it comes to historical facts or the veracity of a given proposition “just believe” is a toxic mantra. I would say though that the Truth of Christ is not a matter of cognitive assent to correct facts but of actions in right relation to *whatever* it is that one does know. The person of simplest mind can express faith in Christ more purely than many theologians or philosophers. So when it comes to action in the present moment, when it seems like I have nothing left to give and that to give any more will mean my own death, then “just believe” is the only right response. There is no proof that life is found by those who give it up in taking on the form of Christ. In fact, it sounds absurd from man’s natural perspective.

          My action in the present moment isn’t based on certainty that the resurrection factually *happened,* but on faith that it Truly *happens;* that life rises from self-emptying love.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Kurtz/100000050441267 Steven Kurtz

    Well said. You have mentioned previously Tim O’Brien’s book “The Things They Carried” which, I think has something to say about how we understand John’s gospel: How do you tell a “true” story so that the reader “gets it”? Maybe you put a baby buffalo in the story, and something tragic happens to it – to get people to feel tragedy – even if you are talking about something, like love and loss, that has nothing to do with literal baby buffalos. Maybe you tell a bizarre story of of an innocent young American girl going to Viet Nam and going utterly brutally native, embracing humanity’s capacity to live out our dark side – instead of telling the typical and banal story of how it happens to men who become soldiers. How do you tell a story that is “true” about God becoming “flesh”? Start with Logos, end on a beach. Make the significance of the Christ completely Cosmic so that people “get it.” – maybe that was what John was doing.

  • Larry Barber

    I’m not sure that I agree with the idea that the more “sophisticated” theology in John’s gospel implies a later date. The theology in John isn’t a bit more sophisticated than that of Romans, and nobody thinks Romans was written any later than the early 60′s. I also find J.A.T. Robinson’s (not a conservative) argument in “Redating the New Testament” to be, at the very least, interesting, and not all that easy to poke holes in. In this book Robinson looks at the all of the books of the NT in light of the fact none of them mention the destruction of Jerusalem as a past event, and for each book, looks at the factors that cause them to be dated after the destruction of Jerusalem. Works better for some books than others, of course, but for the gospels he makes a pretty good case.

    I do agree that the dating doesn’t make that much difference, though. In reality the four gospels were being developed during the same time period as they underwent the transformation from oral tradition to literature. There aren’t any simple “A depends on B” relationships.

  • http://www.kellyjyoungblood.com/ Kelly J Youngblood

    I’ve always thought that the earlier ones were probably more *factual* simply because they were written closer in time to the events. But I think any of them can be true/convey truth regardless of when written, because factual and truth do not automatically mean the same thing. I also wonder if author intent has anything to do with it. John’s gospel says that it was written in order that people would believe. Luke’s says it was written in order to compile an orderly account. I don’t think Matthew’s or Mark’s give a reason, or if they do, I can’t remember.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ReneeAxtell Renee Axtell

    We 21st century folks definitely have a problem with confusing truth with factual accuracy. Does John’s gospel tell us the truth about Jesus? Absolutely. Is it factually accurate? Dunno. And honestly, I don’t really care.

    I’m getting married on June 29. Are the stories my future sisters-in-law tell me about their little brother factually accurate? Maybe, maybe not. But they speak volumes about their relationship with him, their family life growing up, my fiance, and the kind of man he is. That’s what the gospels are, family stories, and that works just fine.

    • http://www.rjaypearson.com/ R. Jay Pearson

      Where the Gospel of John is concerned, it is a story of Jesus written from the subjective vantage point of whoever wrote it. Whether it tells “the truth” about Jesus can never be known. As for whether the stories represent actual events that occurred in actual history, much is questionable (especially when it comes to the miracle stories). But whether the stories are historically true does not mean the tales do not impart truth. To embrace the truth in the stories is far different — and far better, I would argue — than insisting on the trueness of the stories.

      • mhelbert

        When I was in seminary, I had an OT professor that asked the question, can truth be found in fiction? He was referring to the books of Ruth and Esther, but the same thought processes apply here as well. And, of course, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’

        • http://www.rjaypearson.com/ R. Jay Pearson

          Exactly. Christian Traditionalists — and this includes many in the so-called Progressive movement — get ridiculously hung up on the notion of “this is true, it really happened, and you must believe it really happened (especially the resurrection) or you’re not a real Christian.” And right there is the key itch of the Traditionalists: they insist that their way is the preeminent one, and then engage in absurd theological competition (not “conversation” as they would have people believe) in vainglorious attempts to come out on top. It’s ultimately about control. And then we have the proponents of “postmodern theology” in all their academic snobbery who are simply attempting to redress the buffet table with modern adornments without switching out the old food.

  • http://profiles.google.com/choong.kien Kien Choong

    You know, people seem to have a tendency to deify a deceased leader. E.g. Caesar or Buddha. The Muslims would probably have done the same with Mohammad except their theology prevents them from doing so.

    I agree that Jesus could be divine even if he did not claim to be so. But it does I think change how we understand Jesus’ divinity. That seemed to be the question asked but not explored in Tony’s reply.

    It is difficult for a person committed to the idea of Kenosis to be open to the possibility that Jesus was merely a humble man lifted to divinity, and not God emptying himself to be man.

  • http://profiles.google.com/choong.kien Kien Choong

    What seems remarkable is how quickly Jesus’ followers moved from an understanding of Jesus as a man, to Jesus as Messiah, to Jesus as Son of God to Jesus as divine to Kenosis. All within a space of a decade I think. What might have caused this radical move in such a short space of time? Perhaps Jesus was really raised from death and that blew away all his disciples preconceptions. Just a thought.

  • Andrew Mason

    I can say with relative certainty that Jesus never made the confident self-proclamations found in John’s gospel. It is inconceivable to think that the authors of the synoptic gospels would forget such boastful, lofty terms, or that scribes would accidentally pass them over in their transcription (I don’t think that is what you’re saying, Tony).

    I do, however, agree that a distinction has to be made between what is factual and what is true (as others have commented below). Were Jesus’ parables literally-historically true? Probably not. But are his parables true? You bet!

    My frustration though is when most mainline evangelicals run to John’s gospel or to Romans, insisting on Jesus’ exclusivity or making assertions about the wrongness of other religions or ideologies (primarily by using “I am the way, the truth, and the life. . . ). I can affirm that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life in part, because I have found that Jesus’ way is good, his message is true, and in striving to live like Jesus, I have found life abundantly, but I do not and cannot dogmatically hold-on to these self-proclamations found in John’s gospel as a way to prove Jesus’ supremacy. This is simply because I don’t think Jesus made these self-proclamations, nor do I believe it was a part of his message.

    Jesus did not come to preach himself (that is evident in the synoptics), but he came to preach the kingdom of God. His proclamation of the truth and his willingness to confront corruption and go to the cross is what made him so worthy of exaltation.

    One thing I think is true: when we stop forcing Trinitarian theology into scripture (and perhaps let scripture enlighten our theology), then we are better able to understand Jesus of Nazareth and his proclamation of the restoration of His Father’s creation and kingdom.

    • Andrew Mason

      I do not intend to say that I dislike the Trinitarian symbol. It is, most certainly, a beautiful image of God’s complimentary relationship. I am unsure as to whether I can believe in it. I did read Tony Jones’ “A Better Atonement” and love the idea that God enters into the human experience, experiencing what God could never experience: the absence of God. Perhaps I also need to read Moltmann’s “A Crucified God” (My friend tells me that it’s the only theological book that has ever brought him to tears.). ;)

  • Craig

    What’s at stake here for you Tony? I mean, to what extent, if any, would the non-divinity of Jesus change any of your other beliefs and commitments?

  • Michael Jordan

    very insightful post, Tony. at once respectful of the text and the people who made it.

    • Craig

      ‘Tis an expression of faith and piety.

  • Lausten North

    Ehrmann and others don’t just assume that later is worse, they base that on scholarship. They base it on understanding how stories were retold and eventually written down. They base it on other knowledge of how people thought at the time. Your Lincoln analogy is horrible. It can be shown, by reviewing the quality of the works, that the science of history has improved over the last century. My hope is that these improvements will be applied to the Jesus question and we will have more to go on than, “I just think” or “I just feel”.

  • Craig

    “I think that if something is beautiful, it’s more likely to be true.”

    Advice to Tony’s interlocutors: spend less time honing your arguments and more time looking for fonts that please his eye.

  • Andrew Dowling

    While I can concur that something doesn’t have to be literally true to convey truth, to claim that “something later is more likely to be true” makes no sense from a scholarly point of view.
    It’s clear that Christology developed over time. Paul “worships Jesus” to some extent but that is entirely dependent on the Resurrection; he makes zero allusions to Jesus being divine during his lifetime, and actually infers he was not in several instances. Most of the early Gospels (Mark, proto-Luke, Gospel of the Hebrews/proto-Matthew according to the Fathers), along with Thomas and John lacked the virgin birth stories, for example. The Jewish-Christian communities that survived the diaspora following the Fall of Jerusalem retained what was probably the earliest belief that Jesus was a manifestation of God, exalted by God, and the greatest of prophets, but not divine or part of any trinity.
    John is unique in that probably a small ‘base’ of the Gospel goes back fairly early, but it subsequently became more developed and added on to over many years so that it became much more of a theological statement than any reliable historical account. There are probably several stories within John that echo actual events, but they become embellished and put into different contexts over time. I can’t recommend enough the late Raymond Brown’s work on Johannian literature.
    And all of the Gospels; none are historical retellings in the modern sense. While the Synoptics have a good amount of material passed from the oral tradition that more or less go back to Jesus, they are often put into frameworks and contexts which reflect the theological intent of the author/their faith community. For example, it’s highly likely the Olivet Discourse reflects apocalyptic concerns and proclamations from around the time Mark was written (AD 70) and doesn’t reflect anything Jesus said. I doubt Jesus ever said he would be coming back riding on clouds in glory . . . that statement reflects the beliefs of the Christian community from which the evangelist wrote, not a statement of the historical Jesus.

  • North

    Why do you assume things that are more beautiful are true? Isn’t the truth often painful? The saying ‘the truth hurts’ came about for a reason. Lies and stories, on the other hand, don’t have to stick to what really happened, so they’re free to go for other positive attributes, like beauty. Most of the great storytellers write aesthetically pleasing prose but that doesn’t stop their works from being fiction.

    The reason I might trust a later bigraphy of someone over an earlier one is that the science of archeology has moved on, and so a later biography might be based on new findings in the field, or better research. But John isn’t a scholarly work, so there’s no reason to assume it’s more accurate and good reasons to assume it’s less.


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