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

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.

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