Did Jesus Claim To Be God?

Did Jesus Claim To Be God? September 24, 2009

I’m grateful to commenter Edson for reminding me to return to a subject to which I promised to return, namely the question of whether Jesus ever claimed to be God.

I mainly want to invite discussion of the subject, but I will try to note a few key points first about the use of evidence from the Gospel of John in relation to this topic. First, the uniform style of the Gospel of John and its distinctiveness in language and style, as well as in its claims to Jesus’ awareness of having pre-existed in heaven, set John apart from the other three Gospels in the New Testament, and because of this most historians do not feel that they can attribute most of the words placed on the lips of Jesus in John to the historical figure of Jesus. (It should also be remembered that claiming pre-existence does not, without further evidence, equal a claim to divinity. The concept of a pre-existent Messiah can be found in the Similitudes of Enoch, with which the author of this Gospel seems to have been familiar).

Second, the use of the absolute “I AM” must be counterbalanced (as C. K. Barrett famously pointed out) with the emphasis (in the immediate context of Jesus’ use of that language in chapter 8, for instance) on Jesus doing only what he is told, only what he sees the Father do. The name of God is explicitly said to have been given to Jesus in John 17:12, not long before which Jesus is depicted as calling the Father the only true God (whence the title of my book). All in all, it must be seriously considered whether the depiction in John is of Jesus as a figure like the angel Yahoel in the Apocalypse of Abraham, one who serves as God’s supreme agent and is given the divine name in order to make clear that his authority – but not his identity – is that of God himself.

Finally, even if we found Jesus making unqualified statements that he himself is God, we should remember that similar claims are found in Deutero-Isaiah. Yet there, no one has seriously suggested that the prophet is claiming to be the only deity and to be God himself. There it is considered obvious that the prophet is speaking in the divine first-person, and that the “I of God” is not being confused with the “I of the prophet”. Insufficient attention is often given to the question of whether Jesus is in certain instances best viewed as a prophet speaking in divine first-person.

Before closing, I should mention that Brian LePort has shared some videos (featuring Jeff Louie) on his blog near emmaus. One of them is relevant to this subject, but it is worth noting that it focuses on a number of types of indirect evidence and theological arguments, rather than on what Jesus may or may not have claimed about himself. It also needs to be mentioned that there are a significant number of Christians who have sought to reconcile the Gospel evidence with their creedal tradition by claiming that Jesus was God but did not necessarily know he was God while on earth. And so the question of whether Jesus was God is not precisely the same as the question of whether he made such a claim about himself. And of course, it is also possible to conclude that Jesus believed himself to be God but was mistaken about this. And so I’d like to keep the focus here not on who Jesus was but what Jesus claimed. One subject at a time!

But that’s all just by way of introduction. What do you think? Did Jesus ever claim to be God?

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