Jesus Never Claimed to Be God (or did He?)

When discussing the divinity of Jesus, critics will often put forward the idea that Jesus never made the claim “I am God”.  And they are right, He never said those specific words, but is that the whole story or could there be more to it?

Ehrman’s Error

The most visible and vocal critic supporting this claim is Dr. Bart Ehrman, distinguished professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.  In his book “Misquoting Jesus”, Ehrman makes the assertion that Jesus never claimed divinity and His early followers never believed He was God. 

Ehrman, somewhat disingenuously, bases his claim on the fact Jesus never directly said “I am God” and the assumption that the only New Testament writings that hold a high Christology of Jesus were written late; into the second and third centuries.

We say “disingenuous” because Dr. Ehrman studied under and worked with Dr. Bruce Metzger, the most renowned New Testament textual critic of modern times.  In Metzger’s final book he concludes that we can recreate the content of the original manuscripts of the New Testament; Ehrman worked on this book with Metzger. 

Despite agreeing with Metzger in his academic writings, Ehrman changes his inferences, if not his opinion, in his commercial writings and interviews for lay people.  In these forums Ehrman forwards the idea that Jesus never claimed or was attributed deity.

Miracles Display Divinity

Our previous post showed that the eyewitness accounts in the New Testament are an accurate recording of events in first century Israel.  So, do we have any indication from the New Testament of Jesus’ divinity? 

There are multiple examples of miracles performed by Jesus as a sign of His divine identity.  Jesus showed power over the immaterial realm (demons), nature (storms), sickness (leprosy, paralysis), and death. 

In Matthew 8 Jesus encounters two men possessed by demons.  When they see Jesus, they identify Him as “Son of God”; signifying recognition of deity.  Luke reports another instance where Jesus confronts a demon possessed man.  The demon identifies Jesus as “the Holy One of God”, another recognition of deity.

On several occasions Jesus demonstrated power over nature through miraculous acts.  Mark describes Jesus and the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee when a storm blew in.  Jesus commanded the wind and waves to be calm and they subsided.  On another occasion the disciples were crossing without Jesus and were caught in a storm.  Jesus walked across the sea to the boat and then calmed the storm.

The miracles of Jesus related to sickness and disease are well known and attested in the New Testament.  Jesus healed paralytics, deaf, and mute.  He healed people with leprosy, bleeding, and fevers.  The total number of people healed by Jesus is unknown.  Most of those Jesus healed professed faith in Jesus as the Son of God.

In the most telling display of Jesus’ divinity, He raised several people from the dead; eventually conquering death Himself.

Jesus Displays Attributes of God

Prior to performing many of His healings, Jesus forgave the sins of those He healed.  In Matthew 9:1-7 before Jesus healed the paralytic man, He first forgave him of his sins.  The Pharisees accused Jesus of blasphemy; saying that only God could forgive sins.  More on this later.

Jesus also accepted worship from the disciples and other people.  For any Jew to worship anyone but Yahweh was blasphemy.  To accept that worship would be beyond blasphemous, worthy of death.  On multiple occasions people fell down and worshipped Jesus, yet He never stopped them.

The Son of Man

Jesus often referred to Himself as the “Son of Man”.  This is a direct reference to the coming messiah in the book of Daniel.  In Daniel 7:13-14 he says he saw “with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.”

The “Ancient of Days” is a reference to God.  Two important things point us to the “Son of Man” being Jesus the Messiah.  First, Daniel doesn’t say “son of man”; the Aramaic way of referring to a human being.  Instead, he says “like a son of man”.  Obviously, this person is more than a mere mortal since he can stand with God and is given everlasting dominion. 

Second, as Keith Matheson of Ligonier points out, the reference is to the Son of Man coming to God, not from.  Matheson proposes this is a vision of Jesus after the Ascension.  So, this reference can only mean a person who shares the Godhead with God the Father.

Ego Eimi – I Am

Ego Eimi is a Greek phrase that means “I am” or “I exist”.  We see this reference in God’s revelation of Himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14. Ego Eimi refers to the self-existent God that called Abraham and met Moses on the mountain.

In John 8:58 when Jesus said that anyone who followed Him would not die, the Jews accused Him of being a demon.  They said that even Abraham had died; questioning if Jesus was greater than Abraham.  Jesus replied: “truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”  The Jews then wanted to stone Him because they knew the claim He was making.

In perhaps the strongest instance of Jesus claiming to be God, in Mark 14:62, Jesus is on trial before the Pharisees.  He responds to their questions by saying “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”  Here Jesus combines the Ego Eimi and the Son of Man reference.

The Disciples Believed Jesus Was God – Peter, John, Thomas and Paul

We see several instances where the disciples acknowledged Jesus as God.  Peter called Jesus “Our God and Savior.”  John attributed divinity to Jesus in all his books; the most well-known being John 1:1. After putting his finger in Jesus’ wounds Thomas exclaimed “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).  Although Paul never said “Jesus is God”, an examination of his writings clearly indicates that was his conclusion.  In Titus he referred to Jesus as “our great God and Savior”.

But He Didn’t Say “I am God”

Critics will still look at the above evidence and repeat their claim; “But he never said he was God, that’s just the way he talked.”  To see if their claim is correct all we need to do is look at the reaction of the disciples and the religious leaders of the day for context.  As we already mentioned, the disciples worshipped Jesus.  The religious leaders had a completely different reaction; they wanted to kill him. 

If Jesus wasn’t claiming to be God, why would they want to kill him?  The answer is that they understood, and said, that He was making a claim of divinity.  We mentioned earlier that in Matthew’s gospel Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic man; something reserved for God.  When the Pharisees challenged Jesus, He referred to Himself as the “Son of Man” and healed the man to display that He had “authority on earth to forgive sins.”  The religious leaders wanted to stone Him. 

When Jesus was being questioned at trial by the high priest and made His Ego Eimi statement, the high priest accused Jesus of blasphemy and tore his robe, a required reaction to blasphemy.

All this points to the fact that everyone Jesus encountered believed He was making a claim to divinity; whether they liked it or not.  We often try to read ancient writings in context of the modern day; or sometimes no attempt at context.  We must remember the writer wasn’t thinking into the future about how we would interpret it, but was writing in context of his time.

So, the next time someone says Jesus never claimed to be God, walk them through a few of these facts.

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