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The Divinity and Messiahship of Jesus

Most Christians, with Jehovah's Witnesses being the of the few notable exceptions, believe that Jesus was and is in some way divine. Jesus is, in some mysterious way, actually God incarnate. The idea of the Trinity, the three persons in one Godhead, was what the Christians invented to accommodate the Godship of Jesus. We discuss in further detail in elsewhere how the idea of the Trinity evolved. In this section our main concern is whether Jesus actually made such a claim himself. In other words did the historical Jesus ever taught that he was divine?

As far as we can tell, Jesus never considered himself divine.

Denial of Divinity

We find that even in the gospel of John, the one with the most tendency to show Jesus as a superhuman being, he is presented subordinating himself to God:[1]

John 5:18-19
This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God. Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise.

In another example from John, Jesus rebuttal to the Jews who claimed that he made himself God showed that he did not consider himself equal to God:

John 10:33-36
The Jews answered him, "It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God." Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your law, `I said, you are gods'? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken), do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, `You are blaspheming,' because I said, `I am the Son of God'?

In this same gospel too, Jesus is shown to have admitted that he was not equal to God:

John 14:28, 31
You heard me say to you, `I go away, and I will come to you.' If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I...but I do as the Father has commanded me.

Leaving John aside, in the synoptics and the Acts we find many passages that expressly exclude the idea that Jesus was divine and equal to God. In Peter's sermon after the Ascension of Jesus, the miracle of God was said to have been achieved not by the power of Jesus himself but by God working through him:

Acts 2:22
"Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know..."

There is even a passage in Mark where Jesus explicitly took precautions to avoid people calling him an equal to God:

Mark 10:17-18
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

Furthermore, we find that Jesus does not claim God's omnipotence. For example he admitted that he did not know exactly when the kingdom will come:

Mark 13:32
"But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father..."

The above examples provide compelling proof that the historical Jesus, or at least the evangelists, never considered himself God, or equal to him. Many fundamentalist or evangelical apologists, who do believe in Jesus' divinity, had tried and are still trying many word twisting and irrational sidestepping of these verses to support their belief. They have also tried to show that many of the things Jesus did could not have been done by anyone except God. One of this is the power to forgive sins. [2] The episode most often cited to prove this claim is the one on the healing of the paralytic:

Mark 2:3-7
And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "My son, your sins are forgiven." Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, "Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"

This power to forgive sins, according to the theologians, amounts to a declaration of his own divinity. Marcello Craveri in his Life of Jesus points out why such a conclusion is wrong:

First of all. the statement "your sins are forgiven" is (since a disease was considered a divine punishment that could be cancelled by repentance or prayer) the equivalent of "God has pardoned you." This was the formula ordinarily used by priests in such circumstances, speaking as interpreters of God. Hence, it means, not that Jesus had arrogated supernatural power to himself, but only that he had claimed priestly power. Even in the Old Testament there are instances of priests and prophets who made the same statement. Jesus did not say: "I forgive your sins", but he did say in effect: "Your sins are forgiven (and I will stand as warranty for it)" The outrage of the scribes arose only from this pretension of Jesus to a priestly authority that they refused to recognize in him. [3]

It should also be pointed out that the above passage in Mark, as it stands, cannot be fully authentic as it contains artificial elements. Note that the teachers of the law did not utter their resentment but only thought of it. Now, how is anyone else to know what was on their minds? How was Mark able to formulate their (note the plural) thoughts so precisely? As Nineham pointed out, the above passage is just a representation of early Jewish reactions to the Christians' claim that they could forgive sins in the name of Jesus. [4]

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Son of God

Another argument often used by Christian theologians to establish the divinity of Jesus is to claim that Jesus sees and refers to himself as the "Son of God". And to them, this phrase must surely prove his divinity. [5] Here again we take issue with the theologians' interpretation. The term "Son of God" in the Jewish tradition, that is the culture of Jesus, his followers and his audience, did not mean a divine figure. [6] The term "Son of God" can be found in numerous passages in the Old Testament. From there, we can gather that the term can be applied to kings, angels, righteous men and even Israelites in general (to separate them as a chosen race from the rest of the world). [7] Given below are some of the passages:

Reference to a king:
II Samuel 7:14
[God speaking to Nathan about David]
"I will be his father, and he shall be my son."

Psalms 2:7
Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.

References to angels:
Genesis 6:2
That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.

Job 1:6
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them.

References to Israelites:
Psalm 82:6-7
I say, "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince."

Isaiah 45:11
Thus saith the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker, Ask me of things to come concerning my sons

Therefore the term "Son [or sons] of God" during the time of Jesus meant to the Jews someone who had a closer moral and spiritual connection with God than do ordinary men. It was understood by the contemporaneous Jewish culture to be an honorary title. There was no hint of any connection of that title with the divinity of the holder. [8]

We are further confronted with the fact that throughout the synoptic gospels Jesus was made to refer to himself in that term only twice. Given below are the passages:

Mark 13:32
No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,

Matthew 11:27 (Luke 10:22)
All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

The very fact that the passages in which Jesus refers to himself as the Son of God appears only twice in the synoptics is enough to make us suspicious of the authenticity of the above passages. Furthermore, the two passages actually contradict one another. The passage in Mark shows Jesus admitting that he did not know everything the Father knows. The one in Matthew seems to imply the very opposite! As Guignebert pointed out [9], the passage in Matthew, which forms part of the "Prayer of Thanksgiving" (Matthew 11:25-30) has such a rhythmic form that it very probably was part of an early Christian liturgy which was incorporated by Matthew into his gospel. Furthermore, much of the verses of the prayer seem to be taken from the apocryphal book of Sirach. (see Sirach 51:1; 51:23; 24:19; 6:24; 6:28; 6:29) Thus the whole prayer is very likely an early Christian liturgical composition.

Even if we take Matthew 11:27 and consider it by itself (apart from the strong evidence of its lack of authenticity), it still would not prove what the theologians want it to. For all that can be said about the verse is that Jesus considered himself to have a special relationship with God. Without a forced reading (i.e. without theological preconceptions), the verse does not show Jesus claiming to be God. In that sense, the verse may be interpreted to mean that he may have claimed that he was a son of God but not the Son of God. At least, not in the sense the later Christians put on that term. In fact the reader will note that even in the above two passages, Jesus never used the phrase "Son of God" when referring to himself but merely "Son". [10]

There are two more passages used by the theologians in their pretence to prove what they already dogmatically accept to be true. These passages involve statements made to Jesus that he was the Son of God. In the first passage Jesus was replying to an interrogation by the Sanhedrin:

Mark 14:61
Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" And Jesus said, "I am..."

The very setting of the passage, the nighttime trial of Jesus by the Sanhedrin, is enough to make us doubt the reliability of the passage. Furthermore the automatic connection the high priest was supposed to have made between the messiahship and being the Son of God - that the son of God is equivalent in meaning to the messiah -is something which no Jew at that time would have made. To the Jews of Jesus' time, the Messiah may be a son of God, but a son of God can mean anyone with the special relationship with God. In other words while "a son of God" can mean the messiah it does not mean so exclusively. The high priest was shown to have used the term as though they are completely interchangeable in meaning; in the way the early Christians used it. This cannot be historical. [11] We can therefore confidently reject the passage in Mark 14:61 as an early Christian invention, not an authentic saying of Jesus.

The second passage is found in Matthew's version of Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi:

Matthew 16:16
Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Now we know from chapter six that Matthew had two principle sources, the gospel of Mark and a collection of Jesus sayings we call Q. Matthew (16:13-20) has followed Mark (8:27-30) pretty closely in this episode. We do not find this reference to Jesus being the Son of God in the similar passage in Mark:

Mark 8:29
And he [Jesus] asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Christ."

There was no connection made to his divine sonship. The question naturally arises whether Matthew made use of an external reliable source to fill in the additional words from Peter. The answer is that this is most unlikely. For, as we have mentioned above, Matthew had followed Mark closely in accounting the whole episode. Had Matthew had additional information on would expect the information to come to Matthew in such a way that may help him expand on the whole story. Yet Matthew's addition is only on that reply of Peter's to Jesus' query: "Who do you say I am?" and on Jesus' reply to that. It looks more like a deliberate and unauthentic addition to the Markan passage than a rendition of further historical information. So this second passage, like the first, is unhistorical.

It is now time to summarize our findings on the phrase "Son of God" and Jesus' connection with it. We found out that in the Old Testament, therefore in the culture Jesus was living in, that the phrase is an honorary one bestowed on people who were believed to have a special relationship with God. The term in no way confers any divine status on the person. Furthermore we found out that Jesus never unequivocally described himself with such a term. The two passages where he seemed to have accepted that designation are unhistorical. In short, the theologians had no proof to substantiate their dogma.

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Son of man

Another title of Jesus, and one which he did use frequently when referring to himself, is the mysterious sounding (to us) "Son of Man". This expression occurs about eighty times in the gospels. Outside the gospels it occurs only once, in the Acts of the Apostles where Stephen, who was about to be martyred, used that phrase:

Acts 7:56
Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

In the Greek of the gospels, the phrase Son of Man (ho huios tou anthropou), sounds unintelligible and reminds one of the secret codes used by the secret societies or mystery religions of the Greco-Roman world. Christian theologians, without many exceptions, has normally asserted the phrase to be equivalent to their understanding of the "Son of God" and from there to mean the Christ. However, as many scholars have shown, the original phrase in Hebrew (ben adam) or Aramaic (bar nasha) is a poetic expression that means literally "a man born of another man" or, simply, man. [12] The expression is used frequently in the Old Testament, in Ezekiel, for instance, this term was employed ninety four times. The term was used by Ezekiel to mean "man", in contrast with God. [13] Modern Jewish scholars such as Geza Vermes (b.1924), has shown that the term "son of man", when used by Jesus and where the sayings are authentic, simply means "I" or "this fellow". [14] This roundabout way of saying "I" or "man" is paralleled, as an example, in the Irish expression "mother's son" (e.g. "every mother's son of them"). [15]

An example of how the "Son of Man" should simply mean "man" is given in the passage below:

Matthew 8:20 (Luke 9:58)
And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head."

The above passage has no meaning if the "Son of Man" is to mean God or the messiah. How could Jesus be asserting his divinity or his messiahship but at the same time say he has nowhere to lay his head? Jesus was merely expressing the truism that nature is sometimes kinder to animals than to man. [16]

Another example shows how Jesus used this term to simply mean "this fellow", to emphasize his humanity.

Matthew 11:18-19 (Luke 7:33-35)
For John [The Baptist] came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, `He has a demon'; the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, `Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds."

Here the only possible interpretation of the passage is that Jesus was saying that the Baptist lived as an ascetic and people condemned him as being possessed. And now he, as a man who eats and drinks like everybody else is called a glutton and a wine-bibber. [17]

It should first be noted that there are many instances in the gospels where the phrase was not part of the original saying. We also see instances where the evangelists simply changed the "I" from the original source to the "Son of Man". We know this to be the case. Given below are two examples of this. Luke changed the "I" from the original saying in Q to the "Son of Man" while Matthew kept its original form. [18]

Example 1
Luke 12:8
"And I tell you, every one who acknowledges me before men, the Son of man also will acknowledge before the angels of God."
Matthew 10:32
"So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven."

Example 2
Luke 6:22-23
"Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets."
Matthew 5:11-12
"Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you."

In other places it was Matthew who supplied the phrase "Son of Man" out of his own imagination. [19] This can clearly be seen when we compare parallel passages from Mark and Luke where the phrase forms no part of the original saying. Some examples:

Example 1:
Matthew 16:13
Who do men say that the Son of man is?"

Mark 8:27
"Who do men say that I am?"

Luke 9:18
"Who do the people say that I am?"

Example 2:
Matthew 16:28
"Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom."

Mark 9:1
"Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power."

Luke 9:27
"But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God."

The above examples show that the evangelists were not averse to inserting the phrase wherever they saw fit. There are also passages where the appearances of the phrase were within contexts with dubious historicity. For example in the story of the Transfiguration in Mark and Matthew Jesus was supposed to have used that phrase:

Mark 9:9 (Matthew 17:9)
And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of man should have risen from the dead.

The story of the Transfiguration, as we have seen in chapter eight, is in itself historically suspect. Our suspicion is further confirmed when we see the above passage within the context of him predicting his death. We see this prediction of his death and the phrase Son of Man coupled together in several other passages (Mark 9:11-13 and Matthew 17:10-13; Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28). We have shown earlier in this chapter that his death was not a part of the teaching of the historical Jesus; being actually a Pauline amendment to it. Needless to say, utterances made within the context of Pauline theology could not have been authentic.

There are also instances where the phrase appears in the prediction of Jesus' betrayal:

Mark 14:21 (Matthew 26:24)
"[W]oe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed!"
Mark 14:41 (Matthew 26:45)
"The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners."

The betrayal of Jesus by Judas was shown to be an unhistorical episode in chapter nine. Hence the authenticity of the above passages is extremely doubtful.

It is also clear that by the time the traditional material reached the evangelists the original meaning of "Son of Man" was no longer understood by them. There are some passages, where we have every reason to believe in the basic authenticity, which transmission were so badly narrated that they serve to show how badly the evangelists misunderstood the phrase. One example:

Matthew 12:32 (Luke 12:10)
"And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven."

As it stands above, this statement of Jesus sound slightly absurd. Its like saying, insult the messiah (or God) if you like but insult the Holy Spirit and you're in trouble! The original form of the saying is found in Mark where the actual meaning is clear and unambiguous: [20]

Mark 3:28-29
"Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin."

There are two more instances where the phrase "Son of Man" seems to imply something more than "I" or "this fellow". The first is the episode of the healing of the paralytic, which we had discussed a little earlier. Here Jesus was supposed to have uttered thus:

Mark 2:10 (Matthew 9:6; Luke 5:24)
"[T]he Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins"

As we have noted above, Jesus in this episode did not say "I forgive you your sins." but "Your sins are forgiven.". The difference is vital, for in the actual statement it implies merely that Jesus was giving the paralytic a pledge, like priest do, that God will forgive his sins. The statement in Mark 2:10 is simply an assertion that a man that is close to God can guarantee forgiveness of sins. In no way is it a proclamation of special status, either messianic or divine. [21]

The other instance is the statement of Jesus about his authority over the Sabbath:

Mark 2:28 (Matthew 12:8; Luke 6:5)
"[S]o the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath."

But this in no way conveys special status for Jesus; this is supported by the statement he made just before the above:

Mark 2:27
"The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath"

The natural follow-up for this would be "so man is master also of the Sabbath" which is precisely what Mark 2:28 means. The "Son of Man" here means no more than "man". [22]

It is therefore clear that no special meaning should be attached to the term "Son of Man"-at least as it was used by the historical Jesus. [a] It means, in the way Jesus used it, simply "I" or "man". Perhaps it was also intended by Jesus to be a self-deprecatory reference to himself. As Ian Wilson said:

the capital letters with which it appears in modern Christian works give it precisely the opposite inference to that intended. [23]

Jesus, in other words, may have, meant the phrase to be a sign of his humility which the Christians misread as a proclamation of his divinity.

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The Messiah

What Jesus actually claimed himself to be, we simply do not know. The information available to us simply tells us that the later Christian assertion that Jesus taught about his own divinity is not supported by the authentic passages in the gospels. We do not even know if Jesus believed himself to be the (Jewish) messiah. Leaving aside the gospel of John, which veracity is, as always, suspect, the synoptics record only one instance where he actually claimed he was the messiah:

Mark 9:41
"For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward. "

Again, the authenticity of the above passage is doubtful, for two very good reasons. The expression "Christ" without the definite article (i.e. the Christ) is not found anywhere in the synoptics or the Acts but is a common Pauline phrase, of which the passage below is a typical example:

Romans 8:9 (Also I Corinthians 1:12; 3:23 etc)
Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

The second reason is that we find a parallel verse in Matthew that does not have the term "Christ":

Matthew 10:42
"And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward."

The passage in Matthew is very probably the saying in its original; form, while the tradition Mark was drawing from for this passage already suffered Pauline emendation. [24]

We will not be discussing the interrogation of Jesus by the Sanhedrin and Pilate where questions regarding his messianic status were posed for it has already been demonstrated elsewhere that these episodes are unhistorical.

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The "I Am" Sayings in John

We have noted earlier that the gospel of John, the least historical of all the gospels, is the one that comes closest to making the claim for Jesus' divinity. The most often cited passages from John are the so-called "I Am" sayings. In this gospel Jesus is quoted to have used the absolute phrase "I am" (Greek: ego eimi) - without a predicate - four times: [b]

John 8:24
“I told you that you would die for your sins, for you will die in your sins, unless you believe that I am.”

John 8:28
“When you have lifted up the son of man, then you will realize that I am.”

John 8:58
“Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”

John 13:19
“ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am.”

Before we look at whether these words were actually spoken by Jesus, we have to ask ourselves what the statement could have meant to the audience of the gospel. In the Greco-Roman world the phrase was widely used to refer to any one of the multitude of divine beings or gods. Among the Jews such a designation could mean that the person was making the claim of being Yahweh himself. This is what God supposedly said to Moses:

Exodus 3:14
I am who I am

Thus the intended audience of the gospel could have understood these “I am” sayings as either Jesus was a divine being who was sent by God (and which has the divine spark in him) or that Jesus was Yahweh himself. [25] In view of the subordinate passages we saw above (e.g. John 5:18-19, 7:16, 14:28-31) the first possibility seems more likely.

The most obvious question with regards to these sayings is, of course, did Jesus actually utter them?. We have strong reasons to believe that he did not and that the passages are the free composition of John.

We find that the character of Jesus as presented in the fourth gospel differs substantially from that presented in the synoptics. We have already alluded to this elsewhere. Here we will concentrate on the difference with respect to Jesus proclamation of his own identity. [26] First we note that in proclamations regarding himself, Jesus is presented as behaving in very different ways by the synoptics and by the fourth gospel. In the synoptics, when asked about his own person, he is never depicted of commenting on it directly. Indeed in cases where he was called the messiah by others he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone about it>:

Mark 8:27-30
Jesus...asked his disciples, "Who do people say I am?" They answered him, "John the Baptist; and others Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about it.

This is in complete contradiction to the "I am" sayings above where he is depicted as openly telling people (including the Pharisees and "the Jews") of his (divine) status.

Similarly when challenged about his authority to teach, the synoptics depict him as refusing to answering where his authority lies:

Mark 11:27-33
As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, "By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you authority to do them?" Jesus said to them, "I will ask you one question, answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin? Answer me." They argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But shall we say, 'Of human origin'?"-they were afraid of the crowd for all regarded John as truly a prophet. They answered Jesus, "We do not know." And Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."

Note again here the general reticence of Jesus in speaking about himself and his status. In John, in the passage with the "I am" sayings, Jesus is depicted as openly telling the Pharisees his authority comes from the father:

John 8:13-17
Then the Pharisees said to him, "You are testifying on your own behalf; you testimony is not valid." Jesus answered, "Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from...In your law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. I testify on my own behalf and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf."

Note that the two ways of talking about himself could not simply have by done the same person concurrently, save perhaps for one on the verge of insanity! For if you have already openly told people (including your "enemies") about your identity, being reticent about it at another time simply does not make sense anymore. Thus it is simply not historically viable for Jesus to have presented himself in a secretive, reticent way and in an open proclamative way. One of these depictions has got to be unhistorical.

The question is, of course, which is the unhistorical one? We have already given reasons earlier why John's gospel is probably the least historical of the four. [c] Here we will look at the specific reasons why the sayings given in John (including the "I am" sayings) cannot be considered historical.

The whole issue comes in the style of Jesus' teachings, which differs substantially between the synoptics and John. In the Synoptics Jesus is depicted as teaching in short pithy sayings (e.g. Matthew 10:24 "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor is a slave above the master."; Mark 2:27 "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath."; Luke 6:44 "Figs are no gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.") and in parables (e.g. Matthew 20:1-15 "The Vineyard Laborers"; Mark 4:30-32 "The Mustard Seed"; Luke 10:30-35 "The Good Samaritan")

In John these are missing and the main style of Jesus' preaching is that of long, extended, metaphorical discourses.

Studies in the transmission of oral tradition have shown that sayings and anecdotes that are most often remembered and retold are those that are short, provocative and memorable. Indeed as we have seen, this is precisely how the sayings of Jesus are preserved in the synoptics, in short pithy sayings and in rather colorful parables. [d] People tend to remember the gists of stories but not the detailed wording. For instance, we tell the same jokes with slightly different words each time but as long as we remember the form and the punchline the joke "works" as intended. One recent study shows that most people forget the particular wording of a statement they had heard after an interval of only sixteen syllables between them hearing it and getting a request to retell it. In other words we know that people remember sayings and anecdotes (although not always faithfully) we also know that people cannot remember long discourses from memory alone.[28] The "I am" sayings are part of the typical long winded, tedious and repetitive sermons given in John. Their form is not something which allows for easy oral transmission. They are not witty nor do they have any easily remembered form or structure. The sayings in John are ramblings which are not memorable and not memorizable. Thus we can conclude that the "I am" sayings in John are not historical and were put into the mouth of Jesus by the evangelist himself.

The scholarly consensus (always excepting fundamentalists/evangelical "scholars") about the non-historicity of the bulk of Johanine sayings attributed to Jesus can be seen by anyone who will simply take time to review the available literature. Part of this is an almost total rejection of the "I am" sayings as historical. Some of the more recent examples include:

  • Robert Funk, Roy Hoover & The Jesus Seminar The Five Gospels, Macmillan 1993, p419
    [In discussing the "I am" sayings]
    In virtually every case, the reader is being confronted with the language of the evangelist and not the language of Jesus.

  • Gerd Ludemann, Jesus After 2000 Years, Prometheus 2001, p405
    The "I am" saying...with the universal claim which it expresses is unthinkable in the mouth of the historical Jesus.

  • Geza Vermes, The Changing Face of Jesus. Penguin 2000, p47
    [In his discussion of the Johanine tendency to equate Jesus with God-including the "I am" sayings]
    The whole ideology reflects the dreamlike cogitation of a religious contemplative, possibly Jewish, addressing a Gentile confraternity nurtured on Hellenistic mysticism.

John E.P. Sanders, Professor of Religion at Duke University, succinctly describes the situation, with respect to the differences between John and the synoptics, thus:

It is impossible to think that Jesus spent his ministry teaching in two such completely different ways, conveying such different contents, and that there were simply two traditions, each going back to Jesus, one transmitting 50 per cent of what he said and another one the other 50 per cent, with almost no overlaps. Consequently for the last 150 or so years scholars have had to choose. They have almost unanimously, and I think entirely correctly, concluded that the teaching of the historical Jesus is to be sought in the synoptic gospels and that John represented an advanced theological development, in which the meditations on the person and work of Christ are presented in the first person, as if Jesus said them. [29]

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Notes

a.Some Christians have argued that the term son of man could well have meant something different to Jesus than the normal everyday circumlocational use (i.e. meaning "I"). They normally site the passage from Daniel 7:13 which speaks of "one like a son of man" coming down from heaven. That an apocalyptic interpretation attached to a single individual certainly took hold on both Jewish and Christian writers after 70 CE, the same cannot be said for the time before the fall of Jerusalem. Indeed the most likely interpretation for that phrase in Daniel (the one that the author himself took) was that the term "son of man" in Daniel 7:13 has a collective meaning which represents "the saints of the most high" (Daniel 7:18, 22, 27). This interpretation is confirmed by the recently discovered Aramaic document (Apocryphon of Daniel) from Qumran. (Source: Vermes, The Changing Face of Jesus, p39)

b.Most translations provide the passages above with the predicate "he" which is not in the original Greek. I have thus given the passages above as close to the original Greek as possible.

There are also other sayings put in the mouth of Jesus by John with the "I am" component but with a predicate:

  • John 6:35 "I am the bread of life"
  • John 8:12 "I am the light of the world"
  • John 10:11 "I am the good shepherd"
  • John 11:25 "I am the resurrection and the life"
  • John 14:6 "I am the way and I am the truth and I am life"
  • John 15:1 "I am the authentic vine"
These are related to what we have discussed above and are subject to the same critique as the absolute "I am" given above.

c.Which have already seen elsewhere that John's presentation of Jesus career is unlikely to be historical. One poignant example is the incident called the cleansing of the temple, given in all four gospels (Mark 11:12-19; Matthew 21:12-13; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:12-22). All the synoptics agree in putting this event very close to his arrest and execution. This makes historical sense, for the commotion Jesus' caused there would certainly have serious repercussions. Yet John had placed this incident at the beginning of his career and had Jesus preaching with impunity for another three years!

d.The long discourses in the synoptics (such as the "Sermon on the Mount" [Matthew 5-7] or "The Sermon on the Plain" [Luke 6:20-49] are artificial creations by the evangelists made by stringing together shorter sayings of Jesus. These are fundamentally different from the long discourses in John which are singular complete "sermons".[27] We provided a more detailed look at this elsewhere.

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References

1.Renan, The Life of Jesus: p132
2.McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict: p98
3.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p110-111
4.Nineham, Saint Mark: p91
5.McDowell, op. cit.: p100-101
6.Cuppitt & Armstrong, Who Was Jesus?: p60
7.Cuppitt & Armstrong, op. cit.: p60
Guignebert, Jesus: p260
8.Ibid: p260-261
9.Ibid: p264
10.Craveri, op. cit.: p112
11.Guignebert, Jesus: p262
12.Craveri, op. cit.: p111
Guignebert, Jesus: p270
13.Craveri, op. cit.: p111
14.Niell & Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament: p381
Vermes, The Changing Face of Jesus: p39, 176
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p152
15.Nineham, op. cit.: p93
16.Guignebert, op. cit.: p277
17.Ibid: p277
18.Ibid: p274
19.Ibid: p275
20.Ibid: p277
21.Ibid: p278
22.Ibid: p278
23.Wilson, op. cit.: p152
24.Guignebert, op. cit.: p281
25.Funk et.al., The Five Gospels: p419
Ludemann, Jesus After 2000 Years: p486
26.Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus: p70
Vermes, The Changing Face of Jesus: p22-24
27.Vermes, op. cit.: p23
28.Funk et.al. op. cit.: p27-29
29.Sanders, op.cit.:p70-71

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