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Jesus as God in the Synoptics

This, I believe, will be my final post on an issue that changed my mind about while doing the research for How Jesus Became God.   This last one is a big one – for me, at least.   And it’s not one that I develop at length in the book in any one place, since it covers a span of material.   Here’s the deal:

Until a year ago I would have said – and frequently did say, in the classroom, in public lectures, and in my writings – that Jesus is portrayed as God in the Gospel of John but not, definitely not, in the other Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.   I would point out that only in John did Jesus say such things as “Before Abraham, I am” (8:58; taking upon himself the name of God, as given to Moses in Exodus 3); his Jewish opponents knew full well what he was saying: they take up stones to stone him.   Later he says “I and the Father are one” (10:30)  Again, the Jews break out the stones.  Later he tells his disciples, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”  (14:9).  And in a later prayer to God he asks him to “glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world was created” (17:5).

None of these sayings, or anything like them, can be found in the other canonical Gospels.  John is clearly portrayed as a divine being in John, but only in John (I would have argued).

Sometimes students, audience members, or readers would object, that even if the other Gospels do not flat-out *call* Jesus God, his divinity is implied in other ways.  For example, he does amazing miracles that surely only a divine figure could do; and he forgives people’s sins, which surely is a prerogative of God alone; and he receives worship as people bow down before him, which surely indicates that he welcomes divine honors.

I would typically respond to these comments by arguing that all of these things are completely compatible with human, not just divine, authority.   (I still hold to this view, even though I have a different conclusion now about the Christology of Matthew, Mark, and Luke).

With respect to Jesus’ ability to do miracles:  in the Hebrew Bible the prophets Elijah and Elisha did fantastic miracles through the power of God – including healing the sick and raising the dead —  and in the New Testament so did the apostles Peter and Paul; but that did not make any of them divine.  They were humans.

With respect to the forgiveness of sins:  when Jesus forgives sins, he never says “I forgive you,” as God might say, but “your sins are forgiven,” which means that God has forgiven your sins.  This prerogative for pronouncing sins forgiven was otherwise reserved for Jewish priests in honor of sacrifices worshipers made at the temple.  Jesus may be claiming a priestly, not a divine prerogrative.

With respect to people bowing down to him in worship:  kings were worshiped – even in the Bible (Matt. 18:26) — by veneration and obeisance, just as God was.  Here Jesus may be accepting the worship due to him as the future king.

As a result, none of these things, in and of itself, indicates clearly that Jesus is divine.    One could argue that the three things taken together as a group makes a stronger case for Jesus’ divinity:  Jesus has the role of prophet, priest, and king – not just one thing or the other.  And together these things suggest he is something more than human.

But more than that, in doing my research and thinking harder and harder about the issue, when I (a) came to realize that the Gospels not only attributed these things to him, but also understood him to be adopted as the Son of God at his baptism (Mark 1:9-11), or to have been made the son of God by virtue of the fact that God was literally his father, in that it was the Spirit of God that made the virgin Mary pregnant (Luke 1:35), and (b) realized what “adoption” meant to people in the Roman world (as indicated in a previous post), I finally yielded.  These Gospels do indeed think of Jesus as divine.   Being made the very Son of God who can heal, cast out demons, raise the dead, pronounce divine forgiveness, receive worship together suggests that even for these Gospels Jesus was a  divine being, not merely a human.

But in a different sense from John.  (And in a different sense from one another.)

In some ways, much of my book is predicated on the idea that when someone says that Jesus is God, you always have to ask “in what sense?”   John’s sense is different from Mark’s and Mark’s is different from Luke’s and Luke’s is different from Paul’s and so on.

For Mark, Jesus was adopted to be God’s son at his baptism.  Before that, he was a mere mortal.   For Luke, Jesus was conceived by God and so was literally God’s son, from the point of his conception.  (In Luke Jesus did not exist *prior* to that conception to the virgin – his conception is when he came into existence).   For John, Jesus was a pre-existent divine being – the Word of God who was both with God and was God at the beginning of all things – who became a human.  Here he is not born of a virgin and he is not adopted by God at the baptism (neither event is narrated in John – and could not be, given, John’s Christology).

So yes, now I agree that Jesus is portrayed as a divine being, a God-man, in all the Gospels.  But in very different ways, depending on which Gospel you read.

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Did Disciples Have Visions of Jesus?
Interview with Trinities.org on How Jesus Became God

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Comments

  1. stephena  April 13, 2014

    Well, I disagree here.

    Every time the Jewish scribes approached him and accused Jesus of something, they were portrayed as WRONG or mistaken. Only by saying “they have a point” can we assume that Jesus was claiming divinity.

    He in no way said or implied that he was Divine or partially Divine or anything other than a fully human man, nor did the 12 Apostles in Acts, nor did even Paul, for whom it would have been a great benefit in Pagan Roman towns to have had a Demigod as a Dying/Rising savior! I continue to believe the “I Am” statement was either poorly translated from the (lost) originals (and it’s not the only place in the Gospels where the wording seems “off”) or was simply a foil created by the writer to show that Jesus was being misunderstood.

    The idea of adoption, even as you now accept it, does not necessarily imply “divinity” either. Jesus was adopted uniquely as a “Son”, for sure (as your excellent analysis shows, in Orthodox Corruptions, this simple Adoption to a special Sonship was covered up by the early church) but he was anointed just as David and the prophets had been anointed. And Son of Man/Son of God language in the Gospels do not imply Divinity, but implies full HUMANITY, if anything.

    The Fourth Gospel, of course, does make implications of Divinity, esp. in the first “Hymn” (that, if I’m not mistaken, seems to be a later addition) but even there, “John” ironically goes even further than the Synopics to show that Jesus could ONLY act because God gave him the power to act, that he is a mere man, and that he is completely subordinated to God. Nowhere in the Gospels is this more strongly stated, ironically, than in John, where the Nicene definition – which attempts to merge Jesus into the Father, Yahweh – kind of falls flat.

    • BarrieS  May 6, 2014

      In Luke 20, Jesus gives a dialogue that would support his pre-existence.
      “But he said to them, “How can they say that the Christ is David’s son? For David himself says in the Book of Psalms, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet.’ David thus calls him Lord; so how is he his son?” vv.41-44

      So, he isn’t just a man there. No man pre-exists, especially the king messiah. Moshiach ben David/messiah son of David is simply and only a man according to the Tanakh/Hebrew Bible. He is nothing more, he doesn’t come down from heaven, he doesn’t pre-exist, he isn’t God’s son.

      I don’t know how the gospel writers could have been Jews. Matthew’s author didn’t even know Hebrew, because he mistranslates the Tanakh.

      Paul claims that Jesus was the “firstborn of all creation” in Colossians 1, so there is no way he thought Jesus was only a man.

      • BarrieS  May 6, 2014

        “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother…He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities–all things were created through him and for him.He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Colossians 1:1, 15-20

        Paul, who was supposedly not just a Jew, but a Pharisee, no less, taught things that Jews have never believed. The Hebrew prophets never spoke of these things, this son of God who is the “image of the invisible God”, who supposedly created all things. I think Paul was heavily influenced by Hellenistic and Platonic belief systems, and I have to venture to guess he was never a Pharisee, despite his claims.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 6, 2014

          Paul probably didn’t write Colossians. If you want the *full* evidence, see my book Forgery and Counterforgery.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  May 6, 2014

        Luke 20 is usually thought to be understood (by Luke) as a reference to what *would* happen at the resurrection, not something that had already happened before Jesus’ birth. And most critical scholars doubt if Paul wrote Colossians. You might look at my book Forged for this. (But I agree, Paul thought Jesus was divine)

        • stephena  May 6, 2014

          Dr. Ehrman, you used to look at the same evidence and say the earliest Christians believed Jesus to be fully human, but adopted by God in a special way as his “son.” And that it was commonly understood that this either happened at his baptism (as the Ebionites believed, backed up by the corrupted Luke 3:22 (variant in D) originally reflecting the language of Psalm 2:9) or, as in Paul’s letters, at his resurrection and ascension.

          Paul’s letters (the authentic ones) like Acts, are all replete with references to Jesus being a “man” chosen by God. As your own books note, every introduction to a Pauline reinforces this.

          My question (again) What changed? One newly interpreted line cannot possibly reverse all your thinking “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” (Adoptionist chapter.) I’m no scholar, but how come there was such dissension about the Divinity of Christ through the 4th Century when Paul supposedly made it clear in the First that Jesus was somehow ‘Divine?’

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  May 7, 2014

            You apparently haven’t read my book?

  2. Mohy  April 13, 2014

    I ve a question why does no gospel say anything about jesus life before the age of thirty i mean jesus lived for 30 years among people if god lives with us 30 years without helping people or saying something how could this happen all gospels talk about three years and ignore the other 30

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 14, 2014

      There are stories of his early life (not many!) in both Matthew and Luke. The authors, and their audiences, were far more interested in his ministry, death, and resurrection.

  3. Wilusa  April 13, 2014

    Off-topic, but something I’ve been wondering about… Say Jesus had been arrested a day later, and Pilate had already left to go back to Caesarea. Would Jesus have been sent to Caesarea for trial and execution, none of it taking place in Jerusalem? In other words, was the very public spectacle of crucifixion *in Jerusalem* – for an offense against the State, not “normal” criminal activity – possible *only* when the Prefect was there?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 14, 2014

      Good question. Well, he certainly would not have been crucified without a Roman sentence. So it’s a good question — I don’t really know. I suppose he *would* have been sent to Pilate elsewhere.

  4. hwl  April 13, 2014

    “Being made the very Son of God who can heal, cast out demons, raise the dead, pronounce divine forgiveness…” Do you now combine your previous apocalyptic reading of Jesus’ healing, exorcisms, raising the dead etc. together with your divine reading? That is, these passages demonstrate in the imminent kingdom of God, there will be no sickness, no demons, no death – AND Jesus is displaying his divine attributes ahead of time?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 14, 2014

      I don’t think Jesus really healed the sick or raised the dead. I’m saying the Synoptic authors *believed* he did, and that this belief involved both the belief that the Kingdom was beginning to manifest itself and that it was because the divine king was already in their midst.

      • hwl  April 14, 2014

        Yes, I was asking about the synoptic authors’ beliefs, not whether their beliefs are correct.

      • stephena  May 6, 2014

        And yet, Jesus consistently notes that his authority comes from God (noting always that he distinguishes between himself and God, as when he is questioned about the commandments and says he’s not “good” like God, who is alone Good.) He has no authority to let someone sit on God’s right hand (Matt. 20:23.)

        Oddly, John stresses this, and Jesus’ complete subordination to God, even MORE than the Synoptics, with Jesus going out of his way to say his abilities to heal or do other miracles of healing come from God, not himself, even saying, “My teaching is not mine, but His who sent me” (John 7:16) and clearly distinguishing himself from the “one true God” (17:3.) This is not the language of a God or someone who thinks he’s Divine, or even semi-Divine. I see a BESTOWAL of Divine power here, from God, but not equality in the Nicene sense.

        Where am I wrong, Dr. Ehrman?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 7, 2014

          Again, you may want to read my book.

          • stephena  May 10, 2014

            Thanks. I’ll get right on that. Until then, this is not an enlightening response.

  5. Robertus  April 13, 2014

    “For Luke, Jesus was conceived by God and so was literally God’s son, from the point of his conception. (In Luke Jesus did not exist *prior* to that conception to the virgin – his conception is when he came into existence).”

    Do you see Matthew as the same as Luke on this point?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 14, 2014

      Yes, but implicitly rather than explicitly.

    • EricBrown  April 22, 2014

      Although I encountered something interesting in the reading this Easter Sunday in the RC church. Acts 10:38, supposed to be written by the author of Luke sounds very adoptionist to me:

      “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him”

      Hardly sounds like one of three persons

  6. RonaldTaska  April 14, 2014

    Good post especially the arguments about miracles and the forgiveness of sins not being evidence of divinity. Thanks.

  7. gavm  April 14, 2014

    Proff you think any gospels writers saw him as an immaterial, spaceless, timeless being who is all knowing, can do anything logically possible, is perfect in every way and the initial cause of reality itself? i ask this seriously because this is what i (and most people) think of when we talk about god.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 14, 2014

      I don’t think they tell us enough for us to know. My sense is that most ancient people do *not* think of God as immatierial, spaceless, and timeless.

  8. RonaldTaska  April 14, 2014

    These posts about how, in writing this book, you changed your mind about various issues have been very interesting and quite a contrast to all those who are convinced that they know the truth and, hence, have never changed their minds about anything. Have the discussions and reviews, and even the critical book, that followed the publication of your book, changed your mind about anything?

  9. Wilusa  April 16, 2014

    I’ve read your book, but it was a lot to absorb. So by now, I’m not clear on this point.

    Do you make a distinction between the authors of the Synoptics believing Jesus was “divine” and believing he was “God”? Are you saying they believed he was “God, in a sense” if they believed he was the “Son of Man” or the “adopted Son of God”?

    I just reread the above, and I’m still not sure. Sometimes you say “divine being,” and sometimes you say “God.” But you’ve told us that in the ancient world, angels were considered “divine.”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 17, 2014

      What I try to map out is that being God meant something different to most people in antiquity from what it means to most people today. There were lots of divine beings — gods — and for Christians, Jesus was one of them. Eventually he wasn’t merely a lower form of divinity (a lesser god) but fully equal with the one God of Israel himself.

  10. Wilusa  April 16, 2014

    I’ll add another question here. Do scholars agree on about what percentage of the population of the “Holy Land” in Jesus’s day had apocalyptic beliefs…before his preaching?

    If we assume he wasn’t performing miracles, it must have been his preaching that attracted however many people he did attract. But was he converting them to the idea of the coming “Kingdom”? Or did they already believe in it, and was he urging them to live in accordance with God’s will in order to show God that many of His people were worthy, and speed its coming?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 17, 2014

      No, I’m afraid we don’t know percentages. And I’m not sure *how* large a following he actually had during his ministry. Whoever was following him agreed with his message of the coming kingdom and the need to prepare for it.

  11. bobnaumann  April 19, 2014

    I suppose I’m not the only person who has had problems trying to understand what Paul really believed, but if I recall correctly in your book you were of the opinion that Paul believed in a high Christology by citing early creeds, poems, and hymns reflecting Jesus as a preexisting divine being. But in his letter to the Romans, Paul clearly seems to be in the Adoptionist camp. Did he change his mind? Or were the early Roman Christians Adoptionists and was this Paul’s attempt to be accepted by expressing like beliefs?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 20, 2014

      Some creeds had one Christology and others had another; Paul quoted the various ones depending on what his immediate purpose was.

      • stephena  April 30, 2014

        Of course not all “Paul” was written by “Paul.” Romans was early and Adoptionist, right? So what did the later authentic letters indicate about his Christology? Have you written about this, Dr. Ehrman?

  12. adamsmark  May 12, 2014

    Professor Ehrman, in How Jesus Became God, you note that a Yahweh passage (Is. 45:22-23) is applied to Jesus in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Is not a Yahweh passage also applied to Jesus in Mark 1:3 (Matt. 3:3 and Luke 3:4, too)? Does this indicate that the author of Mark understood Jesus to be divine, in some sense? Further, does this indicate that he understood Jesus to be divine before his baptism? How do you interpret the application of a Yahweh passage to Jesus in the synoptics?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 12, 2014

      Some people have argued that, but I’ve always thought that Mark understands Jesus as “Lord” in a different sense from Yahweh. In other words, when Mark talks about preparing theway of the Lord, heis using the Greek Bible which uses Lord as the term for Yahweh — but the term can mean otehr things too, and Mark takes him to mean one of these other things (the Lord/master, not the LORD GOD ALMIGHTY).

      • adamsmark  May 13, 2014

        I don’t see how Mark could have quoted Is. 40:3 without noticing that the passage references God: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (ESV). Even in translation, the reference is obvious. That Mark might be quoting the passage incidentally or liberally is certainly possible, but at the very least this introduces a degree of ambiguity. How might Mark’s Gentile and/or Jewish auditors have understood this reference?

        Of course, there are other considerations. Did the “forerunner” component of the narrative originate with Mark, or did he inherit it? (My thoughts are that he likely inherited it.) If the latter, what was his source? Did it come from early, Jewish Christians? If the former, it remains possible (even likely) that Mark was making a claim about Christ’s nature.

        • JEffler  May 18, 2014

          I think you have a strong point and I think that is correct. Mark 1:3 is from Isaiah 40:3 and specifically talks about YWHY. I think this is a text that strongly adhere’s to the prexistance of Christ due to the fact John the Baptist “preparing the way” of the Lord (Jesus).

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  May 19, 2014

            Do you think, then, that Mark understands that Jesus is YHWH? Now *that* would be an amazing Christology!

          • adamsmark  May 20, 2014

            If anything, this introduces an element of “high” Christology into the Gospel of Mark. John the Baptist ushers in the divine word — how ever this is to be understood. It is noteworthy that John *precedes* Jesus, and that Jesus is portrayed, not as an ordinary man later to be exalted, but as a pre-exalted divine presence — again, how ever this is to be understood. Most surely, the Gospel of Mark (or an earlier tradition) applies a YHWH passage to Christ, and this is not unprecedented.

            The author of Mark is deliberately ambiguous, inviting questions as to the nature of the Christ. In Mark 12, Jesus reinterprets Psalm 110, saying that David prophesied — “in the Holy Spirit” — that *he* (David) saw the Lord (YHWH) say to his Lord (the Christ, as interpreted by Jesus), “Sit at my right hand…” Again, the Christ (Jesus) is a preexisting being, whom David saw in antiquity. Concluding his interpretation of Psalm 110, Jesus states, “David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?”

            The YHWH reference in Mark 12 cannot be applied to Jesus, in this instance, but he is closely connected to YHWH, so closely that his (the Christ’s) status as the “son of David” (not disputed in Mark 10) is not understood in any traditional sense.

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