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Did Jesus Call Himself God?

I am posting two brief posts a day giving the short boxes I include in the new edition of my textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.   This particular one deals with a topic I’ve addressed several times on the blog, in view of my book How Jesus Became God.

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What Do You Think?

Box 10.5  Did Jesus Call Himself God?

It is an interesting to ask: “What did Jesus say about himself?”    More specifically, you might ask: “Did Jesus ever call himself God?”   As it turns out, it depends on which Gospel you read.

In the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus never says he is God.  He does talk about himself as the Son of Man; he says he must be killed and raised from the dead; and he admits he is the messiah.  But the vast bulk of his teaching in these Gospels is not about himself at all.  It is about God, the coming Kingdom of God, and the way to live in preparation for it.

Not in John.  In John Jesus teaches almost entirely …

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In John Jesus teaches almost entirely about himself:  who he is, his relation to the Father, how he has come into the world from heaven above to convey the truth that can bring eternal life.   And he makes some remarkable claims about himself.  These claims are found in John and nowhere else.

For example, to the Jews who do not believe in him, Jesus says “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).   Abraham lived 1800 years earlier, and Jesus is claiming to have existed before that.  Even more than that, he claims for himself the name of God, “I am” (see Exodus 3:13-14).  His Jewish opponents know exactly what he is saying.  They pick up stones to execute him for blasphemy.   Two chapters later, he does it again, claiming “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).   Once again they break out the stones.  Later, to his disciples, he says “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” (John 14:9).

These teachings of Jesus that he is a divine correlate with what John says elsewhere, as we have seen in the Prologue “The Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1)  And in the ending, when Thomas confesses that Jesus is “My Lord and my God” (20:28)

For John, Jesus is obviously God, and he says he is (not God the Father but … equal with God?).  Why do you suppose these sayings are not in the earlier Gospels?   If Matthew, Mark, and Luke knew that Jesus had said such things, wouldn’t they want to tell their readers?   It’s worth thinking about.[/private]


Jesus’ Apocalyptic Message in Matthew
How Reliable are Oral Traditions?

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Comments

  1. talmoore
    talmoore  October 26, 2018

    I don’t think Jesus is saying he is literally God. I think he’s saying he is the true messenger of God. For instance, if Mike Pence came to you and said, “Donald Trump and I are one,” or “If you have seen me, you have seen Donald Trump,” you wouldn’t conclude that Mike Pence and Donald Trump are literally the same person. You would assume that Pence means that he speaks and works for Trump. It’s a metaphorical oneness. Everything Pence says and does is in line with and under the authority of Trump. That’s probably what the writer of John means by having Jesus utter these expressions.

    The fact that the Jews are confused about it, that is supposed to be representative of how the Jews, contemporaneous with the writer of John, were critical of Christian claims to Jesus’ messiahship and authority. Christians were saying Jesus is the angelic true messenger sent by God (the Logos that was with God at the beginning), imbued with all the power and authority of God, and Jews weren’t having it. It would be like if Pence walked into a crowd of MAGA people and claimed that he and Trump were one, and the crowd shouted him down, because they didn’t believe that Pence had the same position of authority.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2018

      Since the Jews take up stones to stone him for blasphemy, he was certainly thought to be saying something pretty radical.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 28, 2018

        Well, the Roman authorities in the cities tried to keep a lid on stonings (often unsuccessfully), which suggests that such stonings were much more common outside of the cities, within the countryside. And out in the countryside, a person could be stoned for any old reason. Compare the modern Muslim world, where it’s common for people to get stoned out in the rural areas, even for relatively minor blasphemies, like cursing at a Mullah. Such events, however, are rather rare in major Muslims cities. You’ll occasionally see people publicly executed, such as by hanging or beheading, in Iran or Saudi Arabia, but it’s extremely rare for the state authority stone people to death. One gets the impression that Roman occupied Palestine was comparable.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 29, 2018

          Interesting point. Where do we have Roman discussions of Jewish stonings?

          • talmoore
            talmoore  October 29, 2018

            I’ve haven’t found any Roman sources on stoning. I’m going off of what Jewish sources, like Josephus, either state or imply.

          • dschmidt01
            dschmidt01  November 5, 2018

            Maybe they liked getting stoned…oh wait I think you meant something else entirely

        • Iskander Robertson  November 1, 2018

          Are you saying that putting himself above abraham (before abraham i am) was seen as “for any odd reason” ?

          so in others the blasphemy does not necessarily have to mean claiming to be identical to yhwh?

          • Telling
            Telling  November 2, 2018

            From a metaphysical viewpoint “I am” is merely a statement of fact. Descarte famously says same thing in famous line “I think therefore I am”. In religion, “I am” is a statement of our eternal natures that are above temporal identities and thus divine.

            The Hindu Bhagavad-Gita elevates “I am” to all things, heaven and earth:
            :
            “I am the taste of water, the light of the sun and the moon, the syllable om in the Vedic mantras; I am the sound in ether and ability in man.” –Lord Krishna.

            The Church made the mistake of reading these things too literally, and in believing they alone have a lock on wisdom-knowledge. Other religions and other societies better understand this. The West is spiritually a toddler.

    • godspell  October 28, 2018

      Mike Pence would never say that. It would be rank heresy. Trump would excommunicate him. Via Twitter. 😐

      That analogy doesn’t work, in all seriousness, because Pence can’t claim that kind of authority. Even in a normal Presidency (which this isn’t), the Vice President can’t say “I am imbued with all the power and authority of the Presidency.” Not unless the President is removed from office, and even then there’s no guarantee people will feel the same way about his successor. In any event, Trump is the primary deliverer of his message, such as it is. Pence is a largely irrelevant adjunct. So for this to work, you’d need a gospel in which God is out there delivering his message directly to the faithful, day after day, and Jesus is just standing by nodding his head gravely, and laughing at all God’s jokes, like the sidekick on a latenight talk show.

      John’s Jesus is saying that he is much more than a messenger–of which, please recall, there had been many before. Abraham, Moses, all the prophets. Jesus is very conscious of being in that line of succession in the other gospels. He may be the last, but he is not claiming to be greater. He is adding to what they said, but he is not detracting from any of it.

      John’s Jesus is claiming to be not only greater, but on a higher level entirely. He is not speaking with God–he is one with God. He is God. Or rather, he is God’s word made manifest. Jesus was there from the beginning, as John tells us, waiting for the moment to come to earth and make God’s final will known. That’s more than an angel. In Jewish belief, angels are distinctly individual created beings, who can rebel, who can disobey, who can become evil. John’s Jesus is a direct manifestation of God’s power, indivisible from God. When you hear him speak, it’s not him quoting God. It is God speaking directly through him. Not a messenger. An avatar. The Hindu sacred texts explain this kind of thing better. And no, I don’t think John read the Mahabarata.

      😉

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      • Bart
        Bart  October 29, 2018

        Good point about the analogy.

      • Telling
        Telling  November 2, 2018

        Donald Trump and I are One.

        Now drop Trump: “I am One”. “God and I are One”. “I am Donald Trump”. “I am Spartacus”.

        What’s the problem?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 4, 2018

          Well, for some members of the blog, if you and Donald Trump are one, that would indeed be a big problem. For others, not so much….

          • Telling
            Telling  November 4, 2018

            If a member of the blog said he and the _devil_ are one, I wouldn’t find that to be a problem. I would ask the same respect.

          • dschmidt01
            dschmidt01  November 5, 2018

            I AM bored with this topic. It sounds to me like it’s all conjecture. John is so theologically written I believe everything the author attributes to Jesus is made up. At least the synaptic gospels sort of corroborate each other by telling some of the same stories.

  2. Matt2239  October 26, 2018

    The existence of anti-Semitism in John is attributed to the author’s need to mollify the Roman occupiers. Isn’t the absence of Jesus talking about his own divinity in earlier gospels also a sign that the Roman occupiers would not tolerate it?

    Maybe it all goes back to that King of the Jews stuff. In the earlier three gospels, Jesus was not King and the anti-Semitism is weaker. In John, Jesus is the word, the word was with God and the word was God — and the Jews who give the Romans so many problems are no friend of Jesus either. In fact, they crucified him. In the time of John though, Jews were the overwhelming majority and Christians were the few.

    Characters: 666 Words: 127 Word Limit: 400 Comment Limit: 3

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2018

      My sense is that all this literature was “in-house” and no one thought about or expected Romans to have any access to it. (And in fact we have no record of any Roman authorities having any idea what was in the Christian writings for at least a couple of centuries.)

    • godspell  October 30, 2018

      It is certainly possible that some Christians went to pains to differentiate themselves from Jews after the Romans crushed the rebellion, in order to avoid meeting the same fate. I have to believe this is an attitude Jesus would have condemned, simply because it denotes a failure of faith. The Good Samaritan is no Jew, has probably been conditioned to dislike Jews, but he sees a fellow being in trouble, and doesn’t stop to think that he may meet the same fate.

      So even allowing for the fact that few of us would happily face down angry legions of well-armed soldiers on behalf of people who have shown hostility to our beliefs and in some cases persecuted us themselves, it still does Christians no credit that they distanced themselves from the progenitors of their faith.

      But that’s all beside the point. John isn’t reacting to that at all. John is not that worldly. John is only angry at the Jews because he sees them as having been the first to hear Jesus’ message and they mainly rejected it, and him, and (as he sees it) participated in his judicial murder. It has nothing at all to do with fear of the Romans confusing Christians and Jews (which was going to become less and less likely as more and more Christians came from the ranks of pagans).

      John hates Jews for remaining Jews.

      I hate typing those words. But that’s the truth. And so much evil came from that. And nothing at all that Jesus ever intended.

      Let’s just remember that many who most vocally (and violently) react to Jews today are themselves atheists. But still influenced by centuries of ‘Christian’ propaganda.

  3. Travis  October 26, 2018

    I was just watching your debate from 2015 with Dr Bass – Did the Historical Jesus Claim to be Divine. His confusion on the use of Yahweh was quite, well, confusing. Also, his reference to “literary artistry” with John 17:3 was interesting. I would not have thought he’d admit that on camera. Great debate.

  4. balivi  October 26, 2018

    For the John’s age for Paul had already proclaimed the christ. I think so John was a out- baptized from christ, apostate person.
    John doesn’t write in the vacuum, but was related to culture and religion. The irrational beliefs concerning the god of Greece are known by the word “muthos”, which we call today “myths” or “mythologies”. In the Greek-Roman world of the New Testament, the “muthos” interoperability can be seen, eg. when the Greeks looked to God as Paul and Barnabas.

    Evangelist John, as a Greek philosopher, replaced the “muthos” with what he called “logos”. The word “logos” did not use “muthos” to describe the wisdom, reason, and plans of God. John wants to say that God did not come to us in such mystical experiences and irrational beliefs that can not be understood but understandable. John wants to say that the “logos” it is manifested the deeds, not just by words or people. (János3: 21, 10:25, 10:38, 11:46, 14: 11-12, 15:24)

    But that does not mean that Jesus is the “logos”. “The Word” does not have Jesus, or even “with Christ.” John doesn’t have the intention of the author to say, “Jesus is the logos”, but what he says at the end of the gospel: “But these are written that you will believe [hina piszteuéte to continue to believe you (p66)] that Jesus is the Messiah / Christ. ” who is therefore Christ in the body who understood the “logos”, but he is not the “logos”. Because Paul had already proclaimed the christ. John was a anti- paulism teacher.

  5. dankoh  October 26, 2018

    In the Torah, blasphemy is very specific: cursing God by name (Lev. 24:16). Do we have any reason to think that this had changed in Jesus’s time, especially since the priests who were in charge of enforcing the law were mostly Sadducees who did not accept anything but the Torah? Or is this evangelical misuse of the term?

    (Josephus claims that the Essenes would execute someone for blaspheming the name of Moses, too.)

  6. Zenitseasy  October 26, 2018

    So you’ve kind of had an evolving view on what calling someone “God” or “Divine” would’ve actually meant to the Gospel writers. Where do you stand on that now? I mean, in what way do you personally think the writer of The Gospel of John actually thought of Jesus as divine?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2018

      I haven’t changed my views since I wrote How Jesus Became God. That is where I give a full discussion of the matter (re: John and all the other earliest Christian writings)

  7. fishician  October 26, 2018

    I was recently pondering that if God had a son from the beginning of time, why didn’t he talk about him before Jesus shows up on the scene? Why not let his people the Jews know that he had a son, and they should be expecting to see him some day. I don’t mean veiled references that Christians now claim to be about Jesus – I mean, just tell your people you have a son and don’t beat around the bush.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2018

      Right! Of course believers in the trinity point to “hints” (Let US make man in our own image), and hold to the idea of “progressive revelation,” that God slowly reveals the truth over time instead of all at once (though they invariably claim that he stopped doing so when the NT was finished!)

  8. JohnKesler  October 26, 2018

    When Jesus says in Mark 2:10 that he has been granted the authority to forgive sins, something that was reserved for God (Micah 7:18, Isaiah 43:25, Psalm 103:12 et al.), isn’t that saying that he considered himself in some sense equal to God? Jesus didn’t say that he was the mouthpiece announcing that sins were forgiven *by* God, as Nathan was when he spoke to David (2 Samuel 12:13), but that Jesus himself could do the forgiving.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2018

      Another way of reading it is that he is precisely saying that God is NOT the only one who pronounces forgiveness, but that he has empowered others to do so as well (“The Son of Man has the authority”…. meaning he has been granted it). That was not an unknown thought in Judaism, since priests as well pronounced forgiveness during sacrifices performed in the temple. Jesus may be declaring he has the authority normally reserved for priests.

      • JohnKesler  October 28, 2018

        Is there any difference between the authority that Jesus claimed and what John the Baptist apparently claimed for himself (Mark 1:4-5)? Did Jesus give Peter (Matthew 16:18-19) and the apostles–save Judas Iscariot–the same authority that Jesus had (John 20:22-23)? Is the Greek at all ambiguous about the latter two verses, or do most translations get it right?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 29, 2018

          It’s hard to say what authority JB actually claimed for himself, since we have so few sources of information. My sense is that he saw himself as a prophet to whom God had given a revelation about the coming end of all things, so he had the authority of one proclaming God’s word. I don’t think the later passages about Jesus passing on his authority are historical — they appear to be later ideas trying to confirm the notion that Jesus’ authority continued on in the church after him.

      • Iskander Robertson  October 28, 2018

        The son of man has been given authority to say in the passive “you are forgiven” ?
        So the son of man is just mouthpiece?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 29, 2018

          He says in the context “your sins are forgiven.” So he is declaring divine forgiveness. He doesn’t say “I forgive you.”

      • HawksJ  October 29, 2018

        Discussing the ‘authority’ to forgive sins, raises a question that I’ve long pondered:

        By what authority was John the Baptist ‘baptizing people for the forgiveness of sin” and did any other Jews do so?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 29, 2018

          He appears to have believed God gave him the authority. He is the only one we know of who practiced a one-time baptism “for the remission of sins.” It’s been much debated if the baptism was thought to remove the sins or if, probably more likely, the baptism came to those who repented of their sins and so were cleansed spiritually.

  9. billw977  October 26, 2018

    Just curious, is there any scripture or book in the bible which comes close to maybe making you doubt your atheism? For example, when I was a believer, there were contradictions in the bible, as you have pointed out, that made me question my faith. On the other hand, there are certain biblical passages that seem to be profound, such as the one in Exodus 3 when Moses asks God’s name, and God says “I am”. He could have said anything, he could have said George or Harry, but he says “I am”. Most appropriate and profound.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2018

      I find lots of passages in the Bible profound. That’s never made me question my atheism though: I don’t think profundity requires a divine source.

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  10. mkahn1977  October 26, 2018

    Daniel Boyarin in his book “Border Lines” writes about the theology of a second power in heaven- do you know if these are similar schools of thought in the context of how John portrays Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2018

      Yes, I talk about this in my book How Jesus Became God — the Christian claims about Jesus fit in well with Jewish ideas of a second-level divinity along with God almighty.

      • mkahn1977  October 28, 2018

        Page 67-69 in “how Jesus Became God” for those are interested- I just re-read it (thank Bart for good indexes!)

  11. brenmcg  October 26, 2018

    *Even more than that, he claims for himself the name of God, “I am” (see Exodus 3:13-14). His Jewish opponents know exactly what he is saying.*

    In both Mark and Luke Jesus says “Many will come in my name, claiming, ego eimi”.

  12. brenmcg  October 26, 2018

    In Mark, Jesus claims to be the Messiah.

    In Mark 12 Jesus says David (speaking by the Holy Spirit) calls the Messiah ‘Lord’.

    In this same chapter Jesus declares the Lord to be God.

    In the same chapter we’re also told there is only one Lord and only one God.

  13. godspell  October 26, 2018

    It’s pretty clear Jesus never thought of himself as God, God’s son, the Son of Man, an angel, or any kind of supernatural being.

    However, he did believe that anyone with perfect faith in God could perform virtually any feat. This may be why later Christians, like Irenaeus, sometimes said their goal was to become like God, as Jesus had. So the concept of Divinization lived on well after John’s gospel. By becoming one with God through faith, you become God. But not in the same sense God is God. I guess. It’s a bit unclear. Probably to them as well.

  14. forthfading  October 27, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I want to make sure I understand your historical conclusion on Jesus’ self understanding. You do think Jesus referred to himself as the Messiah, correct? This is historically probable and not placed on his lips by later tradition? You do think he referred to himself as the Son of Man, from Daniel?

    If so, the correct historical understandings of these titles are not equal with God the Father, correct?

    Thanks for helping me with this.

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2018

      I think he considered himself the messiah (and told his disciples so), but that he thought the Son of Man was someone else, a cosmic judge coming from heaven at the end of time.

      • godspell  October 28, 2018

        None of the stories about the Messiah fit Jesus very well, and he certainly knew that. So there would be some uncertainty there. He feels a special sense of mission–he believes in the Messianic legends. Is he the one people have hoped for? It would be natural for him to wonder–and to doubt.

        “Who do you say that I am?”

        If he did say that, perhaps it was more than a rhetorical question. Perhaps he really wanted to know.

  15. epicurus
    epicurus  October 27, 2018

    It’s odd that they break out the stones several times but then tell Pilate that he has to execute Jesus because they are not allowed to.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2018

      The stones passages are all in John, not in the earlier Gospels.

  16. cmdenton47  October 27, 2018

    I think you do an admirable job of asking your students to think about these issues. I went to Catholic school for first and second grade and the nun read us The Passion every day in Holy Week. In 1st grade that was Luke. In second grade it was Matthew. My favorite part was when the crucified Jesus said to the thief, “This day you shall be with me in Paradise.” The next year when she began reading I noticed the difference and was quite disturbed by the fact that both thieves badgered Jesus. No one else seemed to notice the difference. You have a high hill to climb.

  17. Actual_Wolfman  October 28, 2018

    A question: Who/what do you think the Son of Man’s essence was in the divine hierarchy? Growing up in the Christian tradition, it was understood (at least to my immediate circle) that the Son of Man and Jesus were the same entity.

    You mention a “cosmic judge”, but could it be an archangel of some kind? Curious.

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2018

      My sense is that he was understood as a powerful angel — maybe the chief archangel, someone like Michael.

  18. damani00  November 2, 2018

    Fact: Nowhere in the Bible did Jesus plainly say ‘I am God’.

    Bart, your argument reminds me of Matthew 1:23, where it says “… they shall call his name Emmanuel, WHICH BEING INTERPRETED is, God with us”. Well, it’s nice to know what the interpretation of Emmanuel is, but actually they ‘call his name’ Jesus not Emmanuel.

    I find most of the verses which purport to show that Jesus claimed to be God are verses that take a statement of Jesus saying one thing and that statement then being interpreted as something that supports a favored narrative. For example, take John 8:58:

    Before Abraham was I am.

    According to scholars I have read, the word used for ‘I Am’ in Exodus 3:14 is ‘haw yaw’. The word in John 8:58 is ‘Ego Eimi’. If the scholars I have read are correct, we have two different words being interpreted the same way. Further, I find it fascinating that in John 8:28, a few verses before 8:58, we read:

    So Jesus said to them, when you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.

    Amazingly, what I do find Jesus plainly saying in John are: ‘My Father … is greater than all’ (10:29); ‘I can of mine own self do nothing’ (5:30); ‘the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father’s which sent me.’ (14:24); ‘the Father which sent me gave me a COMMANDMENT … whatsoever I speak therefore, even as the Father said unto me, so I speak’ (12:49-50); ‘for my Father is greater than I’ (14;28); I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and to my God, and your God’ (20:17).

  19. damani00  November 8, 2018

    Hi Bart (may I call you Bart or do you prefer Dr. Ehrman?),
    First, thank you for this great blog. May God bless you.
    Since I am not a scholar, may I take it that the words used for I AM in Exodus 3:14 and in John 8:58 are in fact two different words? What about John 8:28?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2018

      That’s right. Exodus is written in Hebrew and John is in Greek, so they use different words.

  20. mkahn1977  November 13, 2018

    I just read Daniel Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels” and in it he claims a segment of of ancient Jews believed in a divine messiah, and that this was supposedly predicted in Enoch and Daniel (and Isaiah as well). I know what you’ve written on Isaiah 53 and some other texts, but this was the first time I’ve read from a Jewish scholar making this claim. Are you able to shed some light on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 14, 2018

      He’s a brilliant scholar, but it’s a highly unusual claim that is not well accepted.

      • Robert
        Robert  November 14, 2018

        “He’s a brilliant scholar, but it’s a highly unusual claim that is not well accepted.”

        But not so very different from your own views if one leaves out the Suffering Servant of Isaiah: … a segment of of ancient Jews believed in a divine [Son of Man], and that this was supposedly predicted in Enoch and Daniel …

        Don’t most scholars see the one like a human in the Parables of Enoch to be a messianic figure?

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