Do we know what Jesus said about himself? Yesterday I started my two-prong argument for why Jesus probably considered himself the messiah. The first prong is that Jesus must have been called the messiah during his lifetime, or it makes no sense that he would be called messiah after his death. Even if there were Jews who believed that Jesus was raised from the dead after he was crucified (as indeed there were! Otherwise we wouldn’t have Christianity), the resurrection of a dead person would never lead anyone to say “Ah, he’s the messiah!”. No one expected the messiah to be a resurrected person.
So Jesus was being called the messiah before his death. Otherwise, we can’t make sense of the fact that he was called the messiah after his (believed-in) resurrection.
Do We Know What Jesus Said About Himself?
Several readers have pointed out that this does not mean that Jesus *himself* thought of himself as the messiah. It simply means that some of his followers did. That is absolutely right. I couldn’t agree more. And that’s why I’m presenting this as a two-prong argument. You need both prongs. Think of a slingshot; if the frame has only one arm instead of two, well, it doesn’t work so well. In fact, it doesn’t work.
So, the second prong involves not what the followers of Jesus were saying after his death, but what he appears to have been saying during his life.
To make sense of my comments you have to bear in mind the fundamental assumptions of a critical approach to establishing what Jesus said and did during his life. To reconstruct the life of Jesus, you can’t simply quote a verse here or there that suits your fancy or says what you want it to say.
A critical approach to determining Jesus’ words and actions recognizes that the Gospel sources we have are highly problematic – not as religious documents of faith that tell Christians what to believe and how to act, but as historical documents that record what actually happened in the past.
What Did Jesus Claim?
That is to say, even though the Gospel of John, for example, regularly portrays Jesus as making claims about himself – that he is the:
- Messiah (ch. 4)
- the Son of God
- is “one” with the Father (ch. 10)
- existed before the Jewish ancestor Abraham (ch. 8)
- one who comes from heaven who provides eternal life to all who believe in him (ch. 3) – etc., etc
Even though Jesus does indeed say all these things in the Gospel of John does not mean that the historical Jesus actually did say these things.
On the contrary, there are compelling reasons for thinking that he did *not* say such things, including (but not restricted to) the fact that he does *not* say these things in the other Gospels. If the historical Jesus was going around Galilee claiming that he was a divine being who was pre-existent and equal with God, then how can we explain that (a) he wasn’t executed on the spot and (b) that the other Gospels failed to say anything about it. Did they just decide to skip that part?
So how do you know what Jesus *did* say if you can’t simply quote verses from the Gospels to prove it? You have to …
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