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Jesus as Divine in the Synoptics

In yesterday’s post I pointed out that if one asks about an early Christain text: “Does it portray Jesus as God,” then almost always if the answer is Yes (which it usually is), it has to be qualified: “Yes, in *some sense*. “ And the question is always, in *what* sense? The reason I stress this point is that for many years – until about six months ago – I was quite vehement, in person and in print, that the Synoptic Gospels did not portray Jesus as divine, but only the Gospel of John did.

It’s true – I still think and, I suspect, always will think – that in the Gospel of John there is little doubt about the divinity of Jesus. As we have seen, the Gospel opens with the amazing poem: “ In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and apart from him nothing came into being that came into being. In him was life, and his life was the light of humans…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us….” This Word-become-flesh was the man Jesus. That’s why Jesus in this Gospel can say “Before Abraham was, I am” (8:58; using the name of God, from Exodus 3, for himself, and indicating that he existed before Abraham, who in fact lived 1800 years earlier); and why he can say “I and the Father are one” (10:30); and why he can tell Philip “The one who has seen me you has seen the Father” (14:6). Jesus’ Jewish listeners regularly understand what he is saying about himself in this Gospel; on several occasions they pick up stones to execute him for committing blasphemy. At a climactic seen at the end, doubting Thomas comes to believe in who Jesus is, and calls him “My Lord and My God” (20:28).

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The Divine Pyramid
Early Christology: How I Have Changed My Mind



  1. Avatar
    Adam0685  March 3, 2013

    1) “ancient people thought of divinity as a continuum … Some are divinely powerful (miracle workers; great warriors, generals, emperors).”

    -I think this is generally true, but how does one deal with some NT writings (like Acts) that appear to see being “human” and “god in human form” mutually exclusive. I’m thinking about Acts 14:8-20.

    In Acts 14:8-20 Paul and Barnabas are thought to be “gods […] in human form” (14:11) because they are said to have healed a person who could not walk from birth. The reaction of those in Lystra support the notion that some ancient people did think a human was divine because they were miracle workers. However, Paul’s response seems to suggest that PAUL (or the AUTHOR of Acts or the COMMUNITY that produced this story) thought one cannot be god and a human by their response in 14:15 “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.” Whoever created this story seems to not hold to a “divinity as a continuum” as other ancients which seems to call us to interpret divinity in Acts in a different way.

    2) “stories were told about him in which he appeared to be divine in some sense already before he died.”
    -Is it possible the historical Jesus thought he was somehow divine (perhaps a divine prophet? a divine healer?)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 5, 2013

      I think the story in Acts 14 shows that in fact it was thought by many people that humans could indeed be gods, and that others thought that normal humans are not gods.

      I don’t think Jesus imagined himself as divine, although he certainly thought he was delivering a divine message.

  2. Avatar
    toddfrederick  March 4, 2013

    I usually ask questions or make comments that relate what you are saying to how it affects me / us, here and now, in our current life situation.

    I realize that you are working with the documents and that you are not speaking for yourself either as your faith position or as what it is you believe regarding the issue at hand.

    With that understood, to discuss whether or not Jesus was / is God (a divine, infinite being) and when or how he became God (a divine, infinite being) is pointless until we understand what God is. What is God and in what way is Jesus God? This is of course an endlessly debated question without any answer and rarely discussed in scripture in any analytical way, nor can be ascertained by human reason or by any methodology of science.

    Reading the Gospels, (if they are an accurate portrayal of Jesus’ life and thoughts), he does not seem God-like to me…rather, very human.

    I could give many examples, but, to cut this short, in what ways is Jesus God, or equal to God, or God-like?

    Sometime in the future you might consider getting into the nature of God as presented in scripture )or NT) and how Jesus is God living in a human body and in the context of a specific period of Earth’s history. ..I doubt that Jesus knew much about quantum physics or the nature of human illness.

    I have no basis in saying that I believe that Jesus is God unless I just cave-in and say, “Because the Bible tells me so.”

  3. gmatthews
    gmatthews  March 4, 2013

    It sounds like you describe the Jewish belief in a “spectrum of divinity” is much like the Greeks, Romans and other polytheistic cultures viewed the world through their religions. Did the Jews in fact see things much as a Greek would with the exception of one God versus a panoply of gods?

  4. Avatar
    hwl  March 4, 2013

    Why would Jesus’ forgiveness of sins be viewed as a claim to divinity? I often hear evangelical apologists making this argument, but I don’t see the exegetical, historical and theological reasoning. Presumably 1st century Jewish priests were involved in forgiving sins, John the Baptist in conducting baptisms was forgiving sins, and at the end Gospel of John, the apostles were given the authority to forgive sins. Today, Catholic priests routinely forgive sins at confession. None of this implies any of the characters involved were divine in any sense.
    After your change of mind, why do you now rule out the possibility the synoptic authors attribute the term “son of God” to Jesus in the same sense they or the OT authors refer to Israel, King Solomon and Adam?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 5, 2013

      It’s a complicated question, made more complicated by the fact that Jesus never says “I forgive you your sins,” but always “your sins are forgiven.” So that he is declaring God’s forgiveness. And the quesiton is what authority he has to do that. I’m on the fence just now whether it must mean he is divine, and do not think that it is *evidence* that he is divine (for these authors). But if (the authors think that) he *is* divine, it certainly makes sense that he can speak for God in tihs way.

      Yes, I do think there are humans who are “sons of God,” such as the king. But sometimes these are even called “God” in the OT!!

  5. Avatar
    hwl  March 4, 2013

    Do you think 1st century Jews could have entertained the idea that a divine being (be it angels or incarnated beings) other than God the Father, could have been involved in the creation of the world? When NT authors associated Jesus as participating in creation, were they in effect claiming Jesus was God?
    Do you think NT authors understood the OT references to Yahweh as referring to the Father, or also to Jesus?
    If the spirit of God was understood by pre-Christian Jews as divine in some sense, then surely biblical Judaism should be considered binitarian rather than monotheistic? In the OT, it is unclear if the spirit of God is presented as a separate person from Yahweh. Yet in the OT, the spirit of God was always understood as a distinct person from the Father. When do you think this shift in thinking occurred?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 5, 2013

      Yes, Wisdom for example was thought to be God’s helper at creation (see Prov. 8). And yes, sometimes NT authors attribute sayings directed to Yahweh as directed to Jesus (Phil. 2:10-11 e.g.)

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 4, 2013

    Would you say now that Jesus is shown as *claiming* to possess some degree of divinity in the Synoptic Gospels, or merely that the authors seem to have thought he possessed it?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 5, 2013

      I’m not sure yet if Jesus claims it for himself in the Synoptics, but the authors seem to ascribe it to him, in any event.

  7. Avatar
    Forrest  March 4, 2013

    I am intrigued with this concept of “degrees of divinity”. Does this take away from the Ultimate Reality’s status? I have long thought of “divinity” as an on off switch. Not degrees. Look forward to further discussion on this.

  8. Avatar
    Scott F  March 4, 2013

    Are you in danger of making Jesus too Greek for the current Quest for the Historic Jesus? Or are we even talking about the historic Jesus anymore? More like the interpretations of Jesus? Will this involve an increasingly pagan philosophical influence as Christianity moves out into the diaspora and gentile worlds? Was there much Jewish thinking when it comes to a divine spectrum?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 5, 2013

      No, we’re not talking about the historical Jesus just now, but about perceptions of him among his later followers.

  9. Avatar
    ZachET  March 4, 2013

    what do scholars make of the didache?

  10. Avatar
    stephena  March 20, 2013

    Can you do some scholarship for me (us) and clear something up? Isn’t the “I AM” debate re: John 8:58 a bit disingenuous, since even Paul (and others in the NT) use the same Greek works for that phrase and that doesn’t make THEM God, and also, isn’t there some confusion about how that verse is translated, i.e. some corruption of text during its transmission to us?

    Couldn’t John, Chapter 1, a hymn tacked onto the Gospel either by the author or someone else in the Johannine school of thought, rather than lending credence to the Divinity theory, simply be a personification of Logos in the same way Wisdom was personified in the Hebrew Bible?

    You said “even though Jesus is, in some sense, God in John’s Gospel, he is NOT *identical* with God.” Actually, I think John offers many, many verses that seem to go to great pains to show Jesus denying any claim to equality with God.

    To be Adopted and Anointed by God (as in his baptism) was echoing earlier anointing of ancient kings, like David, which didn’t make David God. Also “Son of God” is not fully explained by you, above. Every good Jew hoped to be a good “Son of God.” Only the Gospel writers (Greeks) seem to misunderstand this appellation.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 20, 2013

      I think the context of John 8:58 shows that Jesus has commited a blasphemy. The Jews take up stones to stone him. On the Prologue to John, you may want to look over some of my earlier posts.

      • Avatar
        stephena  March 21, 2013

        Well, at least SOME Jews THOUGHT he had committed blasphemy, but like every other time in the Gospels, the crowds got it wrong. You’re defaulting to the Literalist reading of scripture, aren’t you, when you assume that the Jews accusations were correct? I suggest that they seem to be always wrong in their assumptions about Jesus. The Church read it one way because it suited their assumption that Jesus was indeed God incarnate.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2013

          I think it’s usually read (correctly in my view) that the Jews are right that he is calling himself divine (since he is) but wrong to think that he’s mistaken about that (since for John he is not)

  11. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  July 13, 2013


    What do you make of Mark 1:2-3 though? Doesn’t Mark equal Jesus there with YHWH since he has the Baptist proclaim that he is preparing the way for the Lord (a citation of Isa 40 where the word used for Lord is YHWH)? Or how is that quotation to be understood?

    Yet if Mark does indeed equate Jesus with YHWH then why does he also call him Son of God (‘God’ referring to YHWH I assume?)? And the rest of the Gospel doesn’t seem to support Mark believing that Jesus actually is YHWH either … so why that Isa quote? Same question for Matthew who cites Isa 40 too in Mat 3:3.

    And what’s the probability that the Baptist actually has ever said this in the first place?

    Thank you.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 15, 2013

      No, to my knowledge no one thought that Jesus was actually Yahweh, until the modalists at the end of the second century.

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  July 15, 2013

        But Mark has the Baptist cite Isaiah 40:3 ‘A voice cries out, “In the wilderness clear a way for THE LORD; construct in the desert a road for our God.’

        ‘THE LORD’ being ‘YHWH’ in Hebrew … so Isa 40:3 definitely refers to clearing a way for YHWH, agreed?

        Yet in Mark the Baptist, who is claiming to ‘clear a way for the Lord (YHWH in the Hebrew original that he is quoting)’ is clearing the way for Jesus, isn’t he? But this then seems to suggest that the Baptist (or at least ‘Mark’) equated Jesus with the Lord/YHWH? Or if not to Jesus then to whom is Mark 1:3 referring to? And why would the Baptist quote Isaiah then?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 16, 2013

          Lord can mean “Yahweh,” or “slave-master,” or “employer,” or “leader of our group,” or lots of otehr things! In the NT, when Jesus is called “lord,” it never means that he is Yahweh. (And remember, the Gospel writers were not reading Hebrew but Greek; their text said kurios, not YHWH)

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  July 16, 2013

            Yes, Bart, but ‘the Lord’ in the *Isaiah quote* (in the OT) does mean YHWH, right? Actually, the Hebrew word USED for ‘Lord’ in Isaiah is ‘YHWH’. And in the OT ‘the Lord’ (spelled YHWH) does not mean slave-master, leader, etc. It only refers to the One God.

            But this would, logically, mean then that *Isaiah 40:30* could be written: ‘A voice cries out, “In the wilderness clear a way for YHWH; construct in the desert a road for our God.’ Agreed?

            And don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Christian and I do not intend to become one. I’m just interested in debating logically (and I was challenged on a forum on this ;)).

            Mark probably didn’t get this nuance though since he wasn’t a Jew? So he just read the Greek version of the OT and there it said ‘Lord’ (and not, explicitly, God/YHWH) and he understood it then as ‘master’ or whatever.

            Do you get the point I’m trying to make though? That people could use the Baptist’s quote there to claim that he thought Jesus was YHWH because ‘Lord’ in Isaiah meant YHWH?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 17, 2013

            It is not an issue of being a Jew or not being a Jew. It’s a matter of what language you’re reading the bible in. Mark read it in Greek, and Isa. 40:3 referred to one coming before the Kurios. For Mark, Jesus was the Kurios. He was not YHWH. He was YHWH’s messenger, servant, messiah, and the Lord of his followers. No one thought Jesus was YHWH.

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  July 17, 2013

            Bart, I don’t want to appear stubborn but so what you’re saying is that Mark got the meaning of the *original* Isaiah quote wrong because he only knew the Greek version of it? Since, again, in the *original* (Hebrew) Isaiah text the word translated in Greek as ‘kyrios’ definitely IS ‘YHWH’, agreed?

            But Mark indeed seems to have seen Jesus ‘only’ as a sort of special messenger of God (as indicated by the rest of his Gospel). That doesn’t change the fact though ISAIAH was referring to YHWH himself, not to some messenger of him.

            Maybe I’m expressing myself badly since English is not my mother tongue … but I hope you get what I mean?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 19, 2013

            Yes that’s right. Isaiah was talking about YHWH. Mark thought he was talking about Jesus. And Mark did not think Jesus was YHWH.

  12. Avatar
    NOSFERATU  August 7, 2013

    this divinity of jesus will be connected to the trinity, do you thing that the jesus teach the trinity during his life if not then when and how the trinity emerge ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 7, 2013

      No he certainly did not. I talk about it in my book How Jesus Became God, due out next Spring.

  13. Avatar
    Malik  January 9, 2018

    So the name Yahweh does not appear anywhere in the NT? But what about the claim that it appears through Jesus in a theophoric manner using Yahweh ?
    Jesus= YHWH saves?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2018

      No, the name Yahweh never appears in the New Testament. The title “Lord” does, and when Jews read the name YHWH they would not pronoucne it but (often) say, instead, Adonai, which means “Lord.”

  14. Avatar
    Malik  January 9, 2018

    One more unrelated question, did the early Christians know that the God they were worshiping was called Yahweh?

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