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Jesus’ Claim to Be the Messiah

 

I’m afraid I have been sidetracked from my thread within a thread within a thread, but now want to get back to it.  This particular sub-sub-thread is about whether Jesus considered himself to be the Jewish messiah.  My view is that Yes he did.  But he meant something very specific by that, and it is not what most people (Christians and non-Christians) today mean by it.

Recall what I have tried to show thus far.  There were various expectations of what the messiah would be like among Jews of Jesus’ day – a political ruler over Israel, a great priest who ruled God’s people through God’s law, a cosmic judge of the earth who would destroy God’s enemies in a cataclysmic act of judgment.   All these views had one thing in common: the future messiah would be a figure of grandeur and might who would come with the authority and power of God.

And who was Jesus?  For most people of his day, Jesus was just the opposite – an itinerant Jewish preacher from the backwaters of rural Galilee who ended up on the wrong side of the law and was tortured and executed for his efforts.  He didn’t destroy God’s enemies.  He was crushed by them.

In establishing that Jesus nonetheless considered himself to be the messiah I have so far made two points:

  • Jesus was considered the messiah by his followers after his death, so much so that “Christ” became the most common designation for him. Nothing about his crucifixion, or the belief in his resurrection, would have led anyone to think he was the messiah (since the messiah was not supposed to be raised from the dead, let alone humiliated and crucified).  So he must have been called the messiah *before* his followers came to believe in his resurrection.  But the question is: did Jesus himself tell his followers this?  To get to *that* question we have to consider what we know about what Jesus told his followers in general.
  • Jesus’ proclamation was all about the coming kingdom of God. He was an apocalypticist who believed that God would soon intervene in the course of history, overthrow the forces of evil, and establish a good (and very real, political) kingdom here on earth.  His listeners had to turn to God in preparation for this imminent end.

If that was Jesus’ proclamation, why should we think that he thought that he himself was to be the messiah of that coming kingdom?  I will give two reasons for thinking so.  Both are strong, in my opinion.  Together they are especially strong.

First,

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Judas and the Messianic Secret
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  1. jonfoulkes  November 30, 2015

    Hi Bart, a rather tenuously linked question but I wondered where your thoughts would be on this. Many believers and non-believers talk about the morality of Jesus’ message (I understand the turn the other cheek stuff) but when it effectively boils down to; ‘soon there will be a new order, I will be king (no choice there), anyone not with me will be cast in the fiery furnace with much wailing and gnashing of teeth’. It doesn’t seem very moral to my mind, isn’t it all rather despotic to say the least? Thank you for your time once again!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2015

      Well, it certainly sounds like that in our day and time, but probably not so much in his. Still, I think that his ethical teachings have to be put in the *context* of these eschatological procalmations.

  2. mitchftd  November 30, 2015

    Jews did not believe the Messiah would be the High Priest since he comes from Judah not Levi

  3. Wilusa  November 30, 2015

    I suppose speculation on this point can’t be more than a guess. But…assuming you’re right about Jesus’s believing that…do you think he would have envisioned himself as king over *only* all twelve of the tribes of Israel (with his disciples as tribal “governors”), or over a kingdom that encompassed the whole world?

    I’m guessing your second point is that he was crucified for calling himself the “King of the Jews.” But if that was based on what he supposedly told his disciples, he might not have admitted to them that he had even higher aspirations. (Or were these people so inbred that they thought the rest of the world – Rome, for example – would *cease to exist*?)

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2015

      I’m not sure, but I imagine the idea was that Israel would rule the other nations.

  4. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  November 30, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, I’m wondering why Matt. or Luke didn’t edit Jesus’ statement to account for Judas Iscariot. Do you believe they felt obligated because they were copying it verbatim from another document? It seems like a strong argument for Q. How do those that dismiss Q deal with these verses?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2015

      My guess is that they simply didn’t think through the implications of the saying — just as hardly anyone today who reads it does!

  5. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  November 30, 2015

    Okay, so Jesus believed he was to be the future king and said so privately. Maybe you said before, I can’t remember, but now why exactly did he believe himself to be the messiah? And if he truly believed he was the future king, why say it in private? Why not declare it to everybody? He obviously didn’t think he was going to die. Also, I think you said elsewhere that Judas did betray Jesus but we can’t know for sure his reasoning for it. What about his reasoning for suicide?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2015

      I’m afraid we don’t know why! (And I’m not sure we know if Judas was a suicide; that’s only in Matthew)

  6. godspell  November 30, 2015

    This is a strong argument, but like all arguments dealing with the acts, words, and motivations of human beings, holes can be found in it. That’s unavoidable.

    One could argue that Jesus believed God would be ruling directly–that really does seem to be the implication of ‘The Kingdom of God.’ God is the only true king. And he’s giving the disciples this important role to play, thrones to sit upon (perhaps not literal thrones), and as for the 12 tribes of Israel thing–hmm. Jesus was a Galilean–from a province where many of the Jews were in fact fairly recent converts, and quite possibly his own family (this is one reason, as you have mentioned, why the gospel writers wanted so badly to prove he was descended from David, and was born in Bethlehem of Judea, when neither is likely to be the case). Therefore, Jesus is not actually a member of one of the 12 Tribes (to the extent those tribes could be said to exist as discrete entities in his day).

    So 12 Kings ruling over 12 Tribes–God ruling the world directly–Jesus’ position is–what? He gives himself no throne, no crown. We should remember his very deep belief that those who exalt themselves shall be humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted. Perhaps he simply didn’t want to be giving himself airs–and perhaps he believed he wouldn’t be there in the Kingdom he was leading them to. As Moses never made it to the promised land. You can’t seriously think that analogy never occurred to him.

    He was a very strange and subtle man. We all know this. What may seem obvious, with him, may turn out to not be true at all.

    I understand Mark did not use Q. However, Mark’s gospel is particularly concerned with leading the reader towards the conclusion Jesus is Messiah, and has him proclaim himself as such to Pilate (when none of his followers could hear him, naturally). It’s a mystery story–who is this man? You’d think that if he’d really said this thing about the thrones to all 12 disciples (and would he have said it only once?), it would be a well-known story among Christians during Mark’s time, and it’s a strange thing for him to omit. If Mark didn’t have the version in Q, he’d have some version of it, one would imagine. Possible that he wouldn’t use a story like this because it ruins the story–outs Jesus as Messiah too soon–but Jesus isn’t saying he’s Messiah in Matthew’s story. He’s saying the disciples will be rulers in the coming Kingdom.

    None of this proves Jesus did not think of himself as Messiah, because to know whether he did or not, we’d have to know who and what he thought the Messiah was, and we know he did not embrace the popular meaning of that role. But to argue that he believed he would be King because he said God would come to rule the earth and the disciples would rule the 12 tribes of Israel (will every tribe of mankind have its own king?)–begs the question–what’s his tribe? How many interceding layers of monarchy does God need, really? And how far had he really worked any of this out?

    If he did come to believe he needed to sacrifice himself for the Kingdom to come, that would explain why he’s not explaining his role in it–because he’d be in heaven, with God. His work accomplished. Those who humble themselves shall be exalted.

    Maybe the disciples were a little frazzled and discouraged that day (there would have been a lot of days like that), and he felt like they needed a pep talk. 🙂

  7. JamesFouassier  November 30, 2015

    Professor, I’d appreciate your comments on one line of thought that has the entire tradition of twelve apostles being a myth – albeit an early one – to add credence to the even earlier tradition that Jesus was the messiah of the twelve tribes of Israel. From the historical fact that Jesus had disciples came the story that he had a special group of twelve, sent out on a special mission – hence the term “apostles” – and who collectively and individually served Paul and the evangelists as sounding boards, foils, and for other literary and mythological purposes. I haven’t read or seen much about any of this and would enjoy knowing what you think. Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2015

      The problem is that the different Gospels all know that there were twelve of them, but they have different names for some of them. It *could* have been a very, very early tradition; but it appears that everyone connected with Jesus seeemd to think he had twelve disciples (including Paul), and it does make sense given what else he stood for.

  8. plparker  November 30, 2015

    Was it well known in the years immediately after the crucifixion that Judas was the one who had betrayed Jesus? If not, then the author of Q could have made up the “you 12 will each have a throne” story without realizing the disconnect.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2015

      I would date Q to about 20-25 years after Jesus’ death; by then I suppose it was widely known that Judas had betrayed him.

      • Robert
        Robert  December 2, 2015

        Why so early? I know others also date Q early, but it seems like a very subjective issue. Are there good reasons for dating Q in the 50s? HT Fledderman dates Q to as late as the mid-to-late 70s. (He also does not consider Mark to be independent of Q, but that his gospel was intended to be used alongside Q.)

        • Bart
          Bart  December 4, 2015

          It’s a bit of a guessing game. Q had to pre-exist both Matthew and Luke and to have been in relatively wide circulation by their day. Its theology seems relatively primitive. It doesn’t seem to know about the destruction of Jerusalem. 50s or 60s makes sense of all that.

          • Robert
            Robert  December 4, 2015

            It’s not definitive, of course, but Fledderman would say that Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem and prediction that it will be abandoned does presuppose the destruction of Jerusalem. And if, as Fledderman believes, Q was and remained in use in Mark’s community, it would have become known to Matthew and Luke along with Mark.

  9. talmoore
    talmoore  November 30, 2015

    I’m afraid to say, Dr. Ehrman, that I don’t agree with your conclusion, and here’s offer why:

    I disagree that Jesus actually spoke the words of Matt. 19:28. I’ve noticed that the Jesus seminar have voted that line black (as well as Luke 22:28), but in their case it is because most of the fellows are non-apocalypticists, so they strike out all eschatological verse pro forma. I doubt its authenticity for a different reason. I think it is probably a gloss that was later attached to an actual authentic saying of Jesus; namely, the line “Many of the first will be last; and of the last will be first.” (Mark 10:31; Matt. 19:30 & 20:16; Luke 13:30; Thom. 4). As I’ve stated in previous comments, I think that Jesus preached/prophecied in Hebrew, and only latter did his disciples translate his Hebrew utterances in Aramaic. This line in particular has a chiastic structure like that of Proverbs or other “wise” sayings of the Hebrew Bible, making it a prime example of how Jesus probably spoke in order to appear sagacious. And, in fact, when I reconstruct it in the Aramaic or Hebrew, that structure becomes much more apparent.

    Mark 10:31 & Matt. 19:30 — esontai protoi eschatoi kai eschatoi protoi “Will be first, last; and last, first”
    Q (Luke 13:30 and Matt. 20:16) — esontai eschatoi protoi kai protoi eschatoi “Will be last, first; and first, last”

    Both traditions are a greek translation (or transliteration) from either a Hebrew or Aramaic original. In this case, I think the Aramaic makes more sense, which should be apparent when I reconstruct them.

    Aramaic A — להוין ראשין אחרין, דלהוין ראשין אחרין “They (who) will be first (will be) last, and they (who) will be last (will be) first.”
    Aramaic B — להוין אחרין ראשין, דלהוין אחרין ראשין “They (who) will be last (will be) first, and they (who) will be first (will be) last.”
    Hebrew A — יהו ראשון אחרון, ויהו אחרון ראשון “They (who) will be first (will be) last, and they (who) will be last (will be) first.”
    Hebrew B — יהו אחרון ראשון, ויהו ראשון אחרון “They (who) will be last (will be) first, and they (who) will be first (will be) last.”

    As you can see, the permutations we see in the Greek translation are simply a matter of switching the first clause for the last and vice versa, which is what we would expect from people who have the two clauses memorized, but not their order. One tradition (Mark and Matt. 19:30) used version A, while Q (Luke and Matt. 20:16) used version B.

    As for why this works better in Aramaic than Hebrew, simply look at the internal rhyme of the words:
    leheweyeen achareen resheyeen, daleheweyeen resheyeen achareen
    When each word ends in -een, making the expression not only lyric and but memorable. THIS is an expression people are going to remember. And remember it they did. But more than that, Jesus is making a pun (which is very characteristic of the way he speaks in Aramaic and Hebrew). The word for “first” comes from the same root for “head”, which can also suggest a chief or leader; and the word for “last” uses the same letters as “other”, which can also suggest separate or removed–i.e. the alienated and unwelcome. So Jesus is saying a lot with one very simply phrase. He’s saying the first/old leaders will become the last/unwelcomed, and the last/alientated will become the first/new leaders.

    Now, the reason I’ve gone over this in such detail is to put the original verse in perspective. What you have latched onto as an original utterance of Jesus is likely only a gloss (or targummimic expansion) of an original expression by Jesus–the last will be first and the first last–by the disciples after Jesus had already died, when the disciples were trying make sense of what he said while alive. This becomes all the more apparent when we look at all the verses later attached to this expression, such as leaving everything behind to follow Jesus for future rewards (Mark 10:28-30; Matt. 19:27; Luke 18:28-30) etc.

    That is to say, Jesus never actually said that his disciples will inherit thrones. He merely said that since they are at the bottom now, they will be at the top then, and the disciples merely interpreted it to mean that since they are the leaders of the “bottom” now they will therefore be the leaders of the “top” then, if that makes any sense.

    • RGM-ills  December 4, 2015

      Or that what stars you see overhead now will soon be underfoot or a constellation we look at upright to the east, will be upside down to the west. The kingdom is both present tense and future tense. The kingdom was current in the ecliptic with one ruler of 12 possibles, but there would also be future kingdoms, with each of the 12 having their hand at ruling.

  10. Mhamed Errifi  December 1, 2015

    hello Bart

    I have been reading your posts on Jesus and I came to realise that your view about him is not what most of christians think . what is the reason that believing schoolars which I found puzzuling still think that jesus was God in flesh and he died to redeem mankind then he rose from the dead even though there are many evidences that these things were invented decades after jesus .

    thanks

  11. dragonfly  December 1, 2015

    That makes a lot of sense. And makes a lot of things fall into place.

    I’ve been thinking about it and doesn’t the crucifixion itself show that Jesus must have thought he was the messiah? The only reason i can think that he was crucified is the one given in the gospels, he called himself king of the jews. Clearly he couldn’t have thought he was currently the king, he must have meant the future king. Did he really think he and his small band of merry fishermen could overthrow the romans? No. He wasn’t interested in stockpiling weapons and raising an army. He didn’t need to. He thought God would do it and make him king. If he thought God was going to make him king, however that would happen, then by definition that would mean he was the messiah, right?

  12. RonaldTaska  December 1, 2015

    This is certainly a view not taught in any of the many churches I have attended. The most interesting part is the part about the coming “son of man” being separate from Jesus. The whole concept of Jesus expressed here makes me (a retired psychiatrist) wonder whether or not Jesus was delusional and psychotic. I have read Schweitzer’s book concerning the psychiatry of Jesus and I think Schweitzer’s conclusion was that Jesus was not psychotic, but the Jesus described in your blog is certainly grandiose. I guess one issue in determining whether or not Jesus was psychotic is how His views fit into the culture of His time and how these views of Jesus were viewed by those in that culture.. A delusion is usually defined as not being part of a subculture.

  13. dragonfly  December 1, 2015

    Could someone explain the son of man to me? Surley the expression “ben adam” would have originally meant a descendant of adam, ie. a human. Thus when Daniel talks about beasts and then “one like a son of man” he means one that looks like a human, but presumably isn’t human. Somewhere along the line, by the first century, the son of man had become a title for some figure that could be human or could be some cosmic figure from heaven, depending on your particular beliefs. I am i making some bad assumptions here?

  14. SidDhartha1953  December 1, 2015

    How certain are you that all of the Twelve are historical, specifically Judas Iscariot? Is Judas named in any of the Q sayings? Could the author(s) of Q have been unaware that Jesus might have been betrayed by one of the Twelve?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2015

      Judas is multiply attested in our sources; Q doesn’t contain many narratives, nothing in the Passion, and so does not tell the tale of the betrayal. It is almost entirely sayings of Jesus.

  15. Tnewby4444  December 1, 2015

    I’m confused on what Jesus thought his role was (during his earthly life and after). In your opinion, did Jesus believe himself to be a divine being during his lifetime?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2015

      Nope. I have a long discussion of this in How Jesus Became God.

  16. Kirktrumb59  December 1, 2015

    Perhaps you’ve already plans to address my question in a subsequent post, or have already addressed it (if so, not in your post of July 10, 2012):
    What’s your opinion of Jesus’ having SELF-identified as the ‘suffering servant’/’man of sorrows’, and thus the messiah? Later Xtians clearly added relevant passages from so-called 2nd Isaiah to the long list of Hebrew bible episodes (e.g., Abraham’s 3 angel visitors, etc) which (in their view) prospectively referred to…Jesus. (That the ‘suffering servant’ referred to captive “Israel,” and not to the future Jesus or future anything else is irrelevant to my question.)
    Some scholars have suggested that the scripturally-literate Jesus MIGHT have re-interpreted this ‘suffering servant’ as an alternative-type messiah, and then, because he viewed himself as an about-to-die suffering servant (handwriting on the wall, as it were), therefore identified himself as the messiah. Obviously conjecture, can’t be proven. What opine you?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2015

      I don’t think there’s any way Jesus anticipated his death, let alone a death for others; I think the attribution of Isaiah 53 to him was because of later Xn story tellers.

  17. Adam0685  December 1, 2015

    Isn’t it difficult to imagine what the disciples thought/came to believe since our main sources about them–Paul and the gospels–are written much later by people not connected with the disciples. I think we can say that later Christians, not necessary the disciples, reinterpreted Jesus’ life, identity, and role in their gods plan.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2015

      Very difficult indeed! Hence the need for serious scholarship on the issues.

  18. Yvonne  December 1, 2015

    If the 12 disciples were to judge the 12 tribes, where do the gentiles (anyone who wasn’t a jew) fit in? Seems to me Jesus was only preaching to the jewish community.

  19. Eric  December 1, 2015

    I wonder if John the Baptist had told HIS disciples, which I believe included Jesus, that HE was the messiah. And when that didn’t work out, Jesus realized “oh, no, it must be ME that is the messiah…” ala Joseph smith and Brigham young (not precisely the same).

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      Possibly. The question is what evidence there is that John thought he was the messiah (as opposed, say, to a prophet)

      • Eric  December 4, 2015

        Understood. If you don’t have any evidence, then I sure don’t.

        But it might be fun for me to try to frame an argument along the liens you sometimes do (albeit you do it with extensive background, knowledge, and fact, and mine is just an exercise).

        Using your beginning, Middle, and End argument, in the beginning there were apocalyptic groups, some of which expected some kind of messiah figure to be a component. At the end, the jesus-following movement was an apocalyptic movement centered on a messiah figure. Therefore perhaps the middle was also an apocalyptic movement centered on a messiah figure, but the main figure for that period was John, so how would anyone else be the messiah but John?

        Maybe that’s weak cheese.

        And another Ehrman-mimicking argument to build on that: Why would early Christians go to such lengths to try to establish John’s submission to Jesus? If John was well known to present himself as a prophet, not a messiah, and if early Christians all understood Jesus declared himself the messiah, not just a prophet, why go to the “protest too much” effort over trying to overturn an embarrassing fact?

        Just having fun with the process, not a strong conviction at all.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 7, 2015

          All your first instance shows is that John was an apocalypticist, not that he thought of himself as the messiah (you have no beginning where he thought he was). Your second instance … loses me!

  20. Cadfael  December 1, 2015

    One of the interesting things in John’s narrative to me, is that the betrayal was planned by Jesus with Judas and the others aware of it all. He tells some disciples who has been chosen to do this and then instructs Judas to go and do what he must do quickly. Was it Jesus’ intent to bring the Kingdom of God into being that Passover fully expecting it to come down when the future king was threatened.?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      It’s not clear to me that Judas and Jesus were in cahoots on the matter in John. The Gospel does speak of Judas as “a devil,” for example.

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