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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.


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Judas and the Messianic Secret
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  1. Avatar
    Blackwell  December 2, 2015

    If no later Christians would invent a saying of Jesus in which he indicated that Judas would become a ruler then for the same reason no Christian would have written this down for the first time after his death.
    So, either it was recorded while Jesus was alive and then faithfully copied or else the words are fictional.
    In the first case, who made the record?
    In the second case, this same argument would apply to many other quotations attributed to Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      Right — the difference is that someone writing it down may not be thinking through the implications: “Wait a second, that means Judas too!!!” My reason for thinking that no one decades later thought of it that way is that readers today never think of it that way, until someone points it out to them.

      • Avatar
        Blackwell  December 6, 2015

        You suggest that someone may have written down, decades after the words were spoken and without thinking through the implications, that Jesus had said that all twelve disciples would become kings after the apocalypse.
        Maybe what Jesus actually said was something like “The first shall be last and the last shall be first” as suggested by Talmoore (Nov 30) and oral transmission changed this to “The poor weak disciples will become powerful kings” by the time it was recorded (Without consideration of the implications).
        This illustrates that no words attributed to Jesus are certain unless they were written down shortly after they were spoken.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 7, 2015

          Even if they were written down soon afterward — there would be no proof that he said them!!!

          • Avatar
            Blackwell  December 7, 2015

            I agree that there is no proof that Jesus actually said anything that is attributed to him, even if it was written down soon afterwards, but written records are much more certain than oral transmission, which is notoriously unreliable.
            It is therefore not almost certain (your original claim) that Jesus told his disciples that they would be seated on thrones after the apocalypse, but it would be a lot more certain if you could explain how it might have been written down shortly after the words were spoken.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 8, 2015

            You have to apply rigorous criteria to surviving records to determine the likelihood that they are authentic; it’s not just guess work! It’s a matter of establishing historical probabilities.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      I’m not *quite* sure I’m following you, but my argument is that someone who later recorded the saying wasn’t thinking through its implications (Oh! Judas would have been one of them!), just as people today don’t think through them.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  December 2, 2015

    Bart can’t possibly respond to all of our nitpicks, but I think we have more than enough information to know that Jesus expected the actual material world people lived in to change. He may not be 100% sure when it’s going to happen, he may keep moving the goalposts back, he may even start thinking he has to sacrifice himself for it to happen, but he believes some of the people he’s talking to will see it, and it won’t JUST be an inner change.

    You’re confused on this because he believes inner and outer change are basically the same–people change themselves in order to change the world. This is true, btw. This is the only way people can bring about true change for the better (or in some cases, worse).

    He may not have said “My Kingdom of not of this Earth.” Maybe that’s later Christians explaining why the Kingdom has not come yet. But if he said that, he might have meant that he himself would not be an earthly king.

    In my opinion, he started to believe that he had to trigger the change himself, by offering himself up as a sacrifice–at Passover. That’s his role, and maybe that would, in his mind, make him the Messiah, but it’s a very unorthodox interpretation of the role, if so.

    Apocalypticists today most definitely believe it has everything to do with this world. Next time you see one of those bumper stickers explaining that if The Rapture comes, and you’re not one of the saved, you better be prepared to swerve around a driverless car, think about that.

  3. Rick
    Rick  December 2, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, I am no doubt guilty of over-simplifying but would appreciate some …clarification. On first learning of Q I naively thought it had a good chance of getting back to things Jesus really said. Then, on learning it was written in Geek in the 50’s to 60’s, with earlier and later “levels” assumed it was no more reliable than say Mark. The Jesus Projects votes could help identify what he said if reliable but seem to favor their wandering Cynic thesis. Is there a short statement on how you approach Q as to reliability to the historic Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      I think Q was an early source principally of Jesus’ sayings floating around in the 50s or 60s, and needs to be treated like all our other sources (Mark, M, L, John’s sources) for Jesus’ life, historically. I deal with it a bit in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

  4. Avatar
    Steefen  December 5, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman: Jesus was considered the messiah by his followers after his death.

    Steefen: After Jesus, the Galilean’s death, what followers of his had reason to call him Messiah when Galilee, led by a man named Jesus, was slaughtered on land and in the Sea of Galilee during the First Jewish-Roman War? What did the Messiah do there? How did he reign there? How did his followers think he was the Messiah when Jerusalem was taken over by civil war and starvation? How did his followers think he was the Messiah when Jesus of Gamala and Ananus, high priests, were killed in the Temple by the Idumeans during the civil war with Rome at Jerusalem’s door? How did his followers think he was the Messiah when people died in the fires of the Temple’s destruction?

    Dr. Ehrman: the future messiah would be a figure of grandeur and might who would come with the authority and power of God

    Steefen, author of the Greatest Bible Study in Historical Accuracy, First Edition: Jesus loses his authority when God stops empowering the Jews in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. When land rights are taken from a people, there are no more rights to a Messiah or a need for a Messiah. Second, when the Messiah is “put on death row” and killed which causes the Landowner of the Promised Land to give the land to the Romans, that career is over.

    Dr. Ehrman: overthrow the forces of evil, God himself was going to bring destruction on his enemies

    Steefen: Who were the forces of evil before God’s Son was put on death row and killed. Who were these forces of evil to constitute people from whom the Messiah needed to save the Jews? Messiah without a cause is what you are advocating? The forces from whom Jesus of the New Testament spends most of his time combatting are an internal threat: the Pharisees, scribes, and Temple money changers.

    Dr. Ehrman: The Son of Man would establish God’s kingdom on earth. And he would appoint Jesus to be its ruler.

    Steefen: That is erroneous with regards to Daniel: “And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, That all the peoples, nations and men of every language Might serve Him.” The Son of Man was not to appoint someone else to be served.

    Dr. Ehrman: Jesus did not publicly proclaim his self-understanding, at least according to our earliest Gospels and their sources. He does not preach about himself as the future messiah in Mark, Matthew, Luke, Q, M, or L. He only tells his disciples, in private.

    Steefen: That too is erroneous. Mark 14: 61-62 (and cross-references to that verse in other gospels)
    Aramaic Bible in Plain English
    The High Priest asked him and said, “Are you The Messiah, The Son of The Blessed One?” Jesus answered, “I am.”

  5. Avatar
    Steefen  December 20, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, Jesus ignored this (Micah 5:1-5)?

    A Promised Ruler From Bethlehem

    1Marshal your troops now, city of troops,
    for a siege is laid against us.
    They will strike Israel’s ruler
    on the cheek with a rod.

    2“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clansa of Judah,
    out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
    whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.”

    3Therefore Israel will be abandoned
    until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,
    and the rest of his brothers return
    to join the Israelites.

    4He will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
    And they will live securely, for then his greatness
    will reach to the ends of the earth.

    5And he will be our peace
    when the Assyrians invade our land
    and march through our fortresses.
    We will raise against them seven shepherds,
    even eight commanders,

    • Bart
      Bart  December 21, 2015

      We have no clue what Jesus thought of this passage. It could obviously be interpreted in lots and lots of different ways….

      • Avatar
        Steefen  December 22, 2015

        Jesus would have needed to plea to the Pharisees, Yes, I am the Messiah, son of the Living One, but in no shape or form the Messiah from Bethlehem as warrior-king, David was from Bethlehem or the Bethlehem of the prophet Micah.

        Unsurprisingly, Christians today link the birth of Jesus to Bethlehem and see no other reference for Micah 5 than Jesus.

  6. Avatar
    Deviantlogic  January 30, 2016

    So if “Jesus did think of himself as the messiah…of the coming kingdom” and “God himself was going to bring destruction on his enemies by sending the Son of Man from heaven (a cosmic savior…). I’m just curious as to who or what this ‘Son of Man’ was to Jesus? I mean this ‘Being’ couldn’t have been just an empty concept. Was this ‘Being’ in existence from eternity, do we hear about this ‘Son of Man’ prior to the NT? If Jesus didn’t think of himself as this ‘Son of Man’ and this ‘Son of Man’ isn’t God, then who or what is it?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2016

      I think he’s basing his views on the description of “one like a Son of Man” in Daniel 7:13-14; the Son of Man is a divine being (a great angel perhaps?) who comes as the judge of the earth at God’s behest.

  7. Avatar
    JR  March 22, 2016

    Forgive me if this is covered elsewhere and I haven’t seen it yet – but other than Jesus referring to ‘the Son of Man’ in the third person, is there any other evidence to suggest that he didn’t see himself as the Son of Man?

    Given that Daniel 7 is an apocalyptic vision, the son of man coming on the clouds surely would have been understood by Jews as a symbolic event where a ‘figure’ is given authority to rule? They would not have expected a literal ‘coming’ as modern Christians do.

    And given that Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah / king why would he not have understood this passage to be about him being given God’s authority to rule?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 23, 2016

      Yes, I’d say that it’s not just that he speaks of the son of man in the third person, but that in some of the sayings he appears to differentiate between himself and that one. I explain all that in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

      • Avatar
        JR  March 23, 2016

        Thanks! I will get a copy.
        Really appreciate the blog! It has made realise afresh what a great thing the internet is. Rather than just a vehicle for cat videos and pornography.

  8. Avatar
    Matthew Villarreal  May 30, 2016

    If Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, did He consider Himself to be a King already, or is this something that would only happen after the coming of the Son of Man? In other words, did Jesus expect His followers to obey Him as a King during his life?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 30, 2016

      My sense is that he thought he would be installed as the messiah when the son of man arrived….

  9. Avatar
    theyugu  July 3, 2017

    Do you think Jesus thought of himself as coming from the line of David, or why do you think he thought he was the messiah?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 4, 2017

      I’m afraid there is no way to know what he thought about his lineage. But I mount a rather long argument that he must have seen himself as the messiah in my book Jesus: Apocaylptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

  10. Avatar
    Hngerhman  May 11, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    Fact pattern:
    – Jesus thought / told the twelve that he was messiah
    – the apostles/disciples/followers had messianic expectations of Jesus before his death
    – messianic expectations in the first century generally entailed Davidic lineage
    – Jesus selection of the twelve, symbolizing the reconstitution of the Israel of old, entailed a concept of lineage in some sense
    – claiming to be master of / ruler over the twelve tribes (even / especially in the coming kingdom) would suggest Davidic lineage to ground it, given YHWH’s scriptural promise about the occupant of the throne
    – Jesus was killed for messianic claims

    (A) How likely is it that Jesus would have inspired messianic expectations during his lifetime amongst his followers, especially his inner circle, without them believing in some claim to Davidic lineage?

    (B) How likely is it that Jesus would *assert* messianic authority to his inner circle without believing he had some claim to Davidic lineage?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2019

      A. I think it’s highly likely. I explain why in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet; B. We don’t know, but we also don’t know if Jesus did claim Davidic lineage. That wouldn’t be hard to do. If you track the genealogical options, probably *everyone* in Palestine could trace their bloodline back to David, from a thousand years earlier.

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  May 13, 2019

        Thanks much!

        On A, I’ll go back to re-read J:AP (I admit to having read it in a hurry…) – just to clarify, you argued it’s highly likely Jesus’s followers would have viewed him with messianic expectations even without them also believing he had some claim to Davidic lineage? Which would imply Davidic lineage wasn’t a sufficiently embedded concept packed into the concept of Messiah for these followers?

        I quickly Kindle-searched “David”, “expect”, “Messiah”, and “lineage” but haven’t yet found that punchline – would you happen to recall roughly where in J:AP it is? If not, no worries – I’m happy to have an excuse to reread it.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 14, 2019

          No, I didn’t calim that. I don’t know what they thought about davidic lineage — we’re never told.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  May 14, 2019

            Got it – sorry, I misunderstood the prior response. Thanks a ton as always!

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