The outstanding liberal Biblical scholar James McGrath wrote a thought-provoking post on this very topic.
I mentioned a few posts about Bart Ehrman’s recent book yesterday, and there are already a couple more. Larry Hurtado offered some amendments to his post, in light of feedback from Bart Ehrman himself. And Ken Schenck blogged about chapter 3 and whether Jesus thought he was God. In it he writes:
I think we can safely assume that, in his public persona, Jesus did not go around telling everyone he was the Messiah, let alone God.
But one must then ask whether these is a good reason to regard the process that follows, in which Jesus comes to be viewed as the second person of the Trinity, is a legitimate or necessary one.
Schenck also criticizes Ehrman for giving voice to older formulations of scholarly views, as though things had not moved on.
The only people who think that Jesus was viewed as a divine figure from the beginning are some very conservative Christians on the one hand , and mythicists on the other. That in itself is telling.
I’d be very interested to see further exploration of the idea that, in talking about the “son of man,” Jesus was alluding to a future figure other than himself, and that it was only his followers who merged the two, coming up with the notion of a “return” of Jesus. It is a viewpoint that was proposed and then set aside decades ago, and I don’t personally feel like either case has been explored to the fullest extent possible. Scholarship on the Parables of Enoch has shifted since those earlier discussions occurred, and the possibility that that work could have influenced Jesus can no longer be dismissed.
But either way, we are dealing with the expectations of a human being, either regarding his own future exaltation, or the arrival of another figure. We simply do not find in Paul or in our earliest Gospels a depiction of Jesus as one who thought he was God.
Here was my response to that:
“Well I’m not really a Conservative Christian (since I reject a fixed Canon and find some forms of pan-en-theism interesting philosophically) but I do believe that Jesus was more than a mere prophet. Along with N.T. Wright I think He viewed Himself as the new temple embodying God’s presence on earth.
I once defended the validity of C.S. Lewis trilemma provided Jesus viewed himself as God.
I’m well aware that Jesus divine sayings in John’s gospel are theological creations .
But here there is something curious going on here.
Many critical scholars think that the historical Jesus falsely predicted the end of the world in the Gospel of Mattew
“Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. ” Matthew 24:34
But if one does this, why could we not also accept the following saying
“37”Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. 38″Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!…” Matthew 23:37
which is located just several verses before Matthew 24:34. It seems rather arbitrary to accept the latter while rejecting the former.
This verse is intriguing in many respects.
In it, Jesus implies his divinity while not stating it explicitly, and if it was a theological creation such as in John’s Gospel, it seems strange that Matthew did not make this point much more often and clearly at other places, if such was his agenda.
What’s more, the presence of Matthew 24:34 (provided it was a false prophecy) has some interesting consequences about the dating and intention of the author.
1) Let us consider that Matthew made up the whole end of his Gospel out of his theological wishful thinking for proving that Christ is the divine Messiah.
If it is the case, it seems extremely unlikely he would write that one or two generations AFTER Jesus had perished.
This fact strongly militates for dating Matthew’s gospel as a pretty early writing.
2) Let us now suppose that Matthew wrote His Gospel long after Jesus’s generation had passed away.
He would certainly not have invented a saying where his Messiah made a false prediction.
It appears much more natural to assume he reports a historical saying of Jesus as it was because he deeply cared for truth , however embarrassing this might prove to be.
And if that is the case, we have good grounds for thinking he did not make up Matthew 23:37 either.
I’m not saying that what I have presented here is an air-tight case, it just seems the most natural way to go about this.
I think that historical events posses objective probabilities, geekily minded readers might be interested in my own approach.”
To which James replied:
“Thanks for making this interesting argument! How would you respond to the suggestion that Jesus there might be speaking as other prophets had, addressing people in the first person as though God were speaking, but without believing his own identity to be that of God’s? I think that might also fit the related saying, “I will destroy this temple, and in three days rebuild it.””
“That’s an interesting reply, James! Of course I cannot rule this out.
Still, in the verses before Jesus uses the third person for talking about God:
“And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.”
and verse 36: ” 36 Truly I tell you , all this will come on this generation.” is a typical saying of Jesus he attributes to himself.
And so it seems to me more natural that Jesus would have said something like:
” For Truly God says: ’37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing…”
“Well, the same sort of switching back and forth between first person of God and the first person of the prophet is found in other prophetic literature, so I don’t see that as a problem. Of course, it doesn’t demonstrate that that is the best way to account for the phenomenon, but I definitely think it is one interpretative option that needs to be considered.”
I mentioned our conversation because I think it is a nice example of how one can disagree about a topic without being disagreeable towards one another.
Would not the world be in a much better state if everyone began striving for this ideal?
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