#5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God? If so, what did he mean? Did he offer any proof? How is that even possible?
“Son of Man, Son of David, Son of God, son of Joseph the Carpenter of Nazareth” – these are the sonship titles of Jesus. We saw previously that the first two in this list were not-so-subtle claims to Messiahship. Jesus of Nazareth, the upstart son of a carpenter from a nowhereville little village called Nazareth in First-Century Israel’s boondocks in Galilee, had outrageously accepted each of those appellations as his own proper designation. He constantly called himself “The Son of Man” and he never refused being called “Son of David” when others called him that.
As to “Son of God”, there are several occurrences of his being openly called this by someone else, and he does not deny its relevance. The first time is when Jesus calms the storm. The disciples are recorded to have worshipped him and said “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:32). Later his closest disciple, Simon bar-Jonah, whom Jesus renamed Peter (the Rock) – see Matthew 16:16 and The Third Way 54 – answered for all the disciples after Jesus had asked “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus tells Peter that his Father in Heaven had revealed this to him. Therefore, Jesus fully acknowledges the title and identity.
The last time is far different. It is during Jesus’ trumped-up trial before the Sanhedrin. The High Priest challenges him to answer clearly, “Are you or are you not, the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One [Yahweh-God].” Jesus answers “(It is) As you say” or “You are right in saying I am” (Luke 22: 70b). It is a definite, “Yes I am.” It was enough to have the court condemn him to death for blasphemy—assuming it was false, as all the judge-jurymen did.[i]
The other more subtle approach to claiming a special “Sonship” status with God which Jesus makes is by consistently calling God “my Father” and “my Father in Heaven”. This was not a time like ours when everyone went about calling all humans “children of God” or “sons and daughters of God” by virtue of being God’s creatures. The Gospels are contextually quite clear that Jesus was consistently and repeatedly claiming some kind of unique relationship with the Creator-God, with Yahweh-God, the God of Israel who was also the One God, the only true God, the Maker of the whole universe, which is how Israel and Jews saw their God. The gods of all the other nations were false, zeros, nothings, no gods at all or, worse yet, demons.
But just how far did this claim to a unique relationship with the One-and-Only-True-God go? The short answer is “far enough to get him killed by the Jewish leaders for blasphemy, and far enough to convince Pontius Pilate to collaborate with even though he appears to have had significant misgivings.” As John’s Gospel recounts, Pilate sought to find a way to release Jesus as innocent, but priests tell Pilate, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” They convince Pilate to crucify him by saying that Jesus’ claim to be a king makes him Caesar’s enemy, and Pilate cannot escape his duty as governor to condemn anyone suspected of raising rebellion.
Thus, it is clear that Jesus accepted worship and being called “the Son of the Living God”. When asked directly by the High Priest, he declared he was the Son of God, and that the Jewish leaders understood this to mean that he claimed a supernatural identity, not just the ordinary Jewish status of being a “son of God” through Adam and Abraham, the God-chosen ancestor of all Jews. The Talmud’s vitriolic references to Jesus and the “sect of the Nazarenes” reinforce this understanding. The ensuing hostility of First-Century Judaism to the Jesus Movement also confirms this.
What did Jesus himself mean by “Son of God”? We can get closest to it by referring to what the Gospel writers report as his description of that relationship. Here are some of those declarations:
“Whoever acknowledges me before men [human beings] I will also acknowledge him [her] before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men [human beings] I will also disown him [her] before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10: 32-3)
“He who received you receives me, and he [she] who received me receives the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40 – the context clearly refers to God as “the one who sent me”.)
Most of what we see Jesus saying about this is reported in John’s Gospel, which makes that Gospel seem the least authentic (most distasteful?) to the more liberal school of critics and scholars who least appreciate the supernatural elements of the Jesus story. Throughout John’s version of the Jesus Story, we find Jesus saying things like:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (3”16-7
“My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” For this reason the Jews [Jewish leaders is the meaning] tried all the harder to kill him … he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (5:18)
“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty …. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” (6: 35, 37-8)
“When you have lifted up the Son of Man [an oblique reference to his coming crucifixion], then you will know who I am and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” (8: 28-9)
“My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him …. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”
“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews [leaders] told him, “ and you have seen Abraham!”
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.” (8:54b, 56-9)
The upshot of all this is that, according to the first-hand sources, Jesus clearly claimed divine status, equality with God, a special relationship of what he described as a unique “Sonship” in which all that he taught and did was in complete harmony and union with God’s will and nature. The final occasion we will mention is the Apostle Thomas worshipping Jesus and saying to him “My Lord and my God!” after the resurrection.
Thomas was a sceptic, and needed a personal physical encounter with the risen Messiah and Son of God to accept him and his true identity as God incarnate in human form. Having missed the first appearance of Jesus to the assembled disciples on the previous Sunday evening (Easter as we now call it), Thomas had refused to believe all the other disciples’ account of their Lord’s physical resurrection. A week later, they were again assembled in the same “upper room” and Jesus once more appeared in their midst. He turned to Thomas and told his to stop doubting and to put his fingers in the nail holes of his hands (wrists) and his hand into the lance-wound in his side, as Thomas had declared the conditions on which he would believe. Thomas, all-atremble, declared, “My Lord and my God!”
We will leave this question here for today. The records as we have them certainly point to Jesus claiming divine status. As to “proof”, we must acknowledge that the Gospels in themselves do not satisfy everyone, especially in a culture now immured in scepticism. Those who accept the Gospel accounts are a dwindling minority of people. Now, when actual historical and archeological research is affirming their substance more and more, after hundreds of years of systematic (and often spurious) deconstruction and relegation to the “religious” sphere, they are seldom admitted into the rank of truly reliable historical source-documents.
We will close with the observation that all points of view are biased by faith-based presuppositions, and none more than those regarding the consideration of the identity of the historically titanic person of Jesus of Nazareth.
[i] There may have been a couple of exceptions—Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. However, there is no record of any dissent with the verdict in the Gospels. Some suggest that these two, whom Luke and John call “secret disciples”, were not present at this “trial” in the middle of the night, perhaps not having been notified that it was to take place. Or perhaps their fear of being ostracized, or worse, kept them silent. This is no worse than Peter’s triple denial or all the other disciples fleeing.)