Historical Jesus - Lesson 6

Jesus Claimed to be God

From this lesson, you will gain a comprehensive understanding of whether Jesus believed Himself to be the Messiah and Savior of the world. It explores the significance of titles like "Messiah," "Son of Man," and "Son of God" in relation to Jesus's identity. Despite His reticence with the title "Messiah," there are instances where He seems to accept it. The early church's firm proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah after His resurrection adds weight to this claim. Additionally, Jesus's use of "Son of Man" and "Son of God" titles, as well as implicit actions like His entry into Jerusalem and clearing of the temple, all indicate His messianic identity and divine authority. This lesson provides a thorough analysis of these aspects, shedding light on Jesus's self-perception as the Messiah.

Mark Strauss
Historical Jesus
Lesson 6
Watching Now
Jesus Claimed to be God

I. Introduction

A. Overview of Previous Sessions

B. Focus of This Session

II. Key Messianic Titles

A. Messiah and Christ

B. Anointed One and Its Significance

III. Jesus' Acceptance of the Messiah Title

A. Messianic Secret in the Gospels

B. Peter's Confession and Its Variations

C. Jesus' Trial and His Response

D. Crucifixion as a Messianic Pretender

IV. Jesus' Preferred Title: Son of Man

A. Origin and Usage of Son of Man

B. Connection to Daniel 7

C. Significance of the Title

V. Son of God as a Confessional Title

A. Old Testament Background

B. Second Temple Judaism's Use of the Title

C. New Testament Usage and Parallels

VI. Implicit Messianic Indications

A. Palm Sunday and Zechariah 9:9

B. Clearing of the Temple and Its Symbolism

C. Temple's Restoration or Replacement

VII. Conclusion

A. Recap of Jesus' Messiah Claims

B. Upcoming Session Preview

VIII. Q&A and Discussion

  • This lesson delves into perspectives and controversies about the historical Jesus. It examines challenges in studying his identity, showcasing diverse viewpoints. Some vouch for Gospel authenticity, while others see them as human-made legends. These varied interpretations complicate understanding Jesus, to be explored in upcoming sessions through worldviews and authenticity criteria.
  • Gain insights into the Enlightenment's historical context of studying Jesus. An era of naturalism, rationalism, and skepticism towards supernatural Bible elements. Scholars like Reimarus challenged traditional views, leading to a quest for the historical Jesus. Hume's arguments against miracles are discussed, but the text emphasizes the presence of miracle stories in gospel and Jewish sources, showing Jesus as a recognized miracle worker. Encouraging skeptics and believers to scrutinize evidence and ponder miracles in history.
  • In this lesson, you will gain insight into the complexities of conducting objective historical research. The lesson highlights the influence of differing worldviews on the evaluation of Jesus's miracles and introduces Martin Kähler's. Kähler's distinction between the "history" of Jesus and "theological impact" of Jesus is discussed, emphasizing that for believers, the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history are one. The lesson also touches on scholars like Rudolph Bultmann, Luke Timothy Johnson, and Dale Allison, who adopted a pessimistic view regarding the possibility of discovering the real Jesus through historical inquiry. Conversely, it introduces scholars who believe in investigating the historical Jesus using rigorous methods. The text presents various criteria used by scholars to assess the authenticity of Jesus's sayings and deeds, including dissimilarity, multiple attestation, embarrassment, semitic flavor, divergent traditions, and coherence, along with their limitations and potential biases. Furthermore, it mentions newer criteria proposed by contemporary scholars to address the challenges posed by the traditional criteria.

  • In this lesson, we explore bias in the gospel writers' portrayal of Jesus. Critics like Strauss and Wrede doubted their historical accuracy, but the lesson argues that their beliefs don't negate their reliability. It highlights Luke's meticulous approach, supporting the gospel tradition's credibility.
  • Gain insight into resolving gospel contradictions and historical accuracy concerns. Learn how summarization, paraphrasing, and interpretation shape history writing. Understand that gospel differences arise from translation and authorial choices, not altering Jesus' authentic voice. Recognize the complementarity of John's gospel with the synoptics, revealing common themes and attributes of deity.
  • In this lesson, you will delve into the intricate examination of whether Jesus saw Himself as the Messiah and Savior. Through the scrutiny of titles such as Messiah, Son of Man, and Son of God, alongside a review of key events like His entry into Jerusalem and the clearing of the temple, you'll gain an understanding of Jesus's self-perception and the ways in which He implicitly and explicitly signaled His messianic identity.
  • You're diving deep into Jesus' multifaceted claims to Messiahship and divine authority, highlighting his proclamation of the Kingdom of God, his symbolic appointment of 12 disciples, his transformative teachings, and his significant miracles. Through the lesson, you recognize Jesus' unparalleled authority to forgive sins and his role as the ultimate judge, emphasizing his unique position in the narrative of faith.
  • In this lesson, you'll delve into the intricate circumstances leading to Jesus' death, scrutinizing the roles of both Roman and Jewish authorities. You'll explore Jesus' own perception of his death, linking it to Old Testament prophecies and understanding its theological significance.
  • Through this lesson, you'll grasp the foundational importance of Jesus' resurrection within Christianity, learn about various theories proposed by skeptics, and understand the evidence affirming its historical validity. Positioned within the broader Jewish beliefs of the first century, the resurrection not only affirms Jesus' claims but also indicates the beginning of a new era, the Kingdom of God, and the defeat of humanity's greatest adversaries.

This course focuses on looking at the claims of Jesus as to his identity and at the historicity of the gospel evidence for who Jesus was and what he came to accomplish.

Dr. Mark Strauss
Historical Jesus
Jesus Claimed to be God
Lesson Transcript


In our previous two sessions, we examined the question of whether the gospels can be viewed as generally reliable? Is there good evidence that the stories originated with Jesus Himself, and were then accurately passed down within the context of the church?

Next, we looked at some of the so-called discrepancies or contradictions within the gospels. We suggested that most claims of discrepancies can be resolved by recognizing that the stories and teachings of Jesus are not necessarily verbatim accounts, but the inspired author's presentation of the meaning and significance of Jesus's words and actions.

In this session, we're turning to the actual claims made by Jesus. What is the evidence that Jesus believed Himself to be the Messiah and Savior of the world? We'll start with key messianic titles, like Messiah, Son of Man, and Son of God. Then we'll turn from direct claims to several actions of Jesus that implicitly indicate His claims to be the Messiah.

Central to the early church's understanding of the identity of Jesus was the claim that He was the Messiah. The English term messiah comes from the Hebrew māšīaḥ, meaning anointed one. Christ, or christos, is the Greek translation of the Hebrew term. So Messiah and Christ mean the same thing, the anointed one, but in two different languages.

Being anointed with olive oil symbolized being set apart for God's mission or service. The phrase, the Lord's anointed, could be used of anyone dedicated in this way, whether king, or priest, or prophet. The most common use of the title, however, was to describe Israel's king, who was meant to rule as God's vice regent, His anointed. Over time, the term came to be used in a technical sense, of God's end time king. The Messiah, who would establish God's eternal kingdom, and reign in righteousness and justice forever.

So did Jesus claim to be the Messiah in this sense? Most liberal critics have long denied that Jesus viewed Himself in this way, and it's certainly true that Jesus was reserved with reference to the title Messiah. We've talked earlier about the Messianic secret, especially in Mark's gospel. These are occasions where Jesus tells others not to make His identity known. There are, in fact, two key synoptic passage where Jesus appears to accept the title for Himself, but these two are themselves a little complicated.

The first is Peter's confession, where Jesus asked the disciples who they think He is. In Matthew's version, Matthew 16, verses 16 and 17, Peter responds, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus affirms this confession by pronouncing a blessing on Peter. But in Mark's version, Jesus does not explicitly affirm Peter, but only predicts the suffering role of the Son of Man.

The second episode is Jesus's trial, where He's asked by the high priest, Caiaphas, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the blessed one?" While in Mark, Jesus enters explicitly, "I am." Mark 14:62.

In Matthew, He uses the more enigmatic, "You have said so." Matthew 26:64. Some argue this means something like, that's what you say, not me. Or perhaps, I would define it differently. So even in these two passages, Jesus seems to be reticent to discuss His messiahship.

It's clear however, that after the resurrection, the church emphatically proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah. This confession would seem unlikely if Jesus had explicitly denied He was the Messiah. There's also strong evidence that Jesus was crucified as a messianic pretender, that is as one claiming to be a king or the Messiah.

Few would doubt the historicity of the titleist, or the name plate placed on the cross, announcing Jesus' execution as King of the Jews. The criterion of dissimilarity points to its authenticity, since the title King was not a commonly used title for Jesus in the early church, and so this episode is unlikely to have been invented by the church. In fact, the whole crucifixion scene, the crown of thorns, the purple robe, the soldiers mocking Him as king, together confirmed that Jesus was executed as king, as King of the Jews.

This suggests He made some kind of messianic claim. So why then was Jesus so reluctant to explicitly identify Himself as the Messiah? The most likely reason was the title's political and militaristic connotations. The Messiah was widely expected to be a warrior king, who would defeat Israel's enemies, and would secure the nation's borders. Jesus probably avoided the title because it risked miscommunicating His messianic role.

Jesus came not to defeat the Roman legions, but to offer His life as a sacrifice for sins. While showing great reserve, with reference to the title Messiah, Jesus' favorite self designation was Son of Man. Son of Man comes from a Hebrew phrase, ben-adam, which means a person or a human being. As we've said, it seems beyond dispute, based on the criterion of dissimilarity again, that Jesus used the title for Himself, since it appears exclusively on His lips in the gospels, and since the later church did not adopt it as a messianic title.

The term is often used in the Old Testament in the sense of human being. In the book of Ezekiel, for example, the prophet is addressed by God as Son of Man, meaning something like mortal one. 93 times He's called that. The most important background passage for Jesus's usage is Daniel 7, 13 and 14. Or an exalted messianic figure, described as, "one like a son of man", that is having human form, "comes with the clouds of heaven into the presence of the Ancient of days." A reference to God the father. "And is given all authority, glory, and an eternal kingdom." Jesus alludes to this passage several times in His ministry, including at His trial.

It's likely that Jesus adopted the title Son of Man for three related reasons. First, it stressed His humanity, and so, His identification with the people of God. Second, it alluded to Daniel 7, 13 and 14, revealing His messianic identity, but in a veiled way. Third, at the same time, it did not carry the political dynamite of titles like Messiah or Son of David. Jesus could then define His messiahship on His own terms, rather than on the basis of popular expectations.

A third title, closely related to Jesus' messiahship, is Son of God. Like Christ and Lord, this was a key confessional title in the early church, but what does it mean? While angels are occasionally referred to as Sons of God, in the Old Testament, and Israel as a nation is sometimes called God's Son, the most important background here is the title's use for Israel's king. The king was called the Son of God by virtue of his special relationship as the people's representative before God, and God's representative before the people.

In the covenant God made with David, in 2nd Samuel 7, the Lord promises David concerning his descendant that, "I will be his father and he will be my son." That's in 2nd Samuel 7:14. You can also see Psalm 2:7.

While some scholars reject that Jesus could have considered Himself the Son of God in any unique sense, several pieces of evidence point to the title's authenticity. First, the evidence from Second Temple Judaism, and especially the Dead Sea Scrolls, indicates that by the first century, Son of God was becoming a recognized title for the Messiah. If Jesus was acclaimed by some to be the Messiah, it's not surprising that He would also be called the Son of God.

In several New Testament passages, Son of God is used in parallel with Christ or Messiah. As noted earlier, in Matthew 16:16, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Then again in Matthew 26:63, the high priest questions whether Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. In these passages, Son of God essentially means the Messiah from David's line.

A second piece of evidence that Jesus identified Himself as the Son of God was Jesus' use of the Aramaic term, abba, meaning father, when He prayed. See Mark 14:36. This use of the term suggests that Jesus considered Himself to have a unique father-son relationship with God. And it was on the basis of this unique relationship that He invited His disciples to address God as their father in prayer. The fact that the Greek speaking church preserved this Aramaic phrase, or term abba, renders it likely that the use of the term goes back to Jesus Himself. Paul seems to think so, since he uses the Aramaic term twice in his letters, in Romans 8, 15 and 16, and in Galatians 4:6.

Further confirmation that Jesus identified Himself as the Son of God comes from a text like Mark 13:32, where Jesus refers to Himself in an absolute sense as the Son in relationship to the Father. Speaking concerning the time of the end, Jesus says, "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father." As we've said before, this saying is like the authentic, since the church is unlikely to have created a saying that attributed ignorance of the time of His return.

In addition to His acceptance of titles like Messiah, Son of Man and Son of God, there are other implicit indications that Jesus considered Himself to be the Messiah. Perhaps most important was His approach to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, an event recorded in all four gospels, and one that was almost certainly based on a historical event. Its significance is that Jesus seems to be deliberately acting out the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, and so presenting Himself as the Messiah.

Some scholars have claimed that the story is legend created by the early church to portray Jesus as the Messiah. This is unlikely for various reasons. First, Mark's version, presumably the earliest, does not explicitly refer to Zechariah 9:9, the passage that's fulfilled. If the story were created around this prophecy, we might expect Mark to quote that passage, but he doesn't.

Second, the cry of the crowd, "Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.", has the mark of authenticity. These words allude to Psalm 118:26. And Psalm 118 was part of the Egyptian Hallel psalms, meant to celebrate the Passover. Since Jesus, and those with Him, are coming to Jerusalem for Passover, it's not surprising they would be singing this psalm. Also, the word hosanna is a Hebrew word meaning, save now. It's unlikely that the Greek speaking church would have invented a saying that uses a Hebrew term.

Third, the independent attestation of the event in John's gospel suggests that it is a very early tradition, almost certainly going back to an event in Jesus' life.

So if the action of approaching Jerusalem on a donkey was intentionally performed by Jesus, what does it mean? It seems to be both an act of self-revelation and a provocation. By acting out Zechariah 9:9, Jesus is symbolically announcing His Messianic claim, and challenging Israel's leaders to respond. His use of this Old Testament passage also tells us something about His Messianic consciousness. Jesus does not enter the city riding a warhorse ready for battle against the Romans, but riding on a donkey, as the humble peace bringing king described in Zechariah 9. He will bring salvation not through physical conquest, but through His own self-sacrificial service.

A second episode that contains an implicit self-identification as a Messiah is even more widely accepted as authentic among scholars. This is Jesus' clearing of the temple. It's in Mark 11, Matthew 21, Luke 19, and back in John chapter 2. Jesus enters the temple driving out those who are selling animals for sacrifices, and overturning the tables of the money changers. Almost all scholars today agree, first, that Jesus performed some kind of symbolic action in the temple. And second, that it was this action that prompted Jesus' opponents to act against Him. See Mark 11:18, and Luke 19:47.

Jesus' actions in the temple are often identified as the cleansing to remove defilement. This would follow the model of the Maccabees in the second century BC, who purified and rededicated the temple after it was defiled by the pagan sacrifices of Antiochus Epiphanes. While Jesus' actions were certainly a purging, there seems more to the event than this.

Elsewhere, Jesus repeatedly predicts the coming judgment and destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. It seems likely therefore, that Jesus' actions in the temple were not just a cleansing or purifying, but a symbolic act of judgment and destruction. You can't get much more messianic and prophetic than this, seizing and occupying the temple, because the religious leaders have become corrupt.

The announcement of this is a prophetic action, what we'd expect the prophet to do, but the actual seizing and occupation of the temple, not allowing people to pass through, is a messianic one, an executive action by claiming to be king. Some scholars, like E.P. Sanders, claim that Jesus envisioned not only the destruction of the temple, but also its restoration. There is a tradition in Judaism that the coming Messiah would restore and rebuild the temple more glorious than ever. See 2nd Samuel 7:13, Zechariah 6:13, and Malachi 3:1.

While this interpretation is possible, in light of what follows, it seems more likely, Jesus saw the temple's permanent replacement as a part of the dawning of the new age, the arrival of the kingdom of God. In the new age of salvation, forgiveness of sins would no longer come through the Jerusalem temple and its sacrificial system, but through Jesus's sacrifice on the cross, the temple that is His body, destroyed and rebuilt through His death and resurrection. See John 2, 19 and 21.

In this session, we have examined the question of whether Jesus viewed Himself as the Messiah? His acceptance of titles, like Messiah, Son of Man, and Son of God, suggest that He certainly did. So also do a number of implicit actions, like entering Jerusalem on a donkey, and fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9. And clearing the temple as an act of Messianic judgment.

In our next session, we'll expand this study by looking at the many ways Jesus claimed to exercise divine authority.