One of the popular ways in which scholars dismiss Christianity is to say that Jesus himself never claimed to be God. Instead, they say, the early Church "made" him into a god. Jesus was an engaging, charismatic rabbi—nothing more. One version of this theory, popular in Israel as elsewhere, is that the apostle Paul "divinized" Jesus. Some call this the good Jesus, bad Paul approach. This theory is often supported by the assertion that in the first three gospels Jesus never claims to be God. Only later, as in the gospel of John, were these claims "added."*
* The first three gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) may have been written as much as twenty or thirty years before the gospel of John.
Arguments of this kind are nothing new. The religion of Islam proposed its own good Jesus, bad Christian approach more than 1,000 years ago: Mohammed accepted Jesus as a prophet and miracle worker, but not as God. Christians, he claimed, had altered the Injil (the Gospel). Cults like the Jehovah's Witnesses are willing to concede a little more: they accept Jesus as an angel, but not as God. The Mormons go even further: they accept Jesus as a god, but not as the one true God.*
* Mormon belief is polytheistic: they believe that the Father and the Son are two different gods.
As you can see, this is an important issue. In fact, it is the major issue that sets Christianity apart from the other religions of the world. As someone once observed, every other major religion claims that its founder shows the way to God. Only Christianity claims that its founder is God.
Those who claim that Christians simply invented the idea that Jesus is God face a difficult obstacle: Christianity started among the Jewish people, and was for many years an almost exclusively Jewish religion.* Of all the religious groups in the world, the Jews were the least likely to invent such a doctrine: most of them continue to resist it vigorously today. Theirs was the most pure and exclusive monotheism the world had ever known. It was this core belief that set them at odds with the pagan world around them, and contributed to the destructive wars that drove them from Israel and scattered them around the world, where many remain today.
* Gentiles didn't gain an official standing in the Church until the Council of Jerusalem, 19 years after Jesus' crucifixion (Acts 15). They became dominant in the Church only in the 2nd century. By this time, the doctrine of Jesus' divinity was well established, and continued to be proclaimed by the Jewish Christians (the Nazarenes) long after the Jewish and Gentile branches of the Church split (in the 2nd century). The divinity of Jesus is therefore clearly a Jewish Christian doctrine.
Of the different groups within Judaism, the religiously conservative Pharisees are perhaps the last place to look for the creation of a divine Jesus. Yet Paul was a Pharisee, not only before he accepted Jesus as Messiah, but also afterwards. As he cried out before the Sanhedrin Council, the supreme court of the Jews, "I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees!" (Acts 23:6). How could Paul the Pharisee accept the idea that a man was actually God—or to put the Christian belief more accurately, that God had taken on flesh, and walked among us?
According to the New Testament, it wasn't easy. Paul, known originally as Saul, traveled the region arresting and imprisoning believers in Jesus (Acts 8:1-3). He began this rampage soon after hearing Stephen's claim to see Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55). In a Jewish context, this was a claim to Jesus' divine status—considered a blasphemy by the council gathered before Stephen—and which caused them to rush at Stephen in a murderous rage (Acts 7:56-58).
Even Jesus' disciples were initially resistant to the idea. At one point, when Jesus claimed to be sent from heaven (John 6:51), many of his disciples rejected the idea and left (John 6:66). Even after the resurrection, there were some who doubted (Matt. 28:17). This was just not the kind of teaching that could spontaneously emerge from the Jewish people.*
* Recent discoveries have confirmed that in some Jewish apocalyptic circles, the Messiah was expected to have divine qualities. But the jump from this to being God himself was a big one.
Something almost irresistible had to happen to bring any of them to this belief. It was not Jesus' miracles: many miracle workers had appeared in Israel both in ancient and recent history, but none of them was ever thought to be God. It was not even Jesus' resurrection, for others had been raised from the dead and even ascended into heaven, as did Elijah. The thing that made Jesus unique was that he alone claimed to be God, a claim supported both by his miracles and the remarkably long list of prophecies that he fulfilled. As the blind man healed by Jesus said, "If this man were not from God, he could do nothing" (John 9:33).
But if Jesus' claims to be God are so important, why are they missing from the first three gospels? In fact, they're not missing, but are cloaked in Jewish thought forms that non-Jews—including many scholars—often misunderstand.
Take Luke 5, for example, where Jesus healed the paralytic. Most of us overlook Jesus' statement to the man, "your sins are forgiven" (Luke 5:20). But the Jewish leaders had a strong reaction: They called his words blasphemy (Luke 5:21). Why? They implied a pardon not just for ordinary man-to-man offenses, but for offenses committed against God, a category of offense that, according to the rabbis, only God himself has the authority to forgive.
They had not misunderstood. Rather Jesus pressed the point, saying, "'But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,' he said to the paralytic, 'I say to you, get up, pick up your mat, and go home" (Luke 5:24). In a Jewish context, for the "Son of Man" to have the authority to forgive sins can only mean one thing: that the Son of Man is God!
Even Jesus' use of the title "Son of Man," far from referring to his humanity, as is often supposed, points to his divinity, that he is the exalted Messianic figure, the "one like a son of man" coming on the clouds of heaven in Daniel 7:13—clearly something no ordinary mortal can do. It was not simply the miracle that had amazed the people (Luke 5:26). It was Jesus' claim to be God—a claim supported by the miracle that followed!
In Nazareth, the initially enthusiastic reception in his hometown synagogue soon turned into a murderous rage. Why? On the surface, there's nothing particularly dramatic about Jesus' sermon (Luke 4:23-27). He simply observes that in the time of Elijah, many widows in Israel were not helped by the prophet, and that in the time of Elisha many lepers were not healed. Yet at the end of the message, the crowd was ready to kill him (Luke 4:28-29)!
What did he say that upset them so much? His listeners were intimately familiar with the story of these two prophets. Much of their ministry had taken place in the countryside around them. They knew that the lack of miracles at that time was because the nation had fallen into idolatry, led by King Ahab and his Phoenician wife, Jezebel. So they immediately understood Jesus' deeper meaning: that his own lack of miracles in Nazareth was because of their own hardness of heart toward God.
By saying this, Jesus was in effect judging the hearts of the people. And by judging them, from their point of view, he made himself equal to God. As even the New Testament teaches, "There is one lawgiver and judge that is able to save and to destroy: but who are you that judges his neighbor?" (James 4:12). The people of Nazareth did not accept that Jesus was God, so to them, his words were a blasphemy, worthy of death. That's why they marched him out of town to throw him off the cliff. They clearly understood that he was claiming to be God.
The same is true of the other times Jesus pronounced judgment: "Woe to you, Chorazin, woe to you, Bethsaida [both small Jewish villages]: for if the deeds of power that took place in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon [pagan Gentile cities], they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be more bearable in the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you" (Matt. 11:21,22). Jesus does not speak here using the typical formulas of the Old Testament prophets. Rather, he says "I say to you," relying on none other than his own authority. Here too, Jesus claims to be God.
The ultimate expression of this claim is in Matthew 25, where Jesus describes the coming judgment of Messiah, seated on his "throne of glory"—a phrase that to his disciples would indicate a throne of heavenly glory.* Here the Son of Man judges in his own name and by his own authority, with the ability to condemn the wicked to eternal judgment (Matt. 25:41). This is a power only God has. For Jesus to claim it is a claim to be God.
* As in Psalm 89:36-37, where the throne of the Messiah is described as "a
faithful witness in the cloud" (i.e. in the sky or heavens above).
Perhaps the most dramatic of these claims took place on the Sea of Galilee, after the disciples had been struggling all night in their boat against a strong westerly wind. Though Jesus had been left behind on the shore, he now suddenly appears, walking on the water (Matt. 14:24,25). Mark adds the detail that "he intended to pass them by" (Mark 6:48). This is a subtle hint to Job 9, which says, speaking of God: "who alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the heights of the sea…. See: he passes by me, and I do not see; and he goes by, and I do not discern him" (Job 9:8,11). This one walking on the water, Mark is telling us, is God.
When the disciples cry out in fear, Jesus turns to talk with them (Matt. 14:26,27). What did he say? Not "it is I" as usually translated; but as Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree (in the original Greek) "I am." This is not a lapse in grammar: it's a deliberate hint to the personal name of God: "I am that I am" (Ex. 3:14).
How did the disciples react to all of this? They "worshipped" him, a word that means (in the original Greek) to prostrate yourself, face to the ground, in worship (Matt. 14:33). It was not only Jesus' miracle that impressed them; it was his claim to be God, backed up by the miracles of walking on the sea and calming the wind. This is what made them fall down in worship. They may not have understood how God could become a man. But they saw the result with their own eyes.
By the way, they did not then and never could, as Jews, have believed that Jesus was a god different than the one true God. For them, there was only one God, so therefore it could only be that one true God that somehow stood before them in human flesh. For this manifestation of God they had a name, the "Son of God"; for it was clear that the world went on, the stars continued to shine, and God in heaven continued to rule the universe as he always had before. God had not vacated heaven to appear before them. But he sent some kind of "extension" or "manifestation" of himself: his Word, his arm, his face, his glory, his likeness, his salvation—whichever of the many Biblical names used to describe this amazing phenomenon you prefer: a personal manifestation of God's presence sent to earth to speak directly to us. That personal manifestation, in the flesh, is Jesus.
I'm not saying I can understand how God became a man, either.* But if God is real, why wouldn't he come to visit? Not in the full revelation of his power, of course—that would destroy us (Ex. 33:20)—but rather in the appearance of a man to lead us back to himself. The disciples saw him with their own eyes, and were convinced by what they saw and heard (1 John 1:1-3). What about you? Do you accept Jesus' claim to be God?
* The detailed doctrinal speculations of the Church are not intended to explain the mystery of Jesus' incarnation (God "becoming flesh"), but rather to guard against false teachings on this subject. There is no way for humanity to understand the inner workings of God other than by what he reveals to us.