Book Plunge: Evidence Considered Chapter 31

Did Jesus claim to be God? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Glenton Jelbert decides that he can take on Ben Witherington again and begins looking at Jesus as God. He starts off saying that there is a gap between what is attributed to Jesus and what Jesus said and did. I realize he thinks this, but he has this strange belief that Witherington has to defend every text he uses. He doesn’t.

His second point is that many people have claimed to be God. I invite Jelbert to show me how many people in the exclusively monotheistic culture of ancient Israel were walking around claiming to be God. Good luck finding one. This also would mean that either Jesus was speaking in some pantheistic sense which doesn’t fit, or that Jesus was crazy. Does Jelbert really want to go there?

Third, Jelbert says this presupposes God exists, but it doesn’t have to. If you are skeptical of theism, you can begin by investigating Jesus. If you decide that He claimed to be God and rose from the dead in a miraculous way, then you can justifiably think His claims are true and therefore God exists. Of course, you would want to flesh out what it means for Jesus to be God, but you could still get theism.

In responding to Witherington’s case, Jelbert says what Jesus thought or did not think about Himself doesn’t count as evidence for God because plenty of people have made such claims. Again, note what I said above, but no one is arguing “Jesus claimed to be God and therefore He was God.” Witherington himself argues that the resurrection proves the claim. However, it is being argued that since Jesus made the claim and rose again, the claim needs to be taken seriously and if we want to understand how the historical Jesus saw Himself, we need to look at His claims about Himself.

Jelbert has a problem with saying that if we think as Jesus did, then His intention becomes clear. To be fair to Jelbert, it is fair to be skeptical to know someone’s motives. However, Witherington is really speaking about how things would be understood in the Jewish culture of Second Temple Judaism and, well, I think I’ll just give more credence to Witherington. He knows more about this after all.

Jelbert also refers to Daniel Wallace. Well, he says it’s to Wallace, but Wallace says it’s an intern of his. The part quoted is this:

No author of a synoptic gospel explicitly ascribes the title θεός to Jesus. Jesus never uses the term θεός for himself. No sermon in the Book of Acts attributes the title θεός to Jesus. No extant Christian confession(s) of Jesus as θεός exists earlier than the late 50s. Prior to the fourth-century Arian controversy, noticeably few Greek MSS attest to such “Jesus-θεός” passages. And possibly the biggest problem for NT Christology regarding this topic is that textual variants exist in every potential passage where Jesus is explicitly referred to as θεός.

Well, that certainly sounds powerful, but is this person denying that Jesus was seen as God? Not at all. Hear how Wallace introduces this paper.

Editor’s Note: This paper was originally given at the Evangelical Theological Society’s southwestern regional meeting, held at Southwestern Baptist Seminary on March 23, 2007. Brian was one of my interns for the 2006-07 school year at Dallas Seminary. He did an outstanding job in presenting the case that the original New Testament certainly affirmed the deity of Christ.

So how does the paper conclude?

Even if the early Church had never applied the title θεός to Jesus, his deity would still be apparent in his being the object of human and angelic worship and of saving faith; the exerciser of exclusively divine functions such as creatorial agency, the forgiveness of sins, and the final judgment; the addressee in petitionary prayer; the possessor of all divine attributes; the bearer of numerous titles used of Yahweh in the OT; and the co-author of divine blessing. Faith in the deity of Christ does not rest on the evidence or validity of a series of ‘proof-texts’ in which Jesus may receive the title θεός but on the general testimony of the NT corroborated at the bar of personal experience.

The question now before us is not whether the NT explicitly ascribes the title θεός to Jesus, but how many times he is thus identified and by whom. Therefore, with at least one text that undoubtedly calls Jesus θεός in every respect (John 20.28), I will conclude by answering my initial question: When did this boldness to call Jesus θεός begin? It began in the first century. It was not a creation of Constantine in the fourth century. It was not a doctrinal innovation to combat Arianism in the third century. Nor was it a sub-apostolic distortion of the apostolic kerygma in the second century. Rather, the church’s confession of Christ as θεός began in the first century with the apostles themselves and/or their closest followers and therefore most likely from Jesus himself.

One has to wonder what is going on here. Did Jelbert not look at what the paper was arguing? Did he get a snippet from someone else and just go off to the races with it? Either way, if Jelbert thinks this paper is authoritative, then he should agree that the idea of Jesus as God goes back most likely to Jesus Himself.

It also doesn’t work to say that this is something that evolved. After all, many of the references to Jesus as deity take place in the Pauline epistles, see for instance Tillings’s Paul’s Divine Christology. How is it then that we get Paul who says Jesus is God then and then later on the Gospels, which are evolved, do not say it? Jelbert also says it’s a stretch to say Jesus had knowledge of this and chose not to share it.

No one is arguing that and the paper Jelbert cited is evidence otherwise since it says the idea of Jesus as God goes back to Jesus Himself most likely. The idea is that we moderns often think Jesus had to say something explicitly. Not at all. Jesus’s claims were roundabout ways of getting people to think about His identity and make a judgment.

Witherington also says that Jesus showed His deity in making comments about the Laws of Moses that would seem to even override it. Jelbert says this just gets you in contradictions. After all, the Sabbath was from God and yet Jesus overturned that teaching. How are we to understand that? Doesn’t this show the Bible is a human construction?

First off, I think it’s interesting that when we talk about science and someone presents what they think is a problem with evolution or any other theory, Jelbert says we need to study more and it’s good to investigate a matter. Here, he sees what he thinks is a contradiction and yet doesn’t want to do the same thing. Are we to investigate problems in science and not in Scripture?

Second, Jesus never overturned the Sabbath. Jesus did observe it, but He didn’t observe the traditions the Pharisees added on to it. Jesus also never Himself changed the day of the Sabbath. This came later as Christians recognized the new creation.

Finally, the Law is part of the revelation to the Jews in that covenant. Gentiles have never been under the old covenant. We’ve never been obligated to observe the Sabbath.

Naturally, Jelbert also doesn’t interact with the early high Christology group with scholars like Tilling, Bird, Hurtado, Bauckham, and others. I was really hoping when we got out of science to find some essays with some meat on them that would really leave me wrestling. So far, I’m disappointed.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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