There is an old argument, used for example by CS Lewis, that Jesus claimed to be divine, something a good and sane person would not do. Therefore Jesus must either have not been good, or not sane, or he was indeed divine.
But the argument depends on Jesus actually claiming to be divine, which critics do not concede these days.
So has the argument been refuted, or can we know that Jesus did indeed claim to be divine?
Using historical evidence
Christians believe the Bible has special status as a book inspired by God, but sceptics don’t accept this. We therefore cannot assume this in approaching this question. We must start, then, with the conclusions of the most respected and impartial historical scholars, who don’t treat the Gospels as divinely inspired, but treat them as they would any other historical documents.
So our task is to determine if we can draw any conclusions from the facts which most historians accept.
Did Jesus claim to be divine?
Using passages which even non-christian historians generally accept as genuine, an impressive case can be built, using the following (for a more detailed discussion, see Jesus – son of God?):
- Jesus believed he was inaugurating God’s kingdom on earth. He taught that God’s judgment of people would be based on how they responded to him. He believed his death would save the human race. And he told his disciples one day they would sit at his side and rule over the nation of Israel. All of these indicate he saw himself as God’s special representative on earth.
- Jesus used the titles Messiah, Son of man and Son of God to describe himself. These also are claims to be God’s special representative on earth, and there are several passages where Jesus clearly identified himself as God’s son in a way no human being could be – for example Mark 12:1-9 and Matthew 11:27: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
- Jesus claimed divine authority when he forgave sins, performed healings and exorcisms, and said his teachings had greater authority than the God-given Old testament Law.
- Jesus prayed to God as “Abba”, “My Father”, an expression of a familiar relationship with God.
I have not used the many “I am” statements in John’s gospel because many scholars do not accept that John records the words of Jesus, but rather his own interpretation of Jesus’ teachings.
What should we believe?
It seems clear, even using only passages that most scholars accept as genuine, that Jesus made some amazing claims that he was more than a “mere man”, and some which can only be reasonably interpreted as making an implicit claim to be divine. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham sums it up:
The only Jesus we can plausibly find in the sources is a Jesus who, though usually reticent about it, speaks and acts for God in a way that far surpassed the authority of a prophet in the Jewish tradition. …. such prerogatives belong uniquely to God and cannot simply be delegated to someone else.
Not all scholars will accept Jesus’ divinity as a fact of history, but using the facts they do accept a case can be made that Jesus did indeed claim to be divine – and therefore the old argument still stands. To negate the argument, we have to go against the conclusions of the consensus of historians. Each of us can make our own judgment on that.