In order to distinguish his own approach from well-meaning but misguided attempts to prove that Jesus was divine, Wright argues in How God Became King - Getting to the heart of the Gospels that the Gospels do not aim to prove Jesus’ divinity; rather they presuppose it.
The point… is not whether Jesus is God, but what God is doing in and through Jesus. What is this embodied God up to? (55)
Does that really work? It seems to me that as soon as we start to talk in dynamic terms of God acting “in and through Jesus”, we have more or less abandoned the presupposition of divine identity. We could speak, for example, of God acting “in and through” Moses or even “in and through” Cyrus without thereby asserting that these figures were divine. God does things “in and through” the church, but that does not make Christians divine. God certainly does things “in and through” Jesus that he does not do “in and through” others, but the basic differentiation between God and the human agent remains in force.
So I rather suspect that the functional argument is simply incompatible with the presupposition of divinity. But if we concede Wright’s point here, do we not still have to ask what evidence there is for the presupposition in the first place?
I can see that the Gospels are telling the story of “how YHWH came back to his people at last” (89), not least to cleanse and remake the temple system, though I would characterise it more as a historical process than as a singular event—how YHWH was coming back to his people at last. But that in itself does not point to a direct identification of Jesus with God, even on Jewish terms. There are two other thoroughly Jewish explanatory models, if you like, that could be invoked at this point, neither of which compels the conclusion that the writers of the Synoptic Gospels were trying to say that Jesus was God.
First, we may suppose that the prophet Jesus enacts or pre-enacts, largely in symbolic terms, what God is about to do regarding his people in order that his name may be hallowed amongst the nations.
Secondly, there is the explicitly stated notion that Jesus has been given, or will be given, the power and authority to act on behalf of God or in the place of God as Israel’s king.
Wright discusses a number of passages in the Synoptic Gospels—he wants to show that we do not have to resort to John in order to establish a high christology—which he thinks point to a “strong identification between Jesus himself and the God of Israel” (90). It seems to me that they can be accounted for in terms of the two roles of prophet and king, though this does not mean that the identification is not found, in some form, in other strands of thought in the New Testament. I am not out to disprove the divinity of Jesus. Nor does it mean that I know entirely what I am talking about—this is very much a work in progress, and perhaps more to the point, I am on holiday at the moment, writing this in a vaulted majlis in a hotel in Mardin in south-eastern Turkey.
1. John the Baptist is the voice in the wilderness warning that YHWH is about to come to judge and overhaul the temple system, and he proclaims that a much stronger one is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. But at the baptism of Jesus we have a clear differentiation between God and the Son with whom he is pleased. The Lord is coming to put things right in Israel, but Jesus will prophetically enact this impending judgment when he enters the temple and will be given the authority to judge and rule Israel as God’s anointed king. The scriptural allusions underline this point.
We can certainly call this a high christology, but insofar as it is a Jewish high christology, it is worked out in the categories of prophecy and kingdom. This seems sufficient to explain why Jesus points to God in order to explain his own actions (92)
2. When Jesus calls his first followers and designates the twelve (92), he is performing a symbolic reconstitution of the twelve tribes of Israel or rebuilding Israel around himself as Israel’s king. Wright even says here that Jesus is acting in a “deeply symbolic way”.
3. When Jesus calms the storm (Mk. 4:39), he is certainly doing what YHWH does in the Psalms (92-93). But is he implicitly claiming to be YHWH, or to be acting with the authority of YHWH? Would he not have said, if asked, that the Son of man has authority on earth to calm such storms, as a sign that God is present to judge and save his people? Also just as the healing of the paralytic was a sign of Israel’s forgiveness, the calming of the storm was, arguably, a prophetic sign that the “lost” of Israel were being redeemed and restored—if we read the whole of Psalm 107 and not merely verses 29-30.
4. For Isaiah the child called “Immanuel” is a sign that God is with his people at a time of political crisis (Is. 7:14; 8:8). What compels us, then, to think that when Matthew cites this with reference to Jesus, he means something more than that the birth of Jesus was a sign that God was with his people at a time of political crisis (96)? No one looked at Isaiah’s child Immanuel and saw in him the “personal presence of Israel’s God”.
5. Wright thinks that in Luke’s version of the parable of the talents (Lk. 19:11-27) Jesus tells a story “about Israel’s God and Israel itself” in order to “illustrate what he himself was doing” (97, italics removed). He connects the parable with Luke 19:44: Jerusalem had failed to recognize the time when God was “coming back at last to see how his people had been doing with their centuries-old commission”. Since Jesus applies the parable to himself, he was in effect “telling a story about Israel’s God coming back to his people to explain what was going on when he himself was arriving in Jerusalem” (99).
I really don’t understand, however, how Wright can read this as a parable of his imminent arrival in Jerusalem. Jesus tells the story “because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately”; and it ends with the slaughter of those of citizens who “did not want me to reign over them”. So the return of the nobleman will lead to the vindication of some of his servants and the destruction of his enemies, which seems to me a pretty clear prophecy of the Jewish War.
But more to the point here, the nobleman goes into a far country “to receive for himself a kingdom”. He does not have a kingdom before he goes; he is given kingdom—and authority and power—after his departure; and he returns, comes again, to reward his loyal servants and punish those of his citizens who hated him. There is no possible sense in which by telling this story Jesus identifies himself with God.
6. Finally, we have Jesus’ words to the demon-possessed man in Luke 8:39:
“Go back to your home,” said Jesus, “and tell them what God has done for you.” And he went off around every town, declaring what Jesus had done for him.
Wright regards this as “unassailable” evidence that Luke was trying to tell us that “what Jesus was doing God was doing—and vice versa” (100). No doubt, but does it count as unassailable evidence for the presupposition that Jesus was God? I’m not so sure. The man had earlier called Jesus “Son of the Most High God” (8:28). The “Son of the Most High God” in Luke is not himself God. He is the one to whom the Lord God will give the “throne of his father David” (Lk. 1:32). According to the terms of Luke’s Gospel, therefore, it seems much more likely that Jesus does what God does because he has been, or will be, given authority to act as king—for example, by expelling a “legion” of demons from Israel.
One way and another, all three synoptic gospels are clear: in telling the story of Jesus they are consciously telling the story of how Israel’s God came back to his people, in judgment and mercy. (100)
This seems to me unobjectionable per se, but it does not address the question of how the story of Jesus is the story of Israel’s God. The direct identification of the respective actors is one way of accounting for the correlation between the two stories, but it is not the only way, and I don’t think it is the way that best fits the actual data.