(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Simon Gathercole’s argument about pre-existence and divine identity in the Synoptics

Bart Ehrman thinks that Jesus became God—not in reality, of course, but in the minds of the early Christians. Against Ehrman, Simon Gathercole argues in How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—-A Response to Bart D. Ehrman , much as Michael Bird did earlier, that the Synoptic Gospels “see Jesus as having pre-existed and as divine in the strong sense of that word” (116). Again, I think the chapter demonstrates that evangelicals are on very weak ground here and should really just come to terms with the christological limitations of the prophetic-political narrative in the New Testament. The affirmation that Jesus is “Son” belongs to a specific, circumscribed argument about kingdom. It has nothing to do with divinity or pre-existence. So with all due respect for Gathercole’s good intentions, let me explain why I think he is barking up the wrong tree.

I have come…

Gathercole highlights a handful of passages where Jesus speaks of his mission in terms of having come to do something: “I came (ēlthon) to cast fire on the land…”, etc. The implication is that he must have come from somewhere. Jesus does not mean that he has come to a particular place—to Capernaum from Nazareth, for example. The closest parallels in the Old Testament and Jewish writings appear to be “statements that angels make about their earthly missions”:

And he came and spoke with me and said, “Daniel, I have just come out (exēlthon) to show you intelligence. At the beginning of your supplication an ordinance went out from the Lord, and I have come (ēlthon) to explain to you, for you are shown mercy. (Dan. 9:22–23 NETS)

No prophet or messiah “sums up his life’s work this way”, so it appears that Jesus is presented as having come from heaven to accomplish his mission (97-98).

The parallels are interesting and may have some bearing on how we read the Synoptic “I came” sayings. But what is missing in the Gospels is the supernatural or visionary narrative frame that makes it clear that the angels come from heaven. Nothing else in the Synoptic points unequivocally to pre-existence, and in the absence of that explanatory context I’m not sure that the simple “I came” statement can carry such great theological weight.

An incidental problem for Gathercole is that the argument rather plays into the hands of Ehrman, who suggests (as Michael Bird puts it) that “a much better analogy for Jesus’ divinity is in the stories of chief angels who visited earth and humans who later became angels” (23). So Gathercole has emphatically to deny that “Jesus is viewed as an angel in the Gospels”. I agree, but I think that there is a better way of understanding the “I came” sayings.

A first point to note is that the sayings mostly have an antithetical structure by which Jesus corrects a possible misunderstanding of his mission. They are not mere statements of his life’s work, as Gathercole suggests. They address controversies. They have marked rhetorical force.

  • Scribes from among the Pharisees don’t understand why he eats with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk. 2:17; Matt. 9:13; Lk. 5:32; cf. Lk. 19:10).
  • He came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfil them (Matt. 5:17).
  • He came not to bring peace to the land (en tēi gēi) but to cast fire upon it (epi tēn gēn), to provoke divisions between father and son, mother and daughter, and so on (Lk. 12:49-53). (I think it is clear, particularly given the allusion to Micah 7:6, that as with the saying “the meek shall inherit the land”, Jesus has in mind the land of Israel, not the whole earth. He has in view the war against Rome.)
  • The disciples should not make the mistake of lording it over each other, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45; cf. Matt. 20:28).

Arguably, then, the “I came” sayings are to be correlated with Jesus’ explicit account of his mission in Luke 4:43: “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” He was sent, therefore he came. This brings the sayings firmly into the sphere of controversies surrounding the sending of a prophet to Israel. On the one hand, Isaiah says that the Lord “has sent me to bring good news to the poor” (Is. 61:1). On the other, Jeremiah speaks of the false prophets whom God did not send to Israel (Jer. 14:14-15). It seems to me much more likely that the “I came” sayings refer to this prophetic pattern than to pre-existence. Jesus came because he was sent, but his coming was highly controversial and many did not believe that he had “come from” God.

This is my Son…

Gathercole disputes Ehrman’s view that, according to Mark at least, Jesus became Son of God at his baptism (98-99): “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mk. 1:11). According to Ehrman: “This voice does not appear to be stating a preexisting fact. it appears to be making a declaration. It is at this time that Jesus becomes the Son of God for Mark’s Gospel.” Gathercole observes in response that something very like this is said at the transfiguration: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mk. 9:1). “Presumably,” he comments, “God is not adopting Jesus again.” Presumably not.

But it seems to me that Ehrman and Gathercole both miss the point of the heavenly declaration. This is not a divine sonship that is announced. It is the affirmation that Jesus is the obedient servant, ideal Israel, “my chosen, in whom my soul delights”, upon whom God puts his Spirit (Is. 42:1). It is an affirmation of his messianic status, not of divinity in any sense.

This should not be confused (as I suspect it is by Ehrman) with the later appointment or designation (not adoption—Ehrman is wrong here) of Jesus as Lord and Christ, judge and ruler of the nations, on the strength of the resurrection and according to Psalms 2 and 110. For example:

For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:34–36)

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9–11)

After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”? (Heb. 1:3–5)

At his baptism Jesus is confirmed as God’s obedient Son or servant, the embodiment of faithful Israel. At his resurrection Jesus is given the authority to rule the nations on YHWH’s behalf, at his right hand, because he was obedient even to death on a cross. Neither of these narrative entails pre-existence. Neither can be interpreted as an affirmation of divine identity.

The authority to forgive sins, etc.

Gathercole goes on to argue that there a number of other places in the Synoptic Gospels where it appears that Jesus “has the privileges of YHWH, God himself”:

Strikingly, Jesus says and does things that not only overlap with what God in the Old Testament says and does. Jesus says and does things that are privileges uniquely of the God of Israel. When Jesus speaks and acts this way, responses—unsurprisingly—include worship on the one hand and accusations of blasphemy on the other.

I have argued elsewhere that Jesus forgave sins because he believed that he had been been given the authority to do so, not because he understood himself to be God. Gathercole is right to say that this was something that “no angel, prophet, or even nondivine Messiah, or any other figure, had the authority to do” (99). But the only explanation for this supremely presumptuous act supplied by the passage is that the Son of Man has been given authority on earth to forgive sins. The people naturally marvel at this, but they do not draw the conclusion that Jesus is God (Mk. 2:1-12; Matt. 9:1-8).

The same would hold for other exceptional actions. Gathercole quotes Matthew 11:27, arguing that Jesus “has the power of electing people to be saved”—as though he were actually God himself: “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him”. But he conveniently omits the preceding statement: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father….” Jesus has the power to elect because he has been given the power to elect—a power that was the unique privilege of YHWH alone but which has exceptionally been given to his obedient Son or servant.

In connection with this theme Gathercole then cites Craig Evans’ comment on Mark 13:27 that it is an extraordinary thing “that Jesus refers to angels belonging to him as well”. But this is what Evans actually says (emphasis added):

The assertion that the “son of man” will send his angels is astounding and only underscores the heavenly authority that has been invested in this individual (cf. Dan 7:14: “And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him”), for throughout the OT it is God who commands and directs the angels of heaven.1

Evans’ does not infer from the fact that the Son of Man sends out angels that Jesus is divine. He takes it as evidence, rather, that the authority of God has been invested in the Son of Man—the figure who represents the persecuted saints of the Most High and who was given dominion and glory and kingdom by God.

The appointment of twelve disciples is a symbolic and prophetic action and not a claim to be, in some literal sense, “occupying the position of God in the Old Testament”. So too the sea miracles. The argument that Jesus belonged “in the divine triad Father-Son-Spirit” (e.g., Matt. 28:19) is mere presumption. There is no “divine triad” here, only the instruction to baptize new disciples “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. On the evidence of Matthew’s Gospel this can only mean “in the name of the Son to whom authority has been given”.

Finally, Gathercole maintains that when the disciples offer proskynēsis to Jesus at the end of Luke’s Gospel (Lk. 24:52), “it is clearly worship due uniquely to God that is in view” (101). In fact, the passage rather differentiates between the worship of Jesus and the blessing of God. But in any case, this is after the ascension into heaven. It says nothing about how Jesus was viewed during his earthly life. Nor does it really get us beyond Ehrman’s argument that Jesus acquired divine status after death, much as a Roman emperor did.

So I don’t think that Gathercole has made a convincing case—not on the strength of the arguments put forward in this chapter—for his claim that pre-existence and divine identity are attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. The texts he cites demonstrate only that Jesus was sent by God, that he had been given the power and authority of God, that he performed prophetic actions, and that at his exaltation he was given the authority to judge and rule over the nations. Gathercole mentions passages in John, Paul and Hebrews in which “we find almost formulaic statements that through Jesus all things were created” (101). But as I’ve said before, that is another story.

  • 1. Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20 (Word books, 1989), 329.
Image of How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus' Divine Nature---A Response to Bart D. Ehrman

On Amazon (US):

Michael F. Bird, Dr. Craig A. Evans, Simon Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, Chris Tilling
Zondervan (2014), Paperback, 240 pages, $18.99
Image of How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee

On Amazon (US):

Bart D. Ehrman
HarperOne (2014), Hardcover, 416 pages, $27.99


But the only explanation for this supremely presumptuous act supplied by the passage is that the Son of Man has been given authority on earth to forgive sins. The people naturally marvel at this, but they do not draw the conclusion that Jesus is God (Mk. 2:1-12; Matt. 9:1-8).

It’s not the only explanation Andrew. Mark’s version also has the teachers of the law, who knew more about these things than ‘the people’, saying: “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming. Who can forgive sins but God alone?” - Mark 2:7.

That Jesus then uses the healing of the man to demonstrate his authority to forgive sins does not provide the “only explanation” as you see it. Jesus was not only doing what the teachers of the law knew to be God’s prerogative alone, but taking on himself one of the primary and exclusive functions of the temple. It’s a temple accusation, or a garbled version of it, sitting alongside Jesus’s Psalm 110/Daniel 7 claim, which provokes the charge of blasphemy leading to his death - Mark 14:62.

For the perspicacious teachers of the law, Jesus has blasphemously claimed divine authority. They can do nothing about it, because the healing and the favour of the crowd silences them. To rub it in, the people praise God because of what they have seen. As a narrative, the episode is masterly. Jesus’s identity is provided for us not by the people, who love what he is doing, but by the experts, who oppose him when they see him doing it.

I’m not entirely clear what you’re getting at. The scribes don’t assume that Jesus is claiming to be God, only that he has done what God alone is entitled to do; he has usurped divine prerogative. Jesus’ response is that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”. Matthew only makes explicit what is implicit here—that God has given this authority to men (Matt. 9:8). A couple of quotations from Guelich’s commentary:

Accordingly, the “One God” (εἷς ὁ Θεός) probably reflects the wording of Deut 6:4 LXX with its emphasis on the singularity of Israel’s God, an appropriate emphasis for this context. In other words, Jesus was not being accused of claiming to be God but of blaspheming against God by claiming to do what God alone could do….

Jesus is not claiming to be God. He does not respond to the scribes’ question by agreeing with their premise, “Who besides the One God.” Rather he answers directly. “The Son of man” has authority to forgive sins on earth. He leaves his inquisitors to resolve how this might be or whether indeed it is blasphemy. (R.A. Guelich, Mark 1–8:26, 87, 91)

The link with the temple cannot be upheld. Nowhere in Mark is forgiveness connected with the temple. On the contrary, John connects it with repentance and baptism (1:4); the scribes don’t make the connection in the present story; Jesus speaks in parables lest the people should turn or repent and be forgiven (4:11-12); and Jesus teaches his disciples to forgive others “so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (11:25). In other words, Jesus is not claiming to fulfil the routine function of the temple but to have the authority as the Son of Man to pronounce eschatological forgiveness on repentant Israel—an authority concretely demonstrated by the healing of the paralytic.

Caiaphas asks Jesus, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”, not “Are you taking on yourself the function of the temple?” He is asking, in effect, whether he is claiming the authority as God’s messiah to destroy and rebuild the temple. In any case, taking on the “primary and exclusive functions of the temple” would not be seen as entailing an identification with divinity. The temple is not God.

I’m not really contributing to your critique of Simon Gathercole, so this must not become an extended exchange. I’m simply pointing out that a perfectly valid alternative interpretation of the passage exists, and I think your position is diminished by not acknowledging it.

The teachers of the law recognise the issue: none may forgive sins but God alone. It is not something that delegates can do. The tachers of the law appear in the incident for a purpose, not as pantomime villains. They do not subsequently say that in the light of the rest of the incident they can see that they were wrong, and in fact Jesus had been given a delegated authority by God to forgive sins.

The scribes are correct, except that they never considered the unpalatable alternative: Jesus was God in person. The people are what the people always are in crowds: carried along by the enthusiasm of the moment, without questioning the implications of anything that Jesus has said and done.

The default position has been to dismiss the scribes by type-casting them as caricature villains, or spoil-sports who turn up at the party and try to ruin everything. It’s the narrative writer’s art that they raise the most important question of all. What was the identity of this man, and by what authority was he acting? Who can forgive sins but God alone? The crowds didn’t ask the question. Somebody needed to. Since Jesus was never given any delegated authority by God to forgive sins, we are left with two alternatives: he was a blasphemer, or God in person.

It’s misleading to introduce Mark 1:4 as if to say that anyone can, in principle, be given authority to forgive sins anywhere. John the baptist was, in any case, announcing the end of the exile, not a proto-confessional. You are right to say that the temple is not mentioned here as the place where sins were to be forgiven. It is wrong to say that the temple is therefore not the issue. That Jesus was developing an alternative temple cult in the gospels, including this incident, is beyond question. The temple was where offerings for atonement for sins took place. Priests were mediators, not conferers of forgiveness. Jesus and the temple were one of the on-going causes of offence for his opponents, and the temple controversy provided a contributory, if garbled, justification for his execution.

What the scribes have not considered when they protest is what is everywhere understood in the New Testament, namely that the Son of Man is given authority by YHWH to act on his behalf, both in his mission to Israel and seated at the right hand of God. Of course the leaders of Israel weren’t prepared to admit this. Thats why they had Jesus crucified. That’s why Jesus looks to a future “coming” of the Son of Man for vindication.

Since Jesus was never given any delegated authority by God to forgive sins, we are left with two alternatives: he was a blasphemer, or God in person.

Nonsense. The dispute in the Synoptics is always over whether Jesus has the authority to speak and act as he does, not whether he is God in person. The chief priests and elders ask him: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23). The assumption made by his opponents is not that he is claiming to be God but that he believes he has been given divine authority. This fully explains the reaction of the scribes in Mark 2 without having to introduce misleading ideas about being God in person.

When was Jesus given this authority? Arguably at his baptism, when he received the Spirit and a voice from heaven declared, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Behind this is the election or appointment of God’s servant, “in whom my soul delights”, who is given the Spirit of God, who is given authority to judge the nations (Is. 42:1; 44:1), who has been authorized by YHWH to bring good news to the poor, etc., and to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”—in other words, to proclaim the forgiveness of Israel’s iniquities (Is. 61:1-2; cf. 40:2).

I also think you overstate the importance of the temple in this context. The Gospels do not make the connection between forgiveness and the temple cult. In the prophets forgiveness is a free act of God apart from the temple system. No atonement is required as the basis for forgiveness in the new covenant (Jer. 31:34). Eschatological forgiveness requires repentance, not sacrifice (Jer. 36:3), which was my point about John—you seem to have misunderstood me. Yes, theologically, we may wish to connect the forgiveness of Israel’s sins with Jesus’ atoning death, but this cannot be invoked to account for the pronouncement of forgiveness in Mark 2:5.

Andrew - whenever you say “nonsense”, I suspect your argument is treading on weak ground. The gospel narratives do not anywhere describe a time or place when Jesus is given delegated authority by God to forgive sins, not even at his baptism, where there is no mention of a delegated authority of the kind you assert.

I’m not saying that anyone in the narrative is accusing Jesus of claiming to be God, either here, in the temple or at his trial. In Matthew 21, “By what authority? etc” is an obvious question to ask. Nobody says that he is claiming to be God, because that would have aborted the narrative with an immediate stoning.

The Matthew 21 question does not at all preclude an interpretation of Mark 2, introduced by the reaction of the scribes as I have suggested, that Jesus was God, and that the editors of Mark, in the light of a fully divine Jesus worshipped by Christian communities at the time the gospel was written, wanted to illustrate this in the text.

You’ll note that I’m not saying your argument is nonsense. I’m simply pointing out that it is not as clear-cut as you assert, and that there is a perfectly respectable alternative interpretation of Mark 2. Yours is not “the only explanation for this supremely presumptuous act”.

I still enjoy reading your posts, and I’m actually closer to your position in some respects than you might think. It also helps me to have my views rigorously challenged.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so 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, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:5-12)

Scribes: Only God can forgive sins.
Jesus: Nuh-uh. The Son of Man has the authority to do that too. I’ll prove it to you.

After Jesus proves it by healing the paralytic, “they were all [presumably including the selfsame scribes] amazed and glorified God [not Jesus], saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’”

“Son of Man” is not a synonym for God.

Just saw this comment and realized that I had cited the same line (“Who can forgive sins but God alone?”) as evidence of Jewish concern for monotheism and monolatry. I still think it is that. But your answer – that Jesus’ response is to claim to have received authority on earth to forgive sins – is a good one. Nonetheless, I think Bauckham has shown that there is a lot of imagery and language applied to Jesus – worship, doxology, etc. – that within 2T Judaism would have been understood as appropriate only to Israel’s God.

I offered some “tweaks” to Bauckham’s argument in this post.

There may be a flaw in this argument which I haven’t yet seen, but I suggested to Peter Wilkinson in a recent comment that there is not too much of a difference between Jesus having authority to pronounce the forgiveness of the paralytic’s sins and Isaiah having authority to declare to Israel that “her iniquity is pardoned” (Is. 40:2). Isaiah does not have the authority in his own right, but he has been authorized by God to make this announcement at this time to Israel. Jesus is presented in many respects, not least at his baptism, as the Isaianic prophet/servant who fulfils the purposes of YHWH.

As I understand it… Jesus forgiving sins didn’t necessitate him being “God” any more than the disciples forgiving sins (Jn 20:23) made them “gods”.

Yup. Probably.


One of the things I appreciate is your confidence in the narritive approach and to just look at something or some comments and say, “thats just not there”. In like manner I would still bring up Genesis and say clearly God is plural in some manner. No serious approach can be maintained that the “US” is a Royal we, angels, etc. I know you know this. God speaks in the beginning as an US, OUR. But we know God is one. Someone is with God in the beginning who bares the same image. Johns gospel mirros all the genesis language. Its unmistakeable. John tells us who this is with all the genesis language and characters. Someone is with God. Id like to see you work with that paradigm at least for a bit.