More on the divinity of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels

This post is really just for the good folks—Marv in particular—at the Theologica forum, who have been earnestly discussing my views on the virgin birth and my perceived cageyness regarding the divinity of Jesus. Marv has responded to the complaint that the defenders of orthodoxy are unwilling to discuss the actual analysis of the text with a lengthy and, I think, constructive comment that can be found here. It deserves a proper response.

Let me say, first, that I am all in favour of “orthodoxy”, but I am inclined to think that biblical orthodoxy should take precedence over theological orthodoxy. Or to put it another way, I see no reason why the philosophically informed reading of the New Testament that prevailed in the fourth century should be regarded as a more reliable guide to interpretation than a historically informed reading in the twenty-first century. I think that the historical reading of the New Testament—quest for the historical Jesus, New Perspective, etc.—has brought us to the point at which we at least have to ask the question whether formulae generated under the peculiar intellectual conditions of early Christendom still offer the best way of making sense of the narrative of Christian origins. That is another debate. For now I want to focus on Marv’s argument with respect to the Synoptic Gospels.

The “Son of Man” arises from Daniel and indicates a glorious personage, though I am not prepared to say that this is a non-divine person. Indeed he is introduced in Daniel as “one like a son of man.” And he also has an “everlasting dominion.”

Subsequent apocalyptic tradition may have regarded this “son of man” figure as a divine person—that is a matter of some dispute, and there is more than one way of construing “divine”. But with regard to Daniel 7 it seems a difficult position to maintain. Elsewhere in the Old Testament “son of man” always signifies a human figure (cf. Ps. 8:4), even in explicit opposition to God (eg. Num. 23:19). In Daniel 7 this figure stands for the persecuted saints of the Most High (Dan. 7:21-22, 27), in contrast to the ferocious beast-kingdoms that emerge from the chaos of the sea. The faithful community is given an “everlasting kingdom” (7:27), so clearly this is no argument for divinity.

This is prophecy, and the full import of its meaning can be known only after fulfillment. The prophets themselves “inquir[ed] what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.”

This is true, but surely what we need to ask is: How does the New Testament determine the “full import” of the meaning of Daniel 7 for understanding Jesus? Marv dismisses the views of Jewish scholars (I’m not sure who he has in mind), but does he want to argue that Jesus and the mostly Jewish writers of the New Testament were incapable of reading Daniel 7 according to its original literary and historical context? Did they not understand that the “son of man” figure was a symbol for faithful Israel which would be vindicated before the throne of YHWH and given authority to rule the nations? Nothing in the New Testament, as far as I can see, leads us to conclude that Jesus as Son of Man was anything other than the embodiment of faithful Israel, to whom authority was given to rule the nations (along with those who would suffer and be vindicated in him), which incidentally is a central theme in The Coming of the Son of Man.

I deny that I am reading anything in. We know that it is true, that Christ is God incarnate. And this being true, was true at the annunciation. So if we are tempted to read nothing more in the angel’s words than that Christ was to be an exalted (mere) human, we are going to be making a crucial mistake in our understanding of the angel’s import.

This beats me. Historic orthodoxy tells us that Jesus was God incarnate. If we know that, then the angel must have known it. Therefore, when the angel said to Mary that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit and that he would be called the “Son of God”, he must have meant rather more than what the words actually mean in their context. Really? With all due respect to Marv, this is not a good way to do biblical interpretation. How is this different from putting words in the angel’s mouth? How does it count as a high view of scripture? Are we claiming to know better than the angel? Yes, you said that, but what you really meant was….

By making this a proof-text for the incarnation, we miss the whole point of what the angel was trying to communicate to Mary, which was that the exceptional circumstances of Jesus’ conception were a sign that this child was the Son of the Most High, who would receive the “throne of his father David” and would “reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:32-33). It’s all there in the text. No “reading in” needed. This is why people like Tom Wright and Scot McKnight have to work so hard to bring the “King Jesus” gospel back into focus. Historic orthodoxy, for all its merits as a systematic formulation of Christendom beliefs, can sometimes get in the way of a clear understanding of the New Testament.

I assume, moreover, that Matthew understood by the name “Immanuel” exactly what Isaiah understood by the name “Immanuel”, which is that the birth would be a sign that YHWH was with his people both to judge and to save.

Whatever one can say about the understanding of the term “Son of God” in the Judaism of that day, we also need to understand that Matthew was an apostle and walked with Jesus during His earthly ministry. We have no excuse for starting from the premise that he was a Christologically-naive writer.

But the only Jesus that we know Matthew knew is the one that he writes about in his Gospel; and the only Matthew that we know of was as much a Jew “of that day” as any other, if not more so. He may well have believed that Jesus was God incarnate. But he does not appear to have written that belief into his Gospel, presumably because he was seeking to be true to the historical Jesus as he knew him or as tradition remembered him. That does not preclude the possibility that through its encounter with the risen Jesus the early church reached the proper conclusion that he was divine. That is another matter. It is simply to make the point that the writers of the Synoptic Gospels did not set out to prove that Jesus was God incarnate. They set out to prove that Jesus was Israel’s king.

If we suppose these works to be fiction we may—indeed must—isolate them from one another.

No, if we suppose them to be historical, then we have to respect the proper literary-historical boundaries within texts and between texts. There is no reason to think that Matthew expected his Gospel to be read in the light of the Johannine tradition. I don’t think it is right to dissolve these boundaries in the interest of maintaining theological tradition. If we want to keep the orthodox affirmations, we have to find a better way of justifying them, not at the expense of exegetical integrity.

None of this negates in the least that He is also personally divine.

No one is arguing that the story we encounter in the Synoptics of Jesus as a “human anointed with the Spirit of God” negates the view that he was also “personally divine”. The argument is that there is very little, if anything, in the Synoptics—and we’re only talking about the Synoptics here—that can be taken as a positive, unequivocal argument for the divinity of Jesus.

Things are attributed to this “Son of God,” and this “King of Israel” that would never be said of any mere human king. This is a Man unlike any man that had every lived.

That we have an understanding of the Trinity already, even before the later formulations, is evident in passages such as Christ’s baptism in Matt. 3:16-17 in which the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are simultaneously manifest. The words from heaven indicate rather more than a mere exalted human.

Well, no, the words do not “indicate rather more than a mere exalted human”—but there is nothing “mere” about Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of the Father to reign on his behalf throughout the coming ages as Israel’s king. Nor is the baptism of Jesus evidence for the Trinity: many individuals are given the Spirit of God in the Old Testament, but this does not make them members of the godhead. Even the supposed Trinitarian formula in Matthew 28:19 can only be parsed to something like: “in the name of the Father who appoints, in the name of the Son who is given the kingdom, and in the name of the Spirit of prophecy and covenant renewal”.

So I’m afraid I have to disagree with Marv’s conclusion that “the data rather indicates the divinity of Christ is an underlying concept in the gospel of Matthew”. I greatly appreciate the trouble he (and others) have taken to engage with the argument—and their willingness to pursue the debate beyond the entry-requirement of a profession of orthodoxy. But I am strongly of the opinion that if we are going to profess a biblically Trinitarian belief, we have to do so by way of what Matthew and Luke say, rather than by way of what they do not say.

Paulf | Tue, 03/13/2012 - 00:06 | Permalink

Andrew, great stuff. I think your critic gives away the game here when he says that since we know jesus is god incarnate, then surely Matthew is saying that. But if we don’t read the text with modern assumptions, then there is no reason to find divinity.

It’s like the passage in Mark in which Jesus says no one is good except the father. Taken at face value, one has no reason to conclude anything but that the author didn’t see Jesus as divine. But hermeneutics enables us to twist authorial intent.

[I did try and comment earlier, but don’t know if the comments are working.]

Paul -

You said: Taken at face value, one has no reason to conclude anything but that the author didn’t see Jesus as divine.

I might nuance it this way. Matthew could have very well believed in the divinity of Christ, but that was not his main point that he is getting across in his very Jewish gospel account.

Spot on Paul. How the theologically orthodox ignore the ,’ no one good but God’ verses is beyond me. A corresponding one pops up, ‘i think, in John, of all places. Hey, good systematics must chew up everything in its path to remain healthy, I guess.

Cheryln, Thanks for your feedback. I noted the correct quotation in my response to Paulf. Interesting: one noted Trinitarian scholar made the exact opposite of your argument, that the, um, divine, ‘son’ was only contrasting himself to the divine Father’ in those passages. Now that shouldn’t invalidate your understanding of the issue, and that’s the point im driving at: there is nothing ‘clear’ about Jesus’ alleged divinity in these texts, unless one would want to read that into the text. You do it, the scholar i referenced did it. The church ‘fathers’ did it. I don’t. But we all love Jesus :D

PaulfYinka | Tue, 03/13/2012 - 16:04 | Permalink

In reply to by Yinka

Good point. We can imagine our own beliefs in that passage, but there is no way to imagine that the person who wrote it or the original readers would have had as much imagination.

Sorry to go off topic, but when I see your name I can’t help but think of poor Yinka Dare.

Indeed. Anything is possible with shiny and inspired hermeneutical goggles. I hail from the same fair corner of the world as Yinka D. Too bad he went out like that.

cherylu | Tue, 03/13/2012 - 14:32 | Permalink

Paulf and Yinka,

Those verses in Mattew and Mark both do not have Jesus saying no one is good except the Father.  They say no one is good except God.  I checked 13 versions in Mark and that is true of every one.  The Greek word used is theos—God.

I do not at all see how you think this verse is a flat out denial on Jesus part of being God. It certainly is not contrasting Him with the Father and saying the Father is the only one good and therefore He is not.   It seems to me much more like a question asking them why they are giving Him God’s attributes UNLESS they believe Him to be God since only God is good.

Cherylu, I’m not sure how well that argument works. Matthew has the man ask, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”; and Jesus says in response, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good” (Matt. 19:16-17). Matthew, therefore, avoids the possibility that Jesus denies that he himself is good, presumably because he was concerned that Mark’s version (Mk. 10:17-18) could be taken to mean that Jesus was not “good”. In other words, Matthew appears not to have understood Jesus’ words in Mark 10:18 to mean that he was “asking them why they are giving Him God’s attributes UNLESS they believe Him to be God since only God is good”.

Besides, the issue in the conversation is not who Jesus is but where the man is to find the way to the life of the age to come. God is good because he gave Israel the Law. The good comes from keeping the commandments. If Jesus was really making a statement about his divine identity, surely the man, who had kept the commandments from his youth, would at least have raised an eyebrow in response.

I’m not saying that the point of the passage is to deny the divinity of Jesus. My point is that the passage assumes the Jewish formulation of god in a way that was endorsed by Jesus (when he quoted the Shema).

The Jewish view of God runs through the synoptic gospels (and virtually the entire NT).  As Andrew said, if Jesus was proposing a new formula for god, then it is hard to believe that the controversy would not have been the focus of the rest of Jesus’ life.

But the controversy surrounding Jesus in the aftermath of his death was not “in what way was he part of the godhead?” but it was “if he was the Messiah, why then was he crucified?”


Paul: You wrote (in part): It’s like the passage in Mark in which Jesus says no one is good except the father.

You may remember that Mark 10 and Matthew 19 recount the same trip to Judea.

The Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce. (They used Moses as their authority for the law.) In turn, Jesus used the creation epic as a spiritual authority for the law.

Later, after blessing the children, the man humbly (kneeling and ”Good Master”) asked about eternal life. Jesus curtly responded about goodness. However, we know that he knew the nature of goodness (Genesis 1) from the divorce episode.

Thus, Jesus appeared to try to provoke debate. Of course, there were no takers then and, in my reading, no takers today.

What do Y’All think? jim


Richard Worden… | Fri, 03/16/2012 - 06:29 | Permalink

I have been so completely blessed by your discussion of biblical versus theological orthodoxy that I’m inclined toward thinking there really is hope that a more “reformed” view of biblical texts is actually possible. _Semper Reformandi_ is honored more in the breach than the observance; the compulsive committment to creedal vs. biblical orthodoxy among evangelicals has pretty well driven me outside the fold. Thanks for the reminder that there are those whose deepest desire is to know Christ apart from human traditions and through Apostolic textual ones and the Spirit instead.

Hoping not to merely be bringing coals to Newcastle, I’d like to invoke Larry Hurtado’s name.  He is a Trinitarian (as evidenced by his confession in At the Origians of Christian Worship), and yet his writings on early Christianity (e.g. How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God and One God, One Lord) show no evidence of imposing that view on the earliest Christians.  On the contrary, he collects and orders the evidence finding that at most (in terms of searching for the Trinity) he finds a certain “two-ishness,” which, he says, the evidence does not yet allow him to describe much more fully than that.  His books call it a “binitarian” view but he has since said on his blog that he thinks “dyadic” would be an even  better term because it would carry even less “baggage.”

I think Hurtado therefore supplies a good model for doing just what you are doing in this post: calling for a fresh reading of the Scripture without imposing anachronistic views based on our theological dispositions.

Thanks for the links.  I read both posts.

I agree that, when it comes to the degree to which the post-resurrection Jesus was venerated by his disciples, Hurtado at times tends to overestimate it. He is, however, explicit in his God in New Testament Theology that Jesus is presented in the New Testament documents as subordinate to God.

What neither Hurtado nor Dunn seem to allow for is the ultimate elevation of Jesus in his eschatological triumph.  That is, prior to his resurrection (i.e. in the Gospels), Jesus was proclaimed as a man of God, a prophet.  Post-resurrection and pre-eschaton (i.e. Acts through Revelation), the proclamation was “This Jesus is the Messiah.”  Post-eschaton, the proclamation is “The Messiah is God.”  Thus, though it explicitly says nowhere in the New Testament that Jesus as God, we may say it.  And we should say it.

The “Trinity” is just a ham-handed way of acknowledging that Jesus is God by those who believe that the eschatological hopes of the New Testament failed to be fulfilled when promised.  However, if the eschaton was not achieved in the late first century, we are still in our sins.