In his little book Is God a Delusion? Nicky Gumble (‘the pioneer of the Alpha course’) addresses Richard Dawkins’ claim that ‘There’s no good, historical evidence that Jesus ever thought he was divine’ (79-80, 127-131). It’s an old debate, of course, and neither Dawkins nor Gumble contributes anything very new to it; but I suspect that Dawkins may have the better of this particular argument, and not merely for historical reasons. I draw attention to it partly because I have covert sympathies with Dawkins anyway and feel a little embarrassed by the way he has been so rudely duffed up by evangelicals, but mainly because it highlights again (see also Putting the theological cart before the biblical horse) the worrying structural discrepancy between theology (in this instance, admittedly, a rather elementary apologetic defence of a mainstream belief) and the interpretation of Scripture.
It is curious, in the first place, that this type of popular apologetic is so dependant on John’s Gospel (and, of course, C.S. Lewis) for the argument that Jesus believed himself to be God. As a witness to the words of Jesus John must be considered as the least historically reliable of the four Gospels – surely in some measure a rewriting of the story of Jesus in the language and thought-forms of Hellenism or of Hellenistic Judaism. Having said that, three passages from the Synoptics are cited in support of the argument that the historical Jesus believed himself to be God, which I would suggest actually give a good indication of the underlying apocalyptic narrative that shaped, if only at some remove, the christology of John.
Authority to forgive sins
Mark 2:7 clearly cannot be counted as evidence that Jesus thought of himself as being God. In fact, it shows quite the opposite. Here’s what happens. Jesus forgives the sins of the paralyzed man who is brought to him in Capernaum. The scribes accuse him of blaspheming, insisting that no one can forgive sins but God alone (Mark 2:7). Jesus then demonstrates that ‘the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ by healing the paralytic. But the point is not that Jesus is God but that God in heaven has delegated the authority to forgive Israel’s sins to the one who plays the part of the Son of Man. Matthew underlines this by noting that the crowds ‘glorified God, who had given such authority to men’ (Matt. 9:8).
So Gumble is right to observe that the claim to be able to forgive sins is an astonishing one (128), but what was astonishing was that the authority to forgive sins, which the Jews believed was the prerogative of God alone, had been given not just to men but to the one who in the symbolic guise of Daniel’s Son of Man would embody in himself the suffering and rejection of the persecuted saints of the Most High (which is why Jesus extends the authority to forgive to his disciples).
The Son of Man at the right hand of Power
Similarly, Jesus’ retort to the high priest in Mark 14:62 that he will ‘see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven’, which the high priest condemns as blasphemy, is not ‘tantamount to a claim to be God’ (129). Daniel’s Son of Man figure stands for a righteous Israel that remains loyal to the covenant, loyal to YHWH, in the face both of pagan antagonism and Jewish apostasy. What shocks the high priest is Jesus’ presumption in believing that he (and not the priestly hierarchy or the Pharisees) will eventually be vindicated before the throne of God and given the kingdom.
Judgment of the nations
The story of the Son of Man who suffers and is vindicated and given sovereignty is also operative in the case of Jesus’ commonly misunderstood account of a judgment of the nations (Matt. 25:31-46). Gumble quotes Jesus’ words that people will be judged according to how they have treated him and his followers, and says: ‘For a mere human being to make such a claim would be preposterous. Here we have another indirect claim to have the identity of Almighty God’ (129). No, it is precisely Jesus’ point that the authority to judge has been given to him as the Son of Man – and indeed, to those who will suffer with him, who will reign at the right hand of God throughout the age to come (cf. Matt. 19:28; Rev. 20:6). I think that what he has in view is a judgment – in characteristic Old Testament fashion – specifically of the nations that would persecute his disciples, not a final judgment as is commonly assumed. But the point is that it is a serious misreading of the text to regard it as evidence for a claim to have the identity of God. What it shows is that the right to judge has been devolved to this man and to this community.
‘I and the Father are one’
Jesus makes a number of statements in John’s Gospel that suggest (if we are to take them as historically true recollections of his speech, which seems a little unlikely) that he believed that God was revealed to his disciples through his own presence amongst them. When he claims, ‘I and the Father are one’ (10:30), the adjective ‘one’ is neuter: the point presumably is not that they are ‘one’ in identity but of one mind or purpose. The distinction probably holds for all statements of this sort, though John’s language is never easy to pin down: ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working’ (5:17); ‘whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise’ (5:19); ‘If you knew me, you would know my Father also’ (8:19; cf. 14:7); ‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me’ (14:10-11; cf. 10:38; 17:21). The Jews threaten to stone Jesus when he tells them ‘I and the Father are one’, but he treats this as a question of what he has done rather than of who he is: ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?’ (10:32). They complain that he has made himself God (10:33), but Jesus’ response can hardly be taken as an acceptance of the charge. He points to the fact that in Psalm 82:6 the Jews as ‘sons of the Most High’ are described as ‘gods’, and asks how in that case he can be accused of blaspheming for having said, ‘I am the Son of God’ (10:36). The issue again is not identity but authority (cf. 7:17).
‘My Lord and my God’
Finally we have Thomas’ unprecedented and enigmatic confession, which perhaps must be allowed to stand for what it is (John 20:28). His words may have reference to the argument of 13:31-32 that God is glorified when the Son of Man is glorified: in other words, it is in the resurrection of the one who suffers that the true glory of God is revealed to Israel. Jesus’ word to Mary that he is about to ascend ‘to my God and your God’ (20:17) may have a bearing. She goes back to the disciples and announces that she has ‘seen the Lord’ (20:18). We must at least ask how Thomas’ confession is to be reconciled with so much that Jesus says to differentiate himself from God or from the Father. John’s own statement that these resurrection appearances have been recorded ‘so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God’ (20:30-31) should also be taken into account. ‘Son of God’ denotes an anointed agent, not a figure who self-consciously identifies himself with God – though perhaps some thought should be given to the influence of an imperial ideology that identified the divine Caesar as ‘Son of God’. If Thomas’ confession and John’s reflection on the significance of the resurrection appearances aim at such Hellenistic conceptions, then we have further reason to think that the christology that emerges in the New Testament is apocalyptically inspired.
The renewal of theology
This is not an attack on Nicky Gumble especially or on the whole Alpha-driven shebang, with which I have always been, albeit begrudgingly, impressed. The book does a reasonably good job of what it sets out to do. But I do think it is necessary to address the considerable deficit that exists generally between popular apologetic defences of core beliefs and New Testament interpretation. My reading of the texts may be flawed in all sorts of ways, but it is representative of an emerging new perspective on the New Testament that is searching for a theology that inheres in the historical narrative and does not need either to be abstracted from or retrojected into it.
In our search for a renewed theology after Christendom this seems to me the right path to take, but it will challenge many of the commonplace arguments and formulations out of which the fabric of modern faith has been woven. If we are going to proclaim and defend a high christology, I think we have to go by way of the apocalyptic narrative about the Son of Man who suffers and is vindicated and who, in that way, supplants the concrete authority of the divine Caesar; I don’t think we can skirt around it. It is not enough now merely to assert that Jesus claimed (directly or indirectly) to be God, and then postulate that if he weren’t telling the truth, he must have been either mad or bad. But that means that a new popular, user-friendly theology needs to be developed from such new exegetical starting points, and undoubtedly that will take time.
Finally, I should perhaps make it clear that I am not arguing that Jesus was or is not in some sense ‘divine’. It is the disconnect between theology and Scripture that concerns me. And if that sounds disingenuous, well, that is simply part of the problem.
See also What has the emerging church to do with the Alpha Course? on Open Source Theology.