When Christians hear objections with regard to who Jesus claimed to be, they (without fail) whip out CS Lewis’ famous trilemma of “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord”. Based on Jesus’ claims of being the “I AM” of the Old Testament and the “Son of Man” who was the divine figure referenced throughout Jewish apocryphal literature, in addition to the fact that Jesus accepted worship and claimed to have the authority to forgive sins, he cannot simply be a good teacher or a prophet…yada yada yada. No good teacher or prophet would say the things that Jesus said or do the things that Jesus did…yada yada yada (not ‘yoda!). This approach is all well and good in dealing with pluralists, as I show here. But when dealing with skeptics, the Liar, Lunatic, Lord approach doesn’t work.
“How do you really know that Jesus said and did all that stuff?” The trilemma becomes a “quadlemma”. A fourth option now rears its ugly head…Legend.
The skeptic can evade the classic trilemma by simply saying that we have no way to know that Jesus actually claimed to be divine in the Gospels. His disciples and the writers of the New Testament could have made up all of his divine sayings, his miracles, his ability to forgive sins, etc. After all, the early church was desperate to fulfill their own agenda and propagate this message that Jesus did claim to be God! The Jesus of the Gospels is a Legend…or is he?
Now rather than putting forth a case for the reliability of the New Testament documents, there is a simpler way to deal with the “Legend Jesus” who was delineated in such a way, by the early Christians, as to show that he claimed divinity. Let’s accept that the New Testament documents may or may not be reliable and let’s also accept the possibility that the early Christians tampered with the sayings of Jesus so as to make him appear divine. Having said that, here are three passages from the Gospels that, collectively, build a strong case for showing that Jesus believed he bore a unique relationship with God the Father and that he was divine.
Passage #1: Mark 14:60-64
Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?”
They all condemned him as worthy of death.
Here Jesus claims to be the divine Son of Man who is referred to in Daniel 7:13-14, to whom was given “dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” The most interesting thing about this passage is the use of “Son of Man”. “Son of Man” was Jesus’ favorite way or referring to himself; this phrase appears 84 times in the Gospels but only twice outside the Gospels (Revelation 1:13 & 14:14)**. Paul never uses this phrase to refer to Jesus in his letters. Unlike “Christ” and “Son of God”, this phrase is not used by the early church to refer to Jesus. Thus we have good evidence that this saying of Jesus was not made up by the Gospel writers because “Son of Man” terminology is largely absent from the vocabulary of the early church!
Passage #2: Mark 13:32
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Here Jesus is talking about when the world will end. He claims 2 things:
-He is the Son
-He (the Son), does not know the time at which the world will end; only the Father knows.
Jesus is claiming a unique relationship to Father by being the Son, and he is also setting up a hierarchy in which he claims to be higher than the angels, who are higher than men. The only one who is higher than the Son is the Father! Now how do we know that the Gospel writer did not simply make this up? Take a closer look at what this passage is really saying. It’s seemingly problematic for Christian theology. How can Jesus, who is God, not know something? God is supposed to be all-knowing, right? Why would the Gospel writer make up this embarrassing tidbit and include it? If anything, we would expect the passage to read, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, only the Son and the Father.” The fact that this passage includes this embarrassing detail about Jesus being ignorant with regard to when the world was going to end shows that this is, indeed, an authentic saying of Jesus that the early church would not have made up in a million years!
Passage #3: 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.”
Here Jesus claims:
–Everything is given to him by his Father
-No one knows Jesus (the Son) except for the Father
-No one knows the Father except Jesus (the Son)
These are pretty bold claims! Jesus claimed that everything belonged to him because it was given to him and he claimed unique knowledge of the Father in addition to having a special relationship with Him. This passage is also interesting because it is a ‘Q’ saying of Jesus. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke both used a common source of Jesus sayings which is now lost, this ‘gospel of sayings’ is known as ‘Q’ (short for ‘Quelle’, which is German for ‘source’). Any passage that is found in both Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark, is attributed to ‘Q’. The Q Gospel predates both Matthew and Luke and is even argued to have been written before the Gospel of Mark, which is thought to be the earliest Gospel. The above passage is one such passage, which means that this is a Q saying! This saying is super early and it predates the Synoptic Gospels, which is further evidence for its authenticity.
In conclusion, the idea that the divine Jesus of the Gospels was a Legend is not tenable in the face of the unique terminology, the embarrassing facts, and the extremely early traditions that we discussed above. The Jesus Legend is now history!
** ‘Son of Man’ is also mentioned in Acts 7:56, however, Acts is simply the ‘sequel’ to the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were penned together as a 2-volume set.