Thursday, May 08, 2014

Was Jesus God? - What do Matthew, Mark, and Luke say?
It's reported recently that a speaker by the name of Insan L. S. Mokoginta, a former Catholic priest, delivered a lecture at Malaysia's Universiti Teknologi Mara with 10 reasons why Christians should be Muslims.

I don't have access to the full lecture so I don't know what are the exact 10 reasons. Only two extracts were reported. Insan said, "He (Jesus) even admitted to being sent by God. In other words, Jesus is not God but is a prophet," and, "But if Jesus was God, why did he call out 'Eloi Eloi ‎Lama Sabachthani'? He was calling for God so how can he himself be God?"

Islam and Christianity part way when it comes to Jesus. Islam teaches that he, though a great prophet, is nothing more than a human being. Christianity on the other hand claims that Jesus is a human being yet in some sense also God incarnate.

During my theological study, I took a module called 'New Testament Theology' under Tan Kim Huat, the Chen Su Lan Professor of New Testament at Trinity Theological College. One of the assignments was to write an essay to answer the question: Does the Synoptic Tradition (i.e. Matthew, Mark and Luke) support the notion that Jesus put himself on par with God?

It's common knowledge in New Testament study that the Gospel of John contains the least ambiguous reference that Jesus was God.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
When it comes to the Synoptic Tradition (Matthew, Mark and Luke also called 'synoptic gospels'), such reference are not immediately noticeable. Besides, it's widely affirmed that the synoptic gospels were written earlier than John, and so the former three are considered more historically reliable in their description of Jesus. If so, then the idea that Jesus is God doesn't seem to be in the earlier data (the Synoptic Tradition). Instead, it's a product of later development (as what we have in John).

But that's not what I discovered after writing the essay. Here are my findings, with some updated references since the time I wrote it.

However, before that, let me first disclaim that I'll not deal with the historicity of the gospels here. That'll be for another post in the future. Thus, I'll take for granted the historicity of the ancient sources. Even if you disagree with the historicity of these sources, I hope that you would grant it for argument's sake. If need be, we'll engage on the historicity question in another post.

My findings on whether the Synoptic Tradition support the notion that Jesus put himself on par with God are confined to three themes: (1) Jesus' speech, (2) Jesus' deeds, and (3) earliest perceptions of Jesus.

Jesus' Speech: Amen
Christians today have the habit of saying "amen" at the end of prayer or in a manner of agreeing with what they hear. So when a churchmate said, "The Lord is sovereign!" very likely fellow churchmates who heard that will respond with "amen" as a way of affirming the statement. However, when Jesus said "amen", it was for a different purpose.

What Christians commonly practice today is called "affirmatory amen". It's a way to responsively affirm a religious statement. Used in this way, the word simply means "I agree" or "true". So at the end of a prayer, we utter "amen" to mean "so be it". Muslims have similar practice with a variant form of "amin".

Jesus used "amen" in a different way. Instead of using it as affirmative response, he used it as preface. For instance, in Matthew 5:18, Jesus says, "Amen I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." When used as preface to an assertion, it means "truly"; thus the New International Version has it as "For truly I tell you..." 

As far as we know, no one else before and during Jesus' time used "amen" as preface. Wherever this word appears, it's in the affirmatory form, as a response; not as a preface to an assertive statement. Here are some examples:
Old Testament:
Numbers 5:22, Deuteronomy 27:15-26, 1 Kings 1:36, 1 Chronicles 16:36, Psalm 41:13, 72:19, 89:52, 106:48, Jeremiah 11:5, 28:6, Isaiah 65:16, Nehemiah 5:13 and 8:6.

New Testament:
Romans 1:25, 9:5, 11:36, 15:33, 16:27, 1 Corinthians 14:16, 2 Corinthians 1:20, Galatians 1:5, 6:18, Ephesians 3:21, Philippians 4:20, 23, 1 Timothy 1:17, 6:16, 2 Timothy 4:18, Hebrews 13:21, 1 Peter 4:11, 5:11, 2 Peter 3:18, Jude 1:25, Revelation 1:6-7, 3:14. 5:14, 7:12, 19:4, 22:20, and 22:21.

Dead Sea Scrolls:
1QS1:20, 2:10, 18, 4Q286 fragment 5 line 8, fragment 7 4:1, 5, 10, 4Q287 fragment 1 line 4, fragment 4 line 3, fragment 5 line 11, 4Q289 fragment 2 line 4, 4Q504 fragment 4 line 15, fragment 17 2:5, fragment 3 2:3, fragments 1-2 1:7, 7:2. 9, 4Q507 fragment 3 line 2, and 4Q511 fragments 63-64 4:3.
The only place where non-responsive "amen" is used is in Testament of Abraham 20:2, a revised document dated more than 1,200 years after Jesus. Hence, it's unreliable to give us any information about the usage of "amen" during Jesus' time.

While the prefatory "amen" is not found anywhere, it appears about 51 times in the Synoptic Tradition (31 in Matthew, 14 in Mark, and 6 in Luke). This is unique to Jesus. It's as if Jesus is invoking his own authority to prophesy:
"Amen I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Matthew 5:18)
"Amen I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power." (Mark 9:1)
To assert theological truth:
"Amen I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin." (Mark 3:28-29)
To declare punishment and its conditional exemption:
"Amen I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny." (Matthew 5:26)
This is not the conventional practice of prophets or messengers of God. The common practice is to use the preface "Thus says the Lord", or something like it. Such preface qualifies their statement as something they received from God. Unlike Jesus, they don't make theological claim on their own authority. On top of that, there is a strong Jewish tradition in Jesus' time that cautions against such theological liberty:
"If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed." (Deuteronomy 18:22)

"The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law." (Deuteronomy 29:29)

"What is too sublime for you, do not seek; do not reach into things that are hidden from you. What is committed to you, pay heed to; what is hidden is not your concern. In matters that are beyond you do not meddle, when you have been shown more than you can understand. Indeed, many are the conceits of human beings; evil imaginations lead them astray." (Sirach 3:21-24)
The passage from Sirach is affirmed and quoted by Jewish religious authority around 3rd-5th century A.D (Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 13a). Such is the hesitation among Jesus’ contemporaries to deliberate over unrevealed knowledge, not least to assert them.

Therefore it's very peculiar for a religious Jew like Jesus to make theological claim in the way he does. It's as if there is no need for him to appeal to anyone, including God, to validate his theological statement. He simply does it on the basis of his own authority. As Durham University's Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity James Dunn wrote,
"For whereas in regular usage 'Amen' affirmed or endorsed the words of someone else, in the Jesus tradition the term is used without exception to introduce and endorse Jesus' own words. [...] And an obvious corollary lies close to hand: Jesus used this formula to call attention to what he was about to say and to give it added weight."
(James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered [USA, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003], 700-701. Emphasis original.)
Whenever Jews, Christians and Muslims make theological statement, they appeal to the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible and Qur'an respectively. It's just unthinkable for a religious monotheist in the Abrahamic tradition to do what Jesus did. Although Jesus is a religious Jew of the Abrahamic tradition, yet he speaks as if he is the sole basis for theology. He makes theological claims about God and the world based solely on his own words. Either he is God or a man who mistakenly thinks he is. Nevertheless, both leads to the same conclusion: Matthew, Mark and Luke attest to Jesus putting himself on the same level as God. Whether is he mistaken or not is another question. What is clear is that in term of Jesus prefacing his theological assertion, the Synoptic Tradition do support the idea that Jesus places himself on par with God.

Jesus' Speech: Forgiveness of Sins
Matthew 9:2-3, Mark 2:5-8 and Luke 5:20-21 report occasions when Jesus pronounces the forgiveness of sin. This is not a simple "I forgive you", like how we say to people who hurt us. Instead, Jesus says, "Your sins are forgiven." And in Jewish understanding, only God can forgive sins.

Take prophet Nathan as example. In 2 Samuel 12:13, he says to King David, "The Lord has taken away your sin." Nathan qualifies his declaration of pardon by explicitly invoking the God as the one who forgives. But Jesus doesn't make such qualification.

John the Baptist preaches about baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3). To him, the pardon of sins is attached to baptism ritual. But Jesus' pronouncement of forgiveness of sin is not attached to any ritual. He made the pardon based solely on his own words (which coheres with his unprecedented use of "amen" as preface in making theological claim). No one in the 1st century Jewish world would have anticipated a human being to make such declaration (with the only exception of a Jewish exorcist in 4Q242 of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which we cannot conclude much due to the fragmentary quality).

Therefore when the Jewish religious leaders hear Jesus declaring the forgiveness of sins, they are outraged, "Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2:7, Luke 5:21) In his commentary, Tan wrote,
"From the way the Markan narrative is set up, Jesus' claim is interpreted by the scribes---the learned religious teachers and authorities---to have transgressed the sacred boundaries of their confession of one God. This means he has put himself in an equal position with that one God. [...] Jesus is regarded as having usurped the prerogative not of the priests but of the one God. [...] As Mark shows, this blasphemy is not so much speaking against God, as claiming to possess some of his special prerogatives."
(Tan Kim Huat, The Gospel according to Mark [Philippines: Asia Theological Association, 2011], 54, 397.)
Similarly noted by Michael Bird, Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College, Melbourne:
The offense that Jesus' words provoke is by his presumption to speak with a divine prerogative. Clearly Jesus' declaration of forgiveness in such a context was tantamount to assuming the authority to forgive on God's behalf. [...] The scribes do not complain, "Who can forgive sins but a priest alone?" Nor does Jesus explain his action by saying, "I want you to know that I've recently purchased a Galilean franchise on the priesthood licensing me to forgive sins..." No, instead he says, "But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins," which turns out to be a divine authority."
(Michael F. Bird, 'Did Jesus Think He Was God?' in How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus' Divine Nature---A Response to Bart D. Ehrman, ed., Michael F. Bird [USA, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014], 58.)
The late E. Earle Ellis, Emeritus Research Professor of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, likewise remarked:
"[T]here is apparently no Jewish tradition that the Messiah or any other creaturely being has the right to forgive sins on his own authority. Furthermore, Jesus does not speak as an agent, priestly or prophetic or angelic, assuring the man of God’s forgiveness, nor does he offer the provisional pardon of a human court to be later ratified by God. He makes a flat affirmation of what he and the theologians know to be a prerogative of God."
(E. Earle Ellis, ‘Deity-Christology in Mark  14:58,’ in Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ: Essays on the Historical Jesus and New Testament Christology, eds. Joel B. Green and Max Turner [USA, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994], 194. Emphasis added.)
I understand that most Muslims also affirm that no one can forgive sins except Allah. Hence, if they grant that the gospels are historically reliable for argument's sake, then they would find it difficult to accept that early data such as those found in Matthew, Mark and Luke testify to Jesus' claim to forgive sins, something which only Allah can do. This is blasphemous to them too.

Again, whether is Jesus mistaken or not is another question. What is clear in Jesus' claim to forgive sins is that he makes statement only God can make. This at least shows that Jesus does perceive himself as on par with God.

Jesus' Deed: Re-constituting Israel
One of Jesus’ most astounding deeds is his dealing with his twelve disciples. Jesus’ forming of the twelve in Mark 3:14 carries the immediate symbolism of Israel national identity---the twelve tribes of Israel. It was God who constituted Israel in the first place, and so there was the prophetic anticipation that God will re-constitute the nation again. Beside the Old Testament, this anticipation is also evident in Sirach 36:11, 2 Maccabees 1:24-29, Psalms of Solomon 17:26, and Testament of Moses 3:3-4, 4:8-9. Commenting on Mark 3:14, Tan points out that,
"The Greek verb used is epoiesen, and it is best translated as "made," with a possible allusion to the story of creation. Jesus' action in calling the Twelve is then seen as significant in that a new creative act, somewhat in the order of the Genesis account, is being performed. Moreover, the number Twelve recalls the concept of the formation of the nation and also its reconstitution, made urgent by the two deportations from the land: the ten tribes in 721 BC and the exile of Judah in 586 BC. Israel's prophets proclaimed that in the last days God would act powerfully to save and reconstitute the nation (Isa 49:6; Ezek 45:8; cf. Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30)."
(Tan Kim Huat, The Gospel according to Mark, 80-81.)
Besides choosing the twelve, Jesus also assigns authority to each of them to judge the twelve tribes: "Amen I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matthew 19:28, see also Luke 22:30). As Richard Bauckham, Senior Scholar at Cambridge's Ridley Hall wrote,
The significance of the group is undoubtedly related to the ideal constitution of Israel as comprising twelve tribes and the Jewish hopes for the restoration of all twelve tribes in the messianic age.
(Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006], 95.)
Jesus does what only God can do. This is mind-blowing to many today as it was in his time. Right after he symbolically acted as God in reconstituting Israel, his own family concluded that he was "out of his mind" (Mark 3:21). If your own sibling going around town claiming to be God, you would probably think he is crazy too. Yet, whether or not Jesus is out of his mind is another matter. What the Synoptic Tradition shows us is that he acts as if he is God. 

Jesus' Deed: Divine Appearance or Epiphany
The event where Jesus walks on water in Mark 6 is not so obvious that he is acting like God:
Seeing them straining at the oars, for the wind was against them, at about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea; and He intended to pass by them. But when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed that it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were terrified. But immediately He spoke with them and said to them, "Take courage; it is I, do not be afraid." (Mark 6:48-50, NASB)
We usually read this story as nothing more than a miracle performed by Jesus. But as known to biblical scholars, Mark describes Jesus with the word parerchomai (to pass by) which is a technical reference to divine appearance in the Septuagint, 3rd-1st century B.C. Greek translation of the Old Testament. Tan has written succinctly on this:
"The seabed for such a usage [of the technical verb parerchomai in the Septuagint] is Exodus 33:17-34:8. In this account, the verb in question is used thrice---33:22 (twice) and 34:6---to depict God's passing by Moses, i.e. revealing his glory in a manner Moses has not seen before. Such a description of a divine epiphany is later utilized in the account of Elijah's coming before god at Mt Horeb (1 Kings 19:11-13). When this background is invoked---and the description of Jesus' walking on water encourages this---it becomes clear why Jesus intended to pass his disciples by when he wanted to help them. In short, "to intend to pass them by" means "to intend to provide a divine epiphany." This is done to assure the disciples that he who comes to them is like God who comes to reveal his glory to his people and to help them."
(Tan Kim Huat, The Gospel according to Mark, 150. Emphasis added.)
Besides, the phrase "walking on the sea" corresponds to the Septuagint's translation of Job 9:8, which reads, "God who alone stretched out the heavens, walking on the sea as if on dry land..." In the observation of Cambridge University's New Testament scholar Simon Gathercole, this parallel shows that,
"Jesus is clearly being identified here in a way that is reminiscent of God in Job. Moreover, one of the most striking points about the Job passage is that it is probably discussing how God alone stretches out the heavens and walks on the sea. [...] The reference to walking on the sea is a "theophany motif which is taken over from Yahweh to Jesus.""
(Simon J. Gathercole, The Pre-existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke [USA, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006], 64. Emphasis original.)
Perception on Jesus: Messiah/Anointed One, Son of God and Son of Man
In the synoptic gospels, Jesus refers to himself with three titles: Son of God, Son of Man and Messiah/The Anointed One. Each title is entrenched within the Jewish religious world of Jesus, steeped within the Old Testament tradition.

There are similarities and differences between 1st century Jewish idea of the Messiah and Jesus' self-reference as the Messiah. Jesus seldom explicitly referred to himself in this title. Yet the few instances when he applies the title on himself makes clear that he does see himself as the Messiah (Mark 8:29-30/Matthew 16:17, Mark 9.41/Matthew 16.20/Luke 4.41, Matthew 23.10/Luke 24.26, and Luke 4:16-21).

There are two things about the messianic expectation during Jesus' time. First, there were different messianic expectations. Second, the anticipation of the Messiah during was widespread. Hence, we have the Qumran community that read Isaiah 61:1-2 as a reference to the coming Messiah in a Melchizedek figure (11QMelchizedek). We see similar messianic expectation in Psalms of Solomon 17:21-32:
See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God. […] There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days, for all shall be holy, and their king shall be the Lord Messiah.
Another evidence of messianic expectation is Septuagint's translation of Amos 4:13. In the original language, there is no mention of Messiah:
"He who forms the mountains, who creates the wind, and who reveals his thoughts to mankind, who turns dawn to darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth—the Lord God Almighty is his name." 
In Septuagint, this verse reads:
"For, behold, I am he that strengthens the thunder, and creates the wind, and proclaims to men his Messiah, forming the morning and the darkness, and mounting on the high places of the earth, The Lord God Almighty is his name."
It's clear that the anticipation of the messiah is widely, if not universally, shared among Jesus' contemporaries. So, what does Jesus being the Messiah mean in relation to God? When asked by the high priest, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?" Jesus admitted that he was (Mark 14:61-62).

The high priest's question assumes that the Messiah is also the Son of God. These two titles representing one office is found in 2 Samuel 7.12, 14, Psalm 2.2, 7 and the three "Son of God" text among the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q246, 4Q521 and 4Q541 correspond to Luke 1:32-35).  Jesus does not only admit that he is the Messiah-Son-of-God, he goes further to qualify his office as the "Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Mark 14:62).

Jesus' self-reference as "Son of Man" is significance. He uses it throughout Mark's gospel. Jesus refers to this title when he announces his authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:10-11), in his prediction of his suffering (Mark 8:31), and in his reply to the high priest (Mark 14:62).

It's well recognized among biblical scholars that Jesus derives the title "Son of Man" from the prophecy in Daniel 7:13:
"In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.
As seen in Mark 14:61-62, Jesus uses "Son of Man" to describe his identify as the Messiah. We see similar appropriation of Daniel 7's "Son of Man" title in 1 Enoch 37-71 and 4 Ezra 13. Jesus' own usage of the title goes along this messianic tradition. And by declaring that he will sit at the right hand of the Mighty One and come on the clouds of heaven, Jesus reveals his share sovereignty with God. In the words of Tan,
Jesus states in no uncertain terms that he is the Messiah but with a difference: as Son of Man he also shares God’s sovereignty. […] Combining two OT passages (Ps 110 and Dan 7), Jesus speaks of his vindication and his sharing sovereign authority with the Almighty.
(Tan Kim Huat, The Gospel according to Mark, 347, 352.)
The high priest angrily tears his clothes when he hears Jesus refers to himself as the Messiah-Son-of-God-Son-of-Man who shares God's sovereignty.  The Sanhedrin condemns Jesus for blaspheming and demands his execution (Mark 14:63-65). Their reaction makes perfect sense within the backdrop of the Jewish understanding of God's sovereignty. To the religious Jews, no one shares God's sovereignty. All creatures, be it humans or celestial beings, are subordinate to God. Divine sovereignty is uniquely God's. As Bauckham wrote,
"The participation of other beings in God's unique supremacy over all things is ruled out, […] excluding any possibility of interpreting their role as that of co-rulers."
(Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament [UK: Paternoster, 1998], 13.)
That's why the high priest and the Sanhedrin are so offended; Jesus claimed for himself God's uniqueness! Their reaction confirms Jesus’ reply to mean none other than the fact that he perceives  himself to be on par with God.

Besides these, Jesus' application of the Psalms is another indication of his conscious divine self-identity. As recorded in Matthew 21:14-16, Jesus' healing of the blind and the lame at the temple has prompted children to praise him, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" The temple's authorities were indignant and questioned Jesus, "Do you hear what these children are saying?" Jesus answered them by quoting from the Septuagint translation of Psalm 8:2, "Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself" (NRSV, emphasis added).

This application shows that Jesus perceives himself as the "you" in the psalm. Yet the context of Psalm 8 is an address to God; the "you" refers to God. This means that Jesus sees himself as the addressed divine "you" in the psalm. Thus, in his study on the usage of Psalms in Matthew's gospel, Maarten Menken wrote,
"Originally, the 'you' of the psalm verse is God; in the interpretation given in Matthew, it is Jesus. We observed the same shift in the interpretation of Ps.62:13 in Matt. 16:27. The addressee of the praise of Psalm 8 is God. At the beginning and the end of the psalm, the psalmist sings to him: 'O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!' (vv. 2, 10). Early Christians had no difficulty in identifying the Lord of the psalm with their Lord, Jesus."
(Maarten J.J. Menken, "The Psalms in Matthew's Gospel," in The Psalms in the New Testament, eds. Steve Moyise and Maarten J.J. Menken [UK: T&T Clark, 2004], 72.)
Once again, whether is Jesus deluded is another question altogether. What I've presented so far is that the Synoptic Tradition does support the idea that Jesus does claim to be the same as God.

Perception on Jesus: Recipient of Worship 
As if making theological assertion solely based on his own words and claiming to have the uniqueness of God are not outrageous enough, Jesus goes so far as to accept the one thing only God can accept: worship.

Jews can worship no one else except God. This is rooted in the Shema passage (Deuteronomy 6:4-6) and the commandments (Exodus 20:2-6, Deuteronomy 5:6-10) which affirm monotheism and require total devotion to the one true God. This monotheistic consciousness is so important that the Jews recite the Shema twice daily.

Therefore the form of Jewish monotheism during Jesus' time (as much as ours) was exclusive in the sense that "the binary distinction between God and all other reality was observed and inculcated—in daily religious observance---by monolatry." (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity [USA, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008], 109.)  However, this is not to deny that there are supernatural beings in Jewish cosmology, but this by itself does not make Jewish theology henotheistic.

So, does the Synoptic Tradition show that Jesus actually receive worship?

Yes, the synoptic gospels consistently use the word proskunein ("worship") to describe the homage paid to Jesus as though he is God. In Luke 24:52, proskunein is used to refer to the disciples' reverence for Jesus. This same word is used in Luke 4:8 to describe reverence to God. Other forms of supplication or gratefulness in Luke’s gospel are not described by this word (5:12, 8:41, 17:16, 8:28, 5:8). Proskunein is specifically reserved in Luke's gospel to describe the reverence to God and to Jesus. 

The word proskunein appears twice in Mark’s gospel. In Mark 5:6, the demon-possessed man "worshiped" Jesus as "Son of the Most High God". The other place this word occurs is in the ironic scene where the soldiers mock Jesus by "worshiping" him (Mark 15:19). In his comment on the latter passage, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, Larry Hurtado wrote,
"Though intended by the soldiers as cruel taunting, their gesture of worship in fact correctly accords with what the readers know to be the right response to Jesus’ true significance."
(Larry W. Hurtado, How on Earth did Jesus become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (USA, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), 145.)
Proskunein is used as reverence to God in Matthew’s gospel. Similar with Luke 4:8, Matthew 4:10 uses this word as 'worship' to God. And throughout Matthew’s gospel, Jesus does not only received worship after he was resurrected (28:9, 17-18) but also prior to his death (2:2, 8, 11, 8:2, 9:18, 14:33, 15:25, 20:20).

To be sure, proskunein shares the similar physical gestures of falling on one's knees or prostrating oneself on the ground with other words like pipto, prospipto, gonupeteu, and prospipto tais gonasin. All these words can be used to describe one kneeling before God and human. What makes proskunein distinctive is the Synoptic Tradition's usage of it in relation to the strict monotheistic theology of Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4). In both Matthew 4 and Luke 4, when Jesus was being tempted to worship ('proskunein') the devil, he rebuked Satan with the Shema theology. Jesus recognizes that the devil is demanding proskunesis ('worship') from him, a reverence that is reserved only for God. Thus, he rejects the devil.

So Jesus is not nonchalant with regards to worship. He knows that worship is only for God. And here's the catch: Although to Jesus, worship is only reserved for God, he doesn't see it inappropriate when his contemporaries worship him! This is a strong indication that Jesus does put himself on par with God.

We have seen that Jesus speaks as if he is God, making theological assertion and the forgiving sins on his own authority. We have also seen that Jesus thinks it's right for him to carry out activities such as re-constituting Israel symbolically through the choosing of the twelve, which only God can do. What's more is that Jesus does not only claim to share God’s uniqueness, but also doesn't see it inappropriate for his contemporaries to worship him in the way they worship God. With these, we can therefore conclude that Matthew, Mark and Luke do support the notion that Jesus put himself on par with God. As Richard Bauckham confidently asserts, "The earliest Christology was already the highest Christology." (Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism And Christology in the New Testament, viii).

If Christianity's understanding of the Trinity as "one God in three persons" is true, then Jesus as God the Son being sent by God the Father doesn't deny the former's divinity nor contradicts monotheism. Likewise, under the Trinitarian framework, there is no issue with Jesus as God the Son cried out from the cross to God the Father. These two claims are only problematic to those who don't understand Trinitarian theology. It's a theological approach that tries to make sense of strict monotheism in relation to the Synoptic Tradition's idea that Jesus did put himself on the same level as God. So the only way to go around this is to reject the historicity of the canonical gospels. And that is another topic for another post.


reasonable said...

"So the only way to go around this is to reject the historicity of the canonical gospels."

There seems to be more ways. I could off-hand think of at least two ways and below is a slight elaboration on one of the ways :)

One of the other ways is to view the synoptic gospels as portraying Jesus having been appointed by God as a special sui generis intimate representation of God such that Jesus was to carry out, in actions and in words, whatever God would do for, do to and do in Israel, and the world. Jesus' special type of sui generis intimate representation would be such that he would speak as if he is God (e.g. Jesus could forgive sins as if he is God himself). Jesus' sui generis intimate representation would be such that he would act as if he is God [e.g. Jesus' enactment of Yahweh's return to Zion in his entrance to Jerusalem on donkey(s) ] What Jesus said, it represented what Yahweh said. What Jesus did, it represented what Yahweh did. Jesus also represented Yahweh in receiving worship. Hence the OT's "all knees shall bow to Yahweh" could be expressed as "all knees shall bow to Jesus". Such a Jesus could still be seen as having existed before his earthly birth if one were to retain the concept of the "logos becoming flesh".

Such a perspective would say that Jesus is not God, but the most intimate sui generis representation of God, the "image of the invisible God". It would then be like God saying "If you want to worship me, then worship Jesus. Your worship to Jesus would be counted as worship to me as Jesus is the perfect image of me. I have given all authority in heaven and on earth to Jesus. I have exalted Jesus and bestowed on him the name which is above every anme, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of me, Yahweh."

Sze Zeng said...

Hi reasonable, I'm aware of the approach you described. In my humble opinion, I don't consider it as a valid way to go around the data because it couldn't account, in my view, for many of Jesus' unqualified self-references which exclude God (e.g. his theological assertion and forgiveness of sins.)

reasonable said...

Part 1 of 2

It appears there is no inherent contradiction between

(1) the pre-resurrection Jesus (and the synoptic gospel authors) seeing himself as not God walking around Israel in human form, but merely a special sui generis intimate representation of God with a god-given full authority to forgive sins and to do all the actions which belong to God (all unauthorized persons are forbidden to do these actions)


(2) his unqualified self-references which exclude God when he did those actions (e.g. pronouncing the forgiveness of sins) which belong to God and which all persons unauthorized by God are not allowed do those actions.

With a lack of any inherent contradiction between (1) & (2), it means the approach I mentioned would be consistent with the phenomenon of Jesus giving unqualified self-references which exclude God.

In other words, (1) itself does not require Jesus to give qualified self-references. (1) and (2) can both happen in the life of Jesus without any inconsistency.

Having just said the above, the synoptic gospels did in a sense portray a Jesus giving a qualified self-reference. The Jesus featured in the synoptic gospels explained that he WAS GIVEN all authority in heaven and on earth (Mat 28.18). It would be like Jesus saying "I have the authority to forgive sins because God has given me the authority. I have the authority to judge the Temple because God has given me the authority. God has given me the authority to do all the divine actions which belonged to God and which all unauthorized person are not allowed to do." Jesus' explanation/declaration that he was given all authority to exercise in heaven and on earth would be his qualification on him pronouncing forgiveness of sins and carrying out actions which belonged to God and which unauthorized persons are forbidden to do.

If I am not mistaken, nowhere in the Hebrew scripture was it written that God cannot delegate those functions to anyone else. So if God authorize a certain person to use that person's wise and righteous discretion to forgive sins, then that person is allowed to pronounce "hey, your sins are forgiven". If God authorize a person to use his wise and just discretion to override previous laws, then that person can say, "Moses' laws said such and such, but I say to you..."

reasonable said...

Part 2 of 2

Assuming the above picture is true, we can see the story of the miraculous healing of the paralytic near to the beginning of Mark's Gospel serves to establish that Jesus was indeed given the authority by God. In that story, Jesus seemed to have understood his assertion that he was given the authority to forgive sins would sound like a hollow and arrogant claim because none of his audience could know, if they base only on Jesus' claims and nothing else, whether or not it was true that God had indeed given Jesus that authority. So Jesus performed a healing miracle to support his claim of having the authority. (the Markan Jesus said "In order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" and then he did the miraculous healing).

So if Jesus and the Gospel authors had a deep conviction that Jesus was authorized by God to use Jesus' own wise and righteous discretion to decide who to be forgiven, who to be healed, who to be condemned, when to enact God's return to Zion, what judgment to be passed on the Temple and so on, then there is no necessity for Jesus to qualify himself such as saying "In the name of God, I do this" or "By the authority of God, I say that". Whoever he condemns, he knows God will condemn (for he knows that he knows God's heart intimately and hence would judge in a way that is consistent with God's judgment). Whoever he binds, he knows God will bind. Whoever he forgives, he knows God will forgive. Jesus can thus say "Amen Amen I say this to you" or "Your sins are forgiven" or "You, rise up and walk".

So the approach I described would not be actually going around the data; rather it is this:
it is possible for the data in the Synoptic Gospels to point to (not prove) the idea that Jesus is not God but a specially god-authorized person to carry out actions which belong to God and which all unauthorized persons are forbidden to perform. Jesus was the one who was authorized by God to do those things and make those pronouncements.

So those data in the synoptic gospels show at least two possibilities:

(a) Jesus is not God

(b) Jesus is God

Sze Zeng said...

Hi reasonable,

Yes, the Synoptic Tradition portrays Jesus as being given God's authority. And you rightly note that this is not in contradiction with Jesus being God (besides noting also that Jesus being given God's authority does not contradict the sui generis mode).

The issue is that as far as I know the data, whether it's from Synoptic Tradition or Jewish literature of that time, show no such category of sui generis. Either the person who is being so authorized is God, or he is blasphemous.

reasonable said...

"Either the person who is being so authorized is God, or he is blasphemous"

The options apparently is more than the either-or categories quoted above. The person so authorized could be a human being who was not blasphemous while at the same time not God.

Let us look again on the synoptic gospels' presentation of the story on Jesus' healing of the paralytic found in Mark 2.

When Jesus healed that paralytic man, some of the audience believed that Jesus was not blasphemous but indeed was authorized by God to forgive sins. Among the audience, those who believed what Jesus told them started to believe that Jesus was not blaspheming when Jesus pronounced that the paralytic mans' sins were forgiven.

Notice what is likely implicit in the story portrayed in Mark 2:
Those who believed Jesus was not blaspheming did not jump to the conclusion that Jesus was God. They did not think that "oh wow, this Jesus is not blaspheming, therefore he must be God." What they probably have thought was that "wow, this man Jesus has indeed been authorised by God to forgive sins, otherwise he could not have done the miraculous healing." This means that among the Jews of Jesus' day, it is not inconceivable and not unacceptable that a human being could be authorised by God to forgive sins.

So when a person in that context claims to forgive sins, there are at least three options:

1. that person is God, or
2. that person is blaspheming
3. that person is not God but a man truly authorised by God

The unbelieving ones among those present on that day believed in option 2, i.e. Jesus is a blasphemous man.

The believing ones believed in option 3, i.e. Jesus is not God but a man authorised by God.

It is unlikely for the believing ones among the crowd present on that day to believe in option 1.

The above was what I thought would be the case when I was reading only Mark 2. Later, when I read the same story told in Matthew 9, it seems that Matthew 9 supports what I mentioned.

In Matthew 9, after Jesus did the miraculous healing, the gospel writer's comment on those who believed was "they were filled with awe, and glorified God who had given such authority to MEN."

They were not filled with awe thinking that "wow, God is standing here right here in front of us."

They were glorifying God for having given the authority to men.

Now zooming out from that Mark 2 story and referring to the portrait of Jesus described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke:

Apparently, within these 3 gospels alone, they did not say that Jesus was God. And if what I have mentioned so far is correct, then there is no NECESSARY implication from these synoptic gospels that Jesus was God. An imperfect analogy is this:

Let's say the square of x = 4

There is no NECESSARY implication that x must be 2

There is an equal probability for the implication that x is -2

To summarise, in the issue of whether Jesus is God according to the synoptic gospels, it seems:

(a) The synoptic gospels explicitly portrayed Jesus as a man authorised by God to perform many actions belonging to God.

(b) The synoptic gospels do not claim, directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly, that Jesus is God. (i.e. neither saying x is -2 or +2)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi reasonable,

You gave three options:

1. that person is God, or
2. that person is blaspheming
3. that person is not God but a man truly authorised by God

What my post and replies to you are saying of the fourth option: That person is God, and also truly authorised by God.

Hence Matthew 9 doesn't support your reading under this fourth option (as your option 3 neglects other data of the Synoptic Tradition). This fourth option encompasses the scribes' accusation, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" and all other data in the Synoptic Tradition.

Sze Zeng said...

Or, you can say that the fourth option is the nuance position of option (1) That person is God. But for clarity sake, I'll just list it as the fourth option.

reasonable said...

Sorry but please do let me add on to my earlier statement that
“This means that among the Jews of Jesus' day, it is not inconceivable and not unacceptable that a human being could be authorised by God to forgive sins.”

That the believing persons in the synoptic gospels believed that God has indeed authorised a human being to forgive sins (“they were filled with awe, and glorified God who had given such authority to MEN” quoted from Matthew 9) points to the situation that it is not difficult for Jews around Jesus’ period to hold the idea that certain human beings can be authorised by God to do certain actions that belonged to God. As told in the synoptic gospel’s stories, this was the conclusion that those believing audience of Jesus naturally came to hold after seeing Jesus performing miracles. So the synoptic gospels would be one immediate source to show the acceptability of the idea of God giving authority to certain human beings to perform actions belonging to him or on his behalf (whether or not most Pharisees agreed to the idea is not important – the believing audience, after hearing and watching Jesus, certainly disagreed with the Pharisees present then about whether or not God could authority to human beings the authority to act on Gods’ behalf.). If such an idea did not exist before Jesus, it certainly started to exist when Jesus started his ministry, again as shown by the synoptic gospels.

Therefore there is no necessity for the believing Jews (i.e. the believing audience present during Jesus’ ministry, and also the synoptic gospels’ writers) to find themselves forced to conclude that Jesus is God. The more natural conclusion that probably came to their mind was not that Jesus was God, but that Jesus was a man authorised by God and send from God to do all those things. And Jesus even encouraged this conclusion by his own teaching that he was GIVEN all authority by God. Jesus’ own claimed was not “I am God” but “I was GIVEN the authority” (Matthew’s Jesus said: “All authority has been GIVEN to me in heaven and on earth.”).

Whether or not, before Jesus’ time, there were Jews who believed in the possibility of God giving a human being the authority to act on his behalf we do not know, but in view of the existence of Jewish literature before or around Jesus’ time mentioning certain human beings and other beings sharing or sitting on the throne of God (many more literature were lost to us so we do not know what other wild speculations those Jews had) we can say that the Jews, or at least some groups of them, around Jesus’ time, were quite creative and imaginative, in what is possible metaphysically (they of course do not dichotomise the metaphysics/spiritual from the phenomenon world), even when those speculation seems to come dangerously close to threatening their fundamental monotheism. God giving authority to a human being to perform actions that belong to God would be relatively nothing when compared with those ideas about certain human beings sitting on God’s throne (in one portion of a surviving text, it even seemed to be telling a story in which God vacated his throne and let Moses sit on it).

Even if we ignore those literature that talks about God sharing his throne with certain human beings, the idea of God authorising a man to act on his behalf was definitely more conceivable for Jesus’ audience (and the synoptic gospels’ writers), than for them to believe the idea that the Jesus in front of them was God (or a God authorised by God). Again, Jesus’ words also explicitly pointed them to the category of ‘a person given the authority by God to carry out actions belonging to God’. If this category did not exist before Jesus, then Jesus would be the one introducing it to his audience according to the synoptic gospels, because the synoptic gospels showed the believing audience witnessing a man (for that is the visual appearance to their eyes), by the name of Jesus, explicitly telling them that he was given the authority by God to acting out those actions and teaching them those teachings.

reasonable said...

I wrote the above before reading your latest two responses - I would place your 4th option as a subset of option 1. "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" was expressed as the those Pharisees' question, but the believing ones among the crowd would have disagreed with the Pharisees after watching what Jesus did.

What I am trying to show is that it seems that at the moment, the synoptic gospels do not tell us indirectly that Jesus is God, just as a text saying the square of an unknown number x is 4 does not show us indirectly/implicitly that x is 2... because x could equally be -2.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi reasonable,

The Synoptic Tradition (ST) has no dichotomy that you introduced, which is on one hand, Jesus is a man given authority by God, and on the other hand, Jesus is God. Your reading of Matthew 9 presupposes this category, and neglects all other data in the ST.

ST is all about showing that Jesus is both given authority and is God. This makes sense why Jesus is a man and forgive sins(which is an alien idea). The idea of a man being given such authority is in the ST is equivalent to a man is God.

reasonable said...

Our discussion continues :)

"Your reading of Matthew 9 presupposes this category, and neglects all other data in the ST."

After Jesus did the miraculous healing of the paralytic man and pronounced that his sins was forgiven, the writer of Matthew commented that God “had given such authority to men.” (referring to the authority to forgive sins). Now, the phrase “who had given such authority to men” was not the words said by the crowd, but were the comment made by the writer of Matthew in Matthew 9. So a plain reading shows that the writer of Matthew believed that the healing story established that God did give the authority of forgiveness of sins to men (which implies that authority was given to the man Jesus). This means my category of “a man authorised by God” is not a presupposition forced upon Matthew 9, but rather it is the plain meaning of Matthew 9.

Of course it does not contradict this statement in Matthew (God “had given such authority to men”) if we want to add on the presumption/presupposition that this Jesus is a man and also a God. But that would only be our presumption or presupposition. It is not the plain meaning of that text in Matthew. The plain meaning is “men” and not god-man. “A man who is God” would instead be a presupposition imposed upon Matthew 9.8.

I did not neglect all other data in the synoptic gospels. There seems to be no other data in the synoptic gospels that contradict the idea that the synoptic gospels portrayed Jesus as a man given the authority by God to act on God’s behalf (let’s call it “authorised man” category in the sense that it is man only, not god-man or God). Every phenomenon mentioned in your blog-post can fit well into the “authorised man” category. And explicit statements such as Matthew 9.8 did in fact portray Jesus as a man who received authority from God. (If we add “God” to make the “man” to become god-man would seems to be forcing a presupposition, an add-on, onto the text itself.) It is possible that I may be mistaken about there being no data in the synoptic gospels that contradicts the “authorised man” category . If I am mistaken, then perhaps you can help to point out one piece of datum that contradicts this “authorised man” category?

“This makes sense why Jesus is a man and forgive sins(which is an alien idea).”

God giving authority to a man (or men) to forgive sins is not an alien idea; it is a Jewish because it existed in at least one of the synoptic gospels which are Jewish documents. Referring to the authority to forgive sins, the writer of Matthew explicitly commented that God “had given such authority to men” (this quoted words are not the words of the believing crowd, but the comment made by the writer of Matthew’s gospel in Matthew 9). The plain meaning of the text was that the authority to forgive sins was given to MEN. The plain word here is “men”. If we read “men” as “god-man” or “a man who is also God”, then it would appear that we are imposing our presupposition of god-man onto the text.

Unless the Jewish scripture (or OT) unambiguously stated that God would not or would never give the authority to forgive sins to any man (i.e. any man who is not God), we should not ASSUME or presuppose that God would not one day give that authority to any man.

reasonable said...

"ST is all about showing that Jesus is both given authority and is God."

The synoptic gospels explicitly said that Jesus was given the authority and that authority to forgive sins was given to men. But where in the SG do one find any piece of datum that UNAMBIGOUSLY demonstrates that the synoptic gospels are about showing Jesus is God? Would this be a presupposition?
(Every phenomenon mentioned in your blog-post can fit well into the “authorised man” category. And explicit statements such as Matthew 9.8 portrayed Jesus as a man who received authority from God. To add “God” to make the “man” to become god-man would seems to be forcing a presupposition onto the text itself.)

The accusation of blasphemy by Jesus’ opponents would not count as UNAMBIGUOUS datum. The synoptic gospels’ writers contrasted two opposite stances: the stance taken by Jesus’ sceptical opponents, and the stance taken by those who believed Jesus. In addition, there are also comments made by the writers such as the one in Matthew 9.8. Unless there is explicit indication to the contrary, the gospel writers portrayed Jesus’ opponents as holding on to a wrong stance or wrong beliefs not to be followed by the readers of the gospels, while Jesus’ believers in the gospel stories are to be exemplary for the readers. Hence we should not assume statements of Jesus’ opponents to be true unless the gospel writers indicated so (e.g. via Jesus’ unambiguous affirmation in the stories or via the gospel writers’ own comments.) That means, if Jesus’ opponents made any statement that claims that only God can forgive sins or if they implied that God would not authorise anyone else to forgive sins, it should not assume to reflect the truth. Who else would be misunderstand the truth more than Jesus’ opponents? The assertion of Jesus’ opponents should not be assumed to be gospel-truth, especially when it contradicts a gospel writer’s comment. For example, when the writer of Matthew commented that God “had given such authority to MEN (plural, and any reading of god-man would be imposing added meanings onto the text)” with regard to forgiveness of sins, contradicts Jesus’ opponents’ assumption (if any!) that God would not have given any authority to man to forgive sins.

"The idea of a man being given such authority is in the ST is equivalent to a man is God."

Is the above a presupposition? If not, then where did any of the synoptic gospel unambiguously teaches the idea that a man given such authority means that man is God? (quoting Jesus' opponents' words would not do because they were the opponents with much wrong understandings of truth - and the SG writers did not portray them being correct in their understanding about whether God can authorize a man to forgive sins).

Sze Zeng said...

Hi reasonable,

Matthew's belief that God has given the authority to forgive sins to Jesus was due to his conviction that Jesus is God. Unless so, there is no warrant as to why would Matthew be convinced that Jesus was indeed so authorized.

The only way for such alien notion to even be considered by Matthew as legitimate (to be "unalien" to a Jew) requires more than just the belief that God has given authority to forgive sins onto Jesus, as such belief was not legitimate Jewish theology. In Matthew's case, it's only legitimate if one presupposes that Jesus is indeed God, and so his forgiving sin can be interpreted as an authority given by God.

Hence your plain reading of Matthew 9 has not give enough consideration to the unprecedentedness of a man being given authority to forgive sin to a Jewish mind. It was an alien notion unless Matthew presupposes that Jesus is God and so this sets the trajectory for Matthew to interpret it as how he had. So it's not,

P1. The notion that Jesus being authorized to forgive sin is alien to Jews.

P2. Matthew is a Jew and he adopts that notion.

C. Therefore the notion that Jesus being authorized to forgive sin is not alien to Jews.


P1. The notion that Jesus being authorized to forgive sin is alien to Jews (which we know as true from all data except Matthew's).

P2. Matthew is a Jew and he adopts that notion.

P3. There must be a reason why Matthew is the only Jew who is immune to the notion (i.e. for not seeing that Jesus being authorized to forgive sins as alien).

P4. The reason is because Matthew is convinced that Jesus is God, and thus Jesus was understood by Matthew to be one who was authorized by God to forgive sins.

Steve Finnell said...


Apologetics Defined: the branch of theology concerned with the defense or proof of Christianity.

Do extra-Biblical historical books confirm that the accounts of Christianity found in the Bible are true? No, they do not, the exact opposite is true. The Bible proves that extra-Biblical historical accounts of Christianity are in fact true.

John 20:30-31 And Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciple, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (NKJV)

The signs and miracles of Jesus written about in extra-Biblical historical accounts do not prove that Jesus performed signs and miracles. To the contrary, the signs and miracles of Jesus written in the Bible confirm that the extra-Biblical accounts are true.

1 Corinthians 15:3-6 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. (NKJV)

Extra-Biblical historical accounts of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ do not prove the Bible to be true, however, the Bible confirms that the extra-Biblical accounts are true.

Faith comes from hearing the gospel . Romans 10:17 So then faith comes by hearing, hearing by the word of God. (NKJV)

Believing that the Bible is God's word and that the accounts of Christianity presented in the Bible are true are not proven by engaging in philosophical arguments nor by clever secular reasoning.