Critical Evidence for the Deity of Christ

New Testament scholar Ben Witherington lists thirteen established features of the historical Jesus which even most critical biblical scholars accept. [1] Unfortunately for the critics who do not believe that Jesus understood Himself to be God, from these thirteen facts alone it can be clearly demonstrated that Jesus did indeed believe that He was God. From there it can then be established, based on the authority of Jesus, that the Bible is not only trustworthy, but also divinely inspired. I am simply going to show, on the basis of nine of these facts, that Jesus believed and claimed that He was God, even according to some of the most skeptical standards of investigation.

1. His independent approach to the law.
This means that Jesus equated his own authority with the authority of what He considered (along with the rest of His culture) to be the divinely inspired Torah (the Christian Old Testament). In some instances He even placed His authority above the Old Testament law. But who would dare to place their own words on equal level with God's unless He believed that He was God? Horst George Pohlmann says "This unheard of claim to authority, as it comes to expression in the antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount, for example, is implicit Christology, since it presupposes a unity of Jesus with God that is deeper than that of all men, namely a unity of essence. This...claim to authority is explicable only from the side of his deity. This authority only God Himself can claim." [2] Because of this, prominent Jewish scholar Jacob Newusner, himself not a Christian, has concluded that "no one can encounter Matthew's Jesus without concurring that before us in the evangelist's mind is God incarnate." [3]

William Lane Craig affirms this: "If Jesus' opposition of His personal teaching to the Torah is an authentic facet of the historical Jesus--as even the skeptical scholars of the Jesus seminar concede--then it seems that Jesus did arrogate to Himself the authority of God." [4]

2. His feeding of the 5,000.
This fact is not as widely accepted as the others, even though it is accepted by many. In general, this is because of an anti-supernatural bias, not historical evidence. This miracle meets the criteria of multiple attestation, set by critical scholars, because it is recorded by both John and the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and John was writing independently of the Synoptics. At the very least, this shows that Jesus had the ability to perform miracles.

3. His interpretation of His miracles.
The consensus of NT scholarship agrees that Jesus performed miracles. One reason for this is that the miracle stories so permeate all aspects of the gospel traditions that this can only be explained if they are rooted in the life of Jesus. Jesus interrpreted His miracles to be signs that the kingdom of God had arrived. In the historical context of Jesus' culture, however, the coming of the kingdom of God could not be separated from the coming of God Himself. Therefore, in claiming that in Himself the kingdom of God had already arrived, Jesus was putting Himself in God's place. In other words, He thought He was God.

Matthew 11:4-5 is a saying of Jesus that is widely accepted as authentic by most critical scholars. In this verse, Jesus makes clear reference to His ability to give sight to the blind, make the lame walk, cleanse the lepers, etc. For OT Judaism, however, God is the one who heals Israel's diseases. Jesus, by healing in His own power and not using any medical means, is therefore taking God's place as the healer of Israel, thus putting Himself, once again, in the place of God in the OT. In doing so, He was making a clear claim to be the God of Israel.

4. His proclamation of the kingdom of God as present and inbreaking in His ministry.
We have already seen that this proclamation comes through in His interpretation of His miracles. But Jesus' miracles are not the only evidence that Jesus gives to confirm His proclamation. William Lane Craig says "It may be an embarrassment of many modern theologians, but it is historically certain that Jesus believed He had the power to cast out demons." [5] In Luke 11:20, a saying widely acknowledged to be authentic, Jesus declares "But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you." Jesus is essentially saying that His ability to rule over the spiritual forces of darkness demonstrates that in Him the kingdom of God is already present. We have already seen the implications of this.

5. His choosing of 12 disciples.
This reflects God's choosing of twelve patriarchs in the OT from which the twelve tribes of Israel would come.

6. His use of "the Son of Man."
Many critical scholars are willing to accept that Jesus used this title because He uses it over 80 times in the Gospels, yet it only occurs once outside the Gospels. Therefore, this title cannot be the invention of the early Church written back into His mouth since the early church did not use this title for Jesus. So, Jesus must have used it. What many skeptics overlook is that Jesus referred to Himself as the Son of Man, not a Son of Man (as Ezekiel did). By doing so, Jesus was calling attention back to the divine end-time figure in Daniel 7, and clearly claiming to be the Messiah.

7. His use of "amen."
Jesus often prefaced His teaching in the strongest way possible, "Truly, truly I say to you" (in other words, "Amen, amen..."). Virtually all critical scholars recognize this because of its prevalence in the Gospel narratives. All of the previous prophets of God spoke in God's name, declaring, "Thus says the Lord." In contrast, Jesus spoke in His own name, declaring "Truly I say to you." Yet, by prefacing His words with the "Amen," He placed His teaching on equal authority with the teaching of the Old Testament. In others words, Jesus spoke in His own name, yet declared that His teaching was just as authoritative as the divinely inspired Old Testament. Who would do this but one who thought they were God?

8. His use of "Abba."
Jesus' prayer life demonstrates that He thought of Himself as the unique Son of God, set Him apart from everyone else, even His disciples. It is an established fact that Jesus addressed God as "Abba," which is almost like calling God "daddy." To the Jews of that day, the name of God was so sacred that no one would dare pray to God in such a familiar way. While Jesus taught His disciples to pray to God as "Abba," He still never prayed with them as "Our Father," but referred to God as "My Father" ( see John 20:17). Thus, Jesus saw Himself as God's son in a unique sense, shared by no one else.

9. His distinguishing Himself from his contemporaries, including John the Baptist, the Pharisees, Jewish revolutionaries, and the disciples.

10. His belief that one's future standing with God hinged on how one reacted to His ministry.
Jesus says that people will be judged based on their response to Him. See, for example, Luke 12:8-9. But if Jesus is not God, this would be "the most narrow and objectionable dogmatism. For Jesus is saying that people's salvation depends on their confession to Jesus Himself." [6]

11. His understanding that his death was necessary to rectify matters between God and His people.

12. His sense of mission to the whole of Israel, especially to sinners and outcasts, which led to table fellowship with such people.

13. His raising messianic expectations in a repeated pattern of controversy with his contemporaries.

Since it can still be established by some of the most skeptical standards of historical investigation that Jesus implicitly claimed to be God, both by His words and actions, it cannot reasonably be said that the idea of Jesus' divinity was a legend generated over time by the early church. The critics refuse to draw the obvious implications from these facts not because of lack of evidence, but because of their anti-supernatural bias. Therefore, to further fortify our case, let us look at one more line of evidence.

The beliefs of the early church cannot be explained unless Jesus claimed to be God.
There is little doubt that the early Christians believed that Jesus is God. As William Lane Craig writes, "Studies by NT scholars such as Martin Hengel of Tubingen University, C.F.D. Moule of Cambridge, and others have proved that within twenty years of the crucifixion a full-blown Christology proclaiming Jesus as God incarnate existed...the oldest Christian sermon, the oldest account of a Christian martyr, the oldest pagan report of the Church, and the oldest liturgical prayer (1 Cor. 16:22) all refer to Christ as Lord and God." [7]

To deny that Jesus claimed to be God raises a very severe problem: How did the worship of Jesus as Lord and God come about in the first place? Saying that Jesus' claims to deity were written back into His mouth by the early church does not address the issue; the problem is the origin of those beliefs in the first place. The earliest Christians were Jews, and to first century Jewish thought the concept of God appearing in human flesh on the earth was totally foreign. Furthermore, it would have raised serious difficulties for a Jew to believe that God would become man because of the significant change in their religion; they did not change their views easily. How can one explain zealously monotheistic Jews worshiping Jesus as God if He did not claim this about Himself? If Jesus never claimed to be God, the early Christian's belief cannot be explained.

We have clearly established, through the thirteen established facts and the problem of the origin of belief in Jesus as God, that the doctrine of Jesus' divinity originated with Himself. There are, therefore, only a few options. Either Jesus was right in His claims to be God, or He was wrong. If He was wrong, He either knew He was wrong or did not know He was wrong. If He knew He was wrong, He was a liar. If He did not know He was wrong, then He was radically deluded. The only other option is thatt He was right, and therefore He is God. What is your conclusion?

1. Ben Witherington, The Christology of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), p. 268.
2. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton, Illionis: Moody Press, 1984), p. 253.
3. Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1993), p. 17.
4. Craig, p. 247.
5. Craig, p. 248.
6. Craig, p. 251.
7. Craig, p. 243.

This has been adapted from: William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton, Illinois: Moody Press, 1984), pp. 242-253.<


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