The Divinity and Messiahship of JesusMost Christians, with Jehovah's Witnesses being the of the few notable exceptions, believe that Jesus was and is in some way divine. Jesus is, in some mysterious way, actually God incarnate. The idea of the Trinity, the three persons in one Godhead, was what the Christians invented to accommodate the Godship of Jesus. We discuss in further detail in elsewhere how the idea of the Trinity evolved. In this section our main concern is whether Jesus actually made such a claim himself. In other words did the historical Jesus ever taught that he was divine?
As far as we can tell, Jesus never considered himself divine.
Denial of DivinityWe find that even in the gospel of John, the one with the most tendency to show Jesus as a superhuman being, he is presented subordinating himself to God:
In another example from John, Jesus rebuttal to the Jews who claimed that he made himself God showed that he did not consider himself equal to God:
In this same gospel too, Jesus is shown to have admitted that he was not equal to God:
Leaving John aside, in the synoptics and the Acts we find many passages that expressly exclude the idea that Jesus was divine and equal to God. In Peter's sermon after the Ascension of Jesus, the miracle of God was said to have been achieved not by the power of Jesus himself but by God working through him:
There is even a passage in Mark where Jesus explicitly took precautions to avoid people calling him an equal to God:
Furthermore, we find that Jesus does not claim God's omnipotence. For example he admitted that he did not know exactly when the kingdom will come:
The above examples provide compelling proof that the historical Jesus, or at least the evangelists, never considered himself God, or equal to him. Many fundamentalist or evangelical apologists, who do believe in Jesus' divinity, had tried and are still trying many word twisting and irrational sidestepping of these verses to support their belief. They have also tried to show that many of the things Jesus did could not have been done by anyone except God. One of this is the power to forgive sins.  The episode most often cited to prove this claim is the one on the healing of the paralytic:
This power to forgive sins, according to the theologians, amounts to a declaration of his own divinity. Marcello Craveri in his Life of Jesus points out why such a conclusion is wrong:
It should also be pointed out that the above passage in Mark, as it stands, cannot be fully authentic as it contains artificial elements. Note that the teachers of the law did not utter their resentment but only thought of it. Now, how is anyone else to know what was on their minds? How was Mark able to formulate their (note the plural) thoughts so precisely? As Nineham pointed out, the above passage is just a representation of early Jewish reactions to the Christians' claim that they could forgive sins in the name of Jesus. 
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Therefore the term "Son [or sons] of God" during the time of Jesus meant to the Jews someone who had a closer moral and spiritual connection with God than do ordinary men. It was understood by the contemporaneous Jewish culture to be an honorary title. There was no hint of any connection of that title with the divinity of the holder. 
We are further confronted with the fact that throughout the synoptic gospels Jesus was made to refer to himself in that term only twice. Given below are the passages:
The very fact that the passages in which Jesus refers to himself as the Son of God appears only twice in the synoptics is enough to make us suspicious of the authenticity of the above passages. Furthermore, the two passages actually contradict one another. The passage in Mark shows Jesus admitting that he did not know everything the Father knows. The one in Matthew seems to imply the very opposite! As Guignebert pointed out , the passage in Matthew, which forms part of the "Prayer of Thanksgiving" (Matthew 11:25-30) has such a rhythmic form that it very probably was part of an early Christian liturgy which was incorporated by Matthew into his gospel. Furthermore, much of the verses of the prayer seem to be taken from the apocryphal book of Sirach. (see Sirach 51:1; 51:23; 24:19; 6:24; 6:28; 6:29) Thus the whole prayer is very likely an early Christian liturgical composition.
Even if we take Matthew 11:27 and consider it by itself (apart from the strong evidence of its lack of authenticity), it still would not prove what the theologians want it to. For all that can be said about the verse is that Jesus considered himself to have a special relationship with God. Without a forced reading (i.e. without theological preconceptions), the verse does not show Jesus claiming to be God. In that sense, the verse may be interpreted to mean that he may have claimed that he was a son of God but not the Son of God. At least, not in the sense the later Christians put on that term. In fact the reader will note that even in the above two passages, Jesus never used the phrase "Son of God" when referring to himself but merely "Son". 
There are two more passages used by the theologians in their pretence to prove what they already dogmatically accept to be true. These passages involve statements made to Jesus that he was the Son of God. In the first passage Jesus was replying to an interrogation by the Sanhedrin:
The very setting of the passage, the nighttime trial of Jesus by the Sanhedrin, is enough to make us doubt the reliability of the passage. Furthermore the automatic connection the high priest was supposed to have made between the messiahship and being the Son of God - that the son of God is equivalent in meaning to the messiah -is something which no Jew at that time would have made. To the Jews of Jesus' time, the Messiah may be a son of God, but a son of God can mean anyone with the special relationship with God. In other words while "a son of God" can mean the messiah it does not mean so exclusively. The high priest was shown to have used the term as though they are completely interchangeable in meaning; in the way the early Christians used it. This cannot be historical.  We can therefore confidently reject the passage in Mark 14:61 as an early Christian invention, not an authentic saying of Jesus.
The second passage is found in Matthew's version of Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi:
Now we know from chapter six that Matthew had two principle sources, the gospel of Mark and a collection of Jesus sayings we call Q. Matthew (16:13-20) has followed Mark (8:27-30) pretty closely in this episode. We do not find this reference to Jesus being the Son of God in the similar passage in Mark:
There was no connection made to his divine sonship. The question naturally arises whether Matthew made use of an external reliable source to fill in the additional words from Peter. The answer is that this is most unlikely. For, as we have mentioned above, Matthew had followed Mark closely in accounting the whole episode. Had Matthew had additional information on would expect the information to come to Matthew in such a way that may help him expand on the whole story. Yet Matthew's addition is only on that reply of Peter's to Jesus' query: "Who do you say I am?" and on Jesus' reply to that. It looks more like a deliberate and unauthentic addition to the Markan passage than a rendition of further historical information. So this second passage, like the first, is unhistorical.
It is now time to summarize our findings on the phrase "Son of God" and Jesus' connection with it. We found out that in the Old Testament, therefore in the culture Jesus was living in, that the phrase is an honorary one bestowed on people who were believed to have a special relationship with God. The term in no way confers any divine status on the person. Furthermore we found out that Jesus never unequivocally described himself with such a term. The two passages where he seemed to have accepted that designation are unhistorical. In short, the theologians had no proof to substantiate their dogma.
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In the Greek of the gospels, the phrase Son of Man (ho huios tou anthropou), sounds unintelligible and reminds one of the secret codes used by the secret societies or mystery religions of the Greco-Roman world. Christian theologians, without many exceptions, has normally asserted the phrase to be equivalent to their understanding of the "Son of God" and from there to mean the Christ. However, as many scholars have shown, the original phrase in Hebrew (ben adam) or Aramaic (bar nasha) is a poetic expression that means literally "a man born of another man" or, simply, man.  The expression is used frequently in the Old Testament, in Ezekiel, for instance, this term was employed ninety four times. The term was used by Ezekiel to mean "man", in contrast with God.  Modern Jewish scholars such as Geza Vermes (b.1924), has shown that the term "son of man", when used by Jesus and where the sayings are authentic, simply means "I" or "this fellow".  This roundabout way of saying "I" or "man" is paralleled, as an example, in the Irish expression "mother's son" (e.g. "every mother's son of them"). 
An example of how the "Son of Man" should simply mean "man" is given in the passage below:
The above passage has no meaning if the "Son of Man" is to mean God or the messiah. How could Jesus be asserting his divinity or his messiahship but at the same time say he has nowhere to lay his head? Jesus was merely expressing the truism that nature is sometimes kinder to animals than to man. 
Another example shows how Jesus used this term to simply mean "this fellow", to emphasize his humanity.
Here the only possible interpretation of the passage is that Jesus was saying that the Baptist lived as an ascetic and people condemned him as being possessed. And now he, as a man who eats and drinks like everybody else is called a glutton and a wine-bibber. 
It should first be noted that there are many instances in the gospels where the phrase was not part of the original saying. We also see instances where the evangelists simply changed the "I" from the original source to the "Son of Man". We know this to be the case. Given below are two examples of this. Luke changed the "I" from the original saying in Q to the "Son of Man" while Matthew kept its original form. 
In other places it was Matthew who supplied the phrase "Son of Man" out of his own imagination.  This can clearly be seen when we compare parallel passages from Mark and Luke where the phrase forms no part of the original saying. Some examples:
The above examples show that the evangelists were not averse to inserting the phrase wherever they saw fit. There are also passages where the appearances of the phrase were within contexts with dubious historicity. For example in the story of the Transfiguration in Mark and Matthew Jesus was supposed to have used that phrase:
The story of the Transfiguration, as we have seen in chapter eight, is in itself historically suspect. Our suspicion is further confirmed when we see the above passage within the context of him predicting his death. We see this prediction of his death and the phrase Son of Man coupled together in several other passages (Mark 9:11-13 and Matthew 17:10-13; Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28). We have shown earlier in this chapter that his death was not a part of the teaching of the historical Jesus; being actually a Pauline amendment to it. Needless to say, utterances made within the context of Pauline theology could not have been authentic.
There are also instances where the phrase appears in the prediction of Jesus' betrayal:
The betrayal of Jesus by Judas was shown to be an unhistorical episode in chapter nine. Hence the authenticity of the above passages is extremely doubtful.
It is also clear that by the time the traditional material reached the evangelists the original meaning of "Son of Man" was no longer understood by them. There are some passages, where we have every reason to believe in the basic authenticity, which transmission were so badly narrated that they serve to show how badly the evangelists misunderstood the phrase. One example:
As it stands above, this statement of Jesus sound slightly absurd. Its like saying, insult the messiah (or God) if you like but insult the Holy Spirit and you're in trouble! The original form of the saying is found in Mark where the actual meaning is clear and unambiguous: 
There are two more instances where the phrase "Son of Man" seems to imply something more than "I" or "this fellow". The first is the episode of the healing of the paralytic, which we had discussed a little earlier. Here Jesus was supposed to have uttered thus:
As we have noted above, Jesus in this episode did not say "I forgive you your sins." but "Your sins are forgiven.". The difference is vital, for in the actual statement it implies merely that Jesus was giving the paralytic a pledge, like priest do, that God will forgive his sins. The statement in Mark 2:10 is simply an assertion that a man that is close to God can guarantee forgiveness of sins. In no way is it a proclamation of special status, either messianic or divine. 
The other instance is the statement of Jesus about his authority over the Sabbath:
But this in no way conveys special status for Jesus; this is supported by the statement he made just before the above:
The natural follow-up for this would be "so man is master also of the Sabbath" which is precisely what Mark 2:28 means. The "Son of Man" here means no more than "man". 
It is therefore clear that no special meaning should be attached to the term "Son of Man"-at least as it was used by the historical Jesus. [a] It means, in the way Jesus used it, simply "I" or "man". Perhaps it was also intended by Jesus to be a self-deprecatory reference to himself. As Ian Wilson said:
Jesus, in other words, may have, meant the phrase to be a sign of his humility which the Christians misread as a proclamation of his divinity.
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Again, the authenticity of the above passage is doubtful, for two very good reasons. The expression "Christ" without the definite article (i.e. the Christ) is not found anywhere in the synoptics or the Acts but is a common Pauline phrase, of which the passage below is a typical example:
The second reason is that we find a parallel verse in Matthew that does not have the term "Christ":
The passage in Matthew is very probably the saying in its original; form, while the tradition Mark was drawing from for this passage already suffered Pauline emendation. 
We will not be discussing the interrogation of Jesus by the Sanhedrin and Pilate where questions regarding his messianic status were posed for it has already been demonstrated elsewhere that these episodes are unhistorical.
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Before we look at whether these words were actually spoken by Jesus, we have to ask ourselves what the statement could have meant to the audience of the gospel. In the Greco-Roman world the phrase was widely used to refer to any one of the multitude of divine beings or gods. Among the Jews such a designation could mean that the person was making the claim of being Yahweh himself. This is what God supposedly said to Moses:
Thus the intended audience of the gospel could have understood these “I am” sayings as either Jesus was a divine being who was sent by God (and which has the divine spark in him) or that Jesus was Yahweh himself.  In view of the subordinate passages we saw above (e.g. John 5:18-19, 7:16, 14:28-31) the first possibility seems more likely.
The most obvious question with regards to these sayings is, of course, did Jesus actually utter them?. We have strong reasons to believe that he did not and that the passages are the free composition of John.
We find that the character of Jesus as presented in the fourth gospel differs substantially from that presented in the synoptics. We have already alluded to this elsewhere. Here we will concentrate on the difference with respect to Jesus proclamation of his own identity.  First we note that in proclamations regarding himself, Jesus is presented as behaving in very different ways by the synoptics and by the fourth gospel. In the synoptics, when asked about his own person, he is never depicted of commenting on it directly. Indeed in cases where he was called the messiah by others he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone about it>:
This is in complete contradiction to the "I am" sayings above where he is depicted as openly telling people (including the Pharisees and "the Jews") of his (divine) status.
Similarly when challenged about his authority to teach, the synoptics depict him as refusing to answering where his authority lies:
Note again here the general reticence of Jesus in speaking about himself and his status. In John, in the passage with the "I am" sayings, Jesus is depicted as openly telling the Pharisees his authority comes from the father:
Note that the two ways of talking about himself could not simply have by done the same person concurrently, save perhaps for one on the verge of insanity! For if you have already openly told people (including your "enemies") about your identity, being reticent about it at another time simply does not make sense anymore. Thus it is simply not historically viable for Jesus to have presented himself in a secretive, reticent way and in an open proclamative way. One of these depictions has got to be unhistorical.
The question is, of course, which is the unhistorical one? We have already given reasons earlier why John's gospel is probably the least historical of the four. [c] Here we will look at the specific reasons why the sayings given in John (including the "I am" sayings) cannot be considered historical.
The whole issue comes in the style of Jesus' teachings, which differs substantially between the synoptics and John. In the Synoptics Jesus is depicted as teaching in short pithy sayings (e.g. Matthew 10:24 "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor is a slave above the master."; Mark 2:27 "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath."; Luke 6:44 "Figs are no gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.") and in parables (e.g. Matthew 20:1-15 "The Vineyard Laborers"; Mark 4:30-32 "The Mustard Seed"; Luke 10:30-35 "The Good Samaritan")
In John these are missing and the main style of Jesus' preaching is that of long, extended, metaphorical discourses.
Studies in the transmission of oral tradition have shown that sayings and anecdotes that are most often remembered and retold are those that are short, provocative and memorable. Indeed as we have seen, this is precisely how the sayings of Jesus are preserved in the synoptics, in short pithy sayings and in rather colorful parables. [d] People tend to remember the gists of stories but not the detailed wording. For instance, we tell the same jokes with slightly different words each time but as long as we remember the form and the punchline the joke "works" as intended. One recent study shows that most people forget the particular wording of a statement they had heard after an interval of only sixteen syllables between them hearing it and getting a request to retell it. In other words we know that people remember sayings and anecdotes (although not always faithfully) we also know that people cannot remember long discourses from memory alone. The "I am" sayings are part of the typical long winded, tedious and repetitive sermons given in John. Their form is not something which allows for easy oral transmission. They are not witty nor do they have any easily remembered form or structure. The sayings in John are ramblings which are not memorable and not memorizable. Thus we can conclude that the "I am" sayings in John are not historical and were put into the mouth of Jesus by the evangelist himself.
The scholarly consensus (always excepting fundamentalists/evangelical "scholars") about the non-historicity of the bulk of Johanine sayings attributed to Jesus can be seen by anyone who will simply take time to review the available literature. Part of this is an almost total rejection of the "I am" sayings as historical. Some of the more recent examples include:
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