What can we say about how Jesus most likely understood himself? Did he call himself the messiah? If so, what did he mean by it? And did he call himself God? Here I want to stake out a clear position: messiah, yes; God, no.
I think there are excellent reasons for thinking that Jesus imagined himself as the messiah, in a very specific and particular sense. The messiah was thought to be the future ruler of the people of Israel. But as an apocalypticist, Jesus did not think that the future kingdom was going to be won by a political struggle or a military engagement per se. It was going to be brought by the Son of Man, who came in judgment against everyone and everything opposed to God. Then the kingdom would arrive. And I think Jesus believed he himself would be the king in that kingdom.
I have several reasons for thinking so. First let me go back to my earlier point about the disciples. They clearly thought and talked about Jesus as the messiah during his earthly life. But in fact he did nothing to make a person think that he was the messiah.
He may well have been a pacifist (“love your enemy,” “turn the other cheek,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” etc.), which would not exactly make him a leading candidate to be general over the Jewish armed forces. He did not preach the violent overthrow of the Roman armies. And he talked about someone else, rather than himself, as the coming Son of Man. So if nothing in what Jesus was actively doing would make anyone suspect that he had messianic pretensions, why would his followers almost certainly have been thinking about him and calling him the messiah during his public ministry? The easiest explanation is that Jesus told them that he was the messiah.
But what he meant by “messiah” has to be understood within the broader context of his apocalyptic proclamation. This is where one of the sayings of Jesus that I earlier established as almost certainly authentic comes into play. As we have seen, Jesus told his disciples—Judas Iscariot included—that they would be seated on twelve thrones ruling the twelve tribes of Israel in the future kingdom. Well enough. But who would be the ultimate king? Jesus was their master (= lord) now. Would he not be their master (= Lord) then? He is the one who called them, instructed them, commissioned them, and promised them thrones in the kingdom. It is almost unthinkable that he did not imagine that he too would have a role to play in that kingdom, and if he was the leader of the disciples now, he certainly would be the leader of the disciples then. Jesus must have thought that he would be the king of the kingdom of God soon to be brought by the Son of Man. And what is the typical designation for the future king of Israel? Messiah. It is in this sense that Jesus must have taught his disciples that he was the messiah.
Two other considerations render this judgment even more certain. The first has again to do with Judas Iscariot, the Jewish bad guy in the stories of the Gospels; the second involves Pontius Pilate, the Roman bad guy. First, about Judas. There has been endless speculation about who Judas Iscariot was—to the extent of wondering what Iscariot is supposed to mean—and about why he betrayed Jesus. As I pointed out, there is no doubt that Judas did betray Jesus (the betrayal passes all our criteria), but why did he do it? There are lots of theories about this, but they are not germane to the point I want to make here. Rather, I want to reflect on what it was that Judas actually betrayed.
According to the Gospels, it was very simple. When Jesus had come to Jerusalem during the last week of his life to celebrate the annual Passover meal in the capital city, he caused a disturbance in the temple—predicting in good apocalyptic fashion that it would be destroyed in the coming judgment. This made the local authorities sit up and take notice. The Jewish leaders who were in charge of the temple and of civil life within Jerusalem were known as the Sadducees. These were aristocratic Jews, many of them priests who ran the temple and its sacrifices; among their number was the chief official, the high priest. The priests were invested in maintaining order among the people, in no small measure because the Romans who were in charge allowed local aristocrats to run their own affairs and to do things as they wanted as long as there were no local disturbances. But Passover was an incendiary time; the festival itself was known to stir up nationalistic sentiment and thoughts of rebellion.
That’s because the Passover feast commemorated that episode from the Hebrew Bible when God delivered the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Every year the exodus event was celebrated as Jews from around the world remembered that God had intervened on their behalf in order to save them from foreign domination. The festival, climaxing with the special meal—the Passover seder, as it came to be called—was not simply celebrated out of antiquarian interests. Many Jews hoped and even anticipated that what God had done before, long ago, under Moses, he would do again, in their own day, under one of their own leaders. Everyone knew that uprisings could occur when nationalistic passions reached a fevered pitch. So this was one time of the year when the Roman governor of Judea, who normally lived in the coastal city of Caesarea, would come to Jerusalem with troops, to quell any possible riots. The Sadducees, who were willing to cooperate with the Romans in exchange for being able to maintain the worship of God in the temple as God had instructed in the Torah, were equally invested in keeping the peace.
So what were they to think when this outsider from Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth, appeared in town, preaching his fiery apocalyptic message of the coming destruction of the armed forces and predicting that their own beloved temple would be destroyed in the violent overthrow of everything that was opposed to God? They surely did not take kindly to the message or the messenger, and they kept a steady eye on him.
According to all our accounts, Jesus spent the week leading up to the Passover feast in Jerusalem preaching his apocalyptic message of coming destruction (see Mark 13; Matt. 24–25). It appears that he was gathering more and more crowds. People were listening to him. Some were accepting his message. The movement was growing. So the leaders decided to act.
This is where Judas Iscariot comes in. In the Gospels, Judas appears to have been hired to lead the authorities to Jesus so they could arrest him when the crowds were not around. I’ve always been suspicious of these accounts. If the authorities wanted to arrest Jesus quietly, why not just have him followed? Why did they need an insider?
There are reasons for thinking that in fact Judas betrayed something else. Here there are two facts to bear in mind. The first is to reaffirm that we have no record of Jesus ever proclaiming himself to be the future king of the Jews, the messiah, in a public context. This is never his message. His message is about the coming kingdom to be brought by the Son of Man. He always keeps himself out of it. The second fact is that when the authorities arrested Jesus and handed him over to Pontius Pilate, the consistent report is that the charge leveled against him at his trial was that he called himself the king of the Jews. If Jesus never preached in public that he was the future king, but this was the charge that was leveled against him at his trial, how did outsiders come to know of it? The simplest answer is that this is what Judas betrayed.
Judas was one of the insiders to whom Jesus disclosed his vision of the future. Judas and the eleven others would all be rulers in the future kingdom. And Jesus would be the king. For some reason—we’ll never know why—Judas became a turncoat and betrayed both the cause and his master. He told the Jewish authorities what Jesus was actually teaching in private, and it was all they needed. They had him arrested and turned him over to the governor. Here was someone who was declaring himself to be king.
And now a word about Pontius Pilate. As governor of Judea, Pilate had the power of life and death. The Roman empire did not have anything like federal criminal law, such as can be found in many countries today. Governors were appointed to rule the various provinces and had two major tasks: to collect taxes for Rome and to keep the peace. They could achieve these two goals by any means necessary. So, for instance, anyone who was considered to be a troublemaker could be dealt with ruthlessly and swiftly. The governor could order his death, and the order would be immediately carried out. There was no such thing as due process, trial by jury, or the possibility of appeal. Problematic people in problematic times were dealt with by means of swift and decisive “justice,” usually violent justice.
According to our accounts, the trial of Jesus before Pilate was short and to the point. Pilate asked him whether it was true that he was the king of the Jews. Almost certainly, this was the actual charge leveled against Jesus. It is multiply attested in numerous independent witnesses, both at the trial itself and as the charge written on the placard that hung with him on his cross (e.g., Mark 15:2, 26). Moreover, it is not a charge that Christians would have invented for Jesus—for a possibly unexpected reason. Even though Christians came to understand Jesus to be the messiah, they never ever, from what we can tell, applied to him the title “king of the Jews.” If Christians were to invent a charge to put on Pilate’s lips, it would be, “Are you the messiah?” But that’s not how it works in the Gospels. The charge is specifically that he called himself “king of the Jews.”
Evidence that Jesus really did think that he was the king of the Jews is the very fact that he was killed for it. If Pilate asked him whether he were in fact calling himself this, Jesus could have simply denied it, and indicated that he meant no trouble and that he had no kingly expectations, hopes, or intentions. And that would have been that. The charge was that he was calling himself the king of the Jews, and either he flat-out admitted it or he refused to deny it. Pilate did what governors typically did in such cases. He ordered him executed as a troublemaker and political pretender. Jesus was charged with insurgency, and political insurgents were crucified.
The reason Jesus could not have denied that he called himself the king of the Jews was precisely that he did call himself the king of the Jews. He meant that, of course, in a purely apocalyptic sense: when the kingdom arrived, he would be made the king. But Pilate was not interested in theological niceties. Only the Romans could appoint someone to be king, and anyone else who wanted to be king had to rebel against the state.
And so Pilate ordered Jesus crucified on the spot. According to our records, which are completely believable at this point, the soldiers roughed him up, mocked him, flogged him, and then led him off to be crucified. Evidently, two similar cases were decided that morning. Maybe a couple more the day after that and the day after that. In this instance, they took Jesus and the two others to a public place of execution and fixed them all to crosses. According to our earliest account, Jesus was dead in six hours.
Did Jesus Claim to Be God?
This, then, in a nutshell is what I think we can say about the historical Jesus and his understanding of himself. He thought he was a prophet predicting the end of the current evil age and the future king of Israel in the age to come. But did he call himself God?
It is true that Jesus claims to be divine in the last of our canonical Gospels to be written, the Gospel of John. Here it is enough to note that in that Gospel Jesus does make remarkable claims about himself. In speaking of the father of the Jews, Abraham (who lived eighteen hundred years earlier), Jesus tells his opponents, “Truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am” (8:58). This particular phrase, “I am,” rings a familiar chord to anyone acquainted with the Hebrew Bible. In the book of Exodus, in the story of the burning bush, Moses asks God what his name is, and God tells him that his name is “I am.” Jesus appears to be claiming not only to have existed before Abraham, but to have been given the name of God himself. His Jewish opponents know exactly what he is saying. They immediately take up stones to stone him.
Later in the Gospel, Jesus is even more explicit, as he proclaims “I and the Father are one” ( John 10:30). Once again, the Jewish listeners break out the stones. Still later, when Jesus is talking to his disciples at his last meal with them, his follower Philip asks him to show them who God the Father is; Jesus replies, “The one who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). And again later, during the same meal, Jesus prays to God and speaks about how God had “sent him” into the world and refers to “my glory that you gave me . . . before the foundation of the world” (17:24).
Jesus is not claiming to be God the Father here, obviously (since when he’s praying, he is not talking to himself ). So he is not saying that he is identical with God. But he is saying that he is equal with God and has been that way from before the world was created. These are amazingly exalted claims.
But looked at from a historical perspective, they simply cannot be ascribed to the historical Jesus. They don’t pass any of our criteria. They are not multiply attested in our sources; they appear only in John, our latest and most theologically oriented Gospel. They certainly do not pass the criterion of dissimilarity since they express the very view of Jesus that the author of the Gospel of John happens to hold. And they are not at all contextually credible. We have no record of any Palestinian Jew ever saying any such things about himself. These divine self-claims in John are part of John’s distinctive theology; they are not part of the historical record of what Jesus actually said.
Look at the matter in a different light. As I pointed out, we have numerous earlier sources for the historical Jesus: a few comments in Paul (including several quotations from Jesus’s teachings), Mark, Q, M, and L, not to mention the finished Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In none of them do we find exalted claims of this sort. If Jesus went around Galilee proclaiming himself to be a divine being sent from God—one who existed before the creation of the world, who was in fact equal with God—could anything else that he might say be so breathtaking and thunderously important? And yet none of these earlier sources says any such thing about him. Did they (all of them!) just decide not to mention the one thing that was most significant about Jesus?
Almost certainly the divine self-claims in John are not historical. But is it possible that Jesus considered himself divine in some other sense? I have already argued that he did not consider himself to be the Son of Man, and so he did not consider himself to be the heavenly angelic being who would be the judge of the earth. But he did think of himself as the future king of the kingdom, the messiah. And we saw that in some passages of scripture the king is talked about as a divine being, not a mere mortal. Isn’t it possible that Jesus understood himself as divine in that sense?
It is of course possible, but I think it is highly unlikely for the following reason. In the Hebrew Bible, and indeed in the entire Jewish tradition, we do have instances in which mortals—for example, a king, or Moses, or Enoch—were considered to be divine beings in some sense. But that was always what someone else said about them; it was never what they were recorded as saying about themselves. This is quite different from the situation that we find in, say, Egypt, where the pharaohs claimed direct divine lineage; or with Alexander the Great, who accepted cultic veneration; or with some of the Roman emperors, who actively propagated the idea that they were gods. This never happens in Judaism that we know of. The idea that a king could be divine may have occurred to his followers later, as they began to think more about his eminence and significance. But we have no known instance of a living Jewish king proclaiming himself to be divine.
Could Jesus be the exception? Yes, of course; there are always exceptions to everything. But to think that Jesus is the exception in this case, one would need a good deal of persuasive evidence. And it just doesn’t exist. The evidence for Jesus’s claims to be divine comes only from the last of the New Testament Gospels, not from any earlier sources.
Someone may argue that there are other reasons, apart from explicit divine self-claims, to suspect that Jesus saw himself as divine. For example, he does amazing miracles that surely only a divine figure could do; and he forgives people’s sins, which surely is a prerogative of God alone; and he receives worship, as people bow down before him, which surely indicates that he welcomes divine honors.
There are two points to stress about such things. The first is that all of them are compatible with human, not just divine, authority. In the Hebrew Bible the prophets Elijah and Elisha did fantastic miracles—including healing the sick and raising the dead—through the power of God, and in the New Testament so did the Apostles Peter and Paul; but that did not make any of them divine. When Jesus forgives sins, he never says “I forgive you,” as God might say, but “your sins are forgiven,” which means that God has forgiven the sins. This prerogative for pronouncing sins forgiven was otherwise reserved for Jewish priests in honor of sacrifices that worshipers made at the temple. Jesus may be claiming a priestly prerogative, but not a divine one. And kings were worshiped—even in the Bible (Matt. 18:26)—by veneration and obeisance, just as God was. Here, Jesus may be accepting the worship due to him as the future king. None of these things is, in and of itself, a clear indication that Jesus is divine.
But even more important, these activities may not even go back to the historical Jesus. Instead, they may be traditions assigned to Jesus by later storytellers in order to heighten his eminence and significance. Recall one of the main points of this chapter: many traditions in the Gospels do not derive from the life of the historical Jesus but represent embellishments made by storytellers who were trying to convert people by convincing them of Jesus’s superiority and to instruct those who were converted. These traditions of Jesus’s eminence cannot pass the criterion of dissimilarity and are very likely later pious expansions of the stories told about him—told by people who, after his resurrection, did come to understand that he was, in some sense, divine.
What we can know with relative certainty about Jesus is that his public ministry and proclamation were not focused on his divinity; in fact, they were not about his divinity at all. They were about God. And about the kingdom that God was going to bring. And about the Son of Man who was soon to bring judgment upon the earth. When this happened the wicked would be destroyed and the righteous would be brought into the kingdom—a kingdom in which there would be no more pain, misery, or suffering. The twelve disciples of Jesus would be rulers of this future kingdom, and Jesus would rule over them. Jesus did not declare himself to be God. He believed and taught that he was the future king of the coming kingdom of God, the messiah of God yet to be revealed. This was the message he delivered to his disciples, and in the end, it was the message that got him crucified. It was only afterward, once the disciples believed that their crucified master had been raised from the dead, that they began to think that he must, in some sense, be God.
Excerpted from "How Jesus Became God" by Bart D. Ehrman. Copyright © 2014 by Bart D. Ehrman. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.