To say that Jesus was not a legend, is to say the legend of Jesus being God was not an invention of the early church, but came instead from Jesus himself. We can use the criteria for historical authenticity as discussed in “Is Jesus a Legend? Part II” to show that Jesus authentically had a radical self-understanding of himself.
For most of Christian history people have looked to the things that Jesus did which implicitly show that Jesus thought more of himself than just a normal rabbi or Jewish teacher. These would include things like his forgiving the sin of the paralytic, or his notion that peoples response to him would determine their eternal destiny. Recently, in contrast to this approach, people have come to appreciate that he also made explicit claims about himself that show he thought of himself as much more than a mere human teacher. These are, namely;
- Son of God
- Son of Man
Israel’s ancient hope for a Messiah or Anointed One sent form God had revived during the century prior to Jesus’ birth. The most important messianic concept was the idea of a descendant of King David who would become king over Israel and the nations. More than just a warrior king, he would also be a spiritual shepherd of Israel. “Christos” or Christ was the Greek word for this concept, and became so closely linked with Jesus’s followers they became known as Christians. This shows how central their belief that Jesus was the Messiah was to them.
a. Jesus’ famous question at Caesarea
Mark 8:27-30 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
- multiple, independent and early sources (Luke 3:15-16; John 1:19-27; Gospel of Thomas).
- Peters answer also has multiple, independent sources (John 6:69; Mark 1:24; Acts 3:14)
b. John the Baptist’s final answer
Matthew 11:2-6 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
- Found in the earlier source material used to write Matthew and Luke (Luke 7:19-23) called Q. The “He who is to come” is multiply attested (Mark 1:7; John 1:27).
- Criterion of embarrassment is fulfilled, since it puts John the Baptist in a bad light for doubting Jesus.
- Fulfilling the criterion of Palestinian milieu is Jesus’ answer that blends two prophesies about the Messiah (Isa 35:5-6; 26:19 and 61:1), and that Jesus’ contemporaries saw these signs as earmarks of the Messiah’s coming is evident from the Dead Sea Scrolls kept by the Essenes at Qumran (4Q521).
- These with the coherence with other authentic material make this passage’s historicity highly probable.
We must be careful not to think of Messiah as a synonym for divine. Rather, we should think of the concept of the Messiah as Jesus thought about the Messiah. For instance, Jesus did not think of the concept of Messiah in a militaristic sense, running contrary to the chief priests’ and the people’s expectations (Mark 15:31-2). The enemy he stood against was not the Romans. Jesus stood against their real enemy, something far more powerful than the empire. He stood against the power of sin and death that held sway over every nation and individual. The Messiah to Jesus was one who acted in God’s stead, did the things that God would do if he were there.
2. Son of God
This is a claim that Jesus often makes in the gospels. That he meant it in a way that is distinct from the sense that we are all, as creations of God, “sons of God”, and as angels are described in the Old Testament, becomes clear from the charge of blasphemy from the high priest just before he was crucified. Another example is his use of a son figure in the following parable.
a. Parable of the Vineyard.
Mark 12:1-9 Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed. “He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ “But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.
The vineyard represents Israel, the owner is God, the tenants are the Jewish religious leaders, the servants the prophets of sent by God. When the owner decides to send his only, beloved son he says, “They will respect my son,” but instead the tenants kill the son because he is the heir.
- The criterion of multiple attestation is fulfilled as the parable is also found in the Gospel of Thomas.
- The criterion of historical fit is fulfilled as it employs typical themes and images found in Jewish parables, such as a vineyard, God as the owner, etc.
- The criterion of Semitisms is fulfilled as it contains interpretive nuances rooted in the Aramaic paraphrases of Isaiah 5.
- It is not likely to have been a later Christian invention for the absence of a resurrection of a slain son.
The parable tells us that Jesus thought of himself as God’s unique son, distinct from all the prophets, God’s final messenger and even the heir of Israel itself! Deleting the figure of the son from the parable as if it were an inauthentic, later invention makes no sense since then it would then lack a climax. Moreover, the presence of the son is not only explicitly stated, but inherently implied by the tenants attempt to kill him to take possession of the vineyard.
3. The Son of Man
This is the title found most frequently on Jesus’ lips throughout the gospels, yet only once outside the gospels. This show that the designation was not a title that arose in later Christianity and was written back into the tradition about Jesus. So on the basis of the criteria for frequency, independent sources, and dissimilarity, we can conclude that it is very likely that Jesus called himself “the Son of Man.”
Many people brush over the definite article “the” and think this is a common designation to refer to Jesus’ human nature, much like Ezekiel referred to himself as “a son of man.” However, by saying “the Son of Man” Jesus was pointing to the eschatological divine- human figure prophesied in Daniel.
Daniel 7:13-14 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. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
That a similar image is found in the Similitudes of Enoch and the book of 4 Ezra shows that such an idea could be in Jesus’ mind and could have been recognised by people at the time, though an indirect expression to prevent a premature revelation of his superhuman and Messianic status.
All these divine titles come together in the climax of Mark in the passion narrative. Mark is widely thought to be the earliest gospel. The passion narrative is taken from a source prior to Mark’s authorship, written within at least 7 years of the crucifixion. That makes it one of the earliest sources we have for the life of Christ.
Mark 14: 60-64 Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. 64 “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” They all condemned him as worthy of death.
Here Jesus affirms that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Son of Man. Compounding his crime he says that he is to be seated at God’s right hand, which is a claim that no Jew could make of himself and remain alive. Taken out of their context any of these titles could be brushed over, but in the context of the Palestinian culture and day, and blended together like they are here, we have a tremendous affirmation of what Jesus believed himself to be.
What I have given above is just a brief overview of what could be said. We could also look at the implicit claims Jesus made as he proclaimed the kingdom of God as present and in-breaking in his ministry with signs of miracles and exorcisms, his choosing twelve disciples, and so forth. Enough has been said in this overview of Jesus explicit claims however, to establish that Jesus thought of himself as a unique figure among his contemporaries and the prophets of old, and that this understanding of himself is authentically attested to in the historical record. We can therefore be assured that Jesus is not a Legend.
This is the conclusion established as the best explanation for the historical data we have recovered from the biblical sources. That such a man, in an obscure backwater province of the Roman empire, whose public ministry lasted but a scant three and half years, who came from a family of such meagre means, and whose travels were confined to relatively small portion of the world, would leave such a mark on the historical record is truly a remarkable feat. And indeed, he was a remarkable man.
But not merely a man. It is this radical personal understanding of himself that culminates in his crucifixion. This forms the proper backdrop in which to assess the evidence for his resurrection. If his resurrection was genuine, that would mean Jesus’s self-understanding was approved by God with a miracle, and he was therefore not a lunatic, not a liar, and not a Legend, but Lord of all.