Who do you say that I am?

Myth understandings: an irregular column by David Shanahan

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Towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, a number of German theologians were beginning to feel intimidated by the new ideas that seemed to undermine everything they were supposed to believe in: Christianity, the Bible, the person of Jesus, and all that. So, they began to rationalise, to decide that all the stuff about miracles in the New Testament had been added in later by incredulous and ignorant people. They decided that Jesus, if he ever existed, was merely a good man, a teacher of wise and caring ideas, and who never thought of himself as God. All of this could be dispensed with and Christianity could continue unperturbed.

But, as we have seen in previous articles in this series, the facts are that the New Testament was written within a maximum of forty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and while numerous eye witnesses of his life and activities were still alive. The text of the New Testament, as we have it, can be traced back to those early days, before any myth-making could be introduced.

And those texts are very clear and unambiguous about who Jesus was, what he did, and what he claimed about himself. They are full of the kind of details that would not have been included in a work of propaganda or mythology. As for Jesus being “merely” a good man who taught love and comforting thoughts, that does not fully describe the person we find in the Gospels. C. S. Lewis makes the fascinating point that it is some of the throwaway lines Jesus speaks that really stops readers in their tracks.

For example, he was often quoted as forgiving people their sins. As Lewis says, it is all very understandable and laudable to forgive people who sin against you. “Thus if somebody cheats me out of five pounds it is quite possible and reasonable for me to say, ‘Well, I forgive him, we will say no more about it’. What on earth would you say if somebody had done you out of five pounds and I said, ‘That’s all right. I forgive him?”

Jesus could say to his enemies: “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” And they could find nothing against him until, later in that same conversation, he made the astonishing claim: “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” [John 8.58] “I Am” was the name God applied to himself in the Old Testament. The people hearing Jesus understood very well what he was saying, because: “At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds”.

On another occasion, his words infuriated those listening and they picked up stones to stone him to death. The conversation that ensued is notable both for their understanding of his claim, and the calmness with which he faced them: “Jesus said to them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?’ ‘We are not stoning you for any good work’” they replied, ‘but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.’ [John 10.32-33]

At his trial, he again made a sensational claim, one which he knew would convict him in the minds of this judges: “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. ‘You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?’

They all condemned him as worthy of death.”

Throughout the New Testament, the Deity of Jesus is declared again and again. In his Gospel, John, one of the closest of the friends of Jesus, stated: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” [John 1. 1, 18]

In his letter to the Collosians, Paul says: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together… For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” [Colossians 1.15-16, 18]

The texts are reliable: they record what was actually said and done by this Man on certain days, incertain years, in a certain place in history. If we can accept that Jesus claimed to be God, performed miracles, and, most vitally and centrally to all of Christianity, rose from the dead, then we have to ask the same question he himself did: “Who do men say that I am?”

The choices are clear. Either he was a lunatic with serious delusions of grandeur, someone who deserved to be executed, as he was, on charges of blasphemy, or he was who he said he was (and is).

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