The Divinity of Christ

Dr. Ernest N. Prabhakar (ernest@pundit)
Fri, 26 Sep 97 09:07:12 -0700

Boy, we're hitting all the Big Questions, aren't we? You'd think I
was paying people to bring these things up...

Rob wrote:
> Really?!?! Did Jesus ever make such a claim? AFAIK he suggested that
> he was the Messiah sent by God, but only f*cked up emperors like
> Gaius Caligula actually claimed to be God.

Y'know, this is actually something that I thought was pretty cool
when I was reflecting upon it a couple months ago.

In one sense, you are quite right. History is full of crackpots who
said, "I am God - worship me!" From way back to Nebuchadnezzar up to
David Koresh and comany. It is a pretty easy thing to say, gets you
lots of cheap fame, and doesn't really count for a lot.

That could be why Jesus didn't bother doing that. Instead, he did
something very different, and I thought quite clever and subtle.
Instead of merely stating he was God - which anyone can do - he did
the far more complicated task of demonstrating he was God by claiming
God's attributes and perogatives.

Since we are focusing on the claims of Jesus, we can ignore the
writings of John and Paul, as well as stories of his virgin birth, and
look at the things Jesus is recorded to have said. There are several
odd behaviors of Jesus which stand in stark contrast to any of the
prophets or apostles mentioned in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
These are all woven deeply into the text and part of the main fabric
of the story. If you ignore them, you might as well call the whole
thing a fantasy, since the story would lose any self-coherency.

1.  He accepted worship
In Jewish theology, no man or angel was ever to be worshipped.  This  
frequently god them in trouble with foreign kings seeking grandeur.   
the Bible is full of people and angels turning down worship.  Yet  
Jesus consistently accepted it - but conversely, he never demanded it,  
and for the first few years kept telling people to be quiet about his  
good deeds.

Another odd feature along these lines is that he was extremely self-glorifying. All other religious role models - even in other traditions - point towards a message and downplay themselves. But Jesus consistently said, "I am what's important. Pay attention to me, not some external Way I am revealing. I am the Way."

2. He claimed pre-existence

This probably the closest to a direct claim, because he also invokes the name of God. Jesus compares himself - favorably - to Abraham, and the crowds respond by saying, "Are you greater than our father Abraham?" Jesus responds with the classic, "Before Abraham was, I am." He wasn't being ungrammatical here. Those of you who've watched The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston know that God on Mt. Sinai said "I am who I am." (later copied by Popeye). From that "I am" we get the Jewish name for God, "YaHWeH," or "Jehovah" in Latin. By using the "I am" - especially in that context - he was definitely invoking their concept of God.

3. He forgave sins

At first, this seems unremarkable. But a story illustrates the significance well (Mark 2, if you want to check me):

"Some men came, bringing to him [Jesus] a paralytic... When Jesus say their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Son, your sins are forgiven.' Now some of the teachers of the law [Jewish religious leaders] were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 'Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?'

"Immediately, Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, 'Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier to say to the paralytic, "Your sins are forgiven," or to say, "Get up, take your mat and walk"? But that you may know that the Son of Man [Jesus most common term for himself] has authority on earth to forgive sins..." He said to the paralytic, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." He got up, took his mat, and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone..."

Think about it. Basically, you can not forgive someone for something done to a third party. Jesus is basically saying that any sins you have committed - any wrong you've ever done - has been done against me, and therefore I have the authority to release you from punishment for them. As the leaders said, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?"

4. He claimed equivalence with God

This is part of the oft misunderstood phrase "God is my father." While the term means many things in different cultures (including our own), it was unambiguous to Jesus' contemporaries, "When they heard this, they prepared to stone him, for by claiming God as his father he was setting himself up as equal to God." Jesus did not respond by clarifying he meant something different, he escaped!

This theme is repeated at his final trial, where he cleverly plays on the dual allusion of "Son of Man", both as a generic term of humility, but also as part of the Messianic prophecy from Daniel (chapter 7) - "there was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven... He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting kingdom."

This claim plays a critical part of his sentencing (Matthew 27, for those who are keeping score):

"The high priest said to him, 'Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.'

"'Yes, it is as you say,' Jesus replied. 'But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.'

"Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, 'He has spoken blasphemy...'"

Jesus claims to authority are inextricably tied to his difficulties with religious leadership, and his subsequent death.

This equivalence principle is also reflected in his final charge on the following page: "Go into all the world, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." "Name" is singular, not plural, which is the scriptural basis of the Trinity (which I don't find any more - or less - ridiculous than electrons being both waves and particles).

The consistent acount of the records we have of Jesus are not that he  
was this humble man whose followers kept trying to push him as being  
more than he was (though they did try to make him more political).    
Rather, it was someone who arrogated a great deal of authority which  
was seen as blasphemous to religious people.

My claims is that Jesus presented himself as God in the most effective way he could. He could not take the direct route, for reasons Rob amply demonstrates. This left a certain amount of ambiguity which took a while to resolve, but the debate was essentially whether Jesus was fully God or some third category, not about him possibly being a normal man. The record leaves no room for that option.

I am not (here) trying to claim that Jesus was God. Rather, there are only four interpretations that are literarily possible. These are popularly known as "Legend, Liar, Lunatic, Lord."

a) Legend - the whole thing is made up out of whole cloth b) Liar - Jesus was a big scam artist and faked people out c) Lunatic - Jesus invented the Messiah complex as psychoses d) Lord - He really was God (or at least some equivalent pre-existent being with authority over the human race)

You can decide as you like, but I personally find the story of Jesus - and the person of Jesus - far too wise and compelling to be explained by "a-c". "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains - however improbable - must be the truth."

It also raises the fascinating question - which I've occasionally thought about writing a book about - if you were God, and wanted to 'write yourself into the story' as a human, how could you go about doing it? Based on my thinking, you'd have to do it indirectly, as outlined above.

My favorite summary of this whole issue is a Christmas card put out by a Christian organization. On the front is a picture of many important men in history - Tutankhamen, Buddha, Napolean, Hitler. The cover reads, echoing Rob, "History is full of men who would be god..." One the inside is a picture of a stable, with the caption, "But only one God who would be a man."

Merry Christmas.

-- Ernie P.

Dr. Ernest N. Prabhakar
"And ourselves, your servants for Jesus' sake." -- II Cor 4:5b