Ever since the Christian movement began, followers of Jesus Christ have said he was God in human form. But what about Jesus himself? Who did he think he was? With the rise of textual criticism and the modern study of history, historians have developed tools to unlock this question. Today, Jesus of Nazareth is no longer just a figure in a stained-glass window but a real person of history whose life can be investigated historically. So let’s examine the New Testament not as inspired Scripture, but as an ordinary collection of ancient documents. Let’s apply to them the standard tests we would use with regard to any other ancient sources. When historians investigate the Jesus of history, what do they find?
First, Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. The Jews of Jesus’ day were waiting for a promised Messiah, a descendant of King David, a warrior king, who would bring military victory and spiritual renewal to Israel. They were familiar with the Prophet Zechariah’s ancient words: Shout aloud O Daughter of Jerusalem behold, your king is coming to you righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9) Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey the final week of his life is attested in independent sources, one of the most important criteria for the historicity of an event. In doing this, Jesus was deliberately and provocatively claiming that he was the promised Messiah, the king of Israel. Moreover the plank nailed to Jesus’ cross stated the charge against him in mockery of his Messianic claims. The fact that later Christians did not use this to derisive title for Jesus underscores its authenticity. For first century Jews the word “Messiah” was packed full of meaning. By assuming this title, Jesus was claiming all of this for himself.
Jesus also claimed to be the Son of God. Jesus’ consciousness of being God’s son in a unique sense comes to expression in his parable of the vineyard. This parable matches Jesus’ teaching style and employs Jewish motifs typical of his day such as Israel as a vineyard, God as a father, the religious leaders of that time as tenants, and God’s prophets as servants sent to the tenants.
Once there was a man who planted a vineyard. Before leaving the country he leased it to tenants. At harvest time he sent a servant to collect his share of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. So the owner sent more servants, but these too were beaten or killed. Finally, he sent his one and only son saying, “Surely they’ll respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir, let’s kill him and the vineyard will be ours.” So they killed the owner’s son. (Matthew 21) What do we learn from this parable about Jesus’ self-understanding? He thought of himself as the only Son of God, God’s final messenger distinct from all the prophets and even the heir of Israel itself. Third, Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man. This was Jesus’ favorite self-designation being used some 80 times in the Gospels. This has convinced the vast majority of New Testament historians that Jesus did, in fact, think of himself as the Son of Man. Notice not just a son of man, but THE Son of Man Jesus was directing our attention to a vision described by the prophet Daniel. I saw in the night visions and behold with the clouds of heaven there came one like a Son of Man and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him and to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom that all peoples nations and languages should serve Him. (Daniel 7:13-14) At Jesus’ trial, the Jewish high priest accused Jesus. “Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?” His answer left no room for doubt. “I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” By applying all three of these titles to himself, Jesus was claiming, in no uncertain terms, that he was the very God his accusers worshiped. It’s no surprise the Jewish court charged him with blasphemy and condemned him to death. But that’s not all! New Testament historians are agreed that the historical Jesus also claimed to have divine power and authority to perform miracles, cast out demons, revise Old Testament law and forgive sins. He even went so far as to claim that everyone’s eternal destiny is determined solely by whether we believe in him. Jesus’ self-understanding cannot be reduced to that of a Jewish teacher or a charismatic leader. No, in fact, by putting himself in God’s place, Jesus was making a far greater claim about himself than anyone else ever has before or since. So the question Jesus asked his disciples confronts each of us as well: Who do you say that I am?