Wednesday, March 24, 1999

Seeing Jesus: Who Did Jesus Think He Was?

Seeing Jesus: Who Did Jesus Think He Was?

By Stephen F. Noll

"Seeing Jesus" was preached at Ashland Theological Seminary in March 1999.

"SIR, WE would see Jesus" (John 12:21). This famous phrase from John’s Gospel captures the goal of the life of a disciple. Of course, we come to see Jesus in different ways and at different stages. I, for instance, grew up outside the Christian Church and had very little notion of who He was except for the pieties of the manger scene at Christmas.

As a teenager, I attended Sunday School at a Unitarian Church, and there I encountered for the first time one major problem people have seeing Jesus, and that is the Bible. I remember distinctly our teacher introducing us to higher criticism by showing us the parallel and divergent understandings of Jesus found in the Resurrection accounts: from Mark’s silence about the Risen Jesus, to Matthew and Luke’s apparition, to John’s Jesus whom Thomas confessed as "my Lord and my God." The implication was clear: the Church turned the man Jesus into a god.

Backward Christology

When I became a Christian in college, I remember the excitement of opening the Bible for the first time as a believer, and reading it to find out about this mysterious stranger, to whom I had committed my life. Before I knew it I was in seminary and learning higher criticism again, this time with great scholarship behind it. There I learned what Raymond Brown approvingly calls the "backward development of Christology": "backward" in the sense of reading the full Sonship of the Risen Jesus into His earlier life and finally into His pre-existence. This theory remains the dominant theory in the academy, and it goes something like this.

We begin with the "high," almost Nicene Christology of John’s Gospel, where the Word was in the beginning with God and the Word was God. The Jesus of John’s Gospel can say quite explicitly: "Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made" (John 17:5). But John’s Jesus, so the theory goes, is a very late, and maybe even idiosyncratic, product of the Church’s preaching and reflection. Moving backward in time, we next come to Matthew and Luke, where He becomes Son only at His birth. From there we continue back to Mark’s Gospel where Jesus is acknowledged Son only at His baptism. And in the earliest text in Paul, we find a Jesus who is designated "Son of God" only from the Resurrection (Romans 1:3).

It’s at this point in the trajectory that problems arise. Does Paul really see Jesus as being the Son of God only from the Resurrection? What about his comment in Colossians, where he calls Jesus "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature, by whom all things were created" (Colossians 1:15). Well, the critics say, Paul did not write Colossians, and in fact this piece of overly-developed Christology is evidence of the epistle’s late date.

Then what about the hymn in Philippians, which says that Christ, "though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Philippians 2:6-7)? Here we have Paul, no question about it, probably referring to a popular hymn in which Christ is announced to have been at the right hand of God before all time, emptied Himself of divine prerogatives, and then been restored to God’s throne in glory and given the name of YHWH Himself.

If that is not enough, I find one other text absolutely destructive of the idea that Paul’s Christology, or for that matter that of the Apostles who instructed him, was undeveloped. That is 1 Corinthians 8:5-6. In this text Paul explicit draws from the Old Testament anti-idolatry tradition to explain the nature of Jesus Christ: "For although," he begins, "there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist." Paul, the Hebrew of Hebrews, explicitly and consciously adapts the great Old Testament Shema ("Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One") to the new revelation of God in Christ. There is one God the Father and one Lord Jesus Christ: one plus one equals one. And Paul is here almost certainly not making up this statement but rather quoting a piece of Apostolic teaching or catechesis which all the Corinthians already know and which is uncontroversial.

The One worthy of worship

No, I’m sorry. Paul messes up the "backward theory of Christology." And not just Paul but the whole early Apostolic community. I am increasingly convinced, along with many scholars like Martin Hengel, Larry Hurtado, and Richard Bauckham, that Jesus was given the divine prerogative of worship back as far as one can push the texts of the New Testament. So when Matthew reports of the disciples that "when they saw him [the Risen Lord] they worshiped him; but some doubted," he is describing the precise reactions of the earliest community. Some could not overcome their Jewish monotheistic scruples, but others were prepared to accord Jesus the honor of the Old Testament God and work out the theory later.

Well, if the earliest post-Resurrection community already acknowledged Jesus as the one who was worthy of worship, where did it get this idea? The last stop on this trajectory is Jesus Himself. According to the backward theory of Christology, Jesus had nothing to say about His own divine identity. Indeed there is a total disconnection between the Jesus of John’s Gospel who says "I and the Father are one" and the "real Jesus" of the Jesus Seminar, the guru or charismatic rabbi who had no intention of identifying himself with the messiah of Israel, much less with the eternal Son of God of Christian orthodoxy, who was "Begotten of his Father before all worlds" in the words of the Nicene Creed. (I must confess that I find the work of the Jesus Seminar nothing more than a repackaging, with excellent p.r. assisted by the secular media, of the Bultmannian program of demythologizing I was taught in seminary thirty years ago.)

A much more likely end-point, if one accepts a reverse flow of Christology, is to conclude that Jesus saw Himself as the end-time prophet and messianic Son who would fulfill the destiny of Israel and bring in the Kingdom of God. This is the view taken by the Anglican biblical scholar N. T. Wright in his recent book Jesus and the Victory of God. First let me say that Wright’s book is a watershed in Gospel studies. By accepting the authenticity of the "informal controlled tradition" behind the Synoptic Gospels, Wright stands higher criticism on its head. Instead of asking, Why should we believe this passage is from Jesus, as does the Jesus Seminar, Wright asks, Why should we not accept this passage? Suddenly the riches of the Synoptic Gospels become available for understanding the Person of Jesus, rather than the occasional odd quip accepted as authentic by the Jesus Seminar.

But even Wright, I think, does not push hard enough against the force of the higher critical evaluation of Jesus. He fails to draw from the key parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mark 12:1-12) what I think is clearly Jesus’ sense of identity as to His role in salvation history. In this parable an absent landowner (Israel’s God) sends a series of servants (the prophets) to the tenants (the leaders of Israel), and finally he sends his son, whom they kill. Wright admits that the Son is a different class of messenger than the prophets. He is the Messiah or "son of God" in the Davidic sense. But what does Jesus mean in identifying himself with the son? The logic of the parable seems to suggest that the son is literally the offspring of the landowner, the hidden Father.

Jesus’ Christology

If we take seriously the Parable of the Wicked Tenants as coming from Jesus, then we must reconsider Jesus’ own Christology. Professor Ben Witherington is both bold and cautious when he concludes in his book The Christology of Jesus that

Material in the Synoptics hints that Jesus had a transcendent self-image amounting to more than a unique awareness of the Divine. If, however, one means by divine awareness something that suggests that Jesus saw himself as the whole or exclusive representation of the Godhead or that he considered himself in a way that amounted to the rejection of the central tenet of Judaism (i.e., monotheism), then the answer must be no.

But of course. No New Testament writer, not John himself, and no Nicene Father, would suggest that Jesus is indistinguishable from God the Father or is a separate divine being. So it seems to me Witherington’s conclusions open the door for a more overt Johannine version of Jesus’ own self-understanding than he admits. I have come more and more to think that there are scandalous texts not just in John but in the Synoptic Gospels that imply or suggest, even when they do not blatantly claim, that Jesus understood messiahship to mean that He was the Son of God from all eternity. Let me suggest two texts in this regard.

The first text is a very authentic-looking dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus asks them:

"What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." He said to them, "How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, `The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I put thy enemies under thy feet'? If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?" (Matthew 22:42-45)

In order to unpack Jesus’ argument, we have to go back to the Hebrew version of the reference to Psalm 110. It is a psalm "of David," and it begins "YHWH said to my lord [’adon]." (YHWH and ’adon, a different word from God’s name are both translated kyrios in Greek.) So David is speaking of two Persons, YHWH and "my Lord." This Lord, Jesus suggests, is the messiah, and He cannot be David’s son because He existed before him. And since the real dispute is about Jesus’ identity, Jesus is in effect saying "Before David was, I AM" — not far from the Johannine Jesus’ claim, "Before Abraham was, I AM" (John 8:58).

The second example I’ll give is admittedly more speculative. In fact, you will not find it in the commentaries. But once one begins to consider a higher Christology of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, it is not far-fetched. It comes from the prologue to Mark’s Gospel. We normally read verse one of Mark’s Gospel as a title: "The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." And then we take the next verses as referring only to John the Baptist. But I am going to read the first three verses as a whole:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, "Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" (Mark 1:1-3)

Let me note two odd things about this passage. First, the citation from "Isaiah" is not just from Isaiah but from Exodus 23 and Malachi 3. Nevertheless, I think it is significant that Mark points to Isaiah because that book has the most exalted visions of God — the one seated around the throne with the Seraphim, and again in chapter 40 the One surrounded with heavenly voices. Indeed Isaiah 40 appears to be a commissioning and sending scene. Clearly the prophet is commissioned to bring news to Zion. But the news is that God Himself is coming.

It is in the context of Isaiah that we note another quirk of this passage. Mark makes a change from Malachi 3, which says: "Behold I send my messenger to prepare the way before my [i.e., God’s] face." Mark changes "my face" to "thy face." Why does he do this? Who is the "thy" referred to? It seems to me the most logical inference is that God is announcing the sending of John the Baptist in the presence of the Messiah, the Son of God. God’s "my" includes a "thy," and this is so in the beginning. Thus Mark distinguishes Jesus from John and identifies Jesus as one with God from all eternity right at the beginning. To be sure, Jesus must run his course, concluding with the dramatic confession of the centurion "Surely this was the Son of God." But He does not become Son of God at His death and resurrection. He was Son of God from the beginning, as witnessed in the prophets.

If this reading of Mark’s prologue makes any sense, it is clear that it is very close to the "high" Christology of John’s prologue. Thus both the earliest and the latest gospels are essentially of one mind Christologically. This leads to a final question: where did the evangelists — and Paul and the apostolic Church — get this pattern of Christology? The most reasonable explanation, it seems to me, is that they got it from Jesus Himself. On what other authority would they have felt free to so alter biblical monotheism as to identify Jesus with God? I am increasingly of a mind that they got it not just from the Risen Jesus but from the earthly Jesus.

Jesus’ self-identity

I am not saying that Jesus was a walking and talking God from birth, as some iconography depicts Him. Surely, He grew in wisdom and stature. Surely He learned from His life and sufferings. In particular, He drew his own sense of identity from the Scriptures, although by a unique insight into them. But in addition, I believe He came to realize, through prayer, through His baptism, through His visionary encounters with Satan, that He was Son of God in what we would later call Trinitarian terms: God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God. He did not teach this openly, though it was implicit in much of His public teaching and ministry. He did teach it privately to at least some of the Apostles, and this is reflected in John’s Gospel, however much that Gospel may have been developed by further insights of the post-Resurrection Spirit of Truth.

The Church of the first centuries, reading the entire New Testament, concluded that the Trinity is a doctrine found in the apostolic Scriptures and that this understanding goes back to Jesus Himself. Perhaps they were too logical in the way they developed the "Christology from above" and ignored the "kenotic," limited nature of the Jesus of history. We, on other hand, have been suffering from the opposite affliction. Our Christology from below has blinded us to evidence throughout the entire canon of the New Testament that Jesus was and is the eternal Son of God.

The backward development of Christology, I have concluded, is as contrived a schema as the dispensational charts that adorn the inside covers of the Scofield Bible. You won’t see Jesus very clearly through its lens. However, you may ask: Does it matter existentially whether we see Jesus as eternal Son? Yes, it does, because if He is not God, He cannot save. An adopted Son would be a marvelous example of religious achievement, and a stirring example, but he can’t help us. Such is the logic of St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo [Why God Became Man].

Then is it acceptable to think that Jesus was indeed Son of God and Saviorfrom all eternity yet did not know it Himself until His Resurrection from the dead? I suppose so, hypothetically speaking, in the sense that just as the Son of Man did not know the time of His Second Coming, so also He might not have known the full significance of His first coming. But this is not the understanding of Jesus found in the Gospels, even the Synoptics. It would be odd that the Savior of the world would be surprised on Easter Day to discover His own identity. I see an analogy here with the question of Jesus’ voluntary victimhood. The Gospels make clear that Jesus consciously chose to set His face to Jerusalem and predicted His coming suffering and glory. So too it seems to me more consistent with the total character of God’s salvation that Jesus suffer and die, conscious of the paradox of His own divine status and of the greatness of the eternal life that He would bring to those who believed in Him.

There is a controversial side to the claim I am making about Jesus’ Christology. I mentioned that I grew up an agnostic. I still have that little agnostic voice inside me that says "what if it is not so?" But my agnostic mind finds all the Jesuses of the Jesus Seminar ultimately evasions of the scandal of Jesus. I much prefer the view reached by the agnostic A. D. Nuttall who concludes: "Jesus thought he was God and was really the best of men."

There is an old saying about Jesus: either He was bad, or He was mad, or He was God. Nobody I know has ever said He was bad. So that leaves mad or God. If we would see Jesus, perhaps we should face those options squarely. There certainly were people in Jesus’ own day, even in His own family, who thought He was mad. But the Apostles, and the New Testament, draw another conclusion: that His own high Christology was vindicated by His Resurrection from the dead and from the Spirit which continued in their midst. If we would see Jesus in this full-strength way, we have good company.


Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Doubleday, 1976, 1993) pp. 23-33.

Richard Bauckham, "Worship of Jesus," Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992) Vol. 3, pp. 812-819.

_____, God Crucified: Monotheism and the Christology of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1999).

Martin Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul (Fortress Press, 1983)

Larry Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Mysticism (Fortress Press, 1988)

A. D. Nuttall, Overheard by God (Metheun, 1980)

Ben Witherington, The Christology of Jesus (Augsburg, 1990)

N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress Press, 1996)

This lecture was first given at Ashland Theological Seminary in March 1999 and revised on 21 April 1999. Copyright Stephen F. Noll, 1999.

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