What Claims Did Jesus Make Regarding Himself?

by Jonathan McLatchie 

A key part of the investigation into the reliability of the New Testament (and the transformative message which it conveys) lies in establishing what Jesus considered Himself to be, and the mission that he thought it was his role to fulfil. While a discernment of Jesus’ self-understanding is only a necessary (but non-sufficient) condition in establishing the truth of the Bible, it can nonetheless fit into a robust consilience of evidence which best makes sense only in light of the truth of the Christian message. If it can be determined historically — with a reasonable degree of confidence — that Jesus really did believe Himself to be the eternal and divine Son of God, the Saviour of all mankind, we can investigate the three candidate hypotheses offered by C.S. Lewis’ famous Trilemma: Was Jesus a Liar, a Lunatic or Lord? Once we have established what Jesus claimed about Himself, we can turn our investigation to which of these three candidate hypotheses best explains the available evidence.

Argument #1: The reported ignorance of Jesus regarding his second coming

In Mark 13, in the context of his second coming, Jesus is reported to have said, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Is this statement authentic? We can establish with a high degree of confidence that the early Christian movement believed Jesus to be divine from an extremely early date. For example, the Carmen Christi, quoted by Paul in Philippians 2:6-11 (and widely believed to date to the 30’s AD), clearly ascribes deity to Jesus. In such a case, it is very difficult to discern why the gospel writers would have falsely attributed a saying to Jesus which ascribed to him limited knowledge and ignorance. Indeed, this statement was so awkward to the early Christian movement that the parallel passage, in Matthew 24:36, the phrase “nor the Son” is omitted in some of the manuscripts.

This is what historians call “the criterion of embarassment.” The principle goes something like this: If the ancient writers record facts which are awkward, embarassing, or otherwise counter-productive, the fact is likely to be genuinely historical. Given that we are likely here dealing with an authentically historical statement of Jesus, let us consider what this statement reveals regarding Jesus self-claims. It creates an ascending ladder from man, to the angels to the Son to the Father: a scale on which Jesus claims clear superiority to every human and angelic being, while being sub-ordinate only to the Father.

Argument #2: The reported statement that the Son is unknowable

In Matthew 11:27, Jesus is reported to have said, “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

This statement is likely to be historically authentic for at least two reasons. First, the passage is paralleled almost identically in Luke 10:22 but is absent from Mark’s gospel, implicating that this statement is found in the hypothetical but early Q document. Second, it strains credulity to think that the early Christian movement would have fabricated and falsely attributed a statement to Jesus insinuating that the Son is unknowable


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