Defense of the Historicity of Jesus’ Divine Self-Understanding

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 fulfill. 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 embarrassment.” The principle goes something like this: If the ancient writers record facts which are awkward, embarrassing, 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…

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