This guest post comes courtesy of Chris Pappalardo, my research assistant and a pastor at the Summit:
Our friendly neighborhood Bible skeptic Bart Ehrman has recently come out with a new book about Jesus. Unsurprisingly, it’s a variation on a familiar and popular theme, in which he says that Jesus didn’t really claim to be God. Jesus was a prophet announcing the end times—nothing more. As evidence of this, Ehrman points out that only in the gospel of John does Jesus say anything that implies he thinks of himself as divine. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the “synoptic gospels”), we never find Jesus say anything like this.
I admit that I find the persistence of this claim rather odd. (I’m tempted to reply as Steven Colbert humorously did a few years ago.) A claim like this overlooks—or radically re-interprets—numerous statements Jesus made in the synoptics about himself. Ehrman makes it sound as if the presentation of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is of a wandering preacher who stepped on the wrong toes with his teaching. But it doesn’t take much of a look through those books to see that Jesus wasn’t just pointing people back to God. He was pointing people to himself.
Think, for instance, of the staggering claim Jesus makes in Matthew 10:37: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Jesus puts himself right at the center of our faith. He isn’t saying, “Love and obey God.” He is saying, “Love and obey me.”
If Jesus isn’t God, that’s a troubling little command. Imagine if I were to say something like that to my church. “You must love me more than your own children!” Not a good sign. When you hear someone claiming that kind of total allegiance, you need to get up and leave the building. The Kool-Aid distribution won’t be far behind. If Jesus isn’t God, then he was the worst cult leader ever.
Or look at the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7. Jesus scales a mountain and delivers a new law to replace the one Israel received at Sinai. “You have heard that it was said,” he begins, and then continues, “But I say to you.” Notice, Jesus appeals to no one but himself. When he finished, the crowds recognized that he was speaking with divine authority, because none of their religious scribes ever dared to simply speak from their own authority. If Jesus isn’t God, then he was re-writing divine law without permission.
Or think of the fact that all throughout the synoptic gospels, Jesus claims to forgive people’s sins. The first people to hear him do this rightly recognized that he was claiming divine status. It stunned them: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). If Jesus isn’t God, then he was falsely claiming divine authority.
Or think of Jesus’ claim to be the new temple. “Destroy this temple,” Matthew and Mark record Jesus saying, “and I will rebuild it in three days.” What was significant about the temple? That was where the very presence of God dwelled. Yet Jesus says that he is going to replace that with himself. If Jesus isn’t God, then he is undermining their entire religion by claiming to be the true presence of God on earth.
Matthew and Luke both record that the disciples fell down at Jesus’ feet and worshiped him. And he received it. If Jesus isn’t God, what business does he have receiving worship? That’s not something that good prophets do. That’s something that either God does or a first-class blasphemer does. And those are our options. On every page of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you find a man who either believed himself to be the one true God of the universe—or else was the worst blasphemer ever to walk the face of the earth.
Ehrman says that the Bible was written by Jesus’ admirers. But good Jews wouldn’t admire someone who claimed to be God . . . unless they believed he really was. The Bible wasn’t just written by Jesus’ admirers; it was written by his worshipers.