Who Do You Think You Are Jesus?

By Elias Ayala
(M.A.T & MDiv)

This question was no doubt on the lips of those who heard Jesus speaking and teaching throughout the course of his short 3 year ministry. Who is this peasant from Galilee pontificating on the fine points of God’s law correcting years of tradition and the authority of the rabbis who preceded him? No doubt Jesus of Nazareth ruffled many feathers in his day. Even within his seemingly simple words, “Truly, Truly I say to you” implicitly evinced the audacity and authority with which Jesus brought his message. These words were usually given within the context of correcting popular held traditional beliefs passed on by the Rabbi’s and teachers of the past. It was common for teachers in the days of Jesus to quote those who went before them so as to endow their statements with a sense of authority. However, Jesus taught with an authority unparalleled in his day; for he claimed to speak in God’s place and to be the very one who will usher in the kingdom of God. He claimed that in his person the kingdom had come and that he would one day judge both the living and the dead. He also claimed to have the power to forgive sins thus making persons right before God. But who did Jesus think he was to go around doing such audacious and arrogant things? For one thing, whoever people thought Jesus was, there was no doubt that Jesus understood himself to be the divine Son of God.

The personal self realization of Jesus as God in flesh was not a later development in church history as many skeptics would claim, but rather was “rooted in the self-image of Jesus himself”.1 However, Jesus’ self-image was not merely asserted without demonstration. Jesus’ brief ministry was accompanied with powerful life transforming teaching, miracles of healing and exorcisms. According to the eyewitness accounts, Jesus also demonstrated his power over nature by calming a storm on command and walking on the sea. No doubt, Jesus was very different then those who had come before him. One particular fact (among many others) that set Jesus apart from his predecessors was the uniqueness of his birth. In fulfillment of Micah 5:2 (a prophecy concerning where the messiah would be born made some 700 years prior to his birth), Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea to a peasant girl, Mary. The uniqueness of this event was that Jesus was born of a virgin (Matthew 1:18-25, Galatians 4:4). Many skeptics would be quick to assert that not only is such an event impossible or implausible, it is clearly a demonstration that the writers of the Gospel accounts were borrowing such concepts from pagan sources. It is often argued that the ancient world was filled with stories of demigods and virginal births such that Jesus’ birth was not at all unique. However, this is not the case at all, John Frame observes, “There is no clear parallel to the notion of a virgin birth in pagan literature, only births resulting from intercourse between God and a woman (of which there is no suggestion in Matthew and Luke), resulting in a being half divine, half human (which is far different from biblical Christology)”2. The reality is that no parallel account exists in the pagan sources, and accounts often sited do not reflect what is going on in the biblical record. The idea that Jesus was some sort of half man, half god is an exemplification of one’s misunderstanding of basic Christian theology.

Again, the fact that the Bible teaches the uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth does not magically make it so. What was it that validated the claims of Christ? What was it that compelled the biblical authors to write what they wrote? The key central event that set Jesus part from all those who have gone before, was the resurrection. Not only was there no pagan equivalent to the Jewish conception of resurrection3 but this unique event challenged the very assumptions of Jewish traditional beliefs about resurrection and provided a fuller and more robust understanding of what God was doing when He raised Jesus from the dead. This event had the massive effect of transforming the lives of his down casted followers making men who ran scared into men who took the world by storm with their challenging and controversial message. The disciples of Jesus brought the gospel message to the world proclaiming that God had raised Jesus from the dead, and through Christ, men can be made right with God. They went to their very deaths proclaiming this message. It is often asserted that many people have died for what they “believed” to be true; but the same cannot be said for the disciples. For they did not merely die for what they believed, but rather, they died for what they claimed to know to be true; namely, that their teacher, Jesus, was raised from the dead. Consider the following words, “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed, and have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life, that life was revealed and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you …” (1 John 1:1-2). The life, teachings, miracles and resurrection of Jesus was burned as it were into the hearts and minds of his followers that they willingly went to their deaths for proclaiming their message. However, such actions would be meaningless if Jesus was not in fact who he claimed to be.

So who did Jesus think he was? We know the answer to this, for it is encapsulated within the historically reliable New Testament sources. The real question is: Are the descriptions of who Jesus said he was actually vindicated by his resurrection from the dead? The answer to this question comes from the remarkable evidence undergirding the resurrection as a historical event. What is this evidence? Among the various mysteries of history, can we really know anything about the historical Jesus such that we can come to rational conclusions concerning what happened on that “day” that changed the world? The answer is a resounding yes.

Brief Survey of the Evidence for the Resurrection:

What are the best sources for the life of Jesus? Well, it is the New Testament. Skeptics will often ask for evidence for Jesus from sources outside the New Testament somehow implying that the New Testament cannot be trusted, and so we must look to outside sources for more reliable information. However, this methodology is wrongheaded and misguided. In historical studies, one must look to the best and most reliable sources, and importantly, the earliest sources. Sources that are closer to the event in question are better than sources which are further from the event in question. When we consider the New Testament, we learn that in them we have the best information for the life of Jesus since we know that A) The New Testament provides the earliest sources for the life of Jesus, and B) The New Testament has been proven historically reliable and C) The New Testament has been accurately transmitted throughout history. There are many other factors that play into such an investigation, but I think these points should suffice for now.

So what can we learn from our sources about the historical Jesus? When one surveys the literature on this topic one will find that most scholars agree on certain points concerning the historical Jesus. This agreement comes from a wide spectrum which range from believing scholars, to most non-believing scholars. Concerning the historical Jesus, we can be quite comfortable in asserting that there are at least 4 facts about the historical Jesus that are agreed upon by most scholars. This is not an argument from authority; rather, there are various lines of evidence that supports why the facts which are to be presented are agreed upon for the most part. What are these facts?

Fact #1: After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea
Fact #2: On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
Fact #3: On multiple occasion, and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups saw Jesus alive after his death
Fact #4: The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe Jesus was raised from the dead, despite having every predisposition to the contrary.

It may surprise most who are not acquainted with the scholarship on this issue, but these four facts concerning the historical Jesus are almost universally recognized. Now granted, that does not mean that most scholars believe that Jesus was actually raised from the dead; only that these four facts have the weight of evidence on their side as being most probably historical. Let us take a closer look at each of these facts:

Fact #1: After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea

Among the many reasons this fact is acknowledged as most likely historical is that it has very early attestation in information that dates from before A.D. 36. This information is derived from the early writings of Paul found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 where he sites an oral tradition that even predates his very early writing of 1 Corinthians: A source within a source if you will. This source includes the statement concerning Jesus burial. Furthermore, statements regarding Joseph of Arimathea being the one who buried Jesus is most likely not an invention on the part of early Christians given the fact that there was natural hostility towards the Jewish leaders and those in authority who were responsible for his execution. Hence, it is quite unlikely that Christians would have invented a story in which a religious leader (Joseph of Arimathea) does the right thing concerning the body of Christ.

Fact #2: On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.

Again, support for this fact is found in the early information found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 which includes statements about Jesus’s resurrection which, given the Jewish understanding of resurrection, would have implied an empty tomb. Hardly anyone would believe that while Jesus was raised from the dead, his body still lay in the tomb. Furthermore, this fact meets the historical methodological requirement of having multiple attestation since the empty tomb is attested in Matthew, Mark, and John. Further still, given the 1st century understanding of woman as untrustworthy, it is very unlikely that the early Christians would have made “woman” the one who found the empty tomb. Lastly, and I think quote interestingly enough, the earliest attack against the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead was the assertion that the disciples stole the body. This is good evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb since even from enemies, the claim that the body was stolen is itself an attempt to explain the fact that the tomb was empty.

Fact #3: On multiple occasion, and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups saw Jesus alive after his death.

Again, reasons for support for this fact is found in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8, important for its very early attestation. In the early tradition, Paul claims to be in contact with eyewitnesses who have claimed to see Jesus alive after his death. Furthermore, these appearances are also multiply and independently attested thus meeting the requirements for historicity. An important point to also acknowledge is that the appearances of Jesus after his death were not only to individuals, but also to groups of people at one time.

Fact #4: The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe Jesus was risen from the dead, despite having every predisposition to the contrary.

This fact is interesting given the nature of the situation. Religious leaders who claimed to have importance were a dime a dozen in the 1st century. However, when their movement was halted and they were killed, it was quickly realized that they did not meet the critirea for messianic deliverer. However, how is it that the disciples came to believe that Jesus was in fact who he said he was? They had many reasons to disbelieve. For one, there was no Jewish expectation of a messiah who was to be shamefully executed by his enemies. Remember, that the popular conception of messiah was that he would be a mighty warrior who would liberate the people of Israel from their enemies and bring peace and restoration to the throne of David. Furthermore, seeing Jesus appear to them after his death ran contrary to what Jews believed about the resurrection. The Jews believed that the resurrection was an event that would happen at the end of days. Thus, if the disciples hallucinated these appearances, the natural interpretation of the hallucinations would not have been that Jesus was physically raised from the dead. Hence, their proclamation that he was in fact raised from the dead needs to be accounted for.

The above explanation of the facts was merely a thumbnail sketch as to why they are widely accepted as such. The real issue is the explanation of the facts. It is here where many disagree and debate. However, when considering all of the natural explanations given to these facts, one finds them to be quite weak. What are some of these explanations: Some include 1) The conspiracy theory, 2) The apparent death theory, 3) the hallucination theory, etc. However, none of these theories have provided an adequate explanation for the facts provided. While they answer some facet of the evidence, they prove lopsided and unable to account for the wide range of evidence.

In conclusion, it seems (although I encourage interested readers to delve into more detail) that the resurrection of Jesus explains all of the facts without presenting a lopsided treatment of those facts. The only assumption that this conclusion involves is that God exists; which I think can be compellingly argued for in another context. However, if Jesus has in fact been raised from the dead, his own self understanding and claims have been vindicated. And if the claims of Jesus have been vindicated, then a response to his message is warranted. Who did Jesus think he was? God in flesh! We have been given ample evidence to conclude that Jesus was in fact who he claimed to be.

1. Douglas Groothuis. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Nottingham, England: (IVP Academic, 2011). P. 476.
2. John Frame. The Virgin Birth,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), p. 1145.
3. See N.T. Wright’s massive work, Resurrection of the Son of God.

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