Justin Bass and Bart Ehrman Smiling Together
Jesus persists in veiling himself in indirect references and metaphors…It is almost as though Jesus were intent on making a riddle of himself…Whoever or whatever Jesus was, he was a complex figure, not easily subsumed under one theological rubric or sociological model. —John P. Meier
The historical Jesus used stories, parables, metaphors, and actions to describe himself and his mission. He seemed intent on making a riddle of himself. But he solved his own riddle during the last week of his life. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem a week before he died, he threatened the temple with imminent destruction. He debated with the religious leaders in Jerusalem and challenged them with who he was: “What do you think about the Christ, whose son is he?” (Matthew 22:42). He reinstituted the Passover meal to be all about himself and his imminent death (Mark 14:22–26). But his most explicit claim occurred when he stood before the high priest Caiaphas and said “I am and you will see the Son of Man…” (Mark 14:61).
This is the second article reviewing my recent debate with Dr. Bart Ehrman.
We had four critical areas of disagreement:
- What did Jesus’ earliest disciples believe about Jesus’ divinity?
- Did Paul and the authors of the Gospels believe Jesus is YHWH come in the flesh?
- Is the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels radically different than the Jesus of the Gospel of John?
- Did the historical Jesus claim to be the Son of Man from Daniel 7:13–14, or was he referring to another Son of Man distinct from himself?
I discussed the first two questions in my first article. Now we’ll discuss the last two.
Is the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels radically different than the Jesus of the Gospel of John?
“In none of those passages (from the Synoptics) does Jesus say ‘I am God.’”
—Bart Ehrman from our debate.
Bart argued that the Jesus presented in the Gospel of John is radically different than the Jesus presented in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). In John, for example, Jesus makes divine claims like:
- “Before Abraham was, I Am” (John 8:58)
- “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30)
- “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)
Bart’s Best Argument
After quoting these passages, Bart forcefully asked: “Jesus did not make any of these claims in the Synoptic Gospels. Why is that?” In my opinion, this was Bart’s best argument of the night. Why does the Jesus of the Gospel of John seem so radically different from the Jesus of the Synoptics? If we dig a little deeper we find that the Jesus of the Synoptics and the Jesus of John is one and the same, albeit different theological emphases by the Evangelists.
The Exact Words of Jesus vs the Voice of Jesus
It is important at the outset that we understand the difference between ipsissima verba and ipsissima vox. Ipsissima verba, in the context of historical Jesus studies, means the “very words” of Jesus. In other words, it’s exactly what Jesus said on any given occasion. Ipsissima vox is the “very voice” of Jesus which, even though not the exact words of Jesus, is the dynamic, faithful portrayal of something Jesus historically said. The majority of sayings and teachings of Jesus in all four Gospels are ipsissima vox and not ipsissima verba. This should be obvious on one level because Jesus and his disciples spoke in Aramaic and the Gospels are written in Greek. That alone should tell you that we have the “voice” of Jesus in our Gospels, not his exact words.
However, the ipsissima verba “the very words” of Jesus do sometimes emerge in our Gospel accounts. The clearest example of this is when the author of his Greek Gospel actually gives us the very Aramaic saying of Jesus, His exact words.
This occurs most often in our earliest Gospel, Mark:
- Talitha Kum (Mark 5:41)
- Ephphatha! (Mark 7:34)
- Abba! (Mark 14:36)
- Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?! (Mark 15:34; cf. Matthew 27:46)
These are the exact words of Jesus he uttered on each of these occasions. Mark probably retained them in his gospel because these sayings of Jesus were seared into the memory of Peter. According to early church tradition, Peter is behind the writing of Mark, Mark’s chief source. Peter, who also spoke Aramaic, recounted these stories to Mark and Mark (or Peter) thought that they need not be translated. We have Jesus’ very words as a result. And there are other places where we can retrovert Jesus’ saying in Greek back into Aramaic for the exact wording. But again the vast majority of sayings of Jesus in all four Gospels represent the “voice” of Jesus not his exact words.
All four of the Gospel authors present different theological portraits of the historical Jesus and adapt the “voice” of his teachings for their respective audiences.
The Synoptics present Jesus from the earth up and John from heaven down. For instance, John just comes right out in his prologue and says “…and the Word was God” (John 1:1). In contrast, Matthew, Mark and Luke begin with an emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. We hear the question “Who then is this?” (Mark 4:41) scattered throughout their narratives. The Synoptic authors are creatively bringing us into the story of Jesus and learning who he is with his disciples and the crowds around him. It is a riddle that must be solved. It is not until the trial scene with Caiaphas (Mark 14:60–64), the Christological climax of the Synoptics, that Jesus declares most explicitly who he is.
Implicit vs Explicit Claims
As I told Bart, he needs to allow more creative license to the Evangelists as they each tell the story of Jesus. To use an example from the Hebrew Scriptures, the word for “God” is conspicuously absent from the story of Esther. Are we to conclude then that the Jewish author of Esther didn’t believe in the God of Israel? Of course not. This is a creative, literary way of telling the story of God saving Israel by his providence, from behind the scenes. The Synoptic authors have a similar approach to the way they are presenting the divinity of Jesus. It is, at least during Jesus’ public ministry, creatively implicit, not explicit.
Bart argued in our debate that unless Jesus went around saying ‘I am God’ in the Synoptics (or at least spoke more like he does in John), then Jesus didn’t claim to be God. However, not even in John did Jesus ever say ‘I am God’ and the explicit statements of divinity on Jesus’ lips are relatively rare even in John.
Jesus made implicit claims to divinity all throughout his public ministry which we see not only in the Synoptic Gospels, but in John as well. Throughout John, Jesus points to his Father:
- “The Father who sent me…” (John 5:37)
- “I can do nothing by myself…” (John 5:30)
- “I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it” (John 12:49).
Moreover, a very interesting exchange occurs in John 10:33–36:
The Jews answered him, ‘For a good work we do not stone you, but for blasphemy; and because you, being a man, make yourself out to be God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? (John 10:33–36)
Even in John, with a clear opportunity to declare that he is God, Jesus’ answer to the charge of blasphemy is somewhat ambiguous. So ambiguous that Jehovah’s Witnesses regularly use this passage to argue Jesus denied he was God! He is definitely not denying he is God here (cf. John 8:58), but the implicit nature of Jesus’ claims can be clearly seen here even in John.
What about the clear claims of divinity that are found in John (John 8:58; 10:30; 14:9; et al)?
As far as John 8:58: “Before Abraham was, I Am,” I believe the parallel to this is found in the Christological climax of the Synoptics (Mark 14:60–64; et al). This is where Jesus explicitly claims to be the divine Son of Man and the Lord of Psalm 110. Jesus is almost stoned for declaring himself as “I Am” in John (8:59) and it is Jesus’ claim to be the Son of Man that leads to his condemnation and crucifixion in the Synoptics (Mark 14:64). We will discuss Jesus’ climactic Son of Man claim at the end of this article.
The Unity of the Father and Son
Jesus’ saying: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) and “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9) do find parallels in the Synoptics. The clearest examples is a Q saying from Matthew 11:27/Luke 10:22:
All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.
This Q saying, dating to the early 50s, has been called by a number of scholars: “A meteorite fallen from the Johannine sky.” It demonstrates that Jesus referred to himself as “Son” with a radically unique relationship with the Father. Notice Jesus three times refers to himself as “Son” and he has the authority to reveal the Father to whomever he so chooses. There is no evidence anywhere in the ancient world of a Jew speaking this way about himself or his relationship to the God of Israel. This doesn’t seem to be any less radical of a claim than Jesus’ saying in John (10:30): “I and the Father are one.”
I challenged Bart with this Q saying of Jesus and he just denied Jesus said it. I asked on what grounds he denied it and he never gave an answer. Bart is on the fringe of NT scholarship in denying this saying of Jesus. Most critical scholars accept this saying as historical:
Jesus must have said or insinuated something similar to what is recorded here to give rise to the rapid conclusion, which emerged not long after his death, that he was indeed the Son of God (albeit not yet understood in the sense of Nicaea). Although I am inclined to regard the substance of these sayings as authentic, that substance should more likely be traced to an implicit Christology expressed in Jesus’ words and deeds in his earthly ministry.
It is impossible upon any principles of criticism to question its genuineness, or its right to be regarded as among the earliest materials made use of by the Evangelists. And it contains the whole of Christology of the Fourth Gospel.
This seems to be the way Jesus talked about himself, not just in John, but in the Synoptics as well.
The Doubting Baptist
There is one more fascinating Q saying of Jesus that reveals how Jesus implicitly revealed who he was during his public ministry. This account should be entitled: ‘The Doubting Baptist.’
When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me. (Matthew 11:1–6; cf. Luke 7:18–23)
And what do we learn from this authentic saying about the way Jesus spoke about himself? Does Jesus answer John’s question concerning his identity implicitly or explicitly? He answers it implicitly. He doesn’t say: “Yes, John. Stop doubting. I am the expected one to come.’ I’m sure John sitting in that prison cell, doubting Jesus’ identity and mission, would have appreciated a more explicit confirmation. A simple “yes”! Instead Jesus quotes Isaiah 35:5–6 assuring John that the kinds of things Isaiah prophesied for the Messianic era are happening in his own ministry. John would have understood this as a “yes” to his question, but still would have felt the ambiguity. A hint of the riddle probably remained in the Baptist’s mind.
In sum, the historical Jesus is presented as implicitly making divine claims in the Synoptics and in John. Ipsissimma vox, each Gospel author’s unique theological portrait of Jesus, accounts for the differences in the way Jesus talks in all four Gospels. And when we dig deeper we find the Jesus of the Synoptics is really not that different from the Jesus of John after all. They both speak about themselves as Son, make implicit claims of divinity, almost always pointing to the Father, and have only one climactic, explicit claim to divinity. In John, Jesus’ claim to be the I Am of Exodus 3:14 (John 8:58) and in the Synoptics his claim to be the Son of Man of Daniel 7:13 (Mark 14:60–64). It is to the latter claim we now turn.
Did the Historical Jesus Claim to Be the Son of Man from Daniel 7:13–14 or Was He Referring to Another Son of Man Distinct from Himself?
The disciples would sit on thrones as rulers in the coming kingdom, and Jesus would be seated on the greatest throne of all, as the messiah of God. —Bart Ehrman
There were a few arguments I made that Bart never addressed. I think the most important one was this. Bart contends in his books that both Jesus and the Son of Man would sit on the throne in God’s coming kingdom. Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of Man (a distinct figure from Jesus according to Bart) as the coming Judge of mankind. However, when we look at one of the sayings of Jesus that Bart says almost certainly goes back to Jesus, this view runs into problems.
This Q saying is found in Matthew 19:28/Luke 22:28–30:
And Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’
Notice Jesus says in the future, when God’s Kingdom is fully ushered in, the Son of Man would sit on his throne and the twelve disciples would sit on their thrones. But the million dollar question is ‘Where is Jesus’ throne?’
Bart said in the quote above that Jesus would sit “on the greatest throne of all” in the coming kingdom. On a throne greater than the Son of Man’s throne? Do they both sit on thrones in God’s coming kingdom? Next to each other?
The only way to make sense of this verse is if Jesus thought of himself as the Son of Man who will one day “sit on his glorious throne” (Matthew 19:28).
The Son of Man is Jesus’ favorite title for himself in the four Gospels. It occurs 86 times in the entire NT, but 81 times on Jesus’ lips. This title also passes some of the most important criteria for authenticity used by NT scholars today.
I’ll let Bart explain the most important criteria:
When establishing historically authentic tradition from the Gospels we are looking for lots of independently attested sayings and deeds. I should add here that in particular we are looking for such independently attested traditions from our earliest sources…John is the last of the Gospels to be written, some 60–65 years after Jesus lived. The Synoptic Gospels are earlier. And the sources of the Synoptics are even earlier than the Synoptics. If we find traditions independently attested in, say, Mark, our earliest Gospel, and Q, the source for parts of Matthew and Luke, and M and L, then we have early, independent traditions. And that is as good as it gets.
Yes, this “is as good as it gets.” And this is exactly what we do have with the title Son of Man! The title Son of Man is found on Jesus’ lips in Mark, Q, M, L, and John. This is every known strata of known Gospel sources.
Bart feels the weight of this evidence and does agree the historical Jesus used the title “the Son of Man.” Instead of Jesus claiming to be this Son of Man however, Bart takes the fringe position of scholarship today that Jesus was referring to a distinct figure from himself. According to Bart, Jesus believed that this Son of Man would come as judge of the world and bring God’s kingdom. This view was first made popular by 20th century NT scholar Rudolf Bultmann, but has been almost unanimously dismissed today by scholars.
There is so much debate today still on this title “The Son of Man.” However, there is at least a consensus that Bart’s view (that Jesus was speaking of a figure distinct from himself) is completely false!
The old appeal to Luke 12:8, on the ground that it presupposes a distinction between Jesus and a heavenly Son of man, has become more muted recently, since the presupposition itself is at best dubious.
That Jesus did use the title of a future figure who would come to judge but that this figure was not Jesus himself, has lost much of its following. Granted Jesus’ conception of the role he himself was playing in making present the rule of God, his anticipation of another unidentified human-like figure to bring the work to a conclusion seems unlikely.”
There is also a scholarly consensus that the title “The Son of Man” finds its origin in the phrase “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7:13–14. This human-like figure from Daniel’s night visions is almost certainly a divine figure.
The Son of Man is distinct from the God of Israel (Ancient of Days) and yet is given the same divine prerogatives:
- He rides the clouds. No one rides the clouds except for YHWH in all the Hebrew Scriptures!
- He is given glory and all peoples and nations worship the Son of Man.
- He is the King of God’s eternal kingdom (cf. Daniel 4:34).
Bart agrees the Son of Man in Daniel 7:13–14 and in Second Temple Judaism is a divine figure. He even refers to the Son of Man figure this way:
“This is an exalted figure indeed, as exalted as one can possibly be without actually being the Lord God Almighty himself.”
If the historical Jesus did claim to be the Son of Man, then he would be claiming, to use Bart’s language, to be the most exalted divine figure besides the Lord God Almighty himself.
There are so many Son of Man sayings that we could focus on (81 of them!), but let us close with the most important one found in Mark 14:60–64:
The high priest stood up and came forward and questioned Jesus, saying, “Do you not answer? What is it that these men are testifying against you?” But He kept silent and did not answer. Again the high priest was questioning him, and saying to Him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Tearing his clothes, the high priest said, “What further need do we have of witnesses? “You have heard the blasphemy; how does it seem to you?” And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death (Mark 14:60–64)
As this is the climax of the Synoptic Gospels, discussion of this trial scene was also the climax of our debate. Like the “Son” Q saying, Bart just denied its authenticity. He contended that there was no one at the trial who would have relayed this information to Jesus’ disciples. I challenged him with the fact that Joseph of Arimathea was there. In fact, when Mark first introduces him in his Gospel he gives him a title: “Joseph of Arimathea came, a prominent member of the Council…” (Mark 15:43; cf. 14:55; 15:1). It is irrefutable that Mark at least presents Joseph as someone who was present at Jesus’ trial. I asked Bart how he knows Joseph was not the one who disseminated this information from the trial. Bart didn’t answer this and he never gave evidence for his contention that Joseph was not an eyewitness here. We have good reasons to think he was.
What is most interesting is that Bart admits in print at least that if Jesus did make this claim to be the Son of Man before Caiaphas then it was a divine claim. Bart goes on to say it would have also been considered blasphemy and it would have led to Jesus’ condemnation.
So what was Jesus’ blasphemy? From a historical point of view, Jesus does not appear to have committed one in Mark’s narrative. But is it possible that Mark thought that Jesus committed one, at least in the eyes of the Jewish high priest? Remember that Mark understood Jesus to be the Son of Man. Perhaps Mark projected his own Christian understanding of Jesus back onto the high priest, so that in the narrative, when Jesus spoke about the Son of Man being seated on the throne next to God, the high priest ‘realized’ (as the author of Mark believed) that Jesus was referring to himself. If so, then the high priest (in Mark’s narrative, not in real life) would have understood that Jesus was claiming to be divine in some sense. This claim would be a blasphemy. Perhaps this is why the high priest in Mark finds Jesus’ words blasphemous, even though, technically speaking, no blasphemy had occurred.
In other words, if this scene is historical, then not only did Jesus make a divine claim, claiming to be the Son of Man from Daniel 7, but this ‘blasphemy’ led to his condemnation. Bart says he can’t make any sense of the blasphemy charge, but that is only because he rejects that Jesus actually claimed to be the Son of Man here! Even he admits that if the trial scene happened the way Mark records it then all the pieces fit together.
In conclusion, whether Jesus says “Before Abraham was I Am” or “You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God,” He’s making the same ‘blasphemous’ claim, that He—a mere man—is in some sense one with God.
I entitled this two-part debate review: “Who is this Son of Man?” from John 12:34. The riddle has been solved by the ultimate Riddler himself, “I Am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
Caiaphas condemned him as a blasphemer and Thomas bowed before him and declared: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). These are the only appropriate responses Jesus has left for us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it well: “There are only two ways possible of encountering Jesus: man must die or he must put Jesus to death.”
- Renowned New Testament scholar John P. Meier said this about the historical Jesus in his book A Marginal Jew Vol 2, p. 453. ↩
- An example of this would be Jesus’ saying “This is my body” at the last Passover meal with his disciples. This saying of Jesus is multiply attested (1 Cor 11:23–25; Mark 14:22–25: Matt 26:26–29; Luke 22:17–20) and dates to within 2–5 years after Jesus’ death. The phrase “This is my body” occurs identical in the Greek in all four accounts. Scholars then retrovert this Greek saying back into Aramaic and this is very likely the ipsissima verba of Jesus from the Lord’s Supper. ↩
- I owe this insight to my former Professor Dr. Darrell Bock. ↩
- Mark begins with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and both Matthew and Luke begin with Jesus’ birth. ↩
- God is addressed as “Father” 123 times in the Gospel of John alone. ↩
- Alfred Plummer, Luke ICC, p. 282. ↩
- Joseph Fitzmyer, Luke AB Vol 2, p. 870. ↩
- Alfred Plummer, Luke ICC p. 282. ↩
- Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet for the New Millennium, p. 200. ↩
- “Kummel has noted, “The Baptist appears here in no way as a witness to Christ, but as an uncertain questioner, which contradicts the tendency of the early church to make him such a witness.” So most probably the story in its essentials represents an old reliable tradition.” (Joseph Fitzmyer, Luke AB Vol 1, pp. 663–64). Even the Jesus Seminar gave this saying a pink vote! ↩
- The Gospel of John begins by saying “and the Word was God” (John 1:1) and the climax of the Gospel is Thomas proclaiming Jesus as “my Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). But both of these statements of Jesus’ deity are by someone other than Jesus himself. It is only in the middle of the Gospel of John (8:58) that Jesus himself says “Before Abraham was, I Am.” This is the most explicit claim to deity from Jesus’ own lips in the Gospel of John. ↩
- Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, p. 204. ↩
- The only exceptions being John 12:34 on the lips of someone from the crowd and Acts 7:56 on the lips of Stephen. Son of Man (written a little different in Greek) is also found in Hebrews 2:6; Revelation 1:13; 14:14. ↩
- Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, p. 103. ↩
- Bart agrees even Paul equates Jesus with the Son of Man in 1 Thessalonians (4:13–5:12) written in the early 50s (see Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? p. 303). Bart also writes elsewhere: “The disciples very soon—probably right away—concluded that Jesus was the coming Son of Man.” Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, p. 219. ↩
- James Dunn, Christ and the Spirit, p. 410. ↩
- Raymond Brown, Death of the Messiah, Vol 1, p. 513. It is interesting to note that Bart said this of Raymond Brown in his most recent book: “One of the greatest scholars of the second half of the twentieth century was Raymond Brown…” Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, p. 236. ↩
- Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, p. 67. ↩
- It is also important to point out that if the historical Jesus referred to himself as the Danielic Son of Man just once out these 81 sayings, then Jesus did claim to be divine. ↩
- See Richard Bauckham’ magisterial work on this Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. ↩
- Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, p. 100. ↩
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, p. 35. ↩
Justin W. Bass has a Ph.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary in New Testament Studies. His recent book is entitled The Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 and Christ’s Descent into the Underworld. He has received a Masters of Theology from DTS and a Business degree in Entrepreneurship from Southern Methodist University. Dr. Bass is currently the Lead Pastor of 1042 Church in Frisco and a Professor at Dallas Christian College and Dallas Theological Seminary. When he is not working, he is reading, watching movies (usually Lord of the Rings), and spending time with his high school sweetheart Allison Bass and their two kids Arianna (5) and Christian (2).