Who is Jesus?
Central to the Christian faith is the belief Jesus was God incarnate. While many non-Christians find this claim unbelievable and unsubstantiated, Christians disagree. According to the Christian faith, not only was Jesus God incarnate, it can be demonstrated and proven.
To address this issue, we must consider several different questions. We must determine (1) whether or not Jesus believed himself to be God, (2) whether the disciples believed he was God, and (3) whether or not his divinity can be proven.
Did Jesus believe he was God?
Jesus’ public ministry would only last 3 1/2 years. Though short, this ministry would prove very controversial and ultimately result in his execution. The lasting impact of his ministry would continue indefinitely and today continues to inspire billions of Christians. Remarkably though, Jesus’ ministry was not centered upon any teaching. What would prove effective and lasting was not what Jesus taught, but what he allegedly claimed to be; God incarnate. Christians believe his ministry served only to verify and reaffirm this claim.
If Jesus did claim to be God incarnate, he would be a unique religious founder. Of all the world religions today, no founder has ever claimed to be divine. Muhammad, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Bab-ud-Din, Baha’u'llah, Guru Nanak, Zoroaster, Abraham, Vardhamana, all denied any degree of divinity; insisting they were merely human.
To determine whether or not Jesus truly did claim divinity, we must evaluate his words and conduct in the context of his time. Below are some examples of Jesus’ words and conduct during his ministry and how they would be perceived by his peers:
- Forgiving sin – One was only permitted to forgive a sin of which they were the victim. The forgiveness of all sin was never permitted and only something God was able to do. According to Jewish beliefs, only God is the victim of all sin.
Example from Jesus’ Ministry:
“When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, ‘Son, thy sins be forgiven thee’. But there were certain of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts, Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only? “ (Mark 2:5-7)
- Teaching by one’s own authority – Jewish Law during the first century necessitated two witnesses to authenticate information. Meaning, when Rabbis (Jewish teachers) taught, they were required to site other Rabbis who could attest to what they were teaching. This requirement inhibited Rabbis from misinterpreting the word of God, either willfully or accidentally. When issues of God were taught, this policy took authority away from the teaching Rabbi, and placed it upon God. It was considered blasphemy to teach by one’s own authority. Only God can teach by his own authority.
Example from Jesus’ Ministry:
“ Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22) [Emphasis added]
‘Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them,and ye shall have them’. (Mark 11:24) [Emphasis added ]
- Speaking the name of God: “I AM” – When Moses asked God what his name was, God answered:
…”And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you..’ “ (Exodus 3:14) [Emphasis added]
Speaking the name of God was only permitted by the High Priest, only once a year, and only after a considerable spiritual cleansing of sin. Under no other circumstances was one permitted to speak the name of God. Only God may speak the name of God.
Examples from Jesus’ Ministry:
” ‘Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.’ Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? Jesus said unto them, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am’. Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by“ [Emphasis added] (John 8:56-59)
- Changing someone’s name – Your name, in Jewish tradition, was your identity. Only God was permitted to change a name. Typically, the change of a name represented the change of a destiny. Only by the authority or inspiration of God was one allowed to change someone’s name.
Examples from Jesus’ Ministry:
“And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, And to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils . . . )” (Mark 3:14-15)
- A claim to be sinless – According to Jewish teachings, all men and women have committed sin and fallen short of the perfection of God. A claim to be sinless, was a claim to be as perfect as God.
Examples from Jesus’ Ministry:
“Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?” (John 8:46)
- Raising one from the dead – Jewish teachings state God alone has control of who lives and who dies. Assuming the privilege of being allowed, let alone being able, to raise someone from the dead meant you possessed a privilege only allotted to God.
Examples from Jesus’ Ministry:
“And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth’. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, ‘Loose him, and let him go.’ “ (John 11:43-44)
“. . . when he had put them all out, he taketh the father and the mother of the damsel, and them that were with him, and entereth in where the damsel was lying. And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, ‘Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise. And straightway the damsel arose, and walked; for she was of the age of twelve years. And they were astonished with a great astonishment. .” (Mark 5:40-42)
- Being Worshiped – The first commandment of Judaism stated no one is to be worshiped except God.
Examples from Jesus’ Ministry:
” And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, ‘O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?’ And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased. Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.‘ “ (Matthew 14:31-33)
According to the laws of Judaism, such a claim of deity is considered the highest degree of blasphemy; punishable by death. Not only is making such a claim blasphemous, committing acts which are only permitted for God to commit were considered equally blasphemous. Jesus’ ministry was a persistent practice of committing such violations.
Even a cursory review of the Gospels confirm that Jesus’ conduct, claims, and teachings could only be expected from one who believes themselves to be God.
“I and my Father are one.” (John 10:30)
Did the early disciples believe Jesus was God?
To answer the question of whether or not the disciples believed Jesus was God, we should evaluate two aspects of the early church. (1) What did the early apostles write (Biblical references), and (2) What do the non-Biblical references to Christ reveal:
Below is a list of the authors of the New Testament (not including the Gospels). The books of the New Testament are comprised of letters written from the early disciples and apostles to the early churches. Evaluating the writings of the apostles should reveal the beliefs of the early churches and reveal whether or not the early church believed Jesus was God:
- Luke -Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ – Acts 28:31
- Paul – “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: 9 For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. . .”, – Colossians 2:6,9
- John -This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth. 7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.. – 1 John 5:6-8
- Peter – “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” 1 Peter 3:15
- James (Jesus’ brother)- “My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.”. – James 2:1
- Jude (Jesus’ brother)- “But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, 21 Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life”. – Jude 1:20-21
But they declared that the sum of their guilt or error had amounted only to this, that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn antiphonally to Christ, as to a god,
Pliny the Younger (Written circa 112) Plin.Epp.X (ad Traj.), xcvi
Whatever has been uttered aright by any men in any place belongs to us Christians; for, next to God, we worship and love the reason (Word)  which is from the unbegotten and ineffable God; since on our account He has been made man, that, being made partaker of our suffering, he may also bring us healing.
 – The title the “Word” is a common reference to Jesus – John 1:1
Justin, Apology (Written circa 150), I. xlvi 1-4
Both Biblical and non-Biblical references to Christ and the early church reveal a consistent belief in Christ’s divinity. Whether or not Jesus was God, no one can deny the early church sincerely believed Jesus was God.
Finally, before we can conclude this question, we must determine if Christ’s divinity is provable:
Did Jesus prove he was God:
The Christian faith depends upon a single event: The resurrection of Jesus. Disproving this event would discredit the faith; proving this event would confirm the faith. According to Christianity, the resurrection of Christ was meant to, among other things, prove beyond any doubt the authenticity of Christ’s claim. So, to answer the question: Did Jesus prove he was God? We must determine if Christ rose from the dead.
How do we know Jesus Christ rose from the dead?:
This question is perhaps the most debated question ever proposed. Every historian, whether Christian or otherwise, acknowledges something happened in 33 A.D. This mysterious event convinced thousands of people of Jesus’ divinity and changed the world.
To determine what occurred during this mysterious event we must first determine what is not debated among historians. Below is a list of accepted facts regarding the resurrection of Jesus:
- Jesus existed;
- Jesus had disciples;
- Jesus was tried by the Sanhedrin;
- Jesus was initially abandoned by his disciples;
- Jesus was sentenced to execution by crucifixion by the Romans;
- The execution was carried out by the Romans;
- Days later people insisted they saw the resurrected Christ;
- Thousands of people claimed to have seen, eaten with, spoken with, and walked with the resurrected Christ for a period of 40 days;
- The disciples returned insisting they were witnesses to the resurrected Christ;
- Two of Jesus’ brothers (who rejected Jesus’ claim of divinity during his ministry) preached Jesus (their biological brother) was God;
- Most of these people were willing to be
tortured and killed before they would deny the resurrection.
These facts are not debated by Historians regardless of their faith. They are the platform on which any argument, for or against the resurrection, must be built. Considering these facts, one must determine what possible event took place to account for these facts.
Historians have agreed upon six possible scenarios to account for these facts:
- Someone stole the body of Christ, or
- The resurrection of Christ was a myth, or
- The resurrection claim was a conspiracy, or
- Belief in resurrection was the result of mass hallucinations, or
- Christ did not die on the cross and was revived by the cool damp air in the tomb, or
- The resurrection is a real event as described in the New Testament.
1. Did someone steal the body of Jesus Christ?
Alternatives to the resurrection have been taught by many skeptics. One alternative is that the disciples stole Jesus’ body. This theory is the only alternative explanation that dates to the death of Christ. However, this theory seems unlikely. How did they overtake the Roman guards? Why were they willing to die for their proclamation? If they stole the body they would never agree to become martyrs; certainly not all of them.
Another alternative to the resurrection is that the Romans may have stolen the body to prevent the Christians from stealing it themselves and proclaiming Christ rose from the dead. If this is the case, why did they not show Jesus’ body when people started proclaiming Jesus rose from the dead? This also does not explain why the disciples were more willing to die than admit Jesus did not rise.
Another alternative is the Pharisees stole the body to prevent the Christians from proclaiming Jesus rose from the dead. If this is true, why did they not show the body when Christians began proclaiming Jesus rose from the dead?
2.Was the resurrection of Jesus a myth?
The most common argument made by skeptics is called the “Myth theory.” According to this theory, the story of the resurrection of Christ is an exaggeration based on a more plausible event. Almost all myths develop generations after an event and are loosely based on this event.
There are several objections to be made regarding the Myth theory: The first is the amount of time that passed between the death of Christ (around 33 A.D.) and the completion of the Gospels. The date of the completion of the Gospels is of much debate. However, historians agree upon a few facts: the letters in the Bible written by Paul were in fact written by the historical Paul of Tarsus; the book of Acts was completed after the Gospel of Luke, and the book of Acts was completed before the death of Paul (around 65 A.D.).
Based on this we know the Gospel of Luke was completed at a time when eyewitnesses to the historical Jesus were still around. We also know the Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel completed (around 45-60 A.D.) and Gospel of Matthew was completed around the same time as the Gospel of Luke.
This leaves us no more than 32 years for the life and death of Jesus to be exaggerated to the resurrection story we know today. This is unprecedented and much faster than the typical few hundred years it takes for a myth to develop. If a myth could develop this quickly it would be immediately discredited by the witness to the actual events.
Another objection to be made is the lack of any other historical figure we could identify as the source of this myth. The Jesus we know in the Gospels is the only Jesus we know. Unlike other myths, we have no historical figure we can identify as the foundation for this exaggerated story.
Lastly, the Gospels and letters within the Bible identify the resurrection as a fact. If this event did not take place as indicated by the Bible then it must be a lie, not a myth. This leads us to the next common objection.
3.Was the resurrection claim a conspiracy?
According to the “Conspiracy theory,” the disciples and authors of the Bible lied and deceived the public into believing Christ rose from the dead. No one can disagree that the disciples were human and susceptible to the motivations for lying.
Every lie has a motivation. Whatever the disciples’ motivation was to lie, it must have been persuasive enough to convince more than a dozen men to stand-up to the Roman and Jewish authorities even though the conspirators would have understood that the possibility of death or imprisonment was almost a certainty. In fact the disciples were all subjected to punishment including: torture, imprisonment, crucifixion, and death. None of the disciples ever recanted their proclamation even though doing so would have saved their life.
Recanting the story and admitting it was a lie would have allowed the Roman or Jewish authorities to use this as evidence against the resurrection claim. Not only did the disciples die, they never received any tangible benefit from lying.
While it is possible for one, two, or maybe three people to die for something they know to be false, it is nearly impossible to believe more than a dozen people would die for something they know to be a lie. Clearly the disciples believed they saw the resurrected Christ. Unless Christ rose from the dead, the disciples must have been hallucinating.
4.Was the resurrected Jesus a hallucination?
The disciples were convinced to the point of allowing themselves to be killed before admitting they were lying. What could convince more than a dozen people to believe they saw something? They either saw it, or they thought they saw it. The “Hallucination theory” suggests the disciples did not actually see the resurrected Christ, they only thought they saw him.
The first and most obvious objection to this theory is the very nature of a hallucination. Hallucinations are seen by only one person and are a figment of their imagination. The disciples do not claim Christ appeared to them one at a time, they claim Christ appeared to many people at the same time. According to Paul, Christ appeared to more than 500 people at once (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Not only did he appear to them; he walked with them, talked with them, and ate with them, for 40 days. This hallucination would be more extraordinary than an actual resurrection.
If the disciples believed without a doubt Christ appeared to them and they were not hallucinating, then he must have rose from the dead or never died in the first place.
5.Did the cool air of the tomb revive a nearly dead Jesus?
The “Swoon theory” suggests Christ did not die on the cross; instead he only appeared dead after the crucifixion and was in fact alive when he was placed in the tomb. When the cool air revived him it gave the appearance of a resurrection.
Looking at the Crucifixion it is hard to imagine anyone could survive. Christ’s back was skinned, his arms were dislocated, and his heart was pierced with a spear. In fact, the Romans were so convinced Christ was dead; they didn’t bother breaking his legs to expedite the death (instead they stabbed him in the heart with a spear). John testifies blood and water poured out of the wound in Christ’s chest. This is caused when the pericardium fills with fluid, the result of asphyxiation.
If Christ was alive when he was placed in the tomb, how did he get out? A large stone was placed at the entrance of the tomb, it would be difficult for one man to move this stone, let alone a half dead man. Even if he did manage to move the stone what about the Roman guards placed at the entrance of the tomb? Again, it is hard to imagine a half dead man conquering at least two Roman guards.
After moving the stone and overpowering the Roman Guards, Christ would then have appeared to his disciples. The disciples would have found a crippled, swollen, bleeding, half dead man. This man could never convince anyone he conquered death. Even if he did manage all of this, the stress of walking, talking, and eating for 40 days would certainly have killed him. He wouldn’t have lasted an hour. The implausibility of this theory is exactly why it is falling out of favor among the skeptics.
As mentioned previously, these are the only accepted possibilities regarding the resurrection claim. The last possibility is Christ died and was resurrected on the third day. As explained earlier: if Christ did die and rise on the third day, then Christianity is an irrefutable and unique truth.
6. Conclusion – Jesus is God?
Based upon the information above, it is difficult to conclude any alternative to the divinity of Jesus. Clearly, Jesus believed himself to be God, his disciples believed he was God, and the most likely explanation for the resurrection confirms these claims.