An Atheist Reads The Case for Christ
PART 2: Analyzing Jesus
Chapter 7: The Identity Evidence – Was Jesus Really Convinced He Was the Son of God?
The John Douglas Story
- Not so much an anecdote as a summary of the work of criminal profiler John Douglas, the FBI agent who served as the basis for Jack Crawford in Silence of the Lambs. Using details gathered from crime scenes and interviews with victims and witnesses, Douglas assembled psychological profiles of killers he had never met. Strobel cites the example of the Trailside Killer, who Douglas correctly predicted would be a man with a speech impediment with tendencies toward animal cruelty, arson and bed-wetting.
- Strobel suggests that we can create a profile of Jesus using methods similar to those employed by Douglas. To Strobel, the question of what Jesus though about himself is “a critical issue,” since some argue that the belief in the deity of Jesus is a late addition to the Christian tradition. Jesus himself, according to this view, did not see himself as a figure to be worshipped.
The Sixth Interview: Ben Witherington III, Ph.D.
- If this were an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, this is the part where Crow would say, “Ohhh, is Ben Witherington III going to be interviewed?”
- Ben Witherington III, author of JESUS THE SAGE, THE MANY FACES OF THE CHRIST, et al. Master of divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, doctorate of theology from University of Durham, member of the Society for the Study of the New Testament, the Society for Biblical Literature, and the Institute for Biblical Research.
- Takes Strobel on a tour of a studio where he has been mixing images of Jesus with music to “illuminate the compassion, the sacrifice, the humanity, and the majesty of his life and ministry.” With tough, objective journalistic chops like that, Lee Strobel could write for the Herald-Mail.
- Strobel asks Witherington whether it’s true that Jesus was evasive about his identity, shying away from proclaiming himself God outright, and if this is because he didn’t think of himself in that way. Witherington argues that Jesus was careful about how he described himself because he didn’t want to confuse or offend the Jews of his time, who would not have understood the concept of the Trinity and would have viewed Jesus’s claim to be God as blasphemy.
- “[Witherington:]‘Besides, there were already a host of expectations about what the Messiah would look like, and Jesus didn’t want to be pigeonholed into somebody else’s categories.’” (Lee Strobel, THE CASE FOR CHRIST, p. 133)
- Witherington doesn’t elaborate; it would be nice to know on what he bases this insight into Jesus’s motives.
Exploring the Earliest Traditions
- Strobel mentions “a 1977 book by British theologian John Hick and half a dozen like-minded colleagues” that popularized the idea that the historical Jesus never actually thought of himself as a god, and that the concepts of the incarnation and Jesus as the Messiah were added later.
- The book, which Strobel never refers to by title, was THE MYTH OF GOD INCARNATE, edited by John Hick (who just died on February 9, incidentally), with contributions by Hick, Maurice Wiles, Frances Young, Michael Goulder, Leslie Houlden, Don Cuppitt, and Dennis Nineham.
- To determine how Jesus really saw himself, Witherington turned to “. . . the very earliest traditions about Jesus — the most primitive material, unquestionably safe from legendary development . . .” (p. 134)
- There he goes again with this “too early to be made-up” argument — which, I think, is horseshit.
- What sort of clues did Witherington find to the self-identity of Jesus in those early traditions?
- Jesus had twelve disciples, but was not one of the twelve himself, suggesting that he is not merely a part of the group he is trying to redeem, but the one who is forming the group, just as God formed the twelve tribes of Israel in the Old Testament.
- Jesus describes John the Baptist as the greatest man on earth, then exceeds the work of John in his own ministry, suggesting he considered himself greater than the greatest man.
- Jesus redefines what it means to be defiled, placing more importance on what people do, rather than what is done to them. In other words, what you do to others is what defiles you, not what touches you or enters your body. This contradicts the laws regarding purity in Leviticus.
- Jesus’s relationship with the Jewish religious leaders suggests that he considered his own authority to be above theirs.
- The fact that Roman authorities considered Jesus to be dangerous enough to execute suggests that he was more than a simple teacher.
By the Finger of God
- Witherington argues that the miracles of Jesus testify to his view of himself as God — not the miracles themselves, since the disciples were able to perform miracles themselves elsewhere in the sober and credible New Testament, but that Jesus performed his miracles on his own authority.
- “[Witherington:]‘Jesus sees his miracles as bringing about something unprecedented — the coming of God’s dominion. He doesn’t merely see himself as a worker of miracles; he sees himself as the one in whom and through whom the promises of God come to pass.’” (pp. 135-136)
- But, Strobel helpfully protests, Jesus was called “Rabbi.” Doesn’t that mean he was like other rabbis of his time? No, says Witherington, actually Jesus taught in a way very different from other rabbis. He presented his teachings on his own authority, affirming the truthfulness of his testimony himself, without the testimony of two witnesses required by Jewish tradition.
- Jesus also referred to God using the term “Abba,” which is a word a child would use to address his father, implying a very personal relationship. Jesus also had his disciples pray to God using the same term, meaning that he saw himself as the initiator of a much more personal and intimate relationship between God and humanity.
- “There seemed little question, based upon the earliest evidence, that Jesus considered himself to be more than a doer of great deeds, more than a teacher, more than another prophet in a line of many. There was ample evidence to conclude that he thought of himself in unique and supreme terms.” (p. 137)
- Neither Strobel nor Witherington ever defines what this “earliest evidence” is or how it differs from the gospels as we have them today. That would have been nice to know.
John’s Portrait of Jesus
- Strobel quotes the opening passage of the Gospel of John and wonders whether Jesus would have found it a fair representation of him.
- “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. . . . And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-3, 14)
- Witherington believes that the portrayal of Jesus in John was accurate to how the historical Jesus saw himself. He also argues that even without the obvious declarations of his deity in John, the gospels make it clear Jesus was the Messiah.
- Strobel asks about popular depictions of Jesus as being conflicted about his identity. He specifically references the film The Last Temptation of Christ — the second best Jesus film ever made, by the way, after Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew — as depicting a confused, ambivalent Jesus. Witherington argues that Jesus isn’t confused or conflicted about who he is in the gospels, though he does have crisis moments where his identity is confirmed by God — the baptism, the temptation, the Transfiguration, and the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.
- Why do I say Pasolini’s Matthew and Scorsese’s Last Temptation are the best Jesus films, by the way? Because they are works of art about Jesus, not advertisements for Christianity, which is what most other films about Jesus wind up being.
- Witherington claims that Jesus saw the redemption of the people of Israel as his mission, and left outreach to the gentiles to the later church.
“I and the Father Are One”
- Strobel cites William Lane Craig (not doing yourself any favors there, Lee) and Jaroslav Pelikan to argue that the sermons and prayers of the early church taught that Jesus was God. Witherington argues that this would not have happened if Jesus had not taught these things about himself.
- “[Witherington:]‘Is it probable that all this stuff was conjured up out of thin air within twenty years after Jesus died, when there were still living witnesses to what Jesus the historical figure was really like? I find that just about as unlikely a historical hypothesis as you could possibly come up with.’” (p. 140)
- Then you need to go back to school. If you find “divinely conceived demigod worked miracles and rose from the dead” to be a more credible historical hypothesis than “superstitious people made stuff up,” you can’t expect me to take you seriously.
- Witherington launches into a page-long monologue about who Jesus thought himself to be, ending with, “[Witherington:]‘We have to ask, Why is there no other first century Jew who has millions of followers today? . . . Why, of all first-century figures, including the Roman emperors, is Jesus still worshipped today, while the others have crumbled into the dust of history? It’s because this Jesus — the historical Jesus — is also the living Lord.’” (p. 141)
- That, or the Edict of Milan.
In the Very Place of God
- Again citing Craig, Strobel reiterates the argument that Jesus thought of himself as the Son of God, as the one and only bringer of salvation, as all the things Christians believe him to be.
- Strobel mentions Craig’s observation that Jesus’s claims about himself were so extraordinary that one can’t help but ask, as British theologian James Dunn did, “Was Jesus mad?”
- I feel a false dilemma coming on! But that will have to wait until the next chapter, because that’s the end of Chapter 7.
- This entire chapter felt unnecessary to me. I’m perfectly fine with the idea that Jesus thought of himself as the Son of God. I don’t know whether he actually did or not, since we know almost nothing about the historical Jesus, but I don’t think who Jesus thought he was proves anything about who he was. So to me, personally, this feels like Strobel and Witherington are pushing against an open door. My beliefs about Christianity aren’t affected one way or another by how Jesus saw himself.
- On the other hand, I actually enjoyed some of the examination of the character of Jesus in this chapter. It’s the sort of literary analysis of the Bible that I wish I saw more often. It’s too bad Witherington’s goal is to defend the Word of God from skeptics rather than to actually try to understand Jesus as a character, but it appeals to the English major in me, nonetheless.
- Incidentally, that desire to deconstruct and understand Jesus is something that the films The Last Temptation of Christ and The Gospel According to St. Matthew have in common, and if you haven’t seen those and you want to see the best cinematic art ever made on the subject of Jesus, check those out. Cecil B. DeMille’s original King of Kings is one to check out, too. It’s a bit too reverent for my tastes, but it’s a great, very influential, very technically accomplished film with two sequences in two-strip Technicolor, which is relatively rare for a surviving silent film. All of these movies are on DVD, and Last Temptation and King of Kings were released as part of the Criterion Collection, so check those out if you get a chance and you’re interested.
Next time: Chapter 8: The Psychological Evidence — Was Jesus Crazy When He Claimed to Be the Son of God?