Jesus wasn't God--nor did he claim to be

History is a science just like any other.* Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection not only predicted the behavior of living things in the future, but also predicted a host of facts about the past. If Darwin’s theory is true, we should expect that the Earth is very old, we should expect to find evidence of now-extinct common ancestors of humans and apes, and so on. Historical events in human history make similar predictions about the past. If Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army, we should expect writers from that period to have discussed it, we should expect to find artifacts that depict it, we should expect Roman history to progress as if this event happened, etc.

If these predictions are confirmed by evidence, the hypothesis becomes a theory (not “just a theory,” but a theory in the scientific sense). If they aren’t confirmed or contradictory evidence is found, the hypothesis is not accepted. By contrast, conspiracy theories fit any evidence to the original hypothesis by adding in ad hoc explanations for the facts–that is, they use unproven hypotheses to save their original hypothesis from disconfirmation. “George Bush had the Twin Towers bombed on 9/11.” “Why do you think so?” “Because he was in league with Saudi Princes.”

In my last post about Jesus, I argued that Jesus was just an exceptional follower of John the Baptist. Since one implication of this theory is that Jesus would not have claimed to be a messiah or divine, we should expect to see evidence of early Christian attempts to explain that fact ad hoc. The Bible provides just this evidence.

The Apostle Paul’s letters—the earliest Christian writings—never state that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, only that after his death, this became clear to his followers (I Cor. 15:3-8). Since Paul knew Jesus’ disciples (Gal. 1:18), it is hard to believe he would not have mentioned that Jesus claimed such high status. When Paul says that Jesus was the Messiah, he claims that God “appointed him by his resurrection” (Rm 1:4) to be God’s son and mankind’s savior. According to this verse, God “appointed” Jesus as the Messiah by resurrecting him. Although Paul certainly believed that Jesus knew of his role from birth (Phil. 2:6), there is no hint that Jesus revealed the fact during his life, but that God executed his plan after his death. 

Similarly, the earliest three gospels–Mark, Matthew, and Luke–rarely describe Jesus as claiming messianic or divine status (John’s gospel, written decades later corrects this “mistake”). Even when asked directly by his mentor John the Baptist, Jesus refuses to confirm that he is the messiah (Lk7:22), and again, when the Pharisees ask him, he refuses to answer (Mk. 11:28-33). Furthermore, in the earliest gospel, Mark, Jesus actually denies that he is God.  “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “No one is good—except God alone” (10:18).

Jesus is described hiding his divine origins at least 10 times in Mark

That Jesus didn’t in fact claim to be the messiah cried out for an explanation by those who believed he was, and this is where the conspiracy begins. Mark explains that Jesus actually kept his “true” messianic/divine identity hidden. Jesus heals a leper and orders that he “say nothing to anyone” (1:44). He raises a girl from the dead, but tells everyone that “no one should know this” (5:43). Jesus heals a mute and “commanded the people not to tell anyone” (7:36), and heals a blind man, but “sent him home,” saying, “Don’t go into the village” (8:26). A “demon-possessed” man says, “I know who you are–the Holy one of God!” Yet Jesus tells the spirit “sternly” to “be quiet!” (1:25). Mark’s author writes that whenever anyone told Jesus, “You are the son of God,” Jesus “gave them strict orders not to tell others about him” (3:12).

The one time that Jesus does reveal himself as the divine “Son of God” in Mark, he does it in private at the top of a hill with no one around except three disciples, and he “gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen” (9:2-9). More revealing still, according to the author, the disciples “kept the matter to themselves” (9:10), which raises the question how the author knows this information. This isn’t the only time Mark’s Evangelist leaves the reader wondering about his sources (see: Mark 16:8). Whenever Jesus predicts his death or resurrection in Mark, he also does  it away from the crowds with just a few disciples present (9:33; 10:32).** This admission in chapter 8 is similarly private:

Jesus asked [his disciples], “Who do people say I am?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27-30)

The very fact that there was confusion about who Jesus was indicates that how well he kept his “secret”—in other words, how he never claimed to be the Messiah. Just how embarrassing this was to Christians is confirmed by the author of Matthew who copies the Mark passage word-for-word, but has Peter say, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and has Jesus confirm this answer: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (16:16-17). Obviously, Matthew thought this response more appropriate for a true messiah.

Many point to Jesus’ miracles as proof of his divinity, but as we have already seen, the fact that there was a tradition that had Jesus covering up his miracles (Mk 1:25, 1:44, 3:12, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26) indicates that Jesus probably did not even claim to have performed miracles. Building on this tradition, Mark, Matthew, and Luke have Jesus refuse to do miracles for skeptics (Mk. 8:12, Mt 12:39, 16:4, Lk 11:29). John’s author records a different tradition about Jesus doing his miracles in secret: 

When the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near, Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” For even his own brothers did not believe in him. (7:2-5)

This passage confirms the Early Church’s belief that Jesus “hid” his miracles, but it also confirms a tradition also upheld in Mark that “not even Jesus’ brothers believed him.” In Mark, Jesus’s family including his mother come to “take control of him” because they believe “he is out of his mind” (3:21). Obviously, if his own family rejected him, his miraculous powers were far from apparent.  

While Jesus is made to imply that he is God or the Messiah throughout the Gospels, that’s to be expected–it furthers the authors’ Christian agenda. What’s not to be expected is that he should repeatedly attempt to hide that fact. There’s just no good explanation for this tradition unless many people knew from early on that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah, or claimed to be miracle-worker.

The reality is that Jesus wasn’t a miracle-worker, a Messiah, nor a Son of God–nor did he even claim to be. Rather he was convinced by John the Baptist that the end of the world was near–that people must repent to save themselves from the coming judgement. Only someone who has not read the gospels could be confused about Jesus’ message.  “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God,” Jesus says in Luke, “because that is why I was sent” (4:43). Even when Jesus commissions his disciples to spread his gospel—his “good news”—what is that gospel?  “As you go,” he tells them in Matthew, “preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near’” (10:5-8).

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis famously set up his “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” argument–known as the trilemma. “A man who said the sorts of things Jesus said,” he writes, “would not be a great moral teacher… You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.” Here, I hope I have presented a fourth way to understand Jesus–namely, that early Christians changed Jesus’ words and message to confirm their belief in his divinity. Jesus was most certainly crazy–believing that the world was about to end–but not because he believed he was divine.

*Update: While every scientific field of study has its unique methods, to claim that history isn’t science requires a very restrictive definition of science. Science can be understood as the systematic study of reality. The fact that history is not repeatable or directly observable doesn’t make it not scientific–it just makes it unique. It doesn’t even make it more tenuous than any other. There are many areas of science–psychology, for example–where conclusions are much more difficult to arrive at.

Update 2: I address the question of Jesus’s death in this post: Why Jesus Didn’t Die for Claiming to Be God.

**Update 3: As Robert Grant notes, “in spite of the fact that the disciples were given secret teaching, they failed to understand the intention of Jesus. They did not understand the parable of the sower (4:13, followed by an allegorical explanation; cf. 7:18); they did not know that Jesus could still a storm (4:40) or walk on the sea (6:49-51). They did not understand about the loaves in the feeding miracles (6:51; 8:14-21). They did not understand the predictions of death and resurrection; indeed, they did not even know what ‘resurrection’ was (9:10). They could not see how the rich could be saved (10:24, 26). Such ignorance was present not only among the disciples in general but also among the inner circle. Peter did not understand the passion prediction (8:32); James and John mistakenly asked for seats at the right and left of Jesus in his ‘glory’ (10:35-7).” Of course, Mark’s author understood what was really going on.

Read my first post about Jesus: Why I Accept Jesus (Just Not Into My Heart)

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25 Responses to How Jesus Never Claimed to Be God [Updated]

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  6. Gumby says:

    David, you’re a bright lad. However, I don’t think you’re quite ready for these types of statements. Literally, for the past two thousand years, people have believed in the truth of the Gospels while undergoing arguably the worst and most persecution of any people group in modern history altogether. Still, the truth and belief in the bible remains. Christianity is the largest and fastest growing religion in the world today. I say all this simply to propose one of two ideas:
    1. Christianity is by far the greatest and most thorough lie ever created. And even the most brilliant minds and awful tortures have not yet been able to abolish it.
    2. It is true.

    Either way, I think a man of your young age is not nearly ready to make such large claims on your own accord, especially seeing how shallow of students you and your brother were in high school. Complaining about authorities is never a good way to learn, even if you disagree. Learn to actually think critically and consider both sides of an argument before you aim to abolish mighty claims. Keep up the good work, though.

  7. … [Trackback]…

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  8. [...] I Accept Jesus (Just Not Into My Heart) and How Jesus Never Claimed to Be God and Why Jesus Didn’t Die for Claiming to Be [...]

  9. [...] will discount alternate explanations for biblical accounts in much the same way. In my first post about Jesus, for example, I listed several inconvenient early Christian beliefs make it likely Jesus was [...]

  10. [...] into this narrative using completely ad hoc, or after-the-fact, logic. Why did Jesus repeatedly deny being God and never speak publicly about his messianic role? Because he was actually hiding it! Why? Oh, I don’t know–God [...]

  11. T13 says:

    I’m not a theologian but this seems like some really light weight stuff after listening to what I consider some fairly good lectures on this subject in the past. I’ve seen some very heated debates over whether Jesus was actually god or just the son “messiah” in which Jesus says a lot of things that are meant to be understood by people of the time who had a good understanding of the Tanakh. I have to say everything Jesus did is basically just a fulfillment of what was written in it all the way through his death.

  12. Really fascinating stuff, David. Have you ever read any of Robert M. Price’s work?

    He’s about the best resource for biblical criticism I’ve ever read.

    I Recommend: “The Incredible Shrinking Son Of Man”, and “The Christ Myth Theory And Its Problems”.

    • David Bier says:

      Greg, I haven’t read Price, but I will definitely check him out. John Meier, Bart Ehrman, Gerd Ludeman, and Raymond Brown are the four I know best.

  13. Roger says:

    A friend of mine just reminded me (of all things) that claiming to be God was one of the charges set for by the High Priests to kill him. Good thing that he died on a fallacious charge. I always thought the charge was true. Why did Jesus not defend himself if the charge was obviously so false? Another strike against this inane theory. Also, the Talmud claims also that Jesus claimed divinity. Another witness to what actually happened.. hmmm.

    • David Bier says:

      You are correct that if Jesus died for claiming he was God, then my theory would be wrong. My next post will address this controversy. You are still left to explain all of the facts that I laid out in this post, which has yet to be done.

      There is no consensus that Jesus was ever mentioned in the Talmud (200 CE), and even if he was, it was was written too late to count as independent evidence for Jesus.

    • Glenn W says:

      There are more reasons to think the Talmud passages are NOT referring to Jesus than reasons to think that they are.

      Did he entice Jews to apostasy, or did he endorse the Torah?

      Did he have five disciples or twelve? What were their names?

      Was his execution heralded for forty days, or was it an overnight job?

      Was he stoned and hanged, or was he crucified?

      Were his disciples executed also, or did they go out to be missionaries?

  14. Roger says:

    I know this article is a load of bull. Jesus claimed that he was I Am and that he existed prior to Abraham. I should know. This was the focus of the Gospel lesson in my church today. God’s name Yahweh means I am… essentially his name is a pun on the fact he is a self existent being. Jesus also claimed to be ‘I Am’ and thus the scribes and pharisees began to stone him. I mean why stone him if he merely claimed to be ‘I Am’. To most Biblical illiterates, this phrase means nothing, but it meant everything back then as Jesus was claiming divinity. So that blows your theory out of the water.

    Now to why Jesus wanted the miracles to be on the down low. Jesus is also the Son. The Son points to the Father. When he performed miracles, He pointed to the Father, not to himself due to his humility. At that point, he was lesser than the Father who was in heaven. (Post resurrection is different). So when he performed miracles, they were done discretely as to not brag or boast, but to serve His Father.

    Also, both Jews and the Apostles both agree that the tomb was empty Easter morning. Do you believe the Jews and think that the frightened Apostles stole the body of Jesus out of the well guarded tomb by bribing the Roman guards as the reactionary Jews did? Or that Jesus was truly resurrected? If we were to use a scientific approach the answer is obvious given all the witnesses during the 40 day period of Easter. (Yes Easter lasted more than one day).

    There are also many other errors with this that I cannot delve into without great explanation. Just keep up the good work of deceiving people. You do a great job.

    • David Bier says:

      Thanks! My next post will be on how Jesus wasn’t resurrected. Stay tuned…

    • Glenn W says:

      Roger, Roger, Roger.

      You do realise that David doesn’t accept the Gospels as reliable history, right? If everything happened exactly as the Gospels say it happened, then David would be a Christian, because the Gospels say that Jesus rose from the dead.

      Clearly David is saying that the Gospels are not reliable history, so quoting parts of the Gospels as history – having guards at the tomb for example, or claiming he used the phrase “I AM” – is not a valid argument.

  15. jefferson says:

    This just isn’t true at all.

    http://www.apologeticsguy.com/2012/01/did-jesus-say-he-was-god/

    But, what I’ve been wondering about for quite some time is your obsession with something that that cannot possibly be disproven. You either believe, or you don’t.

    Since there is no proof either way, how about just leaving those that believe alone and just go along on your merry atheist way?

    • David Bier says:

      I write about Christianity and the Bible because they are very interesting and have had a profound effect on our culture. I am “leaving them alone”–they’re free to not read my articles and bury their head in the sand, and I’m free to write about what the evidence of history actually shows.

      • jefferson says:

        Just because you use the words “evidence of history” doesn’t mean your interpretations or recounting of it are the truth.

        For example, to you, “Son of man” does not mean “Son of God,” but to Christians, “Son of man” does mean “Son of God.” There are many instances where Jesus says or does things that indicate he was relaying that he was God (forgiving sins, saying “I am the way,” etc). Therefore, your feeble attempt at using Christ’s words against Christ’s words doesn’t hold any water with Christians. If you want to understand a bit about Christians, then you should read “Mere Christianity” by CS Lewis.

        I’ve also seen you claim that Jesus didn’t even exist; which is an absolutely ludicrous statement. Nevertheless, you aren’t going to change your view, and I’m not going to change mine. So you are clearly beating your head against a steel wall. I was trying to save you some critical cortical damage; a cortex I believe would be much better focused on things you CAN change.

        • David Bier says:

          I don’t believe you actually read my entire piece, since I literally wrote a blog post entitled “Why I Accept Jesus,” and linked to it in this article, and since I quote Mere Christianity, you clearly didn’t make it to the final paragraph.

          My argument doesn’t hinge on whether Jesus in the Bible claims that he was God–the authors can make Jesus say whatever they want (and did), but the tradition across all four Gospels that Jesus hid his true identity from people is strong evidence for the belief that he never claimed to be God during his life time. http://blog.skepticallibertarian.com/2012/02/26/why-i-accept-jesus-just-not-into-my-heart/

          • jefferson says:

            I read enough of your piece to determine that you didn’t know what you were talking about. Case in point: you claim that the Gospels indicate that Jesus never said he was God. Maybe I’ll return in a few days with about 100 quotes that can be interpreted that way. Or, maybe I’ll just drop it because I know what Jesus meant when in John Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”

            I suspect that you will argue the interpretation of this quote, but that’s really straining it in my view. I’m a Christian, and I know what Christ said, and what he meant that he said.

            If you want to reach out to Christians in some way, then don’t make statements that hold little or no weight in the face of all of the evidence.

          • David Bier says:

            I never said the Bible doesn’t say that Jesus claimed to be God. And I quote, “the earliest three gospels–-Mark, Matthew, and Luke–-rarely describe Jesus as claiming messianic or divine status (John’s gospel, written decades later corrects this “mistake”).”

            What I claimed was that there’s no reason to believe these accounts are reliable since they serve the author’s agenda. On the other hand, Christians have no good explanation why Jesus–whose “Gospel” was supposedly built on his divinity–would work so hard to hide this reality. You can’t tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about when you didn’t even read my post, and didn’t respond to the only claim I made.

            And I don’t write to “reach out to Christians.” I write for critical thinkers.

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