The Self-Understanding of Jesus

Jesus and the Scholars

You might be surprised to learn that today many New Testament scholars don’t believe that the historical Jesus ever claimed to be the Son of God, the Lord, or even the Messiah.{1} But if that’s the case, how do they explain the presence of such claims in the Gospels? They believe the Gospel writers put them there! The actual Jesus of history never made such exalted claims for himself. It was the early church that started all that business.

Download the PodcastIs this true? What are we to make of all this? Let’s begin with a deceptively simple question: How did the early church come to believe in—and even worship—Jesus as both Lord and Messiah, if he never actually claimed such titles for himself? Just think for a moment about how strange this would be. Jesus’ earliest followers were Jews. They firmly believed that there is only one God. And yet, shortly after his crucifixion, they began worshiping Jesus as God! As Dr. William Lane Craig asks, “How does one explain this worship by monotheistic Jews of one of their countrymen as God incarnate, apart from the claims of Jesus himself?”{2} In other words, if Jesus never made such exalted claims for himself, then why would his earliest followers do so? After all, on the surface such claims not only seem blasphemous, they also appear to contradict the deeply held Jewish conviction that there is only one God.

But there’s another issue that needs to be considered. Although many critical scholars don’t believe that Jesus ever made such radical personal claims, nevertheless, they do believe that he said and did things that seem to imply that he had a very high view of himself. In other words, while they might deny that Jesus ever explicitly claimed to be Israel’s Messiah, or Lord, they acknowledge that he said and did things which, when you get right down to it, seem to imply that that’s precisely who he believed himself to be! If this is correct, if Jesus really believed himself to be both Israel’s Messiah and Lord, then notice that we are brought back once again to that old dilemma of traditional apologetics.{3} Jesus was either deceived in this belief, suffering from something akin to delusions of grandeur. Or he was a fraud, willfully trying to deceive others. Or he really was who he believed himself to be—Messiah, Lord, and Son of God.

In the remainder of this article, we’ll examine some of the sayings and deeds of Jesus that even many critical scholars accept as historically authentic to see what they might tell us about Jesus’ self-understanding.

Jesus and the Twelve

Today, even most critical scholars agree that Jesus probably chose a core group of twelve disciples just as the Gospels say he did. In fact, Dr. Bart Ehrman refers to this event as “one of the best-attested traditions of our surviving sources . . .”{4} Now you might be thinking that this sounds like a rather insignificant detail. What can this possibly tell us about the self-understanding of Jesus? Does his choice of twelve disciples give us any insight into what he believed about himself?

Let’s begin with a little background information. E. P. Sanders, in his highly acclaimed book, Jesus and Judaism, observes that “. . . in the first century Jewish hopes for the future would have included the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel.”{5} Now this hope was based on nothing less than God’s prophetic revelation in the Hebrew Bible. Sometimes the primary agent effecting this restoration is said to be the Lord (e.g. Isa. 11:11-12; Mic. 2:12). At other times it’s a Messianic figure who is clearly a human being (e.g. Isa. 49:5-6). Interestingly, however, still other passages describe this Messianic figure as having divine attributes, or as being closely associated with the Lord in some way (e.g. cp. Mic. 2:13 with 5:2-4). But why is this important? And what does it have to do with Jesus’ choice of twelve disciples?

Many New Testament scholars view Jesus’ choice of twelve disciples as symbolic of the promised restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel. The restoration of Israel is thus seen to be one of the goals or objectives of Jesus’ ministry. As Richard Horsley observes, “One of the principal indications that Jesus intended the restoration of Israel was his appointment of the Twelve.”{6} But if one of Jesus’ consciously chosen aims was the restoration of Israel, then what does this imply about who he believed himself to be? After all, the Old Testament prophets attribute this restoration either to the Lord or to a Messianic figure possessing both divine and human attributes.

Might Jesus have viewed himself in such exalted terms? Some scholars believe that he did. Dr. Ben Witherington poses an interesting question: “If the Twelve represent a renewed Israel, where does Jesus fit in?” He’s not one of the Twelve. “He’s not just part of Israel, not merely part of the redeemed group, he’s forming the group—just as God in the Old Testament formed his people and set up the twelve tribes of Israel.”{7} Witherington argues that this is an important clue in uncovering what Jesus thought of himself. If he’s right, then Jesus may indeed have thought of himself as Israel’s Messiah and Lord!

Jesus and the Law

What was Jesus’ attitude toward the Law of Moses? Some scholars say that Jesus was a law-abiding Jew who “broke neither with the written Law nor with the traditions of the Pharisees.”{8} Others say the issue is more complex. Ben Witherington observes that Jesus related to the Law in a variety of ways.{9} Sometimes he affirmed the validity of particular Mosaic commandments (e.g. Matt. 19:18-19). At other times he went beyond Moses and intensified some of the commandments. In the Sermon on the Mount he declared, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). We shouldn’t skip too lightly over a statement like this. The prohibition against adultery is one of the Ten Commandments. By wording the statement as he did, Jesus apparently “equated his own authority with that of the divinely given Torah.”{10} Indeed, it’s because of sayings like this that one Jewish writer complained: “Israel cannot accept . . . the utterances of a man who speaks in his own name—not ‘thus saith the Lord,’ but ‘I say unto you.’ This ‘I’ is . . . sufficient to drive Judaism away from the Gentiles forever.”{11}

But Jesus went further than this! In Mark 7 he declared all foods “clean” (vv. 14-19). That is, he set aside the dietary laws found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. To really grasp the radical nature of Jesus’ declaration one must only remember that these dietary laws had been given to Israel by God Himself! But what sort of person believes he has the authority to set aside the commandments of God? Ben Witherington notes, “Jesus seems to assume an authority over Torah that no Pharisee or Old Testament prophet assumed—the authority to set it aside.”{12} And Jacob Neusner, a Jewish scholar, seems to agree: “Jews believe in the Torah of Moses . . . and that belief requires faithful Jews to enter a dissent at the teachings of Jesus, on the grounds that those teachings at important points contradict the Torah.”{13}

How does this relate to the self-understanding of Jesus? Think about it this way. What would Jesus have to believe about himself to seriously think he had the authority to set aside God’s commandments? Although it may trouble some critical scholars, the evidence seems to favor the view that Jesus believed that in some sense he possessed the authority of God Himself!

Jesus and the Demons

One of the amazing feats attributed to Jesus in the Gospels is the power of exorcism, the power to cast out demons from human beings. Although this may sound strange and unscientific to some modern readers, most critical scholars agree that both Jesus and his contemporaries at least believed that Jesus had such power. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the majority of critical scholars believe that demons actually exist, or that Jesus actually cast such spirits out of people. Many of them do not. But they do think there is persuasive historical evidence for affirming that both Jesus and his contemporaries believed such things.{14} In fact, Dr. Bart Ehrman notes that “Jesus’ exorcisms are among the best-attested deeds of the Gospel traditions.”{15} But why is this important? And what can it possibly tell us about Jesus’ self-understanding?

Most scholars are convinced that the historical Jesus declared, “But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28). Prior to making this declaration, the Pharisees had accused Jesus of casting out demons “by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons” (12:24). Jesus responded by pointing out how absurd it would be for Satan to fight against himself like that (v. 26). What’s more, the charge was inconsistent. There were other Jewish exorcists in Jesus’ day and it was widely believed that their power came from God. Wouldn’t it be more reasonable, then, to conclude that Jesus’ power also came from God?

If so, then notice the startling implications of Jesus’ claim: “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” At the very least, Jesus appears to be claiming that in himself the kingdom of God is in some sense a present reality. But his claim may actually be even more radical. Some scholars have observed that in ancient Jewish literature the phrase, ‘kingdom of God,’ is sometimes used as a roundabout way for speaking of God Himself. If Jesus intended this meaning in the statement we are considering, then William Lane Craig’s conclusion is fully warranted: “In claiming that in himself the kingdom of God had already arrived, as visibly demonstrated by his exorcisms, Jesus was, in effect, saying that in himself God had drawn near, thus putting himself in God’s place.”{16}

It increasingly appears that Jesus thought of himself as much more than just another teacher or prophet. Even when we limit ourselves to material accepted as authentic by the majority of critical scholars, Jesus still seems to unquestionably communicate his divinity!

Jesus and the Father

In one of the most astonishing declarations of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel he states, “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” (11:27). Many scholars believe that this verse forms a unit with the two preceding verses. It’s clear from the context that the “Father” referred to by Jesus is God, for Jesus begins this section by saying, “I praise Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth” (11:25). So in the verse we are considering, Jesus claims to be God’s Son in an absolutely unique sense. He refers to God as “My Father,” and declares that no one knows the Father, “except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” Jesus not only claims to be God’s unique Son, he also claims to have special knowledge of the Father that no one else can mediate to others!

Because of the radical nature of these claims, it’s hardly surprising to learn that some critical scholars have denied that Jesus ever really said this. Nevertheless, other scholars have offered some very good reasons for embracing the saying’s authenticity. Dr. William Lane Craig notes that this saying comes from the hypothetical Q source, a source that both Matthew and Luke may have used in writing their Gospels. If that’s true, then the saying is quite early and thus has a greater likelihood of actually going back to Jesus. Additionally, “the idea of the mutual knowledge of Father and Son is a Jewish idea, indicating its origin in a Semitic-speaking milieu.”{17} Finally, Dr. Ben Witherington notes that the eminent New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias showed “how this saying goes back to an Aramaic original” which “surely counts in favor of it going back to Jesus.”{18} Aramaic was probably the language most often used by Jesus and his disciples. After discussing this saying in some detail, Witherington concludes, “In the end, all the traditional bases for judging this saying to be inauthentic no longer will bear close scrutiny.”{19}

In this brief overview of the self-understanding of Jesus, I’ve attempted to show that even when we limit ourselves to Gospel traditions that are generally considered historically authentic by a majority of scholars, Jesus still makes impressive claims to deity. But as Dr. Craig observes, “. . . if Jesus was not who he claimed to be, then he was either a charlatan or a madman, neither of which is plausible. Therefore, why not accept him as the divine Son of God, just as the earliest Christians did?”{20}


1. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), 242-43.
2. Ibid., 243.
3. Ibid., 252.
4. Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 186.
5. E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 98.
6. Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), 199.
7. Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 134.
8. Donald A. Hagner, The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus: An Analysis and Critique of Modern Jewish Study of Jesus, ed. Gerard Terpstra (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 109-10. This quotation does not represent Hagner’s own position.
9. Ben Witherington, The Christology of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 65.
10. Craig, 246.
11. Ahad ha’ Am, “Judaism and the Gospels,” in Nationalism and the Jewish Ethic, ed. H. Khon (New York: Schocken, 1962), 298, cited in Hagner, 101-02.
12. Witherington, 65.
13. Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1993), xii, cited in Craig, 247.
14. Ehrman, 197.
15. Ibid.
16. Craig, 249.
17. Ibid., 246.
18. Witherington, 224.
19. Ibid., 225.
20. Craig, 252.

2004 Probe Ministries

Michael Gleghorn is a research associate with Probe Ministries. He earned a B.A. in psychology from Baylor University and a Th.M. in systematic theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. Before coming on staff with Probe, Michael taught history and theology at Christway Academy in Duncanville, Texas. Michael and his wife Hannah have two children. His personal website is

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