People today ask the same provocative question that Jesus once asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Modern historians present Jesus as a cynic, reformer, revolutionary, mystic, and even a radical feminist. Their particular interpretive criteria result in these options. Such researchers frequently scoff at the idea that Jesus saw himself as the Messiah, Savior, and Son of God and claim such thinking to be unhistorical. And yet, if the critics consistently applied their own criteria, an image of Jesus compatible with that of the Gospels would emerge.
Bart D. Ehrman, a prominent New Testament scholar, broadly represents a majority of modern nonevangelical Jesus scholars. His book, Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, essentially updates the position espoused by twentieth century theologian and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer. “This is a view of Jesus that has been maintained for most of the present century by the majority of critical scholars in both the United States and Germany.”
Ehrman claims to base his view of Jesus primarily on two main predetermined historical criteria: (1) multiple independent attestation, and (2) contextual credibility. Multiple independent attestation occurs when two or more independent sources attest to the same event or saying—similar to the practice in journalism of a reporter getting independent confirmation of a news report before printing it. The criterion of contextual credibility asserts that traditions are more likely to be reliable if they conform well to the known historical and social situations of the time.
In order to understand how some New Testament scholars use the criterion of multiple independent attestation, one must understand that according to the most widely accepted theory, Matthew and Luke borrowed much of their information from the Gospel of Mark. Therefore, information in Mark, also found in Matthew and/or Luke, only counts as one source. Further, since most New Testament scholars theorize that Matthew and Luke never saw each other’s gospels, information common to Matthew and Luke that cannot be traced to Mark presumably comes from a lost source which scholars call “Q” (see sidebar). Mark and Q, therefore, are often considered the primary sources for the facts of Jesus’ life, though other sources are sometimes used as well.
Summary of Agreements
According to Ehrman, Jesus was known as an apocalyptic prophet, an exorcist, and healer whose message centered on the priority of the kingdom of God. While Jesus believed the kingdom had both present and future aspects, he primarily referred to a literal kingdom in which God would rule. The exorcisms Jesus performed displayed more than acts of compassion; they demonstrated a manifestation of the power of God over the forces of evil, forecasting the total destruction of evil in the future kingdom. Likewise, Jesus’ healings were not simply acts of kindness. They previewed a kingdom in which no disease or disability could exist.
For Jesus, absolutely nothing was more important than loving God and seeking his kingdom. Putting the kingdom first involved obedience to the principles found in the Law of Moses: love God above all else, and love others as much as one’s self. Jesus’ command to love others extended even to one’s enemies. In fact, Jesus’ command to forgive one’s enemies is one of his most strongly attested teachings. Jesus particularly insisted that loving one’s neighbor included the needs of the social outcasts of the time—the poor, the sick,women, and children.
Jesus expected his followers to prepare for the kingdom at once—which meant that they were to behave in the present as they would in the kingdom. For example, Jesus’ followers needed to treat all people with fairness and justice, serve others lovingly, and help the poor. Preparing people for the kingdom also involved offering salvation to sinners—the corrupt, self-centered, and godless—who needed to repent and live in light of the coming realm.
Jesus was devoted to the Law of Moses, but unlike the Essenes did not teach the maintenance of purity by isolation from others. Unlike the Sadducees, Jesus did not place supreme importance on the temple, and unlike some of the Pharisees, he did not emphasize legal minutiae. In fact, Jesus often clashed with this Jewish sect over the proper interpretation of the Law and his message met with widespread rejection.
The Romans, of course, cared nothing for the concerns or doctrines of the Jewish religious leaders. They were concerned about the charges that Jesus considered himself to be a king of the Jews.Because of this royal claim, Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion.
Although Ehrman does not believe Jesus actually rose from the dead, he notes: “It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution.” Ehrman points out that if no belief in the resurrection had existed, Jesus’ death likely would have been viewed as just another tragic incident, instead of being interpreted as an act of salvation. The development of a new religion would have been unlikely.
This perspective on Jesus does not come from an evangelical, but from a scholar antagonistic to traditional Christianity. Many evangelicals would agree with the summary presented. However, what Ehrman denies is more important than what he affirms. For example, Ehrman not only denies the resurrection, he also denies that Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah and Son of God who died for people’s sin. An analysis of some of these points of disagreement, therefore, becomes important.
General consistency in applying historical criteria is one of the strengths of Ehrman’s book. One wonders, then, why he failed to be consistent in the treatment of how Jesus viewed himself and his own ministry. First, although multiple independent sources confirm the idea that Jesus saw himself as the Son of Man, Ehrman disagrees.  He argues that the Son of Man was someone other than Jesus, whom Jesus expected to come in the future. In fact, Ehrman reasons that the Jewish leaders killed Jesus because he predicted that this coming Son of Man would judge them. The Dead Sea Scrolls, however, show that just predicting God’s judgment on the Jewish leadership did not automatically lead to a death sentence.
Many historical reconstructions of Jesus rise or fall on their explanation of Jesus’ death. Ehrman asks the question—why crucify a Jewish rabbi who taught people to love God and be good to each another? Ehrman’s point is well taken, but his explanation for Jesus’ death is unconvincing. Multiple sources attest to the idea that Jesus thought of himself as the Son of Man. Daniel 7 describes this Son of Man as one who would sit at the right hand of the Father, judge the world, and rule over an everlasting kingdom. If Jesus taught such things about himself, charges of sedition would be warranted. Such teaching also explains why the Romans executed him.
Second, although multiple independent sources attest to the tradition of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey in fulfillment of Zech. 9:9, Ehrman insists that because Jesus was not arrested immediately, this event probably is not historically accurate. However, the Romans were not likely familiar enough with Jewish Scriptures to have recognized immediately the significance of this action.
In addition, the Gospels describe the Jewish leaders’ concern with the wide following Jesus commanded. It seems quite plausible, then, that they would proceed carefully with his arrest. The consistent application of the criterion of multiple independent attestation leads to the conclusion that Jesus did enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey. In so doing he deliberately presented himself as Israel’s king, a role Zech. 9:9 applies to God himself. This act of publicly riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as Israel’s God-king could have been recognized by the religious leadership as blasphemous, warranting the presentation of evidence for sedition in a trial before the Romans. Many would have seen Jesus’ action as deserving of the death penalty.
Third, Ehrman argues that though multiple independent sources attest to the Lord’s Supper, the historicity of that event is difficult to know since it “seem[s] so heavily ‘Christianized’ by the doctrine of the saving effect of Jesus’ death.” But the criterion of contextual credibility also supports the idea that Jesus thought of his death as atonement for sin. As Ben Witherington, in his book The Christology of Jesus,points out: “The idea of a human sacrificial death atoning for sin seems to have been very much alive in Judaism during Jesus’ era.” And, there is nothing improbable with the idea that Jesus saw his death as having the same significance as that of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.
Witherington uses the same general methodology as Ehrman, focusing solely on Q and the Gospel of Mark to demonstrate that Jesus thought of himself as more than an ordinary human being. For example, Witherington points out that Jesus actually considered himself to be above the Torah—and in Jewish thought, only God was above the Torah. Witherington also demonstrated that the phrase “Amen, I say to you,” which occurs numerous times in all four Gospels, shows that Jesus spoke not just as a prophet of God, but as one speaking with his own divine authority and power. According to Witherington, the criterion of multiple independent attestation shows that Jesus believed it was God’s will that he die as a ransom for many, but that he would return in the clouds of heaven to judge the world, as indicated by Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man.
The critics, however, dismiss stories of incarnation and atonement as mythology. So even if multiple sources attest to their validity, they must be rejected. Marcus Borg, for example, objects to the idea that Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah who came to die for the sins of the world. Borg says quite candidly that for Jesus actually to think he was the Messiah implied that he was crazy.While Borg’s honesty may be admirable, his scholarship on this point is questionable. Credible researchers must be willing to go where the evidence leads, regardless of the outcome.
Borg does raise a question worthy of consideration, however. Is it historically plausible that Jesus, a first-century Jew, could have come to think of himself as the very embodiment of God? In other words, would such a “self-understanding” be supported by the criterion of contextual credibility?
Evidence suggests that it would be. The idea that gods might appear as human beings was well known in contemporary Greek thought. Recent studies have established the widespread influence of Greek thought in Galilee, where Jesus lived.
In addition, it was not unknown in the ancient world for a human being to think of himself as the embodiment of a god. Though such thinking would have been unusual for a Jew and especially for a peasant, one only needs to remember the story of God’s interaction with Abraham in Genesis 18 to know that the idea of God appearing to people as a human being was not foreign to Judaism. Therefore the idea that Jesus thought of himself as “one with the Father,” as the Gospel of John reveals, is supported not only by the criterion of multiple independent attestation but also by the criterion of contextual credibility.
Yet as Borg suggests, if someone actually thought of himself as the very embodiment of God, people would think he was crazy. And that is precisely what some people thought of Jesus. Others said he was a blasphemer, and still others thought he was demon possessed. Their responses help establish the point.
Those who believed what Jesus taught about himself probably did so for several reasons. First, they were convinced by his miracles. In Jesus’ day no one seems to have denied that he performed amazing signs and wonders—people differed only in their interpretation of those powers. Jesus’ enemies thought he was a sorcerer or that he did miracles by the power of Satan. His followers were well aware of traveling sorcerers, but countered that no one had ever performed miracles like these!
Second, those who believed in Jesus did so because they were convinced that he actually fulfilled prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures about a coming Messiah and about God coming to his temple and visiting his people. While Jesus deliberately fulfilled some prophecies—for example, his riding into Jerusalem on a donkey—others he could not have fulfilled by human power alone. Early followers were convinced that Jesus fulfilled these prophecies.
Third, those who believed in Jesus as God did so because they were absolutely convinced that he had risen from the dead—a point even Ehrman concedes. In fact, Christians were so convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead that they were willing to suffer persecution, torture, and death believing so. Multiple sources firmly attest to the persecution of Christians.
While Ehrman’s book presents views generally antagonistic to traditional Christianity, his perspective on Jesus also contains many convincing elements of agreement with evangelicals: (1) Jesus was an exorcist, a healer, and a Jewish apocalyptic prophet, whose message centered on the kingdom of God in which there would be no poverty, illness, or oppression; (2) Jesus lived as though absolutely nothing was as important as loving God and seeking his kingdom; (3) Jesus called his followers to behave in the present as they would in the kingdom, and this meant not only loving God above all else but also loving their neighbors and even their enemies; and (4) Jesus’ exorcisms and healings were not only acts of compassion but were designed to foreshadow his coming kingdom.
Consistent application of the criteria of multiple independent attestation and contextual credibility adds support for the idea that Jesus thought of himself as the Son of Man who would sit at the right hand of the Father to judge and rule over an everlasting kingdom. He considered himself as an authority above the Torah with the right to forgive sins. He publicly presented himself as Israel’s God and king and anticipated his death as atonement for the sins of others.
In addition, consistent application of the criteria of multiple independent attestation and contextual credibility, as set forth in this article, can be used to make the case that Jesus thought of himself and was thought of by others as the Messiah, King, and Savior. The consistent use of these criteria can also explain the evidence: (1) charges of demon possession or insanity by Jesus’ enemies, (2) charges of blasphemy by religious leaders, (3) charges of sedition by the Romans, (4) continuation of a Jesus-following after his death, (5) willingness of early Christians to die for Jesus, and (6) a presentation of Jesus in the New Testament as God incarnate who died for the sins of the world. And, as Ehrman pointed out, historical reconstructions of Jesus may rise or fall on the explanation of Jesus’ death.
Ehrman rightfully insists that for Jesus, love for God and his kingdom is to be the highest priority. Referring to Matthew 10:37 and Luke 14:26, Ehrman shows that for Jesus, the kingdom was more important than one’s closest relatives and loved ones. But these verses actually present Jesus as saying that people must love him—not just the kingdom—more than anything or anyone else.
Ehrman missed the concept that for Jesus, putting the Kingdom of God first also meant putting the King first—and Jesus believed himself to be that King, the fulfillment of Jewish prophecies about God coming to his people. The same historical criteria implemented by Ehrman to present his own view of Jesus confirm as a matter of history that Jesus presented himself as King, Son of Man, and Savior.
While some of Jesus’ enemies thought him to be blasphemous, demon possessed, or crazy, Jesus’ followers believed in him because of his miracles, fulfilled prophecies, and resurrection. According to the Gospels, Jesus once asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?” Considering all that Jesus claimed to be, consistent application of strict historical criteria makes that question as significant today as when Jesus first asked it.
Sidebar: The Lost Gospel of Q
Similarities between Matthew, Mark, and Luke fascinate many scholars. Not only is the order of events often the same, but the actual wording, even in the original Greek, is often identical. A number of explanations attempt to account for this “problem” known as the Synoptic Problem.
The most widely accepted theory today is often called the Two Source theory. According to this theory, the writer of Matthew used the gospel of Mark as one of his sources for information. The writer of Luke also used the gospel of Mark as one of his sources. Advocates of the Two Source theory are convinced, however, that Matthew and Luke did not use each other’s gospels. Two Source theorists find it hard to believe that Matthew and Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth could be so different if one borrowed from the other. Those who hold to the Two Source theory also point out that whereas Jesus’ teachings are scattered throughout Luke’s gospel, Matthew’s gospel groups them together in five discourses. This is hard to explain if Matthew or Luke used each other’s gospels.
A fairly large quantity of nearly identical material is found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. In other words, those who hold to the Two Source theory ask, if this material common to Matthew and Luke did not come from Mark, and if Matthew and Luke did not use each other’s gospels, how can the similarities between Matthew and Luke be explained? To solve this dilemma, those holding to the Two Source theory postulate a “lost” source and that Matthew and Luke borrowed from it. This hypothetical source became known as Quelle, the German word for source, or Q for short.
Doctrinally, the Two Source theory as stated previously presents no problem for evangelicals. Luke strongly implies that he used sources for the writing of his gospel. The doctrine of inspiration asserts that the Holy Spirit guided the authors of Scripture so that what they wrote was without error regardless of whether the authors received that information by divine revelation, divinely guided reason, or from other accurate sources.
Numerous godly evangelical scholars believe the Two Source theory provides the best solution to the Synoptic Problem. The problem with the Q theory is not the theory itself, but, rather, what some scholars do with it. For example, some scholars argue that there were three editions of Q and then fabricate a history behind the “Q community.” Meanwhile, Q is only a hypothesis. To postulate three editions to a hypothetical document and then further postulate what can be known about the people that supposedly made revisions to a hypothetical document must be called “absurd.”
Some scholars write as if the Two Source theory were established fact or nearly so. Nothing could be further from the truth. A number of outstanding scholars argue strongly that Matthew wrote first, that Luke used Matthew as a source, and that Mark wrote a condensed version of Matthew and Luke. This view is known as the Griesbach theory. Another theory, popular in England, is that Mark wrote first, Matthew used Mark as a source, and Luke used both Matthew and Mark as sources. There are also some evangelical scholars in America who argue that none of the Gospels used the other gospels as sources.
Q is not some newly discovered lost Gospel that will change everything known about Christianity, as one Jesus critic has asserted. If Q ever existed at all, anyone reading Matthew and Luke has read every word of it.
Dennis Ingolfsland, D.Phil., earned his doctorate degree in Religion and Society with an emphasis on historical Jesus studies. The author of more than 50 published articles and book reviews, he is currently the director of library services and an associate professor of Bible at Crown College in Minnesota.
Each of these criteria assume that the gospels are generally unreliable and cannot be trusted until proven trustworthy this in spite of strong evidence for the reliability of the gospels. For example see Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987) and A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Law in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986).
Other sources include material unique to Matthew (sometimes called “M”), material unique to Luke (sometimes known as “L”), Paul’s letters, and the Gospel of John. More radical critics also want to include sources such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Egerton papyri, Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1224, the Gospel of the Hebrews, and others.
Ehrman, 197-98; see also Mark 1:21-28, 32-34, 39; 3:9-12; 5:1-20; 7:24-30; 9:14-29; M material in Matt. 9:32-34; L material in Luke 13:10; Acts 10:38. It is important to note that Jesus’ exorcisms were interpreted apocalyptically (e.g., Matt. 12:27 = Luke 11:19-23). Note: Biblical scholars often use the “equals” (=) sign to identify passages in one gospel that are parallel to passages in another gospel.
Ehrman, Jesus, 199-200; see also Mark 5:35-43; John 11:38-44. See also Dennis Ingolfsland, “Q, M, L and Other Sources for the Historical Jesus,” The Princeton Theological Review 4:5 (October 1997), 20. For excellent discussions on Jesus’ healings see John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol.2 (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 509-772; Graham Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999); Graham Twelftree, Jesus the Exorcist (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson 1993).
Ehrman, 175-176. Matt. 18:9; Mark 9:37, 42; 10:14; Luke 9:48. See also the Gospel of Thomas, v. 22. Ehrman points out that Jesus was known for his association with women. Women accompanied Jesus on his journeys, engaged in discussions with him, and supported him financially. Women were with Jesus even at his death and were the first to proclaim his resurrection.
The Essenes were a strict separatist religious group, many of whom withdrew from society to settle in a commune setting known as Qumran along the shores of the Dead Sea. They were most likely the group responsible for producing the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Sadducees were a religious group made up largely of wealthy ruling religious authorities whose power base was the Temple. They appear to have rejected the idea of an afterlife, the existence of angels, and the idea of predestination.
Q material in Matt. 15:14 = Luke 6:39; Luke 14:5 = Matt. 12:11; Matt. 23:23 = Luke 11:42; Luke 11:52 = Matt. 23:13; L material in Luke 13:15; Mark 2:25-26; 7:19–23; John 7:22-23. See also the Gospel of Thomas, v. 34, 39.
Ehrman, 231. See also N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 399, who takes this argument one step further. Wright argues that if a person came back to life in the ancient world others might be convinced that the world was truly a strange place, but a resurrection alone was not likely to convince someone that the resurrected person was the Messiah or Son of God. If Jesus had not taught his disciples that he was the Messiah and Son of God, it is difficult to understand why belief in his resurrection would have automatically led to that conclusion.
See for example 1QpHab IX in the Dead Sea Scrolls: “Its interpretation concerns the last priests of Jerusalem, who will accumulate riches and loot from plundering peoples. However, in the last days their riches and their loot will fall into the hands of the army of the Kittim.” Florentino Garcia Martinez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1994). The Kittim appears to be a reference to the Romans.
Ben Witherington, The Christology of Jesus (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1990), 257. Witherington notes that the vast majority of Son of Man passages in the Gospels actually equate Jesus with the Son of Man. In fact, there are only four passages used to support the theory that the Son of Man was someone other than Jesus. But these four passages do not actually assert that there is a distinction; they simply leave the identity of the Son of Man ambiguous. On the other hand, Witherington points out that Luke 9:58, a passage that equates Jesus with the Son of Man, is held by most critical scholars to be authentic. As Witherington points out, if only one saying in which Jesus identified himself as the Son of Man is authentic—and Luke 9:58 apparently does so—the view that makes a distinction between Jesus and the Son of Man would be shown to be a failure.
Witherington, 252; see also 4 Macc. 6:27-29 (see James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2, 531-43 (New York: Doubleday, 1985); 2 Macc. 7:37-38; and for an extended discussion see N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 574-611.
Critical scholars often argue that Isaiah 53 is something read back into Jesus’ life by early Christians. But since the idea that Jesus thought of his death as an atonement for sin is supported by both the criteria of multiple independent attestation and contextual credibility, it is more likely that these ideas came from Jesus himself.
Ben Witherington received a Doctor of Theology degree from Durham University. He is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and Research Fellow at Cambridge University. Witherington has written over a dozen books and is considered one of the foremost evangelical Jesus scholars in America.
For example, Ovid’s Metamorphosis (8.626-724) has a story about the gods visiting an elderly couple. That this story was taken seriously by some is reflected in the book of Acts (14:8-15) when the people of Lystra welcomed Paul and Barnabas as gods.
These views meet the criterion of embarrassment, that is, it is highly unlikely that early Christians would have made up such things about Jesus had they not been true. The fact that these things are even recorded at all speaks volumes about the honesty and objectivity of the gospel writers.
For excellent discussions of Jesus’ miracles see John Meier, A Marginal Jew (New York: Doubleday, 1991, 1994); Graham H. Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999).
His physical descent from David or his birth in Bethlehem would be a couple of examples. While most critical scholars assert that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, his birth in Bethlehem (and his descent from David) is supported by the criteria of multiple independent attestation while a Nazareth birth has no support at all. In fact, my suspicion is that the only real reason for denying Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is because it fulfills prophecy. On a human level, however, we might ask which makes more historical sense: 1) that the early church made up a story about their king being born in a stable in Bethlehem, or 2) that Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and his lineage from David are among the factors that led to Jesus’ thinking about his own mission and ministry as Messiah.