Questioning a Common Assumption
First, a quote: “The Church cannot indefinitely continue to believe about Jesus what he did not know to be true about himself,” J. W. Bowman, The Intention of Jesus (London: SCM, 1945), p. 108.
This is not really a historical claim but a theological one, and it reflects a common assumption: The assumption that the theological/religious validity of claims about Jesus rest upon what Jesus believed and taught about himself. In my book, Lord Jesus Christ (pp. 5-9), I’ve noted the irony of how this assumption has been shared by critics and advocates of Christian faith, and also how it has worked mischief in the historical investigation of Christian origins.
Operating on this assumption, apologists of traditional christological claims have striven to argue that Jesus really did teach them, e.g., that he is divine and worthy of worship. Typically, this has meant trying to show, for example, that the distinctive discourse that we find in the Gospel of John really is the best index of Jesus’ own self-perception and teaching about himself (thereby distorting this remarkable text and making it serve a purpose for which it was never intended).
Also, and ironically, operating on the same theological assumption, critics of traditional Christian faith have often argued that Jesus didn’t actually make direct claims for divinity and make himself worthy of worship. Instead, they have emphasized (with greater plausibility), it appears that these “high” claims about Jesus emerged only after Jesus’ execution (in what is sometimes called the “post-Easter” period). It is this sort of argument that is the burden of Bart Ehrman’s most recent book: How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2014). (Yeah, I know. Bart repeatedly claims that he’s not trying to “dis” Christian faith, and he generally maintains a respectful tone, but at times he slips and his disinterested claims seem a bit coy.)
So, how is it that this assumption came to be held as self-evident truth, shared both by apologists and critics of Christian faith? Well, it seems to derive from a very clever and historically successful move made in the 18th century by people now referred to as “Deists”. As Jonathan Z. Smith showed in his little tome, Drudgery Divine (1990), the Deists set out to drive a wedge between the “historical” Jesus and the NT (and traditional Christian faith). Taking a cue from the Protestant argument that church teaching had to be based in the NT, Deists argued in turn that NT christological claims had to be based in Jesus’ own teaching. They then further argued that a critical approach toward the “historical” Jesus did not provide a sufficient basis for traditional christological beliefs.
Now the interesting bit is that this (originally Deist) argument was wildly successful, at least in setting the terms of the ensuing theological and scholarly debate. That is, even those (e.g., advocates of traditional Christian faith) who opposed the Deists’ conclusions accepted their terms for the debate that followed (right down to our day): Jesus’ own teaching about himself was the criterion of legitimacy for any claims about him.
So, what you have is a fundamentally theological issue becoming the shared assumption for a great deal of subsequent historical investigation. And the result, as I’ve said, was a great deal of mischief: Christian apologists producing contorted historical arguments trying to pump up maximally what might be attributed to Jesus, and critics of traditional Christian faith (e.g., the Deists, the old religionsgeschichtliche Schule scholars and their intellectual descendants) contending that these claims were invalidated by the evident historical events/process through which they had emerged.
But I’d like to make two observations. First, the earliest extant Christian texts themselves make it perfectly clear that the “high” notions about Jesus sharing in divine glory, exalted to heavenly status, worthy of worship, etc., all erupted after Jesus’ ministry, not during it, and that the crucial impetus for these notions was what earliest believers saw as God’s actions, particularly their belief that God had raised Jesus from death to heavenly glory. (See, e.g., Philippians 2:9-11; Acts 2:36).
To be sure, Jesus generated a devoted following during his ministry, and (as I have argued in Lord Jesus Christ, 53-64) also generated a strong polarization of opinion about himself, which led to him being crucified. Indeed, as numerous scholars judge, Jesus (whether intentionally or not) likely generated the claim that he was (or was to be) Messiah, which seems to have been the cause of him being executed. But Messiah isn’t necessarily a “divine” figure in any real sense of that term, and certainly not typically a figure who receives the sort of devotion that was given to the “risen/exalted” Jesus in earliest Christian circles. (See my discussion of the question of how Jesus was reverenced during his ministry in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? esp. pp. 134-51).
To underscore the point, the remarkable escalation in the status/significance of Jesus to the “right hand” of God, to sharing the divine name and glory, and to the central and programmatic place he held in earliest Christian devotional practice all rested on the fundamental conviction that God has exalted him and now required that Jesus’ exalted status be recognized, and that he should be reverenced accordingly.
My second observation is this: Why should this be taken as some kind of threat to the theological legitimacy of traditional Christian faith? Why should the clever Deist tactic of the 18th century continue to be treated as a self-evident truth and the basis for apologists and critics of Christian faith in their continuing wrangles and debates? The fundamental theological basis given in the NT for treating Jesus in the “high” terms advocated is a theo-centric one: God’s actions form the basis of the responding christological claims and devotional practices. Considering this might be a really helpful move for all sides in any theological debate.
And setting aside the assumption that the validity of Christian faith can be weighed on the basis of the historical process by which it emerged could also make for better (or at least less antagonistic) historical work on Christian origins too.