Did Jesus know he was God? My friend Kay Paris asked this very good question the other day and, given how much I would like to say on this, I thought I’d write my reply as a dedicated blog post.
Personally I like what N T Wright has to say on the topic and in “The Challenge of Jesus” he devotes a whole chapter to it. He starts by noting:
“The problem is that the word god or God simply does not mean the same thing to all people who use it; and, what is more, most people in Western culture today, when they use the word, do not have in mind what mainstream, well-thought-out Christianity has meant by it. The result is quite drastic: if I were simply to answer yes … the majority of my hearers would here me affirming something I do not believe to be true. I do not think Jesus though he was identified with the being that most people in our culture think is denoted by the word god. What most people mean by god in late-modern Western culture is the god of Enlightenment Deism.”
Okay, I know this might be unsettling for some of you, this refusal to say “yes” upfront, but where N T Wright is going with this is that, before we answer the question “Did Jesus know he was God?”, we must first ask the question “What did a first century Galilean Jew understand that word god to mean?”
“The Jews believed in a specific God, of whom there was only one, who made the world and who was present to it and active within it while remaining sovereign over it and mysteriously other than it … [God] was not remote or detached. Nor was he simply a generalized sense of a sacred dimension within the world or for that matter the objectification or personification of forces and drives within the world.”
So, to think Pantheism is a valid interpretive lens is just as anachronistic as the Deist one. We need to understand the ancient Jews on their own terms. N T Wright then goes on to talk about how the ancient Jews perceived God acting in the world. He then goes on to develop how Jesus saw his own actions and vocation in relation to God’s actions and agenda.
“Central to all that follows is the argument that Jesus, at the very center of his vocation, believed himself called to do and be in relation to Israel what, in Scripture and Jewish belief, the Temple was and did. If, therefore, Judaism did indeed have a great incarnational symbol at its very heart, named the Temple, then for Jesus to upstage the Temple, to take on its role and function and to legitimate this with Davidic claims, meant that Jesus was claiming that he rather than the Temple was the place where and the means by which the living God was present with Israel.”
Kay, this is a heads up just for you, note the Temple was the Jewish equivalent of the omphalos stone, world tree, etc.
“My conclusion from this brief survey of the evidence is that Jesus believed himself to act as the new Temple. When people were in his presence, it was if they were in the Temple … Jesus was taking a huge risk of acting as if he were the Shekinah in person, the presence of YHWH tabernacling with his people.”
N T Wright then goes on to talk of the other incarnational symbols of Judaism, such as the Torah, then says this:
“Jesus was not content to announce that YHWH was returning to Zion. He intended to enact, symbolize and personify that climactic event.”
And note this was a one off event, which for the Jews was the climax of history. He is not saying this is just one of many ways of embodying God.
“The return of YHWH to Zion, and the Temple-theology which it brings into focus, are the deepest keys and clues to gospel Christology. Forget the “titles” of Jesus, at least for a moment; forget the attempts of some well meaning Christians to make Jesus of Nazareth conscious of being the second person of the Trinity; forget the arid reductionism that some earnest liberal theologians have produced by way of reaction. Focus, instead, on a young Jewish prophet telling a story about YHWH returning to Zion as judge and redeemer, and then embodying it by riding into the city in tears, symbolizing the Temple’s destruction and celebrating the final exodus. I propose, as a matter of history, that Jesus of Nazareth was conscious of vocation: a vocation, given him by the one he knew as “father”, to enact in himself what, in Israel’s scriptures, God has promised to accomplish all by himself. He would be the pillar of cloud and fire for the people of the new exodus. He would embody in himself the returning and redeeming action of the covenant God.”
Now there is a lot more to this line of argument but I will finish with this.
“Western orthodoxy, not least within what calls itself “evangelicalism”, has had for too long an overly lofty and detached view of God. It has always tended to approach the Christological question by assuming this view of God and then by fitting Jesus into it. Hardly surprising, the result has been a docetic Jesus … My proposal is not that we know what the word god means and somehow manage to fit Jesus into that. Instead, I suggest that we think historically about a young Jew possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy vocation, riding into Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple and dying on a Roman cross – and that we somehow allow our meaning for the word god to be recentered around that point.”
There’s some food for thought I hope.