05 / 06
bird bird

Who Does Jesus Think He Was?

National Faculty Leadership Conference, Washington, D.C.

Time : 00:33:47

William Lane Craig speaks at the National Faculty Leadership Conference


[Dr. Craig starts by handing out an outline to the audience]

What the handout is is an outline or overview of the field of Christian apologetics showing the subdivisions into offensive and defensive apologetics. One of the realms of offensive apologetics is natural theology – that is what we’ve been talking about the last two seminars. We’ve looked at a cosmological and a moral argument for God’s existence. The other subdivision of offensive apologetics would be what’s called Christian evidences which would be an attempt to give reasons to think that the particularly Christian God is the true God.

One of the keys here will be the person of Jesus of Nazareth and the self-understanding of Jesus. I go into this in much more detail in my book Reasonable Faith which has just come off the presses this last week. It has a long chapter in there on the self-understanding of Jesus.

Really significant things have been going on among biblical scholars in this area in recent decades. When I wrote the second edition, which was published in 1995, in order to defend the radical self-understanding of Jesus, that is to say, who Jesus thought he was, his radical personal claims, I had to defend simply what is called implicit Christology. I felt that, given the state of New Testament scholarship, I could not defend the view that Jesus claimed explicitly to be the Messiah or the Son of God or the Son of Man. Rather, Jesus’ self-understanding was to be discerned by his implicit claims that were evident in his ability, for example, to forgive sins or to herald the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God into human history, the authority that he displayed in his teaching with respect to the Old Testament law and the will of God, with respect to his role as an exorcist and as a miracle worker. All of these displayed a divine self-consciousness – an implicit Christology. But what has happened in between the second edition and the third edition is that a great many New Testament scholars today are quite prepared to defend the view that the historical Jesus did, in fact, believe and claim to be the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Son of Man prophesied by Daniel in the seventh chapter of his prophesy. So in the book I go into much more detail about the developments in New Testament scholarship that have now made these explicit Christological claims once again very historically plausible. So this is an exciting day not only in philosophy and in science but also in New Testament scholarship with respect to the quest of the historical Jesus.

What I want to do today is just briefly give a defense of some of Jesus’ radical claims with respect to his consciousness of being the unique Son of God.

Jesus’ self-understanding as God’s unique Son comes to expression in his parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard which is found in Mark 12:1-8. One of the keys to this sort of defense of Jesus’ radical self-concept will be to show that the words of Jesus to which one is appealing are authentic. That is to say, actually uttered by the historical Jesus. It does no good to quote passages like “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father but by me” because New Testament scholars will largely regard those words as inauthentic as reflecting John’s theology rather than the actual words and claims of the historical Jesus. So one will have to master the tools of New Testament criticism in order to use claims of Jesus that have a good plausibility of representing authentic words or sayings that were actually uttered by the historical Jesus. And the parable of the tenants of the vineyard is one such parable. It is recognized even by the radical critics in the so-called Jesus Seminar who say that only 18% of the words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels are authentic. It is recognized even by them to belong to the authentic words of Jesus because there is a version of this parable also found in the Gospel of Thomas which is one of their favorite sources. Therefore, because it is independently attested, they regard this as an authentic parable. But even in its own light, it is a parable that seems to be very plausibly attributed to Jesus himself. It reflects very closely the Jewish Palestinian experience of absentee landlords who have tenant farmers who take care of their crops. In fact, you can show in rabbinic stories parallels to this that are very close to it. So it really does reflect the historical situation of that day.

What is the parable about? Well, the parable, you will recall, is about an absentee landlord who owns a vineyard which he lent out to certain tenant farmers. Now, the vineyard is a symbol of Israel that is drawn from the book of Isaiah. The parable has phraseology that is just lifted right out of Isaiah with respect to God’s planting a vineyard which is the nation of Israel. So the absentee landlord here is God and the tenants are the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day who are to be caring for the vineyard. And in the parable the owner of the vineyard sends his servants to the vineyard to collect its fruit. The servants sent by the landlord are the various prophets sent by God over history to the tenants of the vineyard. The reaction of the tenants of the vineyard in the parable is to refuse to heed the servants sent by the landlord. Instead, they abuse them. They beat them. They send them back empty handed. They even kill some of them. Finally, the owner of the vineyard says, “I have one left to send, my only beloved son. They will listen to my son.” But, what happens? The tenants of the vineyard say, “This is the heir to the vineyard. Let’s kill him and the vineyard will be ours.” So they kill the son and cast him out of the vineyard.

Now, what does this parable tell us about Jesus’ self-consciousness? Well, it shows us that he thought of himself as the unique Son of God distinct from all the prophets who had gone before and even the heir of Israel itself. This is no mere Jewish peasant or rabbinical teacher. This is an extremely powerful demonstration of the radical self-consciousness of Jesus because it shows that he thought that he was not merely some prophet. He was not merely the Son of God in which Israeli kings were called God’s sons or even in wisdom literature a wise man could be called “a son of God.” Rather, he is the unique Son of God – the only Son. And you cannot eliminate the son from the parable as an inauthentic later interpolation by the church because without the son, the whole point of the parable loses its impact. There is no point if he doesn’t send the son and the son is killed. Moreover, the fact that the tenants call him the heir shows that he is the unique son. It reinforces that point. So we have every reason to think this was always a part of the parable and it shows Jesus’ uniqueness both from other people who might be called sons of God (with a small ‘s’ if you will) and also from any prophet that God might have sent to Israel. Jesus claims to be more than a prophet, more than a son of God; he is the unique Son of God, even the heir of Israel.

So this really is a radical demonstration of who Jesus thought that he was that is very powerful not only with using with skeptics or unbelievers who think of Jesus just as a human teacher or prophet but also with Muslims because Muslims are committed to the view that Jesus was a prophet. One of the greatest of the prophets but superseded by Muhammad, a later prophet. But in the parable, Jesus is the last one to be sent. He is the only Son of the Father and the final messenger to Israel. So this parable is a dagger in the heart of Islam in its view of Jesus and Muhammad. So I find this to be one of the most powerful claims to divinity that is in the Gospels – this parable of the tenants of the vineyard. It is especially powerful because we have every reason to think this is authentic; that this is something that Jesus actually uttered.

Now, Jesus’ self-concept as God’s unique Son also comes to explicit expression in Matthew 11:27. This is how that saying goes, “All things have been delivered to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Again, there is good reason to regard this as an authentic saying of the historical Jesus. It is drawn from a very old document which is shared by Matthew and Luke, very often called the “Q” document. So this is not an original creation of the Gospel writers. Rather, they are depending here on either an oral or written tradition that precedes them and therefore goes very far back, close to the life of Jesus himself. Moreover, it is unlikely that the early church would have invented this saying and put it on the lips of Jesus because it says that the Son is unknowable. It says “no one knows the Son except the Father.” But, as you can illustrate from the letters of Paul, the early church believed that we can know the Son. Paul’s desire was to know Christ and his sufferings and to become like him in his death. So you can show easily that the early church did believe that we can know the Son and yet this saying says the Son is unknowable, only the Father knows him. So it is unlikely that this is a product of early church theology. Rather, this goes back to Jesus himself.

But, again, what does this saying tell us about Jesus’ self-concept? Well, it shows us that he thought of himself as the exclusive and absolute Son of God – this is evidence from the definite article “the” Son. He thinks of himself as the exclusive and only Son of God. Moreover, he claims to be the only revelation of God the Father to mankind. “No one knows the Son except the Father. No one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son has chosen to reveal him.” He is the only and exclusive revelation of God the Father, the God of Israel, to mankind. So this is really, really radical stuff. If Jesus was not who he claimed to be, he was crazier than Jim Jones and David Koresh put together because he thought he was the absolute revelation of God – the Son of God.

Finally, one more saying from the historical Jesus and that is the saying on the date of his second coming that we find in Mark 13:32. Here is how it goes, “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” This is, again, highly likely to be an authentic saying of the historical Jesus because the later church which attributed divinity to Jesus would never have invented a saying attributing ignorance to Jesus. Yet, this saying says he doesn’t know the date of his second coming. Only the Father knows this, not even the Son. So this suggests that this is a saying of the historical Jesus and not the product of early church theology.

But, again, what does this saying reveal to us about Jesus’ self-consciousness? Well, it shows us he not only thought of himself as the Son of God (again, the definite article shows this – only “the” Son) but it also presents us with an ascending scale, from men to the angels to the Son to the Father. A scale on which Jesus transcends not only every human being but even every angelic being and is proximate to the Father. So this is really incredible stuff. Yet, this is evidently what the historical Jesus thought and believed about himself.

So in these three sayings, which I would encourage you to memorize the references for and be prepared to share them with an unbeliever, we see the radical self-consciousness of Christ revealed as the exclusive and only Son of God who is the revelation of God the Father to mankind.

C. S. Lewis was right, I think, when he said this,

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was and is the Son of God or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.

Much more could be said about this. In the book, I also explore the authenticity of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah as well as the Son of Man prophesied in Daniel in the seventh chapter of his book to show the divinity of his self-understanding. So I would commend the book to you if you are interested in exploring this further.



QUESTION: One of the premises of this would be the Word of the Bible – establishing the Word of the Bible before you could go to this, wouldn’t you?

DR. CRAIG: No, not exactly. What you have to show is that these are authentic sayings of Jesus. But you don’t have to show the general reliability of the Bible or the New Testament because you can have authentic sayings of historical personage preserved in some largely unreliable document. I mean, some scholars think, for example, that in the Gospel of Thomas there might be a saying or two of the historical Jesus preserved even though the rest is just Gnostic garbage. Or in some of the apocryphal gospels, you might find an authentic saying of Jesus. So this is a misunderstanding that I think is very wide spread among evangelicals in that they think you have to give a kind of general demonstration of the reliability of the Gospels before you turn to examining the sayings of Jesus. And that is not the case. What New Testament scholars do today is they don’t presuppose the general reliability of the Gospels. They treat them like ordinary historical sources from antiquity and then they apply to them certain tests to try to see what parts are authentic and what parts are inauthentic. Even the Jesus Seminar grants that 18% of these words attributed to Jesus are authentic. What we want to argue is that, among those authentic sayings – or shall we put it this way, among the demonstrably authentic sayings of Jesus (since I think that even the ones that can’t be demonstrated to be authentic, I think they are authentic, but among the demonstrably authentic sayings of Jesus) – there are sayings that reveal to us this radical self-consciousness. So we do have to do the spade work, but I tried to do a little bit of that with you here today to show why these three sayings ought to be regarded as authentic.

QUESTION: I am wondering about the Matthew 11 passage. I’m wondering why we have to think Jesus is actually claiming to be the revelation of God and why we can’t just say he claims to uniquely have a certain kind of knowledge of God that he is passing on, revealing in that way.

DR. CRAIG: Because the saying implies there is no knowledge of God the Father apart from what Jesus gives. No one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. So it says right there that apart from the revelation of Jesus, there is no knowledge of God the Father. In fact, this may be uncomfortable because I would have thought, “Don’t the prophets reveal to us God the Father?” Aren’t there other sources of revelation? But that is how radical this saying is. Jesus says there is no knowledge of God the Father apart from what the Son reveals. So it is a very radical saying.

QUESTION: Would the miracles that he performed also an attribute of his authenticity?

DR. CRAIG: Yes, and in the book I discuss the fact that New Testament criticism today recognizes miracles to belong to the historical Jesus. Once upon a time it was thought that these miracles were reflections of pagan mythology. And you still hear this among the internet infidel crowd and this sort of free-thought group who are stuck in the scholarship of the 18th century. It was once thought that Jesus was being assimilated to ancient heroes and divine men like Hercules and others. So miracles were attributed to him under the influence of Greco-Roman and other pagan myths. In fact, that has been completely abandoned in contemporary New Testament scholarship. It is recognized that the proper framework for understanding the historical Jesus is not pagan mythology, it is first-century Palestinian Judaism. Jesus was a Jew and has to be understood as a Jew against that background. And in that context, his miracles are quite believable. The fact that he was a miracle worker is quite believable in the sense that Oral Roberts or Catherine Coleman was a miracle worker. They are not making a judgment as to whether these were miracles. They would say that is something we can’t judge. But in the sense that he was a miracle worker, that he went about healing people and that he was an exorcist, now belongs firmly to the portrait of the historical Jesus. These miracles are significant not simply because Jesus thought he had the power to heal people and raise dead people to life but also because these miracles were signs of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God in his person. The centerpiece of Jesus’ proclamation was the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God into human history. The exorcisms and the miracles were signs that the Kingdom of God was coming into human history in his person. So you are absolutely right that this is part of what I called implicit Christology that reveals to us the self-understanding of Jesus.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: I am not overly concerned with that because I think that the Bible is not a book on systematic theology and therefore it is up to us to sort of systematize it to figure it out. So, what we would say would be that Jesus is talking about perhaps the deepest essence of who God the Father is and that has never been fully displayed by any prophet or person in the past but in Jesus we do really see the essence of who God is. This would then make a framework, you see, in which a saying like “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me. He who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say to me, Philip, show us the Father?” That makes a saying like that look more plausibly authentic (doesn’t it?) in light of this other authentic saying. So that can then form a bridge to these more radical Johannine theological statements that now begin to look plausibly authentic in this light. So I am not overly concerned with that but would say that if you do systematic theology, you are going to need to do some finessing on this to make sense of it.

QUESTION: [inaudible but asks about the authenticity of another specific saying of Jesus, specifically Matthew 11:28-29, “Come to me . . . Take my yolk upon you and learn from me”]

DR. CRAIG: I have never, frankly, studied that other saying so I don’t know what the general opinion is about that. These sayings, as this question illustrates, come one by one. It is not as though you have a whole discourse that one will say, a-ha, if one sentence is authentic that gives you the whole thing. Ever verse in the New Testament is a battleground today and each one has to be fought for and gained one at a time. So I do not know the answer to that question.

FOLLOWUP: But that would make the rest of the New Testament claims not in contradiction.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, you are right. Because he is saying, “I reveal the Father so come to me and learn of me and you will learn more about this.”

QUESTION: I’ve always been bothered by the passage that says Jesus doesn’t know something. . . .

DR. CRAIG: Monarchianism, as I recall, was more of a form of Modalism which is the view that there is only one person that God is but that he exhibits himself in different ways.

FOLLOWUP: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: There is one highest God who reveals himself in different ways. But in any case, I think what one wants to say here is that in the state of humiliation, as theologians refer to Jesus’ incarnate state up to the time of his death, he clearly was in a position where he had an ordinary human consciousness that didn’t know everything. So I think it wasn’t just the date of his second coming that Jesus was ignorant of. If you had asked him about auto mechanics or quantum mechanics, I don’t think he would have known the answer to those questions either, consciously. The way I put this together with omniscience is to say that in Jesus’ subliminal consciousness he had knowledge of all of these things but it wasn’t in his waking consciousness. Human personality is much more than the surface consciousness that we exhibit. We have deep springs of our behavior in our subliminal consciousness – in our subconscious and unconscious. We often will know things subconsciously that we cannot retrieve in conscious thought. I think that it is not implausible to say that the incarnation involved the subordination of a lot of this divine knowledge in the divine subliminal of Jesus and his waking consciousness exhibited an authentic human experience. That explains, for example, how he can be really tempted or how, as a baby, he can grow into a boy and increase in knowledge and wisdom, as Luke says he did. How he, as the book of Hebrews says, learned obedience through what he suffered. All of those things would be understandable if we have this model of a consciousness and a subconsciousness.

If you are interested in that subject, I’ve written on this in the book Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview in the chapter on the incarnation.

QUESTION: Have they found the Q document and how can we verify it exists?

DR. CRAIG: No, there hasn’t been found any such document Q and there may not be such a document. It is hypothetical. It is based upon the fact that Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources and so you can pull out of Matthew and Luke all the Markan stuff – all the stuff they got from Mark – and look at what is left over. And what you have left over will exhibit a great deal of overlap between Matthew and Luke. Now if Matthew and Luke were written independently of each other and you take out all the Markan stuff and there is still this area of overlap, the suggestion is they must have had a common source for that material. Whether that was an oral source or a written source, nobody knows. But the idea is that Matthew and Luke had another source in addition to Mark that they drew upon and it has been called Q arbitrarily. This would be regarded as a very early source of information. In Gospel studies, the further back you can drive to the life of Jesus by finding these sources, the better historically speaking your case for authenticity is because the window of opportunity for legend and accretion narrows. That is why that is significant. This case for the existence of Q would evaporate if Matthew and Luke are not independent. It is not, I think, improbable, that Luke may have used Matthew in which case it would be that Luke just borrowed the material from Matthew as well as from Mark. But that is not the majority view today. The majority view is that Matthew and Luke are independent and drew upon a common source in addition to Mark.

QUESTION: Couldn’t that mysterious Q document be Jesus himself and not a document at all?

DR. CRAIG: Well, it wouldn’t be Jesus. Well, you mean that he wrote them down?

FOLLOWUP: No, not that he wrote them down. But you said it could have been an oral tradition. Couldn’t that oral tradition then be the words of Jesus himself?

DR. CRAIG: Yes, exactly. That is right. You have to phrase this carefully. To say it was Jesus himself would be to say that Jesus wrote this down or wrote the document. We don’t want to say that. But what you would want to say is what you just said – this is an oral tradition that goes right back to the sayings of Jesus himself. Many people think it is just that – it is a sayings source of sayings of Jesus that were memorized and transmitted orally and then Luke and Matthew both draw upon this tradition and put it into written form. That is quite right what you are saying.

Don’t be misled by some contemporary people who think of oral tradition as like the child’s game of telephone where the message gets more and more distorted until it rapidly becomes nonsense. That is not the way Jewish transmission of traditions worked. In an oral culture like first-century Palestine, the ability to memorize and faithfully transmit great bodies of material was a highly developed and highly prized skill. In fact, the eyewitnesses were still around who could correct any departures from the authentic traditions. So in one sense it is not even what is called oral transmission, it is what’s called oral history where the original people are still there to say, “No, no, that is not what he said; you got it wrong” and to correct it.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: I don’t know the answer to that. I have often puzzled over that, too. But what Christ does seem to rejoice in there is that God has hid it from the proud and those who esteem themselves something and he has revealed it to the babes and the humble. I think that Jesus delights in this because it is those who are poor in spirit and contrite in heart who are the ones that find God and come to know him, not the proud and the boastful and the self-righteous. I think he delights in that. But beyond that, I am not sure what to say. It does seem to me that other parables like the parable of the Pharisee and the publican who go in to pray and the Pharisee congratulates himself on all he is doing whereas the publican won’t even lift his eyes to heaven but just says God be merciful to me as sinner. Jesus says, this is the man who went away righteous, not the first. He delights in the fact that the humble and the contrite come to know God.


Again, if you are interested in learning more about these radical claims of Jesus and his radical self-concept, have a look at the chapter in Reasonable Faith or go to the website

Just let me close by saying what is especially significant is that these radical personal claims form the historical context in which the resurrection of Jesus occurs. They provide the interpretive meaning of the event of the resurrection. If this man who claimed to be the absolute revelation of God the Father has been raised from the dead then this is a radical, public vindication by the God of Israel, who was allegedly blasphemed by Jesus, that these claims were, in fact, true. So like a hand in the glove, the radical claims of Jesus and the resurrection go together to vindicate the radical self-understanding that Jesus had.