Bart Ehrman’s latest book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, asserts a number of things, most notably that Jesus is not God and that His divinity is overlooked in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). In an interview with the Boston Globe, Ehrman says, “The problem is that Jesus only makes claims for himself as being divine in the Gospel of John....But what scholars have long noted is that Jesus doesn’t say any of those things in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are [written] much earlier than John....What I argue in the book is that it’s virtually inconceivable that if it was known Jesus called himself God, that Matthew, Mark, and Luke would just leave that part out.”
Is Ehrman correct? Do the first three gospels contain nothing that speaks of Jesus’ divinity?
Four Gospels for a Reason
Before examining whether Ehrman’s claims are true, it’s first important to understand why we don’t have just one account of Jesus’ life. In the same way a celebrated individual might have multiple biographers that focus on different facets of the person’s life (e.g. their sports, accomplishments, professional life, benevolence activities, etc.) the same is true of Christ.
Matthew concentrates on his Jewish audience and quotes the Old Testament more than any other author to convince his readers that Jesus is their Messiah. Mark, written from the orations of Peter that he delivered to an elite Roman audience, focuses on Jesus’ servanthood, while Luke spotlights Jesus as Savior to the Gentiles. Lastly, there is little doubt that John centers his gospel on Jesus’ divinity.
But just because John’s focal point is on Jesus being God, that doesn’t mean the other gospels don’t mention it also.
Common Examples of Jesus’ Divinity in the Synoptics
Skeptics often claim that if Jesus was God, or believed He was God, then He would have certainly been more overt about it. My response is that He was indeed clear about His divinity, and in fact that openness is what eventually led to His death.
A survey of sayings and acts of Jesus in either two or all three of the synoptic gospels that point to His divinity in either a subtle or very obvious fashion produces the following table of each particular incident:
|John the Baptist being foretold as preparing the way of “the Lord”||Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 1:76–77; 3:4||The Greek word for “Lord” (kyrios) references God in this context|
|John the Baptist’s statements about Jesus’ eternal power||Matt. 3:12; Luke 3:17||Jesus is referred to as the one who rescues or assigns people to Heaven or Hell|
|Jesus forgives the paralytic’s sins||Matt. 9:2; Mark 2:5; Luke 5:20–21||As his detractors asked during the episode, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7; Luke 5:21)|
|Jesus calms a storm||Matt. 8:26; Mark 4:39||This event references God in the Old Testament being the one that “made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed” (Ps. 107:29)|
|Jesus says He is Lord of the Sabbath||Matt. 12:8; Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5||God created and is Lord of the Sabbath (e.g. Lev. 19:30)|
|Jesus makes direct claim to divinity as the Son of God and Son of Man as mentioned in Daniel (7:13-14)||Matt. 26:64; Mark 14:61–62; Luke 22:70, and many other places in the synoptics||A major claim in all three of the synoptics. The gospels clearly showcase that this was the reason the Jews condemned Jesus to death – His claim to be divine/God|
In addition, Jesus demonstrates sovereignty over birth defects (Matt. 12:9-13; Mark 3:1-5), disease (Matt. 8:2, Luke 7:1, Mark 3:1), nature (Mark 4:35, Matt. 14:25), creation (Matt. 14:13-21; Luke 9:12-17), Satan/demons (Matt. 8:28, Luke 8:26, Mark 1:34), Jewish customs (Matt. 5:22; Luke 6:27), and death (Mark 5:22, Luke 7:11) with his own authority. Never once does He say “Thus says the Lord” or call upon God to perform a miracle, but instead He acts on His own.
Unique Events in the Synoptics that Point to Jesus’ Divinity
Beyond those accounts that exist in either two or all synoptics are references, events and sayings that are unique to a particular gospel that point to Jesus being divine. These include the following:
- Jesus’ birth being referenced with Isaiah 7:14, with the obvious claim being that He is Immanuel, God with us (1:23).
- Jesus being worshipped by the wise men (2:2, 8, 11).
- Jesus speaks of sending forth “His” angels (13:41; 25:31).
- During the calming of the storm, the Greek of Matthew (see NA27 for example) has Jesus literally say “Take heart; it is I am”, which references God in Ex. 3:14 as well as John 8:58 where Jesus makes His most overt claim to be God (14:27). The end result is the disciples worshipping Jesus after the storm is calm.
- Jesus is the one who sends prophets, wise men, and scribes in the future who will testify about Him (23:34; see God doing this in 2 Chr. 36:15).
- Jesus is worshipped by the disciples (28:9, 17).
- Jesus claims He possesses all authority in Heaven and on earth and directs that disciples be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Note that “name” is singular and not plural indicating one God with three distinct Persons (28:18-19).
- Mark begins his gospel by calling Jesus the “Christ, the Son of God” (1:1).
- Demons call Jesus “the Son of God” (3:11).
- Jesus is called “Christ the Lord” (2:11).
- Jesus forgives a woman’s sins (7:48).
- Luke uses God and Jesus interchangeably (8:39).
- Jesus says He shares glory with the Father (Luke 9:26; God says He does not share His glory with anyone: Is. 42:8).
- The disciples remark that demons are subject to them in Jesus’ name (10:17).
- The disciples worship Jesus as He ascends to Heaven (24:52).
Parables and Old Testament References
In addition, Jesus uses various parables / metaphorical sayings and direct references to God in the Old Testament to claim divinity. These include the following:
|God in the Old Testament||Jesus Comparison to Himself|
|The Sower (Jer. 31:27; Ezra 34:9)||The Sower (Matt. 13:3-9)|
|The Shepherd (Gen. 49:24; Ps. 23:1)||The Shepherd (John 10:11)|
|The Rock (Ps. 18:2)||The Rock (Matt. 7:24)|
|The Bridegroom (Is. 54:5, Hosea 2:16)||The Bridegroom (Matt. 25:1)|
Old Testament References
|God in the Old Testament||Jesus Comparison to Himself|
|I AM (Ex. 3:14-15; Is. 48:12)||I AM (Matt. 14:27; John 8:58; John 8:18, 24)|
|The shepherd (Ps. 23:1)||The shepherd (John 10:11)|
|The light (Ps. 27:1)||The light (John 8:12)|
|The stone (Is. 8:14-15)||The stone (Matt. 21:44)|
|Ruler of all (Is. 9:6)||Ruler of all (Matt. 28:18)|
|Judge of all nations (Joel 3:12)||Judge of all (John 5:22)|
|The bridegroom (Is. 62:5; Hosea 2:16)||The bridegroom (Matt. 25:1)|
|God’s Word never passes away (Is. 40:8)||Jesus’ words never pass away (Mark. 13:31)|
I believe the evidence shown above demonstrates that the synoptic gospels do indeed make reference to Jesus’ divinity and portray Him as God and Jesus Himself believing that fact. Such proof led C. S. Lewis to famously remark: “Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean, that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world Who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.”
However, Ehrman is not persuaded by Lewis’ claim and in the Boston Globe report asserts that any mention of Jesus’ divinity could be chalked up to legends that rose about Him after His death. What about that?
The problem with such a position is threefold. First, Ehrman believes that only John (written last in the gospel timeline) contains Jesus divinity claims and the lengthier period of time between Jesus’ death and its publication could have allowed legend to infiltrate its construction – something that did not happen with the earlier written gospels. But as we have just seen, such is not the case as the synoptics do indeed make claims of Jesus being divine / God.
Second, Paul’s writings also testify to Jesus’ divinity (e.g. Rom. 9:5; Phil. 2:5-8; Col. 1:16-19, 2:9-10; 1 Tim. 6:15) and there is no doubt about their early dating and inability for legend to infect the work.
Third, with respect to the legend charge in general, many scholars date the gospels to be anywhere within just a few years after Jesus’ death to at most A.D. 90. The material was in circulation during a period where exaggerations could have easily been refuted by others alive at that time and therefore too little time elapsed for legend to be introduced into the accounts.
A case for this has been made by historian A. N. Sherwin-White in his work Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Using the writings of Herodotus, Sherwin-White maintained that it takes the passing of at least two generations before myths can develop, be introduced, and remain in the record of a historical figure.
When Sherwin-White considers the New Testament gospels, he says that for the gospels to be fables, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to have been "unbelievable."
Lastly, Ehrman argues that those who believed Jesus to be divine and risen from the dead only did so because of hallucinations they experienced. Ehrman says, “What I realized is the people who came to believe in the New Testament, it’s always because they’ve had a vision of Jesus afterwards, including Paul....That led me to look into what we know about hallucinations, based on modern psychological research. And it turns out hallucinations happen a lot....My view is that the disciples had some kind of visionary experiences; some of them did. And these visionary experiences led them to conclude that Jesus was still alive.”
The hallucination theory is the top skeptical theory to explain away Jesus’ resurrection, but as I have argued elsewhere, it collapses fairly quickly under even modest analysis. Hallucinations fail to explain the empty tomb and fail to explain why no one expecting Jesus to come back from the dead (including the disciples and enemies like Paul) would experience them.
In addition, for hallucinations to have produced what Erhman asserts, they would have to happen:
Not just once, but multiple times…
Not just to one person, but to different persons…
Not just to individuals, but to groups of individuals…
Not just at one location, but at multiple locations…
Not just in one circumstance, but in multiple circumstances…
Not just to believers, but also to unbelievers, skeptics, and even enemies...
In the end, with all due respect to those who hold to the hallucination theory, my response is they simply have more faith than I do.
So in conclusion, I maintain there is enough material in the synoptic gospels (and John, of course) to argue that they indeed contain both direct and indirect references to Jesus being divine and God, that the introduction of legendary material into those accounts regarding His divinity is quite unlikely, and that hallucinations cannot explain away the facts of Jesus’ resurrection.
For further study on this subject, a group of authors has recently released How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus' Divine Nature---A Response to Bart D. Ehrman. In addition, a free PowerPoint presentation that contains the above material and more is also available for download and use.
 In this short article I am not addressing all of Ehrman’s arguments in his latest book but rather the key claims he makes in the referenced article, which summarizes his overall thoughts on the subject of Jesus’ divinity.
 See reference of Clement’s early testimony to this in David Alan Black, Why Four Gospels? (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), pg. 38.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York; Macmillian, 1952), pp. 54-5.
 Note that Erhman does not believe that Jesus, as a person, is a legend and has argued for His historicity in a previous book.
 A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 188-91.
 William Lane Craig, Top Five Questions, Ravi Zacharias podcast.
 For a PowerPoint presentation that covers this and other data on Christ’s resurrection, see: http://www.slideshare.net/schumacr/the-essentials-of-apologetics-why-jesus-part-2.