Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin
Jesus and the Messianic Consciousness
[p.152]Messianism as a belief and expectation played an important role in the Judaism of the first century CE, but it was by no means the most important theme of the religion or the most basic concern of the Jewish people. In all probability Jesus was more concerned with the coming of God’s kingdom than with messianic claims. He saw his primary mission as proclaiming the coming of the kingdom and preparing the Jews for that eschatological event. Nevertheless, the question of his own messianic consciousness is basic to any understanding of him. That the Christian church has regarded him as the prophesied Messiah is obvious. But what were his beliefs and claims about himself and his authority?
The Messianic Image
Did Jesus think of himself as the founder of a new religion? What was his belief regarding his relationship to God? Did he conceive of himself as the Messiah, the anointed of God, who was to re-establish the Davidic kingdom? Or did he believe that he was the “Son of man,” who was to appear in the clouds of heaven according to the predictions of some apocalyptists? There are widely differing opinions on these matters, and most scholars agree that determining and understanding Jesus’s concept of himself is one of the most difficult problems in New Testament analysis. According to the Gospels Jesus referred to himself as the Son of man. But did he regard himself as a prophet, as the Son of God, or as the Messiah?
At the outset it must be recognized that there is no simple solution to this problem. Some scholars approach the matter with preconceived theological commitments which affect their judgment. [p.153]Although full objectivity is impossible, treating an issue such as this demands a maximum of freedom from presuppositions and the predisposition of religious sentiment. It is, of course, common to think of Jesus as being fully aware of a divine nature and calling from his early youth—that suddenly, after the so-called silent years of preparation, he appeared in Galilee filled with the Spirit and promptly announced his messiahship, that he performed miracles and wonders to prove his claim and then proceeded to call all men to accept him. This simple theme, the product of centuries of piety, must be subjected to serious examination in any effort to establish an authentic picture of Jesus.
From its beginning, the Christian tradition has combined elements of both the religion of Jesus, the living person who walked the paths of Galilee and Judea, and the religion about Jesus, the resurrected Savior-Christ. In a relatively short time, Jesus the historical figure became the Christ of Christian faith. In consequence, it is difficult to distinguish the theological interpretations of many writers from the primary data—Jesus’s actual religious life and teachings insofar as these can be discerned in the ancient documents through scholarly effort.
Two basic interests seem to have predominated in the early Christian communities. Certain groups collected those sayings of Jesus which expressed principally his ideals about morals and religion. This collection, probably at first simply an oral tradition, was apparently transmitted in written form rather early. Such a written recollection may have been accessible for much of the non-Markan material used by Matthew and Luke. Others, however, seem to have had a special interest in recalling the deeds rather than the teachings of Jesus. To them Jesus was more hero than prophet or teacher. His power over evil spirits, control of the forces of nature, possession of the Holy Spirit, and finally his resurrection demonstrated his divinely given powers and authority and was convincing evidence of God’s approval. The image of Jesus portrayed by the Gospel writers obviously has a heroic coloring. Those who saw Jesus in this light were not interested in his personal religious biography except as it helped to establish him as a more worthy object of devotion. His words and deeds were [p.154]selected and interpreted to substantiate their beliefs about him and to develop confidence in his role as the founder of their religious movement and church.
It was essential to the early Christian leaders that Jesus’s authority be established in the Christian community. Since Jesus had been elevated by them to a position second only to God, attempts were made to find suitable titles indicative of his exalted status. Consequently, he was conceived as having authority, wisdom, and divine commission and support of an order far above that of Israel’s greatest prophets.
Even the words of Jesus, according to the evangelists, had tremendous power. As a boy of twelve he amazed the learned men of the Temple (Lk 2:46f). During his temptation experience, he rebuked the power of Satan by the power and authority of his words (Mt 4:4, 7, 10; Lk 4:4, 8, 12). When he spoke in the synagogue, his audience was astonished by his new teaching and his presumption of authority and they marveled at his words (Mk 1:22, 27; Lk 4:22). According to the Gospels, the evil spirits early recognized Jesus and his authority but were commanded by him not to disclose the secret of his identity and powers (Mk 1:24f, 3:11f). Also, in the synoptic view of Jesus, especially as set forth in Mark, the disciples were unable to grasp his full significance. However, for Mark, Matthew, and Luke no uncertainty was present in the mind of Jesus himself. Always he is represented as having full knowledge of his identity, his death, and his victorious resurrection (Mk 8:31f).
Accounts of miracles are another indication of the evangelistic belief in Jesus’s authority and power. Descriptions of the confidence with which he calmed the sea and winds, his self-assurance as he walked upon the water or fed the five (or four) thousand (Mk 6:30-44; Mk 8:1-10), and many of the accounts of less spectacular miracles, such as healing the sick and casting out evil spirits, were probably preserved if not actually generated to demonstrate the uniqueness of Jesus’s authority and as evidence of his divine power. For the gentiles especially, these marvelous accounts greatly heightened the character of Jesus. Indeed, they were probably intended for use among the gentiles, for there the Christian movement was in serious com-[p.155]petition with other religions that were grounded in various ways in the miraculous and in some cases had impressive similarities to Christianity.1
The synoptic Gospels, the principal sources on Jesus’s life and teachings, were written by men looking back upon him and the scenes in Galilee from the perspective of early followers of Jesus after Pentecost and at the beginning of the church movement. The infant church was concerned with providing a firm foundation for the faith and with winning converts. Consequently, the Gospels probably express only part of what Jesus intended or what others thought about him during his lifetime. They reflect at best what the early, post-Easter Christian community believed about Jesus and his teachings.2
The Question of Parochialism and Universalism
Many Christians still believe that Jesus intended to found a church apart from the synagogue, that his purpose was not simply to expound a new or revitalized message but to found a new religion. However, the record of the Gospels does not substantiate this view. As far as is known from the Gospels, the Temple, synagogue, and scriptures, the three basic religious institutions of Judaism in Jesus’s time, were accepted by Jesus without question. This is a clear indication that he was a devout, practicing Jew. According to the Gospels, Jesus frequently attended the synagogues—”And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues” (Mk 1:39). According to Luke 4:16, Jesus regularly attended the synagogue on the Sabbath. There is no evidence that he opposed the practice of circumcision, a basic requirement of the Law. The reverence he had for the Temple is demonstrated most forc-[p.156]ibly in that dramatic event which began his final ministry in Jerusalem (Mk 11:15-19). The Temple, in which the Jewish religion was centralized and which was the most sacred place of the Jews, had such profound meaning and value for Jesus that he objected violently to its being made a house of profit. He challenged the Temple authorities knowing full well the seriousness of his action and the dire consequences which might follow.
The Gospels show that Jesus had a typical Jewish reverence for the scriptures, the Old Testament. When a lawyer asked how he might inherit eternal life, Jesus answered, “What is written in the law? How do you read?” (Lk 10:26). Frequently when questioned, Jesus stated his answer in the form of a counter question or quoted directly from the Law or the Prophets. When asked, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18 (Mk 12:28-31). Though he was critical toward, and sometimes in opposition to, the religious tradition of his people, that tradition was sacred to him and central to his own religious life and purposes.
No one has expressed the character of Jesus as a believing, practicing Jew better than the influential Jewish scholar and leader Leo Baeck in Judaism and Christianity. As described in the old Gospel, Jesus was
a man with noble features who lived in the land of the Jews in tense and excited times and helped and labored and suffered and died: a man out of the Jewish people who walked on Jewish paths with Jewish faith and hopes. His spirit was at home in the Holy Scriptures, and his imagination and thought were anchored there; and he proclaimed and taught the word of God because God had given it to him to hear and to preach. … In this old tradition we behold a man who is Jewish in every feature and trait of his character, manifesting in every particular what is pure and good in Judaism. This man could have developed as he came to be only on the soil of Judaism; and only on this soil, too, could he find his followers as they were. Here alone, in this Jewish sphere, in this Jewish atmosphere of trust and longing, could the man live his life and meet his death—a Jew among Jews. Jewish history and Jewish reflection may not pass him by nor ignore him.3
[p.157]Another aspect of the question of Jesus’s concept of himself pertains to the universal versus parochial quality of his teaching. Most Christians assume that Jesus’s teachings were universal and ageless. But did he really intend to advocate what today is commonly understood as a universal religion? Was his message intended for all persons at all times, or simply for his Jewish contemporaries? The early Christians were bound to insist upon some kind of universalism as authentic to his teachings if for no other reason than to justify the existence of the gentile church. Probably Matthew had this in mind when he recorded Jesus’s final great commission to his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mk 28:19). But Jesus seems to have kept himself within the national boundaries of his own religion. There were exceptions, but these seem to have been accidental and not the result of any intentional missionary interest or message to the gentiles. Mark indicates that while in Tyre and Sidon, foreign cities, Jesus preferred not to be identified (Mk 7:24). Several of Jesus’s sayings also confirm this view: “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them” (Mt 6:7f). It has already been noted that the missionary charge to the disciples recorded in Matthew 10:5f seems to be consistent with Jesus’s choice of his field of activity: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And probably even more significant was Jesus’ reply to the request of the Syro-Phoenician woman, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mk 7:27).
Some students of the New Testament have questioned the authenticity of this last harsh statement because it apparently contradicts the later commitment of the church to a universal Christianity. Certainly it conflicts seriously with the common conception [p.158]of Jesus’s humanity and compassion. That the statement is authentic, however, can hardly be doubted. Its authenticity is strongly supported by the fact that it was included by Mark in the Gospel account of the actions and sayings of Jesus despite its obvious opposition to the character of the early church. Notwithstanding the universal meaning and applicability of most of Jesus’s moral and spiritual teachings, his own words show him as a somewhat parochial Jew of his own time fully absorbed in the task of proclaiming his message to his own people.
Son of God
What is the meaning of the various terms employed by the evangelists as designations for Jesus—Son of God, Davidic Messiah, Suffering Servant, or Son of man? How should they be interpreted in reference to him? It is clear that for the Gospel writers Jesus was the Son of God; they call him the Son of God numerous times. Mark uses this expression in the beginning verse of his gospel, in the mouth of unclean spirits, and in the mouth of the Roman centurion after Jesus died on the cross (Mk 3:11, 5:7, 15:39). Many of the relevant passages place strong emphasis upon the number of testimonies to Jesus’s divine sonship, testimonies which were the chief ground for the claim of his divinity. However, a careful examination of such passages, especially those from Mark, indicates that many of them may not have originated in the Jewish milieu in which Jesus lived. The messianic concept implied by all three synoptic Gospels in their use of the appellation “Son of God” indicates that it was more Greek than Jewish in origin and reflected doctrinal developments well after the time of Jesus.
The expression “Son of God” was applied in Jewish literature to a righteous or favored individual whose life reflected a close proximity to the conception of God as a moral being. Of course, the idea that the “Son of God” was a divine being in the sense in which God was conceived as divine was blasphemous to the intensely monotheistic Jews. It seems unlikely that Jesus regarded himself as “the Son” in this sense.
[p.159]That Jesus did not consider himself to have the divine status that is expressed by some Christian creeds is evident from several of his sayings. According to Mark’s account, for example, as Jesus was setting out upon a journey, a man approached and asked him the question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’s reply, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:17f), clearly indicates his Jewish orthodoxy—that worship and service to God, and him only, in accordance with Deuteronomy 6:13f, was basic in his life.4 This view is further substantiated by the statement in Mark: “and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mk 9:37.) It is attested also by his prayer to the Father in the garden of Gethsemane. (Mk 14:36.)5
Son of David
Some Jews of the first century CE assumed that the Messiah would be a descendant of David, the great king of their early national history. Jesus is purported on several occasions to have been acclaimed “son of David” by those who saw in him the fulfillment of their messianic and “golden age” hopes. These acclamations, however, are neither numerous nor strongly attested. The most definite reference is found in Mark’s account of the healing of Bartimaeus (Mk 10:47f).6 Other instances in the Gospel of Matthew are probably from a later date and may reflect the position of the church in Matthew’s day (Mt 9:27, 15:22). For example, Matthew’s account of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem seems to be a description of a triumph with crowds gathered shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Mt 21:9). By contrast, Mark’s account is more modest, and the specific Davidic acclaim is not so present (Mk 11:9f). But the clearest evidence that Jesus rejected the concept of the Messiah as the son of David appears later in a scriptural debate with the Pharisees: “How can [p.160]the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? … David himself calls him Lord; so how is he his son?” (Mk 12:35, 37).7 To describe Jesus as David’s son attributed David’s military powers to him and suggested that he planned a military campaign against the oppressors of the Jews. This view, however, denies much of the tradition about Jesus—his rejection of political aspirations implied in the narrative of the temptations (Mt 4:4-11) and his sayings about service and turning the other cheek (Mt 5:39-42). Had Jesus aspired to a leadership of force, he quite surely would have instructed his disciples differently; he would have sought public popularity and, like the Zealots, would have aroused his followers against the Romans. There seems to be little evidence, regardless of what others thought, that he identified himself as a son of David.
The Suffering Servant
Another view, and one which seems to be increasingly popular among New Testament critics, is that which presents Jesus as the Messiah who saves by suffering. A concept of redemptive suffering for others was not new to the Jews in Jesus’s time. It was familiar in Jewish thinking in connection with problems of the suffering of the righteous as attested, for instance, in the Book of Job, in Jeremiah, or in Deutero-Isaiah (Is 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 52:13-53:12). However, most Jewish scholars do not regard the Suffering Servant passages (Is. 40-55) as messianic or as pertaining to any individual. Rather, as in the case of Abraham, the servant is seen as representing the entire people of Israel. Although the covenant was in the form of a promise to Abraham, it was not a covenant with an individual or with a collection of different individuals over time but rather with an entire people. Also, according to this view, Deutero-Isaiah was not looking forward to a distant future time for the coming [p.161]of the Servant but to a time within his own historical perspective.8 Christians, of course, have traditionally regarded the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah as referring prophetically to Jesus as the Messiah-redeemer of Israel. The Christian Messiah, the crucified Christ, was to be seen as meek, gentle, sinless, and afflicted and punished as the bearer of the guilt of the world, descriptions consonant with Deutero-Isaiah’s conception of the Suffering Servant.
Son of Man
The Synoptists, presumably because of their Jewish orientation, interpreted Jesus’s messianic role as advancing a revolutionary doctrine which even his intimate disciples found difficult if not impossible to understand. Jesus’s role as suffering servant was combined with the eschatological Son of man who would come to power at the end of the age. Before the end, “the Son of man must suffer many things” (Mk 8:31); “And how is it written of the Son of man, that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?” (Mk 9:12); and “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). One variation on this theme holds that on the final day Jesus would be taken away and hidden by God until the time when he would appear as the Son of man. Realizing the inevitability of his suffering, Jesus would have concluded that his hiding would be accomplished through his death and that he would conquer death before his return.9
The expression “Son of man” presents one of the most complicated elements of the question of Jesus’s self-identification. The significance of the term is difficult to assess from its use in Jewish literature. That the Gospel writers were convinced of the impor-[p.162]tance of this designation for Jesus is clearly indicated by the persistence with which they record him referring to himself as the Son of man. There are more than sixty passages in the four canonical Gospels in which the expression “Son of man” appears. However, the term does not have the same meaning in each instance.10 Which “Son of man” passages, if any, are authentic to Jesus? If he did in fact use the expression, how did he apply it to himself, or to others? And if referring to himself, did he simply mean “man” or “mortal man” as in Ezekiel, or did he allude to the future, as in the case of the apocalyptic figure portrayed in the Book of First Enoch. In Enoch, the Son of man is the Messiah who is to come.
The Christian use and meaning of the expression “Son of man” was probably influenced by First Enoch and the Old Testament Book of Daniel written probably in the second century BCE.
I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man. (Dan 7:13.)11
Does this term “a son of man” refer to an individual messiah, or to the entire people of Israel as the messiah? The latter seems to be implied in the more complete context of Daniel 7:18, 22, 27, where the interpretation of Daniel’s dream is given to him:
The saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, … judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints received the kingdom.…
[p.163]And the kingdom and the dominion
and the greatness of the kingdoms
under the whole heaven
shall be given to the people of the
saints of the Most High; …
and all dominions shall serve
and obey them.
Based upon the Hebrew text of Daniel, Joseph Klausner holds that this latter meaning was intended, that two documents, Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66) and Daniel, had significantly altered the Jewish conception of messiah prior to the time of Jesus. In these two books, he maintains, the messiah is not one man, a person, from the house of David or from “any other royal line, but the whole people Israel.” According to this view Israel itself is the servant-messiah, “a light of the Gentiles” and “the servant of the LORD,” spoken of in Deutero-Isaiah.12 However, the Greek text the Septuagint, which the early Christians adopted as their scripture, provides a different reading: “on the clouds of heaven came one like a son of man … and there was given him power. …” From the early Christian point of view, this text explicitly indicated that the Son of man was a particular individual, the “Elect One, who is to come.” This is the interpretation popularized by certain Jewish writers in the First Book of Enoch and adopted by the synoptic writers.13 As Klausner has indicated, only in the Gospels (Mt 24:15 and some manuscripts of Mk 13:14) is Daniel referred to as “the prophet.” In the Septuagint, the Book of Daniel is included with the Prophets. In the traditional Jewish canon, Daniel is included with the Writings, the Hagiographa.
How then are the “Son of man” passages to be understood? Did Jesus use this term as a self-designation? How was the ex-[p.164]pression interpreted by the early church? First, there are a number of passages in which the title “Son of man” appears to have been used by the Gospel writers as an editorial addition. The expression “Son of man” was substituted for Jesus’s self-designation “I.” For example, in Mark 8:27 the simple question “Who do men say that I am?” is altered in the parallel text of Matthew to read “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” (Mt 16:13).14 In another instance the context of the passage suggests that Jesus may have been making a straightforward declaration about his eating and drinking, which is modified in Matthew and Luke to read “The Son of man came eating and drinking”(Mt 11:19; Lk 7:34).15
In addition to its use as a title, there are passages in the Synoptics in which “Son of man” may be used as a generic designation meaning simply “man” or “mortal man.” The expression was understood in this way in the Book of Ezekiel when, according to the author, God addressed the prophet. “And he said to me, ‘Son of man, stand upon your feet, and I will speak with you'” (Ez 2:1, 3:4, 17, 4:1). One passage in the Synoptics is Mark 2:27f: “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath.”16 Jesus’s meaning may be that man as mortal man is master of the sabbath—his point being, of course, that the well-being of persons takes precedence over sabbath observances. Another view is that Mark 2:28 represents the comment of Mark himself on the meaning of the episode for the Christian community.17 A similar interpretation may be applied to Mark 2:10, “that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”18 It [p.165]has been suggested that Jesus did not intend to say that he forgave their sins but rather that “a man [i.e., anyone so called by God] may have power on earth to forgive sins.”19 Clearly the synoptic writers intended to reinforce Christian beliefs about Jesus as the Messiah-Son of man by making it appear that Jesus frequently and in a number of different contexts employed the expression “Son of man” to designate his own messianic claim.
The most important Son of man passages are those already alluded to in which Jesus is purported to have referred to himself as the Son of man—the one to suffer and be raised from the dead. These are the passages upon which the question of Jesus’s messianic self-consciousness really depends.20 For example, in his charge to the Twelve prior to sending them out, Jesus declared “you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes” (Mt 10:23). Later, in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus announced to his disciples that the Son of man must suffer and be rejected. On these occasions, Matthew took for granted that the messianic claim ascribed to Jesus included his identification as “Son of man” and that as such he must go to Jerusalem and “suffer many things” (Mt 16:21).21 Also, following the Transfiguration, according to Matthew and Mark, Jesus charged his disciples that they tell no one about the vision “until the Son of man is raised from the dead” (Mt 17:9; Mk 9:9). And at the Last Supper, Jesus proclaimed that the Son of man “is betrayed” and that “the Son of man goes as it is written of him” (Mt 26:24).22
There is no doubt that the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, identified Jesus as the Son of man who was to go to Jerusalem to suffer and be rejected. Nevertheless, the question about Jesus’s meaning in the use of the expression remains unclear, and [p.166]the best of New Testament scholars differ in their speculations and opinions on the subject.23 Howard Kee’s resolution seems to have considerable support. He has advanced the view that Jesus did announce the coming of the Son of man as part of his proclamation about the kingdom of God but that he did not identify himself as that person. After Jesus’s death, when the Christian communities were required to clarify and reconstitute the major doctrines of their faith, “they came to believe that Jesus was himself the Son of Man, whose coming … they still awaited,” and this claim was inserted into the Christian Gospels.24
When all of the passages containing the expression “Son of man” are considered in the context of Jewish thought and discourse of the first century CE, it seems unlikely that Jesus designated himself as the messianic eschatological figure. It seems probable that he made some references to the phrase in an impersonal sense meaning “man” or that he had in mind another person—the Son of man who was to come on the clouds. For many Jews who accepted apocalyptic doctrine, a person as an intermediary was not essential for establishing God’s kingdom. God could bring the kingdom if Israel was faithful in her role as a model before all nations. Here the Christian church significantly altered the common Jewish eschatological conception and adopted the view of Daniel and Enoch that God would send a person as his agent to accomplish this task. In the rapidly developing Christology of the early church, Jesus became that person.
Jesus as Prophet
[p.167]So far, three main points bearing on Jesus’s identity come into focus. (1) For at least some Christians, perhaps many, the idea of “prophecy” meant vision-predictions of the future on the model provided by Jewish apocalyptic literature, Daniel and the Book of Enoch being primary examples. (2) In accepting the Old Testament as scripture, the early Christians adopted the Septuagint, a translation which supported their claim that the Messiah was to be an individual person whom they had identified as Jesus. (3) The Suffering Servant from Deutero-Isaiah (especially Isaiah 53) identified by Christians as Jesus, was joined in the Christian mind with Daniel’s supernatural agent of salvation, the “Son of man,” who was to come at the end of the age.
The Christian view of Jesus as Christ thus embraced several of the popular Jewish interpretations of “messiah”: Son of David, Suffering Servant, and Son of man in the supernatural sense. All of these were eventually subsumed under the peculiarly Christian title, “Son of God.” It appears, therefore, that the Gospel writers were themselves clear about Jesus’s identity. In almost every account of miracles and occasions for teaching about the kingdom, Jesus’s special authority and status as Messiah (Christ), Son of man, Suffering Servant, and Son of God are proclaimed or strongly implied. According to the evangelists, even the demons understood the source of Jesus’ power. But the question still remains—what did Jesus himself claim? What role did he envision for himself as he proclaimed the coming of God’s Kingdom?
Did Jesus claim only to be a prophet—a nabi in the Hebrew-Jewish tradition? This is a common question, and the usual reaction to it by many Christians is confusion and frustration, because they misunderstand the full import and significance of the term “prophet.” To a Jew of the first century CE, “prophet” was the highest office. A prophet stood next to God himself in importance and, for many Jews in Jesus’s time, a “prophet” had more religious significance than any of the various messianic designations. A prophet was one who brought forth the word of God. Fortunately, some traces of what might have been Jesus’s original claim as prophet remain in the Gospel texts. For example, in the story [p.168]of Jesus’s rejection at Nazareth, his prophetic role seems to have been assumed—”A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house” (Mk 6:4). At the conclusion of Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, after Jesus entered Capernaum and healed the centurion’s slave (Lk 7:1-10) and raised the widow’s son in Nain (Lk 7:11-17), he was invited to the Pharisee’s home to share a meal. After the prostitute anointed Jesus’s feet, the Pharisee thought to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is” (Lk 7:39). Why would the Pharisee wonder if Jesus was a prophet unless this was Jesus’s claim or at least a claim made for him by his followers?
On the way through the district of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus “asked his disciples, ‘Who do men say that I am?’ And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others one of the prophets'” (Mk 8:27f).25 When Jesus announced his resolve to go to Jerusalem, he is reported by Luke to have said, “Nevertheless I must go on my way …; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem” (Lk 13:33). Matthew records that at a later time when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred saying, “‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee'” (Mt 21:10f). Also, after Jesus had been teaching in the Temple, when the chief priests and the Pharisees tried to arrest him, they “feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet” (Mt 21:46).
In Luke’s account, at Jesus’s trial before the Jewish council some of those present, after hearing his responses, “mocked him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and asked him, ‘Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?'” (Lk 22:63f).26 There would have been no reason for his adversaries to taunt Jesus in this way unless “prophet” and “prophecy” were a central part of his claim or the claim of others concerning him.
[p.169]Finally, in Luke’s report of the appearances of the risen Lord, Jesus approached two of “the apostles” on their way to Emmaus and asked what they were discussing. They answered, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” (Lk 24:10, 19).
But why in the Gospels does not Jesus by his own statements make his prophetic role more obvious? What socio-psychological forces operating at the time the Gospels were written account for this omission? One such factor is the evangelists’ own views and confessions about Jesus as the Christ. For the Gospel writers, the Jewish concept of “prophet,” as important as it was, did not convey adequately the meaning and significance of Jesus. Consequently, other titles—Christ, Son of man, Son of God—were added. “Prophet” remained in the texts as an appendage, submerged among the seemingly more important confessional titles and for the most part overlooked and unexplained.
But if Jesus did regard himself as a prophet, what meaning did he attach to “prophet”? Many commentaries interpret Jesus as standing within the main stream of the Hebrew-Jewish tradition along side the great prophets of the eighth, seventh, and sixth centuries BCE—Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. In the early period before the monarchy was established, prophets were assumed to be persons possessed by God’s spirit to act and speak in his name. The Books of Samuel and Kings tell about “bands of prophets”; Samuel and Saul were also thought at times to have God’s spirit and power to direct the people (1 Sm 10:15-13). Moses, Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, in the old Hebrew tradition, were spokesmen for the deity in a particularly active sense—they used their power to heal, control nature, and raise the dead (1 Kgs 17:1-24). Because they possessed God’s spirit, they were pivotal figures in changing and shaping the historical-political events which determined the fate of Israel.
In Judea in Jesus’s time it was common, at least among the leading Jewish parties, to believe that the day of prophets and prophecy in the ancient form had passed. This transformation had taken [p.170]place after the Exile as Hebrews returning to Palestine struggled with the difficult problems of reconstruction. They inherited several Yahwist traditions and institutions—prophets and prophecy, monarchy and priesthood. Each was considered to be authoritative and was accorded legitimacy, and each had its proponents and sponsors contending for control of the community. The prophetic authority, with its emphasis upon freedom and spontaneity after the model provided by Moses, Samuel, and Elijah, and later by Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, was regarded by some to threaten anarchy. Defenders of the monarchy and of the priesthood maintained that institutional security was impossible as long as prophets such as Amos were allowed complete freedom to speak for God. The continuity of the religious, social community could not be guaranteed on the basis of such conduct. Subsequently, a new class of priests arose who claimed to be the descendants and heirs of Aaron. They succeeded in establishing the Pentateuch as the standard for Jewish faith and practice and in the process edited and shaped its content to legitimize their authority. Eventually, the Aaronides achieved full control over the Temple and its sacrificial cult.27
In Jesus’s day prophets like Elijah or Amos were not expected to appear in Judea. The time for uncontrolled, unrestrained displays of God’s word and power had come to an end. The divine word was incorporated in the Pentateuch to be interpreted by the scribes and other learned religious leaders within the control and restraints of the religious establishment. But it should be pointed out that competent scholars of both the Old and the New Testaments have become increasingly aware of differences among [p.171]the various traditions, North and South, between Galileans and Judeans.28 Apparently, certain themes of the ancient Ephraimitic tradition were kept alive in the folklore of Galileans. One included the account of prophets who, when possessed by God’s spirit, intervened in the social-political life of the nation. Elijah, for example, went to Mount Carmel and by the power of the Hebrew deity defeated the Phoenician baalim. When Jezebel threatened his life, he fled. In his solitude he recommitted himself to God and set out to reaffirm Israel’s commitment to the Sinai-Mosaic Covenant and tradition (1 Kgs 18:1-46, 19:1-21). As Elijah of old went up to Mount Carmel and with God’s spirit and power turned the course of the nation around, so according to the Gospel writers, Jesus set out for Jerusalem to confront the religious officials who controlled the Temple and religious life in Judea. In the spirit of Elijah he would reform Israel’s religion and restore her integrity as a Jewish nation on the foundation of a new standard in anticipation of God’s kingdom.
Moses and Elijah figure prominently in the Gospel narratives. Statements in Deuteronomy about the central position and status of Moses were well known to the evangelists. Moses as prophet-lawgiver is the prototype: “There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses” (Dt 34:10). According to Deuteronomy, Moses spoke to the Israelites of a future day when, “The Lord your God will [p.172]raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren—him you shall heed” (Dt 18:15).
In the confession in Caesarea Philippi, reference was made to the fact that some persons thought Jesus was “Elijah” (Mt 16:14; Mk 8:28; Lk 9:19), and in the synoptic accounts of the Transfiguration a short time later, Moses and Elijah appeared and talked with Jesus. Jesus’s response to the disciples’ inquiry about the coming of Elijah is based on a text from Malachi, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5). Then, as already indicated, Jesus declared, “But I tell you that Elijah has come” (Mk 9:13). One might conclude from this Markan account that in the Transfiguration the spirit of Elijah, which in ancient times was passed on to Elisha (1 Kgs 19:19; 2 Kgs 2:8-15), had been transferred from Moses and Elijah to Jesus. Jesus was the one like Moses and the prophet Elijah to come with God’s spirit and power to restore Israel.29
The “Spirit” is the leading theme in the Gospel concept of the prophets, especially in the Gospel of Luke. The Holy Spirit is said to have come upon Jesus at his baptism. Mark recorded that afterward the Spirit “drove him out into the wilderness” (Mk 1:12). Luke says that, full of the Holy Spirit Jesus “returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit” (Lk 4:1). Luke continues that when Jesus was in Nazareth in the synagogue, he opened the Book of Isaiah (Is 61:1f) where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Lk 4:17-19). According to Luke, it was the Spirit which empowered the prophets that Jesus possessed in full measure during his life and was poured out upon the Christian church following his Ascension (Acts 2:32f).
According to Luke, as Jesus and his disciples were preparing to go up to Jerusalem, Jesus sent messengers ahead into the Samaritan villages “to make ready for him,” but “the people would not receive him” (Lk 9:52f). Learning of this, James and John proposed to Jesus that they bid fire come down from heaven and consume the offenders. The wording used in Luke alludes to the action of [p.173]Elijah in 2 Kings 1:10, 12, and significantly some scribes added the explanatory phrase “as Elijah did” to some texts of Luke 9:54. But Jesus rebuked them (Lk 9:55). Again, some ancient texts of Luke add Jesus’ explanation for the rebuke: “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of; for the Son of man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” It is apparent that Luke’s interest was not in the idea of Spirit as sheer power, as in the Elijah and Elisha stories, but in Spirit as the power to save.30
There is justification for holding that Jesus was a prophet in the northern tradition of Elijah and Hosea. Like them, he felt the presence of God’s Spirit and power to restore, to reform, and to save Israel. But in many respects his teaching on discipleship, his declarations about the failure of insight among his opponents, and his criticism of Jewish leaders for promoting the forms and externals of religion to the neglect of the weightier matters—the moral virtues of justice and mercy—are similar to the themes emphasized by the classical Judaic prophets. In these respects Jesus clearly stood in the tradition of Amos, Micah, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.
[p.152]1. For a sample of texts from Hellenistic, Roman, and Jewish religion and religious philosophy of the period of the beginning of Christianity, see C. K. Barrett, The New Testament Background (New York, 1961). Also, see R. Bultmann, Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting, trans. R. H. Fuller (New York, 1956), and F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids, 1974).
3. Leo Baeck, Judaism and Christianity, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York, 1958 and 1966). On Jesus’s identification with the Jewish religion of his time, see [p.157]also Joseph Klausnet, Jesus of Nazareth, trans. H. Danby (New York, 1926); Samuel Sandmel, Judaism and Christian Beginnings (New York, 1978); Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Irene and Fraser McLusky (New York, 1960); Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew (Philadelphia, 1973) and Jesus and the World of Judaism (Philadelphia, 1983); and Michael Grant, Jesus (New York, 1977).
4. Luke and Mark essentially agree on this matter, but Matthew apparently modified his account in order to avoid contradiction between Jesus’s statement and the early Christian concept of his divinity (cf Lk 18:18f and Mt 19:16f).
7. Cf. Mt 22:41-46; Lk 20:41-44. This piece of rabbinic argumentation is based upon Psalm 110, which is attributed to David. The position taken by Jesus in this passage clashes directly with the correction of Matthew and the early church that Jesus claimed to be the Son of David. Had it not been regarded as authentic, the author probably would have either omitted it from his text or altered it to fit his general point of view.
9. This is the view suggested by Rudolf Otto in The Kingdom of God and The Son of Man (London, 1938) and earlier with some additional variations by Albert Schweitzer in The Mystery of the Kingdom of God (New York, 1914).
10. The expression the Son of man was apparently not in general use in the early church. It does not appear in Paul’s letters or in the general letters. This title seems to have been used sparingly by the early church fathers. Justin and Eusebius are notable exceptions. “The First Apology of Justin, The Martyr,” in Early Christian Fathers, ed. C. C. Richardson (Philadelphia, 1953), 1:275; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 2, Chap. 23.
11. The setting for the Book of Daniel is the Babylonian exile (587-539 BCE). The visions of Daniel, purporting to come from this early date, predict future events in Israel’s history. However, the book itself is considered by most competent scholars to have been composed several centuries later in the very difficult period of persecution under Syrian rule during the reign of Antiochus IV, Epiphanes.
12. J. Klausner, The Messianic Idea in Israel, trans. W. F. Stinespring (London, 1956), 241-43. This view is supported by the French scholar Charles Guignebert, Jesus, trans. S. H. Hooke (New York, 1956), 270-79.
13. R. H. Charles has shown that early Christian literature followed the Son of man idea set forth in the Parable Section of First Enoch. Chapters xxxvii-lxxi are probably the basis for other ideas besides the Son of man—demonology, future messiah, judgment, and resurrection—which are presupposed by the authors of the Synoptic Gospels. See R. H. Charles, The Book of Enoch (London, 1960).
14. The parallel in Lk is 9:18. Cf. Mt 19:28 with Mk 10:29 and Mt 20:28 with Lk 22:27. There are some instances of editorial additions in Lk. and Mt. for which there are no parallel materials in Mark (cf. Lk 6:22 and Mt 5:11; Lk 12:8 and Mt 10:32). Also, Luke employs the title in some passages for which there are no parallels in either Matthew or Mark (Lk 18:8, 19:10, 21:36, 22:48, and 24:7).
20. Mk 8:31, 9:9, 31, 10:33f, 14:21, 41, and Mt 10:23. Albert Schweitzer holds that these passages are authentic to Jesus and that “this designation [Son of man] must have been peculiarly apt as a rendering of his messianic consciousness” (Kingdom of God, 190f).
23. M. Goguel holds that at some point Jesus came to know “that he was called to be the Son of man,” The Life of Jesus (New York, 1949), 578. Norman Perrin, on the other hand, maintains that “Jesus himself did not speak of the Son of man as eschatological judge at all.… All apocalyptic Son of man sayings,” he says, “fail the test of the criteria for authenticity of sayings of Jesus,” The New Testament, An Introduction (New York, 1974), 76f. In his work Jesus (p. 278), C. Guignebert maintains that, “even though Jesus may have employed the expression ‘Son of Man,’ there is not one passage to indicate that he used it as a special and characteristic designation of himself.” “In short,” he continues, “there is no use of it which cannot be interpreted in a way entirely different from the pseudo-Danielic ‘Son of Man.'”
27. This view is proposed by Ellis Rivkin. “The problem,” he says, “was prophetic authority.… If the worship of Yahweh was to endure, and a Yahwist community be established, then prophecy had to go. But how?” According to Rivkin, to establish national stability a major revolution took place within the Jewish community in Judea some time after 445 BCE. A priestly class, descendants of Aaron, was created to replace the priests of the tribe of Levi whose claim to authority was based on Deuteronomy. All power was eventually transferred to this Aaronide priest class, “its rights being grounded in immutable laws revealed by Yahweh to Moses on Mount Sinai, laws investing the Aaronides with absolute power” (Ellis Rivkin, The Shaping of Jewish History [New York, 1971], 20f; see especially chaps. 2 and 3).
28. It is the theory of several prominent Old Testament scholars that a new theology and a new covenant were inaugurated in the South during the reign of Solomon. According to this theory, the royal court of Solomon advanced a theology of King and Temple which claimed that God had elected Zion as the place of his sanctuary and promised that the House of David should rule there as long as they kept his covenant. In this connection, Psalm 78 is presented to show that the northern Israelites (the tribe of Ephraim) did not keep the covenant:
He rejected the tent of Joseph,
he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim;
but he chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion, which he loves (Ps 78:67f).
For a brief account of this view, see Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 351, 519-25. Rivalry between the northern tribes and the tribe of Judah may be seen in the account of Absalom’s revolt (2 Sm 15:1-18:8). This rivalry, involving the preservation of different strains of the Hebrew-Jewish tradition, may have persisted between Galileans and Judean Jews into the time of Jesus.
30. One is reminded here of the Elisha story. As the prophet journeyed to Bethel, some small boys jeered at him and “he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys” (2 Kgs 2:23f).