Was Jesus Mad?
This was once a serious question,
asked by some in the light of what was to them incontrovertible evidence
that Jesus thought he was the Son of God. If, they argued, it could be
shown that Jesus wasn't the Son of God, then he was most certainly insane.
Only insane people claim such things.
But the question can be validly asked in this form only
if this is actually "what Jesus really said" as a matter of good history.
The weight of opinion has, it seems, comes down on the side of those who
think that Jesus made no such claim. He applied the term "Son of Man"
(Matthew 12.8 and elsewhere) to himself and this amounts to something
There is little doubt in modern scholarship that all
four gospel authors thought Jesus was the Messiah, a title which the
Church later expanded into "Son of God". In Jewish religion the Messiah
would not have been God's "son" - indeed, it's unlikely that this sort of
thinking would have occurred to Jewish people at all.
There is an almost total absence of evidence of this
concept in Hebrew thought in Palestine in the time of Jesus and later.
Although traditional Christian teaching from the earliest years of the
Church has made much of the idea of the Messiah, it is in fact a minor
theme in the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament). Sonship would have
meant little more to the average Hebrew than a special relationship with
the living God of the same sort as a son would have with a father. Jesus
as "son" in this case would have been no more than a useful metaphor.
Of the four gospels, John's is most explicit about Jesus
being the Son of God. This is the latest of the four, dating no earlier
than 100 and possibly as late as 150. It would be natural for theology
about Jesus to have developed considerably during more than 100 years
after his death. There is a strong likelihood that distortions of the
original material, both verbal and written, would have taken place. Unlike
our times, relatively few people would have been able to read and write.
There were few written records, in contrast with our age's information
overload. In addition, we can be almost certain that the author of John
intended to write a theological treatise rather than simply to record the
known history of Jesus.
The upshot is that not much of John's Gospel can be
classed as good "bare bones" history - that is, material which has a high
probability of being "what really happened". None of the references to
Jesus as Son of God in John's Gospel survive historical examination,
except as theological construction by the author. This is all the more
important because much of the Church's early theology was based upon this
Mark's Gospel uses the title less often. Moreover, the
author makes a theological point that Jesus was not perceived as God's Son
by anyone until his crucifixion. Some scholars propose that Jesus may have
thought of himself as special but that he kept this belief hidden. It's a
simpler explanation, and therefore more likely, that the author of Mark
was theologising about Jesus when he used this title.
Luke's Gospel contains relatively few references to the
Son, and all are probably early Christian tradition rather than history.
He writes of Jesus as the "Son of Man" (25 times). He also refers to Jesus
as "God's Prophet" (Acts 3.22-23 and 7.37), indicating that there was more
than one way of perceiving Jesus when he wrote his gospel towards the end
of the first century.
Although the other two Synoptic gospels use the term
"Son of God" more often than Luke, no instance can be easily separated, if
at all, from theological interpretation. Matthew's Gospel duplicates most
of the references in Mark's Gospel, adds ten of its own, and refers to God
as Father 40 times.
A difficulty of accepting that Jesus claimed to be the
Son of God lies in the nature of the material in the Gospels. The authors
frequently use the title to make their theological points about Jesus. Few
if any scholars think that all
Gospel references to Jesus as Son of God are historical.
Because of this it is difficult to claim - except on the
hardest of historical evidence - that any of the instances of its
use are "what Jesus really said". Hard evidence for this doesn't exist.
This is not to say that Jesus didn't think of himself in this way, but
rather that if he did, we have no hard evidence of it. All we have is the
theology of those who wrote the gospels. We can be certain that they
defined the person of Jesus in this way, but not that he so defined
It is possible, however, that even if
Jesus did not say he was the "Son of God" he did talk of himself as the
"Son of Man". Despite a huge volume of work on the subject, scholars still
don't agree about what he meant when he used this label. One commentator
calls it a "self-designation of some kind" and remarks that "... it never
became a way for people to refer to Jesus, and thus played no part in the
confessional and doctrinal statements of the early church, unlike
'Christ,' 'Lord," and 'Son of God.'"
particular type of argument sometimes used by those who think that Jesus
used the term "Son of Man" to refer to himself as Messiah needs refuting.
Their argument goes like this:
According to the gospels, Jesus acted in a messianic way;
Because he acted like this, his followers recognised him as the
But note that those who wrote the gospels were followers of Jesus -
which is why they wrote these accounts. So the argument actually amounts
According to his followers, Jesus acted in a messianic way;
Because he acted like this, his followers recognised him as the
That is, the evidence does not necessarily support a conclusion that
did, as a matter of good history, act in a messianic way. We can only
conclude that this was an interpretation by his followers.
In my review of scholarly opinions, it's become clear
that consensus does not exist about the meaning of the phrase "Son of
Man". More disturbingly, most commentators appear to allow as "historical"
or "authentic" gospel passages which would not be recognised as such
either by a broad sample of Christian scholars or by secular historians.
The passages they use to support their arguments do not pass through the
"bare bones history" screen.
One instance (Matthew 12.8) is, I think, probably as
close to what Jesus "really said" as any gospel record. It can be read in
several ways, depending upon how the original text is translated into
- The Greek phrase might mean "The Messiah is master of
the Sabbath;" or
- it might mean "I am master of the Sabbath;" or
- it might mean "We are masters of the Sabbath."
If the first is correct, then one can go to town with
meaning, since it is clearly thus linked with 1st century Palestinian
messianic expectations and to later speculations about the end of the
existing world order. If the second, then it might amount to the same
thing, since Jesus is placing himself above Jewish Law. Jews thought that
the Law came directly from God so it could be concluded that Jesus thought
of himself as on a par with God.
It may be better to render the phrase "son of man" by
"humankind" or "mankind" because in this context
[a] its meaning relates to that of the overall passage i.e. that
humans make their own laws for their own good. The phrase should not be
taken out of context. Jesus seems to be saying here that laws governing
our behaviour don't come from God but from us. Therefore they should
never be taken as absolute. If they are not absolute, they can always be
renegotiated (to use the modern concept of law as a social contract);
[b] Jesus here assumes a representative role - a natural way of defining
leadership in ancient societies;
[c] it has the merit of simplicity in the face of what I perceive as
often tortuous, ill-founded reasoning adopted by many scholars.
To take the last point, the simplest explanation usually
turns out to be the more reliable (a philosophical principle known as
"Occam's Razor"). In this respect it seems to me that an increasing number
of contemporary scholars are settling for an more prosaic interpretation
of the "son of man" passages. Let me explain what I mean.
Having excluded those references to the "son of man"
which are probably the theologising of the gospel authors, we're left with
a number which have come from Jesus. Though it should be noted here that,
given all the evidence, "Jesus said" means "having weighed up all the
evidence, this is what Jesus may have said". That is, his original words
are lost. They have all, without exception, come to us filtered through at
least one layer of reports - and in all but a very few cases, through a
number of layers. We know only what Jesus is reported
to have said.
Those who specialise in analysing the fine detail
of the gospel texts generally have as a guideline the rule that original
sayings tend to be both elaborated as well as distorted in their passage
from person to person.
Those who reported what Jesus said are likely to have
interpreted his words to some degree. Silly as it seems to make this
point, there were no tape recorders or video cameras in the first century.
I mention this because today we tend to emphasise accurate reporting more
than in past times because we're used to hearing and seeing recordings of
But we also know that those who report what others say
(without the benefit of recordings) also tend to elaborate what they have
heard, perhaps in order to explain what they think a saying means, and to
reassure their listeners that they are not being deliberately misleading.
Given all this, there is considerable evidence that the
phrase "son of man" is actually a convention. For example, many today talk
of others as "those guys" or "that guy". This obviously doesn't mean that
the person is (to use Webster's Dictionary definitions) either "a
grotesque effigy of Guy Fawkes paraded and burned in England" or " a
person of grotesque appearance". A "guy" is just a "person". In the same
way, "son of man" was often used to mean only "me" or "this man".
To sum up: the meaning of the phrase "son of man" is
obscured and confounded by millennia of theology. Those in the Church who
write and preach about it have, like the original gospel authors, a vested
interest in preserving [a] a connection with the minor Old Testament theme
of the Messiah and [b] the kernel of the enormous theology which has
sprung from early Christian interpretation. All-in-all, it seems best to
stick with the simpler meaning that "son of man" means "me" when it is not
overlaid by theology.