Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
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 entirely different.

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 gospel.

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 himself.

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.'"

One 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 Messiah.

But note that those who wrote the gospels were followers of Jesus - which is why they wrote these accounts. So the argument actually amounts to this:

  • According to his followers, Jesus acted in a messianic way;

  • Because he acted like this, his followers recognised him as the Messiah.

That is, the evidence does not necessarily support a conclusion that Jesus 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 English:

  • 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 original events.

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.

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