4 Ways In Which Jesus Understood Himself As Divine

Introduction

In my previous post, I briefly explained that 1st Century Jewish monotheism wasn’t as ‘strict’ as some historians have thought. According to N.T. Wright, it allowed for the possibility of an earthly mediator or agent who could share in YHWH’s divine action and enthronement. The picture that emerged was a complex and multifaceted monotheism that allowed for the interpretive space that Jewish Christians needed to begin thinking of Jesus as divine.

In this post, I will be drawing from Wright’s work in The Challenge of Jesus (1999) to describe in more detail how Jesus (and to some extent his followers) would have understood himself as divine. Instead of importing anachronistic creedal terms like “the Trinity” into his analysis, Wright sets Jesus’ self-understanding firmly within the context and vocabulary of Israel’s narrative history.[1]

According to Wright, Jesus understood himself to be divine in terms of his presence, vocation, and enthronement. He thought of himself as the personal embodiment of YHWH’s presence with his people, as the fulfillment of earlier promises that God would one day return to Zion as judge and saviour of the Jewish people, and as a vindicated divine agent who would sit enthroned with YHWH over his enemies. The following are four ways in which Jesus thought of himself as divine:

1. Jesus as Temple-Replacement

The author argues that Jesus’ self-understanding was framed largely (though not exclusively) in terms of his vocation as a temple-replacement, as one who would take on and supersede its role and function. In Wright’s own words, “Jesus acted and spoke as if he thought he were a one-man counter-Temple movement” (p.120). Jesus did this by offering divine forgiveness of sins outside the parameters of the Temple cult, and by celebrating table fellowship with sinners. Table fellowship communicated the (then scandalous) idea that God accepted unclean sinners without needing their prior repentance, ritual cleansing, or sacrifices.[2]

Jesus acted and spoke as if he thought he were a one-man counter-Temple movement" - N.T. Wright
Jesus acted and spoke as if he thought he were a one-man counter-Temple movement” – N.T. Wright

Jesus’ actions as a temple-replacement are brought into focus near the end of his ministry when he condemns the corrupt temple system (e.g. by expelling the money changers from the temple courts) and by inaugurating a new covenant during the Passover meal prior to his crucifixion. Essentially, Jesus’ actions demonstrate his authority to both condemn and supersede the existing function of the Temple by offering a new way to know God – through the shedding of his own blood (echoes of the Passover, the Exodus and Sinai are strong here). According to Wright, the meaning of Jesus’ role as a Temple-replacement becomes clearer when we consider that the temple was Judaism’s central incarnational symbol – the place where heaven and earth interlocked and where the Shekinah glory dwelled with the Jewish people. By replacing and superseding the Temple’s role and function, Jesus was claiming to be the personal and superior embodiment of YHWH’s forgiving and healing presence to Israel.[3]

2. Jesus as New Mediator of the Divine Presence

Wright argues that Jesus understood himself to replace and supersede the Torah as mediator of the God’s presence. In first century Judaism, the Torah was also an incarnational symbol: “It was not only the word from God but the living presence of God’s word with and for the people of Israel” (p.114). By claiming to have authority over the Mosaic Law and by superseding it in his new teaching (cf. the Sermon on the Mount, Mt 5, “it is written… but I tell you”), Jesus was indicating that God was uniquely present in his words. This is a staggering claim, though admittedly not divine one.

Where two sit together and words of the Law are spoken between them, then Shekinah rests between them
Where two sit together and words of the Law are spoken between them, then Shekinah rests between them – Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion, 2nd Century CE

However, the plot thickens. Wright highlights an important parallel between the words of Jesus in Matthew 18 (“where two or more are gathered in my name, there I will be also”) with a later saying that belongs to Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion, recorded after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The Rabbi says, “Where two sit together and words of the Law are spoken between them, then Shekinah rests between them” (see Mishna Avot 3.2). This rabbinic parallel supports two premises in Wright’s argument: (a) it confirms that the Diaspora Jews believed that the Torah mediated the divine presence to its speakers and hearers [an encouraging fact to Jews for whom the Temple no longer existed!]; (b) this parallel supports the idea that Jesus was drawing upon a familiar understanding of the Torah to communicate who he was. Jesus thought of his presence as being on par with the Shekinah that rests between those who gather to speak the Law.

3. Jesus as Embodying YHWH’s Return to Zion

Wright asserts that Jesus’ parables of the returning master/king were intended to foreshadow the expected return of YHWH to Zion. Jesus enacts that very return at the end of his ministry by going up to Jerusalem as both judge and redeemer. His symbolic act of temple cleansing represents the king’s judgement of the corrupt servants in the earlier parables; his actions during the Last Supper and the Crucifixion embody YHWH’s initiative to redeem Israel through a new covenant; and his lament over Jerusalem foretells the impending doom that will befall its corrupt servants because, in his own words, “you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19). Wright notes that the word for “visitation” is actually a technical term for the coming of YHWH himself” (p.118).[4] To sum up: Jesus sees himself as enacting YHWH’s return by embodying the Master/King figure of his earlier parables.

4. Jesus as the Enthroned ‘Son of Man’ Figure

In the court scene prior to his crucifixion, Jesus identifies himself as the ‘son of man’ figure spoken of in Daniel 7, the one who will vindicated[5] and seated at God’s right hand, to share God’s throne. The divine meaning of Jesus’ claim is confirmed when the high priest tears his own robes and accuses him of blasphemy. There were many would–be Messiahs around at that time, but apparently none of them said they would be enthroned with YHWH.[6]

Notice again the way this passage reveals how complex Jewish monotheism was in the 1st Century: Jesus did not explicitly identify himself as God, but his identification with the son of man figure in Daniel 7 was enough to be accused of blasphemy.[7] Jesus’ claim makes sense within the larger canvas of Israel’s story in which the Jews expected that one would share in YHWH’s enthronement.

Wright sums up his arguments as follows: “I have argued that Jesus’ underlying aim was based on his faith-awareness of his vocation. He believed himself called, but Israel’s god, to evoke the traditions which promised YHWH’s return to Zion, and the … tradition which spoke of a human figure sharing the divine throne; to enact those traditions in his own journey to Jerusalem, his messianic act in the Temple, and his death at the hands of the pagans (in the hope of subsequent vindication); and thereby to embody YHWH’s return” [p.121, quoted from p.651 in Jesus and the Victory of God (1997)].

The Epistemology of Jesus’ Divine Self-Knowledge

Wright clarifies the sense in which Jesus knew he was God by distinguishing between different forms of knowing: Jesus wasn’t sitting around thinking he was God or contemplating which divine attributes he possessed – let alone which person of the Trinity he was! His divine self-understanding wasn’t predicative (“I have the property of being divine”), empirical (“I observe that I am divine”), or even deductive (“I can infer from my actions and words that I am divine”). Rather, Wright thinks that Jesus understood his divinity primarily as a personal awareness of vocation. Jesus believed he was called “to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to Scripture only YHWH himself could do and be” (p.122). Jesus made sense of his vocation by figuring it into the larger canvas of Israel’s story of covenant, exile, and redemption – a vocation he knew to be uniquely his own.

Conclusion

One of the things I really appreciate about Wright’s chapter is the approach he uses to address the question, “what does it mean for Jesus to be divine?” He does not get bogged down in the metaphysical problem of how the divine and human natures of Jesus could be united, yet distinct, in the same person. Rather he embarks on a historical-narrative analysis of how that question would have been understood by early Jewish converts to the Christian way, and indeed by Jesus himself. Wright’s narrative approach shows that Jesus saw himself to be the unique Son of God who would evoke, enact and embody the traditions of YHWH’s return to Zion. 

[1] See N.T. Wright’s book, The Challenge of Jesus (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1999), pp.96-125.

[2] See also L. Gregory Jones on this point, in his book Embodying Forgiveness (1995).

[3] The importance of the temple motif to Jesus’ self-understanding explains why John’s Gospel focuses so much of its theology on the Temple – a theology which, Wright claims, is rooted in the historical material we find in the synoptics.

[4] This could also be a startling prediction of the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, depending on how conservatively you date the Gospel of Luke.

[5] The Jewish significance of the cloud imagery indicates vindication

[6] Wright thinks the accusation of blasphemy needs to be connected back to an earlier reference Jesus makes to Psalm 110. There Jesus says, if the Messiah will share God’s throne, how can he be the Son of David? This question indicated that Jesus understands the Messiah to be “seated at the right hand of the Power”, not merely as a son of David. Wright’s conclusion here is that Jesus interprets Daniel 7 and Psalm 110 as both pointing to the idea that the Christ will be enthroned with YHWH.

[7] This is not to say that each time Jesus referred to himself as ‘the son of man’ he was making exalted claims about himself. In most other contexts in the Gospels, ‘the son of man’ simply functions as a self-referring term that Jesus uses to identify himself for his hearers.

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