As we saw in a short essay I wrote a while back, there are a few important criteria for establishing a high probability of a historical event or saying. These are early and independent attestation, and the criterion of embarrassment. Early and independent attestation is when a saying/event (s) appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor a common source. The criterion of embarrassment is when S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S. If S passes one or more of these criteria then it is deemed historically likely to have occurred. How might one view some of Jesus’ statements in this light?
This is a necessary question given that there is doubt or suspicion regarding certain words/sentences attributed to Jesus in some of the gospel accounts. Though far more on the radical extreme, the Jesus Seminar, for example, sparked controversy and made headlines when they begun printing certain statements of Jesus in different colours. Those in red are deemed to be authentic, passages that sounded like Jesus in pink, passages that were dubiously uttered by Jesus in gray, and inauthentic passages in black. Their final conclusion was that less than 20% of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels were authentic.
The Jesus Seminar and their methods of exegesis and interpretation, especially pertaining to their colour coding system, have been heavily criticized elsewhere by scholars across the board (1). However, that aside, the majority of scholars do believe that among the historically authentic words of Jesus, there are claims that reveal his divine self-understanding. Even those within the radical Jesus Seminar would accept these sayings. In other words, several authentic sayings of Jesus reveal that he saw himself as the unique, divine Son of God (2). Here Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God would be a good example. Most scholars recognize that this teaching, that of the coming of God’s Kingdom or reign, stood at the heart of the Jesus’ ministry (3).
1. The parable of the wicked tenants
Jesus’s radical self-understanding is arguably best revealed in his parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard. This parable is attested in the synoptics (Mark 12:1-12; Mat. 21:33-46; Luke 20:9-19). Matthew and Luke likely derived the parable from Mark. Mark’s gospel provides early attestation of the parable. Even skeptical scholars, some within the Jesus Seminar, accept this as a genuine parable of Jesus given that it is also attested to within the later 2nd century Gospel of Thomas (sayings 65–66).
The parable is rife with symbolism (4). According to the parable, the owner of the vineyard sends some servants to the tenants of the vineyard to collect its fruit. The vineyard symbolizes Israel, the owner is God, the tenants are the Jewish religious leaders, and the servants are prophets send by God. The tenants beat and reject the owner’s servants. Finally, the owner says, “I will send my only, beloved son. They will listen to my son.” But instead, the tenants kill the son because he is the heir to the vineyard.
The parable is significantly informative regarding Jesus and his self-understanding. Jesus evidently thought of himself as God’s special son, distinct from all the prophets, God’s final messenger, and even the heir to Israel.
2. “No one knows the Son except the Father” (Matthew 11:27)
Consider Jesus’ statement in Matthew 11:27 that “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (Parallel = Luke 10:22). There is are two reasons that render this likely to be a genuine, authentic saying of Jesus.
Firstly, because of the saying’s early attestation given that it comes to us from an old source that was shared by both Matthew and Luke. This source is known as Q, or hypothetical Q. It is defined as hypothetical because it no longer exists. However, the majority of New Testament scholars believe it once did. Its existence was very likely based on the verbatim wording found in Matthew and Luke, particularly when they record the same events and words of Jesus.
The other reason is the criterion of embarrassment. This says that it is very unlikely that a gospel author would have simply included a saying/event that was embarrassing to their early movement if that saying/event had not actually occurred. In this case it is unlikely the early church invented this saying given that it essentially says that the Son is unknowable (“no one knows the Son except the Father”). However, for the church post-Jesus’ resurrection the message is that we can know the Son. This saying cannot therefore be chalked down to a product of later Church theology.
Given that this saying passes the criteria of early attestation and embarrassment, it is reasonable to believe Jesus said it. But what does it tell us about Jesus’s self-concept? Jesus saw himself as the exclusive and absolute Son of God and the only revelation of God to mankind.
3. “But of that day or that hour no man knows…” (Mark 13:32)
In Mark 13.32 we find Jesus teaching about the date of his second coming in Mark 13.32: “But of that day or that hour no man knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (also see Matthew 24:36).
This saying also satisfies the criterion of embarrassment, and is therefore more likely to be an authentic saying of the historical Jesus. The early church and our gospel authors, for example, obviously viewed Jesus as divine. It is thus unlikely that they would have invented a saying suggesting a limited knowledge or ignorance on Jesus’ part. Here we discover that Jesus did not know the time of his return.
Again, what does this tell us about Jesus’s self-concept? First, it reveals Jesus’ own understanding of him being the one Son of God. Second, it also presents the reader with an ascending scale of importance from men to angels to the Son to the Father. On this scale Jesus transcends any human or angelic being.
This is quite powerful historical data. Now, even if one grants the problematic view that Jesus only said some 20% of the words attributed to him in our gospels, we can still be confident that we have Jesus’ own genuine words regarding his radical self-understanding. In other words, Jesus’ radical self-understanding of his divine nature was not attributed to him at a later stage by the early church, nor is it a product of mythological embellishment.
1. For criticisms see Allison, D. 1998. Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet; Wilkins, M. & Moreland, J. 1995. Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus; Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God; Witherington, B. The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth.
2. Craig, W. The Evidence for Jesus. Available.
3. Craig, W. Ibid.
4. Brown, R, et al. 1990. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. p. 621; Kilgallen, J. 1989. A Brief Commentary on the Gospel of Mark. p. 226.