20 Mar 2011

“Who Do You Say That I Am?”

Religious 23 Comments

A quick note to newcomers: Every Sunday I try to have a single post on religious topics. The other six days a week are devoted to secular matters.


In church today we were going over the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Previously I highlighted how Jesus quoted nothing but Deuteronomy in His face-off with the devil, but the assistant pastor today made another interesting observation.

When the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread,” he’s not saying, “Hmm, are you really the Son of God?” Rather, he is challenging him like this: “Since you are the Son of God, why don’t you tell this stone to become bread and feed Yourself?”

The pastor reminded us that elsewhere in the gospels, the people around Jesus–including His own disciples–aren’t sure who He is, and/or they are sure at some points but then falter other times.

In contrast, whenever a demon encounters Jesus, there’s no confusion about His divinity. (The best example is when Jesus sends a legion of demons into a herd of pigs.)

Another point the pastor made: In some accounts, Jesus actually tells the demons to keep quiet about His identity. I’m not sure how to interpret that, but it obviously relates to our discussions on why God doesn’t reveal Himself to us more openly. In other words, I’m saying that we don’t need to look at the physical universe or our own lives to wonder about God being somewhat mysterious in His revelation of Himself; that feature is in the gospel stories, including Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus. In fact, Jesus is so vague that a lot of non-believers claim that Jesus never claims to be God in the gospels.

23 Responses to ““Who Do You Say That I Am?””

  1. Andrew says:

    Jesus’ silencing of the demons is part of a general theme in the Gospels, (especially Mark,) and it seems to be about his wanting to avoid stoking up hysteria about a kind of Messiah he never intended to be. (I.e., he didn’t want people to think he was a zealot, but that’s what the people assumed the Messiah would be like, and the demons calling Jesus’ “Messiah” would just make this belief more widespread.)

  2. RobertH says:

    The 1st century Jews were expecting their warrior messiah to come and clear the gentiles from their holy city and restore Israel. The Jew’s didn’t understand the messiah’s mission and Jesus did not want (as Andrew noted) some hysteria breaking out. Jesus had a particular mission: salvation of all the Jew first and then the Gentile and he didn’t want that getting messed up.

    On a side note, I have been reading about 1st century expectations of the messiah and their are as varied opinions about that as there are for Christians today about the end times! (rapture, if so pretrib, mid trib, post trib; millenial or amillenial, preterist, etc.) Some Jews were expecting TWO messiahs! One priestly and the other a warrior! The more you understand 1st century (or around that time) thought of the Jews the more amazing the Gospel’s become.

  3. Captain_Freedom says:

    If the people weren’t sure, then why did they write the bible as if they were sure, using the demon as the pretext?

  4. knoxharrington says:

    “If” and “since” do not mean the same thing. “If” is conditional, “since” is determanitive – the original Greek may provide the answer but based on an English reading of those two sentences the assistant pastor gets an “F” in his understanding of what that passage means. Fundamentalism is literalism.

    As Sam Kinison noted in his comment on Jesus feeding the multitude – “thousands of you show up and not one of you brought a sandwich? – oh, I guess you expect me to get it! Great, now I’m Jesus the miracle caterer.”

    Maybe Jesus kept his divinity a secret so that he wouldn’t be bothered with all who wanted healing, etc. or maybe he wasn’t divine at all and there was no secret to keep (that’s the one I’m going with).

    • RobertH says:

      I think your criticism is a bit unwarranted.

      As soon as I recognized the name Sam Kinison I read the remainder of your post in his voice (oh, Oh, OH, OOOOHHHHH!). I used to listen to Sam Kinison as early as in the 4th grade… (obviously I didn’t grow up Christian) and would go to school and tell my friends the jokes and then be confused as to why they didn’t think the jokes were funny or as funny as I thought they were!

  5. RG says:

    Couldn’t it also mean that to be the son of god is to fully deny yourself the contemplation of being the son of god and the demons are simply tempting him?

  6. GodoftheGaps says:

    Yup.. Jesus is so mysterious, all you need to look in the Bible to see how mysterious Jesus is, which you know is true because the Bible was written about Jesus and Jesus is so mysterious…

  7. Jonathan M. F. Catalán says:

    I have been wanting to ask this question for some time (and it’s completely serious). Why convert to Christianity, not Judaism?

    • RobertH says:

      I don’t think he converted because he wanted a religion. I do not *know* but I think he would respond by saying he was either 1) convinced by the message and is now experiencing it (as most people are who convert) or 2) followed the evidence openly.

      • Jonathan M. F. Catalán says:

        What makes the idea that Jesus was the messiah so convincing? What evidence is there that Jesus was, in fact, the messiah?

        Other than Jesus, what differences are there in the Jewish and Christian messages? What makes the latter more convincing than the former?

        • Maggie says:

          I’m by no means an expert on this, but you might start with Stobel’s The Case for Christ. It talks about why the Gospels are reliable, and the Gospels are what lay out the evidence for Christianity rather than Judaism.

          • bobmurphy says:

            I second that. I’m not endorsing every argument he makes, but I think Stobel is generally pretty good.

        • P.S.H. says:

          “What makes the idea that Jesus was the messiah so convincing?”

          The short answer, naturally, is that he was raised from the dead! But that is a controversial claim, and the evidence—pro and con—is too complex to be explored in the comments thread of a blog post. For a recent Christian treatment of the subject, I refer you to N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003). It is a hefty tome, but you needn’t read every page to get the thrust of the argument. And that argument touches on many a fascinating subject, from early Judaism’s rejection (implicit rather than explicit, to be sure) of any belief in life after death, to the social context in which Christianity swept the Roman world. A briefer treatment can be found in Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (2003).

        • bobmurphy says:

          Hi Jonathan,

          I’m not dodging your question, but it’s a bit like having someone ask me, “Why do you believe in free markets?” One of these days I’ll write it up (probably in a series) for the Sunday post(s).

          In the meantime, just out of curiosity, why do you ask this specifically? Are you Jewish yourself, or are you just saying because they are so similar?

          • Jonathan M. F. Catalán says:

            Well, my dad is Jewish and my mom is Roman Catholic. I’m not religious, but I’ve started to get interested in the evidence behind these religions (especially Judaism). I’m attending Jewish programs, which is why it seems that it may seem that I lean towards Judaism, but if I were to become religious I really don’t know which one I would choose and why.

            I was just interested in why some converts choose Christianity over Judaism. For the most part, I wanted to see if there are people who have real reasons for choosing one over the other, or they chose Christianity because that is the one most popular within their community (why be Jewish if your friends are Christian?). But, from the responses above, I can see that there are reasons for choosing Christianity over Judaism. I guess I’ll have to take a look at those books.

            Btw, have you read anything by Dan Barker? I went to a debate of his, and I’m too lazy to read his quasi autobiography, but I was wondering what led him to abandon his religion (he was a Christian preacher). I wonder how you would compare your conversion to Christianity with his rejection of it.

  8. TJMoseid says:

    Isn’t it obvious that having demons be the announcers/witnesses of Jesus’ divinity is a terrible PR message?

    • RobertH says:

      Haha! That’s pretty funny. I never thought about it like that. Of course, as Dr. Murphy mentioned, they recognized who he was and knew he was God.

  9. Otto Kerner says:

    I suppose that Mark emphasises the secret of the Messiah either because Mark’s audience had never heard stories like that about Jesus as Messiah before (i.e. they were Mark’s innovation) or because Mark’s audience knows that very few if any people in Jesus’ own time thought he was the Messiah. Either way, Mark is establishing a superficially plausible explanation for the public’s unfamiliarity with his description of Jesus. The same point is made much more emphatically at the end of Mark, when the women run away in terror and tell no one of their encounter with the angels at the tomb.

    Jesus in the Gospels certainly does not claim to be God except indirectly and ambiguously in John. This means that John is at odds with the synoptics.

  10. K Sralla says:

    Jonathan Catalan,

    You obviously raise an important point, which is why several letters of the New Testament take up this theme. Read Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. Or read the ultimate argument for Christ layed out in the epistle to the Hebrews. These give the Christian answer.

    The first Christians saw themselves as Jews, possibly many from the sect of the Essenes, yet as time went on, it became obvious that the differences were irreconcilable. The writer of Hebrews says pointedly that there is no going back to Judaism, and warns that foregiveness of sin is found only in Jesus Christ.

  11. K Sralla says:


    1st century Judaism (at least among the non-scholarly realm of the public in 1st century Judea) was steeped in messianic lore. Your story is inconcievable in light of the historical context of Jesus ministry. There is a very strong escatological element from the teachings of the Essene sect, and out of this tradition, John the Baptist and Jesus’ ministries may have arisen.
    All three of the synoptic writers emphasis Jesus as the Messiah (anointed one). The same title they use for Jesus the anointed one (in Greek) is also earlier ascribed to Jesus by none other than Paul in his early letters, which pre-date the synoptics. In the end, your story does not hold water.

    Now if your argument is actually one concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, then that is another argument. Did the early church have a fully formed doctrine of the Trinity? I would argue no based on the scriptural evidence, but yet while the doctrine was not mature, the essential early gospel message proclaimed that Jesus was in fact the prophesied “anointed one of God”, and as such was viewed as a divine manifestation of God himself. The idea of the divinity of Jesus as the messiah is present in early form as indicated by the word useage of Paul even though it is not formulated systematically yet.

    The view of Jesus as divine and Jesus as the messiah is one of the points that created the irrevokable split with Judaism. The other is Paul’s teaching that a gentile could convert simply through repentance and faith in Jesus without undergoing the precription of Jewish law to be circumcised. To many, this destroyed the whole notion of what it meant to be a Jew and was seen as high treason.

  12. RG says:

    It would be a lot easier to digest all these theories if at the end of every caveat the writer posted: …in a tale written, rewritten, translated, and retranslated countless times over millenia.

  13. Otto Kerner says:

    K Sralla,

    Just to be clear, I made two points, one about the Messianic secret in Mark and one about the Trinity.

    Clearly, there was a lot of talk about the Messiah in 1st century Palestine, but that doesn’t establish by itself that people thought Jesus was the Messiah. It’s interesting that neither Paul nor Mark presents Jesus’ ministry as the Messiah as a publicly-known fact in recent memory. Paul gives almost no detail about Jesus’ earthly life, while Mark gives a lot of detail but tells us that Jesus being the Messiah was a secret.

    What do you think the point of Mark 16:8 is?

    Regarding the Trinity, I think it’s completely insufficient and even evasive to say simply that the early church didn’t have a fully developed doctrine of the Trinity. The synoptics are completely unaware that Jesus is God. John arguably has a biune God. Someone felt it was necessary to add material like the Comma Johanneum.

  14. K Sralla says:

    “the Messianic secret in Mark”

    [Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked.] Mark 14:60-63

    Some secret! I can’t imagine why Jesus did not advertize earlier.