(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 8: “Who Was Jesus?”)
Over the past couple weeks, we’ve seen that William Lane Craig wants Jesus to be the Messiah, to the point that he’s not too picky about what he’s willing to accept as an authentic claim to Messiahship. In this week’s installment, we’ll see that he also wants Jesus to be the Son of God, with a similar bias. This week, however, the bias shows up not so much in what he accepts, but rather in what he omits.
A number of authors have written recently about the theory that Jesus never existed and that virtually all of the New Testament stories about him are fabrications, confabulations, and myths. If this theory is correct, then there’s really not much to say about this portion of Chapter 8. Craig presents his case under the assumption that there is a genuine history of Jesus that can be reliably recovered by studying the Gospels in their historical context. If that assumption is false, then both his reasoning and his conclusions are moot, since there was no “Jesus” to claim to be anything.
I’m not taking that path, however. For one thing I’m not too familiar with the evidence against the historical existence of Jesus, and since I haven’t seen enough to convince me, I’m not going to try and convince anyone else. But the other reason is that I’ve noticed something strange, even within the context of Craig’s assumptions. He wants to argue that Jesus saw himself as the unique son of God, or better yet, as a Trinitarian God the Son. He’s forgetting one very important element of the story however. According to the modern Christian canon, God somehow impregnated a woman (who was not His wife), and the offspring of this union was Jesus. That makes Jesus literally God’s bastard son, a relationship of mere biology rather than shared deity.
This would have a tremendous impact both on whether Jesus saw himself as God’s only begotten son, and on what he might have meant by that. The assumption, of course, is that Jesus knew about the story of his alleged virgin birth, and believed it. If he never heard of such a thing, and if the stories in Luke and Matthew were simply lies invented by Christians in order to make their Messiah sound a bit more divine, then we could fall back to using Craig’s interpretation of what Jesus might have meant by calling himself the Son of God. But if Jesus was, in fact, the physical result of some kind of reproductive relationship between his mother and God, and if he knew about it and believed it was true, then we need to consider first and foremost whether his references to God as his father were perfectly ordinary references to his biological ancestry.
Astonishingly, Craig not only fails to address this possibility, he shows no awareness of its existence. That “Virgin Birth” stuff is tucked away somewhere in its own little silo, and has no effect on any other parts of the Gospel story. (This, by the way, is why the 7th criterion is so important: if we were dealing with genuine truth, it would not exist in isolation from other parts of the same story.)
Instead, Craig picks three passages where Jesus apparently claims to be the Son of God: Mark 12:1-9, Matthew 11:27, and Mark 13:32. Interestingly, as we saw with Jesus’ alleged claims to Messiahship, none of the passages record Jesus as explicitly declaring himself to be what Craig says he is. He certainly seems to be dropping some very broad hints, but at the same time they’re just hints.
What’s more, there are three passages Craig could have used, in which Jesus does seem to make a more direct claim to be the Son of God: Matthew 26:63, Luke 22:70, and John 10:36. But these too have problems. The verses in Matthew and Luke present alternative versions of what Jesus answered when the Sanhedrin asked if he were the Son of God: Luke claims that Jesus said “Yes, I am,” but Matthew reports that Jesus’ reply was a more ambiguous “You have said,” which might have meant “You said it, brother!” or it might have meant “Your words, not mine!” John reports that Jesus claimed to have said that he was the Son of God, but he does so in the context of quoting a passage that designated ordinary mortals as gods, making his own claim to sonship far less than the sort of claim Craig wants it to be.
The result is that when we look for direct, unequivocal claims by Jesus himself, what we find instead are the kind of cagey and coy insinuations that politicians use when they want people to think they agree with them, without making any real commitments. He seems to like having other people believe that He is the son of God, but he wants them to jump to that conclusion on their own. Very rarely does he come right out and say, “I am the son of God, and both times he does so, it’s in a context that makes it ambiguous exactly what he might have meant by that. Result: at no point could you prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was guilty of claiming to be the Son of God. He certainly seems to want people to think that, but he always leaves room for plausible deniability. Odd, that.
But let’s take it that he did indeed think of himself as the Son of God. What does that mean? Remember, this is back in the old days, before the Church Councils came up with the notion of “Trinity” by which Jesus could be both the Son of God and God the Son. Back in those days, the gods were a fairly randy bunch, and the male gods liked them their human women. There were any number of half-human, half-divine offspring in the ancient myths, though none of them—according to the Old Testament—were the result of a direct union between Yahweh and a human woman. The (*ahem*) Virgin Mary would have been the first, thus making Jesus a demigod like Hercules et al.
Some might object that Jesus could not possibly have believed that, since demigods are pagan theology, and the idea would have been heretical in first century Jewish culture. But the notion of God the Son, part of a triune Godhead, would have been equally heretical in that context, so you can’t say he must have believed one and not the other.
Besides, if you’re going to be consistent with the story of the Virgin Birth, then you have to accept the fact that biological ancestry would make Jesus the only begotten son of God. Such a status would make him unique, and would elevate him above all the great prophets and patriarchs of the past (which might be psychologically very satisfying to a guy who knew he was a bastard son). But it wouldn’t make him God, nor would it make him eternal or omnipotent or omniscient.
That last point is particularly significant when we look at the passage Craig quotes in Mark 13. “But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” Exactly the sort of thing Jesus would say if he saw himself as God’s biological son rather than as the second member of some divine Trinity. This is one place where Craig correctly uses the criterion of embarrassment: contrary to subsequent Trinitarian dogma, Jesus explicitly denies having the divine characteristic of omniscience. That makes it less likely to be the product of a Trinitarian Christian, and more likely to be the product of someone who gave Jesus an elevated, but still non-divine status.
Craig, meanwhile, covers some interesting territory, exploring all the different ways that the Bible (and related documents) use titles like “son of God” to refer to ordinary mortals. He tries to make it sound like Jesus’ use of the term was somehow different, but he doesn’t quite account for the possibility that Jesus might have seen himself as unique in being the only living son of God (as in the old proverb, “a live dog beats a dead lion”). In the end, even Craig himself concedes that there’s not as much here as he’d like to find.
So we have here the same ambiguity with the title “the Son of God” that we encountered in considering the title “Messiah.” These titles have many different meanings and are therefore ambiguous when taken out of context. In order to understand the meaning that Jesus invested in such self-descriptions we need to look at Jesus’ teaching and actions.
Technically, it’s the other way around: the titles are ambiguous when taken in context (as seen in John 10 and Matthew 26, for example), and in order to arrive at Craig’s “correct” interpretation, you need to take these titles and combine them with carefully-selected extracts from elsewhere, which Craig refers to as “looking at Jesus’ teaching and actions.” Re-combining snippets of Scripture to create new, artificial contexts is a great way to control what “Biblical” conclusions you want to reach. But more on that later.
In the meantime, we’re left with a bunch of stories that urge us to jump to conclusions that the text carefully avoids explicitly committing itself to. Did Jesus claim to be “the son of God”? Or “the Son of God,” to use Trinitarian capitalization? Did he believe that he was biologically descended from God Himself, via Virgin Birth? If so, then that has an immediate effect on what it means for him to be God’s only-begotten son. But if not, then so much for an inspired and infallible New Testament!
All we can really know for sure from these texts is that the people who wrote them wanted Jesus to be the Son of God in some sense. Maybe their consciences bothered them. Maybe Jesus never claimed to be any of those things, and people were trying to put words in his mouth without deliberately misquoting him. Maybe Jesus did say them, just as coyly as he is recorded as having said them. Maybe he noticed that people will believe hints and oblique references more readily than they do explicit (and debatable) claims. Maybe it was all just a con.
One thing we can know for sure, though, is that Jesus (assuming he did exist) was no more a Son of God than I am. If Jesus really were the divine Person that the Gospels make him out to be, and if what he wanted was to be with his disciples (i.e. us), and if he were resurrected in a way that demonstrated his divine power to overcome any obstacle in order to be with us, then you wouldn’t have an entire profession of apologists like Craig building elaborate historical arguments like Chapter 8 merely to reach the conclusion that it was “ambiguous” what he might have meant by the titles he might have been thinking of applying to himself. Jesus would be here! Why would you need apologists when you’ve got a risen Savior right there in front of you?
Craig’s problem, of course, is that we don’t have such a Savior. Look around you. He’s not here. That’s why people like Craig have to try to reconstruct him out of the correct combinations of snippets of ancient texts, as written and selected by biased, credulous, and superstitious men. Jesus only exists to the extent that people believe in him, and so it’s up to men like Craig to manufacture that belief.
We have one last title to go—“the Son of Man”—before Craig gets to the real meat of his case for Jesus: the things he thinks Jesus was implying by his words and actions. Finally, an objective standard! Heh.