Jesus of Nazareth is the most important man who has ever lived. Christians are indebted to him for the hope that he offers, the sacrifice he offered on our behalf, and the special relationship with God that is made possible through him.
This post explains how Biblical Unitarians view Jesus, and why we honour him as our master, saviour, shepherd, king and Lord. Rob will find plenty to agree with here.
Jesus is the promised Jewish Messiah
- Matthew 2:1-6, "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.' When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him. After assembling all the chief priests and experts in the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 'In Bethlehem of Judea," they said, "for it is written this way by the prophet: 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are in no way least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.''"
- John 4:25-26, "The woman said to him, 'I know that Messiah is coming' (the one called Christ); 'whenever he comes, he will tell us everything.' Jesus said to her, "I, the one speaking to you, am he.'"
- Acts 3:19-20,"'Therefore repent and turn back so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he may send the Messiah appointed for you — that is, Jesus.'"
- Isaiah 7:14, "'For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel.'"
- Matthew 1:20-23, "When he had contemplated this, an angel of the Lord16 appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: 'Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel', which means 'God with us'.'"
- Luke 1: 34-35, "Mary said to the angel, 'How will this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?' The angel replied, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.'"
At his baptism Jesus received the Holy Spirit, through which he performed miraculous works
- Matthew 3:16, "After Jesus was baptized, just as he was coming up out of the water, the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on him."
- Luke 4:14, "Then Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the surrounding countryside."
- John 3:34, "For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he does not give the Spirit sparingly."
- Acts 10:38, "with respect to Jesus from Nazareth, that God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him."
- John 4:6, "Jacob's well was there, so Jesus, since he was tired from the journey, sat right down beside the well. It was about noon."
- Acts 3:15, "'You killed the Originator of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this fact we are witnesses!'"
- Hebrews 2:17, "Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people."
- Matthew 11:27, "'All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son decides to reveal him.'"
- John 6:45, "'(Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God — he has seen the Father.)'"
- John 4:21-22, "Jesus said to her, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You people worship what you do not know. We worship what we know, because salvation is from the Jews."
- John 20:17, "Jesus replied, 'Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father. Go to my brothers and tell them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.''"
- Matthew 4:1, "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil."
- John 4:34, "Jesus said to them, 'My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to complete his work.'"
- Hebrews 4:15, "For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin."
- I Peter 2:21-22, "For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth."
- Romans 3:23-25, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed."
- Hebrews 7:26-27, "For it is indeed fitting for us to have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separate from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need to do every day what those priests do, to offer sacrifices first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people, since he did this in offering himself once for all."
- I Peter 1:18-19, "You know that from your empty way of life inherited from your ancestors you were ransomed — not by perishable things like silver or gold, but by precious blood like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb, namely Christ."
- I John 2:1-2, "(My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.) But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One, and he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world."
- Acts 2:22-24, "'Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know —this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles. But God raised him up, having released him from the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held in its power.'"
- Romans 8:34, "Who is the one who will condemn? Christ is the one who died (and more than that, he was raised), who is at the right hand of God, and who also is interceding for us."
- I Timothy 2:5, " For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human"
Names and titles of Jesus
Jesus has many titles, identifying aspects of his identity, mission and status. I have listed some below:
- Messiah (Acts 3:20)
- Lord (John 13:13)
- Saviour (Acts 13:23)
- King of Kings (Revelation 17:14)
- Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16)
- Immanuel; "God with us" (Matthew 1:18-23)
- Last Adam (I Corinthians 15:45)
- Lamb of God (John 1:29)
- Word of God (Revelation 19:13)
- Firstborn from among the dead (Colossians 1:18)
- Author of life (Acts 3:15)
- Chief shepherd (I Peter 5:4)
- Light of the world (John 8:12)
- First and last (Revelation 1:19)
- Firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15)
This informs our understanding of Jesus. No point can be taken in isolation; the most accurate interpretation is one based on the greatest body of consistent evidence.
The "Easy" Verses
Before Week 3, it's important to address verses often used as shortcuts to "prove" that Jesus is God because they appear to call him "God" directly, or refer to "God" in a way that implies "God" means "Jesus." It seems to be assumed that if Jesus is God, the Bible must tell us repeatedly... somewhere. Yet incredibly few specific examples are appealed to.
We must take care to avoid two arguments:
- The Bible refers literally to Jesus as "God"; therefore he is God
- The Bible does not refer literally to Jesus as "God"; therefore he is not God
Rob and I agree some passages apparently call Jesus "God" literally, directly and without qualification. Rob quotes several in Putting Jesus in His Place (Kregel Publications, 2007) as evidence that Jesus is indeed God. However, these passages are not decisive, since virtually all of them can be understood differently due to textual variations and contextual/grammatical issues. Textual critics and Trinitarian authorities of various schools observe repeatedly none can be relied on with absolute certainty, and even the strongest requires qualification.
I address these verses now since I feel that they distract from the far more important task of building a case for our respective Christologies on a Scriptural basis as a whole. I shall be quoting from the NET Bible (with exceptions noted).
Rob discusses Isaiah 7:14 on pages 135-8 of his book (hereafter PJIHP):
For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel.
Rob links this with Isaiah 9:6:
Rob says he is familiar with the NET Bible, so I am sure he has read the footnotes. I quote the relevant parts, as they are extensive.
For a child has been born to us, a son has been given to us. He shoulders responsibility and is called: Extraordinary Strategist, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
On Isaiah 7:14 -
The name Immanuel means "God [is] with us."
There is no attempt to extrapolate an argument for Christ's deity. The translators understand that a name is not the same as a statement about Christological identity or ontology (nature). Jewish names commonly include names and titles of God (a practice known as theophory) without ever implying that the person being so named is literally divine. Some examples follow:
- Elijah: "Yahweh is God"", or "Yahweh my God"
- Adoni-zedek: "justice of the Lord"
- Jehezekel: "strength of God"
- Zephaniah: "the Lord is my secret"
- Bithiah: "daughter of the Lord"
- Isaiah: "salvation of the Lord"
- Ishmael: "God that hears"
On Isaiah 9:6 -
["El Gibbor"] is probably an attributive adjective ("mighty God"), though one might translate "God is a warrior" or "God is mighty." Scholars have interpreted this title is two ways. A number of them have argued that the title portrays the king as God's representative on the battlefield, whom God empowers in a supernatural way (see J. H. Hayes and S. A. Irvine, Isaiah, 181-82). They contend that this sense seems more likely in the original context of the prophecy. They would suggest that having read the NT, we might in retrospect interpret this title as indicating the coming king's deity, but it is unlikely that Isaiah or his audience would have understood the title in such a bold way. Psa_45:6 addresses the Davidic king as "God" because he ruled and fought as God's representative on earth.
["Everlasting Father"] This title must not be taken in an anachronistic Trinitarian sense. (To do so would be theologically problematic, for the "Son" is the messianic king and is distinct in his person from God the "Father.") Rather, in its original context the title pictures the king as the protector of his people. For a similar use of "father" see Isa_22:21 and Job_29:16. ...The New Testament indicates that the hyperbolic language (as in the case of the title "Mighty God") is literally realized in the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy, for Jesus will rule eternally.
The NET translators openly reject a Trinitarian view and provide several reasons why it is not possible.
Rob's own analysis is brief and contains not one single reference from the relevant scholarly literature to support his interpretation, so let's eliminate these as potential Trinitarian proof texts.
On page 141 of PJIHP, John 1:18:
This translation is based upon a specific choice of manuscript supporting a Trinitarian reading. There are a several Greek manuscripts for this verse, some leaving no place for the deity of Christ. English Bibles have historically translated John 1:18 in different ways, reflecting the manuscripts they use:
No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known.
- English Standard Version: "No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known."
- Holman Christian Standard Bible: "No one has ever seen God. The One and Only Son — the One who is at the Father's side — He has revealed Him."
- Revised Version: "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him."
- New International Version: "No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known."
The "...only begotten God" is less supported among Trinitarian scholars today, as it is an ancient variant known to the early church fathers and accepted by the Arian heretics of the 4th Century AD, who believed Jesus was not Almighty God, merely "a god" in the sense of a separate divine entity from God. For them his existence had a literal beginning, unlike the Father. (Arius himself used the term "only begotten god" in Thalia, his mystical hymn about the Father and Son). Hence, "only begotten God" is a sub-optimal match with Trinitarian Christology.
Two notable authorities have discussed the opposing views of John 1:18: Dr Daniel B Wallace, evangelical theologian and grammarian (The Text and Grammar of John 1.18, 2004) and Prof. Bart D. Ehrman, agnostic New Testament scholar and textual critic (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Oxford University Press, 1993).
Wallace belongs to the NET translation committee and favours the translation given in the NET; Ehrman favours the translation "...only begotten son." Both present strong arguments and readers will inevitably favour the result best suiting their Christology. It is admitted candidly that all translations of this verse have difficulties, regardless of the manuscripts, so it cannot be presented as neutral evidence for Christ's deity.
Rob appeals to Acts 20:28 (PJIHP, p144) -
Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.
Some translations have "...with his own blood", implying it was God who sacrificed Himself for us, which has been used to argue that Jesus is God (since it was he who died for our sins). Rob prefers this translation, using it in his book.
The NET rejects this translation on grammatical grounds:
Or "with his own blood"; Grk "with the blood of his own." The genitive construction could be taken in two ways: (1) as an attributive genitive (second attributive position) meaning "his own blood"; or (2) as a possessive genitive, "with the blood of his own." In this case the referent is the Son, and the referent has been specified in the translation for clarity. See further C. F. DeVine, "The Blood of God," CBQ 9 (1947): 381-408.
Rob's interpretation faces theological dangers. "...with his own blood" is danger of implying that the Father Himself died on the cross (the Patripassian heresy), or that God Himself has blood (problematic since for Trinitarians the word "God" may refer to the Trinity as a whole, implying all three persons have blood). Thus Acts 20:28 is indecisive as a Trinitarian proof text.
Next is Romans 9:5 (PJIHP, p146):
To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen.
However, in their footnotes the translators acknowledge other acceptable readings:
Or "the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever," or "the Messiah. God who is over all be blessed forever!" or "the Messiah who is over all. God be blessed forever!" The translational difficulty here is not text-critical in nature, but is a problem of punctuation. Since the genre of these opening verses of Romans 9 is a lament, it is probably best to take this as an affirmation of Christ's deity (as the text renders it).
Although the other renderings are possible, to see a note of praise to God at the end of this section seems strangely out of place. But for Paul to bring his lament to a crescendo (that is to say, his kinsmen had rejected God come in the flesh), thereby deepening his anguish, is wholly appropriate. This is also supported grammatically and stylistically: The phrase ὁ ὢν (ho ōn, "the one who is") is most naturally taken as a phrase which modifies something in the preceding context, and Paul's doxologies are always closely tied to the preceding context.
For a detailed examination of this verse, see B. M. Metzger, "The Punctuation of Rom_9:5," Christ and the Spirit in the New Testament, 95-112; and M. J. Harris, Jesus as God, 144-72.
Romans 9:5 is therefore inconclusive.
With regard to Hebrews 1:8 (PJIHP, p148), I agree that Jesus is unequivocally called "theos":
but of the Son he says, 'Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and a righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.
Jesus is undoubtedly referred to as "theos" in this verse. However, the meaning of the word is qualified: (a) by the context and (b) by the original use of this phrase in Psalm 45:7, where a Jewish king is called "elohim" by the psalmist ("theos" in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament). The NET footnotes are confident here ("Hebrews 1:8 is thus a strong affirmation of the deity of Christ"), yet in their footnotes on Psalm 45:7 they make no mention of Christ's deity whatsoever.
Standard scholarship finds no reason to infer literal deity from the application of the title "elohim" to a human king in Psalm 45:7; thus, Trinitarian theologian Vincent Taylor, Does the New Testament Call Jesus God? (Expository Times 73 (January 1962): 116-118):
A single passage in the Epistle of the Hebrews may be mentioned, but it supplies no ground at all for the supposition that the author thought and spoke of Christ as God. The passage is a quotation from Ps 45:7-8 in Heb 1:8-9 which is applied to Christ, to show His superiority to the angels. ... The Psalm is Messianic and the divine name is carried over with the rest of the quotation. Like Paul and John the writer frequently uses the name 'the Son', and he does so in introducing this very quotation. He has no intention of suggesting that Jesus is God.
To argue Jesus must be God simply because this verse is connected with him, whilst insisting the original referent cannot be God even though he has just been called exactly that, commits the fallacy of special pleading. Far better to accept Jesus' words in John 10:34, defending himself against a charge of blasphemy by quoting Psalm 82:6 to prove that mortal men can legitimately be called "elohim" or "gods" ("theoi" in the Greek of John 10:34).
The last two texts turn appeal to a point of grammar (PJIHP, pp150-6):
as we wait for the happy fulfillment of our hope in the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ
The NET takes a Trinitarian reading, and follows the same pattern here:
II Peter 1:1
From Simeon Peter, a slave and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ, have been granted a faith just as precious as ours.
In both cases the Trinitarian translation is based upon a principle known as "Sharp's Rule", after its originator, Trinitarian grammarian Granville Sharp. At the risk of over-simplifying, I summarise the Rule by saying that it argues certain grammatical constructions must always be interpreted in a particular way. The NET translation follows Sharp's Rule rigidly, since it is held in high esteem by the translation committee (particularly Daniel B. Wallace). Yet even Wallace urges caution, pointing out that the application of Sharp's Rule is very limited, not applying to proper names.
Sharp listed eight texts he believed Christologically significant, arguing his Rule proved they supported the deity of Christ (Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:5; II Thessalonians 1:12; I Timothy 5:21; II Tim 4:1; Titus 2:13; II Peter 1:1; Jude 4). In an online article (Sharp Redivivus? A Reexamination of the Granville Sharp Rule) Daniel B. Wallace rejects six on textual and grammatical grounds:
Sharp invoked dubious textual variants in four of the eight texts to support his rule (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim 5:21; 2 Tim 4:1; Jude 4). As well, in 1 Tim 5:21 and 2 Tim 4:1, if the almost certainly authentic reading of tou' qeou' kaiV Cristou' jIhsou' (for tou' qeou' kaiV kurivou Cristou' jIhsou') is accepted, then the text can also be dispensed with, for “Christ Jesus” is surely a proper name, and thus does not fall within the limitations of Sharp’s rule.
Further, two other passages seem to involve proper names. Second Thessalonians 1:12 does not have merely “Lord” in the equation, but “Lord Jesus Christ.” Only by detaching kurivou from jIhsou' Cristou' could one apply Sharp’s rule to this construction. Ephesians 5:5 has the name “Christ” in the equation, though one would be hard-pressed to view this as less than a proper name in the epistles") eight that only two of these verses can be validly claimed.
Two verses remain which Trinitarians can claim as supporting the deity of Christ.
Of these, Wallace says:
The canon even works outside the twenty-seven books and, hence, ought to be resurrected as a sound principle which has overwhelming validity in all of Greek literature. Consequently, in Titus 2:13 and 2 Pet 1:1 we are compelled to recognize that, on a grammatical level, a heavy burden of proof rests with the one who wishes to deny that “God and Savior” refers to one person, Jesus Christ.
(Ibid. Wallace's emphasis).
Notice the qualification: "...on a grammatical level", which we would accept, though other translations disagree with the NET (e.g. the American Standard Version). Thus the argument from Sharp's Rule is not an unequivocal proof. We must ask is why "theos" is used of Jesus; here I would argue that, in Titus 2:13, "great God" quotes "mighty God" from Isaiah 9:6, a Messianic title.
Concluding this section, I repeat that the deity of Christ requires far stronger evidence than a tiny handful of disputed verses regarded are as textually and grammatically problematic and variously translated in ways perfectly acceptable to Biblical Unitarian Christology. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof; this just isn't it.
Jesus in the Old Testament
My opening statement last week, says:
The Law of Moses instructed us into Christ by teaching us basic principles of Christianity through typology and symbol. Everything first-century Christians needed to know about Messiah was built into the words of the Law and the prophets. Jesus is popularly recognised as a New Testament figure, but he is foreshown frequently in the Old Testament as Messiah.
The first-century Jewish opponents of Christianity insisted that it constituted a heretical breach from Judaism, but in the pages of the NT we are able to see that Christians proved otherwise, demonstrating powerfully from Scripture that Christianity is the end result of a process which had begun with Israel.
Thus, as Christians, we must recognise and acknowledge that there is a doctrinal continuity from Judaism to Christianity which cannot be broken. This continuity is emphasised by the apostle Paul in Galatians 3:24, where he says that the Law of Moses was "...our instructor into Christ."
But how was the Law of Moses our instructor? In what way could this rigid Old Testament legal system prepare anyone for the message of love and grace that we find in Christianity? This is a point to which I shall return in later discussions.
We first glimpse Jesus in Genesis, an encounter providing a template for interpreting other passages referring to him:
The LORD God made garments from skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.
This is Christianity's foundation teaching:
- Sin deserves death
- Sacrifice offers a covering for sin
- Only God can provide a sin-covering sacrifice; a sacrifice which is "other than God"
Few today would take issue with Rudolf Bultmann’s oft-quoted line that “In describing Christ as ‘God’ the New Testament still exercises great restraint.” The list of passages which seem explicitly to identify Christ with God varies from scholar to scholar, but the number is almost never more than a half dozen or so. As is well known, almost all of the texts are disputed as to their affirmation—due to textual or grammatical glitches—John 1:1 and 20:28 being the only two which are usually conceded without discussion.
(Daniel B. Wallace, Sharp Redivivus? A Reexamination of the Granville Sharp Rule).