“Liar, lunatic, or Lord?” In his 2009 book, Jesus Interrupted, Bart Ehrman, devotes an entire chapter to the famous C.S. Lewis quotation that the reader of the gospel accounts has only three options regarding Jesus. Because of the astonishing claims he makes, Jesus is either the Lord he claims he is, a liar, or a lunatic.
Bart Ehrman asserts that Lewis’s trilemma is invalid because Jesus never called himself God.“Only in the latest of our Gospels, John, a Gospel that shows considerably more theological sophistication than the others, does Jesus indicate that he is divine” (p. 141).
I want to ask you to think with me for a minute about two reasons for questioning Professor Ehrman rather than Professor Lewis. The first has to do with his lack of confidence in John’s gospel, and the second has to do with evidence from his favorite of the four canonical gospels, Mark, that Jesus did claim he was divine.
The claim that the apostle John did not write the fourth of the canonical gospel accounts has been made for a couple of centuries. The arguments pro and con for apostolic authorship go beyond objective criteria and hence are often called “higher” criticism to distinguish them from arguments about the actual text of the gospel, arguments which are called “lower” criticism. The lines of evidence for authorship are often distinguished as external evidence and internal evidence.
By external evidence scholars mean the earliest opinions of readers of the gospels as to who their authors were. With respect to the fourth gospel the external evidence is strongly in favor of authorship by the apostle John, son of Zebedee. The scholars who dismiss the apostle as the author do so on the basis of other evidence they claim to see within the text of this gospel itself (“internal”), while acknowledging that they are flying in the face of hundreds of years of virtually unanimous opinion.
D.A Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris summarize the internal evidence for authorship by the apostle John in five steps: “the author of the fourth gospel was (1) a Jew, (2) of Palestine, (3) an eyewitness, (4) an apostle (i.e., one of the Twelve), and (5) the apostle John.” The key to the progression is identifying “the beloved disciple” (John 13:23; 19:26-27; 20:2-9; 21:7, 20-24; cf. 21:24). You can look at the passages for yourself. After looking at the evidence, I conclude that the beloved disciple was in fact the son of Zebedee.
If the gospel we know as John is allowed to count for historically reliable information about what Jesus of Nazareth taught, then C.S. Lewis is clearly right to say that he thought he was God. The prologue to John’s gospel asserts flatly that “the Word was God” (John 1:1), meaning that Word who “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14), namely, “Jesus Christ” (1:17). The whole purpose of this gospel is stated as being “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
But what if we allow Professor Ehrman to require us to respond to his assertion that Jesus never claimed to be God without using the gospel known as John? What if we only look at the shortest gospel account, Mark, which is also regarded by scholars as the earliest? I believe we still see a Jesus who is clear in his claims to deity. Dr. Ehrman’s important criterion of cultural context (Jesus Interrupted, p. 154f.) is especially helpful for recognizing what the following claims meant in first-century Palestine. In Mark I see at least three audacious claims by Jesus that are very close to the claims in John to divinity.
The first bold claim Jesus makes is that he can forgive sins (Mark 2:5). The implications of this claim were not lost on those who heard Jesus make it. “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v. 7).
Those who see only a human Jesus in Mark say that Jesus was merely claiming to be God’s representative who could forgive sins in God’s name. They point to his self-selected title “Son of Man” (v. 10) as indicative of his much less pretentious self-image. But a second bold claim that Jesus makes in Mark also uses that name and shows us that Jesus may not intend it as the critics of his claim to deity think. In Mark 2:28 Jesus asserts, “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Far from meaning to suggest that he was merely an “Everyman” by that title, Jesus is alluding to Daniel 7:13, which introduces a very nearly, if not completely, divine figure by that expression.
Jesus claims in this passage to have authority over the Word of God about one of the first and foremost institutions of God, the Sabbath. It was God who established the Sabbath (Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:8-11). Who is this man that he claims he can change God’s institution! The religious authorities regarded his claim of lordship over the Sabbath as worthy of death (Mark 3:1-6).
Skipping over many other possible exhibits for the sake of brevity, a third, climactic claim is that of Mark 14:61-64. “The high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ 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. ‘You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?’ They all condemned him as worthy of death.”
So, what do you think? In each of these three instances Jesus’ original audience — at least according to Mark’s narrative, which is historically reliable where it can be checked against other sources available to us about that time and place — regarded Jesus’ claims as tantamount to blasphemy and moved to kill him. It’s a new and very secular Western interpretation of the gospels that sees them presenting a merely human Jesus.