"Who Do You Say That I Am?" THE DEITY OF JESUS (1 Corinthians 8)

A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese

Excerpted from 1 Corinthians:  A Critical & Exegetical Commentary
(Moberly, MO: Scripture Exposition Books LLC, 2013)
Download a printable PDF of this Special Study


"Who Do You Say That I Am?"



        Several lines of evidence in Scripture point to the fact that Jesus is God.  One could appeal to Jesus' own teaching on the great day of questions (Matthew 22:23ff, Mark 12:18ff).  As the religious leaders questioned His authority, at one point Jesus pointedly told them, "You understand neither the Scriptures nor the power of God," and His answers to their questions were intended to illuminate both the Scriptures and God Himself for them.  Jesus based His answer to their question, "Whose wife is she?" on the present tense verb "am."  His answer regarding "Which is the greatest commandment?" was based in part on the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4).  The plural nouns in the Shema are intended to point us to the fact that while "The Lord our God is one," there is not simply one person in the Godhead.  On that same question, Jesus then used the phrase "and another is just like it."  That phrase is perhaps a springboard for the question He then posed to the religious leaders, "What do you think about the Christ?  Whose Son is He?"  Jesus was trying to help them understand that the Father can be in heaven, and 'one just like Him' could also be on earth.  Jesus' question about Messiah being David's "Lord" also has overtones of deity.  "Lord" is the word Jews regularly used when they came across the tetragrammaton that we often transliterate as "Jehovah."  Jesus as the Christ is Jehovah Lord, as much as are the Father and Holy Spirit.

        One could appeal to John 5, where there are five evidences given by Jesus Himself of His deity.  One could appeal to John 17:5, where Jesus speaks of the glory that He ever had with the Father before the creation of the world.  Jesus is an eternal being.

        One could appeal to passages like Romans 9:5, where Jesus is spoken of both as descended from the patriarchs and also as being "over all, God blessed forever," or Titus 2:13 where Jesus is called "our great God and Savior."  One could appeal to Hebrews 1, where there are seven qualities ascribed to Jesus that can be true only if He is co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father.

        We could speak of Jehovahism (a better term than 'monotheism') to describe what the Scriptures teach about deity – deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.



        At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus Himself posed the question to His apostles, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"  The disciples responded by giving numerous human views.  Then Jesus asked the apostles, "Who do you say that I am?"  Peter answered "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:13-16).

        For 17 or 18 centuries, the view Peter expressed was also upheld as the church's standard of orthodoxy.  The historical Jesus was fully deity and fully human – deity incarnate in human flesh.  Since the late 18th century, however, the supernatural Christ has been more and more relegated to the dustbin and treated as superstition by Bible critics.  With humanism and rationalism as the prevailing philosophy, men tried to remold Jesus into someone who would match those non-supernaturalistic world views.

        There have been various quests for the historical Jesus1 – producing a Jesus who is a psychic, or a sage, or a cynic, or a magician, or a peasant reformer, or a simple carpenter, or a model humanitarian.  Gone are any ideas of a pre-existent deity who became incarnate, overcame demons, rose from the dead, and who will return to earth to renovate it and judge mankind.

  • John Macquarrie suggested the biblical writers sought to exalt the human Jesus into a god-like figure by transposing aspects of His history into the framework of Greek mythology.
  • J.A.T. Robinson, emphasizing that each of us have personal experiences for which we struggle to find words to express to someone else, thinks the words of the New Testament are likewise attempts to express the writers' experiences to someone else.  The myths surrounding the man Jesus must be expressed in terms with which today's readers can identify.  The banality of the bishop can be seen when he demythologizes the parousia myth into "You ain't seen nothing yet."
  • Tillich, Barth, Brunner, Bonhoeffer, and Vincent Taylor all make use of Hegel's dialectic to explain Jesus Christ.  According to Neo-orthodoxy, the Bible presents Him as the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith; these two conflicting ideas (paradox), neither of which is actually true, must both be held in mind, they say, if we are to understand who Jesus really is.
  • Cullmann and Pittenger emphasize a functional approach to understanding Jesus.  The Christ can be known only through the effects of His work.  That is, peoples' perception of Jesus is different from what the human Jesus actually was.  Hear within this Kant's philosophy with its difference between historie (what really happened) and geschichte (people's interpretations of what happened).  So we should be more concerned with events in Jesus' life than with His person.  Instead of "deity" referring to Jesus' "nature," the church later coined the phrase "deity of Christ" to express its belief that Jesus was the special vehicle of God's activity.    Neo-liberal theologians insist that functionally Jesus was divine, but essentially He was not.  ("Divine" is not synonymous with "deity" when the term is used by these Neo-liberal theologians.)
  • Teilhard de Chardin, adopting evolution as the framework for his world view, has Jesus being simply the product of the cosmic evolutionary processes.  His pre-existence, incarnation, and divinity are given a radical re-interpretation in harmony with a naturalistic, evolutionary view.
  • Hans Kung (in two books, On Being a Christian and Nothing But the Truth) has followed the view of many modern scholars that Jesus did not proclaim Himself as the eternal Son of God, nor did the early Christians.  Kung is not the only Roman Catholic to question the deity of Jesus – so have Ansfried Hulsbosch, Edward Schille-beeckx, Jacques Pohier, Michel Pinchon [who wrote of his liberation from "idolatry" of Jesus], Jose-Ramon Guerrero, Jose Ignacio, Gonzales Faus, and Jon Sobrino.
  • Seven university theologians in England put out a book contending that Jesus was not really God at all.

        The reason for the changed view of Jesus has nothing to do with what the Scriptures actually say, but what the Scriptures are interpreted to say once the interpreter has first adopted a modern philosophy (e.g., idealism, or Hegel's dialectic, or existentialism, or post-modernism), and then tried to make the Bible match this philosophy.

        At the close of the 20th century, we have a "designer" Jesus who can be made to match man's every whim.

  • Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Jesus:  Miriam's Child and Sophia's Prophet, gives us a feminist, liberationist portrayal of a Jesus whose main enemy is "kyriarchy" and "male-stream" theology.
  • Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence:  Mark and Christian Origins, casts Jesus as a Hellenistic sage.  Mack regards the story of Jesus told in Mark's Gospel as a "sorry plot ... a remarkably pitiful moment of early Christian condemnation of the world."
  • Barbara Thiering, Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls:  Unlocking the Secrets of His Life, presents Jesus as the wicked priest of Qumran who eloped with Mary Magdalene, and who survived crucifixion by drinking snake poison.
  • Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, presents Jesus as a shaman-like charismatic.
  • John Dominic Crossan, Jesus:  A Revolutionary Biography, tries to prove that Jesus is a peasant Jewish cynic.
  • Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician, presents Jesus as a sorcerer.
  • Robert W. Funk, et al., The Five Gospels.  The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus:  A New Translation and Commentary, presents the findings of the "Jesus Seminar."  No longer does one search just the canonical books to learn about Jesus; one must also search the Pseudepigrapha.   (E.g., the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic work, is said to be the "fifth gospel").  In the view of the modern critics, the four canonical gospels were all produced by redaction criticism, and contain hardly an authentic saying or deed of Jesus.

        The third quest for the historical Jesus is concerned with the social world of Jesus and the social forces at work in it.  The resulting picture of Jesus is a peasant Jew, who like Buddha or one of the Cynic philosophers, espoused a subversive view of traditional wisdom, and who both preached and practiced radical egalitarianism.  This Jesus had no messianic or divine self-concept, though He may have induced some trancelike states in order to "heal" by using the powers inherent in him as a "spirit-person" (powers no different than any of us enlightened people possess and can exercise).  The modern profile of Jesus omits a large body of New Testament testimony.

    • Supernatural miracles are gone, though Jesus is granted certain psychic powers.
    • Conspicuously absent is any sense of Jesus' self-consciousness as Messiah or Son of God (supposedly, those verses were all added by the later redactors!), or as standing in a unique relationship to the Father, endowed with authority to speak and act for God.
    • Jesus was likely executed by crucifixion, but absent is any saving significance to His death.
    • Nor is there any resurrection.  (The accounts of His resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God are said to be all the result of wishful thinking by the early church.)  Crossan insists that Jesus' body was eaten by dogs.



        In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis observed that "a naturalist Christianity leaves out all that is specifically Christian."

        While it's true that Jesus was a peasant Jew, the founder of a movement, an overcomer of social barriers, a healer, and a prophet who called for reform, any attempt to package this list as the complete sum total of the historical Jesus is clearly false.

        The chief flaw to the quests for the historical Jesus is the lack of openness to, or even interest in, the possibility that Jesus was God incarnate, as the Old and New Testament Scriptures clearly indicate.  That Jesus was a peasant, or teacher, or founder of a movement is secondary to the core claims of the New Testament that He was the unique incarnation of God by whose life and death salvation is freely offered to the world, and that in His exaltation He is moving history towards the goal for which it was created.  A purely social reconstruction of Jesus cannot account for the effect that Jesus has had on history.  To assume that the earnest though bewildered Jesus of the Jesus Seminar could have affected the course of human history as Jesus Christ really has, is like stumbling upon the Sudbury crater in Canada and supposing it is the result of a firecracker.

        The crucial error of the quests for the historical Jesus is the assumption that the New Testament writings are essentially the fiction of the early church, and that the picture of Jesus contained therein is discontinuous with the historical Jesus.2

        Modern literary criticism, with its assumption that every work is the biased words of the author rather than an objective description of what actually happened, treats the Scriptures in the same way.  The assumption is that the Gospels must be treated as biased distortions of the life of Jesus, not a record of what actually and objectively happened.  The critics assume that each writer chose and shaped the material that came to him in order to serve some dominant theme.



        What shall we say about the assumption of modern scholarship that the early church had little or no interest in transmitting information about Jesus per se, but that it conveniently "remembered" and even invented "Jesus" material to reflect its needs and experiences?  There are a number of evidences that strongly argue that the church was a custodian, not a creator.

  • The Gospel writers did not wildly invent material about Jesus.  Paul, for example, carefully distinguished between what Jesus actually said and did, and what were his own inspired judgments (1 Corinthians 7:10,12,25).  Surely Paul is not an exception in this matter, but is typical of the apostles and the church as a whole.  Paul could scarcely have won acceptance and the "right hand of fellowship" from the Twelve and the Jerusalem leaders (Galatians 2:9) had he been known to be careless with the Jesus tradition.
  • Many eyewitnesses of Jesus were still alive when the four Gospels were written.  These witnesses could testify whether or not the Gospels were "the faith once for all delivered to the saints," or whether they were new fables and myths just created.
  • In the ages when history was passed on by oral tradition, there were folk in every community who had memorized their family or nation's history, and who served as "controls" when others presumed to tell the story.  If others told it wrongly, the person who was recognized as the arbiter of the true account would correct the story teller.  "Ministers of the word" (Luke 1:1-4) is the exact title for such functionaries.
  • The presence of embarrassing and even problematic material in the Gospels (e.g., Mark 9:1, 14:71) speaks against the alleged inventiveness of the early church, even when the church might have profited by it.
  • The absence of parables in Acts and the Epistles (and even in other early Christian literature) strongly suggests that the parables in the Gospels were not projected onto Jesus from the early church, but rather were spoken by Jesus Himself.
  • A comparison of the Epistles with the Gospels reveals that neither Paul's words nor those of other New Testament writers have been projected back into the mouth of Jesus.  No passage from Paul (or any of the other New Testament letters) can be found in the Gospels or on the lips of Jesus.  No Pauline concept, such as the "body of Christ," "justification by faith," "under the law," or "flesh," is attributed to Jesus.  This is a strong argument against the idea that the Gospels are the early church's stories projected onto Jesus.  If the early church was avidly and indiscriminately putting words into the mouth of Jesus, why do we not find some of the material from the Epistles in the Gospels or on the lips of Jesus?
  • The supposed inventiveness of the early church meets a final stumbling block in the Gentile question.  According to Acts and the Epistles, the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles and their admission into the church was the burning question of the early church.  This issue, however, is virtually absent from the Gospels.  Had the church actively been engaged in "framing" the "Jesus material" according to its needs and interests, surely it would have developed sayings on the Gentile question and put them in Jesus' own mouth.  The fact that such sayings are virtually absent in the Gospels argues in favor of the historical reliability of the material that is there.

        The most reasonable answer to the question of why the Gospels and other New Testament books present Jesus as they do is because that is essentially who Jesus is.


Confession (homologeō) means to "say the same thing."  When we confess Jesus Christ, we are saying the same thing about Him that God has said.  On several occasions, the Father spoke, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well-pleased."  When it comes time to answer the question, "Who do you say I am?" it would be well to speak God's thoughts after Him, just as they are revealed in the pages of the Scripture.  "Jesus is one of the self-existent members of the Godhead who became incarnate in order to redeem creation.  Jesus is God!"  "Jesus is the long-promised Messiah, the son of the living God."



     1 Albert Schweitzer (1906) initiated the first quest for the historical Jesus.  A second was conducted in the 1960s by the students of Bultmann.  Now, we are reading the results of the "third quest."  Like previous quests for the historical Jesus before it, this third quest is dominated by the presuppositions and methods of naturalism.  The first quest was sparked by the scientific method whose base-line philosophy was rationalism.  The Bultmannian quest was an attempt to find an "existential" Jesus.  This third quest is the child of the social sciences, in particular the ideologies of liberation and cross-cultural anthropology.
    2 Modern religious liberalism finds three levels of material in our New Testaments:  (1) What Jesus actually said and did, of which we know very little.  (Such theologians say that just because some word or act is attributed to Jesus in the Gospels does not mean He actually said or did it.)  (2) The beliefs of the apostles, of which we know very little.  (These same theologians say that just because some book has an apostle's name on it, does not mean it is the apostle's actual writing or beliefs).  (3) The beliefs of the early church, which, it is alleged, actually account for the majority of our New Testament books in their present form.  (Modern theologians allege the early church took the traditions as changed and edited by the apostles, and re-formulated those traditions to meet the needs of the church at the time the books were finally edited and published.)
Back to blog