Any attempt to advance a case for the uniqueness (or ‘one-of-a-kindness’) of Jesus Christ is problematic. Problematic, not only because of the need to delve into comparative religion and literature (for which exercise we scarcely have time or space) but because the view abounds amongst some scholars that if there was a historical Jesus Christ he is indistinguishable from the Christ of faith that emerges from the pages of the New Testament documents.
Even if the view of such scholars be exaggerated the tough-minded modern Christian needs to face some realities lurking behind such a view. I mention and elaborate briefly on just one.
Our main sources for the life of Jesus Christ, the canonical gospels, contain a mixture of claims made by Jesus Christ and about Jesus Christ, and though possible, it is not always easy to distinguish the one from the other. So then the gospels are neither wholly historical nor wholly theological they are in essence theological histories or theological biographies – interpretations of, or perspectives on, the historical life of Jesus Christ that betray the significance of Jesus Christ for the particular writers. The literary intent of the writers will affect their literary content!
Though it might be somewhat disturbing for certain Christians we must grapple with the fact that the differences in detail that we find in the gospel writers as they deal with the same subject strongly suggest that the gospel writers were often more concerned with the essence of an incident or statement than with minute detail or word for word accuracy.1
So then, with reference to ‘what Jesus said’ what we get from a gospel writer may not necessarily be the very words of Jesus [verbatim] the ipsissima verba but never less than the very voice of Jesus [paraphrase, summary, essence] the ipsissima vox. Of course at times we do get the very words of Jesus.
If one is honest and scholarly with the New Testament documents it is difficult to read them and not pick up certain strong claims made by Jesus which would prove his significance and even uniqueness. Let us explore some of these now.
Jesus Christ claimed to be ‘Son of God’. The issue here is not so much prooftexting for mention of the expression ‘Son of God’2 but facing the unanimous testimony of the gospels that Jesus addressed God as ‘Father’ in his praying. As John 19.7 suggests, the Jewish accusers at Jesus’ trial before Pilate saw the self- description of ‘son of God’ as a species of blasphemy deserving of death. There is much that is significant and unique here. But let us provide the unanimous evidence and then make the points re significance and uniqueness.
Mark 14.36 – “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee…”
Mt. 11.25 = Lk. 10.21 – “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth..” 3
Luke 23.46 – “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit…”
John 11.41 – “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.”
Were we to chart the statistics on Jesus’ reference to God as his father the result would be as follows, 4
The evidence suggests that Jesus almost always prayed with reference to God as ‘Father’.6 But this is significant and unique. It is significant that the texts of the gospels, at times, use the Aramaic term Abba, copied into Greek letters, and not merely a Greek translation of the term into pater. Significant as well that Paul, in Romans and Galatians, uses the same Aramaic term when speaking of the Spirit praying through Christians (Rom. 8.15-16; Gal. 4.6). But why retain the Aramaic term? Seemingly, because it was so characteristic of Jesus’ prayer in his mother tongue and so unusual, so unique in Jewish prayer!
You see, Abba in traditional usage was an intimate family term reserved for the family setting and for the head of the family on the lips of a child. It roughly corresponds to our ‘dada’ or ‘papa’.
No Jew would ordinarily use this term with reference to God because the term is too familiar. Yet Jesus, seemingly, uses the term characteristically because of his special, unique status as ‘Son of God’ and seemingly encouraged that kind of intimacy in prayer in his disciples.
Let me reinforce and summarize the point we are making here in the words of Michael Green,
…Jesus brought an entirely new picture of God into the world. He was Father. You can
search Islam and you will not find that name of Father among the ninety-nine names of
God. You will search Hinduism or Confucianism in vain. This is amazing good news
and it is unique. Jesus used the name Abba of his relationship with God…He came to
show us that God is Father, and that there is nothing he wants more than to enfold us in
his arms and welcome us home.7
Jesus claimed to be God or equal to God. To appreciate the value of the gospel records in this regard we must remember the intensely monotheistic beliefs of the Jews and the early Christians. Even if they are giving us only the ipsissima vox of Jesus, they, as monotheists, put some very strong assertions of deity on the lips of Jesus concerning himself. Take John 8.24, “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” Shockingly, there is no predicate after the declaration “if you do not believe that I am” prompting the translators to add the pronoun He, though there is no companion word in the Greek. Jesus simply and suggestively declares ‘I am’, in Greek ego eimi (which every alert Jew listening to Him would associate with God’s declaration in the Greek version of the Old Testament at Ex. 3.14.) Why would they record such bold and preposterous claims unless Jesus made them?
It is the boldness of Jesus’ claims re his deity, and the centrality of his personhood to his claims that render him unique among the greatest religious leaders of the world. A. J. Hoover has a point when he contends,
Moses didn’t claim to be Yahweh; Socrates didn’t claim to be Zeus; Zoroaster didn’t
claim to be Ahura Mazda; Mohammed didn’t claim to be Allah; Buddha didn’t claim to
be Brahma. Only Christ claimed to be one with the God who sent him (John 10:30)
Familiarity has dulled our ears to the wonder of his claims.8
Jesus was no mere guide to truth or to God. No, he claimed to be much more than that and ties himself to his teaching and claims.
Mahatma Gandhi once declared that whether or not there was an historical Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount would still be true for him.9 But note some crucial claims in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere in Jesus’ teachings that raise hard questions for Gandhi’s approach.
Jesus inextricably linked his claims to his person by saying ‘Blessed are you if you are persecuted on my account’ (Mt. 5.11); ‘lose your life for my sake…’(Mk. 8.35); and the unique, if arrogant and exclusivistic, ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me’ (Jn. 14.6) .10
Even if these statements are not the very words of Jesus it is difficult to see them as less than the very voice of Jesus, and either way these claims are bold and unique!
There is something uniquely shocking about the claims of Jesus at his trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin. Hear the critical question of identity, ‘I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God?’ (Mt. 26.63). The answer in the Synoptics is ‘You have said so’ (Mt. 26.64 and Lk. 22.69) or ‘I am’ (Mk.14.62). But there is a crucial additional element which all three synoptic evangelists mention, on the lips of Jesus, with reference to himself; the Old Testament reference to the son of man seated ‘at the right hand of power’.
The expression ‘at the right hand of power’ is a Hebraism suggesting the immediate presence of deity! Jesus was claiming to be equal to God and Caiaphas, recognizing this shocking ‘blasphemy’ recoiled by doing something shocking as well; contrary to Levitical law (Lev. 21.10) he rent his priestly garments!
Jesus claimed a certain cruciality and finality for his mission. One of the more popular words in Jesus’ teaching is ‘kingdom’ or the fuller phrase ‘kingdom of God/Heaven’11 , and the idea emerges that it is Jesus who has ushered in or inaugurated this kingdom or sovereign rule of God. So Jesus declares in Mk. 1.15, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel’. In Lk. 11.20 he declares. ‘If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’.
In one of his parables, The Wicked Tenants (Mk. 12.1-9), Jesus portrays himself, by implication, as the final, perfect representative of God and, most importantly, he suggests that response to him in time will determine one’s destiny in eternity!
Jesus claimed superiority and authority over three things that were supreme for Jews; Torah-the law of Moses (Mt. 5.31-38), the Temple (Mt. 12.6) and the Sabbath (Mt. 12.8).
Beyond direct claims, as such, we pass to equally important information that bolster claims for the uniqueness of Jesus.
We observe the feature of the unrebuked worship of Jesus in the literature of monotheistic Jews who believed that only God should be worshipped. So whereas the apostles and angels refused worship (Acts 14.11-15; Rev. 19.10; 22.8-9) Jesus Christ accepted and encouraged people’s worship of him (Mt. 14.31-33; 15.25-28). Indeed the very Jewish-Christian document, Hebrews, asserts that the Father commands such worship of Jesus (1.6).
Another critical dimension of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ relates to the unique convergence in him of three unprecedented sets of miracles; fulfilled Messianic prophecies, a sinless life and resurrection from the dead.
The Messianic prophecies require involved treatment, much more than we can attempt in this short article, but suffice it to say that the fulfilment in Jesus’ birth, life and passion of so many minute elements of numerous Old Testament Messianic prophecies cuts against the accidental explanation.12
Nothing can be found in any religious literature that matches the calibre of Jesus’ prediction and the eventual fulfilment of his own death and resurrection (Mk.9.30-32; Mt. 17.22-23; Lk. 9.43-45; Mk. 16.1-8; Mt. 28.1-10;Lk. 24.1-12; Jn. 20.1-10).
Concerning the character of the life of Jesus we point out that this is pivotal because it is important for grounding one’s claims. The evidence here must be weighed carefully because in addition to the estimate of Jesus’ character implied in Jesus’ own statements we have, for the most part, the estimate of his followers and the odd comment of others as recorded in the New Testament.
Let us begin with the fact that Jesus had a very high estimate of his own character. This emerges in the fact that though he and all the Jews would be aware of the perfection of God alone, yet he indicated in his statements concerning his death that his life would be given for the remission of sins (Mt. 26.28). On one occasion he challenged his detractors to level an indictment against his character with the words ‘which of you convicts me of sin?’ (Jn. 8.46).
This suggestion of sinlessness by Jesus is all the more startling, unique even, when you pit against that claim the admission of other founders of world religions.
Confucius, near to his death, is alleged to have said, “In letters I am perhaps equal to other men; but the character of the perfect man, carrying out in his conduct what he professes, is what I have not yet attained to.”13 In the Qur’an, Muhammad’s moral flaws are clearly indicated.14
The disciples of Jesus, perhaps understandably, had a high view of Jesus’ character and even though some of the writers were Jews they affirmed Jesus’ sinless perfection. So Peter said, ‘He committed no sin, no guile was found on his lips’ (1 Pet. 2.22). A similar affirmation comes from John, ‘You know that he appeared to take away sin and in him is no sin’ (1 John 3.5), Paul, ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin…’ (2 Cor. 5.21), the writer of Hebrews declares that Jesus was tempted like all of us yet without sin (4.15).
Additionally, we have to make something of the odd comment from other than Jesus himself and his followers. Josephus, the Jewish historian, in the traditional text, not so much in the Slavonic text, speaks highly of Jesus’ character.15
Within the gospels Pilate and Herod, upon hearing the charges and evidence against Jesus, are portrayed as having pronounced Jesus innocent (Lk. 23. 15f). Similar verdicts come from the Centurion at the cross and from one of the condemned men crucified with Jesus (Lk. 23.41, 47).
Jesus’ enemies (some of the Jewish leaders) often charged him with breaches but the details, as given in the gospels, reveal more the sovereignty of Jesus in dealing with Jewish traditions, customs and interpretations of them.
It is this overall impression of the moral superiority of the life of Jesus that has left him as the most influential moral figure in Western civilization and history.
So then when one encounters Jesus Christ one encounters an individual who makes, and for whom is made, shocking and unique claims. In Jesus Christ one encounters an individual whose life commands respect because of its moral uniqueness. In Jesus Christ one will encounter a unique individual, a response to whom now, will determine one’s destiny in eternity.
Rev’d Clinton A. Chisholm, D.D., M.A., M.A., F.C.A., B.A., B.Th., L.R.S.M., A.T.C.L., is the Associate Pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Hollywood, Florida.
© Clinton Chisholm, May, 2006
1William Harris argues that only five percent of the people of the first century could read and write (see his Ancient Literacy, Harvard University Press, 1989). “In such a culture, accuracy means something like rendering the tradition in a way that is faithful. That’s what you have in earliest Christianity – people passing on sayings, stories and the like, attempting to be faithful to the tradition but not aiming for verbatim accuracy,” (Stephen J. Patterson in The Search for Jesus: Modern Scholarship Looks at the Gospels, edited by Hershel Shanks, Biblical Archaeology Society, 1994, 33). Return to 1
2As James Dunn correctly said, “…there was nothing particularly unique about calling someone ‘son of God’ at the time of Jesus…Oriental rulers, particularly in Egypt, were called sons of God – a title occasionally applied to the Jewish king as well (as in II Sam. 7.14)…” The Evidence for Jesus (SCM Press Ltd., 1985), 49. Return to 2
3Mt. 11.27 is quite shocking, “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Jewish scholar, C.G. Montefiore, recognizing the unique and powerful claims in the statement expressed a hope that scholars would prove the statement false, because, if genuine, it would support the contentions of orthodox Christianity (see A.M. Hunter, The Work and Words of Jesus, [Westminster Press, 1973], 106). Return to 3
4The statistics are taken from Dunn, 44.Return to 4
5Q is a symbol (derived from the German Quelle, meaning ‘source’) that scholars use for a hypothetical document which Matthew and Luke allegedly used in writing their gospels. This would be material (almost exclusively sayings of Jesus) common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark. Return to 5
6The only clear exception seems to be the cry of dereliction on the cross, ‘My God, my God…’, Mk. 15.34, no doubt influenced by Ps. 22.1. Return to 6
7Who is this Jesus? (Hodder & Stoughton, 1990), 34-35. Return to 7
8The Case for Christian Theism, (Baker Book House, 1980), 169. Return to 8
9Ibid, 170. Return to 9
10Compare the more liberal statement of the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu scripture) ‘In any way that men love me in that same way they find my love: for many are the paths of men, but they all in the end come to me’, 4.11. Note as well the elements of similarity between Gita 9.18 and John 14.6! Return to 10
11In Matthew (47), Mark (18), Luke (37) and John (5). Return to 11
12For fuller treatment see John Ankerberg, et al, The Case for Jesus the Messiah, [The John Ankerberg Evangelistic Association, 1989], passim, Robert Newman in Evidence for Faith, edited by John Warwick Montgomery, [Probe Books, 1991], 203-214, Norman Geisler, et al, Answering Islam, [Baker Book House, 1993], 248-250 and Ralph O. Muncaster, Examine the Evidence, [Harvest House Publishers, 2004], 325-366. Return to 12
13Cf. Analects of Confucius 7.33. Return to 13
14See Geisler, 169-177. Return to 14
15F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, [Hodder and Stoughton, 1974], 32-53. See also Edwin Yamauchi in Michael J. Wilkins et al, Jesus Under Fire, [Zondervan Publishing House, 1995], 212-213. Return to 15