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Was Jesus really God?

When I was a child my mother said to me, “Jesus is God.” I answered, “Yes Ma’am.” and years later when I became the professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Mary’s College, I taught my students the difference between knowledge and belief. Now in my last years on earth, I feel it’s time to try to make a little sense out of this mystery.

There is no doubt after Jesus died Christians believed in his divinity. We know the Greeks and Romans living in Philippi and Corinth and Rome made gods out of their emperors and now, as Christians, they claimed divinity for Jesus.

St. Paul, writing to the Philippians around the year 55, quotes a hymn they used to sing about Jesus: “Being in the form of God, he did not cling to it but emptied himself taking the form of man.” (Philip. 2:6)

And 50 years later, John’s gospel says Jesus himself had proclaimed repeatedly that he was Yahweh. “Before Abraham was, I AM.” The word I AM in Hebrew is the name God gave to Moses in the Bush. “Tell them I AM (Ehyeh) sent you.” So, Moses told the Pharaoh, “He IS (Yahweh) sent me.”

In John’s gospel, it’s very clear: Jesus says he’s Yahweh. But I know Jesus could never have said that.

You see, John tells his Greek audience when Jesus said these words, the “Jews,” (not just the Jewish leaders) wanted to stone him for blasphemy. And they would have. No doubt. Had Jesus said these words to his Jewish followers they would have picked up stones immediately.

However, we know for three years Jesus walked around Galilee, fishing with his buddies, talking to the crowds, preaching in the synagogues, etc., and these “Jews” followed him and fed him and listened to every word he spoke. No stones. No blasphemy. What’s going on?

Obviously, the historical Jesus did not walk around Galilee talking about himself, as John would have us believe. His focus was on the kingdom which Yahweh was establishing here in Israel. This kingdom was meant for Jews and others who wished to follow the Torah, and he talked about this as described in Mark, Matthew and Luke. (The Synoptic gospels)

What about the Synoptic quotes: “son of God” and “son of the blessed one” and “son of man?” True, but these names in Mark 14:61 and elsewhere, were used by many Old Testament characters. In fact, Paul says we are all sons of God (Rom. 8:16). No, it’s just John who makes him Yahweh. Nobody — except John — has Jesus using the I AM name.

Where did John get this idea? Could Jesus say this to a Jewish audience and survive three years of preaching? Impossible.

Then why would John write it? John must have heard it in the Greek-speaking communities like Philippi. Stories and hymns and sermons like this were repeated and enlarged over the 70 years leading up to the gospel of John, and he simply copied what he heard.

John’s gospel was not written during the ‘20s when Jesus was preaching to the Jews. It was written 70 years later to a group of non-Jewish Christians who already believed Jesus was God. John didn’t invent the divinity of Jesus. He inherited this faith from generations of Greek-speaking Christians who were already comfortable with man-god stories.

So, either Jesus was God and kept it quiet, or he wasn’t God at all, but he did enough extraordinary things to make his followers give him that honor after he died. I will go to my grave never knowing which it was.

However, I can finally admit it openly: I don’t understand this mystery now and I never did. But neither did my saintly mother.

Contact me: drc@billcummings.org.